close

Bible and Art

Christmas, Mary, and the new Nationality and Borders Bill

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds. Tasia’s research lies in the intersection between religion and human experience, including experiences of mental illness, bereavement, and displacement. Her most recent book, Christianity and depression: interpretation, meaning, and the shaping of experience came out with SCM Press in 2020 and you can find out more about it here. Outside of her academic work, she enjoys walking her dog Lola. She also volunteers with an asylum seeker charity, BEACON, whose work you can find out more about here: Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern (beaconbradford.org)   

Kelly Latimore, Our Lady of the Journey (jpg purchased from the artist and reproduced with kind permission: kellylatimoreicons.com)

Kelly Latimore’s icon, Our Lady of the Journey, depicts the episode early in Matthew’s Gospel in which Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of an oppressive government (Matthew 2:13-23). While many paintings have depicted the ‘Flight into Egypt’ in relation to the plight of refugees, one of the most striking features of this icon for me is the way it highlights the experience of Mary, and especially her fear.

In this respect the icon is realistic, since the fear of asylum seekers who are women and girls is very real, and very well-founded. Women who attempt to flee their country of origin in hope of better, safer prospects are at risk from the same very-real threats to life that men experience, as was devastatingly laid bare with the recent Channel crossing drownings (see here). But women who flee their countries of origin are also vulnerable to additional dangers: to rape, to sexual trafficking, and to other forms of sexual exploitation, both on their journey, and in the place where they seek refugee status. In the words of one woman, who fled from Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal:

“I came to the UK because I was raped, beaten and locked up in my country because of my sexuality. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go or what to do and I had never heard of asylum. I thought I was coming to a country where I would be accepted for who I am but that was not the case.

Being a refugee in a new country, you don’t trust people easily, especially if you have been through so much hatred, so much abuse. It took me a while to trust people who told me about the asylum process. When I applied, it was a very long journey of stress and struggle. The Home Office said they didn’t believe my story and refused my asylum claim. I was depressed and had nowhere to go for support. I had to sleep on the bus and the only way to survive was to have sex to get food. It was traumatic and degrading.” 

(‘Anna’, quoted in Women for Refugee Women : Legal Opinion: The Nationality and Borders Bill will harm women)

Detail from Kelly Latimore’s Our Lady of the Journey

In addition to the sexual violence and exploitation they face, women are also more likely to be travelling with children, whose presence makes the journey harder, and the stakes even higher – since women asylum seekers are risking not only their own lives, but also the lives of their children. And especially if the children are girls, they too are vulnerable to violence and hardship, including sexual violence and exploitation.

These dangers might make one wonder, why would any woman take these terrible risks? The answer, of course, as ‘Anna’s’ story highlights, is that the things that make women risk all these things are yet more terrible and fearful still.   

The way in which female asylum seekers are especially vulnerable – what we might call the ‘gendered aspect’ of asylum seeking – makes the UK government’s Nationality and Border Bill, passed by the House of Commons last week, all the more cruel and unjust. Briefly, the Bill allows the government to deprive a person of citizenship, without even notifying them. This can be done, either if the Home Office does not have the person’s contact details, or if notifying them is ‘not reasonably practical’ (see here).

In addition, the same Bill criminalises anyone taking part in the rescue missions in the English Channel. To put this another way, it means that the people we regard as heroes for helping persecuted people escape torture and death (for example, people who smuggled Jewish children to the UK during the Nazi regime), would be regarded as criminals in the UK, according to the new law.

Although it doesn’t explicitly target women, the new Bill is, in practice, misogynistic, since it will disadvantage women and girls especially. This is for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just three here. First, the new Bill will introduce a ‘two-tier system’ that discriminates especially against asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via what the Home Office considers illegal means, such as in small boats. People coming from Afghanistan are among those asylum seekers especially likely to arrive in small boats – and women and girls from Afghanistan are highly likely to be fleeing, because of the newly-installed Taliban regime, which has, since the 2021 offensive, severely constrained women’s and girls’ movements, including access to education. In other words, the new Bill won’t discriminate against women explicitly and directly, but by virtue of discriminating against people who come via ‘illegal routes’ on small boats, it will effectively discriminate against people who are forced to flee from places such as Afghanistan, for gender-based reasons. 

