Background: This discussion (by Skype), on September 19, 2012 between Valeria Martano and Katherine Marshall, focused on Martano's work with the Community of Sant’Egidio and, more specifically, how the community, in its internal workings and in its work in various countries, sees women’s roles. She points to the active roles that women play within the community, even if they do not generally hold formal leadership positions. The community’s work (by women and men alike) is driven by a deep commitment to the dignity of women, whether in peace negotiations or in programs like the HIV and AIDS program, DREAM, and by an appreciation for the complexity and diversity of the cultural expectations and forces at work. The roles that women play in Sant’Egidio’s programs, as in societies, vary widely across Asia, with women playing powerful roles in Muslim Indonesia and the Philippines. China, ironically (given its ideology) presents greater difficulties. The role that religion plays in work for peace may be most important in the framing of values and in their roles in communities. She stresses that there is much work still to do in these areas. At a broader level she describes her own involvement with the community from the age of 15 years old and points to the important asset that the community has with its contacts both with very senior religious leaders and with very local communities on a continuing basis.
How long have you been involved with the Community of Sant’Egidio? What are your current roles and responsibilities?
I became involved with the community when I was very young, around 15 years old. It was Monsignor [Vincenzo] Paglia, at that time a deputy parish priest, who introduced me to the community. He himself was then just coming to know the group who created our community, and he attracted many of us to the work of this small, committed group of young people. I found the group a nice way of belonging, a guide to how to behave and how to see my role in the community. It was a way of living out my own quest for spirituality. This was in the early 1970s, and the environment of the times was one of questioning and seeking.
Msgr. Paglia put us in touch with Andrea Riccardi and the group that became the Community of Sant’Egidio. At that time it was focused entirely in Rome and had no formal structure. All of us were young, mostly university students, mostly at La Sapienza. What it gave us was a way to live the Gospel as we understood it, through friendship and caring, and truly together with the poor. I discovered a new Rome, one that was very different from the lovely and comfortable neighborhoods that I had known. It was shocking for me to learn that children there were not going to school and faced challenges I had not imagined.
We came to appreciate through our work that young people do have power and can do something. And that meant girls and boys, men and women.
It was, as I said, the early 1970s, and there was a ferment of ideas. Ours was a generation of political protests, and we wanted to build a new society. A young person like me was looking for a way to make a commitment to life, to find a way to live together with others. The core principle of friendship on which our community was built attracted me. Like many others, I found that the patterns of friendship I had known were not conducive to living the values I believed in. I found what I was looking for, and understood better who I could be, in the community.
My work with the community was initially focused on schools for peace that we ran in the city of Rome but gradually both the community (now more formally the Community [of Sant'Egidio]) and I expanded our scope internationally. I took a course in Chinese language at university, and that was part of my early interest in the eastern parts of the world. I began teaching in the outskirts of Rome.
When I graduated from university, I continued my studies, more focused on Eastern languages. I had begun with Chinese but was increasingly drawn to Indonesia. By the late 1980s, the Community of Sant’Egidio had spread to many parts of the world. There was no plan behind this expansion: it was organic, with one person and story leading to another. The Indonesia connection began by chance with a young Indonesian woman who was studying in Rome, and she came by chance to the daily prayers in Trastevere. The girl was deeply touched by the community’s concept of living the Gospel and started a community in Indonesia. From there it spread to different parts of Asia.
After the 1986 Assisi meeting of religious leaders from all over the world called by Pope John Paul II, the community, which took on the challenge of organizing similar meetings each year, came far more into contact with religious leaders at senior levels. Thus the community worked very much on a double track, on the one hand with increasingly deep relationships with spiritual and religious leaders, on the other at a very grassroots level. This led to a major expansion of the community’s contacts and also their nature. That is the way many communities of Sant’Egidio were born, through very personal contacts. And it is the way of Sant’Egidio, to work at both the top and the bottom and to put those two levels together. It does not follow any plan but develops with a natural impetus driven by friendship. These are topics that are very sensitive and that calls for experience and knowledge as well as the caring that the community brings. Those are central elements in what is needed to work for peace.
How did you get involved in Asia?
It was unexpected (and unplanned) that Indonesia was the one of the first countries where the community saw this organic expansion and top/bottom work out in practice. We developed a very close friendship with a wonderful spiritual leader, Abdurrahmin Walid (Gus Dur), who was head of one of the world’s largest religious movements, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). And we worked with very local communities, which spread across the country. Today there are communities in many parts of Indonesia. They began mainly in Christian communities; indeed, they began with Chinese minorities, but now they are much broader, including all ethnic groups. There are communities in 16 of the 32 Catholic dioceses in Indonesia, from Sumatra to Flores to Timor. They welcome Muslims and those of other faiths and work for understanding and meaningful integration. There are two centers, in Jakarta and Yogyakarta.
In Indonesia, the community’s work focuses on dialogue, working for peace from many different directions. The communities are present in many of the most sensitive areas. This year, for example, during Ramadan there were huge feasts that included both Christians and Muslims in these areas. The communities also work with the relevant media to address tensions and broaden understanding. At Sarajevo, Muhammaddiyah’s number one, Prof. Din Syamsuddin, was an active participant, as he has been throughout the annual prayers for peace.
