We Are the Storm

I didn’t expect the news story about my abortion doula work to get as much attention as it did. I thought maybe I’d get a few emails (some good, some bad) and maybe a few more patients and a doula or two and just keep on doing what I’ve been doing. But the response has been overwhelming, to say the least.

The first story aired at 5PM last night and within minutes my phone was buzzing with notifications. At that moment, I was struggling with a four-year-old who wasn’t feeling well and the looming prospect of homework for my French class, not to mention wondering what I could make for dinner and whether I had time to clean the house properly before we leave on holiday in two weeks. I knew that it would be about midnight before I could even sit down to watch the segment. So, I dived head first into the rest of the evening while my phone continued to vibrate (I never have the sound on). It was probably about 6PM before I could even look to see what was happening. My phone glowed with social media and email alerts and I immediately felt panic. I’m someone who has to acknowledge each email, each mention. I don’t want someone to feel unheard. So, this was going to take awhile.

At one point in the evening I finally opened the first email and there was no way I could stop after that. The good thing is that most of the emails and comments were positive. Supporters emailed to ask if they could help, some people emailed simply to thank me. But I received the most email from women who saw my story and wanted to tell me their own and it usually began with, “I’ve never told anyone,” or, “please don’t share this with anybody”. Reading them, I felt a wall of pain slamming straight into my entire body. They wanted to tell me about having abortions alone, about family that would disown them and partners that would kill them. They wanted me to know that they weren’t “like that”, that they just couldn’t have a child at that point. One elderly lady even emailed me to say that she might like to call me at some point to tell me her story but that she wasn’t sure she could talk about it. It was like within minutes I had become a repository of pain for all the judgments, stereotypes, and abandonments that people had faced over the last forty years. It was intense. It was fucking visceral. Every abandonment hit me in my core and they wouldn’t stop coming, one after the other. I would just finish responding and another one would come sailing into my inbox. Waves of anger, love, hatred, compassion all washed over me repeatedly, all while my body continued to take hit after hit.

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m annoyed at this. I’m not. In fact, I’m incredibly honored that people who have kept a secret for sometimes decades have chosen me, some weird-ass strange woman they’ve never met, to confide in. I think it says just as much about our need for connection as it does about the absolutely fucked up state of our communities. In fact, I hope the emails keep coming because we NEED to bear witness to this pain. It sucks. It hurts physically. It makes you wonder how you’ll ever look anyone in the eye again but WE BROUGHT THIS ON OURSELVES and we need to see it laid bare. All of us in this world are responsible for the fact that there are people in our lives who don’t see us as safe, who think we may mock them, judge them, or even kill them if we knew what they knew. That all sounds rather masochistic, doesn’t it? Well, maybe it is. And it’s certainly not for everyone. But I know that I need to be a witness so that I can keep from being an accomplice. I need to open my eyes and my ears so that I never vote for piece of shit men who would push people back into closets or regressive health policies or higher taxes for people already struggling. I need to let people know that I will at least try to be a safe harbor and I don’t think it’s possible to be shelter to anyone if you haven’t been willing to suffer with them.

I’m not sure I have much more to say today. I’m exhausted. I’m stressed and overwhelmed. And honestly? I’m still a bit at sea, having not yet found my own safe harbor. I guess I’ll just leave you with my predictable old plea – to take care of yourself and each other. Your opinions, your moral high ground, your bullshit dogma – drop it. Drop ALL of it. Live for each other.

It is now 12:07PM. The emails are still coming. I am still treading water. I know that I won’t drown but I will probably go numb at some point until I can reach land.

Why Everything You Think You Know About Muslim Women is Bullshit

I see a lot of people running their damn ass mouths again about hijabis, niqabis, and women who wear burqas. I hear a lot of talk about clothing bans in the name of feminism and other such bullshit. So, here’s a long and still unedited thing I wrote that will hopefully convince you that all that talk of assimilation is simply nationalistic bullshit dressed up as “freedom” and secular liberal democracy and why some Muslim women don’t want your damn hand-me-down ideology.

Introduction

            On March 24, 2010, Madame Kathleen Weil, Minister of Justice for Quebec, introduced Bill 94 to the National Assembly. Called ‘An Act to Establish Guidelines Governing Accommodation Requests Within the Administration and Certain Institutions’ it called for the requirement that all people seeking public services, as well as those providing them, be required to show their faces at all times. Public services are defined as schools, social services, healthcare services, and childcare, among others. Non-compliance could result in denial of such services.

Though the bill makes no mention of any particular target, in section four of Bill 94 its authors specifically cite the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms’ guarantees of gender equality and state religious neutrality while objecting to face veils. Therefore, it is easy to see that what the authors intend to do is unveil niqabi Muslim women seeking government services and ostracize those who refuse to do so. The bill garnered popular support in the province but has been alternatively enacted and overturned from 2011 until 2018. As of the time of this writing, Bill 94’s future is unclear.

Bill 94, however, is just one of many proposed or enacted bills aimed at limiting the public expression of religion that disproportionately affects Muslim women. France has had a ban on all forms of religious apparel and symbols in the school system since 2004, and since 2011 has instituted a full public ban on the niqab and burqas. These bans also relied on claims of state religious neutrality and gender equality. Given the close association between Quebec and France, it shouldn’t surprise us that they hold similar values and that their bans were proposed in the same year (with the exception of France’s 2004 ban on religious symbols and clothing specifically in the public school system).

What interests me at the present time is examining what the bans in Quebec and France tell us about national identity and the role women play in its construction. Specifically, I am interested in how narratives of the religious oppression of women are used to justify state paternalism and also aid in nationalistic identity formation. I will attempt to show that these bans are not religiously neutral at all but instead serve as a window into how western societies demarcate cultural and religious boundaries and highlight the tensions around visible cultural difference[1] in societies preoccupied with integration into existing religious and cultural norms, even when they are unaware of the religious overtones of their own culture. I will also show that there exists a certain amount of reactionary emphasis on veiling in Muslim communities as a response to the encroachment of western secularism. I argue that, in any society, religious or secular, in which women are seen as a visible symbol of morality or national identity, their bodies will always be dressed or undressed by others to reveal national attitudes, anxieties, and preoccupations.[2] However, there is also a vital and complex discussion to be had about the role of female agency and how Muslim women living in western secular nations might conceptualize and express their will by living out their agency in ways that are difficult for westerners to understand, especially when so often western ideas of agency are associated with secular progressive politics.

I will begin my analysis with a quick discussion of the roots of the secular liberal state and the myths that perpetuate it and then move into a more in-depth look at both Bill 94 in Quebec and the 2004 and 2011 religious symbol/clothing bans in France. I’ll follow this up with a deeper look at western interpretations of agency and freedom where I will argue that the secular liberal state has based its concept of gender equality on a limited understanding of agency and freedom before finally concluding that the modern western secular state is no more secular than any other and that its preoccupation with gender equality is, at best, a smokescreen for pursuing its true interest – controlling (particularly female) identity formation in the service of the state.

A Brief History of State Formation in the West

One of the enduring myths of western history concerns the development of the modern state. This myth says that the state of individual freedom prior to the reformations was very poor. People largely existed under the rule of either pope or monarch and religious conformity went without question. During the reformations chaos ensued and there was a general crisis of authority. People began to interpret scripture in various and competing ways and monarch and pope persecuted non-conformity. Then came the wars of religion in western Europe, principally the Netherlands, France, and Germany. As a result of the horrors of war, it was decided that a secular state was the best option for avoiding further bloodshed and the modern nation state was born.

But there are several issues with this narrative, most obvious is that none of these states actually was secular. Though each made some provision for non-conformists, each nation still had its preferred national religion which determined its political and social outlook. As Jose Casanova said, the wars of religion didn’t create the secular state but rather the confessional and territorial one.[3] Religion still played an important part in the culture and politics of each nation.

