poem: i did not fail to notice

i remember the day well,

when i first ran smack-bang-into

your unacknowledged

but very clear disdain;

for revealing what you had wrongly

assumed me to be.

 

you thought me a nice

quiet, well behaved hetrosexual

– but not even decently, coolly rebelliously gay-enough;

and discovering herself a little queer –

(too much for your taste);

i’m used to being a disappointment.

 

i masked-and-mirrored well, too much

and perhaps that did not happen without me;

but i’m not convinced that it is i, that owes the apology.

it is not i who is uncomfortable with who i am, and yet

its true that now i’m uncomfortable,

with this part of who you are.

 

so perhaps i shall, when time enough

has passed the sting of your disdain

from painful down to – well, and then;

and i will find within again the will try

and understand, without conforming who i am,

to something i am not.

 

neither pretended, or forgot;

and neither you pretending, but so verse might have

an ending, let me say –

i do not sigh with mean asides,

just weary, that myself might be enough

for someone, someday.

 

 

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‘The Last Shall Be First’: Call Out Culture, Faith and Feminism

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I have been thinking, a lot, about ‘call out culture’ recently: as a Christian and a feminist, there is a tension that exists between challenging the entrenched norms that perpetuate oppression, and practising the grace and forgiveness I am called to. Criticism and self-reflection are vital tools when your conversation and activism is focussed on aspects of patriarchal and kyriarchal structures of hierarchy and power.  Often it means discussing complex and painful issues, and whilst challenging the entrenched myths and norms [both interior to, and exterior of the self] which perpetuate oppressions, how do we do that without falling to self-righteous finger pointing, or failing to speak up when justice demands it?

Critiques of call out culture can be nuanced, and reflective of the context in which our lives are lived – Flavia Dzodan’s essay on the subject for Tiger Beatdown 4 years ago remains one of the best on the issue: it is thought provoking, placing the era of blogging and social media in the context of the emergence of ‘reality show’ programming, examining the performativity of call outs and asking serious questions about what motivates people collectively and individually. (And if you haven’t read it yet, I would recommend that you do).

On the other end of the spectrum was the infamous Michelle Goldberg piece, which itself became a focus of ‘calling out’: it’s juxtaposition of ‘toxicity’ with black women and women of colour was indicative, not only of how white feminism can use words like ‘intersectional’ without a comprehensive understanding of the necessity of de-colonializing self, but how accurate Dzodan’s earlier piece had been. When call out’s are about performance in an era of Big Brother TV, magical intent and calcified liberal social politics, we act and react in the context of the cis-white-hetro-normative systems, losing sight of how other people are being subsumed in a society which forces us to clamber over one another in an un-winnable race to survive.

We cannot ignore the structural racism that exists around much of this conversation: black and women of colour – both trans and cis gendered – have faced appalling reactions from white feminists, recalling the days when Francis E Willard and other white suffragettes put white women’s votes above the lynching of black people, and the White British press tried to smear Ida B Wells.

What, then, are we ‘calling out’? Just sexism? Or are we asking not only others to look at their words and behaviour, but ourselves as well? As Dzodan’s piece challenges us – for whose benefit do we make these call out’s?

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I have been meditating on this in the context of how Jesus spoke about the last and the first – or those at the ‘bottom’ of the social heap, and those at the ‘top’ of it. In Matthew 20: 10 – 16 NRSV :

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 

Jesus topsy turvy kingdom has always profoundly spoken to me in my own calling of standing for and with the most marginalised : how God upends human systems of power and privilege, and puts the very least (in the eyes of the world) at the very top.

In the context of the work of feminism, I wondered, what might that look like?

Feminism has, through it’s many evolutions and theories, sought to challenge and dismantle the patriarchal and kyriarchal structures which diminish and oppress women in the many and varied ways which it exerts it’s oppression and rabid authority.  Feminism, whether driven by intellectual theory or grass roots activism, is built on ‘calling out’ the harmful and violent expressions of patriarchy. It might be street harassment, rape and intimate partner violence or equal pay; it might be purity culture, victim blaming, or challenging an on line article or news story.

Whatever it is, feminism is born of the need to ‘call out’ patriarchy: to challenge it, stand up to it, and to demand it relinquish its grip on society.

