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Women and the World: Celebrations Religious and Secular

Call it random coincidence, poetic harmony or Divine Providence—all three characterizations apply to the convergent messages and meanings of two dates and two celebrations, one religious and one secular, which occurred in side-by-side sequence over these past two weeks.

On March 7th, Orthodox Christians celebrated the first of the five, Friday-evening Salutation Services to Mary, the Theotokos, the Mother of God.  These serenely-chanted prayers are known as the Akathystos Hymnos (the hymn is intended to be prayed while standing throughout), and although composed in 6th-century Constantinople, the hymn continues to unite all Orthodox Churches around the world in praise of the young woman, Mary, who was the mother of Jesus Christ. 

The very next day, on March 8th, International Women’s Day was commemorated for the 39th time since the United Nations designated the date as a reminder of the importance of achieving equality for women everywhere on the planet.  The commemoration of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for global affirmation that human rights are universal, and therefore, that denial of those rights to women on the basis of gender is a violation of humanity.

Sadly enough, women and girls around the world continue to suffer under wretched conditions of oppression, deprivation, and discrimination, simply because of their gender—despite the passage of two-plus millennia after Mary accepted the Annunciation of the Good News of the miracle of the Incarnation (Luke 1: 1-79) and came to be reverenced with the culminating words of the Akathyst Hymn, “Awed by the…exceeding splendor of your purity,…I cry to you, rejoice, O you who are full of Grace!”.   

A few facts are instructive—and outrageous—when it comes to the torment, shame, contempt, and bias that afflict women around the world—cutting across boundaries of age, religion, race, class, or geography.  The UN reports that more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime, while over 60 million girls worldwide are married annually as child brides before the age of 18.  Emblematic of these problems is the draft law on personal status currently under consideration in the Iraqi Parliament, which according to highly-respected advocacy organization, Human Rights Watch, would lower the marriage age for girls to nine years old.  The UN also reports that women and girls comprise 80% of the 800,000 individuals who are internationally trafficked each year, and global human rights organization Amnesty International estimates that approximately 135 million girls worldwide have been subjected to female genital mutilation, with devastating physical- and mental-health consequences.  Meanwhile, although some critics dismissed former Princeton University professor and Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, as whining about “First World problems” in her 2012 article in the Atlantic Monthly, on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” the essay turned up the spotlight on ongoing gender discrimination in the United States.  For example, the US Census Bureau found that in 2012 the median earnings of full-time employed women still only measure 77 cents on the dollar versus their male cohort.  Similarly, a study by Grant Thornton International, one of the world’s largest global accounting firms, ranked the US 37th out of 45 countries surveyed (behind Russia, Greece, Latvia, Botswana, Indonesia, and others), in women in senior management positions (a measly 22 percent).

All is not lost, however.  For those who would open their hearts to see, there is inspiration to move beyond complacency and to try for change, so that respect for the rights of women is understood not as a political or ideological issue, but as an unassailable responsibility that implicates each and every human being.  There is a brilliant symmetry which unites the Orthodox Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God with the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  

So, let’s wake up to the beautiful synchronicity of the month-long prayers of the Friday-night Salutation Services, which lead into the passion of Holy Week and the event of the Resurrection of Pascha, and the month-long activities inaugurated with International Women’s Day and culminating in the Women in the World Summit which brings girls and women who are exemplars of change to New York’s Lincoln Center in early April.  From Bethlehem to Manhattan, from sacred to secular, it’s time that women are treated as full human beings with the infinite potential ascribed to them in Orthodox theology and in international human rights law.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs Study Groups on Southeastern Europe and on Muslims and Democratic Politics. 

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