Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945;

Conference on a more "compassionate society" at Stanford

Thoughtful questions, rather than pat answers, were proposed by educators, activists and public figures who gathered in Kresge Auditorium on Nov. 2 to discuss steps that might lead "Toward a Compassionate Society."

As they talked about fundamental concepts of justice, human rights, religion, politics, leadership and relationships, panelists from 13 countries debated semantic points and strategies but united behind the goal of establishing more caring communities.

"The first lesson I'll take away is 'Question everything,'" Susan Okin, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics and Society, professor of political science and co-convenor of the conference, said at its conclusion. "And the second lesson concerns all that women can do to make the world a better place."

The audience of about 150 included graduate students, survivors of domestic violence, retired ministers, lawyers and social scientists. Almost all were women.

Speakers included government ministers, jurists, diplomats, parliamentarians, writers, directors of non-governmental organizations and experts in the fields of development, health and gender. The day-long conference was organized by the Sisterhood Is Global Institute in Washington, D.C., the Shaler Adams Foundation of San Francisco and the Global Fund for Women of Palo Alto. Stanford sponsors included the departments of Philosophy and Political Science, the programs in Ethics in Society and Feminist Studies, the Stanford Humanities Center and the Keck Center for Legal Ethics.

Debra Satz, professor of philosophy, director of the Ethics in Society Program and co-covenor of the conference, said in her welcoming remarks that "we still live in a world of disturbing contrasts." At a time when life expectancy in the developing world is 17 years longer than it was in 1960 and infant mortality has been halved, she said, wide income disparities and gender gaps continue to confront all societies.

Referring to statistics compiled in the 1995 Human Development Report of the United Nations, Satz noted that among the world's 900 million illiterate people, women outnumber men two to one. Of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty, 70 percent are women. They also hold fewer than 10 percent of parliamentary seats and only 6 percent of cabinet positions.

"Only when we realize the freedoms and potential of all human beings can we talk about human development and progress," Satz said.

Mahnaz Afkhami, former Iranian minister of state for women's affairs and delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, was an organizing force behind the symposium and helped to frame the theme and select participants. She moderated the first panel discussion, which explored the relationship between a compassionate society and human rights.

As president of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute and director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, and as a self-described "woman in exile," Afkhami said she identified with the world's 27 million refugees and 40 million displaced persons.

She said efforts to suppress individual rights and expectations by those in positions of authority who argue that culture must not change are misplaced. In her own country, she said, "People make up the rules as they go along," decreeing that teenagers should be flogged for wearing Nike shoes with flashing lights or sporting T-shirts with Latin lettering.

"No culture can be truly traditional," Afkhami said, noting that cultures are flexible, dynamic, constantly changing and full of contradictions. "What we need to do is to realize in each culture the bases for beliefs in equality and justice. We must see the roots of universal human rights in all societies."

Drawing on models she has used in working with women in 10 different Muslim societies, and which she plans to transport to projects in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, Afkhami said she continually tries to tap the roots of indigenous cultures. When she talks with women in Islamic societies, for example, she finds it useful to draw on the teachings of the Koran and to remind women that the prophet's wife was the first to accept its ideals and become a believer.

Alicia Partnoy, a poet and political activist from Argentina who was "disappeared" by the military in 1977 and spent several years in prison before being expelled in 1979, argued that "compassion" could be a "disempowering feeling" for those who had been victims of repressive regimes and did not want to be pitied.

A former vice chair of the board of directors of Amnesty International who currently teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., Partnoy read from the works of several women whose children had been tortured or killed by military regimes.

Partnoy said victims of human abuse often face a "Machiavellian option," having to choose between truth, which seeks to reconcile and heal societies, and justice.

"What victims want is for people to take their pain and act and help them achieve justice, which is the strongest yearning," she added.

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership and a professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, was the third speaker on the opening panel. A feminist author and organizer for more than 25 years, Bunch referred to the ethnic, racial and religious fragmentations that have occurred in recent decades, and cited the retreat from social responsibility by many states and communities. But "human rights stand as a counter to that retreat," she said.