There are subtle ways in which patriarchy exerts itself, and how it does so has changed over time: this was brought in to stark relief to me recently during a conversation with a friend whom I have known for some years. It came up that – for her – the word ‘queer’ has incredibly negative connotations, but not because she is homophobic, quite the opposite. Having watched a close family member have to cope with what used to be called ‘queer bashing’, having loved and supported them unconditionally, her understanding of that word is within an abusive context.

Now, for myself and many others who identify as queer, the reclaiming that has occurred of that word is positive and life giving: but not for my friend. That word brings threats of danger and abuse to the family member she loves dearly. Two or three decades ago, being LGBT and hearing that word called out would have frozen you with fear down to your very marrow. (Actually, sometimes I am not sure that has changed so very much).

When she raised this with me, my first reaction could have been even more damaging – I could have simply told her not to be silly, that the word meant something positive now: but that would have been to erase her experience and that of her much loved gay family member who endured such horrible abuse.

In one simple sense, this is what it all comes down to: recognising the experience of another human being, acknowledging their own story and their own hurt and respecting that. Had I overlaid my own experience of that word on to her, I would have hurt her tremendously – but by stepping back, by hearing her without pre-conceptions, by simply saying ‘sorry’ for using that word (whatever my intention) our conversation (which could have been hurtful to both of us) was instead encouraging and uplifting for us both.

And we knew each other much better.

Suppose for a moment, that you are cis gender and a transgender woman is trying to explain to you why she feels erased by other women – what should your first reaction be, as a human being? To listen to her – or to ask her to put her own feelings aside and prioritise your feelings?

Perhaps you are white, and a black person or person of colour is trying to explain why something you did not acknowledge as racist or appropriative, is exactly that – what should your first reaction be, as a human being?

Perhaps you are straight, and a person who is gay or bi-sexual is trying to explain something about their experience of the world which you do not understand – what should your first reaction be, as a human being?

You might be a man, wondering if women are spending too much time complaining about how they are treated – but when so many are treated with violence, verbally, physically and emotionally, should that be your first reaction as a human being?

Now suppose you are a Christian too.

Is your first reaction to prioritise your idea’s and theology – or to put the last first, and the first last?

#FreeMarissa: What Does Justice Look Like? #Marissa418

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory ~ Matthew 12: 20 & Isaiah 43: 3

untitled Marissa Alexander

Imagine for a moment that you are a woman, who has regularly endured violence from a husband or partner. You have been frequently slapped, punched and beaten. You have been throttled, assaulted and verbally abused. Often, the abuse has occurred in front of your children, and almost always within their hearing. You might be trying to leave, which is one of the most dangerous times for domestic abuse victims. You may even have sought assistance from the law and taken an injunction against your partner.

What would justice look like to you in those circumstances?

The baby you have been carrying is born prematurely – your tiny, fragile baby is laying in an incubator, it’s every function from heartbeat to breath monitored by machines and her food delivered via a tube that is inserted in to her belly or her nose. You don’t know if she is going to be okay, you are suppressing the fear that somehow her fragile hold on life is your fault. And your husband or partner is still hitting you.

What would justice look like to you in those circumstances?

Nine days after giving birth – nine days of stress and worry, nine days of not being able to hold your new born child, of wires and monitors and fear – your husband or partner attacks you and you are terrified for your life. You can hear your children screaming. This time you decide that will no longer tolerate the violence – you want it to end, for your sake, for your children’s sake. You legally own a gun, so you reach for it: you fire it in the air, hurting nobody but shocking your husband or partner enough for him to stop.

What would justice look like to you in those circumstances?

It was a warning shot only and you made it in self defence, to protect yourself and your family. The place you live even has a law that says that’s okay. The police arrive and arrest you.  Your partner has falsely reported to them that you shot at him and you are put in prison and told that the law that allows you to defend yourself doesn’t apply to you.

What would justice look like to you in those circumstances?

For Marissa Alexander, ‘justice’ is the very thing which tries to erase her: the system which has told her that she ‘wasn’t afraid’ at the time of firing the warning shot; the same system which is more likely to incarcerate battered and abused women than protect them – and most importantly, the same system which is more likely to do so because she is black.

Marissa Alexander matters. Like Ce-Ce MacDonald, she has been criminalised because she is a black woman who chose to defend her life. When a system expects you to die rather than live, unless you are white, male and cis-gendered, that system is a tyranny and a tool of the abuser.

