Women and religion: Society, Storytelling, Technology (6)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 6 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

I grew up in the Church of England and went to church every Sunday, often twice when I was a chorister: Sung Eucharist in the morning and back for Evensong later on that day. I have always loved high-church ritual: incense, candles, and drama, especially on Good Friday, when the vicar would prostrate himself in front of the altar.

Like many teenage girls with a religious mindset, I wanted to feel a divine transcendence, and watched The Song of Bernadette many times. My brother called it my happy-clappy phase. A Muslim friend of mine said that when she was growing up it was commonly known as la phase mystique for which I was very grateful, as it was a mysterious longing and not happy-clappy at all. And recently I read White Hot Truth, and was like wow, yes, when Danielle La Porte said she too, was desperate, as a religious Roman Catholic, to experience God.

Meggan Watterson, in Reveal, says that before the 9th century, a theologian was someone who had direct experience of the Divine. Nowadays we think of theologians studying and interpreting religion in a cerebral manner. There has long been the idea that we need to transcend our embodiment, which results in organised religion assigning sexuality to the female body (materia – or matter, blood and procreation), and the higher attributes of soul and spirit to the male mind. Watterson, herself a theologian, goes on to say:

And this has always been the reason why, from the Talmud to the New Testament and the Koran, women have been asked to remain silent, […]why their experience is not considered of equal value to that of men.

We are second-class citizens and not worth bothering about. Consequently, it was a Father God who sent his son Jesus to save all mankind, the brotherhood of man, whereas Eve, the first woman in the Bible, is responsible for the downfall of all mankind. She is the temptress with the forbidden fruit and her pal the snake aka the devil incarnate.

In her book The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd says that prior to Christianity the snake was a symbol of feminine power, wisdom and regeneration, adding that no wonder a woman will feel lost in organised religion as she is cut off from her intuition, which is an evil thing, and which she understands from listening to her body, which is a dirty thing tempting men into sinning.

Both Watterson and Monk Kidd discuss the irony of the Eucharist. This is body which is given for you… this is my blood which is shed for you. Women can give their bodies to breastfeed their kids, and they shed blood every month so that they are able to create new life, but in religious terms, this earthly way is unclean and unspiritual, which is why women were not, until fairly recently, allowed to handle the Eucharist or play a role in the service.

But then religion is a man-made power structure. We had the Holy Roman Empire, which wasn’t about God, or experiencing the divine, it was about man and power. And, the Church of England was created by randy King Henry VIII who wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry and have sex with Anne Boleyn, whom he then beheaded and called a witch. No divinity there then. As a woman in this faith, I was taught, from birth, to be validated by the masculine, with a male saviour, male vicars, male apostles, and male stories. It is so indoctrinated in me that until my girls took me to one side at St Paul’s Cathedral after attending a service, and asked me to point out the female apostles and the female saviour, I no longer noticed. And, therein lies a particularly painful irony, I took my girls to church, because I wanted them to know how to pray in order to find comfort. I wanted for them, in those worst moments which life can serve up, to know their way around a church in case they needed to transcend their earthly troubles and experience the divine. What on earth was I thinking?

A few years ago, after several traumatic life events, I took to weeping a lot in church. Just weeping. I would weep all the way through the service, as it was the only time I had to myself as my girls were in Sunday School being looked after, and I had a tiny slither of time in which I couldn’t do anything but weep.
One day the vicar came over and said:
I have noticed you have been weeping a lot during the service.
And I said:
Yes I am very sad.
And he said:
Don’t you think you should get some help for that? See a counsellor? A therapist? Go see someone.

Basically he didn’t want me in his church as a weeping woman in pain from my life experiences. He wanted me to stop it, to go away, to be silent. I was so upset that he didn’t want me there expressing myself, I told everyone, every woman I came across: female friends, random women in the street, anyone who looked at me. And all the women I talked to said that they too had wept in church and wasn’t that the point of church, to get comfort?