Second, the new Bill will mean that there is a ‘heightened standard of proof’ expected of asylum seekers, and that cases will be considered at a more rapid rate (see here for the Executive Summary).  But women and girls who have frequently experienced rape and other forms of sexual torture are often traumatised to the extent that they do not have a coherent narrative about what has happened to them. Narratives of trauma often emerge only long after the traumatic event itself, because victims of sexual violence and exploitation experience guilt and shame, because being a victim of sexual violence is still a cause of stigma in many cultures, including our own. The asylum process is stacked against them. And asylum seekers are oftentimes interrogated without sensitivity about the violence and torture they have experienced.

Third, as human rights lawyers have pointed out, the new Bill’s clauses about modern slavery and trafficking will make it harder for women and girls who are victims of trafficking and modern slavery to be identified and protected. This is contrary to the UK’s obligations according to international law. In addition to that, the much swifter process that will lead a woman or girl to be deported may well mean that there is not enough time for trafficking claims to be determined (see here, for the Executive Summary).

I could go on about the other ways in which the new Nationality and Borders Bill will harm female asylum seekers, not just because they are asylum seekers, but (additionally) because they are women and girls. But those who are interested can read more about the reasons here.

So instead, I want to return to where we started – to the Bible – and provide just a few passages for reflection about the way the Scriptures encourage us to show solidarity with the oppressed, and hospitality to asylum seekers in particular. At the very end, I suggest four  ways in which we can help.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:22).

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and she will repay her for her deed (Proverbs 19:17).

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:3).

 Learn to do good;
 Seek justice,
 Rescue the oppressed,
 Defend the orphan,
 Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7: 9-10)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

Four ways you can help:

  1. Join, donate, or volunteer for Women for Refugee Women: Women for Refugee Women
  2. If you are in the UK, write to your MP and oppose the Nationality and Borders Bill. You can find out who your MP is, and how to write to them, here: Find out who your MP is / mySociety . If you’re stuck for what to write, you can copy or adapt the template here: #antirefugeebill (asylummatters.org)
  3. Sign up to receive campaigning news and opportunities from Asylum MattersHome | Asylum Matters
  4. Encourage your church and any other organisations with which you may be involved to join the Together with Refugees coalition: Join the coalition – Together With Refugees
read more

Writing Gender Justice: Alternative Icons of Women

Today’s post is an interview with Hilary Willett (she/her) who fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women.

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Hilary. I’m from Christchurch, New Zealand and currently living in Auckland. I’m studying to be an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Auckland.

What have you been doing and what are you working on?

I completed a Masters of Theology in 2018, looking at feminism and the Bible. This was a pivotal point in my faith journey. Before doing this thesis, I had believed that both Christians and biblical texts had always generally been fairly supportive of women in positions of leadership. My thesis disrupted this belief and I began to realise the extent to which the Christian church has suppressed or marginalised female leadership.

After finishing my thesis, I felt a call to leadership in the Anglican Church. In 2019, I was discerned to begin training for ordination. I’m now doing a second Masters in Theology, part-time, to aid my leadership formation. In 2020, I did a course on writing icons with Libby Brookbanks, and I discovered that I loved it. So, in my spare time, I’ve been writing icons of women and have recently started selling them and accepting commissions.

Which aspects of your work might be particularly interesting for supporters of the Shiloh Project?

Icons are considered sacred images and used in devotional ways. They are also considered to be a way of communicating orthodox theology, so instead of being “painted” they are written. Every part of an icon has theological significance: the colours used, the gestures of the subject, the gold-leaf/gilding, even the primer used to prepare the surface that will be written on. Everything in an icon has a symbolic meaning.

Traditionally, however, only men are allowed to be iconographers. This means that men have been the only ones allowed to communicate theology about the women and men represented in icons. I feel uncomfortable with this, particularly the idea that in iconography women are only being written by men. So, I started to write icons of women.

