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Forgiveness is Women’s Work

April 2, 2010

I forgive you. This is certainly not always my most readily accessible sentiment, but nor are they the hardest words I’ve ever uttered. Apparently I might just think that because I’m a woman.

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit in on a taping of HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports.” The episode I was in attendance for asked the question “Can Women Stop War?” and featured Alice Urusaro Karekezi of Rwanda, Amra Seleskovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mossarat Qadeem of Pakistan, Dima Dabbous-Sensenig of Lebanon, and Ambassador Swanee Hunt.

Amidst discussions of women’s influence during negotiations, how communities respond to widespread gender-based violence, and the role poverty plays in extremism the host, Dan Rather, repeatedly turned to the subject of forgiveness.

“But I want to– pick up on the word “forgiveness.” But based on your experience and your opinion, are women better, faster at forgiveness than men?”

Each time Rather posed the question he framed it in just this way – not simply about forgiveness, but about whether or not women excelled at it. Why is it that we as women always have to be better and faster than men to have anything we do acknowledged??

The reality is that, yes, there are countless stories of women offering forgiveness in circumstances where to do so seems impossible; situations where to withhold forgiveness would be understandable. I work with women in the midst of violent conflict and hear stories like this one all the time: “When you lose a child, it’s not a matter of whether you are from the Palestinian side or the Jewish side. A mother is a mother. We don’t have to shake hands even, we can just walk next to each other. It’s a cold, very realistic, pragmatic way of looking. But we must have mutual respect, and recognize that each side has its own space.”

Many women see forgiveness as a means of survival; they need to forgive in order to get to the day-to-day business of caring for children, finding food for their families, and rebuilding their communities. I think it is important to acknowledge and emulate women’s capacity for forgiveness, yet it is equally as important to not over-simplify it.

During the Dan Rather filming each of the panelists acknowledged women’s tendency towards forgiveness, in most cases highlighting the practical purpose it served. Dima Sensenig of Lebanon, however, presented a different perspective on forgiveness:

I cannot speak for all women. I can speak first for myself and say– I don’t think I can. I mean, I’ve seen a lot– throughout the civil war and– I was there when Israel attacked, 1982. I saw a lot of dead bodies and a lot– and a lot of people in– in small pieces in plastic bags, shopping bags, being collected. And I don’t think I can forgive. I’m– that’s speaking for myself. It’s– it’s very hard– it’s incredibly hard.

Women are not innately merciful and saintlike. We are not inhuman. Women, like men, experience anger, despair, and hatred. We do not simply exude, or even effortlessly excel at, forgiveness. Personally, I strive to be compassionate and I challenge myself to be forgiving because I recognize that I and others are served by this. And at times I fail.

Furthermore, even if it is established that women are “better” at forgiving what does that accomplish – aside from letting men off the hook?

I recall, as a teenager, confronting my father (who it should be noted is a supportive father of a feminist daughter) about why it was always my responsibility to do the laundry. Each time I asked he would explain, with genuineness and respect, “It’s because you are better at it.” Yes I was better at not cramming too many clothes into the machine, remembering to move the clothes to the dryer before they wrinkled, and folding each item into a distinct piece of clothing. I recognized that I did this well. And I also knew that my brothers were relinquished from ever having to master these simple tasks because I had been deemed “better at it.”

During a short break from filming, Dan Rather asked the guests more casually why women are so good at forgiving. Without missing a beat, Ambassador Hunt responded with a smirk, “We have a lot of practice.” The panelists and audience erupted in laughter. The implied understanding was that women have a greater capacity to forgive because we are accustomed to forgiving men’s consistent transgressions.

The truth is I don’t really feel like laughing away men’s apparent shortcomings.  And much like I didn’t want to do everyone’s laundry I don’t necessarily want to be better at forgiving. Men can, and need to, have the capacity to forgive as well as women do. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily or effortlessly. And by emphasizing that women are “better” at forgiving I think we’re relieving men of the responsibility to have to practice it.

  1. Temperance permalink
    April 2, 2010 1:07 pm

    Interesting point…it’s easy for me to get caught up in the “I must forgive” because I know how valuable a tool it can be. People who forgive are heroes to me because they realize to forgive is not to forget. Rather than exacerbate the violence, in physical or emotional ways, people who forgive are able to move past the issue which drains them and get on with life. My take on Rather’s question is that he was looking for some sensationalism…”So and so says women are better at forgiving than men.” I do believe forgiveness, for a lot of people, is not even on their list of things to do. Too sad for all of us.

  2. April 2, 2010 8:09 pm

    I agree with the previous comment. To forgive does not mean to forget. Forgiveness releases us from a lot of negative and energy-consuming thinking and takes away our opportunity to move forward.

  3. Colleen Hodgetts permalink*
    April 4, 2010 6:02 pm

    With forgiveness, as with child care, it seems that women are EXPECTED to forgive as part of an ingrained nature and if men chose to forgive they are exceeding the expectations of their gruff and unemotional gender. As usual, gender stereotypes do a disservice to both genders.

  4. Alix permalink
    April 5, 2010 10:51 am

    I’ve never seen the point in forgiving someone who has no remorse. What’s the point? Just drop it and go on.

    Forgiveness (to me) seems like the person who did the hurt is getting away with something.

    Little stuff, stuff that wasn’t deliberate, stuff that the person felt badly about? Sure, no problem. Someone who does something deliberately and maliciously and doesn’t care? Nope, no way. They get nothing else from me, ever.

    • April 5, 2010 12:15 pm

      That’s how I feel about it too.

  5. Kirsten permalink
    April 7, 2010 11:15 am

    I’ve never really looked at forgiveness in women versus in men. And despite Dan Rather’s insistence, I’m not entirely sure that women are either ‘better’ or ‘worse’ at forgiveness, I’m sure there exists anecdotal evidence for each point of view (such as Sensenig offers).

    I feel like the act of forgiveness has been portrayed as something of a virtue, a desirable reflex to injustice. I feel that forgiveness is expected, regardless of gender, that in the lopsided relationship between transgressor and ‘transgressee’, the offended party is expected to conform to standards of moral superiority and offer forgiveness. Perhaps it is unsurprising that I disagree with this. From my perspective, it is entirely acceptable that forgiveness should be earned, and that there are indeed exceptions to be made when forgiveness is an unreasonable expectation from someone who has been grievously wronged.


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