Deep Fried Mars Bars (Part 2): Let Me Be Weak [CN]

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 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Matthew 11: 28-3

As I adjust to the parameters that PTSD imposes – physically, mentally and emotionally – it is in navigating the responses of others which offer some of the greatest challenges.  I am very blessed – with so many friends in the disabled community, I am fortunate that those who have walked this or similar paths are ceaselessly generous with their love, and give freely of their hard won wisdom about surviving practically and emotionally within a society geared toward the able bodied and mentally ‘healthy’.

As a woman, and a parent, the intersection of disability and gender is brought in to sharp relief: in the patriarchal system under which we live, the ‘women as the weaker gender’ trope is an implicit standard, yet there is a perilous dichotomy under which we live. Women are constantly punished for any perceived weakness – disbelieved when victimised, yet parodied when performing ‘strength’.

In parallel to this, the ‘man as the dominant gender’ remains explicit, and males who do not conform to crude masculine cliches, or experience dysfunction emotionally or physically, are shamed: ‘man up’ is a phrase I loathe, carrying a toxicity which too easily grows to abuse. I have 2 sons, one of whom battles depression, who both bear the scars of a world that tells them they are ‘less than’ for being something which they are not.

It is a reality of living under capitalism that only those who can produce, sustain themselves, and contribute financially, are valued; as such, sexism and misogyny throw a sharper and more brutal light on those whose bodies and minds are perceived as ‘taking’.

Disability = weakness = burden is the equation that gave ‘austerity’ –  do not underestimate the brutality of the word ‘scrounger’. The writing, activism and creativity of the disabled is most usually treated with disdain – unless, of course, it is deemed to ‘inspire’ and even then, the price of inspiring others comes at a cost which is ignored.

From those outside of the disabled community, the reaction runs along a spectrum between assuming me a liar and a scrounger, offering pity, to expecting survival as though weakness were not an option.

Outright discrimination has been daily: for now I continue to work full time, but have been exhausted by work practices 20 years or more out of date. Whilst that now improves, it has taken its toll, particularly physically.  No doubt someone will think this reflects some degree of self pity on my part. It is not. It is a simple statement of reality.

There are still frequent indignities – having to sit on the floor of the toilet cubicle at work whilst having a flashback, because these things are no respecter of time and place, for example.

Other prejudice’s mask themselves as ‘reasonable questions’: why would I ‘claim’ to have PTSD when I have never served in the armed forces? (Discrimination is never more blunt when delivered in wilful ignorance).  The suspicion that I would prefer to absent myself of life’s responsibilities is odious. It is like sandpaper on the soul.

At the other end of the spectrum, are those who expect survival because, even where there is some degree of compassion, weakness is treated as a transitional state. My ‘brokeness’ is accepted on the assumption that I will be strong enough to overcome it, and return at some point to being ‘fully functional’ and ‘whole’ again.

Whilst I do not shun ‘strength’, I do not accept it in the form I am supposed to. On the days when I am weak, when my body, mind and spirit are battered by a flashback, strength is not an option. Acceptance of such weakness is all that allows me to survive. When my intestines and bowels constrict with the spasms brought on my IBS – a physical manifestation of the rigours of flashbacks – acceptance of my bodies failings is what prevents the corrosive bitterness  of genuine self pity from tainting my spirit. When intrusive thoughts mount another invasion, all I can do is wait until it passes.  My resources are not finite. My ‘strength’ is not endless.

As a society, we are collectively ashamed of what is perceived as weakness – and yet weep, pity or deride those who then feel shame when their body or mind cannot ‘perform’ as we are told they must.

Were my body also black, of colour, presenting as a gender other than that which had been ascribed to me – this perceived ‘weakness’ (through white supremacy and transphobia) would come with an even higher price.

Prejudice and discrimination is rooted is wanting to suppress (or erase) what is considered weakness, and that pressure is exerted financially, culturally and systemically, interwoven through white centred, patriarchal norms that demand binary bodies which meet some idealised notion of strength, and minds that conform to a ‘healthy normality’.

