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.

*

Bibliography

Al-Ali, Nadje and Nicoï Pratt. “Women in Iraq: Beyond the Rhetoric.” Middle East Research

            and Information Project 239 (Summer 2006): 1-8.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge,

1993.

Carle, Robert. “Hijab and the Limits of French Secular Republicanism.” Society,

(September/October 2004), 63-8.

Casanova, José. “The Problem of Religion and the Anxieties of European Secular

Democracy.” In  Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe, edited by G.

Motzkin and Y. Fischer, 63-74. London: Alliance Publishing Trust, 2008.

Casanova, José. “The Secular and Secularisms.” Social Research 76, no.4 (Winter 2009): 1049-

1066.

Cesari, Jocelyne. “Introduction.” In  Islam, Gender, and Democracy in Comparative Perspective,

edited by Jocelyne Cesari and José Casanova, 1-11. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

2017.

Fournier, Pascale. “The ‘Naked Face’ of Secular Exclusion: Bill 94 and the Privatization of

Belief.” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 30, no.1 (2012): 63-76.

Laborde, Cécile. “Female Autonomy, Education, and the Hijab.” Critical Review of International

Social and Political Philosophy, 9 no. 3 (September 2006): 351-77.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 2011.

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

on Faith, Outreach, and Gender.” The Muslim World 102, (April 2012): 371 – 89.

Michaels, Ralf. “Banning Burqas: The Perspective of Postsecular Comparative Law.” Duke

            Journal of Comparative & International Law 28 (2018): 213-45.

O’Neill, Brenda, 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):

Sharify-Funk, Meena. “Governing the Face Veil: Quebec’s Bill 94 and the Transnational Politics

of Women’s Identity.” International Journal of Canadian Studies 43 (2011):135-63.

https://doi.org/10.7202/1009458ar.

 

Stopler, Gila. “Countenancing the Oppression of Women: How Liberals Tolerate Religious and

Cultural Practices That Discriminate Against Women.” Journal of Gender and Law 12,1

(2003): 154 – 221.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2014.887744.

 

[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).

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.

The Bad Theology of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Crisis pregnancy centers have been the bane of my existence as a woman for many years. In fact, when I do public speaking around abortion issues, crisis pregnancy centers receive my special wrath. That’s because CPCs are sneaky and deceptive while spreading terrible theology about women.

For those who are unaware, a crisis pregnancy center, or CPC, is an anti-abortion religious ministry often masquerading as a women’s health clinic. They’re usually behind any “Pregnant and Scared?” bus advertisement you’ve seen around town. They are often staffed by church volunteers, most of whom have no medical training and who peddle disinformation about STIs, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion.Many people are aware of CPCs and the bullshit they traffic in. However, most people haven’t stopped to consider the underlying theology upon which CPCs operate. For many people with little or no experience of Christianity, CPCs are just another intolerant arm of the Church. But I argue that it is much worse than that. The bad theology behind the religious anti-abortion movement is twice damaging  in that it does a disservice to Christianity while also specifically damaging women spiritually.

Religious anti-abortion culture and thus, CPCs, rest on the assumption that women are not capable moral agents, in other words, that women are unable to make their own decisions about pregnancy. This is what lies behind the idea that women will regret their abortion or that she needs to have a 24-72 hour legally mandated waiting period between her consultation and her procedure, or that it is a good idea to try to intercept women as they enter abortion clinics. Women can’t possibly understand what’s at stake unless someone else more informed tells them.

Religious anti-abortion theology also tends to equate womanhood with motherhood and reduces women to their biological ability to reproduce. Thus, the rejection of motherhood is considered unnatural and as taking something away from men that rightfully belongs to them. This is why we see signs in black neighborhoods accusing black women who abort of genocide. Or why the anti-abortion lobby had to invent “post-abortion syndrome”, a fake mental disorder that can supposedly result in guilt and suicide for a woman who rejects motherhood. Or why protesters at my old clinic used to tell men that they needed to take “their women” out of the clinic to save their “seed” which rightfully belonged to the man.”

So, where did this theology come from? Aristotle, whose philosophies influenced much early theology, believed that women did not have a rational spirit and Augustine concluded that there was absolutely no reason for woman to exist except as womb in which to grow children for men. Both Aristotle and Augustine may have existed long ago but their thought was hugely influential in the Church and I argue that much of our current attitudes toward women as rational beings who can be trusted to make decisions about their reproductive lives, is, in turn, consciously or unconsciously influenced by these biases still sanctioned and active in our churches.

I’m not saying that CPCs keep Aristotle close to hand or that they chat about Augustinian ideas in between potential converts. I’m simply saying that it pays to investigate where ideas come from, how they mutate over time, and continue to show up again and again unless interrogated and confronted. In our culture which, for good or ill, is culturally steeped in Christianity, ancient attitudes about women (which, by the way, Christianity did not invent but which were in turn inherited from classical civilization), still hold some sway. We see them reflected in supposedly secular anti-abortion laws and in religious institutions alike. The only alternative is to confront these ideas  head on and create new theological ways of understanding and honoring the rational spirit that lives in  women.

If you want a more in-depth look at the bad theology behind the the anti-abortion lobby, check out Theology Outside the Clinic or feel free to drop me a line.

 

We Know What Girls Like: Feminist Theology and Sex

*Heads up, friends. This post contains a lot more graphic sexual shit than I usually get into.

 

There is perhaps nothing more illustrative of the male sense of entitlement than its expression of what it believes women desire. This was brought home to me by the following completely unsolicited Facebook message I got today.

Gross Frances
If you’re going to pose as a man of the world, at least understand the difference between Frances and Francis.

 

So, let’s break down the complex psyche that is Frances and what it says about his view of women’s desire:

First of all, Frances knows that I need to be complimented in an extravagantly and overblown way. He knows that all I need is for someone to tell me that I’m a goddess (no, wait, a step ABOVE goddess!) in order to see that he is perceptive and sensitive to my needs. Automatic panty dropper. He’s clearly expecting the underwear (can we stop infantalizing women by calling them “panties”?) to drop because he has illustrated his expectations with the digital equivalent of the dirty old man wink.

Now, just in case I’m thinking that this is all too good to be true, he tells me his physical stats and expresses his astonishment (and what he presumes to be mine) that he is Sill Single by capitalizing the first letter of both words. Great! So, so far, a total old man stranger thinks I am a goddess and that I, of course, want to bone his 6’1″ frame. But wait! Lest I think he is too creepy (something lots of bitches do because they can’t take a joke/compliment/straight talk) he wants to humanize himself. He wants to hide the creep factor behind a curtain of his HOBBIES and INTERESTS which include such man-about-town divertissments as scuba diving, rollerblading, SEX (it’s like he has creep Tourette’s), and travel. I am also meant to be impressed that he smokes cigars because chicks dig men who do things that poor people think rich people do. He is truly a well-rounded gentleman and he accentuates this by asking (with the obvious assurance that it is totally okay to do this) that I send him photos by email or text. He ends with a rather disingenuous request to know all about my “Hobbies and Interests” because he needs to pretend that I am a human for my sake.

