We interview Valerie Hobbs, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, on the ninth day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign.
Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?
My name is Valerie Hobbs, and I am a linguist at the University of Sheffield. I am one of those scholars who likes to do all sorts of things, but most of my research and teaching orbits around the areas of English for Specific Purposes, with a focus on religious language. In other words, I’m interested in how different groups of people use language in ways that suit their particular needs and goals.
How did you get involved in The Shiloh Project?
Katie Edwards, a friend and colleague at Sheffield, invited me along to a workshop on religion and rape culture in Leeds, where I met Johanna Stiebert, Caroline Blyth, Nechama Hadari, Emma Nagouse, and Jessica Keady. What impressed me about this group was the balance they strive for and achieve between diversity of perspectives and singular focus on examining and confronting the ways in which religion is used to incite and validate violence towards women. This is a group of scholars who unite around a shared interest and purpose but who invite discussion. In my experience, this is rare.
How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?
A few years ago, I decided to take a break from work I was doing on language in philosophy and write a paper on a topic I’ve long been mulling over: how the conservative Christian church talks about feminism. This work prompted an invitation to attend the ecclesiastical trial of a pastor in the USA who refused to require his disabled wife to attend church. As a professing Christian, I was motivated by this experience to focus my work on issues that powerfully shape and affect religious women.
Since then, I have worked on, for example, Christian sermons on divorce, as a way to investigate the ways in which pastors (don’t) preach about domestic violence. Over the summer, I contributed a chapter based on this project to the series of volumes on Rape Culture and Religion, edited by Shiloh Project leaders Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards along with Emily Colgan. I have plans for further projects on gender in sermons (since sermons are highly significant within the Christian context), but I’m also interested in hymns.
Then there is the activism that necessarily accompanies my scholarly work. I am grateful to have had opportunities to support Christian women who have endured various forms of violence by men in the church, including not only their spouses but also Christian leaders who too often use the Bible to minimize, excuse, and even justify physical and emotional abuse. Recent public-facing work stemming from these interactions has included, for example, a series on the ways in which church governments handle abuse cases. But I also spend time writing e-mails and letters and talking on the phone in an effort to support women whom men have abused.
How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?
Faith and religion are an important source of identity and ideology for billions of people around the world. As a result, religious ideas are not confined to religious contexts but have made their way into all sorts of cultural contexts. Advertising, news media, and politics are just some of the places where we find traces of religion, and powerful players in society often deliberately draw on religion to attract followers.
In my view, one of The Shiloh Project’s most significant contributions to the discussion about gender activism are the ways in which it makes explicit these links between religion and cultural attitudes to gender roles. This involves examining the religious doctrine itself as well as how and where doctrine manifests itself in society. For example, the Shiloh Project’s Katie Edwards has done some ground-breaking work on the ways in which advertisers draw from the Creation account in Genesis and capitalize on common representations of Eve as seductress.
However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I think we must be modest in our ambitions to bring about change in society around us. While much work has been done on the issue of gender-based violence and discrimination, yet the problem persists and seems even more entrenched. We can easily grow discouraged. I’ve concluded that I must act on my convictions but resist being so arrogant as to think my work will even begin to fix what is wrong with the world. That runs counter to the message we get from academia these days, where we are encouraged to plan for and measure the impact of our research and rate our value accordingly. But I don’t believe impact is up to us. Instead, as I see it, at the heart of The Shiloh Project is simply this: love your neighbour. If society becomes any better as a result of anything we do, if we positively influence even one person who encounters our work, that is a great mercy.
What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?
I recently wrapped up my work on divorce sermons and hope to have another recently submitted paper on this project accepted for publication in the spring. I am now working on two other projects: language of discrimination in religious institutions and discourse of consent among popular Christian organizations. I’m also working on a proposal for a book which will draw on my work in these various areas. There is so much work to do and so little time! My Shiloh Project colleagues are doing all manner of funded projects, and it is inspiring to be surrounded by such driven academics.