Intimate Violence as an Issue of Social Justice at the Carter Center Forum on Religion, Belief, and Women’s Rights Forum (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Today and tomorrow in Atlanta, the Carter Center is convening human rights leaders and religious scholars “to discuss the key challenges that women’s rights activists face and effective ways to bridge the gaps between religious, traditional, and formal state institutions to advance the protection of these rights.”
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay kicked off the morning sessions. But there so many more voices present in the panel sessions: Ratna Osman of Sisters in Islam, Molly Melching of Tostan, Pauline Muchina, and many other women.
From 2:00 – 3:30 pm Eastern today, we’ll be paying attention to a discussion that navigates the topic of intimate violence as an issue of social justice with Sindhi Medar-Ghould of Nigeria; Rana Husseini, a journalist and expert on honor killings from Jordan; Timothy Njoya, Men for the Equality of Men and Women in Kenya. And, interestingly enough, Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Church will be wrapping it up.
These are issues and voices that we are considering for future interviews. Please let us know what you learned and who spoke to you. And, of course, why!
Arab and Jewish Women in Israel Should Join Forces
by Maram Masrawi, special contributor
There are those who argue that the representation of Arab Israeli women in recent years in various television “reality” programmes testifies to a profound change within Arab Israeli society in general, and among Arab Israeli women in particular. Admittedly, when Arab women can be seen walking around in sleeveless shirts and miniskirts on the television show Big Brother, or modelling in programmes such as Models, or winning beauty contests, one can be forgiven for thinking that a revolution is taking place within Arab Israeli society.
Despite appearances, in fact actual developments within Arab society in Israel suggest that traditional patriarchal attitudes towards women within Arab society are becoming even more firmly entrenched, not less. Indeed, Jewish women in Israel fare better than their Arab counterparts overall, but in their case too, there is still much left to be desired.
In the struggle for gender equality in Israel, Jewish and Arab women could achieve far greater gains if they were to join forces and build a shared agenda for change.
Regarding Arab women (particularly Muslim women) in Israel, there are two trends which, in my opinion, suggest the increasing prevalence of traditional patriarchal values: the fact that the marriage age for women has dropped, and that more and more women are covering their hair with the hijab (headscarf).
Surprisingly, these developments are occurring simultaneously with a rise in Arab women’s level of education and an increased desire to join the workforce. This seeming contradiction between increased restrictions on women, on one end, and an acceptance of greater freedoms, on the other, sends a complex message to Arab women: yes, you as a woman can study and leave the house to work but only once you have submitted to traditional family and dress codes.
Moreover, attempts in the past few decades to empower Arab women in Israel by encouraging them to study, to work, and to play a role in public life have not translated into real equality. Thus, for example, the number of Arab women who have integrated into the work force is limited to 19 percent, with half of those working in education. Forty-three percent of Arab female academics in Israel are unemployed, and Arab women constitute the poorest segment of Israeli society.
In the academic and public discourse, the marginal place of the Arab woman is mainly attributed to her social and cultural status within a patriarchal society. But some of the arguments focus on the role of the state and its institutions in helping preserve a patriarchal tradition precisely because in the name of respecting cultural differences the government chooses not to interfere with attitudes towards Arab women within their own society.
Thus, Arab women find themselves caught between the burden of tradition and patriarchy and a multicultural, hands-off attitude by the state on the other.
Arab and Jewish women share a similar plight in that both groups pay a heavy price for the ongoing conflict between the two peoples. The price is two-fold: both groups of women are kept out of the centres of decision-making, and they are expected to put their need for gender equality on hold. Women are repeatedly told that gender equality is secondary to the more pressing demands of national survival.
As Arab and Jewish women who represent half of the Israeli population, we must fight together for our rights in the workplace and in education; we must work to bring women into parliament and into the centres of decision-making, breaking the male domination of the social and political processes.
International Woman’s Day presented an opportune moment to urge both Arab and Jewish women in Israel to work together to advance an alternative gender agenda. We can and must cultivate the practice of compassion and tolerance as the basic building blocks for a language of dialogue, which can challenge the aggressive discourse that dominates our reality.
