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Alison L. Boden

Dean of the Chapel, Princeton University, USA

I want to begin by extending my profoundest thanks to the Community of Sant ‘Egidio for bringing us all together in Tirana, for engaging us in recommitting ourselves to being peacemakers through our religious communities, and for this opportunity for me to speak to you today.

The “location” of religion, if you will, can be in various places when we think of religion and violence.  Sometimes religious communities are the perpetrators of violence; amongst the people in the communities where I live and work in the United States this is often the first assumption:  if we are talking about religion and violence it is the religious actors who are creating the violence.  This view is held mostly by people who are not religious, and the stereotype frustrates me greatly!  Religious communities can also be the victims of violence, violence perpetrated by secular actors, the state (which may or may not be secular), or another religious community.  As we in this room may know better than anyone, religions may be in a third “location” in relation to violence, which is as the agent of peacemaking and reconciliation – the actors who are taking bold steps to end violence, wherever and however it may occur.  We live out the truest principles of our faith, I believe, when serve as faith-inspired peacemakers.

I would like to focus on a fourth “location” of violence in my remarks today – the violence that religious communities do to their own members, particularly to the women among them.  I will admit that I hesitate to speak about women because I am one, and I want to resist any possible suggestion that women can only talk about their own issues.  I do have significant experience of the intersection of religion and inter-communal violence in the United States, Tibet, Guatemala, Burma, and elsewhere.  But religiously supported violence against women is a tremendous problem in every society and faith community.  It really does affect us all – children, women and men.  Violence is contrary to the teachings of every one of our traditions, including violence against women, yet it is perpetrated everywhere with religious support.  If it is going to be stopped, the effort will need to be led by religious leaders like all of us – people who have the religious authority and knowledge to challenge readings of sacred texts that are used to support violence, to challenge violent practices and traditions that are said to be historic, genuine to our faith’s ethics, pleasing to the divine, or simply “just the way things are.”

What am I speaking of when I refer to violence against women?  Certainly I mean physical beatings at home, or by those persons anywhere who are most closely related to women.  I also mean psychological, spiritual and emotional violence –using demeaning words and concepts to wound, to subjugate, to oppress, to silence, using religious phrases and sayings to tell women that they are worthless.   I mean early marriage, when too-young women are required to become mothers before their bodies can sustain the impact or nurture a baby that will not have lifelong health problems.  I mean so-called “female circumcision,” which leaves many women with lifelong emotional and physical distress.  I mean giving women and girls fewer calories than males so that the males thrive literally at the physical expense of women.  I mean giving females less education than males.  I mean the termination of female fetuses.  I mean religious personal status laws on divorce or inheritance or custody of children that lock women into violent relationships.  I mean any justification for maiming or killing a woman.  At their source, many instances of violence against women really boil down to attempts to restrict their sexual autonomy, and to restrict other men’s sexual access to the women to whom they are related. 

And at its source, one of the biggest supports for violence against women is theological – it is the deep beliefs we are taught about how to value women and how to value men.  We harm those things and people that we do not value – we harm the earth if we do not value it; we harm neighbors if we do not value them equally with ourselves.  There are communities within each of our traditions (and there is a wide spectrum of beliefs within all of them!) that say women and men are of equal value, but they do not mean it.  When pressed, they say that women and men are of equal spiritual value, but that biological and temperamental differences between them mean that women and men are suited for different purposes in life.  In practice, this becomes a deep division in understanding the value of men and women, and women are then seen as inferior.

I’ve had the deeply frustrating experience – and maybe you have too – of speaking about religiously supported violence against women with a religious leader, only to have him respond, “Some people don’t know what is good for them.”  It’s the profoundest proof of the religious justification for the violence – the assertion that some human beings who are asking to be free of violence must subordinate their own needs for a healthy and sacred life to the wishes of religious leaders who supposedly know better than they do.  We who are in religious leadership must be so careful to prayerfully extricate our own desires for power over other people from those other persons’ righteous calls for justice.  We must always ask ourselves what truly comprises harm – is it more autonomy for women, or is it the perpetuation of violence against them?

Let me speak more directly from my own context about ways in which religious actors perpetuate violence against women.  Not too long ago I served on the board of a shelter for women and children who were seeking safety from violent husbands.  One woman told me that she went to her pastor and told him that her husband was beating her, and the pastor told her that this could not be true, because her husband is “a leader in the church.”  He then said, “And if it is happening, you must deserve it, because your husband is a good man.”  What a terrible justification of her husband’s violence, and what a tragic abandonment by the pastor of his duty to help that woman and to teach her husband the true practices of his faith!

Another example, one that gives me hope, and a possible model for all of us who want to combat religiously supported violence against women, comes from New York City, not far from where I live.  In that global city, an interfaith organization has been working with all of our religious communities – congregations, mosques, temples, shrines, everyone – to engage religious leaders in combatting violence against women.  When they began their work, each of those men said that violence against women was not a problem in their community.  None of them wanted to look bad.  Eventually, a brave imam came back to the organizers and said, “Actually, this is a big problem in my community, and another woman came to talk to me about it this week, and I really want help dealing with it.”  Thanks to his example, the leaders of the other communities eventually came forward as shared the same story.  Together they shared their strategies, starting with the different theological approaches they were taking to address the violence.  Not just within their traditions but across them they shared textual interpretations, historical interpretations, cultural interpretations.  Priests learned from other priests, but also from imams and rabbis and pandits; everyone learned from everyone.  Together they are proactively addressing violence against women in their communities, but just as wonderfully, their admission that such violence was a challenge for them became the key organizing opportunity for them to build interfaith relationships.  They were brought together for a relationship that had never existed before not by something happy and proud but something they wanted to keep hidden.  We share a lot of the same joys, but we also share a lot of the same problems, and we can grow in our partnerships by addressing them together. 

We are the people – the religious leaders -- who interpret texts and teach the ethics of our traditions.  We need to work together to end the violence that happens not “out there” but in the most private and sacred places of our lives.