            And this is still true today. While we may now be hundreds of years after the wars of religion, we have brought with us many of the same assumptions of our ancestors. In the west we still largely believe that religion and government shouldn’t mix and that religion is in some way unhelpful or even damaging to democracy. Despite almost every secular European country having an established church, there exists an idea that religion is somehow intolerant or incompatible with progressive politics while secularism guarantees relief from intolerance and bloodshed. What is even more remarkable is that such a view seems irreconcilable with the horrors of the twentieth century, filled as it was with secular war and atrocity. There must be another explanation then for the persistence of this narrative. Cassanova and others have posited that such a narrative, while demonstrably false, serves the purpose of differentiating enlightened, secular, and sophisticated Europeans from a barbaric, religious, and ethnically non-European Muslim population.[4] To help make this function, the privatization of religion as a feature of democracy is taken for granted and the constitutions of such states often rename Christian values as secular enlightenment values.[5] In other words, what a given European state has inherited from its Christian past is rebranded as secular so as to serve the purpose of providing a supposed neutral list of values to which a newcomer is to conform. What seems to matter most in these cases is only an outward conformity, not necessarily an inward conversion. Visual symbols, such as religious or cultural dress, are seemingly more important to “othering” than actual philosophical or moral differences when it comes to creating and solidifying national identity.[6]

A particularly prominent feature of secular liberal democracy is the division of life into two spheres – the public and the private. This is what allows for the privatization of religion. People are encouraged to live their religious lives strictly in the private sphere of home, family, and religion, and not to bring it into the public sphere of politics and communal life. Some argue that even in a secular liberal democracy which claims to champion gender equality that women, by virtue of persistent gender roles, are often relegated to the private sphere where the violation of their rights goes unquestioned, meaning that secular liberal states are not as concerned with the rights of women as they intersect with family and religious life. Critics say that racial oppression, for instance, is given more attention than oppression of women, and doubly so when that oppression is religiously-based. This is the reasoning used by many who support niqab or headscarf bans. Is it equality or tolerance that is the main feature of liberalism, they ask? Can we tolerate a practice that is oppressive to women simply because it is religious and therefore exists in the private sphere?[7]

Criminalizing Muslim Women’s Visibility in Quebec and France

As stated in the introduction, Bill 94 (‘An Act to Establish Guidelines Governing Accommodation Requests Within the Administration and Certain Institutions’) was introduced to the National Assembly in Quebec in 2010. Though the bill does not specifically mention Muslims, its origins seem to be in the public debate that ensued when an Egyptian immigrant named Naema Ahmed refused to remove her niqab and was subsequently asked to leave her French language class in Montreal.[8]

The central arguments for Bill 94 are said to be about security and the protection of Quebec’s values, specifically those of gender equality and secularism. Though the bill’s language doesn’t specify a target religion and proponents claim it in fact applies to people of all religions, it does seem to disproportionately affect Muslim niqabis and would make it difficult for them to perform basic activities such as picking up a child from a state-sponsored daycare center or even going to a public service building to pay a utility bill.[9]

            Proponents claim that Bill 94 merely sets “reasonable” limits on accommodation practices, arguing that this isn’t a complete ban but simply one that applies to public service and promotes greater security. And indeed, provincial feminist groups were divided with some supporting Bill 94, some dissenting, and others offering qualified support. For example, the Simon de Beauvoir Institute opposed it on the grounds of bodily autonomy for Muslim women while La Fédération de femmes de Quebec gave qualified support saying that it struck a balance between gender equity and reasonable accommodation.[10] The most interesting and telling reason given for support of Bill 94 was from le Mouvement laïque Québécois who said that no reasonable accommodation could ever be made because religion is inherently irrational.[11] I’ll speak more about the assumption of state rationality and religious irrationality in a moment.

Introduction of the bill was followed by a public comment period in which religious groups, academics, and others expressed criticism while the general public seemed to favor the bill. Tellingly, almost no veiled women were heard or consulted.[12]

At almost the same moment in France in 2011, Prime Minister François Fillon officially decreed that women were to be banned from wearing the niqab and burqa in public spaces and that offenders would be fined and forced to take a citizenship[13] course. One of the primary reasons given in support for the decree was that “living together supposes acceptance of the gaze of the other,”[14] a rather tenuous assertion in that many niqabi women may just as well retire from public life and thus fail to integrate rather than unveil.[15]

The ban is also absurd for an even simpler reason – the fact that so few women, an almost negligible amount, veil at all. In most European countries, burqa and niqab wearing women number in the hundreds at most. In Germany, where face veils are prohibited to civil servants, not a single one wore or attempted to wear a veil. The truth is that face veils are extremely rare and that legislation against them is thus a symbolic way of asserting French beauty standards, sexual norms, and a nationalistic demarcation of “us” v. “them”.[16] To put it in a more historical context, “Just as, during the Algerian war, women’s bodies were perceived as territories to conquer, to liberate and to occupy, in France today, the bodies of Muslim women symbolize those ‘lost territories of the republic’ which must be reclaimed from the grip of Arab males demonized as uncivilized and aggressive chauvinists.”[17]

The ban on burqas and niqabs in public spaces followed an older 2004 law that banned all religious symbols and clothing, including hijabs, in French schools. The reasoning behind the school ban is couched in laïcist thought, a fundamental aspect of French culture and society that claims France as a secular nation with a rigid separation of church and state. In the eyes of the proponents of the 2004 ban, French schools are meant to be places of free inquiry and that such inquiry is hampered when students openly display religious affiliation. Schools, they say, are to be places of potential emancipation and wearing the hijab “symbolizes at best, a profoundly ambivalent attitude towards the benefits of secular free enquiry and, at worst, an obscurantist and oppressive assertion of the primacy of communal tradition or divinely ordained command over individual reason. It denies young girls the very benefits that republican education had promised them, namely, the possibility to emancipate themselves from their condition through the critical re-examination of beliefs inculcated by their families or communities.”[18]

It is important that we interrogate the assumption that French schools are the ideal place for teaching autonomy. Proponents of a rigid secularity in schools fail to take into account that students cannot be scraped clean of influence but that youth culture, family traditions, and community expectations all impact on students. The same is true of teachers and administrators who oversee secular schools. Indeed, the idea of secular neutrality itself is a chimera that dissolves upon closer examination.

A Deconstruction of the Myth of Secular Neutrality

The idea of a separation between church and state is really only possible in a state that has a predominantly Christian heritage. In many countries we haphazardly designate as “Eastern”, the privatization of religion is an alien concept. For instance, to designate the veil as “cultural” rather than religious may allow the western state the advantage of preventing a woman from invoking her right to religious freedom, but such an idea is absurd to many Muslims who do not see a separation between culture and religion.[19] As a result, some Muslims see westernization and secularism as synonymous and sometimes double down in their efforts to promote hijabs, niqabs, or burqas as a way of preventing the loss of their cultural identity.[20] Indeed, secular countries’ own assertion of neutrality is suspect. For example, the Dutch have high rates of church affiliation but low rates of attendance and one could almost make the claim that this is evidence of a shared Christian culture that inevitably informs their perception of Islam as the “other”.[21]

