by Shalini Mulackal
(first posted June 2009)
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).
Not everything is good and life-enhancing for majority of Indian women. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is good to ponder: How far is the Indian Church aware of and is concerned about the situation of women in this country? How does the Church understand her mission today? What are the concrete ways in which the Indian Church- dioceses and parishes can help the Indian women battle discrimination and injustice?
1. Women’s situation
Indians on the whole give due emphasis to the feminine at the religious realm. The rivers in India are worshipped as goddesses. Majority of Indians are devotees of Goddesses- be it Lakshmi, Saraswati, or Parvati, – known as Durga, Kali, or Jai Santhoshi Ma in different parts of our country. For the Dalits, worship of Goddesses is of primary importance. For the Catholics, Mary’s shrine at Velankanni is an important pilgrim center. At the sociological level, women as mothers are shown great respect and love.
Besides having the first woman President now, India also had a woman Prime Minister. Women are found in all walks of life -as educators, scientists, bureaucrats, IAS officers, doctors, engineers, IT professionals, social activists, writers, artists, astronauts, and politicians. A few decades ago we would never have seen a woman working at a petrol/diesel pump, or as a bus conductor/driver, or driving a rickshaw, or officiating religious rituals. Among the Catholics, ninety four thousand women render their services as religious, often working in remote areas of our country in solidarity with those at the margins. The number of women getting formal training in theology, spirituality, and counselling is on the increase.
But a sizable number of women experience the ill-effects of poverty and hunger besides being subjected to physical, mental and psychological torture. Violence against women- rape, wife battering, molestation, incest, trafficking, and dowry deaths are on the increase. Every hour in India, two women are raped, two are kidnapped, four are molested and seven others face violence at the hands of their husbands. A total of 7,618 incidents of dowry deaths were reported in 2006. Amnesty International reported in 2001 on an “extremely high” number of sexual assaults on Dalit women.
The declining sex ratio is another major concern. In 2006 the ratio for girls and boys aged 0-6 stood at 918 girls to 1000 boys, compared with 927:1,000 in 2001. In villages like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, women are being sold as ‘wives’ for as little as Rs. 3000. In some villages in Punjab, all the men in the household have access to the same bought bride.
Various factors contribute towards the dehumanization of women. Some of these can be traced to socio-economic, religio-cultural, psycho-political spheres. Over and above, patriarchal values and attitudes seem to have penetrated deep into almost all structures and systems of our society. Since the oppression and discrimination of women are pluri-layered, a multi-pronged approach is necessary to restore the lost humanity of women.
2. Mission of the Church
There is a great emphasis today that mission is of God. This is well expressed in the mission of Jesus, who showed great concern to overcome evil in any form: pain, sickness, death, demon-procession, immorality, self-righteousness, maintaining of class privileges, exploitation of others, unjust social systems, and brokenness of human relationships. His dealings with women did not reflect the prevalent discriminatory and oppressive attitudes of the Jewish society. He treated them as persons with dignity and accepted them as his disciples and friends. He even allowed himself to be challenged by a woman (Mt 15: 21-28) and took initiative to enter into a theological discussion with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4: 4-42). He exposed the hypocrisy and the double standards practiced in the Jewish society against women as he handled the case of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8: 1-11).
The Church proclaims the definite manifestation of the reign of God in Jesus of Nazareth. As a community, the Church is called to collaborate in God’s mission for the world. Jesus’ mission so well expressed in Lk 4: 18-19, ‘freedom for those in bondage…release for the oppressed, reminds the Church of the urgency of women’s oppressive situation, in Church’s mission today. To be true to its call the Church needs to retrace the steps that Jesus took in his ministry. More than a hundred years ago, in Rerum Novaurm (1891) Leo XIII showed concern for the poor and the powerless by placing the Church on their side. John Paul II too, in his social teachings laid stress on the dignity and rights of the human person. In his opening address at the Puebla conference he spoke about the Church’s mission to defend and promote human dignity. In a situation where the human dignity of women is at stake in our country, the Church is called to defend and promote the dignity of women as an integral part of her mission.
3. Concrete Ways to Battle Discrimination and Promote Human dignity
The Indian Church has been responding to the oppressive situation of women in various ways in the past. Some of these include, setting up Mathruvedi or Mahila Sangh at diocese/parish level, initiating Self Help Groups (SHG), decision to celebrate September 8th as the Day of the Girl Child, and setting up the CBCI Commission for Women for creating awareness among women of their rights, dignity, and status. Initiatives of women religious in educating and empowering women in the city slums and in remote areas of our country are commendable. But although these welfare and developmental activities contribute to the empowerment of women, we need a more holistic approach which aims at transforming political, religious and socio-economic structures.
