Gracious debate part two - the silencing around gender issues

Monday, 14 November 2011

On Saturday night, when I was mulling over all this and deciding how I would tackle it, I realised I was going to have to split my thoughts into two posts. Tone arguments are one thing, but that day Vicky Beeching had just posted something brilliant and I saw that I needed to discuss the obsession with "being gracious", silencing and shaming as it relates to discussing gender issues, particularly as I had been in London at FEM 11 that day and the subject of women receiving abuse online has been a hot topic recently.

As I mentioned in my previous post, all Christian bloggers fall victim to readers' preoccupation with tone, but none more so than women when they discuss gender issues and/or feminism, which is such a loaded word for Christians that many don't even use it, even if it's a label they claim for themselves privately. In the post linked above, Vicky mentions that she was excited by all the tweets about FEM 11 appearing in her timeline on Saturday but decided not to retweet any of them because of the reactions it would probably set off among some of her followers.

What I said in my comment on Vicky's post and what I feel is something really important to consider here, is that as Christians we need to look past stereotypes and media hype and analyse the real issues at hand without resorting to uninformed attacks. When people judge us and our faith based on negative or untrue stereotypes, it makes us annoyed. When they take the actions of a few Christians (the antics of Westboro Baptist Church members - or any other hardline right-wing Christians - spring to mind here) and act as if the rest of us are all the same, it's frustrating. The same applies to feminists and those who believe in gender equality. It's disheartening when people dismiss our concerns or silence us, using clichés and misinformation to do so.

Firstly, it's important for Christians to understand that the feminist movement is wide-ranging. I cannot begin to describe how frustrating it is when someone mentions the word and readers immediately start qualifying it only in terms of a woman's role within the church and the family, or otherwise in terms of sexist television adverts, holding open doors and giving up seats. Don't begin to dismiss our work as unimportant and "outdated" until you know the many issues we work on and how they might affect women worldwide. Secondly, read a decent definition of radical feminism and make sure you use it correctly. Thirdly, consider what you're really doing when you say you don't believe Christians can sign up to the concept of gender equality because of the actions of a few "extreme" feminists. You're still following Jesus despite the actions of Fred Phelps, aren't you?

In my comment on Vicky's post, I highlighted a few of the issues related to gender equality:

"Equal pay. Racism. Poverty. Violence against women and girls. Trafficking. Under-representation in public life, politics and senior positions in business and decision-making jobs. The sort of future available to today's girls and their aspirations. Issues surrounding motherhood, income and the workplace. All this cannot be ignored while the discussion is reduced to simplistic statements about 'anger' and 'feminism going too far'."

When you reduce the concerns of the women's movement to holding open doors and adverts for cleaning products, believe me it grates - as if these are somehow examples of gender equality having gone beyond all acceptable limits, ruined the lives of women and emasculated the world's men. Similarly, it grates when people talk about gender equality as a concept promoting the establishment of female superiority over men and even doing away with them altogether. Look past your own front door and remember that people who aren't western, middle-class churchgoers have problems too. You see some people say that all these problems aren't what we should be concentrating on, as Christians. That they're not issues discussed in the Bible, so concerns about them are purely "cultural" and "of the world". Maybe that's true, for them - but some people happen to feel convicted about gender issues.

When they do, and especially when women do, it's important not to dismiss this, shut down the debate and label their conviction as "hysterical", "emotional" or "ranting". Nine times out of ten when I see a woman told she's "ranting" in a blog post she's simply expressing a strong opinion, or saying that she thinks something is wrong. When the popular male bloggers do this, it's unusual for someone to pull the "emotional" card, let alone the "hysterical" one (are people still holding on to the old definition of "hysteria" as health problems caused by the womb?). Treating a woman as your equal online doesn't involve using this sort of language, even as a "last resort" when you are frustrated or don't know where to take the debate. As a fellow blogger said on Twitter at the weekend:

"We are unfairly criticized when we are simply calling crap crap."

Unfairly criticized because according to gender stereotype, as women it's our job to put up, shut up and keep sweet lest we be told we're "out of line" or labelled "harpies". And it really is as simple as that. No matter how much some people believe they treat women well and respect them, the stereotype creates an underlying, uncomfortable feeling about how we should be regarded for speaking out about something.

Some time ago, a man responding to a blog post of mine said that he felt the issue of gender equality was not a crucial one (and therefore not one worth spending much time discussing) because it was "not a salvation issue". But know this: I have read the accounts of women who have lost their faith because of issues of gender and the church. I know women who have turned away from God because they cannot see how they can reconcile Christianity with calling themselves a feminist. I have heard the accounts of women who have been incredibly burned by the church and its attitude towards their gifting and their opinions. For these women, gender equality was - is - a salvation issue.

And when women talk about their own experiences with gender inequality - in or outside of the church, they might have painful memories to share. I know that I certainly have painful memories about gender inequality to share. According to those who enjoy silencing, tactics, we should be sharing these stories without emotion or a sense of injustice (and we all know that God hates injustice), because that would be ungracious and make us seem bitter and negative.

