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Women In The Dialogue
Margarida Lopes Ferraz
In order to speak about woman in the dialogue it is necessary to reflect on two different questions and try to find a nexus between them:
What is Dialogue? Why Woman?
There is a great deal of literature dealing with Dialogue. It has come to be a worn-out word, but in reality, its meaning remains the same: DIA LOGOS, Word between two. All human beings look for dialogue in order to make themselves understood. However, very few attain it. This, not only at an interpersonal level but also among groups, peoples or entities that are institutional.
The history of communication is a long one, from the first gestures of primitive humans, their instinctive cries, until the invention of the alphabet, which together with the art of printing, have become in our day a diversified and abundant source of information. Information technology is a science, but actual communication among persons still continues to be very difficult.
True communication supposes an adequate instrument for transmitting what the emitter wants to say and a receiver capable of understanding the content of the message. Each person or each institution is a distinct world which does not always manage to make itself understood. On the other hand, the receiver quite often belongs to a different world. Because of this and for hundreds of other reasons the capacity for reception is blocked.
What do we know about the OTHER?
What do we want to dialogue about?
If these premises are applied to inter-religious dialogue communication difficulties are going to increase. Philosophical and cultural elements have to be overcome in order to arrive at a deeper knowledge. Alongside the fear of making oneself known, there is the fear of not being understood, as well as all the other obstacles which occur in interpersonal dialogue. Here we ask: Can woman be an instrument of dialogue?
It seems necessary to reflect on this question. Woman has a natural aptitude for dialogue. Firstly vis-a-vis man, as her equal but with difference. Dialogue is not an elimination of differences but respect for difference which, quite rightly, allows an interchange which is in no way detrimental to the identity of each person. In reality, true dialogue is Unity in the Difference, whether this be between persons or between cultures or religions. Precisely because she is different from the male, woman's identity leads her to be able to complement what he lacks, and vice-versa. As Martin Buber said, "Dialogue always takes place between an I and a Thou".
In religious anthropology women and men are called to discover their own dignity and identity and to fulfill themselves in a reciprocal gift, in relation to God, to nature and the world in which they live.
In the Book of Genesis this "otherness", this equality in difference is implied right from the beginning in the terms used for the man and the woman: ish and isha (the root is the same). According to the interpretation of a Jewish philosopher, the woman is destined to be Ezer, man's companion, and not Kenegdo, a term which signifies "facing someone, being in their presence, by their side", in a relationship of reciprocity, but which can also be understood as "confronting" the other, limiting them, offering resistance and can end up being against someone, even an adversary.
This last reading of biblical anthropology implies an "opposition" between the man and the woman when in reality both are Adam (which signifies humanity, undifferentiated, including the male and the female). Both are mediators between God and humanity. It is then that this dialogal bond is perceived in such a relationship, especially in the female. Often the "different" becomes the adversary, the stranger, a threat. For those who have a vocation for dialogue it is quite the opposite: difference is openness and enrichment.
In our day, although there has been a humanity-centred "re-reading" of Genesis and of the whole Bible, there are still men and women who behave according to the models and patterns of a culture which super-values the male. According to these models, a woman should be tender, delicate, joyful, serviceable and pleasing, in a word "all heart". The male must suppress his affective emotions, show himself to be aggressive, energetic, daring, decisive; that is to say all "brain and muscle". In reality, these differences are in the psychological terrain and can be found in both sexes, besides being susceptible to education as they are written into their existence as persons who are destined to build up a common history.
"In order to reach self-fulfilment no-one can transform the Other into an object to appropriate or to use at will. Relationships should always recognize "otherness" and so build up a love that generates free and responsible persons" (C.N.B.B. 1990, "Woman and Man - Image of God" N.149-50).
"On asking about the essence of the feminine we must look for the philosophical basis of the 'difference' between man and woman", says Fr. Ismael Quiles S.J. in his book: The Philosophy of the Feminine (Bs.As 1978) and adds "Only when the essence of the feminine and the dignity of woman as person have been determined with precision, can we speak about the specific contribution of feminity to the questions of Equality, Development and Peace" (the theme of the International Year of Womanhood).
With this reflection, we pass from the first dialogal dimension of woman, through the complementarity and communication with her equal in creation, - the male - to another level, which is that of establishing bonds between groups and/or institutions, in civil and religious society. The aptitude for this also stems from the integrating nature of woman. She is by her physical and psychological constitution "a milieu of life".
According to the philosophical-religious thinking of Maria Teresa Porcile (a theologian from Uruguay) "every woman is susceptible to being inhabited", to be a "carrier of life". A woman's womb is the community place where a child and a world gestate. This is the first "community place" where human beings live together in absolute otherness and interdependence, supporting each other. Through giving birth the woman continues to be a giver of life and from there her social vocation begins which, at the same time, consists in creating "spaces of life" where they do not exist, "respecting evolution and growth, nourishing, caring for, protecting and sheltering...struggling for the rights of a human being"...
Dialogue passes from the personal plane to that of the social order.
In this sense, woman has insisted on creating with man a vital environment, not only for children but also for the society in which they live. Her work in this field is written into history through the development of organisations and laws which further the promotion of woman.
The South American continent has made great strides in this sense, as the Congresses in the decade 1970 to 1980 show. The preparatory document of the Second Latin-American Congress of Catholic Women, (24-28 August 1944, San Jose, Costa Rica), which had as its theme: "The Latin-American Woman and the Culture of Life", says in its introductory framework "The increasing presence of women in Latin-American societies and in the international community is an irrefutable fact of which we are well aware". This presence arises as much from the action of the women themselves in the struggle for equality of rights and opportunities, as from their essential part in the means of productivity, in the formal and informal sector of the economy, since the end of the last century.
