Dancing with Jephthah’s Daughter
by the Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills, May 2017
Many years ago, more than I care to remember, but at least 30, I remember going to an event in Brighton that was supposed to be about conflicts in the Middle East. I spoke with a number of women, all of whom were from various countries in the region, and all of them frustrated. One of the sessions of the day was about women’s rights and feminism. These women were angry – angry that they were prevented from speaking out about their rights. They said that whenever they spoke up about women’s rights in their wider protest groups, they were told that women’s rights needed to wait. They first of all needed to wait until the rights for all, in other words – for men, were secured before they could talk about women’s rights.
At this point I hasten to point out that these women were not necessarily women of faith, but women involved in secular human rights organisations. The later assumptions about Muslim women being treated poorly were not part of the argument. In fact, as far as they were concerned, Islam accorded women rights that the men were not allowing them to have.
I had forgotten all of this in the ensuing years, but the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ)’s leadership study tour to Israel/Palestine was an excellent reminder as our group met Christian, Muslim, and Jewish individuals and representatives of organisations across the range of positions on the conflict in the region. I met strong women determined to work for peace in their land, self-sacrificially, painfully, single step by single step, these women are giving their all that this land find a better and peaceful way forward for their children and for the future of their people, all their people.
At one point we heard how the most hard-line of leaders were meeting in secret. The one unifying factor they discovered they had was that they did not want women to attain equal rights with men. They wanted women to hide in the background and leave the running of the nations to the men. They wanted women silent, hidden and nameless. And I thought of Jephthah and his daughter, this daughter that so loved her father, was so proud of her courageous father, that she ran out to greet him singing and playing the tambourine – this daughter whose name we never learn.
And Jephthah, he had vowed that if victorious in battle he would sacrifice the first living thing that came out of his house on his return – thinking it would be an animal. To his horror, his loving, smiling daughter, his only child, was first to come running out to greet him. This child had been waiting for liberation from the enemy, praying for the safety of her father, and is greeted by a look of shock from her father – of utter despair. Jephthah realises what he had vowed in his foolishness – he had vowed the destruction of his own home, of his future, of his hope, the destruction of Love itself.
There are good men in every nation, and we were privileged to meet many, men committed to building peace in their land. And we also heard the voices of men who refused to acknowledge the women around them, to hear their voice and to give them the position, the name, they deserve. But the women continue, they meet, they struggle, they sing – they sing the peace they seek, and they sing it together. Their voice is strong and determined, the voice of a lioness roaring for the protection of her children and her children’s children.
On our last day we met three young women, all of sixteen with that giggly shyness that belongs to teenage girls. But their voices were voices of power. They spoke eloquently of the challenges and tensions they face as young women holding friendship across faith and cultural boundaries in defiance of the norms in their respective communities. They are the hope for the future, the hope for the now! They are not nameless, their song is one that demands they have a voice, and they will not be silenced or sacrificed.
In their school, Hand in Hand, they have had to share with one another the differing perspectives of the conflict in which they have lived and grown up, and in which their parents have lived and grown up. They study, eat, create, play alongside one another, listen to the experience of the other, and have to face a common fate upon turning 18 – that of some of them being expected to serve in the army, and others being subject to the checkpoints and restrictions of the army. The Army is a future that looms large in their imagination. How they negotiate that imminent future will colour the future of the nation – and because they have had to negotiate difference the whole of their lives, there is hope for how that process will continue as they face this dilemma too. Their victory will not demand the sacrifice of a nameless child – but it does demand the sacrifice of these powerful children, who have names, who have hopes and dreams.
And we turn back to Jephthah’s daughter, who pleaded that she be given time with her friends, time to celebrate life and then turn back to her fate, her sacrifice. And so we danced with Jephthah’s daughters, we spent a few moments with them, listening to their stories, celebrating their courage, and then we walked away – leaving them to their future fate, helpless for us to change.
Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills, is Inter Faith Adviser in the Diocese of St Albans, Church of England. She has over thirty years’ experience in inter-religious dialogue, including ‘Guidelines on Gender and Inter-Religious Dialogue’ presented at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Korea in 2013. Evans-Hills is co-author alongside Michael Rusk of the book ‘Engaging Islam from a Christian Perspective’ published by Peter Lang Publishers in 2015.