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Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

Today’s post is by Yael Klangwisan, Senior Lecturer in Education at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.  In this post she reflects on the violence of a sacred text towards the lesbian community through the lens of Naomi Alderman’s novel “Disobedience”, and the 2017 film directed by Lelio. 

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

[Rav]: In the beginning Hashem made three types of creatures.  The angels, the beasts and the human beings.  The angels He made from His pure word.  The angels have no will to do evil.  They cannot deviate for one moment from His purpose.  The beasts have only their instincts to guide them.  They, too, follow the commands of their maker.  The Torah states that Hashem spent almost six whole days of creation fashioning these creatures.  Then just before sunset, He took a small quantity of earth and from it He fashioned man and woman.  An afterthought?  Or His crowning achievement.  So, what is this thing?  Man? Woman?  It is a being with the power to disobey.  Alone among all the creatures, we have free will.  We hang suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts.  Hashem gave us choice, which is both a privilege and a burden.  We must then choose the tangled life we live. (Opening lines of “Disobedience”, Lelio, 2017)

The relation of tradition and sexual freedom is a tangled space, particularly for those identifying as LGBTQ+. Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel Disobedience explores this space, and particularly the signal themes of faith, truth, and freedom in the context of lesbian desire. In 2017, the cinematic realisation of the novel was directed by Sebastián Lelio. Like other films of its kind, Lelio portrays the disconnect between the frum (religious) world and the secular world and traces the personal cost of this divide in terms of sexuality with great effect. Alderman’s novel has a striking point of difference to the film, and this is the strangely affirming arrangement of each chapter around the Torah and the interpretive writings of the sages as the plot evolves. This positioning rests subtly on the wings of a particular kind of creative, resistant reading of the sacred text.  It is a compilation and interpretation of sacred texts in such a way that their violence against women expressing same sex desire is disempowered.  In Alderman’s novel, and similarly in Lelio’s film, the role of speech in defining and realising women’s sexual freedom, is at the fore.  Alderman’s presentation of this real struggle as the narrative progresses is heart-rending. The twist is when freedom to realise one’s true sexual self is incarnated from within the very texts and traditions that repress it. 

Alderman’s novel is set in an orthodox Jewish community in North London and begins with the death of the revered Rav Krushka, which is then followed by tumult over the appointment of a successor. This appointment is a contentious process that is cast into further disarray when the Rav’s estranged daughter Ronit returns from New York for the Hesped (her father’s eulogy).  Ronit stays with her cousin Dovid, the ascendant rabbi, and is surprised to find that he has married her best friend and first love, Esti.  Ronit finds herself falling in love again with Esti and this presents a crisis for them all. 

Joseph Nacino of Lesbian News describes Lelio’s film Disobedience as “a transfixing consideration of love, faith, sexuality, and personal freedom” (2018). Stephanie Zacharek from Time Magazine describes the two female protagonists, Ronit and Esti, as “circling each other warily, each cautious about disrupting the pattern of the other’s life” (2018). For Zacharek, these very patterns and cycles of orthodox Judaism bring comfort but can also lead to alienation and intense loneliness for those who are estranged.  Zacharek describes Rachel Weisz’s character Ronit as assertive yet dreamily wistful, and Rachel McAdams’ character Esti as subdued and pragmatic about her life in the orthodox community. Esti has kept her true desires and sexual identity tamped deeply down and this fiercely suppressed part of herself is about to burst out.  

In the film, Alessandro Nivola plays the character Dovid.  Dovid is deeply observant and, in terms of tradition a good husband. However, for Esti, Dovid’s generosity, patience and benevolence are suffocating.  Captivation and care are entangled. As Zacharek notes, “In Disobedience, three people reckon with the cost and meaning of freedom. Everybody pays. But if it were free, what would it be worth?” (2018). Joel Streicker, who reviews the novel for the journal Shofar, suggests that “the novel’s sympathies shift from Ronit’s anger and bitterness to Esti’s unfolding self-understanding and self-assertion” (2008). While Ronit seems to have found a certain troubled freedom in New York, and certainly one on her own terms, Streicker points out that for Esti, it is in fact God who makes space for every creature’s freedom to disobey tradition—though one “cannot escape the consequences of disobedience” (2008, 204).  There will always be a price. This is the crux of the theology both in the film and the novel—God might be an ally.  For Streicker, Alderman’s novel enacts “a reconciliation between Orthodoxy and lesbianism, between individual desire and collective constraints on it” (2008, 205).

Lesbianism is not strictly considered a breaking of the law in Judaism.  It is not mentioned in the Hebrew bible and only became a concern to the sages in later periods.  Thus, in Sifra, the midrash on Leviticus, in its commentary on Lev 18:2-3, there is reference to a prohibition against lesbianism or mesolelot.  In the Talmud (Nashim) Yevamot 76a, the sages consider whether lesbians could marry priests and try to answer the question of whether lesbians are “virgins”.  The Mishnah contains the text of a debate over whether lesbianism is a minor or major infraction for the Jewish community.  And in probably the strongest denunciation, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides associates lesbianism with an ambiguous Torah reference to the “practices of Egypt” and prescribes flogging.  Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:8:

It is forbidden for women to enmesh [play around] … with one another and this belongs to the “practices of the Egyptians” [of] which we have been warned: “you shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt” …  However, a flogging for disobedience (mardut) should be given, since they have performed a forbidden act. A man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women who are known to engage in this practice from visiting her, and prevent her from going to them.

Lesbianism was outlawed by the sages primarily because it is considered a danger to the community, to men’s control of their marriages and symptomatic of the apparently rebellious nature of women. It is ironic that while clearly not a capital offence, it does, for the sages, make a woman impure for a period of 12 days and at the end of this time, she is considered “straightened out” enough to return to her husband, children and community.

While in the novel Alderman does quote the sages on “the practices of Egyptian women,” this is not where she begins what could be a futile battle against tradition’s status quo.  She begins in the unlikely place of the Shabbat service with the most unlikely companions of Genesis and creation.  She begins with an exploration of wonder in a portion of prayer from the Mishnah Tamid 7.4 chanted in the Shabbat morning service: “And on the Shabbat, the priests would sing a song for the future that is to come, for that day which will be entirely Shabbat and for the repose of eternal life” (Alderman 2006, 1; also Neusner 1998). On the theme of the creative power of speech, Alderman offers the possibility that one might create her one’s own world through speech and does this through the old Rav’s drash (exegesis) on Genesis 1. 

“Speech,” said the old Rav. “If the created world were a piece of music, speech would be its refrain, its recurring theme. In the Torah, we read that Hashem created the world through speech. He could have willed it into existence. We might have read: ‘And God thought of light, and there was light.’ No. He could have hummed it. Or formed it from clay in His hands. Or breathed it out. Hashem, our King, the Holy One Blessed Be He, did none of these things. To create the world, He spoke. ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light’. Exactly as He spoke, so it was. … The Torah itself. A book. Hashem could have given us a painting, or a sculpture, a forest, a creature, an idea in our minds to explain His world. But He gave us a book. Words … What a great power the Almighty has given us! To speak, as He speaks! Astonishing! Of all the creatures on earth, only we can speak. What does this mean? … It means we have a hint of Hashem’s power. Our words are, in a sense, real. They can create worlds and destroy them. They have edges, like a knife.” (Alderman 2006, 7-8)

Alderman recalls that the sages compare the Torah to the primordial water that covered the world (Gen 1:2). Without it, they say the earth would be nothing but a desert.  In a way, these waters of the Torah serve as a mikvah (ritual pool) for the world.  As a mikvah, Alderman hints that the very impurity that is created and attributed by the sages, for example, the laws that magnify Esti’s feelings of guilt, can also be washed away by the sages’ own sayings.  Here Alderman celebrates the sacred without allowing the strictures of a violent text to cultivate shame regarding a woman’s desire for another woman. 