In case you’re wondering, his assumptions and general technique are not unique. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered these kinds of messages and it certainly won’t be the last. The words may differ but they all contain the same basic assumptions: that women are thirsty for outrageous compliments they are too blind to see through from old men masquerading as international playboys. We want a little naughtiness (such as a leering text wink) but we also want to be on a pedestal. It hardly needs to be said that we also need the guy to cajole us out of sexually explicit photos but secretly, we love it. We just can’t say that because we’re ladies.

Sadly, all Frances got for his effort was a series of dick picks.

So, what do women actually want? As much as we are stereotyped as being inscrutable in this regard, it is actually quite simple. Ask a fucking woman.  I mean, we spent our high school years being dry humped by guys who think sex is done when they are. Some of us still endure the relentless poundings men assume we enjoy because some actor in a porn he once saw screamed with pleasure while having absolutely none of her needs attended to. We are absolutely down for a little change up but, sadly, many women don’t even realize this is an option until they are asked. Many men have never even considered it because, whether they are good men or not, the sexual world has always revolved around them. Check out any “women’s” section of a porn site (I know you look at porn, so let’s move on). Here you can watch “lesbians” in implausible lingerie fellate dildos while staring smolderingly at the camera, or you can watch “daddy” clips (fucking eww). The women’s sections don’t reflect what (most) women want. They are androcentric fantasy projections. All this, we’re told, is curated for us. Not that they’ve sought advice or input from actual women or the woman-run companies that produce actual porn for women. They just know chicks love it. Why would you ask an actual woman? Guys totally know about sex!

Funny thing is, this concept doesn’t play both ways. As I said earlier, I sent Frances some dick pics in response to his request for photos (after all, he didn’t specify they were to be photos of me) and I know how this will end. It will be just like every other incident in which I’ve sent dick picks to a dudebro. He’ll be incredibly offended that I assumed what he’d like and no, he won’t see the irony in that.

Frances, let me tell you what I want. I’m a big fan of feminist theology in relationships and in the bedroom. And, in case you don’t know how that squares up, let me tell you that it is the exact opposite of your worldview. A feminist theological view of sexuality prizes the following things: mutuality and consent, female pleasure and, wait for it…the full personhood of women. That means that sex and relationships become a truly holy thing in which both people are aware of each other’s needs, boundaries, and, you know, status as a human. Part of this includes talking about what we like in bed, not assuming that your girl has a clitoris in her mouth. It means understanding how vital our sexuality is to our basic sense of humanity.

***

I am sometimes overwhelmed by the Franceses of the world. I have my ideals, I’m passionate about what I speak and write about but what do we really need to do to incorporate our feminist theology into our institutional theologies of sexuality? How do we address this when so many institutionalized churches reject the very idea of women as human? Honestly, I don’t know. I have literally no idea how to counter the Franceses of the world except with a steady barrage of dick pics. But maybe there’s something to that. Although it can feel tiresome and fruitless, perhaps all we can do is hold up a mirror to our churches and our society while in our own lives mirroring what a healthy sexuality can look like.

 

 

Women and the Discipline of Compassion

The thing I love best about feminist theology is how easy it is to describe to someone who has never heard of it. Feminist theology is about humanization. It is about taking the focus off of the abstract and instead attending to the daily existence of all human beings. It is rejecting abstract dogmatic concepts in favor of praxis. Of course, the impulse to living in a feminist theological context is found in compassion. It is through compassion that we are led to reject damaging dogma. It is in compassion that we find our deepest and most generous theological impulses.

And yet, I’m convinced that compassion is still something we don’t quite get. We use the word as though it means mercy. But does it? Mercy, to me, implies a power relationship. The oppressed cry for it and the oppressor grants it (or does not). Mercy does not require “com” (together) “passion” (suffering). It requires only will. Others believe that compassion is a synonym for kindness. But kindness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. From where does it spring?

Compassion, actually suffering WITH someone, is quite hard to come by. I don’t mean by this that most people in this world are shitty, just that we’ve come up with less difficult ways to engage with others, ways that allow us to keep a degree of healthy distance. The trouble with compassion is that it can only really take place through an emptying of self combined with the desire to fully love the other – much like Christ did. And although we laud this ideal, how can we, as twenty-first century people, really get on board with letting go of the “I” so that we can love more fully? How is it possible to let go of our precious egos?

What IS the “I”? As a post-enlightenment people, we tend to equate our mind with “I”. Our likes, dislikes, emotions, thoughts – those are all what make me me. And yet, wise people throughout the centuries have not thought so and have believed that discipline through meditation can teach a person to shed this illusive sense of “I”, what we now call the ego, in favor of a more universal “I” that is no “I” at all.

Here is an experiment. Take a moment right now to observe your thoughts. Right now, mine are telling me that I probably appeared like a total nutcase to the person with whom I just had a meeting. There is also a voice telling me that that is nuts, that I’m proud of how different I am and that I was just fine. In fact, there are several voices in my head judging the event and creating a narrative.

So, tell me, if I am my thoughts and feelings, then who is the “I” observing them? Who is saying, “I am thinking that so-and-so probably thinks I’m crazy.” Who is this “I” that is not making judgments about anything but merely observing what is going on in my head? I have no answer to that, nor does anyone else. And yet, it is this “I behind the I” that is observational and free of judgment that we really need if we are to truly become compassionate people. You can’t just decide for compassion, you have to make it into a discipline and learn to be at home with this hidden “I”. You must be able to separate your identity from your thoughts and emotions. Buddhists know this. Saints know this.

Emptying yourself so that you can fully experience the suffering of others has often been a trait universally ascribed to women. After all, isn’t one of the complaints we have against sexism that women are expected to abandon or sacrifice themselves for others? And if we have been socialized to do this, aren’t we automatically more compassionate as a gender? I argue that no, we aren’t, and that is simply because compassion as a practice demands an intentionality fully centered in a desire to love and understand another. When we empty ourselves as a social obligation, we are not fully intentional. Moreover, the kind of “compassion” we perform in this example does not necessarily require a true emptying but rather a denial of ourselves. Finally, abandoning self for others in this sense does not rely on the “I behind the I” but rather on the “I” constructed in our egos and social identities.

