Being a woman: without the bad bits

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

When I was younger and struggling with depression and issues surrounding self-image, I used to have this niggling feeling that other young Christian women had it all figured out. They looked joyful. They looked glowing. They smiled a lot. Even if they didn't conform to society's standards of what was 'hot', they always looked radiant. It used to make me feel worse, because I wondered why I didn't feel like that, and worried about what must be wrong with me as a result. Why could I not grasp that whole 'made in God's image' thing? Why did I not feel like smiling more?

Clearly this was mainly brought on by my state of mind. I should have noticed that the summer I was at a particular Christian festival and I wasn't the only person in the seminars on working through self-harm and depression. But, you know.

A few years down the line, getting to know more young Christian women brought me to a major realisation: the realisation that they didn't have it all figured out. I had moved on and come to a lot of new conclusions along the way. So it surprised me, in a way, when people I knew would feel worried about how their figure looked in a particular outfit, or competitively talk about feeling so full after choosing a low calorie option in a restaurant, or worry about which guys might be showing an interest in them and agonise over whether to ask someone out in case it somehow contravened 'the rules'.

I'm not saying that to be cruel. It just came as a bit of a surprise to me, that despite all the teaching about self-worth and imago dei and not buying into all that worldly stuff, young women were still being drawn in to the performed femininity that the magazines, the rom coms and the women's pages in the tabloids require us to 'do' in order to feel acceptable. Comparing themselves negatively to other young women who seemed more confident, more popular, more attractive - which never achieves anything. Worrying about how the guys saw them. I found that when I looked at it all through my feminist lens, it was much more clear to me just why all that was a colossal waste of time and energy, and I wondered why the church's schtick on empowerment and self-image and womanhood wasn't, for a lot of people, cutting through the way society was telling them to behave. On the surface it was all good. Underneath, the familiar concerns were there.

Does this mean that more work is needed to tackle this at the root - the battleground that women face and the choice they may feel they have to make? The choice between being a woman who rejects all the crap and might not be a 'proper girl' as a result, and being a woman who buys into it all and feels sad and worries but is performing the more miserable side of modern femininity, with its rules and restrictions and judgments, and is therefore acceptable. Well, yes, it does. I know from personal experience that it's not as simple as telling young women that don't they know they're made in God's image and are wonderful just the way they are - because a lot of them won't believe it. But I also know that the truth will set them free.

This post by Sarah at Emerging Mummy sums up a lot of what I'm trying to say, but it's not just about body image. A lot of it's about the way we relate to men, and goodness knows that's a minefield of drama even within the church. Especially within the church, even (think of every blog post and book and report you have ever read about single people in the church). Mention feminist concepts to some of the people I've known over the years and the atmosphere would be profoundly uncomfortable. It's not, you know, attractive. Men won't want you if you talk about that sort of stuff. Women will think you're weird and roll their eyes and the conversation will abruptly stall. But it's all been so helpful to me - in conjunction with religion and prayer ministry and other things - in rejecting a great deal of rubbish and setting me free.

How much of a difference could it make to others? I think we owe it to God and to our sisters to lay that stuff aside even sometimes, and remember that it helps no-one, that it just traps us in another box and stops us from being who we're meant to be.

If that means we need to work through some serious stuff, which I know it does for a lot of people, it's important to find someone really helpful and supportive to talk it through with. It's also important that church pastoral teams are able to deal with it. Over the years I've had advice on it all from the less-than-helpful to the brilliant. It doesn't help that some Christian books aimed at women buy into the restrictions of modern femininity wholesale, which I suspect make most women feel either inadequate and condemned (me, once upon a time) or bored of it all and keen to see a book that changes the record because, damn it, we are all individuals (me, now).

Even when you think you've got it all figured out for the most part, toxic influences are very good at making you feel less than you really are and changing your perception of what a woman is, or should be.

Image: here

Pregnancy, me, and the GOP

Saturday, 18 February 2012

I haven't really felt compelled to blog about my pregnancy. I did wonder, when I wrote that post at the end of my first trimester, whether it would be something I'd start writing about a lot more. And next week, I enter my third trimester. The home strait. To tell you the truth, I've just been getting on with things. My second trimester bought with it a new job and a good deal more energy. Not, mind you, to the extent that I'd say I felt "full of energy", as some women say. I've had to make sure that I get enough rest. But I have been very well. The past three months have been full of projects, planning, and writing again. And of course, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my impending motherhood situation.

Thinking about it - but not writing about it. Being pregnant has taught me a few things. Firstly, I now know that I truly have no interest in writing about anything that's going to make me an unwilling participant in the "Mommy/Mummy Wars" of sniping about differing parenting choices. Secondly, I know that I'm not going to get stressed, via my blog, over things that have the potential to change completely through no fault of my own and have no bearing on me as a person. My birth plan. My symptoms. Thirdly, it's taught me that I really am so grateful for the circumstances of this pregnancy and the choices I have been able to make about it.