I urge you to lend your support to Marissa Alexander and those who are helping her fight for freedom: there are many ways you can do so. Visit freemarissanow.org – there is a wealth of information about the case on there, as well as details about how you can help in some way. You can contact @KilljoyProphets, tweet using the hashtag #FreeMarissa and spread the word amongst your friends. Educate yourself about the failures of carceral justice and follow twitter accounts like @CheifElk and @PrisonCulture to find out more about that discussion.

It matters – wherever you are, it matters. Please do what you can to help. Thank you.

 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free ~ Luke 4:18

@KilljoyProphets week of solidarity for Marissa Alexander – #Marissa418

Although I was not raised in a Christian family – coming to faith in my late twenties/early thirties – I did grow up (as most of us did) in a world where ‘justice’ equals prison: certainly the white liberal feminism I first identified with wouldn’t call for prison abolition, and yet the carceral justice system both in the UK and US is part of the very structural, patriarchal system that not only fails to protect and provide justice, but more specifically actively criminalises particular communities.

It would be too easy for those of us in the UK to look at recent events in Ferguson, Missouri – where Michael Brown became yet another young black person murdered by police – and assume that we are unaffected by police and state oppression of black communities; our lazy white eyes might look at the what has happened to Marissa Alexander and assume could not happen here.  Which would be to ignore what happened to Cherry Groce, or Kiranjit Ahluwalia, or Mark Duggan, or Christopher Alder or Sean Rigg.  And make no mistake – what is happening to Marissa Alexander can and will happen here in the UK. Carceral justice fails women, and devastates black communities.

Marissa Alexander is being re-victimised by a system which is radically challenged by Christ’s calling:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free” 

~ Luke 4:18 NRSV

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

~ Ephesians 6:12

Standing together as people of faith with Marissa Alexander is to stand with a woman who is being re-victimised and erased by what the world believes justice to be.  @KilljoyProphets, women of faith and colour who understand why this matters, are organising and leading a week of solidarity for Marissa Alexander.  Learn more about this – read their post at #FaithFeminisms here  – email them if you would like to help at killjoysandprophets@gmail.com. Tweet using #Marissa418 – pray, speak up and speak out!

Justice for Marissa.

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image via http://www.freemarissanow.org

 

#FaithFeminisms – Why We Need to Love #womenagainstfeminism

The Richer Thread

My Love and Faith are intertwined
not as a knot
but one combined;

For He is Love and love protects
my cloak, my comforter
my strength;

His strong threads drawn through weave and weft
a richly patterned life
to tread;

Through life, the one strong threaded cord
the silver breath
that holds and stores;

His perfect light that staves the dark
the many coloured threads
of past;

And present! On now – see beyond
the endless cloth we’re
formed along;

His Grace, by spirit, constant grows
and guides each soul
’till safely home;

See how the cloth is grown, and grows:
my Lord, Dear Lord –
I am near to home!  

All this week the most amazing conversations have been happening via #FaithFeminisms – a coming together of the growing number of womens voices who by seeking to change the feminist conversation in Christianity are, as Dianna Anderson says, engaging in a radical act of reclamation. These conversations are both affirming of faith and grasping the blood and bone issues of privilege, of the Cross, of life in all its fullness.  Being part of that conversation, in however small a way, and connecting with other women for whom both faith and feminism is fundamental to our lives, is enriching and uplifting.

In another part of the internet a parallel conversation has been happening – women who do not feel connected to feminism, who do not want to be a part of it, who even feel that feminism is not necessary, have been having a conversation around #womenagainstfeminism. And I want us to listen to them. I want us to have faith enough, love enough, courage enough and grace enough, to hear them and to hear why they think and believe as they do. I want to make sure that we are hearing and cherishing all our sisters.

Now, when White, Western Christianity and Feminism have had such a problematic history in our relationships and conversations with black women, women of colour, LGBTIQ women – when our privilege is now starting to become a part of our reflection as a movement and individually – I would not seek to suggest that reaching out to our sisters who do not share our feminism and faith should be prioritised.  But some of the reasons why those women are speaking out in that way contain warnings for us: messages it would behove us well not to ignore. And I know this because I was once a woman who was against feminism.

In my youth, it didn’t occur to me not to be a feminist. I just was and it was not up for debate. But that changed over time: I began to question what feminism (in my white western context) wanted or believed. I saw that its overt concern with glass ceilings in the boardroom and whether or not plastic surgery was feminist was buying in to the very system which had oppressed us; worse, it apparently ignored the oppression still suffered by too many women who weren’t white, western, middle class and able bodied. Or it pitied them, and offered charity instead.