It is this "irruption of woman" that has led the Church to recognize her entry into public life and her awareness of her own dignity as "a sign of the times" (cf. PT41; DP 847).
Chapter II also points out that there is a growing reflection and search for new models of significant relationships, principally by women themselves, but also by an increasing number of men. No.12: "There is an increase in the participation of women in Latin-American life in some fields:
- In the Economy: A large number of women are involved in productivity and the professions with a growing number at the director level in industry and finance.
- Culture: There is a great interest in the question of identity in feminine/masculine relationship and an increased presence of Christian women active in the secular sphere.
- In Political life: Efforts to obtain more representation are evident.
No.13: Especially in populated areas, women respond before conflict, crises or violence break out, suggesting alternatives for sharing and solidarity... and a unifying peace has developed.
No.20: Many Latin-American women are promotors of life in a pessimistic world, dominated to a great extent by the "culture of death".
These are some of the comments from the CELAM (Conference of Latin-American Bishops) document, which reveals the lights and shadows in the life of the Church and the participation of women in evangelisation.
Sister Carmelita de Dreitas, from the group of Latin- American theologians, also speaks about the role of women in society.
"Women do not want to wait for the changes that must take place in today's world... In this context the social role which the women of Latin America and the Caribbean have played (above all collectively) during the last decades and in a more constant and organised way since the l980s, is well known. Groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the "Midwives" in El Salvador, the work of Rigoberto Manchu in defence of the indigenous peoples of Central-America....are examples of community experiences led by women and their activity with regard to respect for life and fundamental human rights."
Both documents show the contribution of women in their own characteristic spirit to society and to what is specific to the Church. This "spirit" is not only creative but "bridge-building", which is why women have an aptitude for dialogue. It is not only in the Catholic Church but in all the Christian Churches that women exercise this style of leadership. The Ecumenical Congresses and the Jewish Christian dialogue in the last decades manifest the same preoccupations and hopes.
During the years 1970-1980 the World Union of Catholic Feminine Organisations (UMOFC0) has organised several Latin-American meetings and their leadership sowed the seed of the promotion of women among the groups formed in different countries, which pursue this end in communion with the Catholic Church.
I would like to mention Elena Cumella, with whom I shared some of these meetings in Bogota, Panama, Argentina, which were attended by Catholic, Protestant and Jewish women. We know that this organization (UMOFC) exists today under different leadership but with the same spirit. After all, is not the purpose of inter-religious dialogue, among other things, to bring about the betterment of human beings on earth, without losing its principal end?
The Messianic Age
Meeting those who are in need of help, promoting health, working to eradicate poverty, to educate, for the development of peoples, reflecting together on atheism, materialism, intolerance, fanaticism, is putting into practice the messianic dream which the prophet Isaiah says will arrive one day (XI:6), those days when "the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the leopard with the kid, when the ox and the whelp will feed together and a little child shall lead them..."
To complete the picture of the contribution of women in the promotion and development and peace in Latin-America it must be said that in the Catholic field of action the figure of that Woman par excellence, Mary the mother of the Saviour, is always present. Her canticle, the Magnificat is on the lips of all - women of the people and of the intellectual world, wherever there is feminine leadership - in interesting versions with an existential savour.
In reality these canticles, as someone has said, are "the festive and celebratory memory of the merciful intervention of God on behalf of the suffering people". This intervention always generates life. Mary, like all the women of the Bible, shows the way forward. She is aware of the command "Choose life" in Deuteronomy 30:15.
Pope Paul VI, in his apostolic exhortation on the cult of Mary comments on her responsible consent to the "Word of the ages" as the Incarnation of the Word is called...as "a courageous option", not a passive one, "for her people" as the "strong woman of action" who "favours the community"... and he proposes her as an example for women today.
In Latin-America, Mary is the symbol of the liberation of the poor and oppressed. She makes roses appear in the depth of winter in Mexico, to save a little Indian peasant and sustain him in his troubles. In Brazil she multiplies the fishes to save from embarrassment those in charge of preparing a banquet for a powerful lord... In Argentina she refuses to finish her journey and stays near the river Lugan, near a humble little hamlet... There are the special devotions of Guadalupe, Aparecida, Lujan, Chiquinquire (Colombia), Our Lady of Copper (Cuba), Altagracia (Santo Domingo), Our Lady of the Angels (Costa Rica) and many others.
In Mary, God exalts women. They are called to reveal, through dialogue, the face of the God of Love "the maternal face of God" and the feminine form of the Church: she maintains life, resists the mechanisms of death, assumes courageous initiatives. This is the principal role of Dialogue.
La mujer en la Iglesia y la Cultura Latinoamerican (Seminario Latinoamericano -Bogota, Colombia del 24-26 de abril de 1992)
2 Congreso Latinoamericano de mujeres catolicas (Seminario Latinoamericano en San Josť de Costa Rica, del 24-28 de agosto de 1994).
Seminario-taller sobre la Mujer - CAR y CONFER (Buenos Aires, del 18 al 20 de febrero de 1993)
Conferencias sobre el Dialogo Interreligioso - Hna M.L. Ferraz.
Seminario-taller "Mujer" (CLAR - cono sur, del 21-25 de noviembre de 1992: informes de Chile, Brasil, Uruguary, Paraguay, Argentina)
Las mujeres y Maria - Mary O'Driscoll, O.P.
La identidad de la mujer en el mundo actual (*Conferencia de Maria Teresa Porcile Santiso en el capitulo general de las Religiosas de N.D. de Sion)
Filosofia de lo demenino - P. Ismael Quiles, S.J.
La mujer en la Iglesia - Hna. Silvia Arce Moya R.B.P.
Margarida Lopes Ferraz is a Sister of Sion who worked for 23 years in Buenos Aires and has recently returned to Brazil, her home country.