“Without Torah, man too would be only a shell, knowing neither light nor mercy. As water is life-giving, so Torah brings life to the world. Without water, our limbs would never know freshness or balm. Without Torah, our spirits would never know tranquillity. As water is purifying, so Torah cleanses those it touches. Water comes only and forever from the Almighty; it is a symbol of our utter dependence on Him. Should He withhold rain for but a season, we could no longer stand before Him. Just so, Torah is a gift which the Holy One Blessed Be He has given the world; Torah, in a sense, contains the world, it is the blueprint from which the world was created. Should Torah be withheld only for a moment, the world would not only vanish, but would never even have been.” (Alderman 2006, 18) 

Yet while water covered the earth, chaos exists too.  Even from the beginning God wrested between order and chaos, life and death.  In tohu vabohu and the ruach elohim (Gen 1:2) there are tensions and balances that all beings are fated to navigate, as God did too in the beginning—that this very tension is written into the fabric of the world. Alderman takes the reader to the shacharit morning prayer: “All say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a slave. Men say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman. Women say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who made me according to His will. from shacharit, the morning prayer.” (Alderman 2006, 58). This prayer and its troubling gender binary invokes a certain kind of violence, but Alderman links this prayer to the story of the Sun and the Moon and deconstructs the presumed inequity from within the tradition.  As in that first great chapter of Torah, on the fourth day the sun and the moon were made by God, just as man and woman were made (as per what is written) and were originally of equal status, a mirror image of each other: 

“For it is written, ‘And God made the two great lights.’ But the moon complained at this, saying, ‘Two rulers may not use one crown.’ And Hashem replied, saying, ‘Very well, since you ask for one to be lesser and one to be greater, your size shall be diminished, and the size of the sun increased. Your light shall be one-sixtieth of its previous strength.’ The moon complained to Hashem at her plight and, so that she should not remain utterly without comfort, Hashem gave her companions – the stars.” (Alderman, 2006, 58).

In this story, at the end of days, the Moon will be returned to her former glory, and be once more equal with the Sun.  Alderman suggests that one might learn from this that God listens to creatures and these creatures can sometimes be in the right. “In the first place, we learn that the moon was correct, for Hashem hearkened to her words” (Alderman 2006, 58-59). But also, we learn that Hashem is merciful – that this God recognizes the plight of those considered lesser and gives comfort to those in need. Esti muses that the stars are God’s gift to the moon. Ronit and Esti’s girlhood love and desire are as a gift of Hashem, as if the Moon (the motherless and abandoned Ronit) was given Esti, who was like a constellation of stars to her.  As the narrative of Ronit and Esti winds through Alderman’s bricolage of the Torah and the sayings of the sages, Alderman reminds the reader of God’s propensity to hear, to listen and to change God’s mind. In the whimsical stories of the sages she offers the possibility that God hears and answers the cry of the soul (Ps 66:19).

“God instructed the moon to make itself new each month. It is a crown of splendour for those who are borne from the womb, because they are also destined to be renewed like her. from the kiddush levana, recited every month after the third day of the lunar cycle and before the full moon What is the shape of time? On occasion, we may feel that time is circular. The seasons approach and retreat, the same every year. Night follows day follows night follows day. The festivals arrive in their time, cycling one after the other. And each month, the womb…” (Alderman 2006, 101)

Alderman describes a beautiful scene that relates to the haftarah readings (cycle of readings from the prophets) associated with the new moon.  What is felt here in the writing is the rhythmic constancy of the Jewish calendar, its unceasing movement, as if the cycle of readings was tidal.  These patterns of practice are deeply embodied, finding kinship in the lunar rhythms of the womb.  These cycles are thus interior and hold the observant reader in a cultural and maternal embrace.  There is a sense that these cycles cannot be held back from their return. They are as inevitable as the seas and, just as these same cycles draw forth Jewish practice, Alderman wants to suggest they will inevitably draw forth the truth of oneself.  Esti is sitting in the sabbath service in the balcony reserved for women, and the Haftarah is to be read.  The reading happens to be from 1 Sam 20. It is as if even the seasonal readings from the Tanakh arrive as gifts to support Esti’s realisation of her desire for Ronit and what that might mean regarding for the elemental truths of her sexuality and moreover, her own community’s failure of love: “The tones of the Haftarah, more melodic and more poignant than those of the Torah reading, speak so often of faithlessness and betrayal, of Israel’s failures of love towards God.”(Alderman 2006, 101)

Esti is pictured following the English story of 1 Sam 20 with her eyes. She is captivated when Jonathan says to David “Tomorrow is the New Moon, and you will be missed because your seat will be empty.” (1 Sam 20:5).  Jonathan is the son of the mercurial King Saul, but also in a deep and abiding relationship with David (1 Sam 20:17).  David is King Saul’s favoured musician. In the Haftarah reading, King Saul’s anger at David inexplicably grows, and the King’s increasing aggression has the courtiers on eggshells. Incredibly, Jonathan, the King’s own son, has made an escape plan with David. He cautions David to hide in the countryside nearby. David would miss the start of the feast to celebrate the new month. Jonathan would wait to see how Saul took it. If all was well, Jonathan would send word that David could attend after all. But as it turns out, Saul was incensed, and when Jonathan tried to calm his father, Saul humiliates his son in front of the entire court: “Do you think I don’t know that you have chosen this David, son of Jesse, to your shame and the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20:30).

In Esti’s recounting of this tale, she notes the Haftarah reader was talented, that he could even reproduce King Saul’s rough and anguished voice.  It speaks to her and Esti wants it to speak to Ronit. “Do you remember? she whispers. “It’s Machar Chodesh. Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Do you remember what you told me once about this day?” Through the cadences of the reader’s voice, low and melodious, Ronit and Esti remember David and Jonathan’s meeting in the fields outside the city, telling of a love which the sages record, was the greatest that had ever been known. Alderman writes, “the notes fluttered up and down the scales, falling like tears and rising like an arrow sprung from the bow … Machar Chodesh. When we read about David and Jonathan…” (2006, 108-109).

In a later chapter Ronit will reflect on this same text again with Esti. It has a central meaning for Esti and her initial reasons for choosing to marry Dovid.  She had been trying to sublimate her desire for Ronit through the only legitimate avenue available to her, by marrying Ronit’s own cousin.

“‘Do you remember “tomorrow is the new moon”? The story of David and Jonathan?’ I nodded. ‘And do you remember how much David loved Jonathan? He loved him with “a love surpassing the love of women”. Do you remember?’ ‘Yes, I remember. David loved Jonathan. Jonathan died in battle. David was miserable. The end.’ ‘No, not the end. The beginning. David had to go on living. He had no choice. Do you remember whom he married?’ … ‘He married Michal. They weren’t very happy. Didn’t she insult him in public, or something?’ ‘And who was Michal?’ It clicked. I understood. Michal was Jonathan’s sister. The man he loved with all his heart died and he married his sister. I thought about that for a moment, taking it in. I wondered whether Michal and Jonathan had looked anything like each other. I thought about King David and his grief, his need for someone like Jonathan, near to Jonathan…”. (Alderman 2006, 210)

Esti finds within the cycle of synagogue readings that these have nurtured a kind of liminal journey to the truth of herself, though it has taken years of such cycles.  The novel and the film coalesce at this point.  The Haftarah of Machar Chodesh, and the intimate meeting of Jonathan and David in the field, coalesces with scenes from the Song of Songs.  In Lelio’s film, Dovid appears in a scene with his religious students quoting and commenting on the Song of Songs 1:13-15.

[Dovid]: “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts.  My beloved is to me as a cluster of henna blooms … in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi.” 

[Talmid]: “Is it about sensuality? That is, the way in which true love manifests itself?”

 [Dovid]: “But it might also be that between a male and a female, there is something higher than that?”

[Talmid]:  But isn’t it that the references to sensual pleasures celebrate physical love here?  The enjoyment of that love becomes, in this context, the highest …

[Dovid]: “See, you are fair, my love.  You are fair.  Your eyes are doves.  See, you are handsome my beloved, yea, pleasing, and our bed is verdant.”

This scene segues into the next on the image, “Our bed is verdant.” This image then acts as a foil when Dovid and Esti appear in the intimacy of their home with the words “our bed is verdant” still drifting in our minds.  We see Dovid’s and Esti’s careful attention to one another, as if the other was so fragile they might break. The ground between them is a desert.  Even with their attentiveness and extraordinary care for the other, they both seem to know there is little flourishing there, that they are the companions of the other’s slow grief—two fig trees that never bore fruit. As if to intensify the contrast, there is a lovers’ interlude in Hendon, the grassed space of Golders Green in North London. The parkland is transformed via the elemental passion of Esti’s and Ronit’s love into the gardens and wild spaces of the Song of Songs, true joy.  Esti and Ronit walk down dark paths, and into a wintery domain, into the somber North London streets in the evening, as if they were the Song of Song’s lovers searching for each other in Jerusalem’s alleyways (Son 3 & 5).  Ronit and Esti share the intense beauty of their remembrances, their secret places, the scent of hydrangeas.  They listen at the door of their hearts for one another, revel in the rising of desire, searching the other out.  Eventually the inevitable culmination of their renewed relationship takes place.