On an immediate level, Bunch said 50 percent of women in the world experience some form of violence in their homes, and "the first lesson many children learn is that violence is a means to resolve conflict."

Instead, Bunch said, a more compassionate society might find lessons in alternative models of families, and pointed to the response of the lesbian and gay community to the threat of HIV/AIDS.

"We have to demand that families be places of choice, not based on the suppression of women," Bunch said. "Human rights are not an abstraction, but are about the kind of world we want."

Deborah Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, who moderated the panel, cited another example of the changes that can occur when women acknowledge their legal rights. It wasn't until women in Torrance, Calif., sued the police department there for not responding to complaints and the department was forced to "fork over $1.4 million" that domestic violence got the attention it deserved, Rhode said.

Another panel considered "Women, Religion and the Politics of Spirituality" from the perspectives of a Hindu scholar, a French Buddhist nun and an American Catholic activist.

Arvind Sharma, professor of comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal and editor of a trilogy on women and religion, said that increasing participation of women in religion is visible worldwide. In spite of crises of identity that have resulted from evangelism, imperialism and globalization, he said, Hindus are flocking to Hinduism and women now outnumber men in classes studying sacred scriptures. In Buddhism, similarly, nuns outnumber monks at monasteries in the United States.

Martine Batchelor, who was born in France and ordained as a Buddhist nun in Korea in 1975, looked at the changing status of Buddhist nuns in several countries. In Korea, she said, they often are more respected than monks because they are required to adopt more precepts of the Buddha for ordination and because they are genuinely involved in "compassionate activities" aimed at "trying to change society."

In Sri Lanka, Batchelor said, Buddhist nuns are teaching women at the village level, and in Thailand they are not only leading meditation classes but also instructing women in crafts that will enable them to earn money.

"It's very interesting, to me, to see how women through modern education are starting to see their strength, and are starting to change society through ethics, meditation and engagement," she said.

Batchelor suggested that a "movement of individuation" is permeating religion today, from sects that claim two supporters to religions that are defined by millions of believers.

"The question is, what is the impact of those people?" she asked. "How do they use religion ­ to form organizations, or to reach out and transform lives?"

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice and a self-described "bad girl" and "cheerful pessimist," drew frequent laughter for her irreverent comments, especially when she suggested that, to the best of her knowledge, the dalai lama, pope and grand mufti had never been reincarnated as women.

But Kissling also struck a responsive chord when she talked about the "passion" in "compassion."

"For the pope, the theology of suffering is far more important, far more central to what it means to be a Christian, than the theology of resurrection and the joy of rebirth," she suggested.

Kissling referred listeners to the writings of St. Augustine about hope and her two beautiful daughters, anger and courage.

"Anger at the way things are," Kissling added, "and courage to see they do not remain the way they are."

Speakers on afternoon panels included Tina Choi, program coordinator for a national non-profit organization; Patricia Giles, a former senator in the Australian parliament who now chairs the World Health Organization's Global Commission on Women's Health; Madhu Kishawar, editor of India's foremost women's magazine; Gwendoline Konie, former Zambian ambassador to the United Nations; Susan Okin, Stanford professor of political science; and Aruna Rao, an advisor to the Gender Team of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.

Their discussions of families, values, communities and new paradigms for leadership focused on the consequences of domestic violence, the need to restructure organizations and opportunities for harnessing the energies of youth.

Okin described the rearing of the next generation as, arguably, "the most important work done in society." Until recently, she said, the ways in which time, money and work allocation took place within families was frequently ignored by economists and other observers, as was the frequency of domestic violence. Those factors have "serious implications for the well-being of children," Okin said.

"If a child's first experience of adult interaction is one of unfairness ­ or, worse, one of dominance and subordination, or worse still, even outright abuse, what moral lessons is he or she to take from this?"

Okin said there are overriding reasons for women to continue to work for equality ­ "for our own good, for that of children and for the better governance of our societies, local and global."

Satz and Okin said they hoped a conference on these issues could become an annual event at Stanford, in conjunction with the State of the World Forum that is held each year in San Francisco.


By Diane Manuel

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints