Without our mothers, we would not be. The only way into this world is through the womb of our mothers.
Our lives began, our lives were all conceived, in the hidden depths of our mothers’ being, intricately woven together from the moment of conception resulting from the sexual intercourse of two people. It is a profoundly intimate act. Two becoming one – one flesh. Intercourse that carries with it the powerful potential to make life. Yet, we do not refer to it as “making life”. It is referred to as something equally mysterious, equally marvelous: “making love”, and thus connecting to humanity’s deepest need and deepest longing.
It is precisely because sexual intercourse embodies such beautiful, such vulnerable, such wonderful, such intimate power to create life and love or express love that it is literally beyond measure. When sexual intercourse is entered into without mutual consent and respect, whenever it is forcefully or violently committed, the horrifying destructive, damaging violation is equally beyond measure. It is a torture of both body and mind. We call it rape. Rape is a torturous act. Rape turns the wonder of love into a weapon of war. Rape turns what is beautiful into something brutal. Rape turns what is an act of vulnerability into an act of violence. Rape turns what should be an act of equality, mutuality and pleasure into an act of dominance, selfishness and power.
It takes place within a context of society and history that through the centuries have attached shame and guilt to the victim and survivor of rape, rather than the perpetrator. This further isolates the survivor. So often the narrative of blame follows the rape survivor as they are interrogated. The insinuation of her irresponsibility puts all responsibility on her for the crime that has been committed against her.
So, not only is rape a torturous act, but it is followed with aftershocks of secondary trauma. Secondary, not as in less than, but secondary as in more than, because a survivor of rape must retell her story to defend herself. She must retell it over and over again under the microscope of a society of strangers’ questions. She will have to prove her case. When the woman explains that she froze, paralysed and therefore was unable to scream or resist it is interpreted as consent, turning the perpetrator into the victim and she into the violator. She will be accused of lying or conniving and some may even call for her to be burnt like a witch. #RememberKhwezi
This situation is pandemic in our land. In the year 2014/2015, over 53,000 cases were reported. That is around 150 a day and we are told that eight or nine times as many are actually committed, but not reported. That would make it 480,000 – more than about 1,000 cases a day – that go unreported.
Rape is not about sex per se. Many of the men who commit rape have access to sex. It is about power. It is about domination. It stems from many sources not the least of which is a warped sense of masculinity fed and formed by a hyper patriarchal society that says that women are second-class citizens. Men are believed to have certain entitlements in relationship to women – not the least, sexual. That a woman’s primary role is to serve men. That women belong to men and are owned by men. And if we enter into this context through an intersectional lens, then we see that the issue is not only gender, but also colour, class and sexual orientations. In other words there are always many levels of power and vulnerability at play.
How is it that all of us owe our lives to our mothers, but the way many men treat women denies and betrays the life giving source of women in our very lives. What is the source of this disconnect between our life-giving mother and the violation we can and do cause our sisters? Where did some of us learn that a woman’s primary role is to serve men?
There are countless answers to this question, and people with other skills can point them out, but I will only point to one: religion. Religion has been used to validate men having power over women. I point to my own Christian faith as a case in point and how interpretations of the Bible, specifically masculine interpretations of scripture, have perpetuated a patriarchal society which in turn contributes to the veiled sanction of abuse of women by men.
Think back… you may have had childish arguments at school that went like this, “Men first women second, because God created women second. Ha, ha, ha” “You are just from a man’s rib, ha, ha.” We may laugh, but it is not a joke and what is more it betrays the scriptures, for in actual fact that is not what the scriptures even say. There is no mention of gender whatsoever. The word Adamoi in Hebrew means “earth-creature” (from the soil) and it is from an earth creature that a rib was taken – a genderless earth creature. Gender was formed at the same time in Genesis 3. And in Genesis chapter 1, both men and women are born in the image of God, therefore God embodies and transcends gender – all gender.
The stereotyped story of the Eve and Adam goes something like this: Eve fell for the snake first. Then Eve obviously tempted Adam sexually to fall for the same mistake the snake made her make. That is how the “first sin” became falsely associated with sex. This misinterpretation turns the man into the victim and the woman into a cunning serpent like creature – almost an incarnation of the snake or evil.