If those readers with their tone arguments were in fact correct, just asking for an end to injustice nicely, without being critical, would have done the job years ago and no-one would still have to question rape conviction rates or women bearing the brunt of poverty. Telling us that "things would be different if today's women were just happy to be women" (meaning content to live according to traditional gender roles) doesn't help. It's incredibly patronizing for a start - and yet again it's a "solution" that applies to a narrow range of issues - women's role in the church and family, yes, but not even a thought for the others I mentioned above.

As I said in my previous post, no-one should be resorting to bullying or un-Christlike behaviour. Caring deeply about an issue - and expressing a sense of injustice about it - is not the same thing.


Anna Blanch said...

Hannah, this is a brilliantly written, persuasively argued post and I think it's fabulous.

There's just one small point that i'd wanted to quibble with. As a christian woman and one's who written about this topic this week saying i'm not prepared to assume the label of feminist, I do want ask you about this line "Thirdly, consider what you're really doing when you say you don't believe Christians can sign up to the concept of gender equality because of the actions of a few "extreme" feminists."

I'm with you on the gender equality - my struggle is that within feminist discourse (including some christian feminist discourse) I'm concerned that there's an implication that feminism somehow has the monopoly on seeking, finding for, and defending gender equality for women. Granted, the church has not been stepping up to the plate like it should...not even close, but I'm just aware that I feel strongly that I can speak into and about how I feel on these issues without donning the moniker or descriptive of feminist - but i worry that the discourse is couched in such a way that, as it has done this week, I've come under fire from other women who've accused me of being complicit in sexism and oppression if I will not accept the label feminist. To be frank, I think that borders on absurd. In fact i'm not sure how much more I can do to show where I stand as a woman, than put myself in the firing line with the most polemical post i've ever written. I expected to cop it from men - i did not expect to cop it from women.

Hannah Mudge said...

Anna, I totally agree with you and this was why I didn't word it in terms of "calling yourself a feminist". I was hoping it wouldn't come across as meaning that instead! In the past I have genuinely encountered people who have used it as a reason they don't "agree with" gender equality full stop, and this is what I wished to highlight.

I agree that attacking women on that point is absurd as different women have their reasons - and not just within Christianity, as usage of the word "womanist" as a response to racism in the feminist community shows. Some women don't take kindly to others rejecting the label, but when you have genuine reasons for doing so I don't see the problem with that.

HelveticaTheBold said...

Does that maybe go back to 'You're still following Jesus despite the actions of Fred Phelps' though? (which is such a good point and one that isn't made often enough wrt feminism)
There are quite a few feminists who feel that anyone who believes in equality between the sexes is just being awkward by rejecting the label of feminist.
I don't think that way. I think that for a start you'll have a tough job engaging with feminist theory if you believe that women aren't oppressed in relation to men.
You (the you who isn't labelling herself as feminist, by the way - a hypothetical you) may well be a useful ally who will come on Reclaim The Night and Million Women Rise marches. You may well join me to end the trafficking of women and girls. You may just be supportive when my son pushes a pram down the street.
It isn't up to me to say whether you are or are not a feminist, and neither is it up to me to say that if you don't call yourself a feminist you can't join the struggle in areas where you believe it's important.
I think that in the nineties and noughties we had a bit of a trend of women who thought that if you declared yourself a feminist it made everything you did inherently feminist (eg choosing to sell your underwear on Ebay) because a woman exercising a choice is inherently feminist.
I would rather be joined in my struggle with someone who doesn't define as a feminist but still engages with the issues I am addressing, than be derailed and shut down by someone who says 'but I'm a feminist too and I think (for example) that having a women-only group is sexist' (repeatedly, and to the extent that it drowns out other voices).

Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for these blog posts - they're fantastic.

I just wanted to ask something - I'm sure you've mentioned this on Twitter but I can't see it on here. You talk about bloggers being dismissed as 'angry' and I have seen this too. I don't see the contradiction between being angry and being Christ-like if you're expressing righteous anger. What do you think?

Hannah Mudge said...

HelveticaTheBold - I definitely agree with you about anger. I don't think it is always something that 'conflicts' with Christlike behaviour. Personally I would rather see people passionate about something and expressing opinions than some sanitised debate where people get told off for giving a strong opinion and feel they can't say what they really feel. This should never mean that comment threads degenerate into bullying and attacks, but I get annoyed when people start asking 'why can't we all just BE NICE?!' purely because two people hold different opinions on a particular subject.

I think that in the nineties and noughties we had a bit of a trend of women who thought that if you declared yourself a feminist it made everything you did inherently feminist (eg choosing to sell your underwear on Ebay) because a woman exercising a choice is inherently feminist.

I'm glad you highlighted this; because it IS a problem, one which has really been co-opted by capitalism as well, so that BUYING things and choosing a particular product gets sold as an empowering act. We need to look past this and try to combat it too.

Ify said...

Hannah, thank you so much for expressing what many of us feel. I'm Muslim and experience the same sort of issues within the Muslim community with the patronizing tone argument, lack of engaging with opinions, and the fear of identifying as a feminist.

Blessings to you.


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