From 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a time to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world. This is my small contribution.
“Everyone has a responsibility to prevent and end violence against women and girls, starting by challenging the culture of discrimination that allows it to continue.” -Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
I grew up with the understanding that women were to be treated with decency. Decency mattered, but the conservative Christian culture that formed me also consciously and surreptitiously elevated men. Women were just not quite as important as men. It’s not something that was said out loud, it was just a given, it was in the air, it was nature…moreover, and defining, there was biblical warrant. I breathed it in before I knew that my treating-women-with-decency was already a condescension—something like male magnanimity toward the “weaker half” of humanity. So while I was never physically violent I no doubt carried an attitude that excused psychological and spiritual violence towards women.
While we’re at it, another confession: I was taught that within marriage (and of course there was only one form of marriage, and sexuality was binary…etc.) I was to love my wife, and in return, my wife was to respect me. For those outside the fold, the notion that men require respect and women need love is found in a New Testament verse—a verse that has been the foundation of reams of Christian teaching and family counsel.
On the face of it, there’s little to argue about. Respect seems, at the very least, a species of love; and love that doesn’t contain respect, well, can that be love? But it’s never quite parsed out that way. Instead it’s used to point to a supposed psychological difference between men and women, and as such is aligned, along with other biblical moments, with the idea of male headship. Male headship is still the working model in most Evangelical and Orthodox circles, and in such highly influential syndicates as ‘Focus on the Family,’ and (ironically), ‘Real Women. It’s the ‘archy’ in religion-backed patriarchy and it has given males at least 6000 years of entitlement. It shouldn’t be too hard to see how this attitude is at the root of violence, in its many forms, toward women.
The sad part—let’s call it travesty—is that Christianity itself holds a story of liberation. That is, at the heart of the gospel is a story of immoderate love that explodes inequality—a love that means radical equality for all people. Historically, the church has taken care to passively undermine or actively refute this at most every opportunity. If this is too harsh, let’s agree that it’s touching how modest the church has been in modelling full equality.
The thing is, it just won’t wash any longer. It’s been exposed. It’s taken a post-Christian secular culture—a culture yet leavened, at least in part, by the story of love by an innocent victim—to expose the leaden inequality of a Christian dogma that defined women’s role as “God-ordained under the male umbrella.”
Yes, we still see gender inequality in politics, in the workplace, in the media and in religion. And here I’m not talking about someone like the Turkish president who recently, with piercing wisdom, pointed out that pregnant women cannot do the same work as men and so justified inequality across the board. And there are no words that meet the horrors, in some cultures, of genital mutilation. Such egregious acts need to be continually opposed. I’m just saying that while speaking against violence toward women, let’s not neglect getting our own house in order. Needs assessment? We only have to look to the latest news report.
We should celebrate the many good changes, hard won by activists and feminists. And it’s important to note that there are shifts happening in conservative Christendom. But we shouldn’t think the disposition has died. Too much of it has just gone underground. Like whack-a-mole, it pops up in the office, in the hallways, on the street, in the shape of sexual innuendo, suggestive barbs, winking putdowns, whispered slurs. And it lives still in hallowed sanctuaries and corporate corners where women are overlooked for promotion, stalled on equitable pay.
This is an attitude that men, that I, need to take responsibility for. It won’t do for me to blame upbringing, Christian culture, feminism, or worse, wail about supposed reverse discrimination. The path from here is self-awareness, empathy in its true form, an ample dose of humility, honesty and openness, ownership of my own complicity, active work toward reconciliation and hopefully, in time, forgiveness.