Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

November 3, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 19

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

In some parts of the world, they can't own property. In many parts of the world, they are property.

In some places they can't vote or be voted for. In many places, they can't be seen on the streets alone. In most places they aren't educated. In too many places they are tucked away from sight, clearly wedded to the house rather than the man, kept in silence and domestic servitude.

In all places they are still the muted, uncounted and unseen victims of war. In more places than we like to think, their bodies have become the instruments of war. In more places than we are willing to admit, they are yet being beaten regularly in their own homes, sold into sexual slavery and left financially destitute after widowhood or divorce.

Even in the United States, one generation of professional, independent women now tell another with a touch of disdain that feminism has achieved its goals, that it is unnecessary, that it is "so yesterday."

Here, too, some women -- from the perch achieved for them at the price of other women's lives -- say with supercilious superiority that they don't really worry about "equality in the workplace." (One national columnist, for instance, apparently unaware of how she got her own position, sneered at the notion that Harriet Miers had been nominated for the Supreme Court because some people wanted a "girl.") Worse, financially secure, some women have the nerve to pronounce feminism antiquated in our so-called "progressive" society, one that still pays most women 25 percent less than it does men, refuses to provide daycare facilities to working parents, and is yet almost totally controlled in all aspects of society -- political, ecclesiastical and economic -- by men.

Here, many of the privileged types, certain of their own freedom, unconscious or uncaring about the deranged sexism of the rest of the world, do absolutely nothing for oppressed women around the world.

Smug in their own positions, they now find it fashionable to ignore feminism -- even, it seems, to deride it.

But that's not the worst of it. That's what happens to women who have been born. In many places, if you are female, you're not permitted to be born at all.

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Researchers estimate that as a result of the Chinese "one-child" population policy, over a million female fetuses are destroyed by sex-selective abortions every year.

Now India, it seems, a Hindu culture where even cows are a protected species, is on the verge of overtaking and even outdoing the Chinese in the number of female fetuses aborted. The hope of having a boy who will be able to contribute to the old age security of their parents, the fear of high dowries and the traditional devaluation of women drives an industry of female destruction.

With a sex ratio of 933 women per thousand men, the social landscape of the future portends, as it has for the Chinese, an increase in sex slavery, prostitution, AIDS, gang warfare, violence against women and a general decline in the status of women as well as a breakdown of family ties among men. In one north Indian agrarian state, Haryana, the sex ratio is now 640 women per 1,000 men in many areas. Polygamy is on the rise. Teenage suicide among young girls is on the increase. (One World South Asia, 09 September, 2005)

Even the world's poorest countries, U.N. figures attest, have a positive sex ratio of 103 women per 100 men.

Enter the Swami. Just where you might not expect a swami to be.

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Swami, a title of respect for Hindu religious teachers, is not a synonym for feminist. It may, however, judging from this particular swami's relentless witness to social issues, be a synonym for "conscience."

Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu monk, president of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement and chair of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, knows as far too few women do, perhaps, that feminism is anything but unessential, uncalled-for or achieved. On the contrary.

This month Agnivesh himself is launching "The March of a Million" in India around the feast of Diwali, the festival meant to celebrate the birth of a girl child. His purpose, he says, is to "raise consciousness and create an environment against female feticide." Religion, he explains, has discriminated against women and denied them their rightful status in society. Religion must, therefore, do something to right it. "We must revive the respect for women," he says, which the celebration of Diwali is meant to mark.

The "March of A Million," a 15-day trek across India from November 1-15, will be a march against infanticide, yes, but against all forms of discrimination against women in India.

"Come and join me," he said to us at the meeting of the International Committee of the Peace Council. "Come and join me," he says to every one in is open letter to the public (See "Be proud to be Human," he goes on. "Do what you can for Peace and Justice. Speak up for the right to life for the unborn girl child in India and elsewhere ... before the knife falls on her."

Swami Agnivesh does not agree that feminism is over. The difference between him and others is that he is literally leading the march to free women everywhere from all kinds of invisibility, aborted gifts, loss of voice and devaluation.

From where I stand, an outspoken act on the part of a religious man in behalf of women is a sign to us all. If the full human development of both men and women alike is ever to finally succeed, the movement will need the leadership of men of conscience as well as women of courage.

So far, if the diminished condition of women in both church and state everywhere around the world is any proof, this great human movement has had far too little of that.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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