And in the choices I had made feminists I knew looked down their noses at me for being a women at home looking after her children (and believe me they made their disdain obvious).

Feminism no longer spoke to me. It seemed to be disappearing up its own backside, or at least into its own fluffy navel. The women referred to as the feminist leaders at the time (that is, the women in the media with the platforms and the book deals) seemed disconnected with the reality of my life, and the lives of women around me. Women in poverty, disabled women, and my Muslim sisters who might as well not have existed. And whilst I knew that at grass roots level the story may well have been different, the day to day reality was: feminism didn’t seem to care about that.

Women who reject feminism do so for complex and myriad reasons: they do not do so because they are stupid or silly. We may say ‘but rape culture’ – we may say ‘but women of colour’ – we may say ‘but still not valued’. And all of those things are true.

But it is their responsibility to better educate themselves? Or is it our responsibility to better speak what we believe? Are there times when what we say actually excludes other women? Do we have faith, and love, and courage enough to respect the choices of our sisters, many of whom will never accept feminism and faith?

The Lamp That Lit The Path – My Faith, My Feminism and the Debt I Owe My Nan

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No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light.  Luke 8:16

“Trust your instincts.”

This was the only piece of advise that my Great-Grandmother ever directly gave me, although there was so much I have learnt from her since. I understand better now that she wasn’t really telling me what I ought to do – she was giving me the reassurance I would need in the years to come.

Girlie* was a mystery in many ways to me: a woman of deep faith and belief, a Christian by conviction and experience, fiercely political, and a feminist who eschewed big and exciting campaigns to help fight the little battles and comfort the silent sorrows of the untold, unsung lives of the people in the community in which she lived.

The illegitimate daughter of a rebellious, tiny Maltese Catholic girl who refused to give up her child and chose instead to take on the role of widow to a husband who had never existed, Girlie understood implicitly the politics of women’s lives and the power of refusing the imposed narrative.  What she would fight the hardest for was a person’s right to be themselves, to be who they were, to the creation of God in all their individual beauty.

When the first fragile green shoots of my faith first tested the air above ground, it met in full the resistance of my adolescent and angry teenage feminism, and even angrier teenage politics. I had the badges (“women need a man like a fish needs a bicycle”), placards to wave and the clipboards with an endless supply of petitions (back in the day when you needed a pen to sign your agreement to your cause of choice rather than a smart phone). My spotty, furious social agitator saw only the ‘male’ God, the male leaders, the ‘Our Father’ and the worship of a Jesus with whom I could have no truck and no accord.

So the green shoots of my faith retreated back beneath the earth. My politics became more nuanced, my ears and eyes began to become more attuned to the discord of the un-heard narratives – and feminism and I had our first big falling out. I remember the day quite clearly: I was in the kitchen, struggling with illness and small children, listening to women who were heralded as my feminist leaders discussing plastic surgery. And I looked at my small boys, at my empty purse, at the women around me who were fighting their own silent battles against racism, poverty and domestic violence, against a society that struggled even to see them as women at all; at the periodicals which I borrowed from the library that told me about the women in other parts of the world who were prevented even from earning a living – and I thought: when did the fluff in our navels become more important than this?

The young girls who sneered at my motherhood and my feminism as they went off to their university, their futures in their impressively expensive careers and their apparent equality, were far removed from me.  Politics knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. The feminism of my youth seemed to have got lost up its own backside.

So I distanced myself from both, focussed on the battles in front of me.

When faith once again appeared above the ground, it was not met this time with the frost of my angry youth but with the autumn of my quiet disillusionment – not necessarily more receptive, but perhaps not as damaging. As my thoughts became prayers I found myself in front of old questions – if this was what I was coming to believe, how could I accept that which my instincts rejected?

This male god – this narrative in to which I do not fit? This person whom some say I should be, ‘because scripture’ but whom I know myself not to be?

And as I stared at this path, and this road seemingly strewn with rocks and thorns and disagreements – I saw that I already carried a lamp that would help me find my way. It does not give me the answers – it helps me to see what is before me clearly and navigate the spaces between and the tensions that arise. It does not tell me what to do – but it reassures me that I will be able to figure it out.

Trust my instincts. Figure it out. Pray. Listen – God speaks quietly and through many. Love. Live. Learn.

I have much to thank Girlie for. I thank God that she gave me exactly as much as I needed for the journey.

 

 

 

(*Girlie got the name from her husband, my Great-Grandfather and the name stuck.)