            Aside from the idea of a perfect separation between culture and religion or state and religion, one of the most enduring myths of secularism is that a secular state has to be a democracy and a democracy can only be a secular state. And yet we easily find examples that frustrate this argument. Turkey, as Cassanova argues, becomes less secular the more democratic it becomes and countries such as Poland, though ostensibly democratic, have what might be seen as enormous amounts of church-state involvement. And yet, it is Turkey, as a majority Muslim country, and not Poland that causes unease for many Europeans.[22] This narrative also contains within it the assumption that secular (and therefore democratic) states are superior in that they are inevitably technologically, scientifically, and politically progressive.[23] Gender equality is one area in particular that many secular democracies pride themselves on and it is the cornerstone of many of the arguments used in support of the bans in both Quebec and France. The general argument is that the state is the only entity that can protect women from the discrimination inherent in religion because the state is itself intrinsically liberal and benevolent while religion is fundamentally conservative and oppressive. The irony is, of course, that the state, in attempting to secure gender equality through banning face veils comes to reconstruct itself as if it were a religious force by imposing a secular dress code in place of a religious one.[24] By positioning itself as the surest example of rationality and neutrality, the western state automatically declares religion to be irrational and undemocratic and therefore its adherents as a semi-barbaric, an unmodern “other”.  And because the state is fundamentally rational and neutral, it makes sense that we view it as the ultimate arbiter of identity so as to avoid conflict between groups. As Ernest Renan argued, the state must be that which gives us our identity because to rely on religion or race as identifiers is to risk irrational war and bloodshed.[25] Understanding this argument about the primacy of the state in identity formation is crucial to understanding the French insistence on rigid secularity in its public school system. It is here, argue laïcists, that French secular republican values can be inculcated without undue influence from religion or culture, and where students from religious backgrounds can practice autonomy and self-consciousness. In French laïcist culture, constructive and meaningful lives are autonomous lives because only an enlightened and secular people can form educated public opinions and scrupulously influence policy for the common good.[26] In particular, laïcists (and others around the western world) assume that women’s rights and liberation can only occur in a secular democracy and that therefore the state has a duty to help women to liberate themselves.

The Myth of Progressive Female Agency

There is a general assumption in the western world that religious women have fewer rights within their communities than do non-religious women, and that secular liberal democracy is the key to the empowerment of all women, even if it is sometimes against a woman’s will. Gail Stopler, for instance, disagrees with what she calls the “rhetoric of choice” and says that we must understand that not all choices are made freely. She further argues that many minority women find themselves caught between loyalty to gender and loyalty to their own community and that thus women need help recognizing their oppression,[27] help that presumably comes from the secular state. My quarrel with Stopler is twofold. First, the assumption that women need help recognizing their oppression is, I believe, a dangerous one. It is the same argument that is used, for instance, in the United States to force women into having medically unnecessary ultrasounds or receive religious counseling prior to accessing abortion care in the belief that she is incapable of understanding her situation until explained to her by a supposedly neutral source with an interest in her well-being. And this leads to my second objection, namely that such an argument is a denial of agency and, ironically, autonomy.

Within this belief lies an even more interesting one, in my opinion. This is the myth that women are intrinsically incompatible with what the west may call anti-feminist movements, cultures, or behavior, and that any such seemingly contrary behavior by women is the result of oppression or a lack of agency. Liberal westerners tend to romanticize agency by positioning it as not simply the ability and will to act but as the desire to challenge social norms. We perform this romanticization by ascribing modern rebellious motives to women in history, for instance. A good example might be Queen Elizabeth I who is sometimes romanticized as a proto-feminist for her refusal to marry, rather than as an astute politician juggling constantly shifting alliances. But is it possible for women to use their agency to pursue what looks to us in the west like their own subordination? For instance, can a fully informed woman decide to veil? Can a woman who knows what her rights are in her adopted western nation still wholeheartedly embrace modest religious dress? Or is she subconsciously (or even forcefully) coerced into acceding to the demands of her family and community with no way out except by force of the state?

In order to refute the kinds of ideas that Stopler and others promote, that women need help understanding their situation and oppression so as to realize a positive freedom and transcend that oppression[28], it is worthwhile to look at what Judith Butler said about freedom and social norms. Ultimately, I believe it is important to begin by understanding that none of us is neutral. Whether secular or religious, from a democracy or a monarchy or some other form of government, all of us are shaped by our cultures and therefore, all of us act from within those contexts. Butler, leaning on Michael Foucault’s own analysis, would say that there is no self that exists outside of the cultural norms within which we are raised and that it is, in fact, in the midst of these that we come to self-consciousness.[29] Therefore, secularity is no more neutral than is the French Muslim schoolgirl living between laicism and her family’s religious and cultural traditions and, furthermore, both the secularist and the schoolgirl have, in a sense, come to being through these contexts. Any assertion of agency is therefore understood to be not simply in reaction to but born out of, the social norms and power structures that surround an individual. It’s in this way that we can develop a more nuanced understanding of agency. Rather than it referring only to acts of will that align with progressive values, it can be understood to be an act of will that is highly contextualized and culturally specific. It can even look to an outsider like collusion with oppression. Saba Mahmood puts this most succinctly when she says that, “if the ability to effect change in the world and in oneself is historically and culturally specific… then the meaning and sense of agency cannot be fixed in advance, but must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility, and effectivity… In this sense, agentival capacity is entailed not only in those acts that resist norms but also in the multiple ways in which one inhabits norms.”[30] Norms and power structures are inevitably self-referential, even in their destruction. And as Butler says (borrowing from Foucault), there is no possibility of undoing social norms that is independent of doing social norms. We can never escape our contexts.

Conclusion

            So, what does this all mean for the politics of veiling in Quebec and France? In Europe, the continuing eastward expansion of the European Union has brought about something of an identity crisis, while in Quebec we have two groups (Quebecers and Muslim immigrants) who both experience a sense of being “other” to the dominant Anglo Canadian population. And indeed, identity is really what we are worried about when we talk of assimilation, immigration, and bans on religious clothing. The question seems to be, who is the final arbiter of identity?

Supporters of both bans would argue that they are merely interested in, among other things, providing a neutral space in which women can identify their oppression but the French ban on the niqab has, in just one instance, been used against the same woman a total of 33 times![31] The law is hardly proving to be a deterrent to some. It may also be argued that this woman is displaying a remarkably stubborn sense of agency. In fact, in France, publicly wearing a burqa or niqab may be the height of autonomy and non-conformity, that self-actualization that French education assumes can only be found in a secular context. It also suggests that the veil seems to mean something to the women who wear it that is different from the western reconstruction of Islam that westerners use to support such bans. Indeed, Ralf Michaels posits that the entire choice v. compulsion argument only makes sense in a western doctrinally-focused society. Arguments about whether the veil is religiously required or not are thus irrelevant. In Islam there is no “final say” emphasis to doctrine as there is in much western religion. A woman who is considering wearing a niqab or burqa often consults a variety of sources, including family wishes, to come to a conclusion that is religiously valid either way, at least in the sense that there is no universal final authority figure in Islam to make a ruling.[32] In the end, the laïcist conception of the veil and what it means are western constructions. Veils and headscarves “have no intrinsic meaning and it is inappropriate for the state to impose a meaning on them.”[33]

What is most deeply ironic about both the bans I’ve explored is that at the root of both is a conflicted and paradoxical understanding of agency. Muslim women who veil are seen as simultaneously having and not having agency. To assume a woman can take off her niqab to, for instance, receive public services in Quebec or to adamantly refuse to do so is assuming agency and autonomy. But the argument used, particularly in France, is that women need the state’s help to abandon the veil because they either lack agency or the conditions in which to exercise it. “Hence, women who wear the niqab are simultaneously seen as trapped by the limits of deep-set patriarchy and free agents who are failing to make the best choice for themselves and for society.”[34] This is the strongest piece of evidence that these bans are not really about the liberation of women but really about policing identity formation.

I believe the two central questions we’re left with are firstly, what are we then to do with an influx of people who do not necessarily desire western interpretations of autonomy and freedom? And secondly, how can we reconceptualize agency so that it gains complexity and more accurately reflects a variety of experiences of power? In the case of the first question, we need to begin to understand the variety of experiences that Muslim women have. While it is common for westerners to view Muslim women as inherently submissive or as trapped and oppressed, deconstructing the stereotype and actually listening to Muslim women reveals a complex understanding of gender and religion. Some hijabis, for instance, see themselves as feminists whose use of the hijab is one of an assertion of identity and pride. Many of these women are visible in skilled professions, are activists, or are otherwise living lives of fulfilment and freedom on their own terms.[35]

We also need to deconstruct western assumptions of agency. More specifically, we need to uncouple the idea of agency from western secular liberal progressive politics. Understanding that agency is contextual and its meaning dependent upon a variety of historical and cultural factors allows us to get a more nuanced look at power structures and the many ways in which women have navigated them throughout history and across the world.