When women practice compassion as an intentional act, this emptying of self is done not as a gendered sacrifice of all she is, but as a spiritual practice of discovering her true self and that of the other person. Moreover, practicing the “I behind the I” helps her to develop self-compassion which is then passed on to her companion in a gift of true connection. Thus, practicing true compassion enables self-knowledge, self-compassion, connection, and healing – all goals of feminist theology.

It is when we can become self-knowing and self-compassionate that we can fully enter into the experience (have compassion with) another and it is that experiencing from which theology is born. Good theology is not made in universal decrees and inflexible dogma. It is born in experience and built from the ground up.

 

 

 

Women and Creation

creation-ofeve-796px-orvieto060

What I find interesting about the question of what it means to be made in God’s image is that it means answering the question of what God itself is. In other words, if we are to explore our own image with the assumption that it is a reflection of God’s own image, then we must have some idea of what God’s image is to begin with. Personally, I find this an incredibly daunting task. I’ve thought literally for months about this question in preparation for writing this piece and I don’t think I’m any closer to an answer. Do I start with listing what God is and translate that to human nature? Or do I start with what I know of human nature and use it to theorize about God? As someone who has a rather non-traditional and as yet hazy idea of Her, either method seems difficult.

Another question we’re given to answer is what, in creation, leads me to believe it was created? Most people will easily say, “the complexity of nature”. They will say, like Augustine that, “…the very order, changes, and movements in the universe, the very beauty of form in all that is visible, proclaim, however silently, both that the world was created and also that its Creator could be none other than God whose greatness and beauty are both ineffable and invisible.” But that doesn’t move me. It seems quite reasonable to me that complexity does not necessarily require a creator but can easily be put into motion by happenstance. After all, we’re only convinced that our existence is miraculous and must be the result of a divine being because we are still in the infancy of scientific knowledge about our origins. It is hard for some people to realize that we could quite easily be existing simply because of the confluence of certain scientific processes and that, if those processes were in any way slightly altered, there might be another type of being similarly convinced of the miracle of its existence.

But, most importantly and further complicating matters is the fact that I am a woman. Much of what has been written about human nature, human origins, and human purpose has been from an androcentric view.  In much early patristic writing, we learn that man is accountable to God and woman accountable to man, through whom God is made known. Women, therefore, do not have direct access to knowledge of God or creation but must receive that knowledge from the individual interpretations of men. And because of the second story of creation in Genesis in which woman is made specifically for man to use and rule over, much of the early writing about the purpose of women is overshadowed by the supposed sin of Eve. One might argue that Christian women have never had any real chance to independently explore their origins and purpose outside of patriarchal interpretation. What does it mean for a woman to be reflective of God’s image, especially when feminine imagery for the divine is so lacking? How does a woman even begin to relate to a God that is presumed male and who sanctions her subjugation as punishment for an age-old sin?

So, as you can see, I’m still struggling to answer these basic ontological questions. As I mentioned before, I’m not any closer to a definitive answer so perhaps it is better if I were to simply talk more about my interpretations of what I’ve read on the subject thus far and trust that eventually there may come a time in which the haze might lift just a little bit. Or, maybe not. Either way, the attempt is well worth it.

Patriarchy as Ordained By God

Women’s conception of themselves and their place in the world is conditioned, and has been for millennia by the acceptance of patriarchy as ordained by God as punishment for Eve’s sin. This says a lot about what the Church has historically believed about women’s nature, namely that they are impassioned, irrational, and require the headship of a slightly less guilty type of human being who has direct access to interpretation of the divine. The idea is that because Eve was tempted into sin by Satan, she has less mental fortitude, is naturally licentious (the serpent is not an accidental symbol), and requires more guidance in the will of God. Though this idea seems quaint to us now, we see it quite clearly at work in our world today. Women are still seen as irrational and superficial and we cannot trust them to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. The Roman Catholic Church in particular ensures that women have a responsible male priest, one with no direct experience of women’s lives, to interpret God’s will for them.

So, is this what we are to expect? Is this the end word on the nature of women and their ability or lack thereof to reflect the divine? Are we to suppose that patriarchy is God’s will? And if so, is God male? For how can a God that desires patriarchy be female? How can a God that desires patriarchy have no gender at all? The idea that patriarchy is God’s will must necessarily mean that God, is male because why would the creator of all humankind be of the inferior class and still sanction its subjugation? So, scriptural theories of creation bring us right back around to the same question – if God is male, how can women reflect his image?

Revelation and Experience

But there is another kind of knowing, aside from exegesis or reading the Church Fathers. This kind of knowing is called revelation. It is not the dramatic revelation of angels descending to transmit esoteric knowledge but rather the revelation of women’s experiences to themselves and others and it requires a great deal of patience and listening.  This sort of revelation has been happening throughout history within women’s communities such as the flowering of mystical women in the early middle ages, and it continues today when women speak out about the realities of their lives, about what it really means to be a woman. These women have sought to reclaim their identity as image-bearers by using feminine imagery to describe God and by claiming prophetic obedience to the call of God in ministry and the priesthood. Women are experimenting with new ways of leadership that call hierarchy into question. Women are, in short, hearing the voice of their God without the need for a male intercessor. Their own lives, intuitions, revelations, and experiences are enough. This is extremely dangerous territory. Where patriarchal religion codified experience and revelation, decided which books of scripture “counted”, feminist theologians and even lay women with no academic training are presuming to upend years of sexist tradition using nothing as their guiding light but the conviction that the divine does not want to oppress them.  These women, guided only by revelation in their own lives, are listening for the voice of God on their own.

Hearing Her

I am still cloudy on the topic of creation and human nature simply because traditional stories and theories of creation have never spoken to me. They’ve spoken to my husband, my brothers, my male friends, but never to me. Even as a pregnant woman and then a new mother, a moment of actual creation, there was nothing feminine to relate to except a sexless virgin who was herself not conceived sexually and whose greatest moment was simply assent. It is as though I am Aristotle’s accidental human. Indeed, the early Church Fathers were very fond of Aristotle and Greek philosophy, so it is no accident that they saw no need to speak directly to someone he described as “…as it were, a deformed male”. And yet, something in me knows that there was more to what I was experiencing in motherhood. Something primal, spiritual, and bound up inextricably with my earthly body. But when I went looking for texts, scripture, or any other primitive explanations of my thoughts and feelings, I found that, more than any other time in my life, my spiritual tradition had failed me. There was almost nothing out there that could speak to what I was feeling, could guide me through what, in ancient times, was thought the primary duty and purpose of my life. I have been angry and disappointed ever since. And yet, I can’t deny that there isn’t just a little frisson of joy knowing that perhaps I can begin to contribute, in my small way, to the now growing body of literature helping women to find their place as image-bearers of She Who Is.

