There’s absolutely no contradiction between being a feminist and a Catholic

Taken from the Catholic Universe 3 November 2013

Syrian Christian women facing persecution

I was privileged to be asked to participate in the BBC’s 100 women conference this week, which was the culmination of a season of programming and online features designed to highlight and propose remedies for the inequality still faced by women around the world.

At times the conference felt surreal in that being part of what appeared to be a conference mainly perpetuated by prolific middle-class women, most of whom had achieved either professional or personal success, hence coming to the attention of the BBC, the idea that we were all still somehow unequal, being discriminated against or not being listened to by the world at large, seemed contradictory.

To give the BBC their due not every woman was a notable or big name and it was particularly humbling to meet women such as Joyce Ako Aruga, a Kenyan woman currently studying to be a teacher at university, who had to fight every step of the way for her education, only being able to attend school, once she had escaped from her marriage at the age of thirteen.

 The overwhelming narrative was that of women as victims, which when one listens to stories such as those of Joyce’s, or Feresheth, a blind Iranian musician whose parents have threatened to burn her if she sings in public, is hard to disagree with.

Which is where Western feminism needs a wake-up call. Upon introducing myself to fellow delegates as a ‘Catholic feminist’, the responses from fellow delegates and activists ranged from a politely raised eyebrow to open-mouthed horror, people being unable to process that the two were reconcilable, as indeed are many of my co-religionists, feminism being thought of as a total anathema.

But as I reminded the assembled women, Catholic social teaching demands that we listen to the demands of the marginalised and oppressed, which is complementary to feminism when it is women who are particularly targeted by poverty and who have their rights and dignity as human beings, continually violated, with practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriages, being sold into sexual slavery and gender selective abortion.

To echo the words of Cardinal Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice Peace, ‘it must not be forgotten that today extreme poverty has, above all, the face of women and children, especially in Africa.’ Amongst the UN Millennium goals is the aim to reduce global poverty which identifies gender inequality and women’s access to employment, education and health care as economic problems. The majority of those who live on less than one US dollar a day are women and therefore putting food on the table, especially when it comes to feeding children, is predominantly a women’s issue.

There are many ways in which Catholic feminists can act in solidarity with these women, while at the same time explicitly rejecting the other Millennium goals regarding population control which are used to coerce women into taking potentially harmful contraceptive measures and in some cases act as justification for enforced sterilisation and abortion. Development efforts such as micro-loans for women, co-operatives and education programmes are key strategies for development which can all ethically be supported- it is a proven and widely accepted fact that economies grow where women’s conditions improve.

Another important issue when it comes to women’s rights is that of law enforcement for crimes relating to sexual and domestic violence. All too often in countries where the dowry system operates, various agencies turn a blind eye to dowry-related violence or so-called honour killings, with the perpetrators of such terrible crimes not pursued or given extremely lenient sentences. When sexual offences are treated as being of little consequence by the authorities, this further reinforces a culture of disrespect towards women, which is epitomized in the practice of gender selective abortion and the implicit acceptance that a girl’s life is of lesser value.

Where women are treated as a lesser species and denied basic human rights, then there is plenty of scope for Catholics to consider themselves as feminists. So why is this concept treated with such unmitigated horror by the contemporary feminists of today?

Part of the answer lies in the infallible teaching of the Church with regards to the male priesthood. The general public fails to get its head around the difference between job and vocation as well as the theology that disbars women from ever being able to be ordained. Being a priest is falsely perceived to be the only way of exercising any power or leadership within the church and the fact that a large proportion of the faithful are women who are completely happy with this state of affairs and not acting from a sense of oppression, seems to have escaped many.

But perhaps more crucially is that the feminist movement has rooted itself in the ideology of reproductive rights, despite the fact that abortion has done more than any other single measure to harm the cause of the woman.

