March 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the first ordination of women as priests in the Church of England and on International Women’s Day I am giving thanks for all those who have encouraged and nurtured me to go on becoming who God is calling me to be. Yet I am deeply aware that this is not true of so many girls and women across our world.
In January I found myself sitting in a small room in a crowded and economically poor area of Egypt listening to the stories of young women and girls. They were all participants in a project called ’My Dear Daughter’ and I was part of an all-women group of Christians hosted by the charity ‘Embrace’. We were visiting projects they support in partnership with Egyptian Christians.
This particular programme pairs young girls with young woman, some at university, who each provide their younger ‘sister’ with educational and emotional support. We listened to the stories of mutual self-esteem from both mentor and mentee reflected in the way they stood together in close and tender proximity. All of them spoke of an increase in their sense of worth and one of the young girls spoke movingly of having found her voice. This is in a community and country where women and girls are not treated as equal to men and boys and where there are many barriers to their education and economic flourishing. Incidences of sexual violence often remain hidden.
In that small room the huge words of ‘dignity’ and ‘fulfilling potential’ came to the forefront of my mind and continued to reverberate within me over those days in Egypt, particularly amid a gathering of women in a community centre in one of the Zabaleen communities where people live amid huge piles of rubbish they collect and sort. We listened to women tell stories of empowerment through literacy, health and community education. These women are being confident ambassadors back in their local communities as they share their learning and are catalysts for transformation, not least where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is common practice.
As a visiting group of women we hoped and prayed that somehow our listening and engagement would be a validating and affirming presence as we sought to express solidarity and equality, conveying that our existence was no more significant or precious than that of these girls and women, who like us are created in the image of God, loved and known.
I found myself in a very similar situation only a few weeks later, but this time in Bosnia and once again part of a group of Christian women. We were being hosted by the organisation ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ and were engaging with the horror of the Bosnian war including the abhorrent genocide which took place in 1995 (and within days of my ordination to the priesthood).
Approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys were brutally murdered and in the space of four days women were left without husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. Across Bosnia over 20,000 women suffered rape and sexual violence and many still live alongside their perpetrators. ‘Dignity’ and ‘fulfilling potential’ are important words here too.
At the ‘Strength of a Woman’ project I again sat in a small room of women hoping once more that our very presence might be significant in bearing witness to the stories of women’s pain and courage. Some women returned to Srebrenica after their expulsion and the ‘ethnic cleansing’, and in a place of loss and alienation they too are being ambassadors for transformation. And we heard of their healing being significantly enhanced when they began working with the earth and water to grow beautiful plants and aromatic herbs.
I had experienced this too in Egypt, not least in the desert at a beautiful centre named Anaphora, established by a wonderful Coptic bishop. The name literally means ‘lifted up’ and it provides a place of rest, healing and retreat, rooted in God’s love and hope. One of the projects, Soteria, provides residential courses for women who have experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
At the core of Anaphora is a beautiful irrigation system giving life to trees, plants and vegetables. Flowers and herbs are made into tea as is also done by the women of Srebrenica. Water gives life to hearts, souls and minds, not only bodies.
I thought of all this on Ash Wednesday in Bosnia as we stood at Potacari surrounded by over 6,000 graves. Deeply aware of human brokenness and mortality we acknowledged our own, and in a simple act of worship we spoke words of repentance and marked our heads with oily ash crosses. As I spoke those words ‘Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return’ I thought not only of the dusty human remains we had just witnessed in the morgue of Srebrenica still being identified some 20 years later, but also of the dust of the Egyptian desert, beautifully watered at Anaphora. The irrigation system is formed of huge channels shaped like a question mark, and at the place of the dot is a small chapel of prayer.
In my heart and mind it is at the dot where I begin International Women’s Day, holding a flame of hope amid the questions and heartache of so many girls and women not least in Egypt and Bosnia. I pray that ‘dignity’ and ‘potential’ might be writ large in their lives and that they might experience the life-giving water of which Jesus spoke and offered to a woman he encountered at a well in a place of her ‘othering’, brokenness and pain.