Last October, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Muhammaddiyah and the Community of Sant’Egidio, a first involving a Catholic organization and a Muslim organization. It calls for continuing cooperation on a range of areas, including education, work for non-violence, and conflict prevention.
The community is also working with Muhammaddiyah to address the long-standing conflicts in the Philippines, specifically by establishing contact and dialogue with the guerrillas who are fighting in Mindanao. The approach there is to teach and advise on the tools that are needed to build democracy. The presence of Sant’Egidio can act as a bridge, part of the effort to work to cope with the coming of modernity.
How does your work in Asia with Sant’Egidio link to your own academic scholarship and research?
My personal academic focus has followed a rather different path, but in many ways they come together! My research has centered on religious history, and especially Orthodox traditions and the church in the east. I also focus on their links with the Catholic Church and specifically with John XXIII. My scholarship and my work with the community have required some quite different skills; I read Greek, which I need for my research, and speak Indonesian. However, though my research is quite different from my work with Asia and with the Community, I do try to find the links that unify the two. Some of my publications highlight the common themes. Thus, while the locations, cultures, and time periods are different, I find important common themes, above all the challenges of living together. That runs through it all like a red thread (fil rouge).
In many senses, Sant’Egidio is my way of life, the way I take care of my family, reflecting my values. Many ask me how to match a strong commitment and the care of family. This is not a true issue, however. Being a member of Sant’Egidio strengthens my family links, and encourages me to take care of the members of my family with mercy and love. For example, we took care of my husband’s father, an old man, 95 years old, during a long and painful illness. It was not easy for us to organize his care: my husband is a journalist and has a demanding job and I travel a lot, but we managed. It is part of what we believe in the community: that we care for people. We were able to avoid hospitalization. That is the idea of the community, that we take care of each other as a family. It is a central part of our life.
How has the Community of Sant’Egidio seen the roles of women, within the community, and in its work?
One of the characteristics of the community is that, as a lay organization, members and those responsible for leadership can be men or women, priests or lay people, married or unmarried. What is important is the spirituality, which is at the core of our understanding of dignity and of friendship. So it is not a competition but cooperation. Thus there are roles for women at many levels.
Women are very much part of the community, including its leadership, and they can and do a lot. But women’s roles do present a challenging issue that, at a personal level, I am very much aware of. The path within the Church (and within all religious communities) to women’s full equality and leadership is a long one. But if you look only at the formality of leadership roles you can miss many important elements and also miss opportunities. And focusing too much on formal leadership can be an obstacle when there are important differences among traditions. If we consider the issues and roles for women and men in terms of spirituality, not formal religious practice, we can do much more than if we focus too much on formal hierarchies and positions.
Women’s roles within religious communities are much less determined by law than by practice, for example how relationships are shaped within families. That is where the dimension of spirituality comes in. And women’s styles can allow them to do a lot, even as it can also represent a handicap. The difference can be between the formal and what actually happens. For example, it was the president of Sant’Egidio who signed the memorandum of understanding with Indonesia, but it was a woman who made it happen and worked out the details (me!).
In Africa, and especially in the DREAM program (Sant’Egidio’s HIV and AIDS program), the dignity of women is a central value and objective. We highlight often the suffering and courage of women. Women are so often victims, and they carry the heaviest burdens. They are raped, and their suffering and needs are ignored and neglected. They face many stigmas and are often alone in their struggles. The DREAM program works hard to rectify this.
Thus there are issues that do affect women particularly and areas where women’s voices and work are much needed. Sadly many women are the first to give up when they do not find an easy path to express their needs and use their capacities. There is a lot that needs to be done in this area. That is true everywhere, in Europe, Africa, and in Asia. It is in part a question of generations: older generations are more accustomed to defer to men, but it goes deeper.
We need to recognize that these questions about women’s roles are very complex. In Asia, it can seem on the surface that women are in inferior roles, that the countries are very male-dominated and male-oriented, and indeed in many ways they are. Yet it is Asia that has given us most of the world’s strong women heads of state. What are the paradigms that allow this? And it is important that we indeed reflect more on the roles that women play, and can play, in peacemaking.
How would you describe the community’s approach?
We place much importance on education and on this commitment to dignity. The schools of peace that are an important part of the community’s approach have lots of girls, and we focus a lot on them. There are Christians but also young people from other traditions.
There are important differences in status and skills that we try to address. In Pakistan, for example, the schools of peace have many Muslims as well as Christian men and women. But we realized that many of the girls simply could not read at all, even when they were at the same social and economic level as the men. The issue there is not religion—it is culture. The girls are simply not going to school. So we focused on providing them with those basic skills.
We work also at the level of families and take account of practices of different ethnic groups. In our programs for long-distance adoption [Sant’Egidio’s model of child sponsorship] and foster care we give priority to girls and women.
