What do you see as the main challenges for religious leaders addressing sexual and gender-based violence?
Prof. Karam: The main challenges for religious leaders in addressing sexual and gender-based violence are intimately connected to the fact that sexuality is a deeply taboo area in most faith traditions around the world, but especially institutionalized religious faiths. Sexuality is something that is deeply, deeply problematic. It’s the innermost sanctum of relations between human beings, and religions have traditionally been the guardians of that sanctum. So opening that space for debate is often almost as if we are opening the space to debate the religions themselves, and the authority and the legitimacy of the voice of truths of those religions, which is deeply problematic for almost all religious leaders and, again, especially those within an institutionalized framework that they need to uphold and to protect. In more loosely-formed religious groups or faith communities, it is often less problematic to debate gender-based violence or gender in general, relating to issues of sexuality. But the more institutionalized the religious tradition, the more these issues become very, very problematic.
How is Religions for Peace addressing these challenges?
Prof. Karam: Religions for Peace looks at aspects of gender-based violence from the lens of where religions agree. We have in Religions for Peace an agreement on the common denominator which is that any and all forms of violence are absolutely rejected as totally outside of any religious acceptability. Violence is against the very fabric of any faith tradition. When the faiths come together, any form of violence is absolutely abhorrent and out of the question. This is how Religions for Peace approaches many issues but especially the dimension of gender-based violence.
The religious common ground to all faith traditions is that human life is sacred. And the most vulnerable amongst us are the ones that deserve the most from each of us. There are three positions: that violence of any kind is abhorrent to any and all faith traditions and contravenes any religious teaching; the fact that human life is sacred and therein human dignity is sacred; and the fact that discrimination of any sort against anyone, especially the most vulnerable amongst us, is also against any teaching of religions. These three areas are the common ground and the basis on which Religions for Peace perceives and deals with issues of gender-based violence as a matter of principle and practice.
In December of 2019, for the first time in its 50-year history, Religions for Peace convened 200 of its massive network of religious leaders representing all the faith traditions of the world, and endeavored to detail a strategic plan for the movement of Religions for Peace. It was the first time that 200 religious leaders convened anywhere to do a strategic plan for this movement—and for any movement quite frankly! In that process, one of the key gems that occurred was that they agreed that gender equality and women’s empowerment (one of the Sustainable Development Goals) should be a key strategic priority for Religions for Peace for the next five years going forward.
Do you remember your first encounter with Thursdays in Black?
Prof. Karam: My first encounter with Thursdays in Black took place in the International Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. I remember being in the midst of so many women from all over the world coming together, wearing something in black and standing together with signs about how they stood in solidarity with one another against any and all forms of gender-based violence. (At that time it was understood as violence against women.) I remember an incredible sense of relief and empowerment and gratitude that there would be such a manifestation of courage and of commitment to something that is hurting so deeply so many. And I will never forget how much this moment—and it was a moment of Thursdays in Black at its outset—I will never forget how much that moment influenced me and continues to influence me in my career because I realized the power of solidarity on a common issue of deep pain. But also that in that power of solidarity comes a moment of intense healing like no other.
How can participating in Thursdays in Black—and being a Thursdays in Black ambassador—help these efforts?
Prof. Karam: I am deeply privileged to be able to serve as an ambassador with Thursdays in Black. I want to be able to serve that sense of unity of purpose around an issue of deep pain in the great hope that this is also a source of relief and healing for so many even as we stand together while many are still suffering on a minute-by-minute basis around the world. We stand together emanating a sense of responsibility to try and ensure that our respective positions where we stand can be committed to the healing that is absolutely needed especially as the world has just become much more complicated with the pandemic. I am committed in my capacity as a servant to Religions for Peace International to ensure that it is not only Christian communities around the world—as powerful as they are—but that we actively, actively seek women of all faiths, men of all faiths to stand together in solidarity against this issue. There is no space for gender-based violence ever to be acceptable or accepted, or indeed for it be condoned through our silences. The more faith communities remain silent, the more we are culpable. I would love to see—and I am committed to ensuring— that faith communities around the world, women and men, young and older, are committed to stand in solidarity against gender-based violence. Who knows, perhaps our stated commitment can translate also into actions which prevent this from happening even if we were to undertake that vow in our own lives, with ourselves, with our very selves, and with those we love, and with those we are committed to. That is a recipe for change and transformation.
Where do you see hope that we can change attitudes and practices and build a world without rape and violence?
Prof. Karam: I would like to quote a Chinese saying which unfortunately is slightly gender insensitive. But the saying is that a man builds a mountain (a women builds a mountain) by collecting small pebbles. I believe in the power of pebbles, and I believe what we are trying to do is collect the pebbles, one by one, and as many as we can, to slowly make those transformations. The transformation begins within ourselves, in our own families, in our own relationships, in our communities, in our voice and in the power of our voice to carry the messages of healing. So I think that I see hope and change in attitudes and practices through the voice of women and men of faith as they stand in solidarity with one another. That is why Religions for Peace is very privileged and grateful to have the opportunity to work with Thursdays in Black, and why the campaign is very important. It’s collecting as many pebbles as we can to build the strongest mountain of human dignity.