 

Works Cited

Aristoteles, and Arthur Leslie Peck. Generation of animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963.

Augustine of Hippo. “The City of God (Book XI).” CHURCH FATHERS: City of God, Book XI (St. Augustine). 2009. Accessed February 09, 2017. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120111.htm.

 

We Need to Talk About Sarah and Hagar

ishmael-and-hagar

I was honored to be asked to speak at an event sponsored by the Student Christian Movement Edmonton. “Women in the Bible: Imagining the Story Behind the Story” was a chance for scholars to talk more deeply about marginalized voices in the bible and to share not just our scholarship but our personal insights. Busy mother that I am, I chose to deliver a short paper about Sarah and Hagar and the way their story illustrates one of the most pernicious features of patriarchy – that of turning women against each other in order to reinforce the existing power structure. You can listen to me deliver my paper here. I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and insights.

 

 

Theology Outside the Clinic

378887_2715562762829_714173204_n
Protesters from Mt. Gilead Full Gospel Ministries stop traffic to proselytize in Richmond, VA.

*This is an unedited version of an article that appeared in the December 2017 issue of CrossCurrents

Introduction

The majority of a woman’s life will be spent worried about either getting pregnant or not getting pregnant. For those that choose motherhood, even more time is spent worrying about poverty, healthcare, education, racism, and a whole host of other concerns related to her reproductive and family life in some way. Reproduction and family care is the primary focus of a woman’s life for the simple reason that she exists in a world that is not framed to understand her biological, emotional, and social realities. Where society and religious institutions have not stepped up to include her experience as a primary focus of concern, she must instead focus her own energy on framing her life around those biological and social realities.

Since the beginning of time, women have had every other reality of their lives made subject to her biology. For instance, a woman’s career trajectory must take into account the possibility that she may become pregnant and decide to have children. Apart from the time she must be off to recover, the reality of our capitalist work structure and gendered parenting expectations practically insist that she will need additional time off to care for sick family or to stay at home for a period while her children are young. Women are, in fact, expected to take on the “second shift” as a matter of accepted fact. The power women’s biology has to either liberate her or to circumscribe her life can mean the difference between being a full participant in her own life and becoming a footnote in the lives of others.

Along with the work world, society, and other areas, theology has often failed to take into account the varied lives of women. While the twentieth century saw an explosion in feminist theology and biblical interpretation, theology often still failed to address the single, overriding concern of every single woman who is physically capable of becoming pregnant – the power of reproduction to shape her life in a way that is different from men. There is an incredible amount of work now being done to rectify the situation but we still see many more theological defenses of women’s subjection to biology than we do liberating theologies of reproductive justice. Those theological defenses of women’s reproductive rights that do exist tend to focus on statistics, abstractions, and apology, as though women should be allowed to guide their reproductive lives simply because it is expedient for everyone else. Theologically, women’s experiences have been written about as a subset to the “normal” and “standard” spiritual life, which is to say, that of men. Feminist theology is seen as a kind of theology, not as theology itself.  Any theology that sees, either implicitly or explicitly, the experience of men as the default, is a theology that cannot speak to all of humanity.

It’s my hope that this short piece, with its focus on women’s lived experiences and not on simple academic abstractions, will go some small way to beginning the work of a woman-centered theology of reproductive rights/justice. I have structured this essay in sections dealing with theologically based concepts I have witnessed outside the clinic as I escorted patients past protesters. These include the theologies at work in protesters and clinic workers. I have provided what I believe are sound theological arguments that speak to the urgency of recognizing reproductive justice and especially non-coercion in childbearing as a theological concern for women and the health of the entire church of which they are a vital part.

Reproductive justice is an incredibly large topic that encompasses a wide variety of issues and concerns connected to women’s ability to procreate. Because the subject is such a large one, I focus mostly in this paper on the right of women to control their fertility through abortion. I frame my arguments through the lens of my experience working with women at an abortion clinic in Richmond, Virginia from 2010 – 2015. However, it is important that readers understand the totality of reproductive justice so that we can set the arguments within their proper framework.

What is reproductive justice and why is it a theological concern?

Reproductive justice is a term coined by women of color in the nineties who recognized that women needed more than access to abortion and contraceptives to fully live out reproductive freedom. With the vision of prophets, these women pointed out to the world that our reproductive lives encompass a great deal more than pregnancy and birth, but also extend to the freedom of women and families to raise children in healthy environments, free from coercion by the state, the ravages of poverty, and the racism that infects our society. Reproductive justice also recognizes the freedom to choose not to have children and the dignity of women who cannot. It hears the voices of those who choose adoption as well as those coerced into it. Reproductive justice is the recognition that women’s lives and that of their families are impacted by social concerns and policy decisions that, on the surface, do not seem to have anything to do with the issue of reproduction. Outside of North America, reproductive justice concerns itself with child marriage, genital mutilation, and other issues that affect the reproductive and family lives of women across the globe.

Women spend the majority of their lives concerned in some way with childbearing; avoiding it, attaining it, raising children, making money to raise those children, dealing with violence and racism in the lives and environments of their children, struggling with day care and breastfeeding, and seeking access to birth control and abortion. In short, women’s lives are intimately centered around questions of reproduction in its multiple aspects and, as women are full human and spiritual beings, the things that concern them must and should concern the church. In fact, within those concerns listed are some that have been the special focus of Christianity for millennia – poverty, education, the care of families, violence, and loss of personhood. That these concerns should cease to be interesting to the church when they impact women’s reproductive lives is a tragedy. Theology and the church should take note that issues such as these have a very targeted impact on women (mothers or not) and families.

We should also consider our varied definitions of religion when beginning to ask why reproductive justice is a theological concern. Daniel Maguire says that religion is our response to the sacred[1]. I would take this even further and say that if religion is responding to what is sacred, religion must also respond to desacrilization. The rejection of women’s lives and experiences as part of the tapestry of creation, is a rejection of their sanctity, both of person and of creation itself. This idea can extend even further. Many theologians admit to the sacredness of sex and therefore it seems fitting that we respond religiously and theologically to anything that threatens the sanctity of sexual and reproductive life. This includes forced childbearing, rape and sexual assault, enforced ignorance of sexuality, child marriage, denial of women’s sexuality, and all manner of crimes against women’s sexuality.

Finally, all Christians are tasked with working in the world for the kingdom of god. For women, this can only ever be a secondary task when combined with the effects of forced birth, lack of health care, lack of daycare, and the other concerns that take over their daily lives. To deny women the ability to determine their own reproductive and family lives is to deny them the ability to fully live out their religious calling. At present, many women live this double life and the result is that the world has not yet benefited from the same flow of theological writings, innovative ministries, and other endeavors in which unencumbered men are free to engage.

