Category - Women’s Issues

Holy Mary in a Bikini? #BurkiniBan
A Dissident Comes to Notre Dame
Indian organization works to rescue girls from sex trafficking
Afghan mullah jailed for rape, while Iran executes woman who killed her alleged rapist
Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions
Islamic militants and violence against women and girls
Gandhi, Campus Sexual Assault, and U.S. Advocacy of Women’s Rights Abroad

Holy Mary in a Bikini? #BurkiniBan

I hereby bestow The Most Incongruous Tweet of the Day Award on Ambassador Gérard Araud, French Ambassador to the U.S.

Today Ambassador Araud tweeted with strong approval a video of St. Mary fully, modestly clad right in the midst of his pro-burkini-ban Tweetstorm today. (His tweets are captured in screenshots here.)

In honor of the Feast of the Assumption today he tweeted a video of a statue of St. Mary from the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde (“Our Lady of the Guard”) in Marseille, France, a pilgrimage site for many on this important Catholic feast day.

Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France

Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, France

In nearly the very same moment he followed his tweet of Notre Dame de la Garde with a tweet asserting, “A burqa is not a neutral attire. It conveys an conception of the woman as a object of lust, a subject and not an agent of history.”


In this statue of St. Mary the Ambassador so honored, she is dressed very modestly, in a loose fitting robe covering her entire body, except her head, which is covered in part by a crown.

This leads me to several questions for you, Ambassador Araud.

Is St. Mary’s gown in this statue “not a neutral attire,” thus requiring that the French government should demand the Catholic Church create a new statue, and with her being at the sea, see to it that she be dressed only in a bikini? After all, according to you Mr. Ambassador, “It is to the state to protect women from cultural oppression” (by which I understand you to mean that the state should protect women from their own personal choice to dress modestly).

Does St. Mary’s body being covered make her de facto an “object of lust”? (St. Mary, really??)

Does St. Mary’s body being covered make her — St. Mary of all women —  de facto “not an agent of history”?

Ambassador Araud, I would like to know: If St. Mary did indeed have her body covered, instead of wearing a bikini, as one might presume she did when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her, does this nullify St. Mary’s agency in her great “Fiat!” unto the Lord?

And Ambassador Araud, you have not yet answered Daniel Stublen’s question to you, “@GerardAraud what about nuns’ habits?”

In the event you or any of your staff in Washington, DC would be interested in discussing Islam and religious freedom sometime, I assure you the modestly dressed women who work at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom (CIRF) would greatly welcome such an opportunity. And with their degrees from Princeton University, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Yale University and their leadership in founding CIRF, I can assure it would likely be apparent that modest attire and women’s agency are no contradiction of terms.

A Dissident Comes to Notre Dame

In fall 2003, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame hosted a talk by Norwegian scholar and peace activist Johan Galtung.  Famous for founding the discipline of peace studies, Galtung has coined enduring concepts like “structural violence,” the distinction between “positive” and “negative” peace, and other notions that, for the last several decades, have undergirded activism against war and against, well, The System.  Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Galtung looked the part as he addressed his large Notre Dame audience, giving them a tour of violence around the world.

Doubtless, though, some in the audience were surprised when Galtung identified the greatest episode of violence in the world.  Was it U.S. imperialism in the Middle East?  No.  Colonialist exploitation of one kind or another?  No.  Galtung fingered sex selection abortion, carried out by the Chinese government through its “one-child policy,” as the world’s top form of violence.

Galtung is on my mind as I contemplate what I believe will prove a historic moment in Notre Dame’s witness for social justice, namely its hosting of the world’s greatest human rights dissident, China’s Chen Guangcheng, which will take place today, Tuesday, April 7.  Chen has stood for many causes in China, including women’s rights and land reform, but his most famous advocacy is against the one-child policy.

Not only is Galtung on my mind as I anticipate Chen’s address, but so is the recently deceased great president of Notre Dame, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who did so much to establish Notre Dame’s witness for social justice.  It was under Hesburgh’s leadership, for instance, that President Jimmy Carter gave a famous address on human rights at Notre Dame in 1977, establishing human rights as a major theme of his presidency that would endure long after his tenure in office.  Because of Hesburgh, Notre Dame continues to draw upon its Catholic roots in advocating human rights passionately.  (See my earlier post on Fr. Hesburgh’s civil rights legacy written just after Hesburgh’s death on February 26, 2015.)  Such a legacy finds a fitting exemplar in Chen Guangcheng.

Blind from childhood, known as the “barefoot lawyer,” Chen cinematically escaped house arrest in April 2012, climbing over the wall of his house, swimming across a river, and reaching the U.S. embassy, where he found refuge. In May 2012, the Chinese government allowed him to leave for New York University to take up a visiting scholar position. More recently, he has held positions at the Witherspoon Institute and The Catholic University of America. Now he gives lectures, has recently finished his autobiography, The Barefoot Lawyer, and continues to speak against the one-child policy.

