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March 17, 2006 Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 37

  What comes first: The chicken or the egg?
"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

I’ve never been too good at the old “chicken and egg” question. Which one of them came first didn’t interest me much. I mean, who cares?

But I’m beginning to see the value of the problem. Somewhere along the line, if we’re really intent on something, we begin to see that the issue can actually be paramount. For example: Ever since International Woman’s Day on March 8, there’s been a plethora of articles on women who would ordinarily otherwise be invisible.

I know you were expecting me to write a column for the occasion, too. However, since every day of the year is International Woman’s Day to me, I decided to wait till no one else was writing anything much at all on the subject and catch you by surprise. So what am I doing here so soon, you ask?

Well, like everyone else in the world, I suppose, I picked up some interesting information from that little flicker of attention to women and their place in the affairs of humankind. This year, I noticed, even men were writing some of the articles calling for the inclusion of women in public affairs. That, I thought, was promising. Maybe we’re really approaching the point where the question of “women” is no longer a “woman’s question” but more what it is in truth: a human question that affects everything and everyone on earth.

Then I read some of the articles. Some things looked very good. At least on the surface. Some things, on the other hand, did not.

Women candidates have won the equivalent of presidential elections in Germany, Chile and Liberia -- hardly places where Las Vegas would have expected such a thing to happen.

In 100 other countries, the number of women in parliaments has increased. In Nordic countries, 40 percent of the seats go to women; in Rwanda, women now hold 48 percent of the seats in parliament. But the average percentage of women in representative bodies worldwide, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, is still only 15-16 percent of the total, including in the United States. In Arab states, 8 percent of the representatives are women.

Despite U.N. studies indicating that where women are better represented, governments are less corrupt and more attuned to social issues, most countries have yet to reserve at least 30 percent of their seats in parliament for women as the U.N. sponsored bodies have recommended.

Obviously, a universal commitment to the advancement of women and their place in the public sphere is seriously lacking, whatever the pathetically small number of women who, by some fluke of the political environment, are exceptions to the rule.

The United States, for instance, is embarrassingly absent from among the 182 signatory governments to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, a bill of rights for women.

Women have also gained a footing in the corporate and commercial world. But only barely. In fact, in many cases, the very numbers of working women serve to mask the dirty underside of the “feminization of poverty.” Paid less than men for the same kinds of work, women work the same number of hours, get paid 25 percent less but pay the same amount as men do for insurance, food, day care, transportation and medicine for themselves, their dependents and their children.

As a result, where men who can’t get jobs are likely to be poor, women are likely to be poor even when they get them. British economists estimate that at the present rate of parity, it will be 200 years before women earn the same amount as men.

Educationally, women have made strides, as well. There are now 1.33 women graduating from college in the United States for every man. But even with a college degree, they’re getting paid less than the men are. In Iran where the literacy rate is 98 percent, 65 percent of all university entrants are women but they remain beholden to the patriarchal system that governs the country.

Clearly, the stereotypes about women remain. Despite all the so-called advancements women have made everywhere around the world, the assumptions linger that they are really not “natural” leaders, that they’re not as bright as men, that women who raised children, nursed them through the nights, supported them alone, carried three year olds on one hip and a bag of groceries on the other at the same time, can’t do “heavy work,” can’t be both politicians and “good” mothers while the men they marry are nevertheless honored as politicians and “good” fathers.

Everywhere extremist governments and fundamentalist religious groups have limited the opportunities, silenced the voices and defined the role of women to the advantage of men. (See “Perspectives: Women in the Lead,” at the Web site us.oneworld.net)

The educational levels, occupations and public participation of women do not seem to be making the kinds of differences that matter.

In Ireland this week, that bastion of Roman Catholic morality, three court cases were reported in the daily papers that make the ongoing position of women all too plain.

One man got eight years in jail for the random rape and manslaughter of a young woman.

A second man, convicted of molesting his three teenage daughters for 11 years, was sentenced to five years in jail, one year of which was suspended.

In the third case, a grandfather and three of his sons beat a fourth son’s ex-partner with “a hammer, a hurly and batons.” Of this situation the judge declared it was a “sad, sad, sad tale to happen in modern Ireland where five men, led by the grandfather of the woman’s children, descend on a house in the middle of the night and assault a woman.” Then the judge sentenced the grandfather to a four year suspended sentence since the man intended to move from the area. His sons received three, two and one-year sentences, all of which were suspended.

From where I stand, I have to wonder how “sad” anybody really thinks it is when men kill, rape or beat a woman if eight years is the value they put on a woman’s life, if incest merits a slap on the wrist, if a woman can be beaten bloody by four men armed with clubs and pay no price for it whatsoever-- even now, even here.

So what must come first when we say what we want is real change: a change in the laws or a change in attitudes. The chicken or the egg?

Maybe we better all take that question more seriously now.

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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