And finally, we would do well to question whether western secular values are inherently liberating. While we’ve seen that, for instance, French laïcist thought puts a strong emphasis on gender equality, we might also ask why French culture can, at times, seem unapologetically sexist in its rigid beauty standards and often toxic notions of masculinity. If gender equality is an important secular republican value, why do we ignore blatant violations against women while criminalizing the small number of women who choose to wear the niqab or the burqa?[36] It would seem that the motivation to ban female religious dress goes much deeper than a desire to liberate women and instead has everything to do with enforcing nationalistic ideals of what it means to be a female citizen of a western nation.

*

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[1] Meena Sharify-Funk, “Governing the Face Veil: Quebec’s Bill 94 and the Transnational Politics of Women’s Identity,” International Journal of Canadian Studies 43, (2011): 137.

[2] José Casanova, “The Secular and Secularisms,” Social Research 76, no.4 (Winter 2009): 8-9.

[3] José Casanova, “The Problem of Religion and the Anxieties of European Secular Democracy,” in Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe, eds. G. Motzkin and Y. Fischer (London: Alliance Publishing Trust, 2008), 64-65.

[4] Casanova, “The Problem of Religion”, 66.

[5] Casanova, “The Problem of Religion”, 68,73.

[6] From Anthony Cohen’s The Symbolic Construction of Community as referenced by Meena Sharify-Funk in “Governing the Face Veil”, 137-38.

[7] Gila Stopler, “Countenancing the Oppression of Women: How Liberals Tolerate Religious and Cultural Practices That Discriminate Against Women,” Journal of Gender and Law 12, 1 (2003): 155,160,162.

[8] Sharify-Funk, “Governing the Face Veil,” 142.

[9] Sharify-Funk, “Governing the Face Veil,” 135; Pascale Fournier, “The ‘Naked Face’ of Secular Exclusion: Bill 94 and the Privatization of Belief,” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 30, no. 1, (2012): 67-68.

[10] Brenda O’Neill, Elisabeth Gidengil, Catherine Côté, and Lisa Young, “Freedom of Religion, Women’s Agency, and Banning the Face Veil: the Role of Feminist Beliefs in Shaping Women’s Opinion,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, no. 11 (2015): 1887.

[11] Fournier, “The ‘Naked Face’ of Secular Exclusion”, 69.

[12] Cécile Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 9, no. 3 (September 2006): 362.

[13] Assigning offenders to citizenship classes seems to be based on the assumption that being a good citizen of France is to not be a veiled Muslim. I might even go further and say that it assumes that a good female French citizen be open to the male gaze.

[14] Ralf Michaels, “Banning Burqas: The Perspective of Postsecular Comparative law,” Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law 28 (2018): 231.

[15] I also find this quote interesting in its thinly disguised attempt to enshrine in French law the right of the male gaze to determine the legitimacy of female citizenship.

[16] Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab”, 361-362; Michaels, “Banning Burqas,” 215, 224-225.

[17] Ibid, 362.

[18] Ibid,” 357.

[19] Michaels, “Banning Burqas,” 227-228.

[20] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 4.

 

[21] Cassanova, “The Problem of Religion,” 66.

[22] Ibid, 71-72.

[23] Ibid, 64-65.

[24] Michaels, “Banning Burqas”, 243.

[25] Michaels, “Banning Burqas”, 236-237.

[26] Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab”, 352-353.

[27] Stopler, “Countenancing the Oppression of Women”, 158, 191-192

[28] The concept of positive freedom (being free from social oppression in order to act upon your own will) is central to the progressive understanding of agency. It is no wonder then that many progressive liberals would side with Stopler in her assertion of a need for space for women to analyze their own oppression. I by no means completely repudiate this idea but will rather contextualize it as I continue my analysis.

[29] Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’” (New York: Routledge, 1993).

[30] Mahmood, Politics of Piety”, 14-15.

[31] Michaels, “Banning Burqas”, 225.

[32] Michaels, “Banning Burqas,” 228-229.

[33] Laborde, “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab”, 361.

[34] Fournier, “The ‘Naked Face’ of Secular Exclusion, 73.

[35] Anna Mansson McGinty, “Faith Drives Me to Be an Activist”: Two American Muslim Women

on Faith, Outreach, and Gender,” The Muslim World 102, (April 2012).

[36] Recently more attention is being paid to this seeming contradiction. The #metoo movement has exposed not only some of the ugliest incidents of harassment and abuse of women in France but also the complacency with which it is greeted. (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-04/metoo-took-the-world-by-storm-then-it-met-french-resistance/10195830).

On Choosing and Being Chosen

Since this blog is no longer about anything in particular, please allow me to spill my guts in the most embarrassing but necessary way.

Many of you who know me irl have heard me talk about choosing versus being chosen. It’s sort of like my version of mindful friendship. It’s the idea that in your life you should take stock from time to time of whether you have chosen your relationships or whether you’ve just allowed yourself to be chosen. There’s no right answer to this. Ideally you should be both in all your relationships – chosen and choosing. It’s actually funny that I am obsessed with this concept because I am decidedly unbalanced. I am absolutely a chooser. This isn’t always a bad thing. But anyway, let me tell you a story that demonstrates what I mean by this entire concept and which also explains my weird relationship with it.

I have a friend that I only met in September but who is definitely going to become a member of the “inner circle” if she isn’t already. We really click and she and I seem to share a lot of the same ideas about the importance of friendship and, given that, we’ve decided that we’ll meet once a week for lunch. It’s perfect. She only works a block from her house so I usually make a lunch and bring it over to her house and we just shoot the shit, talk books, etc.

When we met this last week for lunch, my friend could tell that something was a little off (I’m the worst liar. EVERYTHING shows on my face). I hemmed and hawed a bit but eventually came clean. I was feeling a bit conflicted at the moment regarding an ex-friend. I had broken off contact with this person back in the summer (yeah, that one I wrote about) but had recently had to contact her regarding some leftover business concerning a mutual friend who had died. It had been a huge struggle for me to do that and basically kind of broke me for a few days. After that, I spent some days wondering if maybe I should try to repair things with this person. After all, it was me who broke off the friendship so shouldn’t I be the one to reach out? But then again, did I really want to reestablish contact?

Thank God my new friend is a therapist. Rather than give me a direct opinion, she asked me a series of questions about what I wanted to get out of this and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure. I mean, I wasn’t sure I could really trust this person to be a friend again so why the hell did I want to do this? It took a few more questions for me to realize why. I wanted to reestablish contact in the idiotic hope that she might be willing to hear how I felt about our past friendship. Ironically, I wanted to reestablish contact to get closure.

What my friend pointed out and what I came to realize is that I was never going to get closure. I was never going to be heard. And that’s because this past friendship was not one that my ex-friend had ever chosen. The friendship was entirely Autumn-chosen and Autumn-driven. That’s not to say that this person may not have cared about me in her way but, ultimately, I was not a person she actively chose to have in her life. We hung out when I asked. We talked when I texted. When she was in pain, I tried to help. When I was in pain, there was silence. When she needed help, I did everything I could. When I needed help, I got a sympathetic ear but no follow through. I do want to pause to point out that this all makes her sound like a bad person but that isn’t the case. The problem is that I chose someone who was not in a situation or had the emotional capacity to choose me back. This person has an extraordinary capacity for greatness that will, unfortunately, always be held back by fear and I just never realized how severe it was. So, ultimately I decided that I didn’t want to contact her again. It would just be too painful and, to be honest, she probably hates me anyway. But most of all, my contacting her would be just another instance of me reaching out and trying to choose.

