“Violence against women is a symptom of a society that lacks in spiritual values.”
These remarks from Thea Symonds helped to frame a wide-ranging seminar hosted by the Bahá’í Community of Canada’s Office of Public Affairs on the role of religion in eradicating violence against women. Symonds is a coordinator with violence against women coalitions and a member of the Bahá’í community.
The seminar was held on November 24th, in conjunction with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. It was co-sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, and the Stop Violence Against Women Coordinating Committee of Perth County. More than 90 participants joined the virtual discussion, which will be made available on YouTube and as part of The Public Discourse podcast.
The event also happened in close proximity with the centenary of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a central figure of the Bahá’í Faith who upheld the principle of the equality of women and men as essential to the realization of universal peace and prosperity.
Afsoon Houshidari, the moderator of the conversation, began by reflecting on the role of religion in society: “The word religion comes from the Latin 'religio', which means ‘to link’ or ‘to connect’. So, this afternoon we will consider how this binding together – of men and women, of the human and the divine – can contribute to eradicating one of the greatest ills plaguing society today: violence against women.”
Rabbi Debra Landsberg, Vice Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, noted that many of humanity’s religious traditions have historically endorsed gender inequality, but that these same traditions “call us to act from our best or better selves.” She observed that it is necessary to acknowledge the reality of violence against women, and for each community “to understand this is something we want to speak [to] with our own language and our own framework.”
Nuzhat Jafri, the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, added that faith is based on spiritual principles: “principles of equality between men and women and the principle of justice.”
Drawing from the experience of work done by the CCMW, she lamented a distorted “interpretation of religious texts and traditional practices that are sometimes used to justify violence and in equitable treatment of women in some families,” even though religious scripture is clear that the treatment of men and women should be equitable and just.
She emphasized the importance of engaging men and boys in this process. “This problem cannot be solved by women; it has to engage men and boys,” she said.
Jennifer Moore Rattray, former Executive Director of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and current COO of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, observed that Indigenous traditions and spirituality also have a role to play in the eradication of violence against women. “We all have a responsibility,” she said. “But in particular I would say faith communities should recognize – and proclaim to recognize – that every human being is sacred, and that violence is against everything that is sacred.”
She noted the role of religious communities – “a place of strength, a place of inquiry, a place of reflection and self-reflection, a place of the spirit” – in initiating conversations with men, who have been the primary perpetrators of domestic violence.
Symonds added to these comments by reflecting on the role of education in addressing the root causes of violence against women.
Faith communities and families can model the ways that girls and women are respected and empowered, she said. They “have such a vital role in providing spiritual education that's aligned with the equality of women and men, and the inherent morality latent in each person. They have an important role to play in being an exemplar for people to turn to when they're structuring their families and societies."