Category Archives: Religion

Two Nobel Prizes, 65 Million Girls Absent from School

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, shared by deserving recipients Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, shines important light on the children of impoverished countries. Through their work on behalf of children’s rights we are reminded of the urgency of now when it comes to girls’ education and to child exploitation for financial gain.

Significantly, the award came as the United Nations marked the International Day of the Girl Child, a day to promote girls’ human rights and to highlight gender inequalities that still lead to various forms of discrimination and abuse suffered by a huge number of the world’s girls. That is not to diminish the painful lives boys lead in many corners of the world. But the issue of girls’ education that Malala speaks to is so critical to a country, a community, a family, a girl, a woman, and her own children that it deserves the special attention a 17-year old activist – the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – has brought to light.

“Extremists have shown what frightens them most,” Malala has said. “It’ a girl with a book.” She is hardly exaggerating. Just think how ISIS and the Taliban and Boka Haram confine females to sexual slavery by way of faux marriages.

Sadly, history is replete with unnamed multitudes of women denied an education. In medieval times, for instance, women who were unmarriageable or considered unruly were shunted off to convents. But there they found a haven free from subservience and perpetual childbearing, a place where they could read, write, discuss ideas – until the men in power realized how dangerous that was, and banned them from such activities in favor of religious devotion and endless embroidery.

Yet, here’s what we know about the value of girls’ education: It is central to a country’s development and improvement. It leads the way out of poverty. And it has a direct, proven impact on child and reproductive health, economic growth, environmental sustainability, national productivity, innovation, democratic values, and social cohesion.

In the World Bank’s new report, Voice and Agency: Empowering Women and Girls for Shared Prosperity, key findings include that “girls with little or no education are far more likely to be married [off] as children, suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own healthcare than better-educated peers; and enhanced education – the ability to make decisions and act on them – is a key reason why children of better educated women are less likely to be stunted; educated mothers have greater autonomy in making decisions and more power to act for their children’s benefit.”

We know that illiteracy is one of the strongest predictors of poverty and that every year of schooling increases individual wages for both men and women. We know that an educated, skilled workforce is one of the foundations of a knowledge-based society and that education makes vital contributions to lowering maternal and child mortality rates, protecting against HIV/AIDS, reducing fertility rates, and enhancing environmental awareness.

But let’s put a human face on this, as CAMFED, a UK-based non-profit organization dedicated to girls’ education, has. Suppose you’re a 12-year old girl, they suggest. You went to primary school, loved learning, and enjoyed interacting with your classmates. But you couldn’t go to secondary school because your family didn’t have the money for school fees, uniforms, or transport. Perhaps they thought it wasn’t safe. Or that your labor was needed at home. You therefore became a financial burden on your family and had to work to contribute money to the household. Young, lonely and sad, you are likely to have a baby before you are 15 or 16, maybe three children by the age of 20. You are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS than your former classmates and your children are more likely to be malnourished than women who waited to have families. You have no power – no agency to make decisions – no say whatsoever over your life. And all you wanted to do was stay in school.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are 24 million girls like that one. Overall in the world, there are 65 million girls who are not in school.

In poor countries, 60 percent of the present population is under 25 years of age. Without children’s rights, including access to education, how are we going to realize global peace and development? In conflict-ridden areas – proliferating at a staggering rate – how will we stop the violation of children and the continued violence that occurs from one generation to the next?

Thank Heaven for a new generation of young women, and men, symbolized by Malala Yousafzai. “I know I am not alone,” she told reporters on learning of her prize. “I think this is really the beginning. This decision sends a message that all people, regardless of language and religion, should fight for the rights of women, children and every human being.”

That includes policymakers and politicians as well as parents. Would that they had the will to join her quest.

Reacting to Conflict in the Middle East: A Revealing Litmus Test

It’s amazing watching what people reveal about themselves when tensions in the Middle East explode. Some otherwise liberal, compassionate souls with big hearts suddenly morph into raging self-appointed authorities. Others who’ve suffered deeply and have reason not to be kind toward oppressors become surprisingly gentle. Some spew invectives while others weep for dying children.

But nothing rivals what has taken place on social media since the horrific conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began. Having responded to a friend’s pro-Israel Facebook post in which she equated my sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians with being “pro-Hamas,” a slew of opinions started flying and haven’t stopped.