As in chapter 5 of the Song of Songs, there is danger too in the shape of watchers, guardians of the community’s way of life, those who seek to maintain a certain way of life, those whom Alderman might suggest have misunderstood the Torah all this time.  Thus, pressure is brought to bear on Dovid by a community of brothers and uncles.  Dovid will need to keep the order of his own house and to “straighten out” the outré sexuality of his wife if he wants to lead the community.  What transpires, then, is a scene between Esti and Dovid reminiscent of Moses before Pharaoh in Exodus (9:13). In the film, the narrative of freedom is a spoken thing.  Esti, as the supplicant Moses, asks for her freedom – that is, the freedom to live in the dignity of who she is, to live and love truly – and Dovid grants it.  In the novel, Alderman also draws on Exodus and the Moses narrative when she has Ronit dream of the Passover, but in this dream, Ronit is the angel of death who flies over the city (2006, 253).

Alderman concludes her novel with the curious Talmudic tale called the “The Caving Walls of the Study Hall.”  The story itself is based on an interpretation of Deut. 30:11-14: “this instruction … is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Found in Talmud Baba Mesia 59:2, the tale is set as a classic debate on Torah, and concerns theology and the proper interpretation of the law.

On a certain day, regarding a certain interpretation of the law, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but the other sages kept rejecting them. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. But the sages to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”

Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: “If the law is as I say, may the river prove it.” The water in the river began to flow backwards. But they said to him: “One cannot prove anything from an river.”

Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls and said to the walls, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, and nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there today at a slant.

Then said Eliezar to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…”

But Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!’1” … We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.'” (Ex 23:2)

Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: “What did G‑d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.

“The Caving Walls of the Study Hall” is a profound text that holds the matter of the love of Esti for Ronit gently, and even more gently, Esti’s journey of self-realisation and sexual liberation. The delicate turn in reading here is in the image of a Hashem that smiles.  It is as if Hashem is at this very moment the embodiment of Ronit’s father, raised up with face alive with mirth:  “My [daughters] have triumphed over me”.  What is striking in the novel (and also in the film), is the way in which the narrative calls on the Torah and the Talmud, as allies on behalf of Ronit and Esti and their desire.  These two women are, each in their own way, alienated and estranged from their community.  They have also been a precious awakening to each other.  This is regardless of Ronit’s separation from her father, cousin and community and Esti’s attempt to live an observant life as a rebbetzin, frum wife and a teacher.  This love is made even more challenging in a sheltered community that cannot accept the truth of the otherwiseness of Esti’s desires.  “I have always felt like this,” Esti says to Dovid in Lelio’s film (2017), “I will always feel like this.”  The way in which the film and novel draw upon the sacred text to frame Esti’s untangling and unfolding acceptance of herself and her sexuality is deeply moving, similarly the resolution of Ronit’s quandary over her troubled love for Esti and the community of her childhood.  This connection is tender and honouring of an age-old and beautiful set of sacred texts and traditions, without forfeiting the sacred human right to dignity, freedom and the expression one’s whole self in ways otherwise to that tradition.  It is in this kind of reading that Alderman finds a liberating trajectory of scriptural interpretation on behalf of lesbian desire, that is, the possibility of finding sexual freedom in the very texts that violate it.

REFERENCES

Alderman, Naomi. Disobedience. London: Penguin, 2006. Kindle Edition.

Harding, James.  The love of David and Jonathan. London: Routledge, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Neusner, Jacob. The Babylonian Talmud :  A Translation and Commentary. Hendrickson, 2005.

Neusner, Jacob.  The Mishna: A New Translation. New Haven: Yale University, 1988.

Lelio, Sebastián. Disobedience. Film4, FilmNation, Element Pictures, et al, 2017.

Nacino, Joseph. “Love as disobedience,” Lesbian News (April 2018): 10-12.

Steicker, Joel. “Review of Disobedience,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, 26, no. 3 (2008): 203-205.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Forbidden lovers seek grace in Disobedience,” TIME Magazine, 191, no. 19 (May 21, 2018): 54-54.

Image: Charles Landelle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Noirthern

Shiloh directors have been busy with their day jobs, but work goes on and there are some great posts in the pipeline…

If you haven’t already, please check out Noirthern – the magnificent blog and podcast on crime fiction in Scottish and Northern English settings. Given that the hosts are none other than Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards, the (wide-ranging and wonderful) conversations often veer into the territories of rape culture and religion. But it’s far from relentlessly grim.

Shiloh followers might appreciate particularly Episode 4, ‘Saints and Saviour Syndrome’ (focused on Durham) and Episode 5, ‘Tartan Noir’ (focused on Glasgow and Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker, which draws inspiration from the notorious and unsolved Bible John case).

We hope to have some exciting updates soon… including about restarting suspended research project activities and a call for papers for a fabulous publication.

Watch this space!

[The feature image is adapted from artwork by Melody Clark. Please see: https://www.etsy.com/people/mellyemclark? ]

Noirthern is funded in part by a grant from AHRC/UKRI.

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Clothed in strength and dignity? The use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman

Today’s post comes from Esther Zarifi and focuses on the use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman. Esther completed her MA in Religions and Theology (Distinction) at the University of Manchester in 2020 and was awarded the department’s Leonard Hassé Memorial Prize for her MA Dissertation, from which this blog is drawn. Esther, formerly a Religious Studies teacher, is now Head of Curriculum for Religious Studies for the examination board, AQA.


The book of Proverbs – a collection of age-old wisdom, compiled circa the 8th – 5th centuries BCE – closes its 31 chapters with a striking poem in praise of a woman, the ʾēšet ḥayil.[1] It is debated by biblical scholars whether this woman is ‘real’ or an allegory, with some suggesting she is a metaphorical wisdom figure or composite. Either way, the woman of this ancient text has had (and is still having) a very real impact on actual women.

Fast-forward 2500 years from the scribes’ writings… and on entering ‘Proverbs 31’ into a search engine you’ll find mugs, t-shirts, keyrings, shopping bags… – ancient verses printed on to 21st century merchandise.

Rachel Held Evans describes how growing up in an evangelical subculture she got to know this ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ well. Presented as God’s ideal for women, she is a mainstay of women’s conferences and Christian bookstores.[2] While biblical ‘merch’ may not be an uncommon sight growing up in church circles, it is still rather niche to see women wearing t-shirts bearing phrases such as ‘clothed in strength and dignity,’ or ‘more precious than rubies.’ At first glance, it all seems very empowering and liberative.  

Arguably though, there is far more going on here. I’d suggest that these supposedly positive affirmations are working within the paradigm of an unmistakeably patriarchal structure.

The twenty-one verses, an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet, present something of an A-Z of the ʾēšet ḥayil; she is the total package!The poem opens by asking, ‘A capable wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels’ (Proverbs 31:10, NRSV).

On the one hand, we could read this as saying she is precious and to be valued. On the other, is the woman here being given a price-tag? Is it actually rare to find a capable woman with ḥayil? Throughout the Hebrew Bible many men are afforded ḥayil for reasons such as having courage, physical strength and wealth. Christine Yoder encapsulates these descriptions by calling them ‘persons of substance’[3] and so translates ʾēšet ḥayil as ‘Woman of Substance.’ Despite the abundance of these men of substance, only thrice is ḥayil used in relation to female characters (alongside Proverbs 31, see Ruth 3:11 and Proverbs 12:4). Perhaps in the minds of the ancient sages, women with ḥayil were indeed rarer than jewels.

Following the rhetorical opening verse, the Woman of Substance in Proverbs 31 is praised for an incredible list of achievements and attributes including: hard work (v.13), buying land (v.16), strength (v.17), helping those in need (v.20), making and selling clothing (v.24), wisdom (v.26) and being God-fearing (v.30). In contrast to the frequently seen wife and/or mother motifs of ancient texts, the ʾēšet ḥayil really stands out as an industrious over-achiever.  

This woman has it all – career, family, wealth – and it is easy to see why this enigmatic figure has become an inspirational and aspirational emblem for ‘biblical womanhood.’

