Versions of Religion and Culture Then and Now

Jun 25, 2014 | 2 comments


Theresa Mee reflects on the plight of two women in two different cultures – both tragically made to suffer from versions of religion devoid of wisdom and compassion.


Two Scenes

I want to focus for a moment on an Irishwoman, one among several interviewed on TV, and on a Pakistani woman.   The latter, Farzana Parveen, a three months pregnant woman, was not interviewed.  On 27th May 2014 she was stoned to death by her family in the crowded streets of Lahore, just outside the local high court building.  None of the bystanders, public or police, intervened in her cries for help. Her husband, also badly beaten up, tried in vain to defend her.

Justifying the incident as an honour killing, her father was quoted as saying to the police. “I killed my daughter as she had insulted our family by marrying a man without our consent”.

The Irishwoman (let us call her Dolores) had, like Farzana the Pakistani woman, some years previously also become pregnant by ‘a man’.

Instead of being put to death by stoning in full view of passive bystanders, Dolores was condemned to a threefold lifelong punishment – what can only be described as a living death.

  • Banished to a ‘Mother and Baby Home’ in disgrace, she eventually delivered their baby – hers and the man’s.
  • Her eventual joy on delivering her child was quickly shattered when her child was forcibly taken from her and secretly passed on to an anonymous recipient in Ireland or elsewhere.
  • Her third punishment was the worry and heartbreak she was to suffer throughout life because of what had been inflicted on her innocent child, banished from its mother, probably one of the children used as guinea pig for medical research, brought up by anonymous strangers, and labelled for life as ‘illegitimate’.

Focus on ‘the man’

In the case of the Pakistani woman and her husband we have not been able to empathise with her, but in the case of the Irishwoman we are able.

In fact we can go further by shifting the focus away from her and onto ‘the man’.  Whoever he is – boyfriend, her own father, brother, uncle, priest, schoolmaster, neighbour, doctor – he is the father of her child.  To protect his ‘honour’ and career within trade or profession, he lives in denial of his guilt.  Far from protecting Dolores, he repudiates both her and her child.  It all comes down to a question of ultimate values.

‘The man’ would have been the primary actor in the condemned sexual relationship. He has gone into hiding. He assumes no responsibility for the welfare of his child or the child’s mother. He has been neither punished nor disgraced.

Focus on the Neighbours

Like the bystanders at the honour killing of Farzana, the local community would have been engaging in religious and socially acceptable behaviour, rather than acting out of interiorised ultimate values of Truth, Justice and Love. Reflecting, reasoning, questioning, dialogue, creative thinking would have been neither the cultural nor the religious norm.

The women would not have voiced their opinions, having no active voice in State, cultural or religious oppressive systems. Like the rest of the community they would not have dared nor even known how to form or express an opinion. Having been brought up on rote learning and submission, they had none. Instead of responding in light of their own experience of life-producing motherhood, the only option open to them was to gossip.

Focus on the Family

At worst, subjected to shock and anger and shame, the parents and family of Dolores will have disowned and agreed to her banishment, fearing family dishonour.  At best, shock, anger and shame will have given way to distress for their beloved unmarried daughter for whom pregnancy was a virtual death sentence. Dolores’s parents would probably have spent a long period reflecting together on what had happened, why it happened, and what was at the root of this widespread phenomenon of young women being consigned to punitive institutions.

Possibly they would have concluded that they were to blame for not having brought up their daughter properly. They might have decided that they had been mistaken in relying on strictness, do’s and don’ts as a means of educating their children and fitting them for a meaningful life. They might have come to understand the importance of entering into dialogue with their children from childhood through adolescence on issues of life, on their personal dignity and choices, on the purpose and sacredness of sex and the responsibility of self protection from its misuse. They might have extended the blame to the school educational system and practice, or to a repressive religion that, in dishonouring woman, deprived her of a sense of personal dignity and human development.

But perhaps reflecting together and learning from hindsight was outside of the parameters of family and community life in Ireland. Not so today, at least in the secular sphere.

From all of the above, and moving into the Now, there are essential questions awaiting community discussion, some of which are included here.

  • What lay, and still lies at the root of all this criminal oppression, on-going repression, disregard for the dignity of the human person and particularly of the woman in the world today and specifically in the Catholic Church?
  • Who should be involved at every level in discussions and deliberations on Family life?
  • What is education in the faith, something that uplifts the human person or something that oppresses?




  1. soconaill

    Theresa asks: “What is education in the faith, something that uplifts the human person or something that oppresses?” This deserves a whole book! She has pinpointed the key link between the two examples she cites. In Ireland too ‘honour and shame’ were the key emotional components of the oppression – so why is this not highlighted in our systems of formation?

    We seek honour, we abhor shame. Only if this is pitched right at the summit of our understanding of the Gospel will we put the emphasis where it should be. God’s love is constant, overcoming all shaming.

  2. Mary O Vallely

    “But perhaps reflecting together and learning from hindsight was outside of the parameters of family and community life in Ireland. Not so today, at least in the secular sphere.”
    I hope and pray that we CAN learn from hindsight, Teresa. Regarding your question as to who should be involved in discussions on the family, I don’t think anyone with a modicum of understanding, goodwill and fairness would argue against mothers, fathers, single, married and unmarried persons,of whatever sexual persuasion, being entitled to be involved in discussions on the family. Sean’s reminder cannot be overemphasised, that the most important thing we can teach our children is that awareness that each one of us is worthy, that God’s love for every person is constant, unconditional and unfailing. 🙂


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