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August 14, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 91




Pat Morrison Women's realities, Mary's feast

By Pat Morrison, NCR managing editor

It was a two-inch news story, buried on page 12 of the daily paper last week. At first glance, it seemed like just one more in the never-ending tragedy of spousal abuse.

A Bangladeshi court sentenced Swapan Gazi to death for maiming and attempting to murder his wife in a slum town in 1998. Gazi had hurled a glass of acid on her face and head, leaving her blind and partly deaf. The attack had been provoked because Gazi's new bride refused to leave her parents' house to move to his.

But here's where the story takes a sharp detour from the usual domestic abuse account. Gazi's wife was 9 years old.

We who live in the West are often unaware that in many parts of the world in this third millennium, arranged marriages and child marriages are still common. In some cultures it is not unusual for a girl who has not even reached puberty to be given in marriage -- or, more properly, sold, because her family is poor and needs the money, livestock or goods the marriage will bring -- to a man four or five times her age. And it is not just a matter of the child living in the home of her future husband until the actual wedding takes place when the girl is older; these marriages are consummated, with little girls enduring unspeakable physical and emotional trauma. Even in arranged marriages where both parties are older, the bride may have never met her future husband before the wedding.

Add to the arranged marriage the also still-prevalent custom in too many nations in Africa and parts of the Middle East of female genital mutilation, which tortures and maims a child for life, and you begin to get an idea of what life (and frequently death) is like for hundreds of millions of girls and women around the globe.

According to reports from the World Health Organization and Amnesty International, more than 150 million female children each year are tortured as they are subjected to the "cultural" practice of female genital mutilation; thousands die from infection following the mutilations, which are performed without anesthesia and in primitive, unclean settings. Perhaps worse than the physical horror is its underlying patriarchal rationale: The practice's only purpose is to satisfy males' demand that a bride be a virgin.

Abuse of women around the world has reached epidemic proportions. A June 2000 report from UNICEF notes with restrained understatement: "The prevalence of domestic abuse of women and girls around the world is alarming."

"Statistics are grim, no matter which part of the world one focuses on," says the report. "No country or region is exempt fromů abuse."

UNICEF notes that abuse begins even before birth, with female fetuses aborted; in many nations, female babies are killed. The abuse extends to the deliberate underfeeding of girl children, lack of access to medical attention, female genital mutilation, sexual abuse of girls (often in extended families, where they are at the mercy of male relatives), and finally to the fatal beating of female children and adult women.

Abuse of women and children is tragic and outrageous wherever it occurs. But those most at risk are living in patriarchal cultures where they have no legal or societal recourse. Mehr Khan, director of the research project that produced the UNICEF report, told the press that "attacks on women are too often written off as private issues."

Tomorrow, millions of Catholic and Orthodox believers celebrate one of the oldest feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Assumption (taking up) or Dormition (falling asleep). That teaching holds that the physical body of Jesus' mother, like the glorified body of her risen Son, already shares in the fullness of eternal life. The dogma of Mary's bodily Assumption effectively undoes centuries of misogyny perpetrated by the same church. To those church fathers, doctors and theologians who declared woman evil, soulless, "misbegotten males" and the source of all sin, Mary's Assumption is a much needed corrective.

As we honor Mary assumed into heaven, we need to remember the millions of girls and women living today whose bodies are not glorified or honored, but rather tortured and violated; whose lives are not valued, but abused and exploited. Christians celebrate Mary, the woman who exulted that "the Almighty has done great things for me!" Justice urges us to "call her blessed" by doing whatever we can to help all women, Mary's sisters in the human family, who suffer.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is

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