According to Genesis 1:27, man and woman are together made in the image and likeness of God and thus emphasizing their created equality. This created equality of man and woman has to be reflected in the male-female partnership in the family, in society and in the Church. The following are some of the ways the Church could initiate in order to enhance the male- female partnership and promote the dignity of women.
3.1 Organize gender sensitivity programmes
In India, both men and women are socialized in a patriarchal culture and have internalized many patriarchal attitudes and values which are discriminatory and oppressive. The Church could initiate actions towards changing society’s attitudes and helping women to make changes in the socialization process. The Church leadership could look into the possibility of making gender sensitivity programmes at all levels of formation, compulsory and a foundational course in all seminaries, religious formation centers and in Catholic educational institutions. There is also a need to re-design the seminary formation to enable seminarians to experience equal partnership with women working in the Church, one way being to include women as formators and professors in seminaries.
Another area that need special attention is Christian marriage. The Church could invest more in the training of couples for marriage. There is a need to take greater efforts to make men aware of the Church’s teaching regarding the complementarity of marital relationship, as well as the dignity of the woman. The mutual subjugation out of reverence for Christ has to be insisted upon. Fidelity in marital life should be demanded equally from the man and the woman.
3.2 Address the Issue of Violence
Extensive violence to women in the family and outside needs an urgent response. The Church could join hands with NGOs and women’s movements in resisting violence, lobbying for necessary legal reforms, and securing speedy justice for women. Support system could be worked out at the parish/diocesan level that gives short term shelter, legal help and counselling to survivors of violence, and divorced/separated women. Workshops could be organized to raise awareness among parents of incest and child sexual abuse. Women religious could think of moving into new ministries such as legal aid, shelters for battered women, counselling services, work among the prostitutes, rights of the girl child, advocacy on women issues etc. besides the traditional ministries.
3.3 Develop Women’s Collective Power
One of the best ways to resist violence against women and secure their rights is by building solidarity among women. The Church could make use of its infrastructure to organize women as a collective force wherever possible. In parishes BECs, Mahila Mandals or Legion of Mary are important instruments for raising consciousness, sharing stories, gaining support and building solidarity. Women could be helped to tap govt. resources like old age pension, pension for the widows, help for the handicapped etc. At a broader level, through the formation of Self Help Groups women could be encouraged to do cooperative farming, income generating activities such as weaving, poultry, piggery, etc. The possibility of net working with other women’s organizations to lobby with the government to enable women’s access to health care, quality education, employment opportunities, equal remuneration etc. could be taken seriously.
3.4 Build Women’s Self-Confidence
The patriarchal socialization process often results in girls/women developing a poor self image. Sometimes even educated women show lack of confidence and assertiveness. In addition, different religio-cultural myths created about women’s bodies have robbed women of their self-confidence, self-esteem and dignity. There is a need to counter such negative perception of women’s bodies. Celebrating important stages in a woman’s life, for instance, the onset of puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause through appropriate rituals and reflections in liturgy could be of great help. Women’s role as mothers and home makers is often taken for granted. Women need to feel affirmed in this great and noble task they undertake. Besides, the Church needs to affirm women working in SCCs and in other pastoral work and recognize their work as doing a ministry in the Church. Moreover, women could be part of Church administration that does not require ordination. Our educational institutions can also help to empower and encourage many more girls to be self-confident and enter various spheres of public life.
3.5 Encourage Women’s Theological Contribution
Women as co-creators with God are by and large left out of theological reflections. Developing women’s spirituality and theology is a very important aspect of women’s empowerment both in the Church and society. This will help in restoring women’s dignity. There is also a need to reflect theologically on women’s experiences of pregnancy, birth and nurturing children. Lay women in the Church need to be trained to articulate theology from their experiences. Theological formation therefore could be restructured, keeping this in mind. Making scholarships available, organizing vacation courses, part-time courses, and correspondence courses, in theology would enable women, especially lay women, to gain professional theological competence. Besides, there is a need to provide more opportunities for women to study and teach theology in seminaries and theological schools.
The situation of women in India is characterized by contradictions and ambiguities. On the one hand, the divine feminine is worshipped and women are given opportunities to grow into their full human potential and to contribute to the society. On the other hand, there is widespread violence and discriminatory practices against girls/women taking place in the society. The mission of the Church in furthering the reign of God is inclusive of promoting the dignity and upholding the full humanity of women. To accomplish this mission the Church needs to have a multi-pronged approach and initiate various measures to counter the anti-women prejudices operative both in the Church and in society, giving women the power to gain confidence and to take control of their lives so that they will not be vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation.