Women Weaving a Vision of Justice and Peace
Believing during the absence of hope
by Deborah Flagg –
Around the turn of the last century, women around the world began to explore a collective vision of equality and justice that would lead to the establishment of an International Women’s Day. The emerging forces of industrialization, booming population growth, and brewing global conflicts galvanized women from Europe to Australia to seek a better life for all women with full participation in every area of society.
The first International Women’s Day was held on March 19, 1911 in Germany and Austria. One of the early organizers, Alexandra Kollontai wrote of the day that it “exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria…was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere…halls were packed so full that they had to ask (male) workers to give up their places for the women.” Clearly, it was an idea whose time had come and women around the globe embraced it with hope and optimism.
In 1917 the date for IWD was set on March 8 and since those early years the day has grown in its significance for women in developed and developing countries alike. Sadly, even with the great strides that women have made in recent years, the day commemorates the fact that women still lag behind in many areas, including education and equal pay, and, being at the bottom of the power structures, still suffer the most in conditions of war and privation. Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Guatemala—the list of places where women struggle for human rights and equality is a long one.
Two countries, two cultures
Two countries, halfway around the world from each other, vastly different in language and culture, provide a window into the struggles women still face. In looking at these countries, one in Central America, one in the Middle East we can see women courageously working, not only to ensure their rights, but also to create a brighter future for their children, weaving visions of peace and justice out of the meager threads they have been given.
Our first stop is Guatemala, a country with the worst record of human rights abuse in the Western Hemisphere. Gender-related violence is commonplace in this small country where women often suffer at the hands of husbands and fathers at home, and at the hands of opportunistic employers in the workplace.
Michelle Tooley in Voices of the Voiceless writes, “Years of violence and repression have resulted in increased poverty among women.” A majority of women in Guatemala have little or no formal education, and those who must work to support their children often work sixty or seventy hours a week at physically demanding jobs. Rather than being defeated by these abysmal realities, many of the women of Guatemala have taken it upon themselves to work for needed change.
“During the past decade, women—especially wives and mothers—have been active in the struggle for social and political change,” writes Tooley. Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM) is one group that has managed to escape the usual repression by the police, army and military death squads. Founded by twenty-five wives and mothers of “the disappeared” in June of 1984, GAM has been a consistent voice for human rights in Guatemala, fighting for the release of disappeared Guatemalans and striving to end extra-judicial assassinations.
With 90 percent of its constituency female, GAM has been called “the moral conscience of Guatemala and the thorn in the flesh of the military and the right-wing government ruling Guatemala.” Making speeches, writing articles, organizing marches, beating pots and pans together in front of the Public Ministry office, the women of GAM have used non-violent direct action to transcend the limits of their culturally defined roles, improving the quality of life for all Guatemalans—a picture of women weaving a vision of justice for their children and grandchildren, against incredible odds.
Leaving Guatemala, our next stop is Palestine, a part of the world that has been under occupation for over thirty-five years and where women strive to provide a “normal” life for their families under the continual shadow of military tanks and guns. When not under curfew, the women of Hebron, dignified in their traditional dress even under a sweltering sun, scan the markets for good buys on meat and vegetables, with babies and children in tow. They often look weary, but there is also a quiet resolve behind their eyes that belies the awesome difficulties they face on a daily basis. In this land of 60% unemployment, shrinking options and the continual unrest often caused by the actions of their own people, women are the ones who suffer the most.
As in Guatemala, the women of Palestine face the constant specter of domestic violence, a problem that has increased with the occupation. With a majority of the men unemployed and confined to their homes for days on end, women often take the brunt of a pervasive anger and frustration. There has been a significant increase in suicide among women, particularly teenage girls. Rapes are commonplace, and with no court systems and prisons to provide legal recourse, they most often go unnoticed. “In usual times we are at the lowest level of society, but in the present political situation, we are under the ground,” said one Palestinian woman.
In the midst of this despair, the Palestinian Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling works to correct the long-standing neglect of women’s rights in Palestinian society. Though most of their buildings are in disarray, carrying the marks of recent gunfire, the WCLAC works to “contribute to the establishment of a democratic Palestinian society, based on social justice and equality between women and men.” Many of the staff members risk interrogation and arrest to come to work under the constraints of curfew.