“It’s one thing to be so-called ‘pro-Hamas’ but quite another to simply be against the slaughter of innocents,” I wrote. “No one denies Israel’s right to exist (least of all me, a Jew) or to defend itself, but their slaughter approaches genocide. I cannot sanction the disproportionate response to the aggression perpetrated by some Palestinians. Most people in Gaza are ordinary, impoverished folks trying to survive in terrible ghetto conditions with absolutely nowhere to go or hide. Given the Jewish experience with ghettos and extermination who should feel compassion for them more than Jews?

“When I learned that 25 people perished while eating a meal together during Ramadan (suppose it had been 25 Jews breaking the Yom Kippur fast?), or that hospitals and UN safe-haven schools were being bombed with children killed, maimed, traumatized, there is no way I could sanction Israel’s aggression. While both sides need to regain their sanity and end hostilities in a sensibly negotiated settlement, Gaza has become a killing field. It makes me sad, and I feel an unwelcome shame (where once I felt pride) that ‘my people’ could behave like this. I ask this simple question: How does killing more children after the tragedy of lost youth that started this conflagration solve the problem or redeem the tragedy?”

Some readers support my position, some argue against it, and some spew spurious vitriol. The people who agree with me frame their arguments as I have, with a social justice, human rights lens, while those with opposing points of view respond from a (frequently erroneous) historical and political perspective. The passion that both sides feel is stunning, and sometimes alarming.

Because of copious dichotomized debates, I want to offer some further thoughts, beginning with a quote from Holocaust survivor, Reuven Moskovitz. His words are credited to IAcknowledgeApartheidExists.org. “It is a sacred duty for me to protest against persecution, the oppression and imprisonment of so many people in Gaza. As a Holocaust survivor I cannot live with the fact that the State of Israel is imprisoning an entire people behind fences. It’s just immoral.”

Leaving a synagogue because of “our overwhelming silence as Jews” over what was happening in Gaza, writer Naomi Wolf said, “I mourn genocide in Gaza…I mourn all victims… Where is God? God is only where we stand with our neighbor in trouble and against injustice.”

Someone in Gaza wrote this email to my friend, “Israel has targeted houses and residential areas. When people flee their homes the warplanes target them in the streets. They didn’t even allow the Red Cross to pull dead bodies and injured people out. Medical teams and journalists are among the victims. More than 70 percent are children and women. We have no power and no water. It’s horrible.”

It is not my purpose here to debate the merits, mistakes or arguments of either side in this terrible conflict. Nor am I trying to justify my position. I am merely stating it. I think it is urgent to transcend the politically expedient rhetoric of Hamas and others who say their goal is to destroy Israel, wiping Jews off the face of the earth. Consider Israel’s military strength and its American support and you realize that is never going to happen. We also need to acknowledge that a human rights approach to the situation does not make one “pro-Hamas.” Name-calling serves no purpose other than to inflame.

Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, but that does not give it ‘carte blanche’ to slaughter innocent people by the thousands. Nor does Israeli oppression of Palestinians mean Hamas has a right to fire rockets indiscriminately. We must acknowledge that both sides are guilty of hideous violence, broken promises, outrageous lies, blind hatred, and unwillingness to negotiate in the interest of mutual survival. But we also need to recognize that both sides are equally terrified. That’s why the blame-game is useless. It gets us nowhere in solving the problem. Neither does name calling. Anti-Semitic accusations (and acts) must not be tolerated; no one should assert that charge against someone because they hold differing views.

In the end, the conflagration will expire when its impact becomes intolerable. For me, it already is. That’s why I speak out. Will others find their voices of conscience before another woman, on either side, grieves a dead child who never had a chance at life?

What Does the Future Hold for Afghan Women?

Back in the 1920s things looked hopeful for women in Afghanistan.  King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya worked diligently to improve women’s lives. The king discouraged polygamy, advocated against the veil, and pushed for greater personal freedom for females.  “Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual,” he said.  His sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women’s Protection while another sister established a women’s hospital.  Queen Soroya even founded the first magazine for women.

By the end of this progressive decade conservative tribal leaders pushed back against the growing freedoms for women and the King’s successor acquiesced.  Still, urban women entered the work force in the 1930s, mainly as teachers and nurses, and by 1959 many had unveiled.  A1964 constitution gave women the right to vote and to enter politics.