It has taken a while, but I am finally at the opinion that the Church is the last place a woman should look for comfort. Comfort comes from being free from constraint, being at ease, and from the familiar. In contrast, the Bible is full of constraints. All those Thou Shalt Nots… written in a time when women were classed as possessions, not people, don’t put anyone at ease. And, the subjugation of women means that there is no familiar femininity just a load of blokes standing about in dresses, saying things like: This is my body which I give to you. It is mind-boggling that the centre piece of Christianity is something women can do and are considered unclean when they do it, and men cannot do and have turned into a spiritual but cerebral act. Women are to be seen not heard. Do your crying elsewhere, woman.

I did try to stay in the Church. I asked the vicar and a few other ministers if they had anything for me to read on the feminine divine as the whole Jesus thing was no longer working for me. They looked at me like I was insane and made me feel wrong about who I am and how I feel. The results of my life have been experienced in, and written on, my body, a thing that I am supposed to deny, because it is not a divine thing.

Feminist theologian Nicola Slee captures the female role in religion perfectly in Seeking the Risen Christa, when she describes her first experiences of faith in the Methodist Church as an intensely personal quasi-erotic relationship with Jesus [..] which mirrored a white middle-class patriarchal upbringing. He was a trial run for that ultimate act of female self-fulfillment, oh yes the wedding day. Because of course what more does a woman need out of life? And, if this sounds far fetched, look at the Roman Catholic nuns who wore wedding rings because they were the brides of Christ (which always reminded me of the Bride of Frankenstein, who was created like Eve was for Adam, so that Frankenstein could have a bit of company and his laundry done and his tea made). The church is a power structure which reflects an old fashioned outdated patriarchal society in which women are not to be themselves.

And so when this is all the Church has to offer women, what are we to do? Watterson says we have to do what our heart desires and that we are worthy of love and recognition simply because we exist. Something the Church could never say because it wants everyone down on their knees kept inline. They don’t want people following their heart’s desires.

Both Watterson and Monk Kidd have left organised religion to form their own definition of the feminine divine, because she, Herself, can be found, if you know where to look. It is a lot of work, but seems to me to be the only way forward because, as Lucy H Pearce says in The Burning Woman: Feminine stands for all that we have been taught to reject as deeply flawed or inconsequential: our mothers, ourselves, other women, nature – in society, in religion, in work. And this is so wrong.

It’s time to reclaim the feminine, and indeed the feminine divine. It is time to teach our girls that they are whole, and worthy and loved, and that there is nothing wrong with them. It is time to stop making us women wrong about who we are and telling us that the message came from a weirdy-beardy bloke called God.

It is time to reinterpret the message and make it right.

[7) In Tech]

Creating space (4): Invasion, expansion and girls

I think the world wants girls to be pretty and small and quiet. As long as I was able to stay pretty and small and quiet, everything would be fine. – Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior

At Easter, my husband, our girls and I got the train from Madrid to Valencia with the intention of soaking up the sun on the beach.  On arrival we went outside the station to see  a transfer bus rather like the ones at airports with lots of people getting on.

I got on first and almost immediately the bus driver came down the bus to have a word with me. He was a portly, bald, small man with a sergeant major moustache who only spoke Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish (self-consciously, I now feel obliged to tell you that I speak French and Italian). So, there I was two minutes into my Valencian holiday, already engaged in an exchange in which I had no idea what was happening or why I had to have a conversation no one else on the bus seemed to have to have. The driver hadn’t even noticed that I was with my husband and children.

I felt like this one moment encapsulated my whole life: I was being prevented from going about my business because a little fat man had singled me out to give me a load of incomprehensible advice and attention which I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and which made me feel uncomfortable.

As I watched him talking non-stop, gesticulating in a way that said I shouldn’t be on his bus, I should get off the bus, and find a different way to complete my journey, I felt like this one moment encapsulated my whole life: I was being prevented from going about my business because a little fat man had singled me out to give me a load of incomprehensible advice and attention which I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and which made me feel uncomfortable.

