Thumbs Down on Domestic Violence

I had blundered, bigtime. Speaking at an interfaith assembly, I had made the case that women’s welfare would improve much … Continued

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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  • Anonymous Coward

    Good show.The thing about terms like “Rule of Thumb” is that, even if their real origin is not the Commonly Accepted one, it still becomes a pejorative, if that is the Commonly Accepted definition. There are dozens of terms, including blatantly offensive ones, that can have “alternative meanings” or “different etymologies” assigned; usually by people who simply will not admit mistakes, or want to continue using the term.You are right to decide not to use it. I’ve blundered in similar manner dozens of times, and will, most assuredly, do so again.The issue is not never make a mistake; it is not to make the same mistake twice.

  • halozcel

    Equality,respect and kindness only and only possible in secular and contemporary state and mentality.

  • Athena

    Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have codified violence against women into their holy books. Judaism and Islam did so because they were conquering the Goddess-worshipping tribes around them. Christianity picked up the rampant sexism of Judaism as well as the Roman Empire as it gained popularity. Slavery is also codified into all three religions.

  • Chris Everett

    If you want to think of women as property, wh*res, gold diggers, slaves, temptresses and baby factories, then religion is for you, and domestic violence will not only be your right but your obligation.The religious mindset is one of totalitarian rule. It starts at the top, and as they say, sh– flows downhill. Religion puts the “rule” in rule of thumb.I recommend getting out from under the thumb of religious rule altogether. Let women be whoever they are. Let relationships be whatever they are, organically. Leave the rulers to the carpenters.

  • Kacoo

    Violence against women may be an ancient, dirty secret, but violence against men is as old and open and ancient as history itself. The entire history of the world depicts wars, battles, and genocide where men are killed savagely by each other. Afterward, whatever women, children, and elderly are left on the losing side are either slaughtered or become chattle property.Now this writer has a gripe about women being stuck with a stick no thicker than the diameter of a man’s thumb?Beam me up, Scottie.

  • Too Afriad

    “Rule of Thumb” Wikipedia (accessed on 04-05-2008 at 10:05 p.m.)”The earliest citation comes from Sir William Hope’s The Compleat Fencing-Master, second edition, 1692, page 157: “What he doth, he doth by rule of thumb, and not by art.”[3] The term is thought to originate with wood workers who used the length of their thumbs rather than rulers for measuring things.[4] ‘Our law, based upon the old English common-law doctrines, explicitly permitted wife-beating for correctional purposes. However … the common-law doctrine had been modified to allow the husband ‘the right to whip his wife, provided that he used a switch no bigger than his thumb’–a rule of thumb, so to speak.'”

  • George in Alaska

    Sad, sad, sadWhen an ancient alleged etymology for a word keeps you from using it, despite the fact that you know the context that YOU meant it, then I feel sorry for you. You will ever be changing your choice of words, looking over your shoulders and wondering who you have offended. We need to recognize that some may choose to take what we say in a way other than that in which it was obviously intended; do we let this totally alter our choice of words? Culturally, we need not be so thin skinned. We should be able to gently explain to those who are overly sensitive and move on from there. Don’t be so anal about being so PC; you’ll give yourself an ulcer over your next speech or the next word utter.