From that moment of blame, women have taken the blame for just about everything, including rape today. Take barrenness – when women in the Bible were barren men could have intercourse with their servants. They believed that the problem of barrenness was purely of the women’s making.
Women were considered “unclean” during their menstrual cycle. In some churches even to this day a woman is not allowed to come to Holy Communion during her period.
Further, women in scripture were considered the possessions of their fathers or husbands and if they got divorced or widowed, they became nothing because the primary question about a woman was not who are you, but whose are you? If you no longer had a husband or a father, you were considered worthless.
Most of the women in scripture are nameless, unrecognised, not important enough to have a name. The church fathers in interpreting the scriptures also said some terrible things. John Calvin said, “Women are created inferior.”? Martin Luther said, “If women get tired and die of bearing children, there is no harm in that, let them die as long as they bear children.”
A blunt interpretation of Paul tells us that wives must submit to husbands. Husbands must lead. Husbands are the head of the household and women are to keep quiet in church. Therefore some reason that women can’t be a pastor or priest and so the exclusion and the second-class status is reaffirmed over and over and over. Not to mention the male pronouns used for God in the English language (unlike the Hebrew). Linguistically teaching us that if God is male, then male is God. The message is clear, women had better worship men.
Then there is Mary who symbolises the ideal. The ideal woman is a virgin, and that a good / holy woman is not meant to be sexual? We could go on and on and on.
People may say “this is part of our culture” but where does culture come from? It comes from multitudes of narratives sewn together over time more often than not determined by the powerful who have vested interests in remaining powerful. One of these multitudes of narratives is the religious narrative. The dominant Christian narrative, it must be confessed, has contributed greatly to the patriarchy of today.
By and large the Bible is a patriarchal book. We need not pretend otherwise. But there are courageous counter narratives running through it that have the power to self-correct itself and liberate us from the deathly ways of patriarchy. Some examples:
Scripture says both men and women are born in the image of God, making women and men completely and utterly equal. This should remove all roles. There is no such thing as a man’s role and a woman’s role. We are all free to discover and honour our humanity as our own integrity invites.
Think of the midwives that saved Moses, think of Moses’ mother, think of Pharaoh’s daughter who went against her despotic father. Before Moses could save anyone he himself needed to be saved – saved by three women. Think of Mary who sang her song about bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly. She is basically the one who taught Jesus everything he ever knew as we see Jesus’ entire life was based on his mother’s song.
Think of Jesus’ encounter with a bleeding woman. He met her and he didn’t cast her aside. He welcomed her touch. In fact, he treated the bleeding woman ahead of Jairus the male religious leader. Jesus prioritised her pain over his privilege and power. Think of the Samaritan woman by the well, again there are layers of intersection power, a Samaritan, a woman, an outcast. Jesus pierces through them all as he respectfully connects with her. We think of the shepherd that loses the sheep, and the Father who misses his son. We easily associate the Shepherd and the Father with God, but what about the woman who lost her coin? In the parable, she plays the exact same role, but we often fail to make the connection of her being an incarnation of God. And don’t forget the women are the last standing by the cross and the first to awake to the resurrection since all the men have fled in fear.
Finally, the Bible also reminds us that men who rape women will eventually be exposed: #RememberBathsheba
And yes… #KingDavidDidFall
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Alan Storey is an ordained Methodist minister serving through the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town. Alan believes: To take the whole bible literally is an absurdity; Jesus would much rather be taken seriously than worshiped; The division of the world into saved and "un-saved is hate speech; The holy land is not a place to visit but every place to value; There are around 7.2 billion chosen people in the world; The day will come when all guns will be turned into ploughshares (Alan is chairperson of Gun Free South Africa); the Church must ask the Queer community for forgiveness for its bigotry and exclusion as a matter of urgency; Inequality is a weapon of mass destruction. Alan has a Honours degree in theology and a Masters degree of Philosophy of Applied Ethics in economics.