I drew myself up to full height (5 ft), stared straight into his tache and told him that I didn’t care what he saying but I wasn’t getting off his bus. I was staying for the duration. We each took several turns to repeat ourselves until we were both in a lather, at which point he looked around for some backup, and my husband came over to ask what on earth was going on. The driver threw his hands up in exasperation, went back down the bus, and drove us to our destination.

As we were getting off the bus, chorusing Gracias, as I do try to behave well even in circumstances when I want to tell people to go forth and multiply, the driver came out of his little booth, followed us off the bus, pressed a note into my hand and then started explaining yet more incomprehensible stuff. He then pointed at the note which had various numbers on it. This man was hell-bent on telling me what I should be doing and I decided there and then enough was enough. I have totally and utterly had enough of having my space invaded.

So, the other night I was in a pub sat at the bar having a pint and chatting, the place was almost empty, but then a young man came to the bar stood right next to me and started elbowing me in the back. After he got his drinks I thought he would move away, but he didn’t and there he was leaning on me and crowding me. So, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could just move it along. He was slightly puzzled until I pointed out that he was jostling me in a huge, high ceilinged, empty pub with a very long bar. He looked about with amazement and then apologised saying that he just hadn’t noticed that he was stood so close. WTF? How was that possible?

I am amazed and feel like I have just woken up to reality. How have I not noticed this before? Why wasn’t I angry before? Probably, because I am so used to tolerating all manner of nonsense, I haven’t even thought it was anything to get annoyed about, it has been happening to me since the day I was born.

Girls in middle school stop expanding like boys do and become smaller and collapse in on themselves. The main reason is that they become aware of cultural stereotypes which say that small girls are attractive to the opposite sex.

In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy says that girls in middle school stop expanding like boys do and become smaller and collapse in on themselves, and allow themselves to be invaded. The main reason is that they become aware of cultural stereotypes which say that small girls are attractive to the opposite sex.

In her honest, brilliant book Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton describes how she believed this stereotype was the only way society would accept her which led her to live a life of bulimia, alcoholism, and drug abuse. And, we like to think that society is changing but it really hasn’t, not intrinsically.

It is societal, we associate powerful stances with men and powerless poses to women

Cuddy showed artists models dolls in powerful and powerless poses to children 6-years old, 73% of which said that the powerful poses were men, the powerless ones women. In a group of 4-year olds, 85% of them said that the powerful poses had to be men. It is societal, we associate powerful stances with men and powerless poses to women. Nothing has changed.

I have girls and naively assumed that the world would be a better place by now. Since, my epiphany on the bus I have been going about telling everyone how angry I am, and every woman I have met has a story about how they have been jostled or ignored, passed over for promotion, talked over, discriminated against, and a lot worse, purely because of their gender. And, like the young man at the bar demonstrated to me, it is so deeply ingrained, it is often done subconsciously.

In a brilliant ted talk called Raising brave girls, Caroline Paul explains how we encourage girls to be fragile whilst encouraging boys to be adventurous. We need to treat girls in the same way so that they feel at home in their bodies, so that they feel expanded and strong.

And, in another brilliant ted talk Jude Kelly, says how we should have women telling the story of humanity otherwise our stories will never get updated and we will be forever stuck with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth which is not written for women, which then makes it easy for men like the head of the Paris Conservatoire to believe and speak utter nonsense like: It takes great physical strength to conduct a symphony, and women are too weak.

Cuddy recommends that the best way to change this is, each time your daughters, sisters and friends collapse in on themselves, show them examples of girls and women who are not conforming to the images and stereotypes that kids are exposed to. Show them that there are other ways of being in this world.

Women do not need to emulate men but we do need to encourage girls not to be afraid to express their personal power and to ask people to stop invading their space.

For as Doyle Melton asks: How can you be a successful girl if the purpose of being human and growing is … to find your voice? and society’s message to girls is to stay small and quiet: It’s a set up.

Let us tell our girls: Keep expanding, ask for what you want. And, in those times when you don’t get it, and when people behave badly towards intentionally or otherwise, please know absolutely and utterly: It is not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.