But this is just one example of my overall problem and I suspect that I’m not the only outgoing person to have it. People like me reach for things we want.  If I see an opportunity, I grab it. Why not? Who else is going to get it for me? If I meet someone I find interesting, I’m going to tell them I’d like to be friends. That’s how it works when you’re a bit of an alpha female! But the downside is that you have a tendency to rarely be chosen. Whether it’s because people are intimidated by your personality or because you choose people who aren’t emotionally available, you tend to know a lot of people without being deeply connected to many. What seems like a positive and confident quality has its shadow side. But what’s the alternative? I’m not about to stop reaching for what I want and need. I’m a white-trash small town girl who has had to be as forward as possible to get what opportunities I could. And I don’t regret the way I am, I just wish it didn’t have to entail loneliness.

Not all is bad though. Clearly my new friend is awesome!* But the truth is that I’m hesitant now. I’m worried about sharing myself with someone and having them betray my trust, which is ridiculous since she’s the sweetest and most conscientious person ever. But didn’t I think the same about my ex-friend? I’m usually pretty open but I find that it’s taking more effort now and that is what I hate most. I’m furious that this whole situation has made me want to draw inside myself. That’s exactly NOT what the world needs more of, nor does it suit me at all.

So, what do I do now? I realize that I can’t just stop being me, nor do I want to. But I’m also tired of playing God and wondering who might actually be actively choosing to have me in their life. For me, I suppose, the answer is to keep my head down and focus on my work. Things just are the way they are and I just am the way I am. I have never been good at suppressing myself so why bother? Knowing me, I’ll keep choosing and maybe, someday, I’ll be chosen too.

 

*I’d like to mention that I have other awesome friends as well. What I describe is more a general trend in my life.

Text as Girdle??????

I got my official acceptance yesterday for the conference so…ON TO THE GIRDLES! And also on to a shocking surprise…

Seriously though, this is getting out of hand. What I thought was a simple inquiry into the use of relics during childbirth has taken me down and strange, strange road. For instance, my friend Jane and I were studying at a coffee shop on Monday when I came across an article called, “A Birth Girdle Printed by Wynkyn de Worde” by authors Joseph Gwara and Mary Morse. Aside from the hilarious reaction I have whenever I see or hear the name Wynkyn de Worde, I nearly choked on my tea when I realized that I was about to read about a TEXTUAL birth girdle. Like, what the fuck?

It turns out that the desire for birth girdles was so strong that printers often created typographical versions, that is, broadsides with prayers, etc. that were meant to be used, and sometimes even worn, as a birth girdle. Keep in mind that the actual girdle was only available to aristocratic women and, if you didn’t make yourself a tertiary relic (by taking your own belt or girdle and making contact with it with the relic), your next best bet was to get yourself a printed one. You could then clutch it, kiss it, or, yes, WEAR IT, for protection in childbirth.

I haven’t finished the article yet but let’s just say that I am utterly FASCINATED with the implications of this in terms of class, availability, and the transference of holy power.

I’ve Changed My Mind

Like a lot of opinionated people, I am rumored to never change my mind on anything. But this is actually just a false association. People unthinkingly equate passion with stubbornness. In reality, I’ve quite publicly changed my mind in a number of circumstances. For instance, I have written many times before about having been anti-abortion earlier in my life whereas now I do abortion doula work. I have also very publicly moved through phases of religion and non-religion. For me, there is no shame in being a human being who explores things and sometimes, as would be likely for anyone, changes her mind. I don’t see a contradiction in being a passionate person while also being someone who can be self-reflective and honest.

So, with that said, I’ve changed my mind.

Actually, I changed my mind two years ago but was unsure about how to write about it. I knew I had to write about it at some point not because I’m in any way important but because people were very confused about certain changes in my work. I wasn’t afraid of explaining it, just unsure of how to approach it in a world in which what I’m about to say and, more to the point, the way I think about it, is so foreign. I know that I will probably be misunderstood or thought to be saying something that I’m not, especially because this is a blog post and therefore not going to cover the topic sufficiently but – I need to let go of all that.

So, after having written The Humanist Ceremonies Handbook I can now say that I do not identify as a humanist, as an atheist, or as a nontheist. No, I haven’t become a theist either. I don’t believe that any of those labels have any real meaning behind them. This doesn’t mean that I disavow my book or that I’m “against” any of those things either. It simply means that after years of studying, thinking, and writing, I have now come to the conclusion that the way we think about and conceptualize religion is faulty. More specifically, I realized that western (organized) atheism and humanism rely on the protestant narrative for their definitions, philosophies, and, really, entire worldview. That’s bound to confuse a lot of people so let me explain…

The protestant narrative informs most of the western worldview. It is the narrative that gave us ideas such as that certain religious practices are superstitions, that the reformation was an improvement on matters, and that we are marching confidently toward further enlightenment every single day. We can go nowhere but up! In its desire to separate itself from “backward-looking” superstition it gave us the Enlightenment itself! Rationality! Rational religion! Science! Progress! And it is from the Enlightenment, generally speaking, that the skeptic and atheist and humanist movement was born.

Let’s take a brief moment here to talk about humanism because this is my focus for now. What is it? The truth is, it is a constantly moving target. To be a humanist is to be one who studies the humanities. I am a humanist therefore by the original nineteenth century definition of the word. But somewhere along the way, the word humanism began to take on all kinds of different definitions, just like any word does. Studying the humanities (humankind’s expression of its own experience of existence) became entangled with ideas about human self-sufficiency, our power to affect change for the better (or worse), our responsibility to each other. This had nothing to do with concepts of theism or atheism (which people largely wouldn’t have understood until the seventeenth century at least) and, in fact, many devout Christians have been retroactively proclaimed humanists. Today, according to the American Humanist Association, the term demands nontheism though I can’t seem to find any historical reason for the shift. Up into the present day there are plenty of so-called theists who identify as humanist who have been left out in the cold.

With the humanist movement of the late twentieth century came unchallenged and unquestioned assumptions, definitions and concepts. Religion, a construct so complex that not even scholars of the topic can agree on what it is, was loudly proclaimed to be a negative thing in all its manifestations. Theism and nontheism were carefully delineated and never the twain shall meet.

If you ask a humanist today what they think/believe, they’ll tell you that they are “good without God” and they will say it as though it is a revolutionary concept. And, to be fair, it is for some. Especially here in North America and, in particular, the States, where religion has been so weaponized that to declare oneself a moral being without allegiance to a deity can appear more unusual than in other places in the world. I get it. I used this phrase too. It’s neat and pat and saves a lot of time. And yet, I found myself at a complete loss to describe what this actually meant. To declare oneself good without God is to imply that those that believe in a God are only good because of that fact. And yet, having been religious I knew that the vast majority of religious people did not believe that they were one church service away from raping and pillaging their neighbors.

Another tenet of humanism, if I can call it that, is an allegiance to science. It was one of the most attractive things about humanism for me and I still find it an important construct. But, again, I knew that the vast majority of religious people subscribed to a mostly scientific worldview. I knew plenty of people who were proponents of evolution or who fought climate change and did so as part of their commitment to their religion.

Perhaps the most visible aspect of contemporary humanism is an insistence on atheism or agnosticism. But here again religious people appear to be misunderstood. History is replete with examples of people we might (anachronistically, I’d say) call nontheistic or, at the very least, post-theistic. The thing is, prior to the reformation era, western people would not have understood the idea of having a secular world and a religious world. This compartmentalization came about largely during the enlightenment. People would not have understood concepts such as theism and nontheism but they would have understood that there were many, many different ways of understanding mystery. This is exemplified in the diversity of spiritualities within the pre-reformation Catholic church – everything from folk practices to intellectualized clerical practices.  Huge conversations were happening all over Europe during the so-called “Dark Ages” concerning the nature of God, whether God was a being, whether God was really us. And if you want to say, “yeah, but they were still talking about God, ” I would submit to you that the word God didn’t necessarily mean then what it means to a twenty-first century American. And don’t get me started on how the humanist movement relies entirely on a narrow western idea of theism in the first place.

