On men and women
An obscure Italian priest recently caused international headlines – and a repudiating response from the Vatican – when he attributed the abuse of women to their self-sufficiency, the way they dress, poor housekeeping and so on.
Fr Perio Corsi of San Terenzo made his comment in the face of rising figures in domestic abuse in Europe. Last year the United Nations Human Rights Council urged Italy and other countries to take action against domestic abuse.
The Vatican responded swiftly. “There is widespread, often dramatic violence against women and you cannot think at all that it’s the fault of women themselves,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Family, told Vatican Radio.
In South Africa we are familiar with entrenched abuse of and discrimination against women. Sexual violence pervades our society, and the Traditional Courts Bill threatens to compromise the rights of women.
A view has taken hold, one on which Fr Corsi’s comments feed, that some men are driven to violence because they feel emasculated by the greater rights and protection given to women, and by women insisting on and exercising their liberty.
It may well be that this is so – even if one disregards a much longer history of violent subjugation of women – but the answer does not reside in blaming women’s rights for this.
What needs to be addressed is the false expectation that men should dominate women.
Pope John Paul II was a fierce critic of gender discrimination. In his letter to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 he even apologised for all that Catholics had done to perpetuate that injustice.
In his letter, he noted: “Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women.
“Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude.
“This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.”
Pope John Paul continued: “There is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic state. This is a matter of justice but also of necessity.”
And on sexual violence, the pope wrote: “The time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence.”
Issues of domestic and sexual violence against women, or their continued discrimination, therefore are addressed not only by calling on men who engage in such behaviour to modify their views and behaviour. Men will have to relinquish their monopoly of social domination to co-exist as social equals.
It is here where social guidance is necessary. Religious bodies that subscribe to the philosophy of gender complementarity – the idea that men and women are different but equal—have a crucial role to play in this.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, in his Southern Cross columns over the past few months, has stated the case for a ministry directed specifically at men.
Such a ministry would serve to help men adapt to new social realities, not to react against them. The cardinal sees such a ministry, rooted firmly in the Gospel, as “a space where they can help each other to understand what has happened to them, what they can and must do to rediscover meaning and purpose in life”.
Such a ministry will also need to address appropriate responses to perceived provocation. There never is a reason to assault a woman for exercising her rights, for expressing her views (regardless of the manner in which she might do so), for failing to perform domestic chores, for being sexually unavailable or for the way she dresses.
Let the words of Nelson Mandela be imprinted on our collective mind: “For every woman and girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity.”