 When it came to the final debate of the day centering around the issue of whether or not faith and feminism are compatible, thankfully most women were keen not to be seen to be excluding those of us who had a faith, particularly due to the many participants who were wearing the Muslim hijab. It’s a rum kind of sisterhood that is only open to those with a lack of religious belief and more like a club for self-identifying intellectual elites

 Ultimately feminism goes beyond albeit important issues of pay and workplace parity, frankly smashing the glass ceiling is irrelevant to the majority of women, for whom we should be ensuring that the floor is steady beneath their feet. By concentrating on the issues of reproduction and equal pay, the feminist movement have forgotten the deeper philosophical issues which should underlie the movement. Who is woman? What are her roles and responsibilities and what is going to lead to her freedom, happiness and flourishing?

 Which is why it is imperative that Catholics do not simply reject feminism as mere victim identity politics, but fight for more a more holistic and authentic movement.

Feminist Supremacists and gender selective abortion

Gender selective abortion

I’m still suffering from severe morning sickness, which is making life particularly difficult in terms of writing and blogging, because for some reason I am yet to fathom, more than about 10 minutes in front of a screen, be it computer, tablet or phone, sends me hurtling towards the bathroom, which makes life a little tricky when you are trying to cobble together some additional income from freelance writing.

All of which means I’m a little late to the party when it comes to the topic of sex-selective abortion, which this week as been at the top of the UK pro-life agenda, with the Crown Prosecution Service deciding that it is not in the public interest to prosecute doctors who were discovered by the Daily Telegraph breaking the law, in that they were happy to approve second trimester abortions on the grounds of the sex of the unborn baby.

There isn’t therefore much to add to the excellent post by Catholic Voices which points out that this decision not to prosecute shortens the path to a eugenic society, but it’s certainly worth visiting this Facebook page which gives some guidance as to how to write to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, who has also expressed his concern.

One question that is troubling me as the mother of four beautiful girls, who is in all likelihood experiencing her last pregnancy on health grounds, is whether or not there are those who would justify a decision to abort this baby if we were to discover that it was another girl? In my particular situation, which is probably more typical of the Western mindset, an abortion would be justified not because a girl is deemed to be of lesser value as in other cultures, but simply because we have this skewed notion of a perfect or balanced family. Someone has, in all innocence, asked me the question ‘are you just going to keep going until you get a boy’, a notion that is incredibly hurtful as it implies that there is something wrong with my beautiful girls, or that I am in some way dissatisfied and will remain unfulfilled until I have a child of the opposite gender.

Were I to have four boys, the issue would be exactly the same, it would be assumed that I am somehow desperate for a girl, the issue is not about feminism or misandry, although I have to say that my observation is that most women would like a daughter at some stage, most men a son, the desire for a specific gender seems to be more entangled with individual gender identity issues than with a cultural norm. There are various myths about raising genders, many of which are nothing more than projection or whimsy, i.e. that girls are easy as children and nightmarish as teenagers, and many parents seem to want to have a same-sex offspring in order to cultivate a rather unhealthy friendship type of relationship. Some women crave daughters to go shopping or get their nails done with, some men want sons in order to take to the pub and play football with, wanting their children to be an extension or better version of themselves.

So before we are too disparaging about cultures that are unapologetic about a strong gender preference in children, we also ought to examine our own cultural attitudes towards gender selection and perhaps think more carefully before embarking on thoughtless banter, such as “another girl oh no, how disappointing, you really need to give him his boy” which is what a former parishioner said to me as I limped into Mass, 4 days post c-section proudly holding my baby girl, delighted to have made the Easter vigil.

There will be feminists out there who would experience dissonance were I to announce that I would abort this baby on the grounds that it was a girl, torn between disgust at the patriarchal attitude implicit in the decision, but also supporting my right to choose and have control over my own body. On the other hand there will be feminists who would condone such a decision on the spurious grounds of mental health, claiming that if  a girl would cause me such mental distress and given that this could well be my last opportunity for a baby, then I should be free to choose, having already done my bit for the sisterhood. Others would take an unashamed attitude, reasoning that the reasons behind abortion are irrelevant, it is my decision that should take precedence. Wanting to abort a baby is a good enough reason in and of itself.

