The ‘inaccessibility’ of Muslim women and their apparent lack of interest in the gospel is considered a challenge by some. (Love, 1996, Reisacher, 2005, Adeney, 2000) What that inaccessibility looks like is contingent on strategy, and the way it defines accessibility. Many hours were spent sitting drinking chai in staff rooms, the girls’ rooms, my room at the college where I worked in South Asia. I learned about life, the practical challenges and emotional pressures. I attended life events, laughed, cried and prayed through the everyday and the catastrophes. I learned to do life with the girls, staff and families of both. How accessible were they? If I was willing to do life with them they were absolutely accessible, open, inviting. Maybe it is strategies that make Muslim women inaccessible.
The physical veil can make women appear inaccessible. When I returned to live in Egypt after a period living in another Muslim country, each time I walked on the street I sensed I was withdrawing. I had lived there before, and in many ways it was home. I realised I was reacting to the fully veiled women whose numbers had grown over the years. It was hard to connect with women who seemed invisible to me. Only as I recognised my reaction and prayed through it could I feel compassion and a desire to reach out to these women.
Identity is another accessibility barrier. Women find it more difficult to define their identity as women who follow Jesus in a Muslim context because they carry within themselves all that it means to be a good Muslim wife, daughter, mother, woman. (Reisacher, 2005) Women’s identity is tied to their familial and social relationships. Diana Colby says that the system of honour and shame inscribed on Muslim women’s bodies is the single most important reason why more men than women are coming to faith and visible in BMB fellowships. (Colby, 2000) The construction of alternative communities, places of belonging, and identity in Christ are important in the journey of Muslim women with Jesus.
How can assumptions about accessibility be overcome? Fran Love has described the conversion of Muslim women as a “process of discipleship in which their real life questions are answered, not in a systematic way, but as they arise from the woman herself”. (Love, 2006) Women need encounter with Jesus, and truth that transforms the reality of today, giving security for tomorrow. They respond to Jesus when their felt needs are met as they experience truth. Reisacher’s research in North Africa shows women are attracted to Jesus because of the way he treated women. (Reisacher, 2005) Mary McVickers says that women often start the journey of faith from a place of desperation, and manifestation of Jesus. (McVickers, 2005)
I am both challenged and encouraged by the way Jesus overcame issues of accessibility to reach those who were excluded, marginalised and made vulnerable as power was exercised over them by others. For the Samaritan woman he made himself vulnerable to her, asking her for a drink, and then together they explored assumptions about faith and life. When I mother who was desperate for help for her daughter approached him, she was Syrophoenician, his disciples wanted to push her away, they wanted to make Jesus inaccessible to a woman who was different. Jesus challenged the prevailing assumptions on who was included and confronted the disciples strategy for his work. A woman broke a jar of expensive perfume and poured it over his feet, then wiped them with her hair, and she did this in a room full of men who opposed her public appearance. Jesus protected the gift she offered him and it became a story of love and commitment told since that time.
Whatever social or religious practices tell us, women are not inaccessible. Wherever our ministry strategies and practices point us, women are not inaccessible. Our task is to ensure our own training, strategies, practices, attitudes and assumptions don’t leave create barriers. Jesus broke barriers in order that even the most marginalised might have access to him and his work of goodness and grace.
Featured Image: with thanks to IMB Photos
© When Women Speak … September 2023
CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).