Outside the Clinic

On any given Saturday in Richmond, Virginia, there are about twenty protesters that gather outside an abortion clinic on Boulevard. These twenty are divided into three main groups: a group of Roman Catholics from several different parishes, a group of congregants from an African American prosperity gospel church called Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries, and an interdenominational group from Sidewalk Advocates for Life, an organization that instructs volunteers on how to engage with patients entering clinics. I’d like to briefly mention the general overall theological outlook of each of these groups.

Roman Catholic: This group is staunchly Catholic in that they are largely influenced by Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that formally enshrined what many see as the Catholic view on abortion and contraception. This group believes strongly that use of contraception of any kind is prohibited and that abortion is the murder of a fully human child. The tactics this group employs are largely singing and praying the rosary around the clinic. They see prayer as a stronger weapon than engagement with patients, though patients often report their presence as intimidating. A few members of the group regularly break rank and yell loudly at the clinic or at patients.

Mt. Gilead: This church is heavily steeped in the prosperity gospel which promises not just wealth and health but that God will see anyone through any difficulty so long as they are praying using the right words (right speech is incredibly important to adherents to prosperity gospel[2]). Church members can often be found engaging in glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and even in performing theatrical pieces outside the clinic. They are the loudest and most aggressive of protest groups, often trespassing onto clinic property to take photographs of license plates and patients. Most of the theology of this group is found couched in the Black Genocide Theory about which I’ll say more later. It is enough to say here that this group sees themselves engaged in a very real, non-metaphorical struggle against Satan to save their race and ensure its prosperity which gives them an urgency and boldness not seen in other groups. A quick glance at their website shows their preoccupation with concepts such as victory, prosperity, character, and rigid gender roles in the service of all three.

Now that I’ve laid out some introductory theological viewpoints, I’d like to examine in more detail what I see as the two major points at which these various theologies intersect: the full humanity of women and the idea of the invisible woman.

The Humanity of Women

One of the most noticeable shared ideas between all the protest groups, and the one I argue is at the root of most of their actions and words outside the clinic, is the conditional humanity of women. Though I imagine that none of the protesters would ever say that they believe women are anything less than full human beings, I believe that most of their anti-abortion advocacy rests on certain assumptions and beliefs about women that are not compatible with the idea that women are fully human.

My past work as a Humanist chaplain and now as an Anglican seeking diaconal ordination, has always been centered on a concept I call female personhood. In simple terms, it is the philosophy that women are full human beings and that they were made to be reflective of their creator. Though this statement about personhood seems non-controversial, it is actually revolutionary. Lurking beneath the surface of all our institutions, systems, and cultural discourse is the ugly realization that, in many cases, women are considered wombs first and human second. Take, for example, the advice recently given to pregnant women by the Centers for Disease Control in the United States: women should “stop drinking alcohol if they…could get pregnant”[3]. We all know that excessive alcohol consumption can cause serious problems for the fetus during pregnancy but we also know that any woman with normal fertility can get pregnant. What the CDC is saying, probably unwittingly, is that women between the ages of roughly 12-50 should abstain from alcohol altogether until after menopause. Note that this abstention is not recommended for her own good but for the good of the potential contents of her uterus and this despite the fact that we know that it is excessive alcohol that damages fetuses. There is no similar recommendation for men to avoid alcohol even though there is plenty of evidence that the father’s alcohol use figures into the health of the fetus as well. We see this same dynamic play out time and time again whenever we’re in the presence of a pregnant woman. Well-meaning people are likely to give her astonishing amounts of advice and even commands about how to care for her fetus. While the impulse to give such advice is usually coming from a place of love, the effect is to dehumanize a woman and turn her into a mere receptacle. This is only compounded by the constant uninvited caressing of her belly. By all these means, a pregnant woman ceases to be a private individual and becomes public property.

There are even more obvious ways in which we deny women’s humanity. When it comes to the issue of abortion, women are considered to have no particularly important input. Many abortion opponents claim that women should not be allowed to choose abortion because they will regret it. Despite studies that consistently show that women overwhelmingly understand their decisions and that most do not regret their abortions[4], we are led to believe that women do not make rational choices about their reproductive health and thus, these choices need to be made for them. Even in cases in which a woman does regret her abortion, the logic of forced birth does not hold. No other laws exist in the United States that are designed to protect a class of people from the regret they are supposed to feel as a consequence of an individual decision. That is, no class except for children. That women are expected to feel remorse and that they must be protected from making decisions unique to their experience are evidence that we have not yet truly accepted women as full human beings with their own power of reasoning.

There is precedence for these sexist views of women in the writings of Aristotle and the early church fathers. Aristotle believed that women were “incomplete males” and that they lacked rationality and Aristotle’s thought was highly influential to the medieval church. Augustine said that if it were not for reproducing the species, there would be absolutely no use for women at all. In fact, according to Augustine, women were not made in the image of God unless joined to a man:

“Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.”[5]

Such has been the nature of popular interpretation throughout the centuries. Though often softened to a more paternalistic tone, this basic thinking has pervaded the view of women as spiritual people. For instance, it is the reason Mormon women cannot attain heaven on their own but must instead be sealed to a male to ensure salvation. A woman is not complete before God. The implication here is not just that women are not fully capable of spiritual recognition by the creator, but also that her assigned male is to be her guardian. He is the one to make decisions regarding the family, including decisions regarding reproduction. The idea that women exist in the private sphere only, under the guardianship of her nearest male is nothing new and it still exists today, amply demonstrated by Sheila Jeffreys in her essays on the subordination of women’s human rights to male religious rights. She skillfully demonstrates that the UN is reluctant to insist that women be given full human status when working with countries that have, through the application of religious law, pushed women into the tyranny of the private sphere[6].

The Roman Catholic protesters at the Richmond clinic demonstrate the softer, paternalistic side of this thinking. To begin with, the Roman Catholic Church does not admit women into decision making roles at the higher levels. This means that men will always be making the decisions that affect women based only on abstractions. The real lives of the women who enter the clinic each week are not real but simply pieces on a theological chessboard. No better demonstration of this can be found than in the opening greeting of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical dealing specifically with female reproduction, “Honored Brothers and Dear Sons,”. The only audience to the encyclical is the all-male, celibate leadership of the church whose job it is to disseminate it to the faithful. It then goes on to speak only to the male side of a heterosexual couple, leaving women out, even linguistically. The document further cites that the commission examining questions relating to conjugal relations spoke with married couples to ascertain their opinions, not the women whose bodies endure repeated pregnancies and whose lives endure repeated interruptions, but the couple who, conjoined, represent Aristotle’s vision of the only acceptable spiritual state in which women should be considered. Humanae Vitae explains that procreation is God’s design for married couples and, in the end, Paul VI declares that, “From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow.”[7]  Of course, Humanae Vitae made some small provision for spacing/delaying births but many laypeople have absorbed the culture of Humanae Vitae without the substance. In fact, many protesters, though claiming to be very influenced by the encyclical, admitted to never having read it. What they believe they know of the document is simply that if a woman becomes pregnant, it is God’s will that she carry the pregnancy to term without regard for her situation, the overpopulation of the planet, or ecological issues surrounding the white pronatalist tendencies that some of the group have. Many protesters I spoke to also seemed intent on punishing a woman with pregnancy. In this case, it became clear that what was important was less God’s will or the fetus and more that a woman be punished for transgressing the rules about her place. Protesters who believe pregnancy is a punishment are typically those who also subscribe to a complementarian idea of womanhood – that is, the idea that women have a specific nature in relationship to men. What we see in all of this is the belief that women, like children, must be led by God’s representative in the family, the male head.