Talking ’bout stupid things
I can’t be left to my imagination
Let me be weak, let me sleep and dream of sheep
Ooh, their breath is warm
And they smell like sleep
And they say they take me home
Like poppies, heavy with seed
They take me deeper and deeper  Kate Bush – And Dream of Sheep

I am tired. I am weak. It is enough for me today.

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They Tie Up Heavy Burdens: When Forgiveness Becomes the Religious Rule of Men

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“But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing”.   CS Lewis, Essay on Forgiveness 1960

Forgiveness – from almost the first moments of his ministry – was at the heart of what Jesus did and said: the forgiveness that he spoke of and practised was profound: indeed it was so revolutionary, so alarming that disciples, followers and nay-sayers alike wrestled with it, poking and prodding at it with a mixture of horror, suspicion and wonder.  For it was not just the rampant forgiveness of others which so awed those around him: Jesus actively sought – and seeks – the same generosity of forgiveness from those who follow him.

The potency of the forgiveness Jesus gave was not just in what he forgave, but to whom he gave that forgiveness. Jesus certainly forgave the system which crucified him: but it was in the forgiving of the sick, the women, the despised and the rejected that the dangerous power of God’s forgiveness challenged mans rule over others. The paralysed walked, criminals were welcomed in to Gods kingdom, women – used and despised by men – were honoured. 

The religious rules made by men to protect themselves, and which made the mad, the bad, the crippled and  women ‘unsuitable’ for consideration of humanity and compassion, were held up to the light and found wanting. These were rules impossible to live by if you were poor, or sick, or not a man. The rich and joyful forgiveness of God, through Jesus, did not just wipe clean the hearts of those forgiven: it challenged societies attitudes. The gates of the kingdom, once denied to those most in need by the rule of men, were thrown open by God.  

These were rules which cared nothing for justice, mercy and faith and the same righteous anger which had swept the money lenders from the temple rose to greet the makers of men’s rule:

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;  therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…”  Matthew 23: 1-4 & 13-15

Fast forward a couple of thousand years: Christians have apparently embraced forgiveness, seemingly willing to forgive with the same generosity of spirit that Christ called us to. But man’s penchant for the laws and rules that make him comfortable has not been eradicated, and nowhere is this more obvious than in how Christian Churches respond to abuse and rape.  Here we see that the abusers are ‘forgiven’ – or rather excused – and those who are the powerless and the victims are treated as though they have done something for which they should be forgiven, but they are not, and for them there is no love, and not even meagre crumbs of pity from the table.

To be abused is to endure physical, emotional, psychic and spiritual invasion. To recover and find some healing following such trauma can take a lifetime. Those coping with that process should be able to find a lifetime of love and patience from those who claim to be followers of Christ, for Jesus had that to give.  Instead, even if they are believed, victims find instead that their trauma is dismissed, or they are blamed and shamed, despised and ridiculed. The world is already awash with lack of understanding and victim blaming, but there is no safe haven in the body of Christ, for victims are not only met with the same attitude in the church but are then faced with still greater load, for they are told that they must forgive their invaders, their rapists and abusers, in the name of being a ‘proper’ Christian. And if they don’t forgive, then they are guilty – of bitterness, of resentfulness, of lack of faith, of wanting vengeance. Forgiveness has become a rule, a law to be followed, in order to access the gates of the kingdom of Heaven: victims must bow to the rule of man (including their abusers) before they can reach God.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Those who say that abusers ‘made a mistake’ are unwilling or unable to confront the reality of the great harm, the terrible sin, that the abusers are guilty of. And whether it is their discomfort or ignorance, or their desire to remain in control, they have twisted forgiveness into a rule which must be obeyed. They desire compliance to their way of life before the call of Christ or the cries of the victims.

It is time to end the warped teaching of forgiveness in its current form, twisted as it has become under the patriarchal church.  We can no longer allow to be used to keep the powerful comfortable and the abusers excused. It is time to reclaim it, be willing to be challenged again by God and dig more deeply than we have ever done before, and find this beautiful and precious wonder that is true forgiveness.

