MARY AND THE STRUGGLES OF WOMEN
In South Africa during the month of August, the frustrations, struggles, aspirations, the enduring strength, the collective power and triumphs of women and forcefully drawn to the attention of the nation. It is also a month during which men’s worldview and attitudes towards women are placed under fierce scrutiny. The clarion call is for justice, equality and inclusive participation.
Recalling the pain of Women
Mary is an example of a woman who endured pain and suffering. This is in spite of the fact that she had found favour with God, and carried the title “full of grace” (gratia plena). In spite of that, she and her family had to flee from Israel and became refugees in Egypt. Many women today can identify with her pain and suffering. Many flee their countries of origin with no possessions except the clothes on their back. They are forced to flee because of political conflicts, wars, natural disasters or simply abject poverty and are therefore in search of better opportunities for themselves and for their children. They move from country to country, from shelter to shelter. They are often aided by magnanimous charitable organizations. Some are without identity papers and are therefore stateless. In such situations they are perennially anxious and are highly vulnerable. Officials harass them to no end. Their labour is helplessly exploited. Heartless, cruel men take advantage of them. They are generally stripped of their dignity, forced to be beggars and consequently have a poor image of themselves.
Mary saw her Son spat upon, beaten, forced to drag a wooden cross, mocked, pierced with a spear and left for dead by his tormentors. “A sword pierced her soul” as Simeon had prophesied (Lk.2:35). Many women find themselves in a similar situation. They are like Rachel “who sobbed and wept and refused to be consoled for her children were no more” Mt. 2:18). Many mothers see their children ravaged by abuse, hunger and disease. Their husbands divorce them at the drop of a hat and leave them in abject poverty. Younger women are trafficked and sold like animals by mean spirited men. It is this pain of women that cry to heaven for justice. Many women in the refugee camps and in the informal settlements are the “discarded people”, the “surplus people”, the “forgotten” people.
The rise of Women
Mary, despite her unworthiness, pain and suffering, was able to break out in song and praise the God who “exalts the lowly”, whose mercy reaches out towards despised women of every age, and “fills the hungry with good things” (Lk.1. 50-52). Many women and children are genuinely the “wretched” of the earth for even some African men, wretched as they are, treat women with contempt. The prophetic words of Mary about God “exalting the lowly”, is a firm promise to women who are discriminated against, despised and abused, that they too “will rise” and regain their God-given dignity. It is also incumbent upon women to wrestle courageously with issues of inequality and discrimination. Meekness and docility only serve to delay the life-long struggles of women.
Ironically, it is the patriarchal Church, the male dominated Church that believed and acknowledged the exceptional status of Mary, a woman, who found favour with God. The Church believes that Mary was born without a stain of sin, that by being the Mother of Jesus, she shares in a radical way in the mystery of incarnation and redemption. The Church firmly believes that in the end Mary “was assumed body and soul” into heaven (Vatican Collection, Vol. 2. p.391). The participation of Mary, as Woman and Mother, culminated in her receiving a crown of glory in heaven. Mary, the “lowly handmaid”, “a mere creature”, an ordinary woman and mother, now in heaven and symbolically “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev.12:1).
Mary, a woman and mother, sat in pain at the foot of the Cross. And yet, against all odds, she ultimately triumphed, and wore a crown of glory because of her Son. Mary is the pre-eminent model of women and mothers from all walks of life especially those whose dignity, honour, self-respect and self-worth have suffered grievously at the hands of men. In spite of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights of women, by and large, continue to be regarded as inferior to those of men. Women continue to be excluded from full participation in society, in the economy, in leadership positions, in educational institutions, especially in fields of study that matter most. In marriage, many women are still considered by their husbands as junior partners, especially those who do not earn any income. The fact that wives bring up children and take care of homes, is hardly given full recognition.
Girls from broken families appear to have a bleak future. Many women and mothers who have been left stranded by their former husbands have often been turned into the “scum” of the earth. Blood is no longer thicker than water. The philosophy of “Ubuntu”, of compassion, of tight kinship relationships, has, in many cases, become meaningless and insipid.
The triumph of Mary
The harshness, the pain and suffering experienced by many women and mothers ought to be seen against the life of Mary herself. It pleased God to honour Mary who once suffered at the foot of the Cross. The honour and glory bestowed upon Mary ought to be seen, by extension, as an honour and triumph bestowed upon all women and mothers. It is this insight that ought to transform the self-image of women who have been discriminated against so unfairly. It also ought to change radically the attitudes of men who still wrongfully assume that they are superior to women.
Mary, by God’s choice, received a special grace to collaborate with God’s plan to redeem humankind. Hence her unique position in the mission of His Son. But grace has also been given to women and men “according to the degree to which they are unified with Christ” (B. de La Soujeole: “The Universal Call to Holiness” in Lamb & Levering (eds), Vatican II p.500). Armed with the gift of faith, will-power and the virtues of courage and perseverance, women can, and should, break the shackles that restrain them from their pursuit of freedom, equality and personal fulfiment. Once Mary had said ‘yes’ to God’s invitation, she never looked back. She is thus a perfect model for all women who are fed-up with being pushed around and treated like second-class citizens in a world of men.
Women too have been made in the image of God, and not of men.
