Uplifting the Voices of Women in Religious Spaces 

Monday, May 31, 2021
by Alix Barry '22

Religion has often been considered a barrier for gender justice and women empowerment. Given this reality, the Princeton University Office of Religious Life (ORL) is dedicated to being a space that is distinctly religious, and also committed to uplifting women: their histories, lived experience, and leadership. In celebration of Women’s History Month in March of 2021, our office decided to spotlight influential female voices who have passed through our office and continued to play significant roles in their communities of faith. As mothers, community organizers, faith leaders, and students, the women featured below represent a breadth of backgrounds and leadership roles. Their stories remind us of the ways by which women experience and shape religious spaces. 

 

A graphic photo of Alison Boden, Dean of Religious Life

Alison L. Boden, Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel 

Dean Alison Boden came to the Office of Religious Life in 2007 as an ordained minister and protestant chaplain, author, lecturer and community organizer. She has been involved in multiple non-governmental organizations that center the role of women of faith as agents of human rights activism and peace-building. Under Boden’s leadership, many other women have become a part of the table and flourished at the ORL. 

“The first time I saw a woman in leadership in my own religious tradition was when I was a teenager in high school. I went to seminary where I found that at least 50% of my classmates were women. I followed the first wave of women going into this. They paved the way for me and I'm eternally grateful to them, because I had a lot of affirmation in the process even though there's certainly sexism in religious communities.  

It's been a joy to be in a place like Princeton where really talented young people find themselves with staff who are eager to support people of all gender expressions as we make our way forward. Our beloved colleague Imam Sohaib Sultan knew that there weren’t women Imams yet so he gave every other kind of leadership role possible, including giving sermons, to women students and encouraged them with the opportunity to lead. 

I would say that women will change any kind of institution from within much better and maybe even exclusively than from without. For three decades, I’ve talked with young women of faith at the school. Some experience such a lack of empowerment that they think of leaving. I always say ‘do what you need to do.’

I try to encourage women of faith to find and create safe spaces, but to stay with one foot in the larger mainstream tradition. because that is how you change it. Go to the safe space: get strength there, find the empowerment, and let that be your fuel to take back to the major space and implement there.”

 

A graphic photo of Sabrina Mirza, Assistant to the Muslim Life ChaplainSabrina Mirza, Assistant to Coordinator of Muslim Life

Sabrina Mirza was trained in immigration and legal services and acts as a staff attorney for a non-profit organization that provides legal, educational and social services to immigrant families. As a regular attendee of the Muslim Life Program (MLP) prayer service, Mirza’s own leadership as a woman within the office was propelled by the guidance of the beloved Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim Life Program Coordinator and Chaplain, who passed away in April of 2021. Since the loss of Sultan, Mirza has continued to run programs for the Princeton Muslim community and honored Sultan’s legacy while doing so. 

“Every Friday, the Muslim Life Program holds Jummah prayer and Imam Sohaib set it up at Princeton such that women are not physically behind the men; we're side-by-side divided by a barrier. There’s a lot of things he did to empower women that hadn’t really been done before and people are now following his lead, such as inviting female Qur’an reciters. He was fully grounded in our faith tradition while also creatively thinking of ways to make women feel more included in the community space.

After every Friday sermon, Imam Sohaib invited a female to lead the communal supplication, and when I joined the Princeton community, that was really important to me. I was honored to offer it back then and now it’s my responsibility to find different female students, alumni, and active community members who can offer that. It may seem like a small thing, but it's a really thoughtful practice that has been consistent over the years. Both men and women have the potential for deep spiritual engagement and the program really allows for that.

I always felt encouraged to share my opinion with Imam Sohaib on MLP matters; as his assistant, I was made to feel more like a teammate. I know he thought it was important to have a female voice because you gain a different perspective. Any good leader is looking to make sure they are covering all the perspectives and not missing anything, and that’s where a woman’s perspective is crucial. I think in many professional spaces, women are included sometimes in superficial ways to almost just check off a box, but I feel that the ORL as a faith-based space is unique and empowers women meaningfully. As a faith leader, you’re always being asked to express yourself in a very personal way and it really allows you as a woman to express a deep part of yourself.”

 

A graphic photo of Atara Cohen, Class of 2016, Orthodox RabbiAtara Cohen, Class of 2016, Orthodox Rabbi 

After graduating from Princeton University in 2016, Atara Cohen has gone on to become the first Princeton Alumna to be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. She was trained in Yeshivat Maharat, a synagogue that educates Orthodox women to model a dynamic Judaism. Cohen is committed to gender justice and hopes to bring tradition into people’s lives whether it be at a synagogue, a campus, or a social-justice organization. 

“I recently graduated from Yeshivat Maharat which is the first rabbinical school for Orthodox women and I’m one of the first 50 Orthodox female rabbis. When I first came to Princeton, I expected to become a doctor; I was taking STEM classes, but also getting really involved in the Religion Department. I did the Muslim Jewish dialogue in my sophomore year and went on a trip to Thailand and Burma with the ORL in the summer after my sophomore year.