When it comes to the humanity of women, the Mt. Gilead group is particularly vocal about the inferiority of woman to man. This group, with its belief in the pronatalist Black Genocide Theory (the idea that abortion is an attempt to exterminate black babies, described in more detail in another section) sees women’s role as primarily that of a spiritual subservient whose duty it is to bear more black children. Mt. Gilead believes strongly in fixed gender roles and the headship of the male, as evidenced by their sermons which can be found on their website. Their theology of woman is one that reduces them to their biological function. Indeed, the church has itself hosted the Duggar family, made famous by the reality television show 19 and Counting,  who believe that a woman is to bear as many children as possible, not seek higher education, and submit entirely to her husband in all things. With such beliefs, it is not surprising that Mt. Gilead has an “Abortion Clinic Ministry”:

Members of our ministry stand outside of abortion clinics and only have a matter of seconds to communicate with the men and women entering the clinics to gently convincing [sic] mothers to preserve the lives of their unborn children. Due to the intensity associated with this ministry, volunteers are approved after an assessment and recommendation from the ministry’s overseer.”[8]

Part of this “gentle” convincing is yelling at men that they need to “be men” and “take your woman out of there, pick her up and carry her out if you have to”. For Mt. Gilead, men taking over women’s decisions is an extension of a man’s duty to be the God-ordained leader in a relationship. In fact, when the group is successful in surrounding a couple entering the clinic, they will often forcibly separate the male from the female and while the women of the group witness to the woman, the men of the church will talk to the male companion about headship and his right to make the decision about “his seed”.

In both the case of the Roman Catholic protest group and the Mt. Gilead protest group, elements of punishment can be discerned in their theology as it pertains to women seeking abortion care. While the Roman Catholics will claim that their theology is grounded in Humanae Vitae and the Mt. Gilead group claims it is the infallible word of God spoken in love, both groups attempt to shame women by asking them personal sexual questions and ensuring them that seeking abortion care is a prideful and selfish act that will result in years of guilt and mental illness. As theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison puts it, “every abortion represents a heinous act of self-assertion, a bloody, wicked renunciation of all that women were created and born to be.”[9] The conclusion many observers of the situation outside the clinic come to is that the real abortion debate isn’t about abortion at all but about the true place of women in the human family.

The Invisible Woman

The second tendency I see outside the clinic, and which is very much entwined with concepts about women’s humanity, is the tendency to take women themselves completely out of discussions of reproduction, often by reducing them to statistics and other abstract concepts.

Abortion and contraception are, without a doubt, the most contentious issues when it comes to religion and female agency and yet women are seldom part of the conversation. In the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, there are no women in positions of significant decision making power and yet the Catholic Church is one of the most vocal participants in issues affecting women’s reproductive lives. We can add to this the fact that most nations on earth do not have significant female representation in their legislative bodies and the result is that women are directly and purposefully excluded from discussions about issues that literally shape their entire lives. As Beverly Wildung Harrison puts it:

Only women can get pregnant, yet men, almost exclusively, interpret the morality of and make the laws about abortion. The political conflict over abortion is so intense partly because the population at risk from the effects of public policy is all but excluded from a direct voice in the policy-making process. Whenever such politics of exclusion obtain, it is predictable that those who make the policy, or favor it, will focus on the intensity rather than the substance of the conflict”[10]

In other words, the debate around abortion both in religious and political circles is so intense simply because the males that make decisions about it are unable, by virtue of being men, of experiencing the true complexity of the issue. One way in which this plays out is in the significant difference one sees when men speak about abortion versus women. Men on either “side” of the issue tend to see abortion as a heartbreaking and difficult decision, which gives more power to the idea that someone needs to be helping her to make it, while women tend to understand that abortion is sometimes a hard decision, often not, and usually made more difficult simply by the manufactured intensity of the debate surrounding it.

This last point is something I’ve personally witnessed. In my ministry of providing escorts to women accessing abortion care, I’ve watched women who were confident in their decision to terminate a pregnancy, women who were not ambivalent or conflicted about it, reduced to tears by the spiritual bullying of protesters who reach out to grab her, who hurl insults at her and call her a murderer, a slut. This becomes truly a Valley of the Shadow of Death moment for patients. The protesters are never interested in a woman’s reasons for controlling her fertility because to them (all of whom come from patriarchal faith communities), it is not the point. To them, a woman aborting a fetus is committing the crime of stepping outside a narrow theological definition of womanhood that has been central to the operation of most of our social, political, and economic systems for thousands of years.

The invisibility of the woman is a central theme in both protester group philosophies. It exists especially in two contexts  – that of the Black Genocide Theory and the Catholic principle of Double Effect.

Black Genocide Theory is the idea that abortion is a crime against  African-Americans and that abortion and contraception became mainstream in the 1920s to eradicate the black race. Though many working for reproductive justice deride this theory, it has some basis in fact. The eugenics movement enthusiastically embraced modern birth control technology as a method of controlling race reproduction. However, this theory ignores the fact that many black women found relief from the availability of birth control and abortion and it also ignores economic realities and continuing American segregation with its claim that clinics exist in low-income neighborhoods simply to target black women’s children for genocide. The fact that most women who choose abortion are white (though black women are overrepresented, likely due to economic and social segregation)[11] is not accepted by the movement which seems impervious to the experiences of black women. The Black Genocide theory is a pronatalist theory and, as such, is not interested in the actual lives and wellbeing of women when it collides with their justified anger over a birth-control based eugenics policy. It is a theory that has gained huge acceptance lately among black Christian churches but as early as 1940, black male scholars were writing editorials critical of birth control, saying, “It [birth control] is a move away from the full development of the race”[12].

