As I watched the story of the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominque Strauss-Kahn, unfold, I was first struck by stark contrasts. He was pulled out of a first class cabin of an international jet (after having spent the night before in a super luxurious hotel room) to face charges of rape, and then imprisonment at Riker’s Island.
Later, I learned that the hotel maid who accused him of rape was an African immigrant. In the socio-economic pecking order of the world, she is just about at the bottom – with the one exception that she had found her way to New York and a job, however menial the work.
And yet she spoke up, accusing one of the most powerful white males in the world of sexual assault, a man who sits (or sat) at the pinnacle of the world’s socio-economic pecking order. Granted, she probably did not know who he was, but given the luxurious hotel, she surely knew he was a man of means.
Now, I do not assume that Strauss-Kahn is guilty. He has the presumption of innocence to which every human being in a U.S. court is entitled. But whatever the ultimate verdict, the story is still striking, and replete with lessons about gender justice.
In another age, and all too often in the present day, the powerful male perpetrator would not even be charged with a crime. Very often, men in high positions have seen it as their “right” to assault and rape a woman, especially a woman of a “lower class” or a woman of another race. Many assumed the woman would never tell, and certainly never bring formal charges.
Yet, in this case, the woman spoke out immediately, and the alleged assailant was arrested. When he tried to post bail, it was a woman judge who denied the request because she deemed him a flight risk.
Do, does the empowerment of women make a difference? You bet it does! Someone, somewhere, taught that hotel maid the importance of speaking out. That woman judge sits on her bench because of the work of generations of women struggling for equality.
In this case, we can celebrate empowered women. But too many women are still held back by culture, by tradition – and yes, by religious practices and teachings.
All I can wish is that leaders of the world’s religions that still inhibit women’s empowerment and bless gender discrimination would sit up, take notice and understand the larger import of their repressive policies which discourage women’s empowerment. That includes Southern Baptists, Mormons, Muslim leaders, and it certainly and includes the officials at the Vatican and the Catholic Bishops.