Pakistan’s Women’s Interfaith Initiative in a Time of Turmoil

Islamic woman praying

A first-ever event of its kind on interfaith by women for women arranged by Dr Marilyn Wyatt, wife of the American Ambassador, and her team was a breath of fresh air and the platform for an array of women to give voice and shape to their unity as Pakistani women from many faiths.

The image of Pakistan is dominated by negative news: extremism, terrorism, corruption, poor governance and the breakdown of law and order. This pervasive negative image is held not just by people in the West but also threatens the attitude of Pakistanis towards themselves in their own home country. Women and minorities suffer the most and it is not, of course, a healthy attitude as it provides little impetus or motivation to change for better.

In this atmosphere, a first-ever event of its kind on interfaith by women for women arranged by Dr Marilyn Wyatt, wife of the American Ambassador, and her team was a breath of fresh air and the platform for an array of women to give voice and shape to their unity as Pakistani women from many faiths.

A Pakistani by birth, brought up in a convent and later educated at the University of Cambridge, UK, where I spent 22 years being educated and educating in Islam and interfaith harmony and fortunate to work with wonderful people of different faiths in setting up two education interfaith Centres in Cambridge I suggested holding women’s interfaith events which would include visits to a mosque, church and other places of worship (as I had arranged for women in Cambridge). Dr Wyatt loved the idea and took it on with gracious enthusiasm. After 9/11, there have been many notable interfaith initiatives but in Pakistan there have been very few such moves and there are yet fewer such initiatives led by women which focus on women, although there are many good NGOs led by women. Interfaith dialogue among women is crucial for the healing of a country like Pakistan.

In an atmosphere where political relations between the US and Pakistan are tense and there are daily reports of Pak-US breakdown of dialogue here was a wonderful initiative by women which was truly building bridges. Dr Wyatt talked about the best of values of the US – justice, compassion and equality- she promoted and embodied these wonderful qualities- I found Dr Wyatt to be an intelligent and gracious lady who combined mind and heart in winning over many local Pakistanis. Here was an example of women healing what seemed fractured. My father had said that we may have had a more peaceful world had it been run by women.

For the first time ever, to my knowledge, in Pakistan here on this platform on the 24th of May 2012 at this 150 year old very historical and large charitable Eidghah shrine in Pindi there was a Bahai, a young Hindu, a Christian professor and dean of Peshawar university, the Naqshband Sufi pir’s wife, the head of the Dawa Center for Women and the orthodox Muslim scholars dressed from head to toe in a black niqab, Begum Rehman and of course Dr Marilyn Wyatt who had chosen to wear a lovely local dress – the shalwar kameez. In the audience were more than 40 women leaders and heads of organizations and colleges as well as students and women from the grassroots of different communities. Our topic was the role of faith in womens’ everyday lives and how women can potentially play a leading role in interfaith dialogue by putting faith into action. My role as moderator was to ensure that everyone had a chance to interact properly within the time frame and to remain focused.

In my introduction I reminded the audience that the divine name, Rehman, is derived from Rahma which is a word for the woman’s womb – a place that symbolizes tender love and the deepest of self-sacrificing compassion – and the love God has for us, humanity, is 99 times more than our own mothers’ love – a measure of love unimaginable by the human mind. It is this compassion towards “the Other” that we must learn to embody in our daily lives and to teach our future generations to make our shared world a more peaceful and better place to live in.

There was such hunger for “more” that when the function was over several ladies (some in Western jeans, others in niqab and full black covering) came up to me expressing their delight and requested follow up events. Simultaneously, Dr Wyatt and my friends thought of arranging visits to other places of worship to strengthen this bond of friendship and work towards deeper understanding. Even the heavily clad niqab ladies came up to me and praised the “power” and “noor – light” they felt. Women expressed how positive it made them feel and they talked about their potential to change their world for the better.

With typical warmth and generosity Marilyn sent me an email: “Dearest Amineh, you did a wonderful job today (and I know from having been in your position that it wasn’t as easy as it looked!). Thanks so much for playing such an important role.” The US Embassy issued a press release with the heading: “US applauds role women play in promoting Pakistan’s interfaith harmony”.

For me the spirit of the event was summed up in the attitude of one 80 year old lady in her shalwar kameez, who had once, a number of decades ago, studied in Cornell University, USA. She pulled me down to her wheel chair and kissed me three time: Once, she said, for moderating such a positive event, the second time for organizing it at all and then for being “Akbar Ahmed’s daughter. I love him” she said “for the wonderful healing work he does to mend our fractured world.”

Amineh Ahmed Hoti is Executive Director, Society for Dailogue and Action, Fellow Commoner, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University and author of Sorry and Joy Among Muslim Women, Cambridge University Press, 2006. Dr. Hoti is currently setting up Educational and Citizenship Programs in Pakistan. A version of this article was also published on The Washington Post