How women of faith have carried a greater burden in the pandemic

Image credit: Faiths Forum for London

By Lianne Kolirin

Lives everywhere have been turned upside down this year, as the pandemic has wreaked havoc on everything from our health and families to our careers and finances.

Few areas of our daily lives have escaped the impact and matters of faith have certainly not been exempt from the shockwaves.

Places of worship may have now opened to varying degrees, but many are still coming to terms with how their daily lives — and indeed their religious practice — have had to adapt.

The “new normal” has brought many challenges for faith groups and much of that burden is being met by women, says Laura Marks, a leading campaigner for women’s rights and inter-faith work.

One of the many hats she wears is as a member of the Mayor of London’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group. Last month she helped to organise an event hosted by deputy London mayor Debbie Weekes-Bernard which saw 50 women of faith come together to share their experiences of the pandemic.

The Zoom video conference heard from three speakers from different faiths, after which participants took part in sessions that aimed to gauge their experiences to inform policymakers. We report on them below.

Ms Marks, who is the founder of Mitzvah Day, an international interfaith day of social action, and co-founder of Nisha Nashim, a Muslim-Jewish women’s network, told the Religion Media Centre: “In all faith groups traditionally women are relatively marginalised. They are the doers. During Covid that has been particularly interesting because women of the faith groups have been really carrying the load.”

Lockdown left many women dealing with extra caring duties, such as homeschooling and looking after elderly parents. Personal circumstances may also have been affected by issues such as job losses, divorce, bereavement or domestic abuse.

The gathering heard from a diverse group of women, with each raising issues about family and faith communities, festivals, funerals and caring for people.

“There’s not enough listening to women, they have a different perspective,” Ms Marks said. “We know that men are more likely to be affected physically by Covid-19, but women are taking on the emotional, spiritual and socioeconomic implications of the whole thing.

“There are a lot of people writing, with good evidence, that the cause of equality is going to go backwards because of things like women home schooling, losing their jobs, doing more of the domestic load. I think it’s definitely a backward step but there’s potential also for a forward step in terms of recognising the role that women can play in all of this.”

The aim of the event was to feed the women’s experiences back to local and central government to try to influence policy going forward — or “to enable them to have a voice”.

“I would like to see a lot more support within government for integration projects because when we have something awful happening there’s an enormous amount of fear, anxiety and anger in society and a rise in hatred and intolerance.

“Everybody is living in their own homes now more than before. It was difficult enough to meet people who were different before. It’s even more difficult now. We have to work extra hard to enable each other to address the huge anxiety and fear, which is the basis of hatred.”

Jewish perspective:

Madeleine Fresko-Brown, 31, a secondary school assistant head teacher, lives in London with her husband and two young children.

“Lockdown for me was a juggling act: with two young children, and two parents who both work full-time, we quickly realised we needed a schedule. Mornings saw me entertaining the children while simultaneously responding to emails, going for walks in the park while speaking on the phone to the head teacher — generally giving them half the attention they deserved! Afternoons were my sacred time to work uninterrupted.

“We keep shabbat as a family — no screens, no travel, no electricity. In a time of constant Zoom calls and phone calls and WhatsApps, it was a blessed oasis in the week.

“We missed our weekly trips to synagogue — but replaced these with taking it in turns to lie in, which was quite welcome! Passover at home without our extended family was particularly poignant, and difficult for everybody.  A Zoom seder wasn’t an option, but both sets of grandparents were devastated to be missing seder with the children, so we compromised: an early, mini-seder for the children, with aunts/uncles and grandparents watching via Zoom. We then had an intimate real seder with just my husband, me, and my three-year-old.

“Our synagogue has been amazingly consistent at running online services before and after shabbat, and I attended a couple at first. However, we soon found that my children had no patience for this type of screen activity. The last thing we wanted was for them to be turned off Judaism by this so we stopped going to those and tried to sing the prayers at home when we could.

“Our Jewish life changed during lockdown, but it wasn’t lost completely. It is difficult now that shul [synagogue] services are back on but children aren’t allowed, meaning I and many other women with children are unlikely to go. I do look forward to things getting back to normal, as community is such an important part of our religion and the way we practise it.

“A big question mark hangs over the high holy days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We don’t know what they will look like yet. By mid-September my life will be almost back to normal — children in nursery, me in school every day — so then for this other aspect of life to still be so abnormal is harder to process.”

Christian perspective:

The Rev Dr Denise Parnell, 52, is senior pastor of the Christian Evangelical Centre in Southwark, south London, and was one of the speakers at the London Assembly event.

