2 months ago I learned of an opportunity to build for Habitat for Humanity in a unique setting. The officers of SPIRALS were notified of an interfaith meeting for women only. Since the president of SPIRALS and myself are both female, we signed right up for this. The University director of religion and spirituality was quite adamant about having 2 Pagans be represented, so needless to say he was very pleased when we agreed to do it.
The first hour or so of the gathering was right on campus in the Student Union. We enjoyed a free breakfast and introduced ourselves and a little bit about our experiences in the spiritual paths we follow. There were 2 Muslims, a Buddhist, 3 Hindus and 2 Catholics. One of the Catholics was from Germany. She was studying abroad for a semester here at UMass. Our supervisor was Jewish, but he was a male, ironically…We let him talk, anyway 😉
Since Nic and I were sitting next to the Muslim girls we ended up talking to them the most. Believe me when I say I didn’t think 2 Pagans and 2 Muslims would have much to say to each other given our faiths seem to be on opposite ends of the religious spectrum. We learned the girls are Pakistani descent, but if I remember correctly, they were born in the US. They didn’t wear hijabs and everyone in the group was very curious to know why. The girls explained that the hijab is totally a woman’s choice and is more cultural than religious, but is suggested in the Qu’ran. They also said Islam is not a pick-and-choose religion. You must follow the Qu’ran, entirely. Of course once the other girls found out they were among witches (or a “cunning woman” as Nic prefers) they had many questions for us, as well. Maybe that’s why we bonded so well with the Muslim girls…We both represent very misunderstood and negatively perceived religions and bonded over it. If there’s one thing we really tried to have the girls understand about Paganism it’s that it’s all about the practitioner. There is no sacred text or official doctrine to give guidelines or rules. The only rule is you have the power to make things happen.
Then came the work! Woo baby—it was COLD! We bundled up well and once we arrived at the location, Nic and I volunteered to nail all the trusses and ceiling beams into place. It was strangely satisfying banging a hammer all day. Good way to let out frustrations. We met the woman who was to be living in the house we were building and surprise—she’s Pagan. We broke for lunch for a little bit and listened to soon-to-be occupant of the house tell us stories from her youth and give us advice as young women. We made a lot of progress that day…I definitely remember more walls and roofs to the house as parts of the house that weren’t there when we started. During clean-up, Nic and I power-swept the entire floor of all the leaves (so many leaves!), dirt and sawdust. We made a dance-like race out of it. When the supervisors commented on good we were with the brooms I said “It’s a Pagan thing”. We all had a good laugh about that.
We made it back to the campus and filled out a sheet about our experience that day and some further info about our spiritual paths. Larry, the supervisor then encouraged us to ask each other more questions about our faiths. I jumped on that to ask the German girl if she noticed a difference between Catholicism in Germany vs. Massachusetts and she said “Yes, absolutely.” According to her, the American Catholic services (at least the ones she has attended for students) seemed rushed and too judgmental. In Germany, she has more time to meditate on her religious goal(s) during service and they seem to encourage spirituality more than condemning everyone who isn’t doing things the Catholic way.
We had more questions for the Muslims and they said in Islam women are very highly regarded and mothers, especially are supposed to be worshiped at their feet. Since women give life, once they fulfilled their sacred duty of giving birth, nothing more is expected from them. We talked about female oppression and one of the girls said “I mean, we’re both Muslim and I don’t think we look oppressed. The women in places like Saudi Arabia, yes obviously they’re oppressed, but it’s because of the culture and Islam being used to fulfill the male-serving culture over there.” One of the Hindu girls said pretty much the same thing about Hinduism…how women are very highly regarded and there is much goddess worship in the faith, itself, but the culture has now infused it with oppressing women. She said men are favored more than women in India, culturally-speaking, and it shows in her family.
Another subject brought up was menstrual cycles (don’t ask me how that happened—but a room full of women—not totally shocking.) The Muslims informed us that women are expected to rest during their menstrual cycle and refrain from domestic tasks especially cooking. There is an Islamic belief that a, ovulating woman in the kitchen is not pure…Nic and I were quite confused by what that meant and we chimed in that many Pagan factions celebrate menstrual cycles. We told all the girls about the rite of passage ceremonies for when a maid becomes a mother (translation: a girl gets her first menstrual cycle) and the blood is considered sacred and the essence of life; “Blood of the Moon” and how some believe using menstrual blood in a spell makes it more potent. It was quite an opposite exchange of ideals. Larry, the supervisor, even joined in and compared the ceremony to the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of his tradition. He said there are also some Jewish beliefs similar to the Muslim beliefs of a woman resting during her cycle and staying out of the kitchen.
This was a very eye-opening experience and I definitely see Islam, Catholicism and culture, in general in a different way. I’m glad, too…I feel like I’ve been too manipulated by mainstream media and I’m thankful I was able to open myself to listening actual practitioners of the misconceived traditions. Afterall, Nic and I were just trying to do the same for them about witchcraft. So we all reached conclusion that religions themselves are not oppressive—men around the world just use them to oppress women. We forgive you, Larry. 😉