We must acknowledge that abusers are making a choice when they abuse, and that only they are responsible for the choices they make – and we must learn to stop making excuses for them. They can help it, and there is no stress, or worry, or addiction or depression that can excuse their dreadful choices.  We must acknowledge that their victims deserve belief, and love and care for the rest of their lives, and that their safety must be our priority. We must be willing to be uncomfortable, disturbed, and as righteously angry as God about terrible harm and damage that abuse does.  We must desire to hear the screams of anguish and agony and learn that it is not a lack of faith, or a desire to hold on to that which hurts, which causes those tears to fall weeks, or months, or years later. We must learn all this – and yet more.

And then maybe, maybe, we will start to learn what forgiveness truly is.

She Was Not Yours to Take: Why Money Doesn’t Buy Ched Evans a Conscience

“Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.” George Washington

Conscience: The inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct and motives, impelling one toward right actions – the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls and inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.

I was not surprised to learn that Ched Evans case has been referred to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC, despite originally being refused appeal twice in the months after being convicted of rape at Caernarfon Crown Court in April 2012.

I wasn’t surprised because what Ched Evans has access to is money – a very great deal of it, care of his future Father-in-Law Karl Massey. He is also a pampered young man with an inexhaustible ability to play the victim. Like many spoiled and pampered young men with too little discipline, and access to too much money (and the power that provides), he is someone who, thanks to Massey, can afford to buy expensive legal muscle and flex it to the fullest possible extent.

Leaving aside (for the moment) any discussion about consent within a legal context in this case, (and the appeal must be allowed to run its course) what we know about Evans behaviour that night is this:

  • Somewhere around 4am on the night of the rape, Clayton McDonald sent Evans a text to tell him “I’ve got a bird.”
  • After receiving the text, Evans and two friends went to the Premier Inn where McDonald and the victim were.
  • Evans approached the reception desk and obtained a room key after lying that he had booked the room for a friend who no longer needed it.
  • Evans friends stayed outside the hotel, looked through the bedroom window and filmed part of what happened.
  • Evans entered the room. I will not describe what occurred but at the time of writing this, Evans remains a convicted rapist.
  • Evans left the hotel via the emergency exit.

When Evans made his public statement  – following the remorseless hounding of his victim by supporters he tried to distance himself from – he framed this behaviour as infidelity. And yet nothing about his behaviour that night suggests that this was a man who believed himself to be conducting an ‘affair’, and whether it was behaviour that reflected a reasonable belief in consent will now, once again, be a matter for the Court of Appeal.

But his actions that night – and since – suggests a man who is happy to indulge in behaviour which at best can only be described as sleazy. Consider: at no time has Evans ever, in any way – either explicitly or implicitly – addressed the presence of his two friends that night who filmed either McDonald and/or Evans and the victim. There is no suggestion that she was ever made aware of that at the time, far less given the opportunity to agree to it.

Further: Evans has not at any time stated that his belief that he had consent was based on any form of communication – verbally or otherwise – from the victim. Therefore is the only communication, on which Evans bases his claim, the text sent to him by McDonald? A text from your mate that says ‘he’s got a bird’ is not consent from the victim.  Is it unreasonable to infer then that Evans believed that his friend had procured a woman for him, and that’s this was what he understand the text to mean?

And moreover: Despite claiming to be ‘sorry’ for the appalling impact of the events, and the brutal hunting of his victim, he has apparently done nothing to change the horrific way in which his ‘campaign’ website has determinedly sought to criminalise and undermine a young woman who has been robbed of her identity, her life and her family – and her dignity and peace of mind.

So far, the privilege Evans had as a footballer and the access to wealth and influence that obtained has bought Evans many things.  It has so far failed to by him a conscience.

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Amendment:

“…Evans has not at any time stated that his belief that he had consent was based on any form of communication – verbally or otherwise – from the victim.”

I had spent more time on the ‘front sheet’ copy of the appeal transcript than on the full copy: Evans does, in fact, claim verbal consent from his victim, at the time of him entering the hotel room. And the timing of this is important because this raises further questions, which are deeply troubling.