“The impact of lockdown on me came when I got the letter from the government officially telling me I was one of the shielding and that I wasn’t to leave my house. Obviously I knew I had some health issues, but I didn’t at all expect to fall in to the extremely vulnerable category.

“In my role I have a lot of church members and young people who I look after, as well as my own family. I have an elderly uncle who lives across the road but I wasn’t able to reach him.

“I got one particular call from a young person who had just lost their mother. The first thing I would usually do when something like that happens is jump in my car and go to them but all the pastoral support had to take place over the phone or via Zoom. It’s gone very well — surprisingly so. I think I’ve done more pastoral work over this period than ever before. You’re really on call 24 hours a day because you can’t just say ‘call me between 9 and 5’ if someone has died.

“I stayed in right up until the government started to ease the restrictions for the extremely vulnerable at the end of July. It has been a juggling act. My daughter, who is 30, has been shielding with me but my two sons were not able to come over. So many people supported me, sending me texts and leaving shopping at my door. They have been outstanding.

“Our building remains closed and it might remain so until January. Everything is still remote, but I can move around now and see people. However, I think I feel more sad now than I did when we were in lockdown because you can see the devastation and isolation and people’s fear and anxiety.

“This experience has taught me where my faith really lies. It showed me that my faith in Christ is solid. If there was ever going to be a test, this is it.”

Muslim perspective:

Shahda Khan, who has four adult children, lives in Teeside.

“I live alone in a third-floor flat and have had to spend a lot of time on my own, with very limited access to outside space. Health issues mean I didn’t want to become unwell and have to ask family to put themselves at risk. So, during the first few weeks I restricted myself to going out for very early walks along the beautiful northeast coast.

“Those solitary walks usually involved long conversations with God, praying for the wellbeing of all, including my loved ones, for the strength to deal with whatever was coming, as well asking for forgiveness for all my shortcomings. Watching the sunrise was a constant reminder that there is always hope and that there is something so much bigger than all of us.

“As a Muslim, I’ve been bought up believing we must always put our faith in God and that everything happens for a reason. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to hold on to those beliefs, especially during a pandemic.

“Lockdown made me question a lot of things including work, so in the midst of this I applied for a new job! The week of the interview was a challenge, the 18th anniversary of losing my dad, the ninth since an amazing friend died. My niece’s best friend, a midwife in Birmingham, had just died — only two weeks after her father, also of Covid. All combined to make me almost withdraw from the interview, but God had other plans.

“Right at the start of Covid-19, I kept asking colleagues at the local authority where I worked and the Local Resilience Forum, which co-ordinated local response, how the needs of all our communities would be taken into consideration. This resulted in my establishing a faith engagement network, which had representation from two bishops, the Council of Mosques and other local faiths. We discussed everything from PPE and burials to showcasing all the support that local faith groups were giving both to the public as well as front line key workers.

“While the mantra ‘we’re all in this together’ had some merit, the disproportionate impact on some communities including mine, has been well documented. Yes, there have been many dark days but there have also been some exceptional rays of brilliant hope. Whether it was the incomparable Captain Tom, whom we all fell in love with, or whether it was the sharing of real stories.”

Hindu perspective:

Harsha Shukla, MBE, came to this country in 1979 from India when her husband’s work as a doctor brought them here. After running a corner shop for 13 years, Mrs Shukla immersed herself in local community relations in 2003, becoming a school and college governor and president of the Lancaster and Morecambe Hindu Society. 

“This year’s event was planned for March but it could not go ahead, which was a disappointment. We are still looking forward to doing it next year but it’s still difficult to know if it can happen.

“Before lockdown, we would usually go to Preston Temple, which is about 25 miles away, to take part in big festivals.

“Everybody has been affected but because we’ve not been able to go to temple or people’s houses it’s all been about looking inwards. We look after our bodies but at the same time we need to look after minds; only then can the soul be healthy. That’s the basic fundamental principle in my life. If there’s a problem, I try to find a solution.

“In the beginning my husband and I were not going for walks — we were at home for almost three months, doing exercise and in the garden. Then slowly, slowly we started going out. Psychologically, it has not left a scar, but it has left an imprint on the mind.

“I pray at home but at the same time in Hinduism it’s all about doing good deeds and helping people and not just going to temple. People have been ringing me if they have any issues or have any issues.

“As president of the Hindu Council of the North I have come across a lot of people who are affected and it has been very sad. If it’s a happy moment and you don’t go to someone that’s OK, but when someone is bereaved and you can’t go and see them, that hurts a lot more.

“My friend’s husband passed away in Birmingham but we couldn’t go to see her and I felt very sad and sorry about it. It was a real shock to not be able to go and pay our respects.”