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And The Religious Awards Go To …

If there were religious equivalents to the Oscars or Grammy awards, Jesus would win the award for “Most Likely To Be Crucified.” The Buddha would win for “Most Likely To Rest Under A Tree,” Muhammad for “Most Revelations Received From God By One Man,” and Moses for “Most Likely To Be Replaced By A Golden Calf.”

And after they finished thanking God for their awards, the religious greats would undoubtedly acknowledge the women who made everything possible.

The crucifixion of Christ, the enlightenment of the Buddha, the revelations to Muhammad and the call to Moses on Mount Sinai no longer have the same power or appeal to me, as fantastic as they are. Perhaps it’s because I’ve heard and read the stories so many times and studied the tales for so long that I take them for granted. What I find more poignant are the stories of the women who were left behind or who gave of themselves to allow their men to reach their religious goals.

While the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that the disciples of Jesus (and apparently God too) had forsaken him at the cross, Mary Magdalene did not leave him. Non-biblical traditions state that she and Jesus shared an intimate relationship. The non-canonical Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Philip, for example, explicitly state that Jesus loved Mary more than the other disciples.

Even the New Testament writings provide hints that she and Jesus had a special bond.

She is the only one mentioned in all four gospels to have been at the cross when the other disciples abandoned Jesus, and she was the first person to find Jesus’ tomb empty. Standing outside the empty tomb and crying, Mary said, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have laid him.” Thinking a gardener had moved the body, Mary said to him: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him.” When Mary realized that the gardener was Jesus, she cried out to him, but Jesus told her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Instead, she is directed to tell the disciples what she had experienced: the risen Christ. Mary was the first one to whom the risen Christ appeared and was the first one entrusted with the responsibility of sharing the good news with others. One wonders about the development of Christianity had Mary not gone to the tomb and discovered it empty.

While others criticized and attacked (verbally and physically) the prophet of God, Khadija was the first to give unconditional support to her husband Muhammad.

Muhammad said about Khadija: “She believed in me when no one else did; she accepted Islam when people rejected me; and she helped and comforted me when there was no one else to lend me a helping hand.” Khadija was the first to believe in Islam and used all her resources (she was a successful businesswoman) to help and protect the faithful who were persecuted, many of whom were poor and without much social or political power. While Khadija was alive she was Muhammad’s only wife, and even after she died, whenever gifts were sent to Muhammad, he set aside a portion of the gifts to give to Khadija’s friends as a way to honor his wife. Khadija was not kept hidden behind a veil of secrecy, but was at the fore-front of Islam as its first believer.

Moses was a reluctant servant of God, and God intended to kill Moses on his way back to Egypt. But Moses’ wife Zipporah saved him. While Moses was a newcomer in his relationship with God, Zipporah already was familiar with the deity of the burning bush and knew what God wanted (her father was a priest). At the lodging where God intended to kill Moses, Zipporah took a knife, cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ “feet” (perhaps a euphemism for penis) with the bloody prepuce, and God let him alone. For all her quick thinking and bravery, however, tradition says Moses did not love her, and she was returned to her father’s house.

She was brought back to Moses after the exodus from Egypt. While Moses tried to avoid the task God had designed for him, Zipporah understood what God wanted and acted, saving her husband from death as a result. Without Moses, the story of Jews, Christians and Muslims would be quite different.

When Yasodhara, the former wife of the Buddha, had a premonition that her husband would leave her behind in pursuit of his religious quest, she asked him for a promise that he would take her with him. When she awoke one morning and found that her husband had left during the course of the night, she emulated his spiritual practices in hope that he would return for her. She shaved the hair off of her head just as he had; she donned the robes of a mendicant as he had; she subjected herself to extreme fasting as he did; and she slept on the hard ground as he was wont to do. She cried every day because despite all that she did, her husband did not return. People around her spread rumors that Yasodhara’s husband abandoned her because she was an unfit wife and mother. Yasodhara grieved and longed for her husband. She was lonely and angry, but she still worried about him for six years (what he would eat, where he would sleep and who would care for him). Other suitors came to ask for her hand in marriage, but she replied that she still belonged to her husband. When Yasodhara’s husband finally returned six years later, he was no longer an ordinary man. He was the Buddha. He praised Yasodhara’s faith and her sacrifice and patience that allowed him to achieve enlightenment, and she too reached spiritual liberation. Though in separate fashions, they had indeed embarked on their religious paths together.

Despite the vital importance of women for the historical foundation of each of the religions mentioned above, today they are mostly denied equal leadership roles with the men of their faith. A simple look at the churches, temples, mosques, shrines and synagogues on the island demonstrates this. It is an affront to the founders of the great religions — who turned to and trusted women — that the majority of their present-day followers cannot bring themselves to do the same and acknowledge women leaders as senior pastor, priest, rabbi, imam or minister at their places of worship.

What does it say about the integrity and development of religious faiths that though women played instrumental roles in the success of their religions, men dominate the leadership positions and the only recognition women receive is “Best Supporting Role”?