There is still no indication that the victim gave consent to McDonald to send the text that brought Evans to that hotel room. So at the point at which Evans entered that hotel room, the victim was in the most vulnerable possible position: she is very likely incapacitated (and one jury and 2 appeal courts have decided that she was incapable of giving consent due to intoxication) – and she is in a room, naked, with 2 physically strong men. Even if she hadn’t been incapacitated through drink, she was in an immensely vulnerable position and I would consider it highly questionable that she would have had “..the freedom and capacity..” to make the choice to say no with any certainty of her safety.

So, just to recap: At the time of writing this, Ched Evans remains a convicted rapist.

Dear Church of England: Abuse Isn’t History. It’s Time to Tell Victims ‘I Believe You’.

Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,  but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 1 Corinthians 1: 20-25

In the last few months, the Church of England and the Methodist Church have been grappling with the issue of historic abuse – that is, where children, women or vulnerable adults were abused by a minister, priest or lay church worker and the response to those victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse saw them silenced, ignored or further victimised. In many cases, clergy against whom allegations had been made were protected, and continued to remain in trusted positions of care and leadership.

The Methodist Church chose to undergo an extensive independent review, the groundwork for which was laid over the course of 2010-2011, and which took a little over year to complete between 2013 and 2014.  The resulting report, which was published in May of this year, was called ‘Courage, Cost and Hope’.

“On behalf of the Methodist Church in Britain I want to express an unreserved apology for the failure of its current and earlier processes fully to protect children, young people and adults from physical and sexual abuse inflicted by some ministers in Full Connexion and members of the Methodist Church. That abuse has been inflicted by some Methodists on children, young people and adults is and will remain a deep source of grief and shame to the Church.

“We have not always listened properly to those abused or cared for them, and this is deeply regrettable. In respect of these things we have, as a Christian Church, clearly failed to live in ways that glorify God and honour Christ.  Methodist Church 28 May 2015

Certainly the tone and approach of the Methodist church is substantively humble and penitent: there was a clear determination to thoroughly review responses and procedures, and recognise where proper safeguarding procedures were not properly carried out, or did not occur at all.  What makes the report so important however, is that it attempts to honestly to explore how culture (explicitly the role of how those with power have abused it, and implicitly how misogyny and sexism drive that power imbalance) have both created – and perpetuated – the environment in which the abuse occurred and continued.  Whilst not without its flaws, there is much about the report which is to be welcomed – it emphasises at several points how important it is that victims are heard, how their trauma and distress are increased when they do not feel heard, and how vital it is that having spoken they receive consistent and committed support having reported.

Once a disclosure has been made careful thought should be given to who provides support to the survivor/ victim. This should be a dedicated resource, ie not shared with others involved, and someone who can carry the role in the long term. A number of responses identified major difficulties that had arisen because the minister tried to support both the victim and the perpetrator. Any preference for a particular supporter expressed by a survivor/victim should be met whenever possible.

One of the key themes of the report is the importance of continued learning, and again, this is to be welcomed: it tried to address uncomfortable truths, recognising for example that even where a report of abuse is made and no charge and/or conviction results, that this does not mean abuse did not take place (p 33), and that ‘A good understanding and analysis of the power dynamics in the particular situation will be vital.’ (p 34).

How far this report will help to impact on the change of culture required can only be assessed in the long term, and it takes more than a report and changes in procedure to achieve that change of which the report rightly identifies is required.

One of the key elements to the necessary to change, which whilst touched on often is never explicitly stated, is the very thing which victims most require if they are going to be able to speak out – and it is the very thing which they are they most commonly denied: they are not believed.

The perpetrator is described as being very charismatic and members of the church find it hard to believe he is potentially harmful. [Case Study 9]

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But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong  1 Corinthians 1:27

For many, the on going delay in the Church of England submitting itself to an independent investigation is deeply frustrating, and unsettling.  It’s own 2010 report, which followed an internal investigation, Protecting All God’s Children failed to address the deep rooted cultural causes of abuse, and did not in any real sense acknowledge the depth or nature of the CofE’s failure to those who had been abused it’s ministers.

Whilst the report by the Methodist Church highlights the need to distinguish between support for the victim and any potential ministry to the abuser, the CofE report conflated both from the beginning, reaching for trite theology and palatable answers. There was no recognition at all of power structures in abusive relationships, lacked focus and discipline – painting as did with brush strokes far too broad – and was rightly criticised by survivors for its lack of scrutiny.

