From desert mothers to modern scholars, the Middle East has long featured females leading from the margins—and sometimes near the center of patriarchal power.
The Middle East today is at a kairos moment in time. As women across the region fight for their rights and freedoms, the tectonic shift is felt also in Christian academia. What was once a trickle of female theologians has developed into a growing number of developing leaders, enabling and emboldening other women to rise in leadership.
While only Protestant churches have yet ordained female priests—in Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories—other similar bold figures are modeling an emerging path of spirituality within patriarchal Arab society.
But their own inspiration is found in the past.
As members of the first Christian communities, Eastern Christian women—deaconesses, historians, theologians, and martyrs—articulated their faith and theology centuries ago. However, their stories are not well known even in our region. But it is remarkable that two of the largest remaining Christian communities in the Arab world, Coptic and Maronite, have known historical female leadership. Within the rich and complex ecclesial context of the Middle East, their legacy continues to shape our theological thought as evangelical women today.
Observing the full moon rise above today’s Egyptian desert in the land where Saint Anthony (A.D. 251–356) originally established monasticism as a lay movement, I am reminded how spirituality was crafted by asceticism. The desert fathers left a heritage of wisdom celebrated by many today who seek spiritual discipline.
But we often overlook the desert mothers.
These Ammas (from the original Syriac) were Christian ascetics who also inhabited the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the fourth and fifth centuries, whether in monastic communities or as …