First enacted in 1980, the policy has resulted in over 400 million abortions, according to the Chinese government. Many, if not most, of these abortions are forced or at least performed under heavy state pressure. Horrific stories abound of women brutally coerced into giving up their babies, even in the late term of their pregnancies. True, the policy is enforced unevenly, contains many exceptions, and was relaxed in 2013 to allow more births to take place. Still, the scale has been gargantuan.

One of the policy’s worst perversities is the one that Galtung identified: “sex-selection” abortion, in which parents abort girls far more often than boys, who are culturally preferred. In addition to taking the lives of girls en masse, the policy has created sex ratios that leave tens of millions of men in China without mates, resulting in an enormous market for sex trafficking, mail-order brides, and prostitution.

For those who hold, as I do, that the unborn child is a complete person with full dignity from the time he or she is conceived, the one-child policy deserves to be ranked among the genocides of the past century. Opposition to the one-child policy is also a cause around which diverse advocates can coalesce. Among harsh critics of the policy are Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and journalist Mara Hvistendahl, a pro-choice feminist whose book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, is an excellent account of sex-selection abortion around the world. The brutal coercion of women combined with sex selection make the one-child policy a quintessential women’s issue.

Accompanying Chen in his visit will be another heroic human rights advocate, a rare activist who devotes herself almost solely to the one-child policy, Reggie Littlejohn, who will be showing her film, It’s a Girl, earlier on the day that Chen will speak.

All of this comes to Notre Dame thanks to the visionary leadership of the Institute for Church Life and its Director, John Cavadini.  Let us hope that as a result of Chen’s and Littejohn’s witness, more will join the ranks of those who oppose a human rights violation which, as Galtung rightly argued, has no parallel.

Updated: Tuesday, April 7

Indian organization works to rescue girls from sex trafficking

PBS NewsHour recently featured a story on an Indian organization – Apne Aap (On our own) – that goes door-to-door to rescue girls from sex trafficking.  They are focused on helping “the Last girl re-gain control of her destiny. The last girl is poor, female, low-caste, and a teenager. Additionally, she may be the daughter or sister of a prostituted woman or a victim of child marriage or domestic servitude.”  In support of this mission, Apne Aap works to establish and defend “four essential rights” – legal protection, education, a dignified livelihood, and safe and independent housing.  The PBS NewsHour story features the organization’s founder, Ruchira Gupta, as she negotiates an additional year of schooling for a girl previously withdrawn so that she could be prostituted by relatives.  Even that single year of additional education can make the girl stronger, Gupta explains, and it is one more year she gets to spend not being raped.

Afghan mullah jailed for rape, while Iran executes woman who killed her alleged rapist

In what is being hailed as a rare victory for female victims of sex crimes, a judge in Kabul has sentenced an Afghan mullah to 20 years in jail for the brutal rape of a 10-year-old girl in a mosque.  Although the mullah threatened to kill the girl and her family if she told anyone, she suffered wounds that could not be hidden.  In a country where victims of sexual assault can themselves be prosecuted and sent to jail, this is a notable and important win for justice.

Meanwhile, in Iran, a 26-year-old woman sentenced to death for the 2007 killing of her alleged rapist has been executed.  The woman, Reyhaneh Jabbari, claimed that the killing took place in self-defense during a sexual assault.  The sentence had been protested by human rights groups and Iranian activists, and the U.S. State Department condemned the execution, questioning the fairness of the trial (including reports of confessions made under severe duress and possibly torture).

Islamic Scholars to ISIL: Islam Forbids Your Actions

ISIL claims to be Islamic. Now, a letter signed by over 100 highly respected Muslim scholars has decisively condemned ISIL’s rhetoric and behavior, and urged the ISIL leader to desist and repent. The signatories describe their views as representative of the “overwhelming majority of Sunni scholars over the course of Islamic history”. Given that ISIL draws some recruits from Sunni Muslims in its fight with Shii Muslims, this letter has the potential to dissuade some recruits, provided that media outlets and social networks help publicize it.

The letter makes 24 points on ISIL’s assertions and activities. Taking a traditional jurisprudential approach, the document cites religious reasoning forbidding virtually all the abhorrent acts feeding ISIL’s notoriety, such as mutilation, killing emissaries, enslavement, torture, desecration of graves and shrines, and ill treatment of women, children, and other religious groups (especially Christians and Yazidis). In these alone, the letter is noteworthy.

Yet this document does more: it addresses the extraordinarily consequential question of who can interpret Islam, and what assertions count as religiously authoritative interpretations. To better explain this, consider that Islam in general, and Sunni tradition in particular, is decentralized in religious authority structures: there is little in the way of a clerical hierarchy. Social conflicts and new communications technologies have added to the crowded field of self-proclaimed religious voices.

Decentralization means that it is hard to mobilize an authoritative response to misguided religious claims. However, decentralization does not necessarily mean interpretative anarchy. There are established norms governing religious interpretation. The first point made by the signatories is that fatwas (religious legal opinions) cannot be offered without the necessary learning requirements, and must be grounded in Islamic legal theory. From this follow points about specific prerequisites for religious legal interpretation, such as mastery of language and refraining from “cherry-picking” sacred texts, and several points related to ISIL’s wrong assertions about jihad.