For many of these churches, including the one that protests outside the clinic in Richmond, prosperity includes as many children as a woman can have. Black Genocide Theory, though championed by some women in the movement, does not put women at the center of conversations about reproductive health despite women being those who absorb the realities of those decisions. In fact, it openly calls black women genocidal traitors when they opt for abortion as evidenced by billboards with sayings such as, “The most dangerous place for a black child is in the womb.”

But perhaps the most disturbing portrayal of the invisible woman is that which I learned about from Amberlee, the president of the University of Alberta’s anti-abortion group. It is a philosophical concept popular among Catholics, particularly among those who protest outside of clinics, including in Richmond. Amberlee is a very pleasant young woman in her senior year. She protests my workshops and speaking events but, nonetheless, we have a cordial relationship and she agreed to be interviewed for my upcoming book. During the interview, I had asked Amberlee to explain to me how she deals theologically with the idea of something like an ectopic pregnancy, where the fetus will not survive in any possible outcome. She told me that she had recently taken a bioethics class at St. Joseph College which described a concept called Double Effect. Double effect is a theological justification that allows someone to perform an action that will result in an outcome one would normally want to avoid. It is a way to absolve someone of guilt when they are performing some action that results in what the church believes is sin. Amberlee told me that the instructor explained that in an ectopic pregnancy, a doctor could perform a surgery on the woman by cutting out the affected portion of her fallopian tube. In this way, the doctor would not be performing an abortion, even though they knew that the result would be the death of the fetus.

In describing Double Effect, Amberlee was, in effect, describing the perfect case of the invisible (and expendable) woman. Ectopic pregnancies are usually discovered quite early in pregnancy and can be terminated simply with a dose of methotrexate.. It is incredibly safe and the effects are minimal. What Amberlee suggested was the more theologically sound route was to perform an invasive surgery, one that would involve recovery time far beyond that of an abortion (even surgical abortion recovery is measured in days) and non-therapeutically removing a portion of a woman’s body, a portion that is not guaranteed to heal or regain functionality. In this scenario, the woman is indeed invisible to the entire decision making process around her as the doctor focuses on performing an abortion that is not an abortion.

Indeed, whether examining Mt. Gilead’s assertion of a Satanic genocide being perpetrated against black people or the Roman Catholic group’s view of a cosmic war being fought for the souls of the unborn, women are nowhere near the center of concern for these groups. The women are invisible in a debate that tends to center on the morality of the act of abortion itself. When abortion is taken out of its context, divested of its meaning to women and their well-being, women become nothing more than an abstraction in a theological debate. At times, both groups of protesters try to make up for this lack of focus on women as agents by trying to paint the act of abortion as gruesome, bloody, and violent, as damaging to their health and wellbeing. To this end they use medically discredited information about the procedure and its effects. Abortion as it is usually performed is about a ten to fifteen minute procedure (unless one is having a late-term abortion, only 2% of abortions performed in the United States). There is minimal blood and recovery includes a couple of days of cramping and heavy menstrual-like bleeding. There are no mental illnesses associated with abortion and absolutely no link to breast cancer (one protester used to shout for hours that 88% of all cancer was caused by abortion). Before having the procedure, a woman meets with a counselor to determine that she is not being coerced and that she understands her rights and options. Nonetheless, protesters will claim concern for women by painting a horrific and bloody picture of an operating room (operating rooms are not usually used) and the extraction of fetal limbs (the fetus is usually too small for anyone to discern limbs). They will also claim that death is a very real possibility despite abortion being one of the safest procedures anyone can have, about four times safer than a colonoscopy[13].  Some protesters are, no doubt, accepting debunked science as valid in good faith. But there is another current of thinking that one can find on their social media sites and in conversation outside the clinic and that is that one is justified in telling falsehoods if it results in a moral victory, in this case, saving a fetus. There is a long tradition in Roman Catholicism of theological debate on the nature of falsehood (Augustine’s On Lying being but one of many) and what a falsehood truly is. Some Roman Catholic protesters I’ve spoken with have embraced the idea that telling a lie is justified if a life (fetus) is saved. Still others take a more nuanced approach and believe that a person is justified in deceiving but that some subtlety is necessary. This would be in accordance with what Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, writes about lying, “…it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says”[14]

This approach has been used to formulate laws such as in Texas where a doctor or genetic counselor may withhold information about fetal abnormalities if they have reason to believe a woman may seek an abortion. What all of these arguments and approaches demonstrate is that the woman, who should be the focus of any discussion regarding her reproductive life, is shunted off to the corner to await abstract theological conclusion.

A Woman-Centered Theology

But the story outside the clinic is not simply one of a negative use of theology that is used to justify an ancient social order. Many of the clinic workers I’ve known have come to their work not just with spiritual convictions but with theological justifications for putting women back into the story of their own lives. My own story follows this path. I founded Richmond Clinic Defense in 2010 as a ministry of presence for patients. I saw that women and their lives were abstractions to many of the protesters and that this resulted in dehumanization and stereotyping that was damaging for everyone. My idea was that clinic volunteer escorts would not contribute to the abstract debate, philosophical or theological, but instead simply be present with a woman in her current situation. By walking with her and providing comfort when needed, we would demonstrate a theology or, ( for the atheist members among us) a philosophy that was woman-centered and focused on a patient’s real world needs. The practical duties are simple: to ask an arriving patient if she would like an escort past the protesters at our entrance. If the woman declines, we respect that and fall back. Likewise if she says that she wants to talk with the protesters. This is all part of respecting that a woman has been given the ability to make decisions about her life and situation, sometimes even decisions that might make us individually uncomfortable. For women who want an escort, we never touch or hug her without consent as the protesters do because we recognize that to do so is to continue in the tradition of denying bodily autonomy. We also recognize that some of the women coming to the clinic had been sexually victimized and might not welcome non-consensual touching. In short, the experience is purposefully tailored to the needs of the patient as a means of putting her back in charge of her experience and its interpretation.

Patients and clinic workers themselves represent a variety of religious views. Because they do not come to the clinic as a religious group, we must speak to them as individuals to get a sense of how they might theologically interpret their experience. Most patients who have felt comfortable talking to me have claimed Christianity as their religion and some have felt that, though they’re making the right decision for themselves, God must be condemning them. Other patients have told me that they believe that God does not want them to bring a suffering life into the world and a few told me that they believed it was immoral for protesters to impose dogma on others, especially when they don’t understand the situation.

The other most common group of patients claim no religion or atheism/humanism. Clinic workers fall largely into these same categories – mostly Christian or Atheist/Humanist though the Atheist/Humanist presence is slightly more dominant. Among the Christians are clinic workers who feel specifically called to this work as a vocation. The Atheist/Humanist contingent feel similarly pulled but for nonreligious reasons. A few of the latter have very negative attitudes toward religion, particularly in its historic attitudes toward women, and this can result in breaking the non-engagement policy when protesters use scripture to promote the inferiority of women.

