IKETH annual conference 2014
Women’s Undefeatable Collective Strength:
Reflections on the IKETh Conference in BiH 2014
By Louise K. Gramstrup
When I boarded the plane that was to take me to the IKETh annual conference 2014 in Bosnia-Hercegowina, I was not sure quite what to expect. I had just completed my first year review (the exam determining whether my doctoral work in-progress is of a high enough standard to let me continue with my studies) so most of my energy had been spent on ensuring a successful outcome.
Whilst I had read the IKETh program and conference materials as well as looked over as much online information as possible about IKETh as an organization and the conference participants, I had no idea that just six days in the company of a interreligious, intergenerational, and international group of strong, educated, passionate women would bring about new friendships, considerable considerations about my current and future work, greater knowledge into a conflicted country and feminist approaches to life, as well as motivation to continue fighting for women’s ability to contribute to society on an equal footing with men. 

Dynamic “Crossings”: The Power of Women’s Interreligious Solidarity

What I did encounter was a group of unusually strong, sincere, and inspirational women whose interactions were characterized by genuine solidarity and concern for one another and women in general. This solidarity is rare today in most contexts, and definitely in my daily academic setting, which tends to be characterized by competition. The all-women interreligious gender dynamic provided a unique setting free of the common constraining privileging of the male voice. Moreover, our group exchanges transcended religious, ethnic, national, and generational boundaries. The constant interaction within and outside these categories were incredibly valuable because it illuminated different approaches and viewpoints on a single issue, but also revealed everything that unites us in spite of these differences. In essence, these “crossings” proved the ultimate strength of the conference. An example is the idea of feminism. This loaded term had different meanings to the younger and more experienced generation when considering its particularities, from a desire to have equal opportunities to live the life one desires to women assuming all the positions of power usually reserved for men. This intergenerational sharing of experiences provided a wonderful dynamic that ought to be strengthened so as to enable the younger generation to continue the invaluable struggle for women’s voice and rights within and outside the framework of religion. Hopefully, IKETh will be able to continuously facilitate this intergenerational forum despite the financial constraints of young scholars. To me, the meetings with women who have and still are working tirelessly to improve the position of women within religion and society was incredibly inspiring and enriching. Many of these women stand as role models whose example I will seek to follow in my own life. They engendered thoughts about how best to use my new knowledge in my current and future job and outside activities, especially in relation to strengthening the position of women within society and religions. Whilst this has always been a guiding value for choices made, the IKETh encounters and inspirational stories from other participants emphasized the relevance of this desire and the need for action even if these seem insignificant in the wider context of global events.

Personal Benefits of the IKETh Conference: Academic and Emotional Impact

In relation to my own studies IKETh provided practice in answering the “what” and “why” about my current PhD studies. More importantly, however, my participation in this conference gave me a platform for comparison with the women’s interfaith book group “Daughters of Abraham”, which is the focus of my doctoral thesis. The IKETh conference provided insight into a particular type of interreligious encounter, which does not necessarily require knowledge of theology, but which necessitates living with religion in one’s everyday life, and therefore practical negotiations and reflections on issues of religion. Daughters of Abraham engages in interreligious dialogue through the medium of literature, that is through many (fictional) books and not the book (Torah, Bible, Qur’an). Thus, their discussions are based on lived experiences of religion/spirituality with the aim of finding commonalities through such fictional depictions of religion. Hence, these conversations are similar to the shared reflections made in the IKETh conference about the stories we listened to in our encounters with locals. For me those reflections, the sharing of thoughts, were the most helpful in coping with the pain felt due to the hurt caused by other human beings as expressed by the people we met . Especially the story of the curator of the Srebrenica memorial site, Hasan, about his narrow escape from the Srebrenica genocide and his loss of four family members affected me greatly and remains stored in my heart. I am looking for ways in which to honor his memory and the many who did not survive guided by a wish to work for sustainable global peace and solidarity amongst people.

“Never Again!”: Learning from History and Using Religion as a Vehicle for Good

An eye-opener occasioned by the IKETh conference was realizing that my preferred way of coping with emotionally difficult issues, namely voicing and contemplating one’s thoughts in plenum, is only one approach to healing. There are different ways of dealing with pain, including religious rituals and the sharing of life stories on various issues, for example some of the participants connected their childhood stories concerning the aftermath of the Holocaust to the culture of denial happening in Bosnia-Hercegovina today. From an emotional point of view I was struck by the similarities between these two atrocities; and from an intellectual perspective I kept relating the words used about the Holocaust and the Srebrenica genocide to each other: “denial”, “never again”, “remember”, “tell our stories”, “don’t ever forget”. Nevertheless, these two dimensions, the head and the heart, cannot be separated. I consider this reality a strength, and I constantly negotiate this intersecting dichotomy in my aim to make use of my intellectual abilities to generate positive changes in one way or another. The IKETh participants all embodied this genuine wish to make a difference in people’s lives or the wider community; a reality I found truly inspiring. It proved that individual faith/spirituality/religion, can (and ought to) be used for good; that it can inspire great ideas and actions. This is a message that needs to be propagated much more widely so as to silence those who claim religion as a legitimating factor for violence, conflict, and exclusion of the religious “other”. Whilst the issues of genocide, sexual violence and traumas were all emotionally draining, the support established and felt through the common bond of women made it bearable and enabled more productive afterthoughts on ways in which to listen to such tragic stories and ensure that we all take action in whatever way possible to prevent such atrocities happening again. Moreover, the shifting conversation topics from very emotionally and intellectually demanding subjects to everyday matters, for instance showing images of grandchildren or deliberating where to find the best coffee, also generated the strength necessary for coping with the heavy issues of religious conflicts, sexual abuse, and so on.

Enriching Impressions and Everlasting Memories: Reclaiming Women’s Voices

Although I am still mulling over all the experiences, impressions, and thoughts generated due to the events and acquaintances made at the IKETh conference, a short way to express these is that participating has greatly enriched my life. The intensity of this interreligious sharing amongst women has energized and emotionally drained me at the same time. I hope to remain in contact with IKETh and find time to nurture the new friendships sprung from these intensive six days. Furthermore, a hope is to be able to participate in future IKETh conferences; the gathering next year focused more on scriptural reasoning would be very intellectually engaging for me as it would provide insight into yet another type of interfaith interaction as well as a greater understanding of feminist theological approaches. Thus, I hope to be able to continue my journey into women’s interreligious dialogue so as to thereby improve my foundation for inspiring others to use their religion to better the lives of individuals and communities, and crucially reclaim the voices of women.

I am incredibly grateful for IKETh’s generous support that allowed me to participate in the annual conference 2014, thank you!!

Louise K. Gramstrup
Doctoral student from Denmark, studying in Edinburgh

Report from the conference 2015 >> 
Photos from the conference 2014 >>
Photos from the conference 2012 >>
Photos from the conference 2011 >>
The lecture of Rebecca Masterton 2010 >>