Some time ago I had some commenters on a blog post insinuate to me that my opinions about reproductive rights, feminism and gender equality were somehow naïve and uninformed because I was young and had yet to have children of my own. As if having a child would make me see the error of my ways and suddenly start telling other women that having "only" two children is "selfish" and that I didn't know how they could call themselves Christians yet be pro-choice.

The child is still inside me, but as yet, this change hasn't happened. I was concerned about the issues surrounding motherhood and reproduction before I became pregnant, but creating this baby has only made me feel more strongly about the positions I've always held. Part of that's down to the frankly terrifying situation in the US that began unfolding in 2011, dubbed the year of "The War On Contraception" by Amanda Marcotte. As my pregnancy has progressed, the situation for women in the US has regressed.

Everyone was so excited when the news broke that women were finally going to be able to access birth control without copays through their health insurance. Unfortunately it was all of five minutes before conservatives started kicking up a fuss. Fast forward to this week and today I tweeted that I'm just going to start referring to the US as the "Republic of Gilead" because goodness knows there's a bunch of politicians and people of influence over there who seem to be all geared up to go down that route. On Thursday we sat  dumbfounded as a panel comprised entirely of men decided that the input of a woman in favour of contraception coverage wasn't relevant to their discussion on birth control and health insurance. Democratic women walked out of Rep. Darrell Issa's hearing in protest.

The woman the Republicans had refused to allow to speak had planned to talk about the experiences of women she knew who had been denied birth control coverage, including:

"...a woman who has lost an ovary because she was even denied coverage for pill not even needed for contraceptive, but for medical purposes. As a result of not having the proper medical care, the woman, now 32 years old, lost an ovary and is experiencing an early menopause, threatening her ability to have children."

The panel felt that this woman did not have the "credentials" to speak. A woman. Not having the "credentials" to speak with any authority to men about women's reproductive health. This is the reality of what happens when women are blocked from easily accessing contraception because of ridiculous notions about who should be using it and why - coming, incidentally, from the same people who no qualms about making medication for men who are affected by erectile dysfunction easily accessible as a necessity.

Because of course men aren't the problem here for the GOP. That's abundantly clear. No matter that their desire to see the number of abortions being carried out in the US decrease might actually become reality should they make contraception available to all. No, despite the fact that 99% of all sexually active women have used or are using birth control (and 98% of sexually active Catholic women are doing the same, for those making the fuss about Catholic employers being required to cover contraception), the powers that be would like to make it so that they can't. And just in case you weren't sure exactly why they hold this opinion, billionaire Santorum supporter Foster Friess was happy to give us all a good idea.

“Back in my day, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly,” he said on Thursday.

You'd better be keeping your legs closed, gals. Keeping your legs closed or popping out kids. That's what it comes down to.

And you know what? I haven't even mentioned the mess that is the proposed Virginia ultrasound law. You need to read about it, but what you need to know is this: forced transvaginal probing. David Englin, opposing the bill, has apparently recalled a conversation with a GOP lawmaker who:

"...told him that women had already made the decision to be vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant."

But wait - there's more! Yes, there's also the small matter of a bill passed by the Oklahoma State Senate on Wednesday, defining "personhood" as beginning at conception and therefore granting rights to fertilised eggs. Says the Ms. Magazine newswire:

"If the personhood initiative appears on the ballot, emergency contraception, birth control pills, IUDs, and abortions - even in cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the woman or girl - would be threatened. The initiative would even go so far as to eliminate medical choices for women, including some cancer treatments, in vitro fertilization, and could allow the state to investigate and even prosecute a woman for a miscarriage."

Put simply, it makes me want to tear my hair out. I don't expect anything approaching a measured position on reproductive rights from the GOP any more and I know that as a woman living in the UK, these decisions don't affect me, do why does it bother me so much? It just makes me so disappointed and angry that the lives of millions of women are being played with like this thanks to the ideological position of a sadly powerful minority, who would prevent women from accessing vital and possibly life-saving medical treatment, rob them of the right to use contraception and when challenged, tell them they just need to keep their legs closed.

Being pregnant has made me so grateful for the way I've been able to exercise choice in the matter, grateful that Luke and I have been able to make decisions about having a child together, aided by easy access to contraception, free healthcare, and the knowledge that the law is not working against me to discount my own life should anything go wrong. If I'd had a miscarriage, I would not have had to worry about the potential of being arrested. If I'd had to have a termination out of medical necessity, I know there would not have been people waiting outside the hospital to shout abuse at me and my husband.

