I had blundered, bigtime.
Speaking at an interfaith assembly, I had made the case that women’s welfare would improve much faster if more women were in decision-making positions. A “rule of thumb,” I said, should be 30 percent women among leaders of any institution. With less than that, women are too often fighting tokenism. When the numbers of men and women are balanced, agendas and tone change.
Two women pastors, quite independently, drew me aside right afterwards. The term “rule of thumb”, they told me, came from an ancient common law that limited the size of the switch a man could use to beat his wife: no larger than the diameter of his thumb. Since I was arguing for religious leaders to take action against domestic violence, my use of the phrase was particularly jarring.
Violence against women is an ancient dirty secret. It has occurred in all societies. Worldwide, it is thought, one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Most abusers are members of her own family. It is a major public health concern, in countries everywhere.
With a torrent of evidence, personal stories and weighty global reports, we might expect a torrent of action–with religious leaders at the forefront.
But domestic abuse rarely even makes it into the sermon, much less the action agenda. Sadly, many religious leaders tolerate abuse as part of the natural order or are so uncomfortable about it that they avoid discussing it. Some even cite scripture as suggesting that domestic violence is God’s will, and seek to justify it: “Surely, the women must have deserved it?” “There are different kinds of abuse. Women are violent with speech, men with hands.”
If there is one global issue that should bring religious communities together, it is surely domestic abuse. It is widespread, it shatters families, it is wrong. Acting on this issue can show what gender equality really means.
Embarrassed about my blunder, I consulted Google about the rule of thumb. I learned that I was in plenty of company, much of it good – for example the columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has written powerfully against gender violence, has used it too. And scholars think the phrase probably did not originate with wife beating at all, but with an ancient carpenter’s measure. But I, for one, will not use it again.
When religious leaders gather at the Washington National Cathedral on April 13-14 for the Breakthrough Summit, to talk about ending poverty through the power of women, faith and development, I hope they make a strong commitment to tackle the ancient dirty practice. So: thumbs down for domestic violence, and thumbs up for equality, respect, and kindness.
By Katherine Marshall |
March 26, 2008; 9:35 AM ET
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