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June 23, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 7

  Good news for them raises embarrassing questions for us
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."
 
 

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.
 

By Joan Chittister, OSB

In a world where bad news comes printed on glossy paper and perfect-bound week after week, it helps to get good news every once in a while. It gives you the idea that there is a God, goodness is possible, peace is on the way and justice is achievable. Even when you can't see it.

The problem, of course, is not that the world isn't really full of good news, it's that good news is often a function of what we choose to emphasize or ignore.

For instance, it's good news that South Korea is talking to North Korea rather than simply maintaining old Cold War hatreds long gone and often fabricated to begin with.

It's good news that Europe is well past its age-old rivalries between the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons and deep into the process of trying to form a European Union rather than a series of competing dynasties.

It's good news that Japan has apologized to Korea for war crimes in WWII and that the U.S. Senate has apologized for its irresponsible refusal to approve the over 200 anti-lynching bills introduced into the U.S. Senate in the 20th century.

It's good news, too, that a pope who, as a cardinal, insulted other major religions of the world now insists that he is open to them.

All those things are signs of hope. They are also reminders to all of us to be a little less sure of our righteousness, a little less wedded to our fear, in times of renewal and resistance.

So the news of the week is that we got some more good news for a change. It may not be as perfect as we'd like it to be, but it is nevertheless, a beginning.

Admittedly, it raises a question that flirts around the edges of the bad news category but forget that, at least for now.

The good news is that a woman, Massouma al-Mubarak, has been appointed to a Cabinet position in Kuwait for the first time in the 400-year history of the country. One week before this appointment, two women were also named to a municipal council.

Think for a minute: Kuwait is on the southern border of Iraq and the northern border of Saudi Arabia, between a kind of Westernism on one hand and Islamic theocracy on the other. Its geography alone could conceivably have been enough to divide and increase political pressures inside the country.

To the north of Kuwait, Iraq -- a secular government even under Saddam Hussein -- had years ago relinquished the notion of a theocratic state, shown some Western tendencies, struggled with the concept of racial differences and religious distinctions.

To the south of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia epitomizes the ultimate in Sharia law, in fundamentalist Islam.

Nowhere were the geographical undercurrents that marked the two border states more apparent than on the woman's issue.

In Iraq, women drove cars, traveled, held positions outside the home, did or did not wear the burka and were educated professionals.

With the changes in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia remains the only Gulf State in which women may not vote or stand for public office. In Saudi Arabia, Islamic law is strictly kept and is most restrictive of women. Women, for instance, are required to wear veils and burkas. A married woman may not apply for a passport without written permission from her husband. Even with a passport, husbands may detain a wife's travel at any time. Female inheritance law differs from sect to sect. Women do not drive cars.

In the midst of this, in 1999, Kuwait's emir, in response to the growing woman's movement in the country sent a proposal to the Kuwaiti Parliament that would have granted women the right to vote. That first proposal failed, that's true. It would be six more long years -- May 20, 2005 --before the notion of women's suffrage would carry the vote in Kuwait, 33 to 25.

Such a pity, we say. That's what happens when you don't have a democracy, we say, as if the words "democracy" and "women's suffrage" were synonyms.

Before we get too smug about that kind of thinking, though, it might behoove us to remember that in the United States itself, there were 121 years and 29 other suffragist countries--from New Zealand to Slovakia-- between the first vote in 1789 that allowed women in the United States to hold office and the vote in 1920 that allowed U.S. women to vote for officeholders and over 12 years after that before the US got itís first woman cabinet head. And that only after years of petitions, thousands of public meetings on the subject, public demonstrations at the White House and starvation fasts by suffragettes in Washington, D.C. jailsĖan act we associate now with only the most desperate of political prisoners in the most desperate of political situations

The good news in Kuwait is better than that. Just one month after the adoption of women's suffrage in Kuwait, the government appointed its first woman minister. In 1990 only 15 percent of the population -- naturalized Muslim males -- were eligible to vote. Now in one show of hands the country went from 139,000 registered voters to 339,000 registered voters and a woman cabinet minister to boot.

That's good news. For them. But it raises some rather embarrassing questions for us.

You see, the problem is that they did it themselves. Before we were anywhere on the horizon they began to wrestle with the issue. We didn't even have to bomb them to make it happen. And, interestingly enough, you may notice, the country we did bomb 'to spread democracy" doesn't have it yet. Not really. Not independently. Not nonviolently. Not wholeheartedly.

From where I stand, it looks like we should pause a moment before we decide to "liberate" any other countries and ask ourselves whether imposing democracy from the outside -- that most schizophrenic of concepts -- is really the way to get it. Then we must ask ourselves the most important question of all: Even if it works, is doing it that way really good news or not?

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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