The vast majority of religiously-minded clinic escorts felt that being a presence was the most important part of their work. Emily, who is a Quaker and a clinic escort in New York told me, “George Fox, who founded the Religious Society of Friends said, ‘Do rightly, justly, truly, holily, equally, to all people in all things.’ I definitely see clinic protesters as not doing justly to patients and staff and so escorting is a way to mitigate that and do rightly. We also believe that there is ‘that of God in everyone’ which, to me, speaks of the divinity of individual choice rather than imposing doctrine.” Emily also finds the Quaker injunction to “speak only when you feel powerfully and directly called to do so” helpful in her work. Clinic escorts are meant to be non-engaging which means that they should not return the insults or debate with protesters since this turns the focus of the work from being woman-centered to being about egos and an abstract principle. Emily’s practice of silence in worship is, she feels, a powerful way of countering what she sees as an imposition of doctrine on women.

Among the religious escorts is a rather large group of Unitarian Universalists who see working for reproductive justice as a sacred act. These escorts see the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism as speaking directly to the issue. When speaking with UU escorts, you will often hear them talk about the First Principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. For UU escorts, this means that women possess an inherent dignity that is challenged each time she walks the gauntlet of protesters who shout insults or insensitive remarks. The Fourth Principle: a free and responsible search for truth and meaning speaks powerfully for them against what they see as an imposition of a single church’s dogma upon a stranger. The Sixth Principle: the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all is a call to create a world in which women are at liberty to make their own reproductive decisions without interference.

Clinic escorts are not the only people who come to reproductive justice work for religious reasons. Dr. Willie Parker, who provides abortions in the southern United States began his career with dreams of working as an OBGYN in Hawaii. Over the years, he began to hear more and more from his female patients about the realities of their lives and he realized that he was only providing part of the care they needed. In an article for the CBC, Parker said, “For me, the challenge came around what it meant for me to self-describe as a woman’s health provider and yet to feel unable to provide one of the most essential health services that a woman needs. One in three women (in the United States) by the time they reach age 45 will have experienced abortion.” His answer came later as he was listening to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King on the Good Samaritan in which King said, “The first question that the Levite asked was  ‘If I stop to help this man what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The result was that Dr. Parker packed his bags and moved back to his hometown to begin providing full spectrum care for women[15]. He is active within our network of activists and continues to lend a religious voice to the struggle.

Conclusion

My own theological views have undergone a change since founding Richmond Clinic Defense. I began the group as a dedicated humanist who saw the protesters as individuals wishing to impose a single theological doctrine on women entering the clinic. As the work went on, I began to see the ways in which well-meaning people (the protesters) could promote a dogma of subjection without realizing they are doing it. It was at this point that it became clear that what was truly happening was a clash of ideas about what it meant to be a woman couched that were being fought through theological claims. For many traditionalist religions that were founded on and continue to operate out of, a patriarchal worldview, the change in women’s status was profoundly threatening. If women can control their fertility, they can engage more fully with life on their own terms. They can go to college if they want to, they can choose not to have children or to have many, they can become more and more the authors of their own lives. For religions that promote female subjection, this is not a welcoming prospect because control of women’s bodies ensures control of women’s lives. Thus, the abortion and contraception debates are just one more front on the war against female personhood. People who view, consciously or subconsciously, controlling women’s bodies as necessary for the survival of their tradition or faith can deny overpopulation, climate change, and worsening economic realities because, for them, these are lesser concerns than that of preserving an ancient way of life in which women and reproduction are relegated entirely to the private sphere for the survival and benefit of the tribe. Theology has, for far too long, been interpreted in the service of a male-dominated world. As Harrison puts it, “Christian theology has advanced when it comes to man. We do not rely on iron age observations, etc. But when it comes to women, we are still apt to view childbearing and child rearing from the Iron Age perspective. It is the one area that did not receive a critical historical analysis or evolve in theology as man did.”[16]

A theology that speaks directly to women must include a theological understanding of women as bearing the image of God, as having agency, as having the capacity to make decisions for herself, her body, and her family that promote their wellbeing. It must recognize women as a part of humanity, containing the wisdom of the female experience, an experience of half of humanity, an experience that is centered around what it means to have the power to reproduce the species. Such a theology, bearing on the lives and happiness of 51% of the population must involve women in its crafting and interpretation and it must involve them at the highest levels of leadership in order to avoid abstraction. Anything less is only half a theology of what it means to be human.

 

[1] Maguire, Daniel C. Sacred choices: the right to contraception and abortion in ten world religions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

[2] Bowler, Kate. Blessed: a history of the American prosperity gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[3] “Alcohol and Pregnancy | VitalSigns | CDC.” Alcohol and Pregnancy. February 2, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/fasd/index.html. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[4] Rocca, Corinne H., Katrina Kimport, Sarah C. M. Roberts, Heather Gould, John Neuhaus, and Diana G. Foster. “Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States: A Longitudinal Study.” PLOS ONE 10, no. 7 (2015).

[5] Augustine, and John Hammond Taylor. The literal meaning of Genesis. New York, NY: Newman Press, 1982.

[6] Jeffreys, Sheila. Man’s dominion: religion and the eclipse of women’s rights in world politics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012.

[7] “Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968) | Paul VI – Vatican.va. http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html. Accessed September 12, 2016.

[8]Mt. Gilead Full Gospel Ministries, International in Richmond, VA http://www.mtgileadfgim.org/church-ministries/. Accessed September 22, 2016.

[9] Wildung Harrison, Beverly. Our right to choose: toward a new ethic of abortion. Boston: Wipf and Stock, 1983.

[10] Wildung Harrison. Our right to choose: toward a new ethic of abortion. 1983.

[11] ” Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients in 2014 and Changes Since 2008”. https://www.guttmacher.org/report/characteristics-us-abortion-patients-2014. Accessed September 14, 2016.

[12] Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the black body: race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty. New York: Vintage, 1997.

[13] Reinhardt-Simpson, Autumn, and David Simpson. Mortality Rates for Abortion as Contrasted With Other Outpatient Procedures. XLS. Richmond Clinic Defense Press Release, February 2012.

[14] Aquinas, Thomas. “Of the vices opposed to truth, and first of lying …” Summa Theologica. 2016. http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/sum366.htm. Accessed September 2nd, 2016.

[15] Hynes, Mary. “Christian Doctor Believes He Has a Moral Duty to Provide Abortions – Home | Tapestry with Mary Hynes | CBC Radio.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 26 June 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.

[16] Wildung Harrison. Our right to choose: toward a new ethic of abortion. 1983.