But, while she may be an aspirational role model, she is also perhaps an unrealistic ‘gold standard’ for women to attain and for men to seek. Proverbs’ foremost focus is, after all, cultivating wisdom in men, so this chapter still has male concerns uppermost in its mind’s eye. Notwithstanding all her activities and achievements, her husband appears in no fewer than five verses of the poem and is the only character to speak (v.29). What he does say, however, is in praise of his wife (hurrah!). But … in this praise he compares her to other women who have also ‘done excellently’ – if he said this today, he may find himself the subject of a social media storm for his ‘backhanded compliment’!

Nevertheless, this woman is active and has agency, demonstrating that women could/can hold power and authority in some spaces. The Hebrew bêtah (‘household’) in verses 21 and 27 has a feminine pronominal suffix, thus designating the house as hers. Yet, she remains anonymous with no name and no direct voice, framed in reference to her husband from the outset (vv.10-11). The woman at the heart of this biblical poem could easily be viewed as a mixed blessing; she may be a tribute to the lives and work of actual women but is still, ultimately, an objectification.[4] Hence, her role is complicit with a male-dominated system – she holds a prominent place but conveys and promotes male interests and fulfils a traditional heteronormative role.

The ʾēšet ḥayil has agency as a woman, but she is also a symbol of ‘Woman.’ These two categories – women, who are real people with varying degrees of agency within different social situations, and Woman, a symbolic construction of sex, gender and sexuality, comprised of allegory and male fantasy – can be used to examine a variety of sources.[5] Here the symbolic wise Woman of Proverbs 31 is divinely legitimated and eternal through her place in the scriptures, but she can also shape the lives of actual women up until today. Through cultural understandings of Woman, lived realities can be shaped (and vice versa), therefore the symbolic Woman can/should be reimagined and critiqued. This approach could certainly problematise not only the Proverbs 31 Woman image, but also the ways she is presented as an agent when viewed as a symbol for female empowerment.

As a popular passage of scripture, the ‘mixed blessing’ of Proverbs 31 begins to outwork itself in contemporary lives, not only in the positive affirmations of t-shirt slogans, but at times in the form of complementarianism. This theology of patriarchal subordination can be said to misuse the biblical text to fulfil its traditionalist, heteronormative aims. The wise and industrious woman here becomes a symbol of a model wife and ‘biblical Woman.’ This symbolic treatment of Woman could also manifest itself in the furthering of rape culture and its very real outworking.

It may be surprising however, that our Proverbs 31 woman is used in this way not just by Christian men seeking ideal wives, but is advocated by women themselves. Contemporary postfeminist appropriations of her are made by women using their agency to adhere, in some sense, to the patriarchal construction of Woman. On to women’s bodies, here the ideal Christian ‘capable wife’ is mapped, via the symbol of the ʾēšet ḥayil.

Evangelical celebrity pastors, such as Priscilla Shirer, guide thousands of women through the study of scripture in their books, videos, and conferences.[6] Shirer is an example of a prominent church leader who advocates a complementarian position and does not identify as ‘feminist.’ In her aptly titled book, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence (2004), Shirer writes, ‘Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes …. He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that wewill begin to usurp it. … Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit ofsubmission in their hearts.’[7]

Through blogs, books and sermons, some Christian women are encouraging a complementarian theology by their appropriation of the Proverbs 31 woman. Here they can be found to advocate a new traditionalist postfeminist ideology – caught between a contemporary, liberal rhetoric of empowerment and a neo-conservative narrative of traditional gender roles, these women exemplify the same double-entanglement found within the biblical text itself. Praised and honoured, hardworking and influential – the Woman of Substance presents an empowering image of domestic life that is called upon by women’s ministries to illustrate the liberating choice of ‘biblical womanhood.’ Thus, women agents in the end seem to conform to the male psyche’s Woman symbol. This ‘double entanglement’ means that although these female agents are free of the symbolic construction of Woman, they are also controlled by it, perhaps unconsciously, through the paradigmatic patriarchal forces of history and tradition. It seems that there is a need to continue interrogating the gender ideologies present in the biblical text and their ongoing influence on the construction of societal norms.

Readers, we must ask, what does the ‘mixed blessing’ of the Woman of Substance mean for actual women today?

References

Held Evans, Rachel. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Sered, Susan Starr. “Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.” In Revisioning Gender, edited by Myra Marx Ferree, Judith Lorber, and Beth B. Hess, 193-221.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1999.

Shirer, Priscilla. A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence.  Chicago: Moody, 2004.

Woods, Robert H., ed. Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishing, 2013. 

Yoder, Christine. “The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122, no. 3 (2003): 427-447.

Yoder, Christine. Proverbs. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009. 


[1] The word pairing ʾēšet ḥayil is translated ‘capable wife’ in the NRSV, but in various other ways elsewhere: such as, ‘virtuous woman’ (KJV), ‘wife of noble character’ (NIV), ‘virtuous and capable wife’ (NLT), and ‘good woman’ (The Message)).

[2] Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p.74.

[3] Christine Yoder, Proverbs, p.292.

[4] Christine Yoder, ‘The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.’ Journal of Biblical Literature 122/3 (2003): 427–447.

[5] Susan Starr Sered, ‘Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.’ In Revisioning Gender, ed. Myra Marx Ferree et al. (1999), p.194.

[6] Kathleen Sindorf, ‘Evangelical Women’s Movements and Leaders.’ In Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Robert H. Woods Jnr (2013). (See also: Mary Worthen, ‘Housewives of God,’ New York Times Magazine. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14evangelicals-t.html; Kate Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (2019).)

[7] Priscilla Shirer, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence, 74

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Bearing the burden

Today’s post is an honest and moving piece by Stephen Pihlaja (@StephenPihlaja) and examines the personal experiential journey of purity culture as a man who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the USA. Stephen recounts his experience of purity culture in the Japanese church in comparison.

Stephen Pihlaja teaches and researches Language and Religion at Newman University in Birmingham, UK. His latest book Talk about Faith: how conversation and debate shape belief (Cambridge University Press) explores how changes in belief emerge from interaction between people of faith.


In the past several years, increasing critical attention has come to Evangelical Christian teaching on ‘purity’, and its particular focus on abstinence from sex before marriage. A recent New York Times article highlighted the pressures this placed on young Christians, and young women specifically, to avoid sexual expression, to keep both themselves and others free from sexual sin. Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which outlined the ideology of abstinence and pressured young Christians to consider romantic relationships only in the context of a potential marriage partner, has since denounced the book and pulled it from circulation, The Times reports — Harris himself is no longer a Christian.

Highlighted in The Times’ reporting are stories of personal experiences of the Evangelical church and of the damaging effects of its theology. These are brought to the forefront and highlighted by such figures as Blake Chastain and Chrissy Stroop. The attention in reporting about purity culture has rightly focused on the pain and trauma this teaching inflicts on young women in the church, because they bear the burden of both keeping themselves pure from sexual sin, but also not appearing as a temptation for the men in their community. The complementarian, patriarchal teaching of sexuality in these contexts sees women as subservient to men in the home and in the church, but also as responsible for sexual sin. These teachings understand sexuality in women as primarily oriented towards men — sex is what men want and it is the role of women to withhold it or give it.

The consequences of this teaching aren’t, however, limited to young women in the church. As a young man, I, too, attempted to kiss dating goodbye. Having grown up homeschooled in the USA, in a fundamentalist home in the nineties, sexuality was something that we avoided entirely — you changed the channel when the joking turned sexual, you didn’t watch movies with sex in them. My friend couldn’t watch any films for a year after he secretly saw Titanic because there was nudity in it.

At the same time, the older I got, the sexual prosperity gospel offered a way out — if you were faithful, God would bless you with an incredible sex life once you got married. In books like Every Young Man’s Battle, we were told the reward for abstinence was a kind of sexual fulfilment that couldn’t be found outside of marriage, a fulfilment that would make any part of the struggle to stay pure pale in comparison. So, I was focused on marriage, even when I was sixteen, accepting that this was the only acceptable way to express my sexuality.

In my final year in high school, I began a relationship with someone in the church youth group. Both of us had read Harris’ book and committed to dating ‘intentionally’ (as we would have said). We looked at wedding rings and discussed how big our family would be. I remember having just turned 18, asking her father, who was far less religious than I was and much more pragmatic, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He told me it really wasn’t his decision, I could do what I wanted, but his suggestion was that I wait a year, at least. What was the rush.