And it makes me so angry for the millions of women who don't have those privileges, in "the land of the free". The "land of opportunity". Where a party that wants "small government" thinks all this is somehow an example of that, not to mention an example of the "separation of church and state". All thanks to the unbelievable crusades of a bunch of politicians who will never, ever become pregnant or know what it is like to have a womb, or ovaries.

On not backing down

Sunday, 12 February 2012

This week my friend Sian has found herself a target for abuse and threats due to the fact she expressed an opinion about something she feels strongly about. You can read her account of how events unfolded here. In the past couple of weeks we've been seeing, thanks to the UniLad fiasco, the way people seem to have absolutely no qualms about issuing vile threats and dealing out abuse left, right and centre to women who speak out against misogyny or simply dare to have strong view on something. The abuse leveled at Sian (which has resulted in her having conversations with the police) has been yet another reminder that when it comes to the internet, it doesn't seem to take much to have people calling for others' personal details to be published online, for them to be 'hunted down' and attacked, or for more specific injuries to be inflicted.

Since this issue finally blew up and made it into the mainstream media last year, I think more people are ready to call out this sort of thing. But that doesn't mean it's going away. I decided to moderate comments on this blog last year when something I wrote incurred the wrath of MRAs and, in their particularly reasoned and mature style, they wanted to take the opportunity to let me know how ugly I am. But it's not going to stop me from blogging, no more than me criticising them is going to stop them from writing about their dissatisfaction that people tend to think rape, sexual exploitation and domestic violence are wrong.

Something that was noticeable last year in all the newspaper coverage of the issue was the number of people intimating that threats and abuse are to be expected, and that those who 'can't deal with it' should stop blogging, or writing for the papers, or posting on forums, or commenting on things. No mention of the fact that those doling out the abuse might be out of line, more 'that's what you get'. Like the apologist who tells women they need to stop going out at night, or walking to places alone if they don't want to be attacked by rapists, those who spectacularly miss the point on internet abuse blame the person on the receiving end.

Sian has been accused of 'craving publicity' - for having an opinion. Of going on about 'things that don't matter'. Of  'crying' over nothing. She has been made to feel that, to put it bluntly, she just needs to shut up and stop whining, by people whose idea of a debate amounts to smugly stating 'but isn't feminism about CHOICE?'. That writing about her opinions on something controversial makes her an attention-seeker and a pathetic self-publicist. How many times have we seen those accusations thrown at women who write about things they feel strongly about? That they've just 'got a chip on their shoulder'? Another woman whose blog I read had a commenter flounce the other day after saying that her post about a controversial issue was just another example of 'looking for a fight and a way to be offended'. It's so wearing. You can't write about something more than a couple of times without being attacked for 'having an agenda' and you can't 'have an agenda' without people flouncing or telling you to shut up.

What does this all mean for those of us who, actually, don't fancy shutting up and stopping speaking out about things? I know that for as many of us who won't back down there are more people who have got discouraged and had their confidence worn away to the extent that they do shut up. They decide it would simply be easier for everyone if they kept quiet, put aside their dreams and gave up. And I don't blame them, because it can be really hard. This goes for people who write and speak about a whole range of issues and it's not just limited to women, but it's a particular tactic used to silence women and make us feel insignificant.

So this is for those who have made the decision to carry on despite being discouraged. Despite being made to feel as if they don't matter. Despite being told to get out of the kitchen if they can't take the heat. Despite having people unleash overly dramatic unfollows and patronising comments and snide remarks about 'another angry woman'. Despite all this, we stick at it, in the hope that one day things will change and that one day the answer to abuse and threats won't be that it's our own fault for rocking the boat. If we did all stop caring any more, the status quo would never be challenged, and imagine history without any challenges aimed at the status quo, when there were things that were so badly wrong that we look back now and wonder how such a state of affairs ever could have existed.

Never give up. Because that's what they want. And if you feel convicted to do something about an injustice,  people will roll their eyes and sneer and try to make you feel bad about it, or as if you will never change anything so really, what's the point?

Stop listening to them.

Faith and Feminism at Go Feminist!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the very first Go Feminist! conference in London. Go Feminist! was birthed out of a desire to see a conference that would inspire activism and connect women with a view to working from a completely intersectional platform, recognising the role that interlocking oppressions play in affecting the world around us. As the conference's organisers told The F Word last month:

"We do this as a response to feminism's most sustained critique: that it is not for all women. Although women from all backgrounds and communities identify with feminist beliefs, the movement still does not completely take into account their needs and realities. Too often in our feminist spaces, the voices of a few are privileged. Race is inadequately dealt with. Our spaces, both physical and virtual, are inaccessible to women living with disabilities. Trans women's involvement is actively discouraged."