 All of these advances, and those that followed in the 1970s and 80s came to a crashing halt when the Taliban came to power in 1996 following Soviet rule. We’re familiar with their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths. 

 Post Taliban, things seemed to improve.  A woman was elected to the Loya Jirga in 2003 and the following year a new constitution codified that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” In 2008 the first political party dedicated to women’s rights was launched and 35 percent of the more than five million children enrolled in schools were girls. 

 That was also the year that acid attacks on female students began.

The facts about Afghan women are chilling.  Only 14 percent of them are literate.  Their maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. Almost 80 percent of rural women have no access to health care. Nearly 60 percent of marriages involve girls younger than 16 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women are in forced marriage or suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women is 44 years.

 “The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women,” a 2010 Afghan-web.com piece notes.  “But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive.”

 That year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women through legislation while changing the prevailing male mindset.   For despite the 2004 Constitution old laws and tribal customs continued in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law. Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country, the situation remains bleak. 

 Last spring a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) told an interviewer that the country remains extremely dangerous for women. Ninety percent of Afghan females, she said, have experienced some form of violence and the suicide rate among women is climbing because women feel hopeless. 

In June, when security was handed over from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops began preparing for withdrawal, women’s concerns loomed large in the face of escalating attacks on high profile women.   Legislative and policy changes aimed at improving women’s lives are also being targeted.  The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law may be amended to prohibit relatives of the accused from being questioned about abuses they’ve witnessed.  Some politicians have called for eliminating the minimum marriage age while others want to abolish women’s shelters and remove criminal penalties for rape.  The quota for women in government has been lowered; some want it ended altogether.

 Meanwhile, the Taliban are regaining legitimacy as an acceptable partner in peace-building.

 Malalai Joya,

a young activist elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 (later removed from her post) told The Nation last November, “In rural areas, the situation for women is like hell. We have a mafia parliament. The majority of seats belong to warlords, drug lords, even Taliban. Most of the women in parliament are pro-warlord. Their role is symbolic. We’ve seen acid attacks, burning girls’ schools, cutting the nose and ears off women, public beatings and executions. In Taliban time we had one enemy; now we have three: the Taliban, warlords and occupation forces. When they leave the situation will be even bloodier…because more terrorists will come into power.”

 Such testimony calls into question a multi-million dollar program announced in September to support Afghan women’s political participation, a collaboration between the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Asia Foundation aimed at voter turnout among women during the next elections.

 As one RAWA spokeswoman put it when asked if an Afghan Spring was imminent, “Change takes time. Things are not moving in the right direction. There won’t be a quick solution.” Then she added, “As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health.”

                                              * * *

 (A fuller version of this commentary can be found at www.towardfreedom.com)

                                   

Burkhas and Bikinis: What Women’s Bodies Reveal About Cultures

On Facebook, a photo of four Afghan women in Burkhas appears, followed by another picture of four American women, Victoria Secret models, in underwear that amounts to nothing more than the skimpiest of bikinis. Both images are startling, as is what follows: a post about two Afghan women found hanged, naked, neither their names nor their “crime” revealed.

The striking juxtaposition of these posts calls for understanding their meaning, for exploring their cultural relevance, for some kind of articulation about what they reveal regarding the status of women, for outrage and correction. And for knowing why, in response to my “comment” that both pictures made feel sick, this message appeared from an unknown reader: “Do we really need your vomit?”

My reaction to all this is visceral. I mull the pictures over in my mind for several days, trying to process the outrage I felt on seeing both photos, reading about the executions, receiving that hideous message.

The first and probably most important thing I think about in working out how these things are connected is that women’s bodies are what really matters about them according to the power base, irrespective of the culture in which they reside.

In Afghanistan, according to the Taliban and other ultra-conservatives, women must be covered completely, often to the point of near suffocation and immobility, in order that they not tempt males sexually. For the sake of protecting one half of the population from itself, the other half of the population must be rendered invisible, faceless, body-less, without identity, voice, power. When women reclaim some of that power in whatever innocuous or overt way, as those two Afghani women likely did, they are hung, naked, like animal carcasses, exposed so that the world can look upon their shame. They can no longer tempt. Now they are held in contempt. It’s the ultimate female dichotomy.

