I generally consider myself pretty laid back on the whole Christian ‘gender issue’. There was a time when I really wrestled with the ‘difficult bits’ in Paul’s letters. If God wants the whole of my sex to be silent in church, I couldn’t work out what the implications were for God’s view of me as a woman, but they seemed pretty bad. But as I read the Bible more and realised that whatever these passages meant, they did not mean that the God who created man ‘in His own image… male and female He created them’ viewed women as second-class citizens, the whole issue lost much of its urgency for me.
In the same way, when it comes to secular gender debates, I tend to think feminism isn’t worth getting overly het up about. I always feel a bit embarrassed when I hear women beating the sexism-drum too stridently. “Chill out, we’ve got it good – and anyway, men have got the picture now. Why beat the courteous, supportive majority over the head because there are still a few Neanderthals who haven’t got with the program yet?”
A couple of weeks ago I read a book that made me realise that my position for all these years has been at best naive, at worst… well, “wilfully, selfishly ignorant” doesn’t cover it. For all the ugly excesses of some parts of the feminist movement, it is inexcusable for me to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Much, much more tub-thumping is in order.
The only reason I’ve been able to hold such a position all these years is because I am almost unimaginably privileged. Yes, it’s the old cliche: I just don’t appreciate all I’ve gained from my feminist forebears…if I’d lived 100 years ago, blah, blah, blah. But its much more than that: it’s not just an historical thing, its a global thing. And it’s because it’s a global issue that it’s such a pressing one. To be honest, the women of the past did have a bad time of it, and that’s sad and to be lamented. But if misogyny were only an historical reality, now past, then it’d be fine to mourn it a bit, learn the lessons, and move on – celebrating the current freedoms we enjoy. But the thing is, horrible degradation of women isn’t just an historical phenomenon. It’s happening around the world right now, and my refusal to take it seriously is every bit as damning as it is that most days I find it easy to ignore poverty, illiteracy and lack of healthcare around the world.
The book I read was Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It’s an autobiography that charts the author’s life from her birth into a muslim family in Somalia, through growing up in Ethiopia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, before she fled to the Netherlands. Her story is horrendous, including female genital mutilation (the WHO approved term for ‘female circumcision’); physical and emotional abuse by relatives and members of her religious community – including one episode which fractures her skull; and an arranged marriage, which is what eventually drives her to the Netherlands to escape.
But among all these horrific things, there were two in particular that really, really got to me.
First, for her as she was growing up, these experiences were normal, expected. As she tells her own story, she also tells parts of those of her friends and relatives. She is not an isolated case. Her story is, in many ways, the story of millions of women globally.
Second was the attitude behind these abuses. As a good, Somali eldest daughter she was expected to do the whole family’s cooking and cleaning and washing like a slave, while her brother never had to lift a finger to help. As a muslim girl, she was taught that if she were to be raped it would be her fault for having somehow enticed her attacker and not having tried hard enough to run away. She was taught that as a woman she is so dangerous that she must cover every inch of skin, otherwise all the men in the area will become instantly lust-crazed and unable to get on with their tasks and all normal life will grind to a halt. Oh, and the guilt for any lustful thought they have about her is hers, by the way. And, almost laughably, at one point while in Saudi Arabia, her mother is unable to leave the airport with her daughters for over a day because the family do not have a man to ‘take charge’ of them. I wish I still had the book to be able to quote from it – some of the things in it are completely unbelievable.
As a previously devout Muslim, Hirsi Ali is adamant that the misogyny (sexism seems too flippant a term) she experienced is rooted in Islam. And she is scathing of the West’s tolerance and political correctness that refuses to admit this and so allows the continued exploitation of muslim women around the world. But it’s not just Islam. Women are exploited across the world. Abuse of women is inevitable in a society under-pinned by any belief system which does not hold that men and women are equal.
Our world desperately needs to hear the great Biblical truth that God created both man and woman in His image. Every human being – whether male or female – is precious, hand-crafted to show God’s glory. Until “man’s inhumanity to man” is wiped out in every sphere – including the treatment of women – I am irresponsible to not join the tub-thumping.