Admittedly it is enormously distasteful and more than a little traumatic to be hypothetically discussing whether or not I would be justified in killing my unborn child. But it goes to show that far from being concerned with equality, the nature of modern feminism is to do with supremacy. Recently I was interviewed by the broadcaster and theologian Vicky Beeching, on whether or not it was possible to be a pro-life feminist, to which one feminist replied ‘no, because the rights of a woman come before those of a foetus’. Whereas any pro-lifer worth their salt, will tell you that the two lives are of equal value. One should not be sacrificed for the other and even in those extremely difficult and rare cases, where a mother’s life could be put at risk, every effort should be made to preserve both lives. No pro-lifer would advocate for a law which would entail a pregnant mother being denied life-saving medical treatment, even if it were to mean that her unborn child may die as a result.

This type of militant feminism doesn’t strike me as being concerned with the rights of equality or the most vulnerable, what a woman wants, she must have, regardless of the impact upon other people and regardless of whether or not the killing of a baby girl contributes to and reaffirms a culture of misogyny. I’ve also yet to hear this argument framed in terms of whether or not it’s acceptable to abort unborn baby boys on the basis of gender. Whether or not it is a widespread practice is irrelevant, if it’s not okay to kill a girl on the basis of gender, it’s not okay to kill a boy and as Fr Lucie-Smith highlights, it’s a small step from denouncing sex-selective abortion to being pro-life.  Perhaps that’s why the silence from the feminists has been overwhelming.

The question should not be is it possible to be a feminist and pro-life but rather is it possible to be a feminist and support the killing of your unborn sisters, simply because they happen to have been created female? What kind of ideology is it that will throw one more baby girl down the sluice in the name of female emancipation?

A beacon of bravery

As Madeleine Teahan reports, the whole of the Grand Committee Room, rose to its feet and gave human rights campaigner Chen Guacheng a standing ovation upon his entrance last night.

Introduced as a ‘beacon of bravery’ by Fiona Bruce MP, vice-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life group, upon accepting the inaugural Westminster Award for the Promotion of Human Life, Human Rights and Human Dignity, Chen said that the award was given ‘not to me but to the hundreds of thousands of human rights activists who are suffering in China’.

Speaking through an interpreter, the blind activist told of the harrowing consequences of the enforcement of China’s one-child policy and explained that the root cause of China’s problems was that its dictatorship had not been removed. Every aspect of government in China is controlled by the communist party who are not held accountable to anyone.

Despite having told the story many times, Chen’s voice cracked as he recounted the story of how a three year old girl was starved to death in her own home following the arrest of her mother, who pleaded with the police to allow her back home in order to ensure her little girl was fed and adequately cared for whilst she was in custody. Passing by the door of her home, the police refused to let her enter and she was taken directly to a detention centre with her starving child locked in the house. Twenty one days later, a neighbour broke into the woman’s house in order to investigate a stench and found the body of a little child, together with bloody footprints and scratch marks at the windows and doors where the little girl had been frantically attempting to get out. The child had been crying so hard, there were tears still imprinted on her face.

This, said Chen, is the nature of dictatorship, it cares nothing for the loss of human life. The consequences of resistance under a dictatorship means that you are persecuted and regarded as an enemy of the state. Not only can the state take your home and possessions and strip you of a living, but they can also take your life and your body.

Though in China there is no legal instrument that forces or compels officials to implement the one-child policy, any party or government official not recognised as doing a good job in enforcing the policy will be denied any sort of promotion, so party officials will do anything possible to be seen to be implementing these draconian measures. In 2005, in one city alone, there were 120-130,000 forced abortions and sterilisations. Some women were even dragged to hospital and forced to have abortions when 9 months pregnant and at the point of giving birth. Many pregnant women went into hiding, at which point all of their friends and family members were dragged to Family Planning offices and severely tortured for several weeks. According to Chen’s investigation in 6 months in 2005, 600,000 family members were tortured, with the women who had been forced into hiding being too frightened to ever return home.

