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April 17, 2006 Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 4, No. 3

  Is this what they told us we were going there to do?
"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.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Good Friday is the day, tradition says, when standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus died, a sword pierced Mary’s heart. This Lent I heard that same kind of pain a hundred times from other women who are also watching everything they’ve ever loved -- their country, their culture, their husbands, their children and their own futures -- die.

The expression of their agony, their frustration, lingers in my mind more a wail than a cry: “We are a civilization of 7,000 years,” said a delegate to the U.S.-Iraqi Women’s Conference sponsored by the Global Peace Initiative of Women, March 29-31 in New York. “You are a country of 200 years.” She drifted off into the unsaid. But the message was plain: You are a young country. What have you ever lost? Who are you to tell us how to live?

The lament came out of a well of agony. While the West struggles with its uncertainty about the implications of veils and burqas for the full development of women in Islamic cultures, these women, some in hijab or head scarves, some in trim pant suits, some in abayas, are struggling with what it means to stay alive, to rebuild an entire country, to keep their families safe, to be safe themselves.

There are now, the women told us, 1.5 million widows in Iraq and the numbers are rising daily as men disappear.

“Before the war, women constituted almost half of the college population in Iraq,” one woman pointed out. But after the invasion women had no chances for either the jobs an education could bring or the independence it promises.

“After the overthrow of the tyrant,” a doctor said, “shortages of fuel, medicine, and food got even worse than before.”

It seemed that the litany would never end. “Forget about the past,” the speaker said. “Anyone can start a war; only a few can stop it. And only time and life can measure the outcome of it.”

Being able to tell who the real “victors” are in Iraq is becoming more difficult every day. Women, helpless in the face of war, have yet to learn what this situation means for themselves. So far, life has only gotten worse for women.

“Now we have corruption, damage to lines and power stations. It is difficult to live in Baghdad. We are on electricity 3 x 3. Three hours on; three hours off. Only a few have generators.”

Another woman, a business woman made the basics plain: “We need $7 billion to fix the sewage and water systems. That will not be available for five years. And the pipes are already out of date before they even begin to put them in again.”

“Some areas have putrid water,” another woman said.

“Food rations got us through the sanctions,” a fourth woman said. “But now these are reduced till 2006 and will probably end then.”

It got more and more difficult to listen to the almost rote recitation of living conditions that most of us have never even seen, let alone attempted to cook in and clean in and raise children in and care for old parents in while finding ourselves more and more under siege every day.

“We must learn the facts,” a woman researcher told us. “Women are a large part of the economic sector in Iraq but education and employment opportunities are directly linked to one another.

“In 1970, the Iraqi government increased its focus on education. This had a significant effect on girls. But the drop in educational opportunities now has been disastrous:

  • 50 percent of women above 15 years old have never been enrolled in school.
  • 64 percent of rural women above 15 have no elementary education.
  • 40 percent of girls in rural areas are not in primary school.
  • 47 percent of women are illiterate.
  • 50 percent of women in urban areas are literate.

“Most victims of honor crimes -- women who have been raped, molested or slept with their lovers -- are women and girls,” an enraged woman reported. “In every case, the perpetrators are protected -- by legislation!” she said. I thought of all the women who have been burned or stoned for the sins of men while the fathers and uncles and brothers who killed them for “dishonoring” their families would go free.

And that’s where the whole emerging future of women becomes unclear. The new Constitution, the one crafted after the fall of Saddam and guaranteed to guarantee democracy, does not guarantee it for women.

On the contrary. Young women pointed out, in fact, that the new Constitution, for all intents and purposes, rescinds the Personal Status Law of 1959 and now makes women subject to the religious laws of every region.

To satisfy regional and religious agendas, the new constitution, having promised women full civil rights, turned around and gave regions sectarian control over marriage laws and women’s civil rights. The majority party in each region, as a result, will determine how women are treated in that area, regardless what the federal constitution supposedly allows.

It’s a very neat political trick. On the one hand, the Constitution looks like it’s committed to equality. On the other hand, each region, thanks to the Personal Status clause of the document, can determine whether they will function under federal or sharia (Islamic) law where women are concerned. The effects of such a statement are to put marriage law with its personal rights and understandings of abuse, divorce law with its conditions and compensation, and inheritance rights for women under the judgment of a woman’s sect or religion rather than the federal laws of the land.

It’s the equivalent of saying that a woman has a right to divorce or marry or seek protection from abuse or financial support as long as her religion will grant it to her.

“We had to do this in order to preserve the family,” one of the older women, now a parliamentarian of the new government, told us. Someone’s -- anyone’s -- definition of “family,” it seems, will trump the civil rights of women every time.

“Democracy will never be done by troops, guns and random shooting,” another woman told us ominously.

From where I stand, it looks as if that insight is clearly correct, at least this time. At least here. At least where women are concerned. Is this really the world we said we were going to create in Iraq when we went in there to destroy a tyrant and abolish tyranny? Or are we now only the unwitting creators of more of the same?

For all these women, too, will there finally be a resurrection? And will we even bother to care?

[Program Note: Erie Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister was a panel member on the special Easter Sunday edition of NBC television’s “Meet the Press” public affairs program. The program aired Sunday, April 16 at 10 a.m. (eastern time). The “Meet the Press” Web site, www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032608, carries a video and written transcript of the program.

Editor’s Note: From Where I Stand is normally posted to NCRonline.org Thursday afternoons, but Sr. Joan Chittister’s heavier than usual schedule of speaking engagements in April has disrupted our posting routines. We are sorry for the delays and ask your patience.]

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