I was sitting with my language teacher, reading a piece she had chosen by a Palestinian poet, where he mourned his exile from his country. It was not long since I had had to leave a country I had lived in and loved for seventeen years, and the grief was still close. Tears welled up as I read the lines that so touched my own sorrow. “Why are you weeping?” asked my language teacher, concerned. As I spoke, her own eyes also filled with tears. My sadness had evoked some of her own woes – sadness for a difficult relationship with her husband and his family, other losses that she had experienced. We sat there together and wept, as we shared in one another’s sorrows.
Suffering is a part of the lives of so many Muslim women that we encounter. Bereavements, difficult family relationships, loss of country or community, abuse or violence, losses greater or smaller. The coming WWS… webzine delves insightfully into this topic, and different ways of responding. I commend it to you, including the thoughtful and reflective articles, art and poetry. This blog focuses on participating in sorrow through sharing our own sorrows and struggles.
In many communities around the world women show their strength and resilience by not complaining. To talk about your sorrow can suggest weakness, or even rebellion against God who has ordained all things. I had never heard my language teacher complain about her life situation, all that she faced as a woman, and as part of a community exiled from the village and region in which they had lived for centuries. But somehow my own grief, too raw to suppress, opened the way for her to touch her own suffering and sorrow.
I don’t find it easy to share my own personal struggles. And as westerners, we’re trained to be independent, self-sufficient. But it’s at times when I’ve been struggling that I’ve been able to share most with my local friends and colleagues. Exposure of my own weakness becomes an invitation to greater intimacy. And it is reciprocal. When I was floundering in depression, I tried to keep things together in my work context. But one day it was too hard and tears overflowed at school, despite my best efforts. The local colleagues who came and comforted me then were all people with whom I had sat as they went through difficulties and bereavements. On another occasion some years later, I got a phone call one day, telling me that my father had just died. It was a month before I was due to fly home. There was so much that had to be done: negotiating a permit to exit the country over a weekend when the offices were closed, reorganized plane flights, and arrangements for the coming weeks. Amid it all, I wept for being so far away at times of family crisis like this, and for the loss of my father. A week before I had sat with the members of my neighbour’s extended family, mourning with them the death of my neighbour’s brother-in-law, the eldest sibling in his family. Now they were the ones who in turn phoned me to grieve with me and express their sympathy and sorrow.
A colleague in another country went to a funeral and sat with the women as they mourned. A number of them wept. Their tears evoked her own sorrow, for her grandmother’s death, for her distance from loved family members, and she sobbed with them, receiving solace in this expression of her own grief, amid the recognition of suffering and loss as a communal reality.
Sometimes encouraging women to talk about their grief or to cry can be strongly discouraged. It is seen as not helping them cope, encouraging them to be weak, or to question God’s will. But exposing our own struggles and sorrow, perhaps in smaller, more intimate groups, can be a way of enabling others also to be open in sharing their own contexts and challenges.
As Christians, we can sometimes feel we need to focus on the victory that Jesus gives us, the joy and the abundant life in which we are called to live. We may feel failures in our faith and witness if we share our struggles. Or it may be too scary to be vulnerable with others about what we are going through, or have been through in the past. In this regard I am helped by how compellingly Audrey Frank writes of her own life experiences and how they have equipped her to understand and minister to the lived shame of some of the Muslim women whom she encounters. Paul also challenges us in his letter to the church planted among the Corinthians, when he speaks so frankly about his struggles, and his need for the Corinthian Christians’ prayers (despite their own immaturity in the faith). He tells them:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11. NRSV)
Tish Warren suggests that, “Unless we make space for grief, we cannot know the depths of the love of God, the healing God wrings from pain, the way grieving yields wisdom, comfort, even joy.”[i] So too Paul’s words in the preceding passage tell us why he thinks it so important to share his own challenges and afflictions.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7. NRSV)
As we embrace the freedom of vulnerability in Jesus we are able to share our own struggles, both present and past, with the women among whom we live. This makes space for our friends to share their own experiences and sorrows. And we can also share how God meets us and comforts us. It may be that our own walking in the way of grief and suffering, in whatever way we experience it, is a necessary path to help our friends embrace their own grief and to encounter God’s comfort there.
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).
[i] Prayer in the Night, by Tish Harrison Warren, (IVP 2021: p.39)