In many western cultures, especially our own, it is the uncovering of women that gives them value; in their ability to titillate and tempt lies what little power we afford them. This sexualization of females – their path to legitimization – happens almost from birth. If you doubt this claim, take a look at baby and toddler T-shirts and what is imprinted on them; notice how kids in elementary and junior high school dress; ask yourself why Miley Cyrus gets so much attention. Or why the War on Women has heated up politically now that women are gaining ever more freedom and equality in the academy, the marketplace, the community as they exercise more autonomy over their own bodies.

Seen enough?

Much has been written about the cultural contexts of emphasizing women’s bodies and women’s sexuality (either by rendering their bodies invisible or totally exposed). The relationship of those cultural contexts to rape and other violence against women, to eating disorders and depression, and to other psycho-social phenomena has been well articulated.

But all this attention still begs the question: Why do the male of the species – the ones who continue to hold most of the power in most cultures – fail to care about the pain they are causing the women they purport to love – their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends? Why do so many women buy into their lead? And why is it so difficult to move cultures beyond women’s oppression, largely associated with repressed or flaunted sexuality, to cultural environments in which simple justice, human rights, and kindness prevail?

Some answers to these largely rhetorical questions have been articulated, for better or worse: Institutionalized and sanctioned misogyny, the almighty buck, testosterone and more. But none has provided sufficient clarity or effected sustained change.

And none has been able to answer these questions in a meaningful way: Why, really, were two nameless women hung, naked, in Afghanistan? Why are some women in the 21st century walking around in virtual body bags while others wear little more than a loincloth? Why is a woman’s voice expressing a feeling of outrage when women are objectified met with male vitriol? What do any of these things say about the cultures in which we live? What are we going to do to make those cultures more humane for fully half of their populations?

Never Again? Anti-Semitism on the Rise

In Belgium a group of students at a Jewish school are assaulted by neighborhood youth. In a small town in the Czech Republic vandals topple 80 tombstones at a Jewish cemetery and damage a Holocaust memorial twice. In Finland swastikas with anti-Semitic slogans are spray-painted on public buildings. The son of a rabbi in France is attacked outside his home by men shouting ant-Semitic slogans. Reports continue to grow of incidents in Spain including vandalism, verbal harassment and anti-Semitic sentiment in newspapers and at sporting events.

These examples, all of which have been reported by the State Department, are true. And all of them occurred in Europe, where 22 percent of Jewish people say they hide their Jewish identity because they are afraid. But the kinds of anti-Semitic acts they portray are happening all over the world, from Armenia to Argentina, Belarus to Brazil, Syria to Saudi Arabia.

Commenting on a 2012 survey of more than 5,000 people in nine European countries conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, a former representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that “a majority of European Jews are experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism.”

The global increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, not only by individuals but by some government officials and religious leaders, has prompted the State Department to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. The Department’s 2012 report on religious freedom cited particular concerns about government-sanctioned expressions of anti-Semitism in Venezuela, Egypt and Iran.

A recent Voice of America editorial shared a message from now-retired U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal. “Not only is anti-Semitism still prevalent,” she said before stepping down last year, “but it is evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social and cultural bigotry.”One need only consider how President Obama has been treated in some quarters to see the relevance of her remark.

The VOA editorial noted that Ms. Rosenthal has underscored that in addition to the traditional forms of anti-Semitism such as defacing property and desecrating Jewish cemeteries, there are now new forms appearing. These include Holocaust denial, “holocaust glorification” – a particular favorite among some Middle Eastern media that call for a new Holocaust to finish Jewish annihilation – and “Holocaust relativism,” in which some governments and institutions conflate the Holocaust with other tragic events that include great human suffering.

Because of the increasing frequency and severity of anti-Semitic incidents over the past decade, especially in Europe, the international community is taking steps to combat it. But how effective will these efforts be? United Nations meetings and resolutions are notoriously ineffective. Speeches by government officials are just so much blah, blah. Law enforcement agencies frequently downplay the seriousness of hate crimes. And the media seems increasingly willing to provide a forum for anti-Semitic propaganda to flourish.

