Saturday, October 6, 2012

Empowering Women: An Interfaith Challenge


In the past couple of weeks, two different incidents of cyber-bullying of women have garnered media attention.  On September 25 the Huffington Post reported on a post made to Reddit, a social media site, of a photograph of a young Sikh college student snapped by a man in an airport security line.  Balpreet Kaur, a sophomore at Ohio State University is a baptized and practicing Sikh and therefore does not cut her hair, in accordance with her religious tradition.  She has an unusual amount of facial hair for a woman, and the person who posted the photograph was clearly poking fun at her untraditional and “unfeminine” appearance.  The post-er thought he was being funny.  The post went viral, and when Balpreet learned about it from a friend, she responded with grace and dignity.  In her response to her critic on the Reddit site she wrote,  "When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can." Balpreet is studying to be a neurosurgeon.

This week, Jennifer Livingston, news anchor for WKBT television in Wisconsin received an e-mail from one Kenneth Krause accusing her of being an inappropriate role model for young children because she is overweight.  Livingston, after speaking with her husband and her superiors at the news station, responded to her critic publicly, on the air, in a dignified and strongly worded rebuttal.  “I’m much more than a number on a scale,” she said, and she took her critic to task for his mean and uncompassionate attack on her based upon her appearance.  Her response to this bully provided a role model for girls everywhere, as Livingston refused to retreat in abject humiliation at an attack on her personal appearance, an attack that likely would not have been leveled at a male news anchor who was similarly overweight.

Then tragically, in our Rochester community, everyone was shocked and traumatized by the tragic death last Saturday evening (9/29/2012) of a Brockport College freshman, an 18 year old swim team member, just weeks into her college career, at the hands of her 21 year old boyfriend, in what is apparently a case of domestic violence turned lethal.

All of these incidents serve as reminders that despite years of progress, in terms of feminism and “women’s rights,” women still live in a world where their bodies are considered fair game for ridicule, and even for physical violence.   These incidents happened to hit the prime time news just as PBS was airing a stunning four hour documentary, “Half The Sky” produced by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn based upon their book by that name, in which they chronicle the oppression of women in various places throughout the world, including Somaliland, Kenya, India, and Cambodia. It is still the case in far too many places in the world that women are disposable, and their bodies are considered property of their male relatives, or, in the case of sex trafficking, those who “own” them and sell their bodies for profit.  And all too often, religious beliefs are offered as a rationale for treating women in these destructive ways.

Interfaith dialogue on issues affecting women tends to be done tentatively and infrequently. When such conversations do occur, they are often dubbed “Women’s Interfaith Dialogue” and relegated to the background, given less publicity and often undertaken primarily by women, as if men have little interest in addressing the global consequences of the oppression of women. It remains true that religious institutions are often the locus of considerable dis-empowerment of women if not outright oppression.  In many traditions women cannot assume religious leadership roles and their voices are relegated to those issues considered appropriate for women, which usually don’t include substantive religious or theological discussions. And sadly, in too many religious traditions, tenets of the faith or snippets of the tradition’s holy writ are used as justification for violence against women. Or, as is the case with Roman Catholic women’s religious orders in the United States today, women who do take an active and vocal role in the life of their religious tradition come under considerable scrutiny and harassment simply for doing the good work their religious faith calls them to do, often work that the high powered men in the tradition wouldn’t deign to do. 

The time has come for the interfaith movement to commit to serious conversation and advocacy for the empowerment of women.   Women continue to be bullied and oppressed in ways great and small throughout the world, often in the name of religion.  The great religious traditions of the world offer much wisdom and support for the empowerment of women but that wisdom all too often remains hidden and untapped. The empowerment of women and girls is an important humanitarian issue, not merely a “women’s issue.”  When women and girls receive education and health care and are equipped to earn a living to support themselves and their families, whole villages and communities see a rise in their standard of living.  When college campuses become safe places where women can receive the education they need to move into promising careers without having to contend with worries about date rape, domestic violence or bullying about their physical appearance, everyone will benefit.  Balpreet Kaur, a young woman, a college sophomore and a religious Sikh, acting out of her own religious beliefs and commitments, is a role model for college students everywhere and especially those of us committed to interfaith dialogue.  After the bullying incident last week, she wrote of her own commitment to interfaith engagement:

I started wearing my heart on my sleeve and seeing every stare as a chance for dialogue and friendship. I began to firmly believe in the power of the spoken and written word. I finally began to realize that I had to take charge of my own narrative; if I didn't, then that ignorance I saw in people's eyes would never change into knowledge. That's what it means to be a Sikh and an interfaith leader.
I hope my story inspires people to learn more not only about the Sikh tradition, but also about what it is in their own faith or philosophy that would inspire them to respond to moments of nastiness with grace. I also hope my story inspires people to become interfaith leaders themselves…Together we are better, together we can overcome prejudice, and together we can make interfaith cooperation a social norm. (Balpreet Kaur, Huffington Post Blog, 10/5/2012)

And together, as interfaith leaders we must address pressing issues for women and girls, everything from date rape and domestic violence on college campuses, to cyber-bullying, to sex trafficking and modern day slavery, to issues of equal opportunity in the workplace and civil society.   At the University of Rochester our motto is “Meliora” – Ever Better.  As interfaith leaders we must commit to making the world in which our women and girls live “ever better” in order to make our entire community “ever better.”   

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