What resulted was a brilliant day of equipping, debate and discussion, which felt immensely positive and helpful to all who attended. Something that has been raised at other conferences in the past is the lack of discussion about faith issues, which are important to many women and also affect things outside the personal sphere, such as the role of faith in public life, fundamentalism, and the intersection of religious and race issues. Therefore I knew that plenty of people were looking forward to the afternoon workshop on "Faith and Feminism", which I was involved in facilitating.

The workshop took the form of four group discussions, which delegates could move between and contribute to as they wished. I facilitated the discussions entitled "Common ground can be found" (between belief systems and gender equality) while other groups focused on discussion of faith in public life, and the idea that religion is inherently misogynist. Despite a huge variety of opinions and plenty of disagreement, the atmosphere in the workshop remained really positive and I would have liked to have listened in on what was going on within the other groups so am relying on others to tell me all about it. Afterwards when we came together to share things that had particularly impacted us about the session, it was obvious that running it had not been a waste of time.

I noted down some of the main "action points" that came out of our session (we had plenty of time to get stuck in with an hour of discussion time built in). All are points I've found personally helpful, and points I put to good use when exploring the idea that "common ground" really can be found.

1) Separate your belief system's power structures and culture from its actual teachings

Cultural influences and decisions made by religious leaders through the ages have a tendency to stick around and become "the way things have always been done". This isn't always helpful if they actually represent a departure from original teachings or are "add-ons" that people tend to take as "gospel" (sorry) anyway. One example raised in our discussion that's also one I use a lot is the way "traditional" gender roles as we see them taught today within Christianity are less "how things have always been" and more an idolisation of Victorian, and then post-war, Western family life which have no relation to other cultures and pre-19th century life in general. This has been hijacked in a more extreme way by the patriarchy movements that have sprung up in the USA since the 1970s, but of course is also present in a lot of mainstream teaching and resources. We need to make sure people are aware of the differences between original teaching and institutional ways of doing things.

2) Use positive examples from history

When we talk to people about finding common ground, it's interesting and really helpful to draw on examples from history to illustrate the outworking of our beliefs. History has so much to tell us about influential women as figures in leadership, thinkers, writers, and people who played an important role in religious life. Many of these women are no longer widely spoken about - and many have had their stories sanitized or changed in order to fit a particular ideal. Some people yesterday spoke about being greatly inspired by the stories of women of the past and what they tell us about our role in religious life.

3) Emphasise humanity and the fact we all deserve respect

Within faith groups, there is often little respect shown to people who don't "fit the mold" and conform to expectations. Within feminism, the same thing can happen. There is so much wrong with this, and it needs to be discouraged at all costs. Yesterday's conference was a wonderful example of how things can work for good when everyone believes that all should be respected and included. It makes for much more productive debate and enables us to learn from people whose viewpoints we might not previously have been aware of or understanding of. Within my own faith, part of this is remembering that as humans we are all made in God's image and that "God so loved the world...". How should this affect our behaviour towards people? A problem I sometimes see is that gender equality is not considered an issue for Christians to be bothered about, and that being passionate about it can be regarded with suspicion and a sense of "what's the point?". Even if it's an issue you don't feel personally called to tackle on a wider scale it needs to be respected.

4) Combat fear of the unknown by starting good conversations about gender equality

This is so important. As many people mentioned yesterday, there is so much confusion around what feminism is and what it means for men and for women. Parallels were drawn between the way the media tends to focus on religion only when it can be portrayed in terms of extremism/fundamentalism or as a bit of a joke, and its similar sentiments about feminism. What's vital here is starting conversations that help to bust myths, develop understanding, and educate. A point raised several times during our discussion was a lack of understanding and tolerance of feminism from family members or close friends in the faith community, something that can be difficult to deal with. Often this lack of tolerance will come from having swallowed all the myths and the scaremongering from the powers that be, the media, and the anti-feminists. Talking through this, if people are amenable, really helps people to see things in a new light.

5) Create the communities you want to see

As the saying goes, "Be the change you want to see in the world". Can you get together with likeminded people, in your neighbourhood, at your place of worship or online through social media and blogging? Can you meet to discuss beliefs and activism, or form fresh expressions of your faith such as prayer groups, services or other get-togethers which affirm inclusivity and gender equality? Some people offered examples of places they know where this is happening. I know I've really benefited from communities I've formed online and that this has led to real-life meetings, people supporting each other, a lot of great discussion, people getting together for meetings and conferences, and above all, the knowledge that we're not alone. I think this is vital in creating change from within.

Go here to check out videos of plenary sessions and voxpops conducted throughout the day at Go Feminist! (including one featuring me), or check out the #gofem hashtag on Twitter.

On a related note, I wanted to share the link to this post from Rachel Held Evans, which talks about planting "tangible, practical seeds" to challenge, combat and call out misogyny in the church, while building up and supporting other women. I like Rachel's suggestions and want to put some of my own into practice this year.

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