Whilst there may have been good intent in the self investigation, the report was a mess and had no impact, other than that to further frustrate survivors.  In part, this is because an institution cannot investigate itself; whether there was any real stomach to address the reality of abuse in the church is debatable.

But something vital is being lost already, as we plead to our church leaders to ensure the CofE opens itself up fully to an independent review, as the Methodists have now done: right now, as I write this, there are children and women and vulnerable adults being abused by ministers of the church; there are people in trusted positions of leadership who (known to the authorities or not) have watched, or do watch, abusive indecent images of children; there are victims of rape who can find no solace in the church, and spouses of lay and ministerial servants who are struggling under the yoke of physical, emotional and mental violence.

Right now.  Not at some point in the past, when the managerial speak of a ‘safeguarding policy’ had yet to enter the lexicon of church language. But now. Today. This minute.

And its because, for all the safeguarding policies, for all the protocols and procedures, for all the layer upon layer of policy – if they were to speak up, people wouldn’t believe them.  Protocol might be followed, but the church won’t be there for them, supporting them, hearing them, believing them, because our culture hasn’t even begun to acknowledge, to learn, to understand why it happened then, or why it’s still happening now.

Every day that goes by where the leaders, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, don’t announce that an independent review is going to happen, is another day that victims of abuse are told that they don’t matter enough – that they are not believed.

It is time for those in power in the Church to submit to an independent review of historic and current abuse – for the Archbishop of Canterbury to stop making comforting noises and work without ceasing in order to make that happen.  It is time – it is long past time.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God

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Setting The Bar Higher: More Women In Parliament Is Not Good Enough For Me #GE2015

 

Most of the Labour Party's female MPs, including Harriet Harman (centre) gather on the steps to New Palace Yard outside the Member's Entrance to the House of Commons before they enter as the House sits for the first time since the General Election.

 

In the wake of the recent general election, a good deal of post-election comment has focussed on the increased number of women MP’s entering parliament, with most of the major parties welcoming more women in to their ranks.

Increased representation across the political spectrum is for many an important goal: more women in parliament = more representation for women is a logical, if simplistic, approach.

On the night of the election, and in the teeth of the growing grim horror of realising this country had elected for itself the most right wing government we have ever had, there were individual bright moments: Naz Shah’s victory in Bradford was made all the sweeter because she ousted the pinnacle of left-ist misogyny George Galloway; and Mhairi Black’s victory and acceptance speech was also another very bright spot indeed.

Both of these women, by virtue of the lives they have led, and the understandings they have of the world in which women operate, will I hope prove to be both strong and positive role models in the stifling air of patriarchal misogyny that is the House of Commons.

And therein, I suppose, is the very nub of my cynicism about this great display of positive spin being written and spoken about the increase in women MP’s: will these women en masse make this Parliament, this government, and the House of Commons, less patriarchal?

Will they, en masse, ensure that the cuts which have led to crisis in Domestic Violence support services are reversed?

Will they, as a group, work together to change societal attitudes to violence against all women, recognise the particular dangers faced by specific groups of women, and work to tear down the walls of racism, transphobia and misogyny that blight so many women’s lives?

Will they support the unseen, silent army of carers (mostly women) who provide the care to family members and friends that the state cannot or will not?

And what of the women stigmatised because of mental health issues, struggling in severe poverty with disabilities, or vilified by our societies racism because they are refugees?

What of the women fighting for homes? For the safety of their children?

Will they challenge the patriarchal systems they are now working within to effect the kind of changes that women need?

Because this is my concern: women are not all affected in the same way by discrimination, and not all forms of discrimination affect all women – we are not all equally oppressed.  There are differing and intersecting ways in which women deal with (often life threatening) oppression: we are not one single homogeneous class.

Naz Shah and Mhairi Black not withstanding, the vast majority of these new MP’s are white, cis gender and come from comparatively privileged back grounds.  When the difference between the overwhelmingly white, cis gender, privileged MP’s  on any side of the house is so insubstantial – when so many women in various ways face threats from a government that is prepared to ditch the Human Rights Act, I don’t want, or need, more women simply buying in to the very systems which threaten us.

