In the same way that slavery was a moral challenge for the 19th c. & totalitarianism was a challenge for the 20th c., the challenge that women & girls face around the world is the moral challenge of our time.

~ Sheryl WuDunn & Nicholas Kristof

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Confronting tensions, real & imagined, & realizing potentials. By Katherine Marshall

Katherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center's program on Religion and Global Development. After a long career in the development field, including several leadership positions at the World Bank, Marshall moved to Georgetown in 2006, where she also serves as a Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Over my lifetime (certainly not just my career) the causes of social justice and our responsibilities to act to serve them have taken on growing importance for me. More and more, I see relationships between women and men as vital. Now a visiting professor at Georgetown University and leader of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, a tiny but dynamic NGO, the bulk of my working life was spent at the World Bank, always in front line operations centered on on Africa, Latin America, and East Asia and pushing boundaries for women as a leader. For over a decade my focus has been faith and development: what does religion have to do with the challenges and what does that mean for action?  At this intersection no issue is as important as relationships between women and men.

Let me begin with an odd parallel. I hope that it will begin a conversation that we can continue.

My international development career began at a time when relationships between women and men were pretty clearly defined: the World Bank I first encountered in 1968 employed men and women but the men were at the top, the women secretaries or poorly paid research assistants. It was a man’s world. The times were changing. An international organization like the World Bank buffeted laggeda bit behind but nonetheless was changing also, so a young idealist like me found a somewhat uneasy welcome. There were rules that now seem hilarious on skirt length, and far more important doubts as to whether a woman could travel to far off places or be trusted to speak to a senior government official.

Feisty people, almost all women, challenged these patterns and gradually change came. A few women like me broke through break glass ceilings. The willful ignoring of the complex roles that women played in social change gave way to rather timid exploration.

In those early discussions the tone of discussions about women’s issues was qualitatively different from those on other development topics (say livestock strategies, railway car procurement). Voice tones changed. Men shied away from discussions unless someone very senior compelled them to participate. Over time we saw dramatic change and today no self-respecting development specialist would gainsay the assumption that women’s roles must be examined and that gender equality is a sine qua non for a just and successful society. Whether they act sincerely and effectively on these assumptions is a topic for another day.

Around 1999 a new topic entered World Bank discussions: religion and faith. As the World Bank’s president, James D. Wolfensohn, presented the case, it seemed obvious: most people in the world are motivated by religion and religious institutions have an ancient history on virtually any development topic. But the worlds were far apart, as far apart and alien as women and development seemed in the early explorations. It was a rocky start, still painful and rarely given priority. Slowly, very slowly, the worlds are finding ways to move ahead. But it’s an astonishingly difficult journey.

The odd parallel is that both topics, gender and development, evoke strong emotional reactions that often derail honest, productive discussion and analysis. It’s important to explore why. And, if my hypothesis is correct, the reasons relate not only to the nature of the very topics, gender and religion, taken separately, but to the ways in which they are related.

People care deeply about relationships between women and men. It affects everyone, in their lives each day, from the moment they wake up until they fall asleep. It’s about how they live, how their family functions, who they love and how, who they fight with, what they honor, and what they disdain. Most people come to these relationships with inherited assumptions and rules and these often have roots, complex but deep, in their religious beliefs and training.

Equality and equity between men and women (not the same thing but a topic for another day) is no simple matter. It is truly revolutionary. To my mind nothing is more powerful than an equal partnership of love and respect but for many a more traditional ordering or relationships is a desirable norm, even if that’s not admitted. Such debates are rarely joined but they are critical to the concerns of this Liberty Bell conversation.

My own conclusion is that no topic is as important, both for development and for religion, as relations between women and men. It’s about daily life (food and laundry) but also about the most fundamental core of life philosophies. What do love, respect, freedom, and justice mean, as lived in every day life as well as for societies? Love thy neighbor as thyself: what does that mean within a family? A community? If a girl is blocked in her dreams, told she can only follow certain paths, must obey and not lead, what does that mean for human freedom and the right to dignity, even to life?

Equality is not easy. It means huge change that touches every aspect of life. It’s perhaps the only thing that affects everyone, every human being. We need to recognize this and talk about the real challenges that are involved because they demand honesty and a willingness to confront sensitive topics and nagging worries. We need the probing insights of all disciplines, theology included but also economics, psychology, and engineering. The conversation about women and religious traditions, for example patriarchal traditions, teachings about families, about caring, sexuality, joy, cultural similarities and differences, all need more focus.

Topping the lists of topics to tackle for me are the horrors of domestic violence, investing in young children, and hearing women’s voices loud and clear in every setting, from peace negotiations to divorce law. But that’s only a start. Every issue we face has a dimension of faith and religion. And every topic has a gender dimension. As we explore the intersections we can move far ahead with fresh insights and wisdom. If we bury the issues or fall for simplistic or rhetorical formulas we may find ourselves stuck in a bog.

To be continued.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Katherine! We look forward to hearing more of your wise words on gender equality. You have walked the walk!