And all of this comes back to that protestant narrative. I am, of course, generalizing because I’m sure you’re all dead of boredom by now, but it was the reformation that helped usher in a more uniform and “correct” Christianity, one that demanded more stringent categories and railed against the “irrationality” of folk devotions. This attitude is still prominent today in Religious Right circles and it is that attitude that prompted a reactionary American (and, I’d argue, western) humanism, this despite the fact that the Religious Right represents a tiny minority of religious people in America. But don’t feel bad. The Catholic church got all reactionary too. They felt a little sensitive after the reformation and many folk practices (“superstitions” that we wrongly associate with paganism) died out.

The American Humanist Association describes humanism as a philosophy. And yet, I’ve never, in all my years as a humanist, been able to identify the philosophy behind it. “Good without God” is not a philosophy. “Likes science” is not a philosophy. “Sticking it to religious people”(as yes, someone in a very senior leadership position once said to me was the point of humanism) is not a philosophy. It’s late, so I’d better get to the point which is that I’ve decided that humanism, while well-meaning, is simply a reactionary movement born out of the protestant narrative it so desperately wants to critique. How meta.

That said, I don’t repudiate my book. I think it’s a lovely idea to have an option for ceremonies without God language. All the above bitching aside, there are people for whom religion, whatever that is to them, leaves a bad taste in their mouth, and I don’t want those people to feel like they can’t have nice things. I’m particularly proud of having included trans naming ceremonies and other ceremonies for marginalized people. I feel like that is all worthwhile and I feel honored to have worked closely with other celebrants to bring these to the fore. I also don’t regret my time as a humanist. After all, it was seeking to become a more conscientious humanist minister that led me to study theology and, eventually, seek out a PhD program in religious studies. I’m grateful for that.

However, I’ve changed my mind about humanism.

 

 

Of Girdles and Splinters

For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you’re aware that I am preparing a presentation for a conference on my fortieth birthday – yissss! For those of you smart enough to not follow me, now you know. The presentation is, generally speaking, about medieval English women’s use of relics.

***

It all started with a strange reference in a book I was reading. I was 12 years old and had just discovered the world of late medieval/early modern England. Captivated by a culture that was so completely alien to my own, I started checking out everything I could at the library. But this book I was reading was different, almost serendipitous. I’d found a biography of Catherine of Aragon in a second-hand seaside shop while my family was on holiday. What were the chances? I snatched it up and it immediately became my holiday beach read, of course.

Most of us by now know about Catherine’s troubles, thanks to HBO, Netflix, and other outlets that have jumped on the Tudor bandwagon in the last decade or so. We all know that she was a woman who had a hard time doing her duty – providing an heir for England. Lots of speculative fiction has been written about most of Henry VIII’s wives on this score, including fictionalized scenes of desperation and, in some cases fraud in the attempt to save their lives by providing, by one means or another, a living boy.  Of course, such fraud was beneath the legendarily pious Catherine who, I read in this book, instead sent for the girdle of the Virgin Mary so that she could wear it while she was in labor and ensure a good birth.

Um…what?

What I didn’t know when I was a twelve year old budding scholar of shit no one else cares about was that there was an entire childbirth culture peculiar to medieval and early modern Christian women that involved the use of saints’ relics. Using such relics during childbirth was meant to ensure a good birth and a healthy child. Some of the relics used were girdles thought to have belonged to the Virgin Mary, splinters of the true cross, shirts having belonged to saints, and other items such as rings, staffs, etc.

Now, when I say “girdle”, don’t think of a 1950s Playtex kind of girdle but rather an ordinary sash or belt. But still. What?

Here’s the story. Or rather, one of the stories about the girdle. It is said that at the time that the Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven – the assumption of Mary – Thomas, the doubting disciple, was far away, busy converting Africans. He got word that Mary was dying and was on his way home when suddenly she appeared in the sky and dropped her girdle down to him, presumably so that this constantly doubting asshat would have tangible proof that she had indeed ascended bodily into heaven. This is also why the girdle is sometimes called the Girdle of Thomas (and also because women can’t have anything without men taking credit for it).

I started to get really curious about this girdle and began looking around to see what it was, how it was used, who used it, where it came from, where it was housed, how one even ASKED for it, whether money was exchanged, and whether men used relics in the same practical way as women seemed to have done. If you’re wondering why it has taken me exactly 25 years to figure this out, it’s because I now have a reason to really buckle down and do the research for a conference presentation at my university. But also because the usual source of information in our times, the internet, doesn’t seem to understand how medieval relics worked. If you do any kind of search for the girdle or most any other kind of relic, most sources that aren’t scholarly are going to assume that there is only one of each relic (or two if you have competing sects that each own one). So, let me break this down for you…There is not one girdle. Not because Mary owned several or because Thomas needed so much proof that she just upended her lingerie drawer onto his head but because of a phenomenon known as tertiary relics. Tertiary relics are ordinary objects that are made holy because they’ve come into contact with the original holy object. In the case of the girdle, people would often take their belts with them to the church where it was kept (in this case, the cathedral in Prato, Italy) and touch them to the original and viola! A relic is born! When Thomas Cromwell and his pals went around England on their visitations to monasteries and convents, they made note of any religious objects or relics. During this time they found that there were at least half a dozen girdles, most of them available for loan to women in labor.

So, that’s the short story about the girdle(s) and how they came about. Now my research for my February presentation is focused on a couple of key areas, namely, what were other relics used during childbirth, how did one go about asking for the loan of a relic, and, finally, did men use relics in a practical way just as women did? To answer these questions, I will need to look at several sources that I’m not even sure I can get my hands on. For instance, to find out about how exactly a loan was made, I’d want to look into things like monastery records, something I can’t really do online and will have to wait until my next UK trip this summer. Wills are another good source of information about privately held relics. For instance, Sir William Clopton left a sliver of the true cross for his son on the condition that he make it available to “honest” women in childbirth (Source: Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England by Mary Fissell). This at least answers the question about what other relics may have been used in childbirth (the how is still mysterious. One wears the actual girdle but I seriously doubt one inserts the splinter. Jokes aside, it was likely clutched). To answer my question about men’s use of relics I might turn again to monastery records or even simply secondary sources about relics. In this case, the assumption that men are the norm is helpful here.

Anyhow, that’s where I am with the presentation at the moment. I have miles to go before I sleep.

 

I KNOW Shit and So Do You

I’m just taking a break from writing a paper for a class and thought I’d head on over here and tell you about something that’s been on my mind for awhile. It relates to writing, to academics, to conversation – it can pretty much be relevant to almost any situation. It’s the idea of discovering that maybe you DO have something to say.

I’ve been a nerd since the dawn of time. I’ve always loved reading and writing. I never thought I was particularly good at either of them. They were just things I did. Then my second grade teacher Ms. Ford told me that a story I’d turned in was really well-written. It was based on a nightmare I had about a disembodied hand that had snatched the covers off of me. In the story, I’m freaked out until I realize that the hand is friendly and we become pals (Freud would have a good time with this one).  Anyway, the point is that this was the first time I had ever thought about the possibility of being either good or bad at writing. More than that, it was the first time I’d really thought about people being interested in my words or that I might have something to say.

Many years later – ninth grade, to be exact – I’m tasked with writing a paper in which I investigate a potential career. I’m smart enough at this point in time to realize that school is a goddamn worker production factory that intends to spit us out the other end ready to take part in the glorification of capitalism. And if I had any doubts about that, we are given career aptitude tests to help us, as though being good at something or interested in something are in any way a good foundation on which to base your life’s work (I’ll save that for another post). Anyway, I dutifully took my test (I admit, I was curious) and it turns out that my ideal future career is either as a priest or a – get this – historian. I snorted at the first, being a loudly professed atheist at the time, and was gratified by the second since this was indeed what I wanted to be. (Another aside, I could just become a nineteenth century atheist Anglican clergyman historian, an actual thing that was very common).

