|"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 Marys heart. This Lent I
heard that same kind of pain a hundred times from other women who are also
watching everything theyve 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 Womens 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
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
After the overthrow of the tyrant, a doctor said,
shortages of fuel, medicine, and food got even worse than
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
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
- 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 thats 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 womens 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.
Its a very neat political trick. On the one hand, the Constitution
looks like its 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
womans sect or religion rather than the federal laws of the land.
Its 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.
Someones -- anyones -- 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 televisions
Meet the Press public affairs program. The program aired Sunday,
April 16 at 10 a.m. (eastern time). The Meet the Press Web
carries a video and written transcript of the program.
Editors Note: From Where I Stand is normally
Thursday afternoons, but Sr. Joan Chittisters heavier than usual
schedule of speaking engagements in April has disrupted our posting routines.
We are sorry for the delays and ask your patience.]
Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister,
c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.
To receive an e-mail alerting you to when Joan Chittister's latest column has been posted to NCRonline.org, visit
the following Web page and follow instructions: http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/fwis/signup.php
Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic
Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.