The rush was, of course, sex. We were in a liminal space that no one seemed to account for in their theologies: we were supposed to be married, but we were too young to be married. Our sexual desire was from God, it was a good thing, but acting on it was not. The relationship couldn’t withstand these contradictions — we were teenagers. I exercised an unreasonable amount of authority and arrogance because it was my role — I would question how she dressed, what she did with her friends, all the while feeling the crushing guilt as our relationship grew closer and we slipped up or went too far more often. I became sick from the guilt in my first year of college — I went through a series of tests for chronic pain in my stomach and eventually, inevitably, we broke up.

Two years passed and I graduated college and felt called to the mission field. A friend of mine in the church had been asked to go to Japan to teach English at a church and was looking for someone to potentially go with him. I could go then and have an accountability partner, someone to help me avoid temptation and still serve the church. I found myself serving in a small church for a year, teaching free English lessons and leading Bible studies, which the students attended in exchange for the free English lessons.

Purity Culture in the Japanese Church

The church in Japan remains small — in the early 2000s we were told that only 1% of the population was Christian — and predominately female. The message of purity in the Japanese church that I experienced was different suddenly, much less focused on whether you were sexually impure (as there were far fewer teenagers in the churches), but more on when you would marry and start a family. The teaching in the Japanese church around this was against marriage to non-Christians, seemingly for understandable reasons: if a woman married a non-Christian, her in-laws would pressure her and the children to take part in Shinto and Buddhist religious ceremonies and eventually to leave the church.

But the churches always had a much higher number of Christian women than men. This led to a situation where Christian women were encouraged to marry and have kids (this being their primary purpose) but were unable to find Christian spouses. The ageing church leaders encouraged marriage in the same way as in the States, but with fewer options, the relationships between potential partners had one prerequisite: that you were both Christians and would have Christian kids. You could have, essentially, arranged marriages, where the basis wasn’t love or mutual attraction, but perceived fit in terms of religious belief, because what the church needed more than anything was more people.

I was oblivious to this cultural nuance and history, listening instead to the other American missionaries around me. Mostly, they were men married to American women and steeped in deeply racist and sexist understandings of Asian culture. They talked about marriage as a kind of service to the Japanese church, one which led to mutual blessings: that same sexual prosperity gospel, where if you were willing to step out and have faith to get married, God would bless you. It fit with the message I had heard in the American church, the same story: marriage was the only appropriate way to express sexuality, and marriage would bring blessings to you, because God intended it that way.

These two cultural expressions of the same purity myth touched in a predictable way — I met the woman who would become my wife and we were married within less than a year. Our first child was born ten months and seven days later. Any doubt about the success of the relationship was swallowed up in a belief about God’s will, and the truth that by doing the right thing, blessings would follow. When they did not, when both myths turned out to be wrong, the disappointment, anger, and depression stayed lodged within the relationship, affecting everything about our lives even after we had identified it as a set of irreconcilable false beliefs. You can stop believing anything, but it doesn’t stop living in you.

I, like Harris, couldn’t keep these contradictions from affecting my theology and I eventually left the faith. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve come to understand in my own life and through my research into religious discourse, how worlds of meaning are created by what you say about feelings and actions in the social world, and, more importantly, how the myths that emerge out of particular systems of power serve those systems.

Theologies do not exist in a vacuum, and religious belief which is not applicable without creating trauma in the real world needs to be rejected. The control exerted over sexual expression in the Evangelical church objectifies and shames women, erases gay and trans people, and demands that all men participate in the system without question. Everyone, including believers, benefits from its critical examination and deconstruction.


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Kissing Purity Culture Goodbye

Hannah Baylor

Today’s post is from Hannah Baylor.  Hannah Baylor is a PhD student in theology and Christian ethics at Oxford researching sexual consent and a Church of England ordinand. You can hear more about Hannah’s work here: Theology Slam: Hannah Barr on Theology and the #MeToo movement – YouTube


When people find out that I research sexual consent, it usually elicits three responses:

Ooo, that’s so important! (I think so!)

Have you seen that brilliant cup of tea video? (That cup of tea video is terrible; here is my ten-points reason why…)

Or, they tell me their story. It is an absolute privilege to be trusted with stories that have often never been told aloud; it’s a gift which I treasure.  

Being immersed in a topic consisting of painful stories, abuses of power, damaging rhetoric, and continual threats to human flourishing, is often all-consuming and it can be hard to switch off from that. But recent events have had me questioning whether it is right to want to switch off, or whether vigilance is a habit to cultivate.

I recently began to do some research into purity culture in the UK. My initial thoughts were that purity culture wasn’t such a big deal over here, compared with the US with its sub-culture of daddy-daughter balls and abstinence-only education in schools. But as people shared their stories, my illusions were shattered. I discovered friends who had signed purity pledges and wore purity rings and people who had done the True Love Waits and Pure courses. So many people had devoured I Kissed Dating Goodbye; a Coptic friend said her church had really pushed that book on its young people. Purity culture in the UK is not just for evangelicals. The more I learned, the more people shared their stories, the more I realised that purity culture makes its mark on impressionable young Christians here in the UK.[1]

Wedding Rings

And then my memories returned. The sermons where ‘promiscuous’ girls were compared with chewing gum and un-sticky Sellotape. The unhelpful notions I had about dating that I’d acquired through osmosis. The church leader who shamed me over my body and called me a stumbling block. The email I had drafted to my rector, saying I couldn’t continue to help with the youth work, because the youth leader owned and taught from The Collected Works of Soul-Destroying Purity Culture and I didn’t have the power to challenge him but I wasn’t going to collude with him either in teaching harmful ideas. And finally, the memory of a throwaway line someone said to me at theological college, which I’d disregarded at the time, but then realised it was solid gold purity culture.

Purity culture in the US signals its presence. Bells, whistles, gaudy merchandise, political fanfare – you can’t miss it! In the UK, however, purity culture has a far more insidious character. It doesn’t necessarily announce its arrival; it seeps into church teaching through more obscure ways. What I recognise as particularly damaging from my own teenage Christian experiences is when legitimate Christian teaching and purity culture ideals were taught together, making harmful ideas harder to notice and reject. This is why I was so alarmed when I realised how casually and innocuously lines from the purity culture script were spoken by those who would otherwise absolutely reject its premise.

I’m training to be a Church of England priest. I will shortly be in possession of an awkward combination of power and authority: the power of ordination as an office, the power that other people confer upon a person in a dog collar and in a pulpit, the not-really-real power that is being a curate at the bottom of the Church of England hierarchy, and the power that the Holy Spirit gifts in her wisdom. And one of the many terrifying things about that power is the potential to cause pain. The last thing I want to do with my power as a soon-to-be ordained person is to say or teach something, which is not only wrong but is abjectly harmful.

I spoke to a variety of Church of England ordinands and curates who had been raised on purity culture. Some continue to identify as evangelicals, albeit often with a long list of caveats; others have eschewed it. I asked them about the interplay between their experiences of purity culture and the power they now have as ordained, or soon-to-be ordained, ministers. There was a uniform reluctance to preach on sexual ethics generally, and often this was to do with wanting to avoid saying the wrong thing and causing someone pain and shame. Another common reflection was how narrow purity culture’s focus is, obsessing over abstinence until marriage, and how this meant the vastness of issues of dating and inter-personal relationships was overlooked. Certainly, I find myself in the corner of every church debate about sexual ethics, shouting into the void that it would be nice if sexual consent got a look in, you know, for the sake of human flourishing and all that.

One person I spoke to said what they lamented about purity culture was it presented everything as black and white; as an ethical system, it’s an attractive one, because it sets up a dichotomy between right and wrong and then unstintingly upholds it. As an ethicist, I am naturally wary of ethical systems, which present themselves as catch-all solutions. I think such systems force us to abdicate our responsibility in the ethical life and leave those with the most power unaccountable for how they wield it. Purity culture is concerned with rendering its adherents powerless and its enforcers absorbing all of the power. 

People shared their stories with me, and it was, as ever, a gift to be trusted with them.

And what no-one wanted was to cause anybody any harm.

For people like myself who grew up with purity culture spooned into our Christian diet in ways we were not always cognisant of, untangling our sexual ethics is an on-going process. I have spoken elsewhere about the need for power literacy,  particularly for those of us inhabiting roles replete with multifaceted power; this is a skill that we must never be complacent about.

Power isn’t static, but this doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unstable; in fact, the opposite is true, the more static power is, the more unstable it is. We must remain vigilant to the potency of our power and when it is accumulating, and allow ourselves to be challenged on it and to dismantle it. It also requires awareness of the things we don’t condone but which may still have shaped us, and critically interrogate our stances on certain issues to ensure that we are not perpetuating a cycle of harm and shame.

