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Justice and Women

2010 August 18

We live in a world full of pain and injustice; there is no getting around that fact. We can hide from the truth or try to protect ourselves from reality, but just because we don’t want to know about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t still exist. Our world does its best to hide its dark side from consumer eyes and our school boards do their best to hide most of history from our children. It takes work to keep our eyes open wide enough to see reality. Thankfully, there are people out there who do try to be informed, who try to end injustice, to heal past wounds, and to make amends. Yet recently, as I was reading Eduardo Galeano’s classic book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent, I came across an almost casually mentioned atrocity that jolted me with the reminder that even for the people who are out there actively seeking to fight injustice, there remains one injustice that many would prefer to continue to ignore – the oppression of women. Across the world it is women who often face the worst injustices and yet are often brushed aside as not important enough to seek justice for.

In writing about how the sugar cane industry has destroyed the land and economies of many Latin American countries and led to numerous human rights abuses, Galeano mentioned that in certain plantations in Brazil (at least as of his writing) it was common practice for the plantation owners to claim jus primae noctis, or, right of the first night with the daughters of their workers. Most commonly known to us from the movie Braveheart this is a medieval custom giving to the Lord of an area the right to the virgin night of all the women he ruled. Although in Medieval times the actual consummation was rarely if ever practiced as many families chose the option of “giving” the Lord the bride’s dowry instead (what the Lord was after anyway), Galeano reports that on the plantations the owners would demand the right to have their way with their workers’ 11-12 year old daughters in exchange for the worker remaining in their employment.

Reading that affected me in a visceral way. In the midst of a litany of oppression, I was reminded that women truly bear the brunt of injustice worldwide. Their bodies are chattel, they aren’t deemed worthy of education, and they are fed leftovers if they get food at all. Because they are women their oppression is magnified. Not only must they endure the poverty and the colonialism, but also the objectification of their bodies and the required subjugation of their wills. When voices for liberation or revolution arise the women are called upon to endure hardships and make sacrifices, but it is never their liberation that is fought for. The few that call out for women’s needs to be addressed and for liberation to come to women are told that in light of the greater injustices and oppression that their cause is just a selfish distraction. I hear it all the time in the church – there are just too many more important things to spend energy on than trying to bring justice to women. We aren’t even worth the effort of those that make it a point to care about injustice and the oppressed.

Feminist postcolonial theologians are quick to point out this imbalance. They ask how can we say that we truly desire liberation if in achieving that liberation women still remain oppressed? They repeatedly insist that equality and respect for women should never be an afterthought to be sought sometime after the real work of combating injustice is done, but an instead should be at the very foundation of what it means to seek liberation itself. Nations and races cannot ever fully work for reconciliation and mutual respect if those nations are built upon oppression from within. But sadly, theirs are not the voices that are commonly heard.

In reading non-Western theologies recently (both postcolonial and evangelical), I have in fact encountered the very opposite. Men, who write on combating injustice and prejudice by calling the church to learn from say Korean or First Nation theologies and church practices, insist upon, as part of that process, an affirmation of gender roles that give men a strong (and sole) leadership role in the home, the community, and the church. They see a firm affirmation of this hierarchy of men over women to be integral to ending race divisions in the church itself. So not only are the needs of women ignored, healing and justice are proposed through the continued oppression and sacrifice of women.

Injustice and oppression make me sick and prompt feelings of rage inside of me. But reading about these young girls being raped as pawns in the never-ending cycle of colonial and commercial oppression left me feeling raw. This isn’t just about greed and economics. It isn’t just about racism and power-plays. It’s rooted in a subjugation of women that denies our worth and turns us into mere objects for men to use as they see fit. Most of the Western world hides behind their ignorance of history and injustice (often willfully sought) as an excuse to uphold the status quo. But when even those who claim to care about justice say that speaking out of behalf of women isn’t worth the effort I can barely respond. How can justice be justice if it is only for men?


13 Responses leave one →
  1. August 18, 2010

    Sometimes, in my last shall be first daydreams, I wonder about this scenario … if the last were truly first, and men could put down their own dreams for a time and fight for justice for women first maybe all the other issues would sort themselves out. Sometimes I think that really all the problems stem from that one problem.

    I know that now I’ll be branded a violent horrible awful feminist … but really, when you think about it … many of the great injustices of the world are caused because we only have the male side of things represented and the female side is completely silent. What would things look like if we were able to hear the full unfettered voice of the feminine speak in concert with that of our masculine brothers?

    Well … that’s my dream.