Religious vigilantes are those with rudimentary Islamic education who arrogate to themselves to the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. Religious vigilantes like ISIL deviate from the norms that guide traditional religious deliberation.  By condemning ISIL’s behavior, this document condemns vigilante brutality in the name of Islam. By affirming the prerequisites of religious interpretation, this document demands a more elevated religious deliberative community.

In one religious ideal, a non-coercive setting would permit the coexistence of different religious interpretations, with people effectively agreeing to disagree. This would allow for thoughtful public deliberation where diverse views are aired and carefully examined. The reality is that some refuse the ground rules, and disputes can turn into shouting matches, where the biggest megaphones and fists prevail. To work for long-term peace, the wider community should breathe life into norms of public deliberation, opening avenues for the redress of grievances, and ensuring that all injustices are held to account.

Islamic militants and violence against women and girls

Today’s edition of the Washington Post tells the story of a 14 year-old Yazidi girl and her childhood friend, who were “given as gifts” to an ISIS commander and a cleric, respectively.  Their experience – including such vicious elements as attempted rape, abuse, beatings, and a terrifying but ultimately successful escape – recalls the practices of Islamic militants in Nigeria and elsewhere, where women and girls are kidnapped, enslaved, forced into marriages, and brutally assaulted.  It is important to note that men and boys are taken too, often killed or forced to fight for the militants.  Yet the pervasive pattern of violence against women and girls is especially disturbing, and it does not end in conflict zones.  As Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for North West England, notes, there are thousands of forced marriages and threats of forced marriage in the U.K. every year, and when the targeted women and girls resist, they can end up dead.  Defeating ISIS and combatting Islamic militancy is essential not just to protecting national security, but also to protecting the human dignity of women and girls everywhere.  So, too, must we work to stop the cultural practices that sanction and perpetuate such violence.

Gandhi, Campus Sexual Assault, and U.S. Advocacy of Women’s Rights Abroad

No, I do not recommend teaching non-violence as a remedy for the plague of sexual assault on American college campuses, as one might first assume from the title of this. The only problem I have ever seen with any self-defense class for women was whether I could fit the class into my schedule or not.

But addressing the assault aspect of sexual assault in isolation from the sexual aspect is insufficient. This has implications not only for our college campuses but for our international engagement in advocacy of women’s rights and efforts to improve women’s condition.

The point on which I think Gandhi offers us wise counsel is on the sexual side of sexual assault.  He observed:

If we begin to believe that indulgence in animal passion is necessary, harmless and sinless, we shall want to give reins to it and shall be powerless to resist it. Whereas if we educate ourselves to believe that such indulgence is harmful, sinful, unnecessary, and can be controlled, we shall discover that self-restraint is perfectly possible.

The discussions I see happening across the media today about campus sexual assault are void of consideration about what sex even is. This absence of sex itself from these discussions results not at all from any squeamishness about the topic – hardly – but rather from a failure to question the now commonly held assumption that the purpose of sex is entertainment (and in turn that the purpose of entertainment is individual pleasure).

Gandhi rejected disassociating sex from its procreative aspect. He asserted:

I know that there are modern women who advocate these methods [of contraception]. But I have little doubt that the vast majority of women will reject them as inconsistent with their dignity. If man means well by her, let him exercise control over himself.

“If a man means well by her…” — this requires that he consider more than just his own amusement, that he consider who/what she is in a full and comprehensive sense, including her capacity to procreate in partnership with a man.

I do not advocate a ban on contraception as a way to counter sexual assault. But I do advocate that we need to address the sexual side of sexual assault. We need to foster public discussions which address fundamental questions too often ignored today such What is sex? What is woman? What is man?

At a time when Americans are a leading global advocate for improving women’s condition through both our government and private sector organizations, we would do well to view the problem of campus sexual assault as a plank we need first to remove from our own eye. We should consider the global implications of sexual assault on our college campuses not just in terms of our own credibility on women’s issues but also as an indication that there may be an impoverishment in our own notion of woman which we may be implicitly exporting in a variety of programs.

Viewing sex as nothing more than entertainment reduces those who engage in sex to tools for providing entertainment. Men and women become simply a means to an end for each other, with the end being a hook-up, namely a sexual encounter often even shorter than a one-night-stand. The result of the sexual liberation has become the hook-up culture. The result of the hook-up culture has become a culture of sexual assault.

To what extent are our foreign programs in the name of women’s rights rooted in a foundation informed by the assumptions of sexual liberation? To what extent might our sex-related foreign programs be laying the groundwork in other cultures for a transition into sexual liberation followed by hook-up culture followed by spread of sexual assault? These are hard questions we need to probe more actively and more deeply today.

Violence does not happen in a vacuum. Sexual assault does not come onto our university campuses out of nowhere. One of several sources which fuels the injustice of sexual assault is a culture that reduces sex to entertainment, and in so doing reduces women to objects of sexual lust. I think Gandhi understood this, and I think we could do more to serve men and women and to have greater peace between men and women both on our college campuses and in the world beyond if we understood this and took substantive and sustained action to reject the reduction of sex to entertainment and women to objects of sexual lust. Right now here in America is a good place to start.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.