I didn’t relish being proved wrong about the prevalence of purity culture in the UK. It has been uncomfortable to reckon with my own experiences of it and to realise that I and many of my friends are not as unscathed by it as we might have originally thought. But the awareness that it has raised within me at a point where I am on the cusp of receiving a significant amount of power, is invaluable.

So, here’s to kissing purity culture goodbye and power literacy hello.


[1] I highly recommend Vicky Walker’s book Relatable: Exploring God, Love, and Connection in the Age of Choice (Malcolm Down Publishing, 2019) for empirical studies with Christians in the UK and their experiences of purity culture.

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Rape Culture and the Culturally Raped in Bangladesh

Today’s post is one of our occasional ‘long reads’ and is by Shwagota Sayeed. Shwagota is a scholar of religion and literature from Bangladesh where she has taught at Jahangirnagar University. She researches at the University of Leeds. Shwagota has been a long-time supporter of the Shiloh Project and is committed to gender justice. This piece, based on her research and experience, offers insight into what ‘rape culture’ means in the context of present-day Bangladesh.

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The crime of rape is not new to our world. In very many cases, men are perpetrators and women are victims of rape. Violence and abuse against women in the form of rape is a common weapon used by men to enforce control, humiliate their victims, and also get perverted sexual pleasure. But beyond that, rape can be a form of humiliation and shame that tends to and is intended to cling to victims and to what victims represent. Hence, rape signifies the shaming of an individual but also sometimes of the family, or group, or community, or even nation, to which the individual belongs. This is one crime where victims and those associated with them can be disgraced and shamed by the crime committed not by but to them.

Rape is not a new phenomenon in my homeland of Bangladesh either. What I find new are some of the politico-religious, psychological and cultural motivations behind rape. The increasing number of rapes in Bangladesh has, I believe, an intimate connection with the cultural changes the country is undergoing. While ‘culture’ itself happens to be a fluid term, referring to something ever subject to change and adaptation, I feel what Bangladesh is going through right at this moment is a state of cultural confusion. This confusion stems from the uneasy mix of westernization, on the one hand, and solidifying religious understandings and practices on the other. The two are in conflict with each other, as well as with the complex roots of the geo-political and historico-cultural entity that is Bengal. The Bengali people take pride in these roots. These roots bring strength, identity and unity and made it possible for Bangladesh to emerge as a sovereign and independent state. But the current generation, I find, is caught up in a cultural maelstrom that has manifested in a variety of ways, including in the number and character of rapes in Bangladesh.

In this piece, I do not take ‘rape’ to refer only to forced penetrative sexual intercourse, where one participant is not consenting. I take any kind of sexual harassment, violence, aggression, approach, both verbal and physical, to be rape-culture-supportive, or to constitute potential rape. Not only rape itself, but potential rape, too, wreak great harm and should not be ignored. 

I develop my discussion in seven stages:

  • In section 1, I begin to delineate what rape culture means in the context of Bangladesh. 
  • In section 2, I take a brief glimpse at the history, or, to use the term I prefer, the becoming, of Bangladesh. I shed some light on the ideological conflict zone of today’s Bangladesh. Woven into this is religion: in this case, primarily Islam,[1] and Islamic conservatism.
  • In section 3, I address religiously conservative preaching and propagation in Bangladesh.
  • Section 4 addresses the new attacking attention and sexual abuse that women in Bangladesh are facing on public transport and in other public places.
  • In section 5, I address how class, religion and culture intersect to shape issues of gender and rape.
  • Section 6 discusses the ways that the entertainment sector (drama, movies, soap operas and other broadcasts on television and the internet) contribute to aggression against women.
  • Lastly, section 7 discusses the impact on viewers of exposure to porn sites.

Rape is, I argue, an exhibition of sexual perversion by the one who commits it. But rape, like the other forms of sexual violence against women in Bangladesh (as in other parts of the world too, no doubt), is more than physical and psychological abuse of an individual (though it certainly is that). As I have mentioned already, there is the tendency of harming a woman and her reputation in a way that disgraces her socially. Moreover, this also has repercussions for the victim’s family or community. Furthermore, there is also the underlying ‘manifesto’ of ‘teaching women a lesson’ for their ‘misconducts’ (that is, in terms of both religious and culturally conservative standards) and showing women collectively their ‘right’ place in family and society. This place is one that conforms to stereotyped gender roles: performing household chores, child-rearing and obeying decisions made for them by men. At the very least, women are to accept being second in place to the men in their household and in wider society (i.e. to agree that men are superior to women). The ‘misconducts’ meanwhile, are most often derived from ideas designated ‘Western’ and ‘modern’, such as those pertaining to originality and individuality, which are deemed contrary to the cultures and traditions of Muslim-majority countries, like Bangladesh. 

 According to Ain o Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights organization, 907 women or girls were raped in just the first nine months of 2020. Over 200 of these cases were gang rapes. Since these numbers are based on media reports and most survivors do not report assault, they most likely capture only a small fraction of the true number of cases of sexual violence against women and girls in Bangladesh. (See the full report here.)

  1. Bangladeshi society and rape

I should mention first that since rape, or sexual assault, is generally in our social perception considered to bring grave disgrace, rape survivors tend to keep their experiences private and to themselves. Their families, too, often prefer not to make rape incidents public. But disclosures and reports of rape are becoming more common. Even three decades ago, we would not have found as many reports of rape as we do nowadays. While a woman who has been raped is still marked as a woman ‘stained,’[2] with her life, her ‘honour’ and the ‘honour’ of her family widely regarded as permanently tainted, things are changing slowly, as women and their family members are coming forward to report abuse and demand punishment for criminals, irrespective of their ‘dishonour’ being proclaimed. Consequently, the apparently epidemic, or steeply rising rate of rape in the country is, to some extent, disputable. It cannot be determined exactly how far it reflects the rising number of rapes, or the rising number of reports of rape, or both.

Apart from the excuse of acting on sudden and uncontrollable sexual desire or temptation, the purpose to disgrace is one of the oldest reasons for committing rape. A sure-fire way to disgrace a woman or a girl profoundly and irreparably, or a cruel way to take vengeance, is to rape. I have read several reports in newspapers from Bangladesh over the years and I have known of girls being abducted and raped by men who first approached them romantically. When the men’s advances were turned down, and their inflated male ego hurt by rejection, (or when such behaviour from a girl or woman had become reconstructed as disrespect or disobedience), they decided to ‘teach the girl a lesson’ by ‘staining her honour’: that is, by raping her. Sometimes these ‘lessons’ were gang rapes. There are also incidents of raping women on account of conflicts between families, or to take revenge on a member of a woman’s family. Recently, the incident of a woman being raped at gunpoint and later attempts at blackmail to force her into repeatedly submitting to rape again by using video footage of the first rape, has made headlines. When the woman refused to give in to pressure, the perpetrators did leak the footage, which was then followed by huge protests: 

 … footage of a young woman being violently assaulted and gang-raped by a group of men in the south-eastern Noakhali district went viral on Facebook, after the video was released by the attackers to blackmail and shame the victim. (See the full report here.) 

This bears proof that in our society, the practice of shaming victims of rape, and to hold that shame as leverage, is still alive.

During the 1980s and 1990s, one of the notorious means of vengeance against a girl who rejected a man’s demands for sex or marriage, was to throw acid in her face, to disfigure her permanently. It was a feared and not infrequent practice in Bangladesh, as well as in other parts of India’s subcontinent, for some two decades. Incidents of throwing acid have been reduced in number nowadays, due to stricter legal measures concerning the selling and buying of acids, as well as against the crime of throwing acid – but such attacks still take place. Furthermore, ‘getting back at a woman’ is sought also through rape, gang rape and revenge porn (that is, filming and disseminating of rape). I am not claiming, however, that rape is a substitute or replacement for throwing acid, or that ‘revenge rape’ did not happen before for similar reasons as now.

Rape is a way to dominate, intimidate, abuse, punish and scare women. While on the one hand, an old crime with deep roots in the history of human ‘civilization’, in my opinion, it has also been reinvented. Driven, as ever, by chauvinistic psychology, and abetted by reconfigured stereotypes and attitudes, it seeks to demonstrate that the outside world is unsafe for women. Those women who dare to cross boundaries – boundaries of home, or of family or society roles – are depicted as prone to inviting danger, or as either deserving of or immune to suffering.

