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How women change families and values

As women change, they redefine the family. Soon they will redefine the Church

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How women change families and values

Cindy Crawford lights the Empire State Building in celebration of International Women's Day in partnership with Delivering Good and Jones New York on March 3 in New York City. (Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP)

For as long as human history has been recorded, women and families have been inextricably linked.

Traditionally, the whole purpose of a woman’s existence was seen as raising a family, protecting and preserving it from outside threats and remaining tied to the family for life.

The outer world — the public forum, exploration, discovery and warfare mainly — was always the domain of men: boisterous, conceited, violent men. By contrast, the inner world — the cloister, seraglio, kitchen and bedroom — were allotted to women. No more.

This relationship, so much taken for granted by men across cultures and for centuries, is breaking up today with a speed which leaves us astonished. 

The unattached woman is a sign of our times.

In earlier times, the only unattached woman was the sex worker, used and abused by men and discarded when older and unfit. In the ancient and medieval world, these were the only women without families. They were even designated as threats and temptation to "honest, upright" families, and shunted to the margins of society. 

It’s easy to see how the conventional classification of two kinds of women — fostered by men and uncritically accepted by all women — has guided our attitudes toward women everywhere. This is how false ideas become part of conventional wisdom. 

Family defined a woman’s place

At the root of it all is the concept of family, whether extended or nuclear, as the paramount value to be upheld, preserved and cherished for posterity.

This is especially so in Eastern societies, most of which are still feudal or tribal, where favourable comparisons are drawn with more modern (read "Western") societies.

Some Indian leaders publicly assert that education and affluence make women arrogant, causing divorces and the break-up of families. This expresses what is prized in all traditional families — obedience, fecundity and the nurturing of offspring. It fails to see that when women break away from family, what they seek is justice.

For family life in all feudal societies is adamantly patriarchal, where women are meant to be men’s servants or playthings, usually having little freedom to choose, and even less space to resist. Recalcitrant women were often killed to save the family’s honor.

Invariably religion is invoked to buttress patriarchal claims on women’s behavior. This is true not just of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism but of Catholicism as well. Put another way, the stability of Catholic family life has usually been built on the oppression of women.

As Rosemary Reuther put it, “Where God is seen as man, there men want to be seen as god.”

How things have changed

If all this has changed today, it is because of two major phenomena — migration and domestic technology.

The last century and the first two decades of the present one have witnessed vast movements of peoples across countries and continents, assisted by affordable systems of transport.

Firstly, there is global tourism where masses of people cross national borders, mingle for a while with people of another culture, and in doing so change the economy of the place they visit.

Women who have never left the confines of their homes now brush shoulders with strange other women, and something changes in both.

Tourism is mostly a first-world phenomenon, but migration for work and fleeing political or religious persecution are not. Migrants and refugees are usually from the poorer countries of the global South, and migrant women are among the most oppressed and victimized groups in the world today.

Many migrants and refugee women then, uprooted from their patterns of family and in cultures, not their own, frequently separated from their menfolk and their children, are compelled to redefine themselves as women.

In this, they are helped by domestic technology, which has transformed their lives and given them opportunities unheard of before. For example, the cellphone and its global outreach, or synthetic clothes ready to wear whose attractiveness and durability have transformed how we dress; and, most of all, the contraceptive pill which for the first time has given women control of their fertility.  

Redefining family

Any wonder then that women are detaching themselves from family and childbirth, two areas in which they have traditionally only experienced oppression, violence and illness? 

For societies rarely talk about the emotional and psychological effects of domestic violence, whether verbal or physical, which is the daily lot of most women.

Thus, many women are opting out of permanent relationships — whether marriage or cohabitation — and are choosing to stay single and unattached. Others form close bonds within their gender and adopt rather than have their own children.

So in many ways today, the family is being redefined.

We acknowledge that such statistics come from the affluent first world, and not from the third, Africa and Asia. In the latter, single women are usually found only for reasons of poverty or ill health, for arranged marriages are still the norm, enforced by a patriarchal ethos.

Still, things are changing ever so slowly even here. 

As women change, they redefine the family. As women change, they will redefine the Church. How vital it is that the present Church leadership gives them the space to do so. 

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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