This isn’t something as shallow as disagreeing with someone else’s politics – this is about women’s lives.

‘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?

The Problem Is Not With #IBelieveHer: In Defence Of Radical Belief

The Enliven Project - The Saddest Graph You'll See All Day
The Enliven Project – The Saddest Graph You’ll See All Day

In the past few days, there have been some articles which question how valid and valuable the response of #IBelieveHer is when victims of rape and abuse speak up: and whilst we must think seriously and reflectively about our approach to the all too common problem of rape and abuse, there is a difference between reflective analysis and reflexive reaction.

In Sarah Ditum’s article in New Statesman the reflexive reaction focussed on issues around a recent Rolling Stone article, and the actor Shia LaBeouf, who recently disclosed about the attack he suffered during a performance piece in Los Angeles earlier this year.

I don’t entirely disagree with Sarah Ditum in Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s article: the poor standard of journalism in this case does not negate the validity of a victim’s disclosure; we know well enough that the shock and trauma to both the mind a body of someone who has been raped or abused mean that tropes about the ‘perfect victim’ are myths which are damaging and dangerous.

And yet having illustrated this, Sarah Ditum then resorts to using these very tropes to dismiss LaBeouf’s own disclosure (TW):

“..it is very hard to know what LaBeouf is asking us to believe. Rape, generally understood as forcible penetration with a penis or other object (not least under English law), could not have taken place in this instance, and LaBeouf does not specify what did happen[emphasis mine]

When we say on the one hand that the myths and tropes about how a victim reacts to rape are wrong, that there is not ‘perfect’ victim, and when we know that makes it harder for victims to come forward (never mind be believed), we cannot then shift the goal posts and say those tropes are suddenly acceptable simply because a victim does not fit our understanding of who the victim is. Here is the weakness of white western feminist theory to rape: Ditum see’s power imbalance strictly in terms of gender binary, and fails to grasp the nuance in this entirely individual situation, where LaBeouf’s power as a man is temporarily surrendered because he had voluntarily renounced it for the sake of the performance he was committed to.

That very lack of nuance in Ditum’s analysis is the reason why black and coloured women, cis and transgender, find it even harder to be believed, despite being more likely to be the victims of rape than white cis-gendered women.

Power is not binary: such general understandings of rape do not help us to dismantle the very power structures against with Ditum rails. What she refers to as ‘excessive belief’ is in fact radical belief: rape culture is supported by patriarchy, but patriarchy is not just a blanket subordination of women as a class, however easy it is to generalise is that way.

Racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, trans-misogyny, along side misogyny and sexism – all contribute towards ways in which humans group together and oppress other groups, and all these things act to support the rape culture.  Radical, victim-centred belief should not be the end of the that discussion, but #IBelieveHer is better understood at the start of that conversation when we don’t misunderstand the need for it. Labelling it as ‘excessive’ simply allows those who are least likely to believed to remain least likely to believed, to dismiss those already struggling to survive. Labelling it as ‘excessive’ means only ever partially dismantling rape culture for the sake of a tiny, white, cis gender minority.

I will continue to believe anyone at all who has the courage to stand up and say ‘I was raped’ because I want to see an end to rape culture. Radical belief is not the problem.

Patriarchy is.

 

 

Dear Fellow Cisters – It Wasn’t A Penis What Did It, It Was A Man (CN/TW)

This post is one of the most personal I have written, and yet at the same time is not really about me. Nevertheless it discusses rape so I urge you first and foremost to take care of yourselves.

I am cis-gendered. When gender and genitals, or gender and sex, are conflated, it is not I who is hurt by it. By sharing this, my small hope is that I can help and support – not hinder or speak for or over – the transgender sisters, gender queer and gender fluid folk whose identities are too often questioned . (If  I fail to get that balance right, please tell me.) There is another woman I want particularly to stand in solidarity with today too…

Although I don’t follow the writer Sarah Ditum on twitter, I saw this tweet a little while after she had sent it, and for some time now it has been on my mind – or rather, how to frame a response to it has been on my mind. Whilst I had been aware of a feminism that framed rape in such a context I had rarely seen it put so bluntly. However I wasn’t sure if I could find the language for how it troubled me, without either attacking Ditum (which would be counter productive and needless given that we had almost no previous interaction), or talking over the transgender women whose narrative is their own to frame.