Once a girl is raped, regardless of any sympathies extended towards her, she becomes an outcast, not a regular member of the community any longer. This transition does not need a declaration. And it does not matter that she still has the same economic or political status and rights as she did before: there will always be whispers about her now. The satisfaction of the male/s who raped her has this social persecution as one of its targets. Another purpose is that no other man will now want her: the possibility for her to get married to a decent suitor is almost completely destroyed. The future prospects of this girl are dark and desolate. (It is not the subject of this piece, so I shall not go into detail as to why, in traditional Bangladesh, it takes a man to give a woman a secure social status through marriage, and why the identity of a woman on her own is not enough to deserve respect – but these are still the realities for the majority of Bangladeshi women.) 

In the case of a married woman being raped, a divorce or separation is not uncommon. For a man to live with a woman, to be more specific, with ‘his woman’, who has been ‘enjoyed’ by other men, is a question (to translate from Bangla) of spine. His status of ‘being a man’ is at stake according to the social mores. As a man, he is ‘entitled’ to a woman who is ‘pure’ and ‘fresh’ and, thereafter, ‘his’ alone. It is, therefore, not expected for him to ‘keep’ or ‘deal with’ a ‘damaged product’. And if he chooses to support his violated wife, there is no escape from embarrassment and mockery. Therefore, in most cases in our society, maintaining social repute means more than sympathizing with, or supporting an abused woman whom the society holds as tainted. Very often it entails distancing oneself from victims of abuse. 

In our social system, the ‘chastity’[3] of a woman remains the most important and valued thing about her. A woman who has been raped has lost her ‘chastity’. Understandably, therefore, many victims of rape in Bangladesh choose to commit suicide: because of humiliation at being violated, physical trauma, fear of social exclusion and because of the other social precepts, on account of which the victim considers herself to be completely ruined for life, untouchable, and tainted to everyone else and herself, since she is not ‘chaste’ any longer. In a twisted way, a sense of shame and guilt overwhelms the reality of her being the victim. Her socio-cultural training makes her think that it is she who has been responsible for bringing disaster upon herself and her family: it must be something that she has done or said, or something else about her, that has brought on her doom. 

The victim of gang-rape in the incident I have mentioned above, says, ‘My life is already ruined, … I am now worried about my children, especially my daughter.’ The story of Purnima Shil makes it to the BBC’s shame series. Purnima Shil was gang-raped in northern Bangladesh at the age of 13 and she has not been allowed to forget it. Shockingly, even many years later, someone shamed her by creating a pornographic Facebook page in her name, supplying her photograph and telephone number.

Rape, in our culture, is not just an experience that is both physically and mentally traumatic on an individual level. Social and cultural phenomena further contribute to exacerbating private experience and personal agony. I do not wish to imply that there are no exceptions. There are survivors of rape who struggled their way out of the cocoon of shame imposed on them and go on to thrive in their lives and careers. Moreover, the prejudiced mindset is also being challenged and resisted by more humane stances. But these attitudes are nevertheless deeply rooted, and they prevail – as is attested by a steady stream of horrifying news stories of rape. 

The norm in Bangladesh is that while a person who is physically challenged or who has been in an accident is applauded for overcoming adversities, this is not the case for a woman who has been raped. Women from an educated background, or women from the upper economic and social classes may sometimes have the financial means and the necessary understanding of their rights to make use of legal measures, or to draw some advantage from a more supportive and liberal surrounding. But speculations about the victim and her character are still likely to persist. Victims from less privileged communities, meanwhile, are likely to fare much worse.

2. Rape and politics in Bangladesh

Political rape has similarities with revenge rape. Rape has, to my knowledge, been used to silence voices of protest. Even the threat of rape can intimidate and deter. I will refer to an event that my country witnessed in 2018.

In August of that year there was a large-scale protest against road accidents caused by the recklessness of drivers of public transport vehicles, many of whom lacked proper training and valid licences. Death by road accident had become a daily occurrence. After a series of deaths, which included school-going students, school students, too, began marching on the streets, demanding justice. It began as a peaceful protest, until, after a couple of days, different political parties, both the ruling party and the opposition parties, sought to utilize this demonstration by the youth for their own interests. Following some skirmishes, the protests went on for more days. Neither a thrashing by the police, nor the shenanigans of the political goons could bring this protest to a stop. What did bring the student movement to a halt was an incident, or the rumour of an incident, that several girls who had actively participated in the protests, had been kidnapped and were repeatedly gang raped at one of the local offices of the ruling political party in Dhaka. The news spread like wildfire and brought about a state of total chaos and confusion. Fear now consumed the protesting students and their guardians. It is unclear if the alleged incident actually took place. No rumour was reliably substantiated. I have seen no proof and no victims ever came forward. 

A declaration from the government, promising to take the necessary steps to improve the transport situation in the country and to make guilty drivers accountable, came right after the incident, or rumour, that I am referring to. As far as I recall, the student movement was called to an end abruptly right after the allegations of rape. I would not say that the girls who protested on the streets had not been harassed by goons. I cannot even claim confidently that the rapes didn’t take place. All I can say is that the threats of murder or beating could not discourage the protestors from seeking justice, but the rumour of rape acted as a strong and prompt incentive to call off the demonstration.

In the context of crime and politics, let me say that many incidents of rape never come to justice because of the political shelter enjoyed by abusers. This is not a new scenario in Bangladesh. No matter the party in power, the practice of abusing political power to commit or to overlook crimes, including, alongside extortion, bribery, and favouritism, crimes of rape, remains and sometimes happens quite openly. People directly involved in politics, or who associate with someone politically powerful, occasionally exploit the benefits of such association and power. 

One incident of gang rape by some members of the student section of the ruling political party (Bangladesh Chatra League) took place in September 2020 and drew a lot of attention and protests. Police rescued the rape victim, but no arrests were made. The incident demonstrates that under the shelter of political parties or political power rape can happen with impunity. In such situations, the raped girl or woman and her family usually do not dare to raise their voice against the perpetrators, knowing that they court danger by speaking up. If such incidents somehow get heard about, there is a public outcry, and the media and social media sites blaze up in a demand for justice. But any span of hope for the victim and her family is very short-lived, because attention is normally quickly drawn away by some other national or international, social or political issue or crisis. Meanwhile, the family is left to deal with the monotonous and tiring judicial procedures and a long and slow trial, their lives entangled in the red cord that holds worn-out files together. Most of the time in these circumstances, the rapists spend some time in hiding, away from public attention and protests, let the situation cool off a bit, and then return emboldened, merry in the knowledge that their crime will go unpunished. The victim and her family, however, are left vulnerable and open to threats and further abuse from the abusers and their political allies. 

For political rapes in Bangladesh, I also want to point to several incidents involving tribal women. The tribal groups live in the mountainous southeast of Bangladesh, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, as well as in some northern regions. These groups often have their own languages, culture and religions and tend to be socially disadvantaged when compared with ethnic Bengalis. There are accounts of tribal women being raped by members of the Bangladeshi army, as well as reports of tribal women and their female leaders going missing or being found raped and murdered. Once again, I would say that rape is being used here as a tool for exerting vicious political pressure and intimidation. Such sexual brutality has historical precedent in the living memory of some of the population of Bangladesh. It is to this dark chapter I turn next.

1971: The political history of rape and religion in Bangladesh

From March to December of the year 1971 our nation passed through the most traumatic episode of our history. These were the 9 months when we fought for our independence from the rule of Pakistan. Three million Bengalis were killed and an estimated 250,000 women (possibly many more) were raped by men of the Pakistani army. 

Throughout history, sexual violence against women has been common, as well as strategic, in warfare. As Sally Scholz puts it, ‘War rape intimidates the enemy… It demoralises the enemy. It makes women pregnant, and thereby furthers the cause of genocide. It tampers with the identity of the next generation. It breaks up families. It disperses entire populations. It drives a wedge between family members. It extends the oppressor’s dominance into future generations’ (Bangladesh Genocide Archive, see here).

The Independence War of Bangladesh is an example of such violence and the scale is particularly horrific. International news media reports[4] covering the wartime situation in Bangladesh recorded that the Pakistani army was given orders to rape Bangladeshi women and to impregnate as many of them as possible. The agenda was, in part, a politico-religious one: Pakistani soldiers admitted that they were told that the Bengali people were Hindus. This, in turn, was deployed to legitimate violence against them. There are pictures from the war that show men being checked for circumcision, to see if they are Muslim. With Bengali women, Pakistani soldiers were told it was their religious ‘duty’ to impregnate non-Muslims and make Muslim babies. Both murder and rape were an objective during this war, fulfilling political and religious agendas and taking a dreadful toll. 

