Feb 24 2009

CHALLENGING Androcentrism

CHALLENGING Androcentrism Published in Faith Initiative, Issue 20 © Annie Imbens-Fransen
When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the preamble recognised the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. Article 2.1 says: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” However, in June 1993 - 45 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the World Conference on Human Rights still needed to urge governments, institutions, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations to intensify their efforts for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and the girl-child. It took 45 years before the United Nations declared: “The human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.”[1] The third international meeting of the World March of Women in Montréal, Canada, was devoted to an analysis of the current situation of women around the world. Here delegates from Pakistan and the United States and a representative of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom were asked to give their opinion of the impact of the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. The World March of Women Newsletter reports: ‘They all expressed concern about escalating violence, the erosion of human rights and women’s rights, constantly raising religious fundamentalism and the daily tragedies of Afghan women and other victims of armed conflict. Each speaker spoke of the urgent need to join forces so that women’s voices are heard on the subject of building and preserving peace’. “The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is one of the fundamental Human Rights. It includes “freedom to change his religion and the freedom to manifest his religion, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, worship, and observance.”[2] Recognition of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as a fundamental human right implies that every man and woman has a responsibility to every person and to every community, religion and nation to respect this right in all others. Nobody has the right of imposing his/her beliefs on others, nor to force others to his/her beliefs. However, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is frequently abused and religiously motivated by patriarchal religious men to dominate women and girls and to deprive women of their human rights. Alhough the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam stress the importance of justice and truth, as well as love and respect for one’s neighbour it is important to realise that they have traditionally been dominated by patriarchal leaders, whose religious views reflect male-centred or androcentric perceptions of reality. The views and the spirituality in these religions are based on the experiences, problems, questions, feelings, insights, and interests of men and on men’s desires, fears, dreams, and fantasies. In the age-old practice of male domination in these world religions, men with such androcentric, patriarchal views consider themselves as superior to women. They claim exclusive authority to determine how God must be viewed; what is human, male, and female, and to identify God’s allocation of roles and responsibilities among men and women. Accordingly, women’s experiences and views on religion and spirituality are ignored and excluded from the discourse in androcentric religious and academic circuits. Liberating women - and men - from mainstream androcentric, patriarchal spirituality in male-dominated religions requires a greater understanding of its impact on women, children, and men, and a willingness to transform mainstream spirituality into a stimulating and creative force conducive to equality between women and men. In the 1980s – when teaching courses Reading the Bible through Women’s Eyes – women started telling me their stories about rape and incest. At first, I wondered about the subjects’ correlation with the contents of my lectures and courses, and the women’s reasons for sharing these experiences with me. Later on, I began to understand the connection between my approach to theological themes and these stories of sexually abused women. As a feminist theologian, I stimulated women to view reality and to interpret biblical texts from our own perspective and with our insights, based on our questions, experiences, feelings, interests, and desires. For the first time these women learned to interpret their experiences with sexual violence from their own perspective. They started to realize they had not brought the assault on themselves through tempting female behaviour – as the androcentric view alleges – but that they had been confronted with sexual violence because of male aggression toward women and children. Becoming aware of this fact changed the attitude of these survivors toward their experience with sexual violence: their silence, out of a sense of guilt imposed by others, made way for expression of the sense that they had been wronged. Hearing these women’s stories increased my awareness of the negative and harmful spiritual contents for women of mainstream androcentric spirituality, theology and religion. While sharing these stories with people from different religious and cultural traditions, women and men from all over the world started telling me stories about their own religious and cultural backgrounds. Exchanging our stories based on experiences from our different backgrounds has allowed us to identify basic themes in our assorted traditions. We recognised the oppression and neglect of women and our insights, feelings, and talents. Women and some men acknowledged the destructiveness of androcentric patriarchal thought processes and spirituality in their religions. They illustrated their views with stories and books they recommended or sent to me. This exchange convinced me that in all male-dominated religions, men use religion to affirm their power and control over women. The effect of this male religious and spiritual abuse of power over women is the neglect and mutilation of women’s and children’s minds, spirits and talents. The stories women and men have told me also contained inspiring elements, which taught me that every tradition has tales about wise, strong, and creative women. These stories also convinced me that much of this material, knowledge and insight has been covered up in the mainstream discourse and in the media. Underneath or beyond the dominant androcentric patriarchal view of spirituality lies the hidden spirituality of women and other outsiders. We can rediscover our underground spiritual heritage. We can share these gifts from our different traditions with others to stimulate each other in spiritual growth. Conversations with women have revealed that women know what is right and wrong about our religious and cultural traditions. We know that our traditions need to change to stop the world-wide phenomenon of mental, physical and sexual violence against women and children. We also have ideas, imaginations and knowledge regarding the transformations that are necessary for creating a world in which women are respected. And will acquire opportunities for using our talents to create a good life for all human beings. It is clear that the world-wide religiously motivated injustice and violence against women and girls will not stop so long as religious people ignore the aspects and texts in their religion that are oppressive for women and girls. Neither will this violence be stopped merely by quoting religious texts that respect women and girls, and their human rights. Instead, if we really want to create cultures of peace, justice and healing, we need to become aware of aspects, structures and texts in religious and spiritual traditions that may lead to religiously-motivated injustice and violence against women and girls. A few days ago, on October 27, it was reported in the media that Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow a 13-year old Somali girl, who told her father that she had been raped by three men, was accused of adultery and stoned to death by dozens of men in a stadium packed with 1.000 spectators: they said that they were carrying out this punishment “in the name of Allah”! The brutal killing of this 13-year old girl expresses the importance of addressing and stopping religious motivated violence against women and girls in our own religious and cultural community. We need to transform our religions into instruments of peace, justice and healing and to hear the voices of women speaking of their experience and their spirituality. Last September, I had the opportunity to participate on behalf of United Religions Initiative Europe in a United Nations conference to celebrate the 60th aniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While preparing my participation in the conference, I read in a Dutch newspaper that UN peacekeepers sexually abuse children. I was shocked and decided to address these crimes against children during the conference, which I did at a plenary session. The next day a male participant expressed his frustation about the worldwide violence against children and about the fact that no action was taken at this conference to help stop this violence. That afternoon I participated in a workshop about UN resolutions 1325[3] and 1820[4]. Resolution 1820 demands: ‘“immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians’. The Security Council expresses in this resolution its deep concern that, despite repeated condemnation, violence and sexual abuse of women and children trapped in war zones is not only continuing, but, in some cases, has become so widespread and systematic as to ‘reach appalling levels of brutality’. Near the end of this workshop an ambassador recommended to write an Open Letter to the UN Secretary General. We drafted the letter “Making Senior UN Leadership accountable for sexual abuse/exploitation by UN personnel in Peace Operations.” Marie-Liesse Mandula, Secretary General of the World Movement of Mothers took care that the UN Secretary General received these letters. Two days ago I received an e-mail from Marie-Liesse Mandula. She wrote that as of that date copies of the letter have been signed by 180 international non-governmental organisations and 84 public figures, including academics, writers, government officials, peace advocates, human rights activists, and former U.N. officials and forwarded to the UN Secretary General. If you would like to support this letter, please send an e-mail to my address [email protected] Annie Imbens-Fransen, Coordinator United Religions Initiative Council for Women Member URI Europe Executive Committee. [1] The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at Vienna, June 1993. Part 1, paragraph 18. [2] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18. [3] Adopted October 31, 2000. This resolution reaffirmed “the need to implement fully international humanitarian and human rights law that protects the rights of women and girls during and after conflicts”. [4] Unanimously adopted June 2008 by the UN Security Council.

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