How does your work connect to activism?

I came away from my thesis on feminism and Christianity acutely aware of just how many men write the theological narrative. This dominance prevents women from writing themselves and leads to significant theological bias. In icons, this is particularly noticeable. Women are often represented as white (even when the majority of saints depicted are not Caucasian) and delicate (rarely do women look strong or have strong gestures). Women are often dressed in white or have white head-coverings to symbolise their purity. It seems that writers of icons are very keen to uphold purity as a prime virtue in women, which then reinforces this value in individuals who use icons for prayer.

Complex biblical women, such as Jael, Hagar, Delilah, or the woman who bled for twelve years, are very rarely recorded as icons. The few icons I found of the “bleeding woman” (Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5: 25-34; Luke 8:43-38), for example, depicted her as grovelling on her knees before Christ. This representation makes this woman one-dimensional. There is little visual reference in the icon to this woman’s faith or her courage in approaching Christ, despite the customary purity taboos forbidding a woman in her position from touching a rabbi. Her active defiance of the rules and her determination to be healed demonstrate strength and conviction, but these qualities are not represented visually in the bleeding woman’s icon. This is in stark contrast to say, Peter or Paul who, despite their failings, are regularly and reliably represented in icons. They are depicted as standing upright and righteous and are often depicted in a variety of colours. For instance, in a traditional Orthodox church, there is a section of the church called the “Deisis” (prayer/supplication). Peter and Paul are almost always a part of this prominent section of the church. They are written in full colour, venerated as complex and well-rounded individuals. Mary, the pure, is often the only female regularly included in this important section of the church.

I try to correct this bias by writing women differently. I spend some time researching alternative narratives, sometimes going very much against traditional theological presentations of certain women. In writing icons, I include ‘difficult’ characters and characters that are not in scripture or “sainted” by the Church. I write women with different skin tones, different personalities, and different body shapes. I tend to avoid using white clothes for women, unless it is absolutely necessary. One occasion where I did find this necessary, was with Phoebe, the deacon. Her white alb was a part of her official, ceremonial robes that deacons wore in the church. It is necessary for a deacon to wear an alb in their leadership role. In this case, Phoebe’s white clothes felt to be more about her leadership role in the church, which I wanted to highlight, rather than about her purity as a woman.

Phoebe, the Deacon

I also try to bring out the complexity of the women who have been venerated as pure and the humanity of the women who have been marginalised. As noted above, for instance, the ‘bleeding woman’ is usually depicted grovelling before Christ. When I re-wrote her, however, she is standing upright. Christ was not in the icon, as I wanted her to stand in her own right. I re-named her the “Daughter of Faith”.

Daughter of Faith (the woman who bled for 12 years)

I try to find something commendable in each of the women I write, with the view that women are worthy of respect, even if they are complex characters and don’t live up to patriarchal stereotypes. Women do not all need to be the purest of the pure, or the fem-est of the fem, to be admirable.

Finally, I enjoy writing women in contexts that are meaningful to the person who will use the icon. When I wrote Mary as an icon, I placed her in Taranaki (Aotearoa New Zealand) because that where the person who was receiving the icon was from. It felt important that the caring presence of Mary was placed in this own person’s context, making it meaningful and relevant to the person using the icon.

Mary, Mother of God

What has been the response to your icons?

To be honest, it has been overwhelmingly positive; it really has been lovely to see how many people are connecting with these images. Occasionally, some people haven’t understood exactly what an icon is and wonder why I don’t just paint landscapes, but it has been fun explaining this to them. One thing I often try to do is explain the symbolic features of any new icon I write. I think this has helped with the response, as it gives people the tools to “read” exactly what I am “writing”. It has meant that even people who have not been all that interested in icons in the past, are really keen and interested now. It has been a great experience!

Find more of Hilary’s icons at Lumen Icons: https://lumenicons.tarotpoetry.nz/?fbclid=IwAR0IoK0FX-4No_qWeeDlUDHpv8YqUOUH_9Nbvb-64max8SIf–0ZS9ZkmN8

read more