Campus & Community

‘Women Healing Women’ gather

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Wide range of faith traditions, healing styles represented at Divinity School conference

Anthropologist and author Edith Turner delivers the keynote address of the HDS conference, ‘Women’s Support in Healing: Acts of Women’s Collective Power in Three Rituals.’ (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

From physicians and therapists to Reiki practitioners and “spirit singers,” a wide range of religious and medical professionals shared their projects and

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findings from the 18-month “Women Healing Women” project at Harvard Divinity School in March. Sponsored by the Religion, Health and Healing Initiative of the Center for the Study of World Religions, “Women Healing Women” convened 20 female religious leaders and health care professionals across disciplines to share information and create specific projects that enhance women’s health.

“We have a society in which women are sicker than men and women outnumber men in healing professions, but women are really not making the policies that shape the bodily experiences for themselves or for their families,” said Susan Sered, research director of the Religion, Health and Healing Initiative, in her opening remarks.

In a keynote address, Edith Turner, anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Virginia, drew from her decades of experience to present three cases of women healing women in native cultures. With first-person detail, she described a fertility ritual of the Ndumbu people in Zambia in the mid-1950s, a girls’ coming-of-age ceremony among the Mescalero Apache of Mexico, and women’s pilgrimages to the Irish village of Knock, where an apparition of the Virgin Mary came to villagers in the midst of the Potato Famine in 1879.

Six women from the project made brief presentations on their work, showcasing the diverse range of healing experiences of women. Noor Kassamali set out to document what she called “the faith factor” in traditional healing. “Complementary medicine has been mainstreamed into our medical practice, even at Harvard,” said Kassamali, who is an internist with University Health Services and teaches at Harvard Medical School. “But what about the role of spiritual, ritual, or religious beliefs on healing?” She interviewed Muslim women in the Boston area about their use of healing rituals that invoke Fatima, one of Muhammed’s daughters.

The Rev. Maureen Chase, a SpiritSong teacher and healer, helped breast cancer patients discover that “our voices can be medicine,” she said, describing the chantlike “toning” she taught them. Reiki practitioner and massage therapist Patricia Warren showed caregivers how to incorporate appropriate touch into their care. Other researchers explored the experiences of aging and menopause among Latina and black women and sexuality in menopause.