Israeli women — both Jewish and Arab — can bring a richness to the discourse that goes beyond the television screen. We would do well to merge our struggles for gender equality and equality between our two peoples on the grassroots and political levels. Women who bring life into the world have the right and duty to preserve it, and should therefore strive to place themselves in the centre of action and decision-making processes.
Dr. Maram Masrawi is a lecturer and researcher at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and at the Al Qasemi College in Baka al-Gharbiya. She lives in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam.
A version of this article was written by the Common Ground News Service on March 15, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
India’s Gulabi Gang
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A hopeful story about a community of women — now 20,000 strong — who are banding together to fight for women’s rights and justice by confronting domestic violence and corruption. From Amana Fontanella-Khan’s story at The Daily Beast:
“India’s Pink Gang, the largest women’s vigilante group in the world, shames abusive husbands and corrupt politicians by going door-to-door clad in electric pink saris and wielding sticks called laathis—the same sticks used by local cops when patrolling their beat. Recently, they’ve gained political clout by winning seats in the panchayat elections—the equivalent of American municipality elections.”
Relearning What Our Elders Had Once Taught Us
by Krista Tippett, host
Many of my interviews are conducted over long distances, by way of a clear channel communications miracle called an ISDN line. People are often surprised to hear this because these weekly conversations about “meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas” are singularly intimate. But I have come to enjoy the discipline of a long-distance circuit. I can close my eyes and listen deeply. I encounter my guests — as my listeners do — solely by way of the human voice.
Wangari Maathai has a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of our show “Planting the Future.” But I am glad I met her in person, because her physical presence is remarkable. She is a force of nature, with a beautiful face and flashing black eyes. She is palpably gracious but rather subdued until she starts speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it is not hard to imagine that this woman has stood up to a dictator and won, and that she has fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant 45 million trees.
Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income.
Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai says, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that “the earth was naked. For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green.”
For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement improbably faced off powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to 600 communities across Kenya and into 30 countries. After Moi’s fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country’s parliament with 98 percent of the vote.
My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. In the course of this conversation, Wangari Maathai describes the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remains a practicing Catholic to this day. But life has taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family’s ancestry.
The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa’s second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya’s rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. Climate change has created a volatile ecology across the Horn of Africa, and this is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, has known all along: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that “when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint.” In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai has cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. Wangari Maathai did not flinch. She has fielded many hard questions and situations in the course of her life, but I suspect that she has rarely flinched. She told me that she has often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing — the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. “Now where is God?,” Wangari Maathai asked me in response. She continued:
“I tell myself that of course now we’re in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it’s a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He’s in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain.”
And, last month Wangari Maathai answered some of our executive producer’s questions about her latest book, Replenishing the Earth. Maathai discusses the necessity of science and religion in discovering deeper truths, how our “inner ecology” is “spiritually diminished” when the environment is impoverished, and how trees give meaning to mystery and life.
Yeah I’m Arab, yeah I’m very American, and yeah I’m very Islamic, but you put those things in the blender and I’m no longer just a thing. I’m a new thing.
When Girls Aren’t Desired in India
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
For every 100 girls that are born in India, there are 108.4 baby boys. Whereas, as stated in this World Health Organization bulletin, the ”natural sex ratio quotient [is] 0.512 (i.e. a total of 105 boys born for every 100 girls born).” In a country of over a billion people, these missing three girls for every 100 boys quickly adds up.
In India, the systematic aborting of female fetuses is a particularly complex topic. According to the United Nations Population Fund (pdf), there are many states in India that don’t face this issue. They have an average ratio of baby girls to boys. Other regions, notably western India, have as few as 77 girls born for every 100 baby boys.
Societal and family pressures play a significant role in the desire to only have boys in India — things like more financial incentives, increased opportunity for gainful employment, and access to better education. For example, in the state of Punjab, particularly known for its low ratio of girls to boys, women who are more educated are in fact more likely to abort female fetuses.
The following MediaStorm video paints a narrative picture of the plight of women in India, including the modern phenomenon of sex-selective abortions. Despite the complexity, this video echoes Nicholas Kristof’s reminder that we globally need to focus on improving the rights of women.
(image source: United Nations Population Fund)