Sisters United in a Common Cause

Sister Mary Claire Kennedy, S.S.J., Ph.D., positively crackles with energy. A diminutive octogenarian, she lights up a room with her energy and outspoken command of a very unfriendly topic: human trafficking. I smile when I consider our respective angles—for it’s something like one of those “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar” jokes: “A nun and a Muslim feminist scholar…”. We have yet to walk into any bars together, but we have been part of several gatherings as we work together to build and support local anti-human trafficking coalitions here in Erie, Pennsylvania where we both reside. Sister Mary Claire has tirelessly shown up, made her voice heard, passed on flyers and information gleaned from her ongoing research, shared books, opined on plans, and served as a guiding light to the rest of us gathered around the conference room table. What do I have to learn from this 85 year old nun? Everything. Despite progress on many fronts, Muslim women still confront serious challenges—from constant denial of leadership roles (be it within the home, within mosques, or within the political structures of Muslim-majority countries), to institutionalized gender discrimination (through, for example, unequal access to prayer space), to arguably the most pressing crisis of all—illiteracy (basic or scriptural) that makes Muslim women the victims of patriarchal interpretations that deny them their core human rights. Indeed, Muslim women and Catholic women find common ground in wrestling with many of the same issues. Sometimes I find myself discouraged. Sister Mary Claire has offered me some lessons for staying on course. 

Lesson One: Get going. It is enough that as soon as I said the words “I want to work on combating human trafficking” to a colleague, she replied, “Oh, you must connect with Sister Mary Claire.” Sister Mary Claire is a leader in the Erie community. She formally holds the title of the Social Justice Coordinator for the Sisters of Saint Joseph. She and her order were instrumental in bringing to Erie the renowned expert on human trafficking Kevin Bales (author of Disposable People and Ending Slavery). They have campaigned relentlessly and worked tirelessly to raise awareness about human trafficking in general and sex trafficking in particular. Sister Mary Claire does not wait for someone to confer on her the rank of leader, nor does she await the confirmation of her role by any official. She leads. She works. She fights. She shows up for meetings in snowstorms.

Sister Mary Claire also mentors others interested in this cause. One of my students started a club on campus, Students United against Human Trafficking, after we had studied the topic in class. I contacted Sister Mary Claire, who was immediately willing to meet with both my student and me. On a bitter cold day, she lugged to campus piles of flyers and books, as well as a thick binder filled with information for presentations and awareness-raising. I watched and listened, impressed, speechless. Both my student and I walked away from this meeting energized and inspired.

Lesson Two: Be fearless. Sister Mary Claire’s eyes flash as she leans across the table. “Some people are scared to go on Backpage.com,” she says. “But it’s the only place to really see what’s going on.” It’s a seedy website in which—among other tragic elements— young women are advertised. Sister Mary Claire pushes across the table a picture of a girl. “How old do you think she is?” Surely no more than 14 or 15, we murmur; Sister points out that she was advertised as being 21. Sister’s home computer, then, bears the history of a woman unafraid, unconstrained by social taboos as she doggedly sifts through information relevant to the struggle against modern slavery. Many a religious community might prefer not to speak of such horrors as sex trafficking. Where consensual sex is under-discussed, how much more difficult, then, to offer frank discussion on the sexual brutalization of girls forced to accept 25-30 clients a day? But Sister pushes the topic to the forefront with both hands. She is unapologetic as she speaks in graphic detail, and relentless as she insists on the necessity of confronting the issue at every level. Should we send our university students to give presentations on sex trafficking at the local Catholic girls’ high school? Absolutely, she responds. And we must train those girls to present on it themselves. 

Lesson Three: Expect solutions. The fight against human trafficking is thorny, multi-faceted, complex, heartbreaking, and—above all—under-funded. As we study grants, approaches, and possibilities for articles and projects to undertake, Sister Mary Claire remains unflinchingly optimistic. “This could be an answered prayer,” she remarks, as we investigate one possible grant. “This new energy is just what we need,” she says, as she looks into my student’s enthusiastic eyes. The problem of human trafficking is not one that will be solved in Sister Mary Claire’s lifetime. Little girls around the world will continue to be sold, repeatedly raped, terrified into submission, and violated in every way. Child slaves will still farm the cocoa beans that make our chocolate or weave the carpets that adorn our floors. Refugees in Thailand will continue to be forced to procure the seafood on our plates. And yet, little by little, Sister chips away. She acts in whatever possible context she can. She rallies people to write to Congress, pressing for measures to be taken against countries too lax in their enforcement, or to enact Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Acts in states (like Pennsylvania) that do not yet have them. These laws will prevent juveniles arrested as sex workers in this country from prosecution and facilitate instead their rehabilitation and recovery. She sends out awareness-raising email blasts prior to the Super Bowl. She and her sisters press the hospitality industry to gain certification from ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking) in order to be on the lookout for children trafficking victims. She reminds us all to buy Fair Trade chocolate and ethically-sourced products, and she tirelessly presents on human trafficking in schools and churches throughout the Erie community. 

Erie is remarkably full of feisty nuns. They demonstrate against street violence, they feed the hungry, they teach art to poor kids, they get arrested—repeatedly!—for protesting war. As a Muslim feminist scholar, a mother, a woman, a human being, I am inspired at every turn by these strong, activist women who make their voices heard against daunting odds. In the space of just a few short months, Sister Mary Claire has become a mentor for me. The lessons listed above inspire my own work but can also instruct the ongoing struggles of Muslim women to claim our voices, to fight entrenched oppression, to defend our sisters and ourselves, and to stand up when we feel like sitting down—all the while holding on to our faith, declaring it precious, declaring it sound. Catholic women and Muslim women can forge fruitful collaborations on a nearly endless list of pressing social issues. It is often easier to function within our respective spheres of similarity and comfort, and without seeking active partners from other faiths and perspectives. The more we seek such connections, however, the more we can share strategies for empowerment and affirm our common commitment to the human family. 

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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