After the feast of the Passover, in Jerusalem, Jesus had disappeared for three days. When Mary and Joseph eventually caught up with Him, it was Mary who said: “Child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been looking for you” (Lk.2:48). Mary and Joseph like any good parents were solicitous about their son. They were worried sick about his whereabouts.
Some male youth and men appear to suffer from a bout of amnesia. All children are generally nurtured, cared for and brought up by women and mothers. Mothers instill virtues of good behavior into their children. It is ironic that when some young men grow up, they repay their mother’s good deeds with violence against women, completely oblivious to the love, care and devotion they once enjoyed from their mothers. It is perhaps imperative that the good memories of childhood or of the period of the teenage age years be redeemed. A conscious retrieval of such memories might contribute towards repaying good with good, towards treating women with the respect mothers invariably impress on their children. The virtue of good up-bringing ought to permeate the way men relate to women.
NAMING THE WITCH
The Bill of Rights highlights the radical transition from apartheid state to a democratic state. It affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom (Act 108 of 1996). It further affirms that no one may be discriminated against on grounds of gender, sex, and sexual orientation, amongst others. It states that everyone has an inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected and that everyone has a right to be free from all forms of violence (The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 7,9,10,11,12).
The legally and politically adopted Constitution with its democratic ideals has not necessarily changed in a fundamental way the patterns of behavior and the attitudes of men towards women. Reported and unreported cases of violence, abuse, rape and murder of women attest to resistance to the adoption of the democratic values. The patriarchal mind-set that affirms the superiority and dominance of men over women still prevails. Resistance to embracing the ideals of democracy points to the ingrained habits of the heart that are deeply rooted in traditional settings. Thus men commit crimes against women with impunity as if this were an integral part of the inalienable rights of men. Worse still, society appears to condone such wayward and aberrant behavior by men. Some women forgive men who have brutalized them by withdrawing criminal charges against them. Women complain about the police that they do not take them seriously when they lay charges of rape against alleged perpetrators.
With respect to the relationship between men and women in contemporary society, traditional norms, values and attitudes of the past still appear to hold sway. New orientations brought about by democratic values of equality, human dignity and inclusive participation of women are painfully slow in shaping the worldview of men. Even the younger generation of men exhibit values, beliefs and assumptions of the older generation. Violent attitudes of boys towards girls in schools are a case in point.
BREAKING THE GLASS CEILING
In a manner of speaking, the Virgin Mary pierced the heavenly veil, she broke the glass ceiling of Heaven. Mary “did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body” (Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, no.5). She did not experience the corruption of the grave. She was assumed body and soul into heaven prior to the general resurrection. Today, women in turn are bent on breaking the glass ceiling in the corporate world, in the affairs of state, in politics, in the economy and in every aspect of society where traditionally they have been relegated to obscure positions in the background. They are determined to put maximum pressure on men to unlearn behavioral patterns of the past. Women resolutely seek to imbue every aspect of social life with the democratic values of justice, equality, participation and human dignity. They seek to breathe new life into the sterile letter of the Constitution of the country so that it becomes a living and powerful document that inspires, enriches, regulates, sets standards and guides the destinies of both men and women alike.
OBJECTIVES OF WOMEN CHANGE AGENTS
Women organizations are at the forefront of societal change. They are joined by men’s organizations such as “Not in Our Name”, even though men are yet to respond generously and vigorously to the call. Women change agents seek to move into a new horizon of human relationships. They are pushing for a change of mind and heart, for a conversion that would repudiate the disvalues of inequality abuse, discrimination, violence and the trivialization of the lives of women. They seek to abolish the stubborn myth that women are inferior to men and are dependent on men. Women agents are committed to breaking the ingrained habits of thought, lifestyle, beliefs and misguided cultural assumptions. The Constitution of the land and its sacred democratic values, and not the traditional, customary practices, should serve as the new basis for forging human relationships. The Constitution is of paramount importance to all citizens in determining human relationships. Christians have an additional aspect to consider. Their secondary differences pale into insignificance by virtue of their incorporation into the body of Christ through one baptism in the Spirit: “there are no more distinctions between male and female but all of you are one in Christ” (Gal.3:28; 1Cor 12:13).
The challenge therefore is to recognize the pressing need for an about face, for a profound change of direction. It is equally imperative that the mutual dependence of men and women be acknowledged; internalized and promoted publicly. Women and men have a shared destiny. Transformation or conversion has to take place at the level of the individual and at the level of society. When that happens, it will be a response to the democrative values of the Constitution of the country. It will also be a response to the command: “love your neighbour and yourself” (Deut.6:5; Lk.10:27) given the fact that it is men in general who do not conform to the principle of mutual recognition between men and women, it therefore behoves men “to swing completely out of the habitat of an animal and to become a person in a human society” (Lonergan. B. Method in Theology, p. 104).
Mary, the lowly handmaid of the Lord, in spite of her pain and suffering, emerged victorious when she was assumed body and soul into Heaven. She is therefore not just a true sister, a friend of God, a prophet or just one of the saints in Heaven. For many Christian women, Mary is truly a paragon, a model of excellence that inspires women and men to greater heights in their struggles and aspirations. She is truly a wonderful mother. South Africa has produced excellent women leaders such as Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Suzman, Helen Joseph, Amina Cachalia, Sophia De Bryun, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela, among others. These women are trail-blazers. They continue to inspire and shape the destiny of many South Africans.
+Buti Tlhagale o.m.i.