On June 29, 1995, ahead of the UN fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, China, Pope John Paul II wrote a special letter to women all over the world. He dwelt extensively on “the situation and problems of women in general, in an attempt to promote the cause of women in today’s world” and “the prospects of what it means to be a woman in our time” (No. 1). He pointed out that many women throughout history, inspired by faith, have taken on initiatives of extraordinary social, political and cultural importance, especially in the service of nations and peoples. He therefore looked forward to a new world order where “the full truth about women” and their impressive contributions to humanity would be acknowledged. It is already more than two decades after the Beijing Conference, but the pope’s ‘love letter’ still remains a valid guide for women emancipation in the circumstances of today’s world.
Thankfully, we are now in an era where a woman’s place can no longer be “in the kitchen, the living room and the other room.” Many women are getting the best of education today and, with the progress of civilized enlightenment, anyone thinking today that women should simply confine themselves to the drudgery of male servitude must be looking at the snapshot of a bygone era of civilization. In the new permutation of twenty-first century politics, women are already ruling the world. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and recent US Presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, the world can no longer remain the same. It is now a new world of women power!
Sadly, in some religions and cultures, women still experience a lot of obstacles in their desire to participate fully in the life of society. During the time of Jesus Christ, the surrounding Greco-Roman culture was highly unfavourable to women. Classical Greek and Roman philosophical and religious literatures at the time spoke about women in very demeaning, degrading and humiliating terms. In the Roman family, slaves and wives were seen in almost the same light because they were viewed as outsiders. The Roman world was also rampant with divorce. Women could not take any legal punitive action against an unfaithful husband, but a husband could take legal action against his wife. Women were not allowed to testify in a court of law. They were looked upon as people of inferior status without rights and without dignity.
In Judaism, women were categorized in the repeated rabbinical formula, “women, slaves and minors,” demonstrating that a woman was under the authority of a man and had limited participation in both religious and social activity. To show how much ancient culture denigrated women, every Jewish man was required to recite three benedictions at the beginning of the day: “Blessed be God that he has not created me a pagan; blessed be God that he has not created me a woman; blessed be God that he has not created me an ignorant man.” These deplorable cultural and religious attitudes towards women contributed a lot to the general negative perception about women.
Up till today, there are still some cultural and religious misogynistic perceptions and attitudes that act as obstacles to women’s participation in public life. In some places, men continue to hold on to their religious Scriptures to deny women certain rights, under the erroneous claim that “The Bible/Qur’an said so.” At best, women are allowed to manage the home, prepare the meals, clean the house, wash the dirty clothes, give birth to children and serve their husbands. These attitudes reflect a religio-cultural worldview that believes that women should be seen and not heard.
Looking at Christianity through the lens of the long-held tradition of gender inequality in other cultures and religions, Jesus brought a revolution in his attitude to women. Up till today, Christianity still offers the best hope of women emancipation. When Pope John Paul II wrote his Apostolic Letter on the Dignity of Women, Mulieris Dignitatem in 1988, he was affirming this important truth. He reiterated this in his 1995 Letter to Women, where he said: “When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way, he honoured the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love.”
Today’s Christians have a clear moral obligation to work to overcome every form of discrimination, exploitation and oppression of women. Women need to know and feel that they are wanted, accepted, cared for and loved for whom they are. They need to feel that they are individual persons of infinite value and self worth, because each one of us is created in the image and likeness of God. They need to know that they are competent and that they can do something to make a difference in the life of society. A world where women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than for their skills, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, and their deep sensitivity cannot be a model of an egalitarian world.
Christians of today need to rise up and act upon the message of Jesus in regard to how we treat women. We ought to do all we can to see that women regain full respect for their dignity and their indispensable role in the life of society. Women who follow the injunctions and inspirations of their religious teachings in their aspiration for public life bring a particularly feminine contribution that only women can bring to the social and political space. Pope John Paul II spoke severally about this special quality of womanhood, the mysterious inscription of God in the life of every woman, which makes a woman unique in a way that only a woman can. He called it “the feminine genius.”
In the context of today, women must use the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to advocate for inclusive politics that recognizes the unique contributions that women can bring to the political space. The SDGs from goal 2 to goal 6 deal with issues that substantially affect women: hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, clean water and sanitation, and gender equality. We cannot lift millions of people out of poverty if women are not empowered and lifted up. An educated woman has higher chances of getting a job, raising a decent family, educating her children and helping them to live long. Education represents the best hope for women emancipation. Only an educated woman can make political demands and act in defence of her rights.
Women in politics must forge partnerships, build coalitions and form networks with NGOs, FBOs and CSOs with similar aims and objectives. Broadening and expanding the network base of women fellowship, and working together, instead of dissipating their energies and efforts, can become the magic wand for upward social mobility for women. Women should never allow themselves to be intimidated by what is often said to be “a man’s world.” Since it is a project of women helping women, mentoring is very crucial. Politics has to do with the mechanism of organising and governing society. The goal of politics is service of the common good and the promotion of peace and justice. It is open to all men and women inspired by the right ideals.
The antiquated idea that Christians should not seek engagement in the political realm because faith and politics do not mix is both erroneous and misleading. It is a fatal mistake for Christians to completely isolate themselves from the realm of politics. When the moral and righteous people do not take it upon themselves to vote or run for office, they are carelessly leaving the fate of future generations in the hands of wicked and immoral politicians. I therefore look forward to a new world where women begin to play crucial roles in fostering an inclusive political culture that puts women issues at the centre of public policy dialogue and decision-making. We need more godly women in politics yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Ojeifo delivered this speech at a forum organised by International Republican Institute (IRI), European Union (EU) and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on Strengthening Women and Youth Political Participation in Abuja, October 26, 2016.