College was the first time I had the opportunity to spend quality time with religious leaders. The ORL was like a place that I could experiment with just being a human being rather than being an Orthodox woman and it was so liberating to not have the type of gender baggage that my denomination brings wherever it goes. I quickly recognized that I would get more interface with people as a Rabbi than as a Doctor, especially with healthcare in America as it is. So, there became a path for me. About halfway through my time at Princeton, I shifted gears from Biology to the Religion Department. 

I was ordained in 2020 and I am now working to teach other kids Torah and I'm really excited about it. For women who want to enter this work, I think having role models and paths to follow through with are so important.

I have so much respect for people who were ‘trail blazers’ themselves, but for so many of us, we actually need some sort of vision, we need some sort of trail to follow. I would recommend, even if your particular religion or denomination does not have the leadership that you were looking for, find someone who identifies differently from you who holds a position of leadership you’d want to fill one day.

Connect with a non-binary person who leads in another religion with a similar role, find a male leader who has politics that you really agree with in your own denomination, and figure out how you can make your path, based on what other people have done.”


Graphic of Shikha Uberoi Bajpai, Class of 2013, Co-Founder of Inidi Individuals Inc. and Impact Media 360

Shikha Uberoi Bajpai, Class of 2013, Co-Founder of Inidi Individuals Inc. and Impact Media 360

For Shikha Uberoi Bajpai, the impact of religious and spiritual spaces in Princeton were essential to her growth while on campus and beyond. Bajpai, who took an 8-year hiatus from her undergraduate degree to pursue professional tennis, has an enthusiasm that radiates out of the zoom screen. Bajpai was the second Indian female to be placed in the WTA rankings. During her time at Princeton, Bajpai didn’t find groups that represented her South Asian cultural and religious identities. So she created them. She was a trailblazer for those that came after her, creating places of belonging that are still present today.

“21 years ago when I began my freshman year, there was a lot less diversity on campus, which meant that there was no Hindu Life Program or South Asian Studies department. So, Prof Manjul Bhargava and I thought: "Hey, let's put something together for the us South Asians as well as the Hindu group. There's a good handful of us and let's do something." There were no Hindi classes being offered so my mom would come in and she would teach Hindi at the brand new Frist campus center. We would have guest lecturers, special series teachers, and musicians who were South Asian come and stay at our house in Princeton. The study of a whole region – not just India, but also Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, was operating out of my dorm room and 23 Andrews Lane. From there, we celebrated our Hindu and Muslim holidays, together. We would meet up, share food together and enjoy our informal and very tiny celebrations. The Hindu group at Princeton was born from here.

Because I come from the Dharmic tradition, we identify as Sikh too in my family. So my younger sister Neha, when she retired from tennis and came back to campus, helped co-create Sikhs of Princeton. And that was also powerful, a small group which I belong to. When I returned to Princeton in 2010, I was in leadership at Princeton Hindu Satsangam and a very active member of Sikhs of Princeton; I would run between both meetings and help organize. So it was very entrepreneurial on some level, but blessed by Dean Boden, Dean Matt, Dean Paul and the ORL at large. All this initiative was sanctioned, protected, encouraged, and nurtured by the Office of Religious Life.

While I was on campus in 2011, I initiated a petition requesting Princeton to improve and expand the field of South Asian Studies. It was signed by 1100 students. An institution like Princeton shouldn’t start thinking about studying South Asia because 9/11 happens or there's some political movement in the region, or because people start thinking India might be the next superpower, right? It’s too reactive and heavily contingent on finances or large alumni donations. That’s why it was really meaningful for the Deans at the Office of Religious Life to say, ‘This is not about money. This is about your religious experience and expression on this campus.’”

 

Jahnabi Barooah Chanchani, Class of 2011, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan

Jahnabi Barooah Chanchani, Class of 2011, Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan

Jahnabi Barooah Chanchani is currently a doctoral student at the University of Michigan studying pre modern Sanskrit literary and manuscript cultures. As an ongoing student in the pursuit of deeper knowledge, Barooah has found a passion in being driven by her faith tradition. According to Chanchani, her experience at the ORL supported her journey as a leader and scholar of religion. Following her graduation at Princeton University, Chanchani obtained a position at the Huffington Post with the assistance of Paul Raushenbush, former associate dean of religious life and the Chapel at Princeton. She went on to hold a M.A. in religious studies from Harvard University.  

“I cannot think of my time at Princeton without remembering the Office of Religious Life and the people I met through the ORL. I was a student leader of the Princeton Hindu Satsangam, a member of the Religious Life Council and towards the end of my time at Princeton, also a Chapel Deacon. I was lucky to be able to cultivate meaningful friendship and mentoring relationships with nearly everyone who worked at the ORL and other students from different religious backgrounds who were active members of various student religious groups. Many of my closest friends to this day are people that I initially met through the ORL and bonded over events that we organized together over the years. What I particularly appreciate about the ORL was the opportunity that it’s stewards gave me to bring people together and assume a leadership position. The ORL was also a refreshing and welcoming space in that I wasn’t always made acutely aware—as I am in the work that I do today in the academy—of the fact that I am a woman.”