Through counseling, safe homes, legal aid and representation, networking and advocacy, the WCLAC is a courageous force for change in a time of war and in a culture wherein women have traditionally been relegated to the margins. One of their tenets provides an interesting commentary: “Palestinian women must learn that they have the right to physical and psychological well being throughout their lives irrespective of their ability to reproduce.”
A point of prayer
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “It has been women’s task throughout history to go on believing in life when there was almost no hope.” The women of Guatemala and the women of Palestine bear witness to the truth of this statement. And if the celebration of International Women’s Day has anything to say to us, it must be this—that we still live in a world where women and children are among the most powerless; we still must find solutions to great injustices; women’s rights are human rights. For those of us who are Christians, the biblical vision of justice confirms these truths—and that God is always concerned, in fact most concerned, about those who have no voice.
Keep the women of Guatemala and Palestine—and all of those who have no voice in their culture or community—in prayer as they seek to live in difficult situations.
Women who have brought hope to the hopeless
In her book, Broken Alabaster Jars, (Winepress Publishing 1998) Anne Pickup highlights nine Salvationist women who have made an impact on the lives of those around them. Three of the nine are Western Territory officers: Brigadier Eva Bawden, Lt. Colonel Maud Sullivan, and Brigadier Alice Stiles.
The following is excerpted from Pickup’s book.
Co-founder of The Salvation Army, with her husband, General William Booth, Catherine long defended the right for a woman to hold a public ministry. Her defense, written in 1859 as a pamphlet entitled Female Ministry: Or Women’s Right to Preach the Gospel, was actually written in support of American holiness preacher Phoebe Palmer.
On Pentecost Sunday 1860, Catherine publicly answered her call to ministry by telling her husband—at the end of his sermon to 1,000 in Bethesda Chapel—“William, I want to say a word.”
Catherine confessed, “I dare say many of you have been looking upon me as a very devoted woman, and one who has been living faithfully to God, but I have come to know that I have been living in disobedience, and to that extent I have brought darkness and leanness into my soul, but I promised the Lord three or four months ago, and I dare not disobey. I have come to tell you this, and to promise the Lord that I will be obedient to the heavenly vision.”
Brigadier Eva Bawden
Brigadier Eva Bawden faithfully modeled a life of stewardship, and was a living example of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31. She loved and served her God through loving and serving her family, her corps and her community. Each of her five children became officers.
Their decisions surprised Eva. “I do think that our home contributed to their callings to officership. We frequently had guests at our dinner table. As Christians we would talk joyfully about our service in The Salvation Army and the needs we constantly saw around us. We lived in faraway communities, but the world came to our home through our visitors.”
Lt. Colonel Maud Sullivan
Pastoral work in the corps has been the focus of Lt. Colonel Maud Sullivan’s leadership. She has used her Bachelor of Arts and masters degree in Christian education in her ministry. As a student of the Bible, Maud is an excellent preacher and teacher, utilizing her innate creativity. From expositional sermons, chalk talks, and dramatic monologues, her consistent teaching of the Bible has brought many to Jesus and nurtured hundreds of others.
While Maud has held a variety of corps and divisional appointments, she says, “Corps work…is the best place to fulfill one’s calling to ministry. As a corps officer, I find freedom to be and do exactly what I feel God created me to be and do.”
Brigadier Alice Stiles
Called as a child to missionary service, Brigadier Alice Stiles first overseas appointment was to the Catherine Booth Hospital in Nagercoil, India. She devoted her life to Salvation Army ministry in India and retired from there in 1965, after serving in appointments that included: principal of two boarding schools, divisional commander in two divisions, territorial youth secretary, and principal of the College for Officer Training. After her retirement, General Eva Burrows asked her to be the principal of the College for Officer Training in Bangladesh. During her 15 months there, she celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday.
“So many people say, ‘Oh, you have sacrificed a lot.’ I have never sacrificed anything. People preach about bearing a cross. Well, I’ve never borne a cross. Whatever God reveals as his will, it must be good. The best thing I know in this world below is doing the will of God.’