It is six o’clock on a Friday morning in Bethlehem. The sky is breathtakingly clear. The bright sun has risen, but the streets are still quiet. I acknowledge afresh how blessed I am that I can see, across the skyline, the Church of the Nativity – the site traditionally considered to be Jesus’s birthplace – with the cross topping its steeple. My heart skips a beat as I reflect that our precious Christian presence has been here for over two thousand years. I remember St. Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, who helped to build the Church of the Nativity after her visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325-326 AD. As I look out at that steeple, I remember that we Christians in Bethlehem today are a continuation of the Early Church itself.
Yet the historical testimony of many faithful Christian men and women contrasts sharply with the limited opportunities offered to Arab women today to pursue theological education. These limitations implicitly deny the rich contributions of Arab women to Christianity over the centuries.
Arab Women in Theology
The role of Arab women in theology has been significantly understudied and, in Church practice, underdeveloped. So I dedicated myself to doctoral research to explore the participation of Arab women in theological education. I want to call the Church to open doors for Arab women so that they can use their gifts, developed through education, to build up the body of Christ.
Although initially perplexed by a lack of sources, I eventually found a long line of Arab women in theology, from women in the Early Church through women in the Arab renaissance in the 19th century. Women in the early Church include Perpetua, a young mother who was martyred in North Africa in 203 AD; and St. Monica (332-387 AD), St. Augustine’s mother, who prayed fervently for her son’s salvation. In the 19th century, Alice Albustani, Mariam Zakka, Rujina Shukri, and Farida ‘Atya were pioneers during the Arab renaissance (Al-Nahda). Syrian Protestant women did not usually contribute to published theological controversies, yet these Nahdawi women joined men in printing speeches, articles, and books. Women first signed their names to sermons and articles for a missions periodical in the 1880s.
Then, as part of my research, I interviewed contemporary Arab Christian women. I was amazed at their stories and pondered how enriching their experiences would be for the Church. Sadly, much wisdom remains hidden in these women’s lives. I am particularly inspired by women from Egypt whose education is in pharmacology or engineering but who insist on being theologically educated so that they can develop their ministries. The Church is often hesitant to discuss women’s spiritual and academic development, and MENA-region societies exclude women’s voices altogether. However, in Egypt at least, women appear increasingly to be pursuing theological education – not merely as an accessory but as an essential component of ministry.
Despite persistent marginalization, what makes Christian theology so appealing to women? At the heart of Christianity is God’s love, concern, and care for women. He calls them to be history-makers, equally significant in the present and the future. Jesus’s respect for women models what His followers should do.
Women in the Church as Plan “B”?
Growing up, I was blessed with a family and a church that nourished my love for learning. My family never hesitated to encourage me to study or teach in the academy or to lead in church, despite the sacrifices this meant. When I finished high school with outstanding results, my parents did not discourage me from pursuing theological studies, contrary to what many recommended. Others looked down on my choice, but I traveled to the UK to pursue my MA as a 22-year-old, and my parents fully supported me.
My story is an exception. Many women in the Middle East experience multiple marginalities. First, all Arab Christians are a minority in the Middle East’s Islamic context. Second, women in Middle Eastern societies are often second-class citizens and have to battle patriarchal attitudes. Third, within the Church itself, although women comprise half of membership and are well-represented in theological colleges as students, they are simply not noticed. They are quickly invited to be volunteers but are seldom offered leadership. If they are considered for leadership, this is “plan B”. Even after a woman obtains a theological degree, she is overlooked; men are naturally approached first for leadership positions. (One glimmer of hope: In the past, the Church allowed women to be deacons. This role is currently being revived in certain contexts, including the Maronite and Armenian churches.)
Women have unique, God-given attributes, and when these are suppressed and ignored, the Church is impoverished. In God’s creation, women are not “plan B,” and He has emphasized this fact by providing the Church with many outstanding women leaders. Paula (c. 340 AD – c. 410 AD) travelled from Rome to my hometown, Bethlehem, to partner with Jerome as he translated the Scriptures; St. Nina helped to evangelize the country of Georgia (then Iberia) in the 300s. When the Middle East witnessed the birth of monasticism, the desert mothers in the 4th century (such as Amma Sara and Amma Syncletica) attracted many to a more mystical form of theological education. These women offered spiritual direction to countless others.
Indeed, theological education has historically been associated with ordination; however, the turn to lay theology in the 20th century has now created opportunities for women to be involved in academia and the Church. Theological education shapes Christian leaders for various roles, not just ordination. While many leaders are hesitant to encourage women to pursue theological education for fear that they will seek ordination, the arguments about ordaining women should not mean that women cannot have access to formal theological education. Encouraging women to be trained rigorously for their callings will strengthen the body of Christ.
A Hopeful Future
So the inclusion of women in theological education and the Church is not a 21st-century invention. We need passionate, merciful, just, peace-making, full-of-faith women who are positioned to be living witnesses.
Christian women in the MENA region are triply marginalized, so they have have experienced suffering, persecution, domination, control, oppression, and fear to extremes that women in the West have not. As Christian women in the MENA region have received grace from the Lord to thrive in hostile settings, they have gained essential insights about dealing with persecution that they can share with the global body of Christ, with sisters elsewhere who face similar persecution and with those in the West who may face other trials.
Thus, from the place where Christianity began, I pray that this land will give birth to more Arab women in theological education who are brave enough to overcome societal and ecclesial barriers gently but wisely and confidently. May they be ever more committed to sacrifice their time, energy, and efforts to study and teach.
Should the Church and the academy witness women’s profound commitment, would they pledge to welcome women? By inviting women to reflect on their experiences theologically, the Church would enable stories of hope to emerge. Women would write narratives of wisdom that, like strings of pearls, would forever enrich God’s people. Even today, I am blessed by the ministry of Mathilde Sabbagh in Al-Hasakeh, Syria. Mathilde is a graduate of the Near East School of Theology who is reviving her local church by working with children in the face of Syria’s civil war. As I finish this essay, the joyous ringing of the bells of the Church of the Nativity reminds me to have hope. I think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was at the cradle and at the cross. Between the cradle and the cross, women have so much theology to reflect upon, to share – where but the Middle East should we begin?