But here’s the thing. I loved both writing and history but I thought I had nothing at all to contribute. I’d read enough history to know that a good historian adds something to the conversation. They don’t just write a history of XYZ saying the same old bullshit. They need an angle, a new source, or a new way of looking at XYZ. And I had nothing. I assumed that all the good stuff was taken. And so, I decided I’d be the next best thing – an archivist. Twelve years later, that’s exactly what I became.

And ten years after that, I am no longer an archivist and am instead pursuing a history-focused PhD in religious studies because I realized I was wrong. I made the mistake of thinking that everything I thought was the same as what everyone else thought. When I imagined writing history, I assumed that my ideas were so elementary that they’d definitely been done at some point. I figured, who was I to position myself as someone with anything important to say? Who am I to gainsay an expert???

My journey in academia has taught me a lot but perhaps the most important thing it’s taught me is that ALL OF US think we’re faking it. We all think our ideas are shit. We all sit around waiting for someone to walk into the room and point at us and say, “YOU. GET YOUR THINGS AND GET OUT. YOU DON’T BELONG HERE.” And we believe this because we perpetuate the idea of untouchable expertise ALL the fucking time and in every area of life. Do you want to know the truth? The truth is that academia is just a bunch of enthusiasts sitting around arguing with each other. No idea is off limits so long as you can back it up. Even if your fellow academics disagree with you, you’ve at least opened up a discussion. More truth? All those ideas I thought were elementary? No one had actually explored them the way I want to. I assumed that there was no way I could be an original thinker. My ideas have gotten a positive reception and better than that, I’ve had input on them that make them even better ideas. Where once I thought I had nothing, I now have approximately twenty-five folders on my computer, each dedicated to an idea for a book, presentation, or academic journal article.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that this idea that we have nothing to contribute, though DEFINITELY pronounced in academia where all of us have raging Impostor Syndrome, is actually something that shows up all the time in life. Take writing. I meet so many people who say, “I’d like to write but I don’t know what I’d write about. I don’t have any ideas.” Ten bucks says they have a fuckload of ideas but they have probably dismissed them before they have even reached their consciousness because who are they to think they have interesting ideas? I’d like to remind any readers who can identify with this that 99% of the classic literature written by white males in the mid-twentieth century is about absolutely nothing. You really can’t go anywhere but up.

I’d also like you to consider this concept in conversation. All of us have been at a party where some guy, probably in glasses and a ponytail and holding an impossibly complex drink, is holding forth on some shit book that is somehow considered a “classic”. Rather than feeling stupid and keeping your mouth shut, tell that fucker how much that book sucked. Or, if instead he’s talking about St. Richard Dawkins and how amazing his ideas are, don’t feel like you’ll sound like a pre-Enlightenment troglodyte for disagreeing. Tell him you disagree. Get into a discussion. Admit when you don’t know something or are willing to consider a different argument but don’t allow yourself to be talked out of your opinion or knowledge by anything less than an intelligent discussion not predicated on pretension or aggression.

In other words, don’t assume that what you know is what everyone else around you already knows.

That’s all. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

The Market Machine

As an author, I was advised by tons of people to have an author FB page as well as a newsletter. Those are good ideas and I have both. It’s a great way to keep people informed about what I’m doing as well as preserve my private page for generally non-professional asshattery.

But the understanding seems to be that I need to devote hours and hours to both page and newsletter, posting constantly to “keep interest” and to generate page views and likes. But I was never very good at chasing popularity. I’m lazy. Plus, I feel gross chasing after admiration. More than gross, it makes me feel all stabby and ragey. Why can’t I just write things and people can seek me out if they like what I write? Apparently this isn’t how writing works in the 21st century. It seems that I need to develop a “brand”. There are all kinds of amazing coaches out there who can help you do this but the problem is twofold – one, that this takes an enormous amount of time away from writing, and two, that branding, essentially being marketing, is never really going to be about a writer and their ideas but more about subjugating those ideas to market trends and base desires.

What kind of “branding” would ever really work for me? If my work could be distilled down to a single idea or theme, it would probably be that of ignoring systems of power and domination as a means to self-knowledge. How do you brand that? I’d become a much more palatable thing, a sort of toothless “girl power” rebel with a stylized logo.

How do you brand someone who is currently writing this blog post on her phone as she sits on the couch in her pajamas, hair unwashed, teeth unbrushed, at 3pm? Someone who sure as shit won’t even edit this before going live? Will I get a sort of cutesy shabby chic personna? The lovable Cathyesque “real woman” treatment? Maybe my logo will be a cartoon frazzle haired woman.

I did try for a little while though. I dutifully sent out my newsletter once a month and I set up a Facebook group based on subjects I write about. But it wasn’t really sustainable. Whether it’s just my personality or a penchant for self-destruction, I just couldn’t keep up. I’d open my laptop and just feel the seretonin levels dropping. I hated it. I hated the idea of getting sucked into the “like” machine on Facebook. I felt like a whore chasing those likes, seeking the momentary admiration of strangers. I belong to a Facebook group for women writers where once a week we are encouraged to post a link to our page for other authors to like. No one looks to see what you write. They just click like. And now I can’t look at an author’s page anymore without knowing that at least half, if not more, of their followers don’t give a fuck about them or what they write, don’t even KNOW  what they write.

I get it though. I absolutely get why authors get sucked into the machine. If you want to write full time you HAVE to submit to the market. I don’t (always) fault people for doing this. But, for me, I’d rather keep my mind free and my life simple, even if it means answering phones for part of the week, even if it means remaining obscure.

I still have my newsletter and my Facebook page. I think both are incredibly useful tools. But you won’t be hearing from me unless I have anything useful to say.

The Place I’m at Now

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for awhile now but keep coming back to the same thing – what am I really going to say after what’s happened in the last few months? This blog has seen me through some interesting adventures – exploring ordination, becoming an abortion doula, quitting a doctoral program to enter a PhD program, having my best friend casually rip my still-beating heart out of my chest and then ask me to tea…

Often people who are meeting me for the first time, readers of my blog, and even those who have known me forever ask me, “What do you DO?” What they mean is that they can’t quite categorize me according to the normal capitalist scheme we have for DOING, for work. We can’t imagine there is a category simply for being, or that work might just be something we DO so that we can BE. So much to unpack here. But let’s just say that my being is controversial to some. I am someone who rides the ecstatic wave of curiosity. I might be a receptionist on Tuesday so that I can write on Thursday. On Wednesday someone might have asked if I wanted to go with them to visit a relative in jail. On Friday, I’ll probably take someone to the clinic for her abortion.  Saturday and Sunday I’m reading about medieval women prophets.

So, what do I DO?

I do whatever sounds fascinating, whatever piques my interest or scares the shit out of me. I do what needs doing so that I or others can be. I do a little here and there to make sure I don’t starve. I lift heavy. I do my PhD. I write books. I do what my energy and my inner compass tells me I need to do without any reference to whether it fits into accepted categories for me, my gender, my age, or anything else.

But what ARE YOU?

Ah ha! That’s an entirely different question though! That’s the problem. When someone follows up, “what do you do” with “what are you”, they are demanding I identify with some job or function of the consumer state. They want to know what I produce (answer: books no one wants to read) and if it makes enough money to justify my identification. I have and will always reject these ideas. I reject the idea that I need to DO in order to identify and that my DOING needs to be confined to predetermined categories for which I surely didn’t fucking vote.

What am I? I am curious, wild, caring, too loud, passionate, tired, energetic, full of questions, full of shit. I am alive.

It should always have been obvious to anyone unfortunate enough to read this blog that I’ve generally embraced my wildness and rejected rigid categories. And yet…and yet I’ve always longed for a home. Do wild things have homes? I don’t know, really. But I know that I’ve always hoped, even while laughing at myself for such hope,that there was a place for me, even if only on the edges. Like, maybe you’ll let me come warm myself by the campfire if I stay to the edge of the clearing. That’s what it seems drives my desire for spiritual community.