Perhaps recent events in Hungary, reported by The New York Times, offer a way to at least shine light on anti-Semitism. Ivan Fischer, conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, fed up with right-wing parties in his country and across Europe, wrote an opera about a famous 1882 blood libel case in Hungary as a rebuke to the country’s growing tolerance for anti-Semitism under the leadership of its right-wing, authoritarian prime minister, Victor Orban. The opera has been seen widely and is much discussed in the media and in coffee houses across Hungary. “Culture has a strong responsibility to find the essence, the real concealed truth which lies behind the day to day,” Mr. Fischer told The New York Times. Perhaps culture can help curb the growing crisis.

But as Hannah Rosenthal knows, “leaders must confront bigotry. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire,” she said. “Where there is hatred born of blindness, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas. Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can – and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.”

Having just passed the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in Berlin that marked the turning point toward Hitler’s Jewish genocide, Rosenthal’s words are urgent and perhaps prescient. A Neo-Nazi group in Kansas City, Missouri chose the anniversary day to plan a rally protesting immigration reform. The white supremacist gang which is connected to the KKK and other hate groups, claims to be “the political party for every patriotic white American.” They are against granting amnesty to “illegal aliens” who, they say, (as Hitler did of German Jews) are causing the “nation to drown in a free fall of economic collapse.”              

Never again? As my mother would say, “From your lips to God’s ear.”

Is the Pope Really Ready to Address “The Woman Question?”

Last month, when Pope Francis declared to the Jesuit press that the Roman Catholic Church had become “obsessed” with abortion, contraception and gay marriage, his remarks went viral. Not surprisingly, those on the left welcomed the breath of fresh air sweeping through the Vatican while conservative Catholics registered alarm. Feminists raised eyebrows, pondered the pontiff’s words, and wondered how far the progressive pope was willing to go when it comes to women.

Popular Pope

As welcome as his remarks were, it seemed clear that there would be no quantum leap from pantry to pulpit.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Janine di Giovanni noted that “unfortunately, His Holiness’s statements about women were rigid and clear. There would not be female priests,” although the pontiff wants to increase women’s roles in administrative and pastoral activities. “Does this mean wiping the chalice or arranging flowers on the altar?” she asked.

Alice Laffey, an associate professor of religious studies and a member of the Women’s Ordination Conference after Vatican II, told CNN that Pope Francis had “affirmed that the church lacked ‘a deep theology of women,’” but that he had “conveyed a deep respect for women.” Laffey sees the ordination of women as less pressing an issue than the fact that it is women and children who constitute the poorest of the poor globally. She claims the pope’s focus on poverty and personal suffering is a sign that he “warmly embraces women.”

Here’s Sister Simone Campbell’s take, posted on ideas.time.com: “Pope Francis has idealized women by comparing them to the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is better than saying that women are ‘Eve in the Garden of Eden tempting men.’” But she admits she is “a little nervous about what will happen. “Our church has lagged in the acknowledgement of the role of women in shaping faith traditions…the fact is, women are leading by example outside the formalized power structure and that structure has lost out from not having significant contributions of women.”

My own non-Christian, feminist perspective is this: I believe Pope Francis is a good man who truly respects women, but from an idealized and antiquated vision of women as the “Angel in the House” who must keep her place in order not to become the “Madwoman in the Attic.” He has said that “women have a special role in opening doors to the Lord” and a special mission to pass belief on to their children and grandchildren. What he has not said is that women have a right to liberty, privacy and control over their own bodies. Nor does he preach that women, as autonomous adults, should be free to make their own life choices and to participate fully in all aspects of religious and secular life.

I respect this pope’s genuine humility, his desire to find “new balance” in the Catholic Church, his moves toward reform, his commitments to the poor. He understands that without solid reform the “moral edifice of the church is likely to fall.” He wants to be “creative, experimental, willing to live on the margins, push boundaries back a little bit,” says the priest who interviewed the pope for the Jesuit magazine America. The question then becomes, is Pope Francis able to forge a more progressive church whose doctrine and policies do not reside in Victorian values relating to women?

Victorian women

It is worrying to note in a recent report posted on breitbart.com that shortly after the interview with Pope Francis went viral, he is alleged to have excommunicated an Australian priest because of his support for female priests as well as gay marriage. And that the day after the interview was published the pope condemned abortion “in the strongest terms to date since he assumed the papacy.”

