So far this year “only” 9 women have died in Spain at the hands of their partners, including one in my own town, Zafra. I say “only” for the figures are lower than the average 6 a month of the last few years. Still, it’s not even Spring yet so there is plenty of time to catch up with last year’s total of sixty-six women who died at the hands of their partners or ex-partners, or the seventy-eight in 2010. Terrible. But even so, Spain is still somewhat below the European average. It seems that this scourge is part of our humanity itself, rather than a peculiarly Spanish or macho Mediterranean characteristic. This is no surprise – in the garden of Eden man (as in the males of the species, not generic humanity) started to burden woman with the guilt of his own weaknesses and failures, and little seems to have changed since then.
Wherever you look you find the same thing. Each year between one and a half and three million women and girls lose their lives as victims of gender violence, to use the current politically correct terminology. Beyond femicide itself, fully a third of the women on this planet will experience physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. And this not just an issue in the developing world or Islamic nations: in the industrial countries of the world domestic and sexual aggression causes 19% of absence from work for women aged between 15 and 44.
Domestic violence is nothing but the visible tip of the iceberg of deeply rooted attitudes which govern the sociocultural construction of sexuality – in other words, what it means today to be a man or a woman, male or female. In this world, it is men who sit centre-stage, and women who are the “extras”, responsible for ensuring the smooth flow of life for men. A woman tends to be considered an object over which a man has a natural right. And when she ceases to live up to his expectations, more than one man turns to physical or psychological violence to get his own way with “the weaker sex”.
This tendency is by no means absent from the biblical record. The Bible does not just contain advice on how we should live, but also gives frighteningly honest descriptions of how people actually live, sometimes with precious little comment. The reports of the treatment received by Hagar, Tamar (both Judah’s daughter-in-law and Absalom’s sister of the same name) or Jephthah’s daughter, to name but a few, give mute testimony to the systemic abuse of women that plagues fallen humanity.
The attitude of the stereotypical Jew of Jesus’ day, who thanked God that he had not been born a woman, and who, in the eyes of one school of interpretation of the law at least, could send his wife away if she had burnt his dinner, was firmly and unequivocally rejected by Jesus. Jesus made clear to the Pharisees that Moses had permitted divorce because of the hardness of their masculine hearts. Who knows – without the get-out clause of separation more than one would have got rid of his wife by other means, so adding yet another name to the list of victims of “domestic terrorism”, as El País calls this act.
It is easy to criticize Judaism, the common scapegoat of European anti-Semitic thought, but the Church hardly has the best record either. With a few rare and brilliant exceptions Christendom has both perpetuated and propagated this collective discrimination of women. As a rule women are denied access to the structures of power from which edicts are issued about their condition and participation in Christian ministry. Let’s be honest – women are notable by their absence in the historical institutions of Christianity.
What about today’s churches? It really isn’t the moment to turn our gaze away as if it were only a problem that affects others. We mustn’t fool ourselves; this is about us too. We are born as sponges in a world that relegates women to the place of second class citizens. Since childhood we have drunk deeply from the fountain of thought which undergirds our society and collective history, and whose values impregnate our subconscious thought. Freedom from this burden does not come easily.
Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are crying out to God for his intervention to bring reform to these attitudes, the irruption of his kingdom amongst humanity so that we might live according to his purposes here too, just as in heaven. The mere fact of being a Christian thus implies two things: firstly, the search for a transformed society, not through the rule of law and the imposition of an external legal code, but through the renewal of the heart of each and every one of its members. Injustice invites Christians to roll their sleeves up and be seen, to be salt and light where these are most absent.
And in second place, it places our own lives sharply in focus; as the apostle Peter said, judgement begins with the house of God. Our prayers must find answer in our own daily individual and communal lives. The Lord Jesus’ attitudes, words and affirmative actions towards women still offer guidance today for those who have ears to hear. When the rabbis of his day espoused the idea that it was better to burn the words of Torah than to give them to a woman, who but Jesus would support Mary in her longing to be taught rather than to lock herself in the kitchen? Who but Jesus would provoke the incredulity even of his own disciples, over and above their racist prejudice against the Samaritans, when they found him talking with a woman? And who but Jesus would choose women – whose testimony was considered invalid in legal proceedings – as witnesses of his resurrection?
Respect cannot be taught from the pulpit. Our Christian communities must embrace an unconditional acceptance of the full participation of women in all aspects and at all levels of our activities, as well as initiating whatever institutional changes may be needed to guarantee this. In doing this, we will not just not be guilty of killing our own wives. Maybe in the long run we will help stop others from doing this too.
(Posted today, International Women’s Day, in honour of women everywhere.)