 

Celene Ibrahim, Class of 2008, Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Groton School

Celene Ibrahim, Class of 2008, Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Groton School

Celene Ibrahim’s published works amplify the voices of myriad poets, artists, religious chaplains that give us a nuanced understanding of Islam and Muslim life. She is the author of Women and Gender in the Qur’an, a groundbreaking study of women and girl figures in the Qur’an. Ibrahim’s story is centered on her role as a woman in various communities. After graduating from Princeton she acquired a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic Civilizations and a master's degree in Women's and Gender Studies and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, a Masters of Divinity from Harvard University.

“Before arriving at Princeton as a first year undergraduate, I took a gap year to travel, to do language immersion in Spanish and Portuguese, and to explore my budding passions for non-profit work. I was already slightly older than most undergraduates are when they begin college. Then, when the passion for Arabic hit in my sophomore year, I studied abroad at the American University of Cairo. At that time, we were very much thinking about how couples who want to have families and careers must figure out how to pursue both simultaneously. We figured that as younger parents, we'd have more energy to do both and that the demands of career would only increase as we aged. So, we took the parenting plunge, and I gave birth to our daughter the following year in Egypt where she received plenty of attention from my in-laws before we moved back to Princeton. Having a flexible class schedule did make parenting easier, and with support from friends across the University, we all thrived. In particular, within the ORL, Rev. Paul Raushenbush awakened my passion for studying religion in the public sphere.

I was fortunate to experience Princeton's first Muslim Chaplain in Imam Khalid Latif and then also benefited from Imam Sohaib Sultan's presence in his first months as Princeton's Muslim Chaplain. I would go on to pursue campus Muslim chaplaincy [at Tufts University]. Murray Dodge was a second home for us between the ORL and the Student Volunteers Council. Carey Hoover (ret. 2018) and Dave Brown (now Assistant Director of the Pace Center) were fantastic mentors and nurtured both my interests in community activism and my understanding of myself as a parent. I became adept at typing with one hand and probably wrote most of my senior thesis while nursing!

By the time I was pursuing a PhD, I was playing chess with my daughter with one hand and writing a dissertation with the other. Princeton was not just a university to me, it was the village where my family found a welcoming home."

 

Julie Roth, Executive Director of Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life

Julie Roth, Executive Director of Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life.

Julie Roth was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005 and holds a BA in Comparative Religion from Brown University. She was the first female rabbi to become Hillel Director at an Ivy League. She is a mother of twin boys, Ilan and Rafael, and daughter Noa. In her interview with the ORL, Roth reflected on her identities as a female Rabbi and mother, and how these essential parts of her identity have impacted one another. 

“As a female, I don't, "look like a rabbi". When people picture rabbis, they more typically, or traditionally picture men: men with beards, men with a kippah on their heads. When I'm out on campus, people don't think, by looking at me, unless they know me, "Oh, that must be the rabbi." So I want to expand people’s vision of what a rabbi looks like, what a rabbi sounds like.

I am a feminist, and I think that part of the redemption that's still needed in the world has to do with equality for women. And I certainly see places where there isn't... . I'm proud to say that I've broken through that glass ceiling, that I'm one of the top 10 paid Hillel Directors in the country, but it took some effort. And before we made this active effort, there were only men in the top 10, and now there are two women. That's one side of it.

It's hard for me to say that being a female rabbi makes me different, but it's also hard for me to imagine who I would be otherwise. What are the essential qualities of me if I had been born male instead of female? What essential qualities of me would be different? I'm not sure, but I think a lot of the essential qualities would be the same. One of the main roles in my life is that I'm a mother. And I think there are aspects of being a mother that are the same as being a father or a parent, and there are aspects that are different. I would say that my identity as a faith leader does impact my parenting in terms of wanting my kids to have a connection to holiness, to tradition, and to a sense of the Holy One being in their life. But I'm not sure if it's significantly different to the experience of my husband, who's also a rabbi.

I think that rather than impacting my identity as a woman, being a rabbi has impacted my choice to be a working parent. In other words, I grew up with a mother who worked. She was home for some years when I was very young, but not by the time I was in elementary school. And I probably always saw myself as a working parent. But as one of a few female rabbis at the top of leadership in my field, I felt very strongly that it was important for me to stay fully focused on my career track as I was still raising children. And for me working part-time or taking a step back from my career really didn't seem like an option.”

Being a woman in faith communities is accompanied by many unique challenges and circumstances, yet the women featured in this post remind us that it is possible to navigate these obstacles thoughtfully and passionately. It is these women who have uplifted the Office of Religious Life to make it what it is today and we are deeply grateful for their example and the pathways they have created.