Women in the Middle East and North Africa often face restrictions and negative attitudes, leaving them crying out for worth. Here, our Bethlehem blogger Grace describes the difference following Christ has made in giving her – and other women she knows – a secure identity and sense of purpose…
Not far from where I live, beautiful golden sunlight splashes over what has become known as the “field of Ruth and Boaz”. It lies East of Beit Sahour (a neighbouring town to Bethlehem) in the plain that descends to the Dead Sea.
The biblical figure of Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, an Israelite who had left Bethlehem with her husband and two sons to go to the land of Moab to escape a famine. But in Moab (in what is now Jordan), Naomi’s husband died, as did her two sons, both of whom had previously married Moabite women. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, returned to Moab, but the second one, Ruth, stayed with Naomi and declared her allegiance to her God…
Ruth made a surprising choice when she “clung” to Naomi (Ruth 1:14). Naomi was in a terrible state; she was in despair and bitter, having been stripped of all that she had and of her husband and sons – her human sources of security, status and support. The narrative does not indicate the reason for Ruth’s decision, but one imagines that empathy and compassion for the plight of her mother-in-law played an important role in her decision not to desert her.
Here, we witness a unique image of two women supporting one another when there was no one else around. In particular, when there was no male figure to lift the burden off their shoulders. They had to learn how to cope, first leaning on God then on one another. Not all women find it easy to help one another. Many feel crippled by a spirit of fear or jealousy. Rather than support other women to succeed and flourish, they choose to be silent, uncooperative or reluctant to lift a finger to help.
Ruth, however, rejected the easy option of staying in her homeland. She took a route that would be difficult, perhaps even dangerous as she was ethnically a Moabite. But because she believed it was the right thing to do she pledged to go with Naomi. Indeed, Ruth’s promise went further. She said: ‘Your people will be my people; your God will be my God’ (1:16). This commitment marked a new step in Ruth’s undertakings. She not only abandoned her former religious allegiance but chose to change her ethnic identity.
The result was astonishing: Jesus was born of this lineage (Matthew 1:5)! God honours the very desires of our hearts. He takes us to places we never imagined or dreamed about. He sees the commitments we make then surprises us with His faithfulness, like He did with Ruth and Naomi in this very town where I grew up.
Proud to be a woman
I have always felt proud that God made me a woman; and at the same time, I am so grateful for all the wonderful godly women He has placed in my life. Growing up as a woman in an Arab culture is often challenging because of the many restrictions that can be set on women before they can study, minister, travel or simply be themselves. But I have learnt to mature in character, wisdom and grace to become the vessel God wants to use in this place and beyond.
I see with the eyes of hope what women are able to do“
Day by day, I see what perhaps others around me find it difficult to see. I see with the eyes of hope what women are able to do; how they can make a difference; how they can raise their voice, I watch them study and achieve, learn and teach, think and write, sing and perform. I rejoice in their initiatives to develop, to be transformed and not to be limited regardless of any restrictions, but to find their pleasure and success in pleasing God above everything and everyone else.
Slowly, slowly – or sometimes even very rapidly – things are changing and women are taking their place in society, in the church, and wherever God takes them to. Freedom within the Lord’s service and openness to become who God intended us to be can effect a real difference in the way we live our lives and relate to everyone around us.
God has blessed me with so many opportunities to see new places and countries, which I love doing! In a recent visit to Egypt, I met with some beautiful Christian women who also grew up in the so-called Arab culture. To say I was impressed and inspired is an understatement! I was really moved and encouraged by God’s work in their midst; by their active and living faith against all odds; and ultimately their passion to see God move in their nation, to evangelise and reach out to “the other” despite the very little they might have. I have learnt from their humility, love and zeal to the Lord; for this is the secret to success for all, men and women: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
And now; I feel a greater sense of responsibility, to teach and equip, to serve and not be served, to lead and guide according to God’s own heart. As Ruth and Naomi did to one another, I feel challenged to look for opportunities to support my fellow sisters, across cultures, races and identities, but starting here in my beloved little town. God uses women powerfully and values their ministry; let us earnestly seek to do so too!