Why Won’t You Look? A Review with Substance

Marking International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, a unique art installation with red shoes was set up in Milan by Mexican artist Eline Chauvet to sensibilize public on the issue of women victims of violence all over the world

I was taken by this review from Hubert O’Hearn from Mayo, Ireland.  His approach immediately immerses the reader in the existential reality that ignoring the mass injury and death of women and girls is like refusing to see the houses in your neighborhood are burning down or a pandemic is killing your children in front of your eyes. It helps us appreciate how much cultural and religious energy it takes to bring off this degree of willful not-seeing.  I appreciated this way of getting into the issues.This, as we say in my business, will preach (and teach).  Susan Thistlethwaite

A review of
Women’s Bodies as Battlefield:
Christian Theology and the Global War on Women’s Bodies

by Hubert O’Hearn
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Palgrave Macmillan 2015, Hardcover) 224 pages, indexed, cover price n/a

I place before you a series of propositions. If a third of the houses in your neighborhood were regularly burnt by arson, would you demand greater police and fire protection? I think you would. If a third of the children were struck down by communicable disease, year-in year-out, would you not take a deep interest into the cause of that illness and insist on more and better health care? Of course you would. Both the arsons and the pandemic would be widely reported, taken personally and force a re-assessment of public safety. I don’t think anyone can really argue against my hypotheses.

However, 35% of all women worldwide are subjected to physical abuse at some point in their lives, often repeatedly and at the extreme of brutality. That is 35% regardless of nation, race or cultural origin. And yet we do not see these attacks on a third of humanity as a crime wave or an epidemic. The rape, beating or murder of women is seen as an exception, an outlier, perpetrated by random sick individuals. If the attacks occur during a declared state of war, then they are lumped together and seen as regrettable yet sadly predictable collateral damage. Heads shake mournfully, but then of course comes a response somewhere along the lines of, ‘That is why the war must continue. So we can protect women’s rights.’ Ah.

As a matter of fact – and I do mean fact – women must not take the fight into their own hands. Did you know that according to a study released by The Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, ‘The average prison sentence for men who kill their intimate partners is 2 to 6 years. Women who kill their partners are sentenced, on average, to 15 years.’? It should be a topic rich in public discussion as to why this obvious imbalance of justice exists.

By and large though, that discussion does not happen which is the value of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. What Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite, a Professor of Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary does is lay out in fine and painful detail precisely how it is that women are seen as beings are that are dangerous and justifiable spoils of power struggles.

What is stunning is how many of the deep thinkers throughout history, philosophers and artists alike, have taken the abuse of women as not only inevitable but also justifiable. A sampling:

Aristotle: Females are weaker and colder in nature, and it is necessary to regard the female status as a deformity, though a natural one.
St Augustine: ‘He concludes that the act of rape brings shame to the one raped “lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some ascent of the will.”’
Joseph Campbell: On the artistic depiction of rapes, ‘(R)apes over and over, “simply dramatize the will of consciousness, portrayed with male power, imposed upon natural frailty.”’

You know, don’t take it personally, it’s just human nature. Shrug.

Where Thistlethwaite’s book really soars and becomes indispensable is within her argument completely taking apart any theological justification for war. As the title of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield implies, she equates abuse to war. However Thistlethwaite also attacks the very concept of war itself and particularly how its consequences – the sight of ruined and dismembered bodies are kept away from our eyes lest we lose our taste for that mythical ruse of the ‘Just War.’

I could go on and would most happily, however I would then be delivering to you a precis rather than a review of Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. It is a deeply, deeply disturbing book as it literally questions the foundations of what we loosely term civilization. Yet, in order to not just observe a rape, a murder, an atrocity that flashes across the news as an isolated exception to common behavior – to instead witness that event as evidence of a larger crime, one has to be aware of the crime itself. Susan Thistlethwaite prosecutes her case with bravery, with calm passion and with eloquence. And if this sounds like a book you really don’t want to read, because who wants to read such nasty things … well that’s just the point, now isn’t it?

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