In his interview Pope Francis claimed that the first reform must be one of “attitude.” He admonished Catholics to show “audacity and courage.” But will he have the courage to change his own attitude, so that he no longer feels compelled to speak of “female machismo” and say that “women have a different make-up than men”? Will he have the audacity to decry a 2010 decree that equated the ordination of women with pedophilia?

Religious institutions are among the last bastions of sexism (as Matilda Jocelyn Gage pointed out more than a hundred years ago). And the Catholic Church finds it exceptionally hard to accept change. But as Janine di Giovanni says, “the decision to exclude women from the higher echelons sends a fundamental message of injustice.” Injustice also prevails when women are denied their fundamental human rights in the name of religion.

Injustice is something I suspect this pope is loathe to endorse. Will he then be brave enough to truly modernize his view of women, and to reveal the courage he showed when he washed the feet of women alongside men, so that women might also bask in the full potential of a church whose leader wishes to “consider the person first?”

We can only hope. And perhaps pray.

Putting an End to ‘The Woman Question’

Recently Sigmund Freud’s irritating, macho-man question – “What do women want?” – has been making a comeback. Several television programs have addressed the question in interviews and soft news stories while exploring topics ranging from work/home issues to the role of activist nuns under a new papacy. A forthcoming book on “the science of female desire” (written by a man, of course) is actually titled “What Do Women Want?” Sigmund Freud

In an attempt to lay to rest once and for all the interminable query that causes men to continue scratching their heads, here are some basic answers.

First, we want the question itself to disappear. The fact that it keeps popping up as if females were a bizarre sub-species beyond human comprehension suggests that, despite growing numbers of women in governance, board rooms, military action, and more, we remain an enigma just for wanting to be part of life in all its sectors and social spheres.

We certainly want to be free from sexual and domestic violence no matter what we wear, where we go, and whether we have a few drinks with friends. Even after horrendous reports of gang rapes in India, including that of a Swiss tourist, and the Steubenville, OH rape of a 16-year old whose hideous assault went viral we continue to find ourselves counseled to behave defensively while perpetrators of rape and other violent crimes are shielded by their churches, universities, and workplaces. Why, we ask, are males not taught boundaries, respect for women, and behavioral norms that when violated accrue serious criminal consequences? And while we’re on the topic, we want the U.S. to join other civilized nations in ratifying the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW and to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.

We want our reproductive health and rights – our bodies – to remain in our own control, not that of opinionated, ill-informed, misogynistic men who blather on like Victorian pooh-bahs rather than 21st century humanists or civil rights advocates. That means men in Vatican Versace – think red shoes with matching chapeau – don’t get to keep us from accessing reliable contraception, or abortion if that is the agonizing, private decision we come to. Nor do Neanderthal politicians or bad boy bosses get to keep birth control pills out of reach. We are not forced to undergo medical rape or to die for the sake of a fetus as a woman in Ireland did recently. In short, as a group of brave women in Boston declared decades ago, “Our Bodies, Ourselves”!

April 9th being Equal Pay Day, we underscore that we want to earn wages equal to men. Despite some gains in workplace legislation (e.g., The Lily Ledbetter Act) we continue to be paid 77 percent, on average, of what men make even though equal pay for women is legally codified. That means a typical woman working full-time for the course of her career stands to have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income by the age of 65. No wonder “the feminization of poverty” continues to be a pressing issue for feminist analysts and economists.

Finding ways to balance work and home demands remains a challenge in all western societies but it would be nice if we could join the list of countries striving for gender equality in this realm. In Sweden, for example, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), men spend 177 minutes a day cooking, cleaning or caring for children, although women there still spend 259 minutes a day on domestic work. In Australia, both men and women devote approximately 14 hours per day to personal care and leisure. And in France, parents of two or more children can leave employment or reduce working time after childbirth and receive a flat-rate childcare benefit for up to three years. Is it really asking too much for American women to want safe, affordable day care so that they can earn a decent living without fearing for their children?

Finally, we want a seat at the tables of decision and policy-making and a place in discussions involving post-conflict resolution. Anyone watching Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Kirstin Gillibrand

during recent hearings on sexual assault in the military could see the impact of having women legislators. In the business sector, even given recent gains for women as CEOs of major companies like Yahoo!, only 12 Fortune 500 companies and 25 Fortune 1000 companies had women CEOs or presidents as of 2009. And as writer Damilola Agbajobi has noted, “paying special attention to the different experiences of women and men is critical in designing successful conflict management and peacebuilding programmes.”