  2. Jennifer permalink
    August 18, 2010

    I think there are many voices out there, Julie, passionate ones calling for an ending of the oppression of women. Have you read Kristof’s book “Half the Sky?” Very powerful.
    And there are steps being taken where I live to end the trafficking of women.

    All is not bleak. All is not silent. Yes, there is a long, long road to go, but don’t miss the glimmers of hope.

  3. August 18, 2010

    ” I hear it all the time in the church – there are just too many more important things to spend energy on than trying to bring justice to women.”

    I’ve heard similar arguments in other circles. It’s not just the church (although it does seem to be more prevalent there).

  4. August 18, 2010

    Jennifer – I hear ya. There are some fantastic glimmers of hope out there. It just breaks my heart to hear people speak of justice and in the same breath deny justice to women.

  5. August 18, 2010

    Thanks so much for this. It also breaks my heart. We need far more theological reflection on gender oppression. How can justice be justice if only for men, indeed.

    By the way, the quote from Eowyn in Tolkien on the top of your page is my favorite!!!

  6. August 18, 2010

    Wow really great thoughts here Julie. This has me thinking about how in church circles I have personally been made to feel as though I am the one with the problem when voicing concern for the lack of female voice. Like it’s not really that important of an issue. The message I have directly and indirectly received is “just love and support your leaders (all the time being male) and it will all work out fine.

    “Nations and races cannot ever fully work for reconciliation and mutual respect if those nations are built upon oppression from within.”

    I’m not sure that the irony is even seen by the vast majority of male leaders working for justice.

    Thank you for being someone who writes with passion and wisdom.

  7. Linda permalink
    August 18, 2010

    Yes, women bear the brunt of injustice worldwide. Yes, women lack power. Yes, the problem is so deeply rooted in culture, history and a status quo mindset that willful blindness prevails.
    But, if women look to men to give them power, they will forever be without the very power they seek.
    “Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.” Gloria Steinam said it.
    If women lift each other up and bring about the changes they want to see in the world, they will find themselves empowered.
    I’ve just subscribed and I’m enjoying the conversation you evoke. Thanks!

  8. Emily permalink
    August 18, 2010

    “Nations and races cannot ever fully work for reconciliation and mutual respect if those nations are built upon oppression from within. ”

    You’ve hit upon one of the biggest frustrations I’ve had over the years as I’ve engaged in racial and ethnic reconciliation in the church. It’s baffled me to no end that people can articulate the imperative for racial and ethnic justice and have no problem with the oppression of women around the world and in their own church.

  9. August 19, 2010

    Thanks for your thoughtful and heart-searingly true post, Julie. I agree with Linda – ie that somehow women have to learn how to stand up for human rights. In reading about the sufragette movement recently it struck me all over again how fortunate we are in the west. But the problem of how to encourage our sisters worldwide is huge. How can we help? One way is in fighting for education and standing by those who seek to ensure it exists for all. The fight is by no means over – especially not in the church worldwide.

  10. Mary Pace permalink
    August 19, 2010

    Thank you so much for your post today. I found it through a friend. You speak eloquently and powerfully about the historical and ongoing attitudes that continue to oppress women. I look forward to reading more.

  11. John permalink
    August 20, 2010

    But that process of systematic pillage and cruelty is still occurring on a global scale.

    It is described in great detail in The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein and in the multiple references to be found on this site:

    Plus this reference too (note the very popular film that provides the template for this essay):

  12. August 23, 2010

    Saw this on Indexed ( this morning, and immediately thought of your post:

  13. September 1, 2011

    Just took a peek in my Google Reader and this article called for my attention!

    Using words like injustice and oppression in regard to women and the world of church makes many folks uncomfortable, especially women. It is difficult for many of our sisters to acknowledge that if their faith communities ban them from certain positions of service or limit their voice because of their gender that it can be construed as misogynistic. In writing about these things for my first book project I’ve come to describe it as a polite oppression, a form of injustice that when compared with atrocities like child rape as you describe make women of faith appear petty and nit picky in challenging patriarchal systems.

    “It’s a non-essential,” say many in attempts to diffuse any pending revolutionary gestures.

    But like you, I’ve come to realize that I Am Not a Non-Essential. Women everywhere are meant to fully realize their God-breathed personhood and not be denied the justice of Being Who and How They Are.

    The Church ought to radically lead in this, and yet ironically we are the force that maintains and defends such injustice in the name of all that is holy. And that is why I am outraged at the absurdity of Christianized sexism….and at the effed-upness for the crime of being born a girl in cultures around the world.

    (Have you heard of the upcoming documentary, It’s a Girl : The Three Deadliest Words in the World? Youtube it…….)

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