There are women in many traditions who have come to play strong and meaningful roles and the community has been able to provide support. Indonesia is an example. Last summer I worked with a girl from a slum area of Jakarta who was, many years ago, part of the long distance adoption. She did well, went to university in Yogyakarta, and is now working in cinema and broadcasting with her own company that she created. She is one who has benefitted from a program that is 12 or 13 years old.
What do you see as priorities to address these complex issues around women and religion?
The most important place to start is at the cultural level. If we don’t win there we won’t win anywhere. That means addressing attitudes and practices at the level of the community and the family. We need to appreciate that Western women do not have a complete framework that allows them to speak for women everywhere or address their problems. There are too many preconceptions and prejudices at work among both men and women.
We need to go beyond the superficial level to understand what the issues really are. For example, there are wide differences among Asian countries in attitudes towards women and thus the roles they play in working for peace. Attitudes towards headscarves (the veil) are a good example. In Indonesia many women wear the veil, but it certainly does not mean that they are subordinate to men. Many who wear the veil are very powerful in society, far more so than their husbands, involved in politics and business. In China, in contrast, I have found an extraordinarily male-oriented culture, even though the rhetoric speaks of equality and the obstacles to women’s roles is not evident in dress or other superficial signs. Italy seems to be free, but again there are many underlying cultural pressures at work that keep women away from leadership positions.
In the Philippines, women are especially active in working for peace in many areas and at many levels. Teresita Quintos-Deles is a remarkable woman who is formally part of the government’s peace negotiating team [presidential advisor for the peace process]. She was supposed to come to the Sant’Egidio meeting in Sarajevo, but could not because she was involved in peace negotiations. She comes out of a long tradition of Catholic peacebuilding.
It is very true and indeed unfortunate that women are very rarely involved in formal peace processes. But that does not mean that they do not have a clear framework. Many have a different cultural orientation that affects how they present their roles, but it does not mean that they are not active and significant. And very often their religious beliefs and communities are part of those frameworks, what they bring to discussions of peace at every level.
In Indonesia, again, many of the societies are, by long tradition, matriarchal. Women need to sanction the holders of power. In Sumatra, even the radical Islamists had to accept that they must seek the sanction of women leaders for them to have legitimacy within the Muslim community. So you have the irony that in the part of Indonesia with perhaps the most radical Islam, everything to do with power—property, economics, and so on, are part of the matriarchal system. Muslim leaders there refer to a document (which I have not seen) signed in Mecca that approves this recognition of women’s power, affirming that it is acceptable in Islam.
There are important differences between the Asian and Arab Muslim cultures that we should not ignore or underestimate. It is striking that the roles of women in Islamic Indonesia are much more advanced than in industrialized Japan or China, and of course many parts of the Arab Middle East. Across Asia, the roles of women differ widely, but prejudices and damaging practices are still very common, witnessed for example in child marriage and the abortion of girl fetuses. This is a huge issue, not a minor one.
A small story with a moral: I was running a course in China, and we had insisted on having an equal number of men and women. At a certain point I noticed that many of the women had vanished so I looked for them. I found them in the kitchen, preparing the meal. When I protested, they were shocked: that was their role, they believed, and they had no notion of an alternative way of looking at it. The lesson: we need to work with women, perhaps first and foremost, so that they redefine their roles. If women do not want to take on leadership, do not see themselves in these roles, we will get nowhere. In contrast, in Africa, women are far more ready to look for and take on leadership positions.
What roles do you see women playing within the Community of Sant’Egidio looking forward?
Women are very active and full partners within the community. The president of the community now is a man, but two vice presidents are women, for example. And several women play roles of responsibility in crucial sectors of the community. In many Sant’Egidio communities, women are in the majority. In Indonesia over 60 percent are women. And the members of the community, throughout, are deeply and sincerely committed to the dignity of women. That is a foundation to build on.
What do you see as some priorities for the future in this area?
We need perhaps to start by looking at ourselves. Westerners, including Western women, can be very self-referential. That makes it difficult to open discussions and to understand the perspectives of others, which may be very different. The symbols we see and use in the West are not necessarily true indicators of where power lies. We need to change the perceptions of what it means to be emancipated, because these are too often shaped by superficial features, not the fundamental beliefs and practices. We also need to be willing to disagree but still continue to work together. That does not mean that we accept that women are sidelined. There is a historical turbulence at work, part of modernization and globalization, and we need to take into account the stresses involved, and also to see the signs of change. And we need to work within the religious paradigms and beliefs of the women and men who are involved in trying to live their values and to build peaceful societies.
Globalization makes the challenge of living together in a pluralistic society much harder. People may fear that they will lose their identity amidst so many different nationalities, races, and religions. People feel the need to stress their identity as a way to enhance their sense of security. This can translate into a culture of contempt toward other religions and using one’s religion as a contraposition toward other groups. There can be no healthy religious freedom if a society practices their religion only to counter others. A continuous dialogue among different groups is vital for peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic society. This is true for a family whose members embrace different religions, as well as for a community and a nation. Dialogue, expressing what we think and feel, is the key to ensuring that each and every one of us as members of society has the freedom to express and live their faith and work for a better, common future.