This is a policy which still continues today, as we saw last year, when the photograph of the case of a Chinese woman who was forcibly given a late stage abortion with the body of her dead child placed next to her as a warning, made global headlines. In recent years there have been two cases in one province of bulldozers crushing women’s heads as they lay on the ground in protest. All over China, citizens are being arrested, imprisoned, tortured and sent to labour centres. News of the frequent protests never reach the outside world.

Drawing on the UK’s illustrious history as defenders of human rights, from Wilberforce to the fight against the Nazis, Chen told of how the UK has left a deep positive imprint on the history of humankind. He urged the UK to continue its tradition of intolerance against human rights abuses and not to be indifferent to the plight of the ordinary Chinese citizen who is enslaved by the Communist Party. He spoke with sadness at how trade interests seem to be being put above human rights by Western democracies, who do not seek to challenge China, with human rights negotiations being held behind closed doors. Lord Alton noted that it was telling that despite his tenacious pursuit of human rights and his being awarded asylum in the USA upon his escape, not one single Government minister agreed or found time to meet him. What sort of message does that send to those in Beijing who put trade deals before human rights?

Not once did Chen refer to his own ordeal and there was no hint of self-pity in his words, but his message was one of profound sadness and concern for his still beloved country, to which he hopes to one day return, intermingled with optimism. He believes that Chinese citizens are rapidly waking up and establishing a foundation for the future. This is, he said, the Information Age – anything can happen! We should no longer have dialogue with dictators but instead with human people and invoked the means of technology by which to achieve this. The reason I can sit with you today, he said, ‘is proof that everything you have done is bearing fruit, stick together, persevere and together anything can happen. The regime is losing moral legitimacy, so let’s work together to end dictatorship so we can have global democracy”.

Summing up the evening, Lord Alton noted that one day Chen Guacheng will be regarded as a national hero in his own country, for having stood up for human rights, in particular those of women and children.

In terms of what we in the UK should do, Lord Alton stressed that the UK have aided and abetted this inhumane one-child policy via the UNFPA who have channelled funds from the DFID into Chinese communist policy and agencies. China is a great country home to great people, but the one-child policy violates most basic human rights. This is a war against women and girls, 1,468 abortions the equivalent of a Tianeman Square massacre, take place every hour in China, most of whom are girls. China’s birth rate is currently 100 girls for every 137 boys, which is fuelling human trafficking and slavery in Asia. In addition China faces an aging population with insufficient young people to support them, an anomaly expected to hit in twenty years time.

Various groups need to hold screenings of the film Itsagirlmovie. We also need to defund UNFPA and the IPPF. We need to be inspired and make sure Chen’s story is known, Lord Alton emphasised that each of us must heed Chen’s words and actions and pray for an end to abortion and gendercide.

At the end of the evening, in the Q&A session, Chen told of how he had learnt only that morning that Chinese officials had expressed frustration that they had not beaten him to death when they had the chance. In response to the fact that no government official had agreed to meet him he defiantly repeated “UK government officials are scared of Chinese officials’ anger – I am not scared of Chinese officials!”. He told of how one of his family members is in hospital with appendicitis and is not being allowed to be properly treated and hoped how anyone who cared about issues of justice and conscience would help his family and anyone who was faced with similar persecution. This cowardly bullying, brutalising, intimidation and threats to his friends and family must stop.

I was privileged to have the opportunity to speak to Chen and his wife and thank them for their witness, courage and bravery and to assure them that there were many in the UK who were praying for them and who would do all we could to help the plight of the Chinese citizen.

Here is a man who has been beaten, tortured and imprisoned and whose family is still severely suffering as a result of his courage and advocacy of the poor, women, children and most vulnerable in society. Here’s his response when I told him that as the mother of four girls, I am heavily emotionally invested in the issue of gendercide. This is the power of the human spirit, undaunted, uncrushed, full of joy, optimism and hope. “Four girls, that’s so wonderful, so incredible” he laughed, before adding “not in China, but the day will come”.