It’s all well and good to be wild and free but there is this part of me that always wants accountability. Community is good for that. If I live in community, however poorly formed, there is some sense of my responsibility to others. Without accountability, I’m afraid that I’ll just veer off into the void of self-obsession or that I’ll miss a vital experience of being alive in the presence of others. All of my life I had hoped that there was just a tiny little spot I could wedge myself into (not too tightly, I need to be able to run away) where I could care for others and others could care for me. Where perhaps there wouldn’t be too much emphasis on conformity or dogma or anything other than this astonishing gift of each other.

Something I’ve had to come to terms with over the last few weeks is that, as beautiful as this all sounds, it’s a dream that is dependent on others seeing things the way I do or of my seeing things the way they do. In other words, a dream, weirdly enough, of conformity. There is no edge for me. There’s no communal fire to which I might be invited on my own terms. Because no matter how much we so desperately want open and vibrant communities filled with their own eccentric and lovable characters, the truth is that, in the end, a community that refuses to be reflective will always take the laziest way. Instead of community opening up to embrace a new gift, it will instead offer the edge dwellers a pre-selected number of ways to be that are acceptable to the already-established community. Sadly, those pre-selected ways of being will almost always be limited, unimaginative, and morally repugnant. This is true even of the most supposedly “open” and “liberal” communities.

All of this explain why I need to confront my longing for community head on and to accept that there is no easy answer. There might never be a place for me. So, where does this leave me? My vocation? Even this shitty little blog?

It leaves me more open and vulnerable as ever. This is both good and bad, depending on the day and what I had for breakfast. It leaves me a wild thing that makes its home where it best serves its purpose. It leaves me a wild thing who refuses to eat from the hands of others.

It leaves my vocation unanswered. As a post-theist, I don’t rely on an interventionist God to find me a spot like some celestial job recruiter. I have stirrings in my life that I take seriously and that I answer and obey. I can’t control how others interpret this and I can’t rely on them to “recognize my calling”. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters in the long run. I will continue to walk with women, offering what little I can. I will continue to pursue the constant burning in my belly that tells me something is worth looking into.

It leaves this site what it has always really been underneath it all – an exploration of curiosity and the lengths it will take us if we engage. It’s about that and it’s about nothing. I expect this to be of interest to no one but if it does find one engaged reader, that’s wonderful.

So, here we go, off into the future as lone explorers responsible for their own campfires.

Why I Need to Leave Church for Awhile

I had two experiences last week that are great examples of why I’m once again on the side of “no ordination”. I do have to say though, these feel pretty definitive for me. Allow me to explain:

In the first instance, I was at church. A parishioner who is very conservative when it comes to women suddenly began to talk about how he does not believe in abortion but that “liberal women” need to have an abortion every time they get pregnant. He said this to me, knowing I am what he would call “liberal” and knowing that my three-year-old daughter was right there. He essentially told me that I should have aborted my daughter. The women around me were shocked and disgusted but he seemed not to notice their reactions and carried on. He said that if we all just had abortions, there would be no liberals (a huge failure in logic I, the daughter of hard-core, bunker-having, Glen Beck-loving conservatives, am not even going to address here). He then told us that none of “his house” would ever “be allowed” to have an abortion. That was the only point at which I opened my mouth to tell him that that his attitude was probably why “his house” would just come to someone like me. I told him that my ministry was helping women obtain care and that none of my patients had ever told their families because they knew they’d be ostracized. He told me that my work was emphatically not a religious calling and said it with all the confidence of a man who is used to sitting in for God.

I was a bit put out by this scene but put it out of my head and went ahead with church. But I made the mistake many women make – I spoke about it. I mentioned it to a select group friends online but word got around until I was approached by someone who was concerned that I was saying something that could reflect negatively on the church. I should mention that I had not said anything negative at all but simply narrated the experience and ended by imploring people not to say negative things about the person who attacked me but simply to use it to recognize how we often choose our politics before we choose our religion. However, the topic of abortion is often something that can be interpreted by some as negative in and of itself, without them realizing it. I also need to say that this person had very good private reasons for approaching me and I don’t fault them for it at all but rather the structure and culture of the church that makes it necessary.

All that aside, what really bothered me was that I felt that I was ultimately being tasked with the responsibility for the situation. The man who had verbally attacked and defamed me and my child was not, as far as I am aware, ever really confronted over his sin (and yup, that’s what that was). He certainly never apologized or acknowledged it. There are probably several reasons for this – one being that he has been at the church for quite some time and I am rather newish. The other I’ll demonstrate with a quote from pro-choice Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison who said that when it comes to abortion, “the demand to speak judiciously falls exclusively upon [women]” (from Our Right to Choose, 2011). In other words, we, knowingly or unknowingly, often excuse men from out-of-control speech regarding abortion while scrutinizing women’s speech.

Weirdly enough, I had another experience like this just five days later in, of all places, my knitting group. As I sat there cursing the fact that my hat was too big and I was going to have to frog it and start again, someone asked me what I do. I explained that I was an abortion doula and that I attempt to construct positive feminist theologies, especially surrounding abortion. Some of the women murmured their support as their fingers worked away at their shawls and sweaters. But others began to tell me that women who have abortions are irresponsible, that they just need birth control, etc. This is not shocking anymore as I get the same script, almost verbatim, from women who have clearly not had to struggle when it comes to their reproductive health. I took a few minutes to explain the realities behind the stereotypes (most women having abortions ARE using birth control, abortion IS a responsible act, the myth of the friend of a friend of a friend who had six million abortions in five seconds because it is “easier” than using birth control is not a thing, etc.) but soon gave up. It never actually matters because none of these people are interested in anything but condemnation, even if they are otherwise good people (patriarchy really instills this need to condemn so that we aren’t ourselves perceived as bad girls). So, I just went back to my knitting. But I was upset. Not for myself but because in a room of roughly 20 women, statistically speaking, at least three or four will have had an abortion and those women were probably listening to all this bullshit thinking, “And THIS is why I’ll never tell anyone.” It could have been left at that but the women with OPINIONS just went on and on and then I heard someone say to me, “Autumn, change the conversation.”

And that’s when I lost my shit a little. Because for the second time in a week I was asked to manage a conversation I wasn’t even really a part of. It seems that my very presence is all it takes to offend people and no one wants to stop and examine why they need to put me in charge of that or why I should be censured for my having the audacity to mention what I do and then stand up, in the politest way possible, for myself, my work, and the many women who I’ve been privileged to walk with. And if that isn’t enough, I am put into that quintessentially female role of assuaging the uncomfortable feelings of others.

But I UTTERLY FUCKING REFUSE to manage other people’s feelings. And therein lies the problem for my life trajectory at this point. As clergy, my job would be tied to that role of Emotion Manager and doubly so with an abortion doula ministry.  When I sat down to reflect on both of these experiences, I realized that I would be spending so goddamn much of my time and energy having to explain myself, defend myself, etc. that I’d have nothing left for those I minister to and that is hideously unfair to them. Being clergy would kill my ministry.

In the end decided two things – that I am not able to stand up for women and destigmatization in the way I feel called to within the ecclesiastical structure of the church,  even as a deacon whose job it is to “speak truth to the church”. And also, I need a break. I love church. I’m an absolute church nerd. But as long as men like that man I ran into are given implicit permission to determine who is heard and who is silenced, I cannot hear God in such a place. Her voice is drowned out by the loud, aggressive, and unfounded confidence of entitled white men.

So, in the meantime I’ll just go to another knitting group I’m fond of and I’ll participate in my women’s circle for religious and spiritual feminist community. Will I go back to church? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine right now. After all, what was I thinking? A post-theist who is an abortion doula – I may as well have wrapped myself in tin foil and stood on the roof of the church in a storm.