Editor: Brenda Nettles Riojas is a poet and the public relations spokesperson for the Diocese of Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley. Reaching out to people on the other side of a religious or political divide is always a noble and good thing, and we salute her courage. Too often when people are so far apart on issues, especially the deeply emotional, heart felt ones, the only interchanges come in the form of verbal attacks and rocks and stones of invective. Dis-agreement should not exclude understanding. We at Wotrg are strongly impressed with what transpired with Brenda and the Feminists.
Originally published in November 2013 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)
Women speak for themselves en el Valle
Recently I was invited to participate in a poetry reading in McAllen – “Fist in the Air 3: Speaking Out for Women’s Rights” on Sept. 27. In addition to a line-up of talented poets from the Rio Grande Valley “who use their work as a tool for social change,” the organizers invited a Texas women’s rights activist and a representative from Planned Parenthood to speak.
I was taken aback by the lineup of guest speakers and a sentence in the event announcement, “This particular reading will be focused on Women’s Rights, specifically on the attack on a woman’s right to choose through legislation and also celebrating women as warriors and artists.” It seemed to indicate that “speaking for women’s rights” equated, in this instance and all too often on other occasions, with promoting a women’s right to choose an abortion.
How can we celebrate women as warriors and artists, if we only listen to one side?
Initially my instinct was to excuse myself from the program. I feared my presence might send the wrong message that I was there in support of the same issue.
However, as a poet who does write about women’s issues, I thought it would be unfair to silence myself. I realized that my presence could serve as a counterbalance, and that the event, if truly open to speaking out for women’s rights, should provide space for all women’s voices.
The poetry reading awakened an awareness of the need to speak louder for life as we work as well to remind our sisters and brothers in our communities that no one group or issue should be granted status representing all women.
A new movement started a year ago, Women Speak for Themselves, advocates this message, which we need to share. The movement advocates for religious freedom and speaks out on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate of coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in health insurance.
I admire the work of the movement’s co-founders, Helen M. Alvaré, a professor of law at George Mason University in Virginia and Kim Daniels, former counsel for the Thomas More Law Center in Maryland. They co-authored and edited the book, Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, and an open letter to President Obama, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Congress asking them not to claim to speak for all women in promoting the mandate.
In their letter, which has received more than 40,000 signatures, they state, “No one speaks for all women on these issues. Those who purport to do so are simply attempting to deflect attention from the serious religious liberty issues currently at stake.”
To read the letter and add your signature visit http://womenspeakforthemselves.com.
Alvaré and Daniels remind us all that we must speak out if our voices are to be heard. I add to that, we must do so with love and respect. We must learn to share the beauty of being new feminists who live the Gospel values.
On the home front this past September, it is unfortunate that I felt some trepidation in taking the stage with my poetry. But we should not fear sharing our views through our art or other means, for as we work to support women’s rights, this includes the right to speak for ourselves, for where is the freedom when sisters silence sisters.
I am thankful the Lord gave me the courage to speak in an environment that was not expecting a counter voice. I respect the organizers for welcoming all views and for my friends who joined me that evening.
The hero before night’s end, was a courageous woman in her twenties who had never attended a poetry reading and never imagined she would share her testimony before a group of strangers that evening. She spoke about a painful home life and the tragic experiences that led to a pregnancy. She said that despite the horrors of her past, she did not want to be like those who had abandoned her, or those who had abused or raped her. She wanted to hold a baby in her arms and show that baby that a better life was possible. She chose life. Regrettably her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. While her testimony was not programmed on the agenda, her story resonated with everyone in attendance.
In the end, the poetry reading served as a forum for all women’s voices, and we were richer for it.
Sisters under the Stars
Under a half moon light,
where the autumn star,
the loneliest these early nights,
dances on the horizon, I can still hear
Sisters, we don’t always see
what’s before us
with the same heart or eyes.
On this journey, marked by wars,
global warming, illness,
on the ground, in the air, in the oceans,
guns, gangs, narcotics,
let us remember we are sisters;
yes, sometimes on opposite ends,
each trying to find our way,
discovering the path as it unfolds.
We are sisters.
Let us go forth with love and respect
even as we disagree
and rivers and oceans divide.
We speak united, we speak divided;
but we are each gifted the freedom
Where is the justice in silencing each other?
Let us remember no one
group or position should be given status
representing all sisters.
In a clamor for liberation, we walk near
the fire, grow blind, caught
in the zeal of our convictions.
Sisters, let us remember,
there is no freedom
when sisters silence sisters,
when sisters stir toxic the discourse,
when sisters forget they are sisters.
We are not enemies; we are sisters.
Let us dance beneath the stars,
give example to our brothers
that while we may disagree on the direction
we are free to express,
free to dialogue,
free to do so as we seek peace together,
By Brenda Nettles Riojas