It is hard to read about the horrific plight of women in Syria these days. The news is spotty, sporadic and episodic. It’s easy to feel disconnected when the news comes to us like that. Women in Syria are unable to freely share their stories of rape and sexual abuse because the very people with whom they could share them have the power to enlarge the scope of their suffering and affliction. Women who have already suffered unspeakable horror risk being cast out or killed if they report what has happened to them. These women are vulnerable beyond imagining. There are credible reports coming out of Syria that women are being tied up in jail cells and raped – sometimes until they die. And yet, most of these women remain silent because they are afraid to speak. That is what is happening as the traditions of patriarchy and honour-shame culture collide with war.
Our introduction to the Taliban – a rigidly patriarchal religious sect – happened a few years ago. Who ever thought we would sit helplessly and watch a YouTube video of a young Iranian girl being publicly whipped by the men of her community? How can we find space inside of ourselves for both rage and impotence? For women in many parts of the world, there appears to be no hope of liberation from the shackles of the patriarchal traditions into which they are born. It isn’t just happening in other parts of the world. We are connected to the larger picture. In Canada there have been “honour killings” – fathers and brothers murdering daughters and sisters to restore family honour. We will not escape the consequences of injustice by smugly asserting that it can’t happen here.
In the convergence of patriarchal traditions, honour and shame culture and war, women become instruments of war. Women and girls are used to inflict shame and humiliation on a whole tribal, ethnic, political or religious group. A woman’s place in society, her value or lack of value, means that sexually compromising her leads to consequences that fundamentally affect her family and the broader circles of her society. In this convergence, women become very valuable for all the wrong reasons. They are weapons that are supplied by one’s enemies to be used against them. These women are not “second-class citizens.” They are completely instrumental objects in a world where ancient rules determine their worth or worthlessness.
As a woman, I am appalled and angered that such a thing can happen in the twenty-first century in any part of the world. Here in North America I demand reform of the practices of patriarchy in my society and in my Church. Is that a silly fight when compared to what these most vulnerable of women are experiencing? How can I dare to speak of the situation of women in the Roman Catholic Church as it compares to war-torn Syria? Here, we harangue the Church’s “officials” to acknowledge equal rights so that women can serve in every capacity to which they are called by God and neighbour. Still, Church officials insist that, by divine decree and example, certain roles and rights belong solely to men. That is the voice of those with power in the patriarchal system. Where are the voices of those with no power? They cannot be heard “officially.” They must speak their truth to power in appeals for justice that they hope will one day be acknowledged.
What connects my struggle to the pathetic situation of unprotected women in Syria and other war-torn parts of the world? I know that the connections are subtle. They are found, I believe, in the global injustice of continued commitment to ancient practices of patriarchy. They are found in a concerted resistance to reform in all of the places where these practices persist. We can’t give lip service to equality. We can’t just say that women are valued equally but differently than men. Practices speak louder than words. In any elitist patriarchal culture, women are different. Women are less.
Wherever patriarchy is practiced, its adherents participate in the same general problem that is evolving in different ways in different parts of the world.
The Roman Catholic Church will rightly officially condemn the degrading and deadly things happening to women all over the world. That is commendable and expected. By clinging to some ancient patriarchal ways of valuing women, however, two things become evident. First, the message that could be communicated – that women are of equal value and must come to enjoy the same rights of security of the person and realizable potential that men take for granted – cannot be convincingly communicated by those who refuse to fully actualize equal rights in their own system. Second, to resist giving up the extraordinary rights granted to men within a patriarchal system by arguing tradition and divine fiat, the Church inadvertently condones resistance to reform of patriarchal structures and practices in general. It shows that patriarchy, in some form at least, is here to stay.
Patriarchal privilege as it exists in the twenty-first century must be understood for what it is – a traditional culture that benefits some and burdens others. Patriarchal practices can effectively stall progress in the evolution of universal human rights. In a Church that truly needs to re-establish its credibility, actualizing universal human rights in its own institutions is both a great challenge and an opportunity. Tradition teaches us that the most challenging path is often the one that leads to hope and justice. Relinquishing the privileges of patriarchy and initiating reform in the Church will be leading by example. Such a commitment will ultimately allow the Catholic Church to speak credibly against the radical degradation of whole societies.