Tacking rape culture – calling it out, speaking up, joining my voices with other women’s to challenge it and break it down to help work toward a society where everyone can live more safely – is something I have been doing more and more recently. There are many reasons why I have become more engaged in that conversation, not the least of them being that I was raped repeatedly by a former boyfriend during an abusive relationship. More accurately, it was less to do with the fact of being raped than it was about not being believed, and the attitudes which I (like so many other women) have faced as we struggle to process when they try and deal with what has happened to them.

I chose not to report what happened. We weren’t living together, and it was harder even than now for women raped by their partners to get justice: marital rape had only just become illegal following the 1991 R v R ruling, and the prevailing attitude within law enforcement to domestic abuse and rape not exactly encouraging. Yet whilst I knew that the chances of a conviction were remote, this was not the prevailing reason why I chose not to report.

***

One of the things which I am most grateful to twitter for is how it has helped me both re-engage with my feminism, and helped to confront within myself both how white and cis-normative it had been. My relationship with feminism (not unlike many women) has been complicated, and it was my Christian faith which also played a big part in helping to re-frame it. Like many women of faith, we find no contradiction at all between the call of Christ and our feminism. And like Christ, the call of standing with and for ‘the least of these’ sharpens both our praxis and narrative as feminists.

And whilst I struggle to understand why some people want to define women in conservative ways, and deny to women who they are because of being assigned male at birth, I have to be honest and say that it was not for that reason initially that Ditum’s tweet bothered me so much. Nor was it the fact that my ex-boyfriend also used numerous objects to rape me with, although memories reared their head when I read it. It was because it was so entirely at odds with what I thought even the most ardent anti-trans feminist understood: that rape is not a crime of sex, but a crime based of the abuse of power.

My ex raped me. He could have chosen not to. He could have chosen to walk away, to sod off somewhere and find a more constructive channel for his never-ending quest for control; he chose instead to manipulate me and demonstrate power over me. He could have chosen to question why he wanted those things, he could have chosen to explore within himself why he wanted my humiliation through repeated violations, rather than my comfort and happiness.

Instead he made a choice to hurt me because that was what he wanted. His penis didn’t make that decision. He did. Reducing men’s decision to rape to the random behaviour of a set of genitalia diminishes what rape is, and makes it harder for its victims to name the problem and reclaim the agency and autonomy being raped has taken from them.

But I am not the only woman who has been raped, for whom such penis-orientated attitudes have made the ability to find comfort and community so much harder, even amongst other women. In a sense, Ditum’s comment was just the visible tip of the iceberg of dangerous and bad assumptions which make it harder for women to be believed, even by other women.

Some of you reading this may be aware of a trans*gender woman, a twitter engineer called Dana McCullum who was recently convicted of raping her wife. McCullum raped and violated her wife, not because she has a penis, but because she chose to exercise power and control in an abusive manner.

But the truly appalling aspect of this is not that McCullum is transgender. It is that that focus on this aspect (which happened because feminists forgot what rape is truly about), took away the support that should have been accorded to her wife.

So now I want you to read her story, the one she has had to tell because we helped to make it harder for her. I want you to listen to her, to her story, to the struggle she has had to find agency and identity. I stand in solidarity with her.

When we think that rape is about genitals and sex, we don’t just make stopping it harder. We make it harder for the victim, for the one person we are supposed to be there for. I know that we all want rape to stop. We all want rape culture dismantled so that the women and children on the receiving end of rape and abuse to be safer than we were. We want rapes victims to have all the support they deserve so that they can heal.

But we won’t do that if we are not honest, with ourselves and with each other. If we want to ‘name the problem’ then we actually have to understand it so that we can name it correctly: it was a man who raped me, not a penis;  and it was a woman who raped M, not a penis. The name of the problem is not ‘penis’.

It’s name is patriarchy.

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.)