So, what do women want? It’s simple: Peace, personal security, a fair paycheck, the ability to parent well, and the right to rule our own bodies. Anyone who still has a problem understanding that ought to ask themselves what they want. If the answer is a win-win world, there should be no reason to resurrect Freud’s silly question, now or ever.

This Election is a Moral Referendum

This year’s election is more than a political event of vast consequence. It is a collective decision on the future of morality in the world’s leading democracy, a democracy founded on principles that rejected the oppression of ordinary citizens by an aristocracy run amok. Grounded in vital human rights and guided by compassionate intelligence, the documents that have been the cornerstones of our country were written with such care and insight that they continue to be a model for other nations, and a clarion call to their citizens who seek a better life.

How, then, are we to grasp, let alone embrace, the moral compass of the Romney-Ryan ticket? Where is the morality in an economic plan that will cost millions their jobs, a social agenda that will end federal programs aimed at sustaining our sick and elderly, our bright but impoverished students, and our children’s health and well-being? What is moral about an environmental agenda that continues to turn a blind eye to the disasters plaguing this fragile earth in order that businesses may thrive? How can one claim the moral high ground while interfering with women’s health and reproductive rights and denying same-sex couples the privacy and respect we afford others in loving relationships? What is moral about war, guns, and overcrowded jails?

Much has been written about vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s adoration, then refutation, of author and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose worship of capitalism was one thing, but whose views on abortion, war, women’s rights and religion have caused Mr. Ryan to step back and declare himself more enamored of Thomas Aquinas.

So let’s be clear: Ayn Rand’s theory of “objectivism” really espoused self-interest over altruism, which she viewed as “evil” and a kind of passive suicide. She thought laissez-faire capitalism, defined and led by “producers,” was the only way the world would survive in spite of its copious and cumbersome “moochers.” This kind of pejorative, binary thinking made it all too easy for Rand to see the world in stark, black-and-white terms, so that it all came down to individualism vs. collectivism (read communism, or in today’s terms, socialism). Nuances be damned.

But Rand was also a staunch atheist who advocated for women’s equality and freedom and was thus avidly pro-choice. Enter Flip-Flopper the Second (a.k.a. Mr. Ryan), who now claims that his bowing at the feet of Ms. Rand was an “urban legend” and that he has been influenced by his faith and devotion to the Catholic Church. However, as Stanford University professor Jennifer Burns noted in The New York Times recently, “This retreat to religion would have infuriated Rand, who believed it was impossible to separate government policies from their moral and philosophical underpinnings. Policies motivated by Christian values were inherently corrupt [according to Rand, who claimed that] free-market capitalism needed a new, secular morality of selfishness.”

Which brings us to the Nuns on the Bus. For many Catholics, and others now, the representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), led by Sister Simone Campbell, are the true standard bearers of Christianity. In defiance of the church’s antiquated patriarchy and its medieval-minded leaders, but with full faith in and love for their religion, these brave, intelligent, compassionate women are the face of Catholicism as it tries to salvage the true meaning of Christ’s teachings. In connecting their personal faith with the politics of our time the sisters are forging an agenda for the future that encompasses “hope, faith and charity” along with respect and compassion for all human beings. That is why they are such a threat to politician and Pope alike: neither of them wants to yield power to the millions of “moochers.” (As the saying goes, “what would Jesus say” to that?)

Some in the church hierarchy, who think the nuns should be less concerned with social issues that emanate from economic policies and more concerned with same-sex marriage and abortion rights, have called the liberal sisters heretics. Others, me among them, think “the nuns’ moral compass is working just fine.”

Barbara Marx Hubbard, an 82 year-old self-defined “futurist thinker” recently gave the keynote speech at a LCWR conference. She thinks attempts to clamp down on the activist sisters is “an act of grace” because “it’s got the world’s attention” and requires the sisters to probe what their next steps will be. She sees the LCWR women as social entrepreneurs whose leadership qualities will lead to cooperative governance. “They are a seedbed for a global agenda of cooperation that can lead to individual responsibility.”

That idea would probably make Ayn Rand a bit happier about their endeavors. As for Romney-Ryan, who knows from one day to the next?