The residue of forced Islamisation in Bangladesh and continued sexual violence against women

Bangladesh is now a Muslim-majority country. For all the brutalities of forced Islamisation in 1971, religious conflict and oppression are not what defines the nation and its culture. Instead, a simultaneity of practices and religions contribute to a rich blend. Moreover, there are mainstream cultural rites in Bengal that do not have to be explained with recourse to any specific religious background. Hence, we celebrate our Bengali new year in April, usually on the 14th of this month, as per the Gregorian calendar. The Bengali calendar was initiated during the reign of the Mughals in India, by Emperor Akbar. Almost all the people of the country celebrate this new year. If there are any religious rituals to be performed on this occasion, these depend on individuals’ or a particular community’s choice. Customarily, people wear new clothes, they cook something sweet and special at home, they arrange for some celebrations to welcome the new year, and, in recent times, there have been festive processions, where all are welcome to join in, dance, and display bright colours. 

But in 2015, during the Mangal Shobhajatra (the ‘Rally of Bliss or Welfare’, that is what this procession is called) in the capital, Dhaka, there was a ghastly incident. Some young women who were participating in the procession were surrounded by men who ripped off their clothes and sexually assaulted them in broad daylight. There were serious accusations made against law enforcement officials that police did nothing other than watch the assault happen.[5] Only a few men acted in the aid of these women and were badly beaten up, while most of the spectators kept a safe distance, because the assailants were aggressive and armed. Some of these assailants are still at large; some are said to be being protected by political allies. 

I will direct this discussion towards the heated argument that followed the incident. This discussion was primarily on social media and between liberal thinkers, on the one hand, and those with a more conservative outlook, on the other. Let me also point out that some of the political parties known for their extremist and fundamentalist religious views made use of this incident. Among the points that came to the forefront after the incident, was whether the very festival itself was acceptable. This is an argument that dates back to another incident that should be mentioned here to clarify the agenda. In 2001, on 14th April, at Ramna Batamul in Dhaka, one of the key spots where the main cultural programme for the Bengali New Year celebration has been held for many years, there was a series of bomb blasts where at least ten people were killed and more than fifty injured. The Islamist fundamentalist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (banned in 2005) acknowledged their involvement in the attack. The same reason was given for the justification of the attacks in each of 2001 and 2015: namely, that Islamic traditions need to be ‘protected’ against contamination from non-Islamic traditions, such as celebrating the Bengali new year with music and other cultural performances that are asserted as being un-Islamic. From this perspective, forms of celebration like the procession are ‘Hindu’, or adapted from Hindu traditions.

The second agenda in the spotlight with regard to the 2015 assault was whether women should participate in public events like these. According to the conservative voices, what was at issue here was that women were not safe, because they were not with their guardians (meaning, male guardians), or in their own ‘protective’ circles, but amidst a mass of unknown peoples. Arguing that the women’s lack of safety had been amply demonstrated, they maintained it was of monumental importance that women should not take part in any such public processions or celebrations. From an Islamic point of view, too, they stressed, women should not dress, or act, or behave like this: to mix and mingle with men to whom they are not related. To sing and dance in public and celebrate in the open in such a way, apparently violates Islamic code. If women do so, then it is only natural that they will be harassed by men, who will obviously, or naturally, take interest in them, not-so-much in a respectable way, but in a way that leaves them free to think that these women are inviting sexual attention.

The question arises, whether what happened in 2015 was ‘just’ a group of ruffians attacking women at the spur of the moment, or whether this was a pre-planned act of violence with the motive of creating havoc during the celebration so that it would be called off for good, or, at least, thoroughly reformed? The orchestration with which the attack was carried out, as was made visible by the CCTV footage examined later, suggests that the latter possibility is the more credible. As more and more arguments against the celebration, often centring on the clothing and conduct of women, came to the fore, the bigger grew the question as to whether the incident was an act of premeditated chaos.

The idea that women’s clothing is responsible for inciting assaults or attacks is very common. Whether what women in Bangladesh are wearing is in line with the proper Islamic way to dress is also an issue of ongoing debate. After 2015 the argument came to the fore yet again.

The most common or regular garments for women in Bangladesh are the salwar-kameez and saree. Women also wear western outfits, like trousers or long skirts and tops. Women rarely expose their legs or go out without a dupatta (the shawl-like scarf, worn widely on the subcontinent). Even with western outfits, it is common to see women wear a stole, shawl or scarf. Dresses of backless or off-shoulder styles may be seen at certain private parties but not as regular or public wear, and even then, such are limited to certain classes or groups. Class, economic status and physical surroundings play a role in terms of choice of clothing, but it is apt to say that women in Bangladesh generally dress in a reserved, or modest manner, if not always in a conservative one. 

Also, it does not take someone to be a social or cultural analyst to notice that in recent times the use of the hijab has seen a radical rise insofar as women’s attire in Bangladesh is concerned. Women in my country did cover their heads and hair before, as a mark of respect, such as on any religious occasion, when facing the elderly, and sometimes, too, just on account of being habituated to it. The long end of the saree, worn on a woman’s shoulder, used to serve that purpose, as did the end of the dupatta. The burka has also been worn by women in Bangladesh for quite a long time, especially by women who did not go out of their houses much. In such cases it was more of a cultural prerogative, rather than a religious one: Bangladeshi Hindu women also mostly stayed in the inner chambers of the house, and when they came out to the front, they too used to cover their head with the saree, so that their faces were completely hidden. But the more women came outside, beyond the confinements of their homes, to be educated and employed, the less they wore veils or other face and head coverings, certainly for a time. The notion of hijab as a commonplace, let alone a necessity, was not present in the society. Nowadays, however, the majority of women in Bangladesh, all ages, all professions and all sections of society, are taking up the hijab. 

Many in Bangladesh, including myself, are of the opinion that since Bangladeshi women, Muslim and non-Muslim, already dressed in a modest fashion, which included covering their heads, the emphasis on a ‘proper Islamic way’ and habitual wearing of hijab in public spaces seems unnecessary and excessive. What I also find objectionable is that this recent insistence on covering the female body is not only tagged as ‘the proper Islamic way’, but is placed in direct confrontation with other, more inclusive expressions of our culture and tradition of dressing in a covered manner. But now these expressions are regularly tagged as ‘non-Islamic’, ‘improper’, ‘provocative’ or ‘the way of the Hindus’. Even saree and salwar-kameez are put into a competition with one another on the grounds that saree is supposedly more ‘revealing’ and ‘alluring’ while salwar-kameez is more ‘covering’ and ‘respectable’. In this way clothing is religio-politicised and garments formerly accepted and respected have become weaponised to incite friction where there previously was none. Moreover, not only garments but those who wear them, or who are associated with them, are being categorised as ‘respectable’ or ‘immodest’. The message is, one who dresses in western outfits, or ‘Hindu’ outfits, or who is ‘less covered’, invites and should expect gazing, teasing, touching, pressing, pinching, rubbing, or sexual assault. And, by implication, men have a right, or at least a defence, to behave in such a way. In my experience, however, it is not the case that modest dress prevents such attacks either. Instead, the practice of assaulting female bodies is an epidemic in Bangladesh. 

I have nothing against hijab as a religious statement or clothing preference. I believe women can be feminists, progressive, free-willed, in any clothing of their own choice and comfort. If this is a choice of their own and reflects the religious ideology they hold, then hijab or any other garment reflects their own freedom of choice. But in Bangladesh, hijab is not always a choice made by a woman of her own accord. It is a choice occasionally made for a woman by her family, or by social pressures. In my experience, a large proportion of women who do not believe in the philosophy of hijab, or in covering one’s head in all public spaces and places, or who simply do not want to wear it, are forced to wear it because of pressure from family members, or employers. There is also a social force attached to the idea of hijab nowadays. Women who wear hijab are seen as ‘more respectable’, as I was saying before. 

Let me explain with an example. Whenever a girl complains about being harassed in some way, or of getting unwanted attention from men, the first advice that she receives is to start doing hijab: then she will be respected as a Muslim woman and people will treat her differently. Blunt propaganda is circulated on this issue: such as, a woman without a veil is like ‘food that is not covered’ (that is, exposed to view as well as to ‘dirt’ and ‘defilement’). A prominent Islamic speaker of Bangladesh went to the extent of saying that women are like tamarind fruit and that it is only normal that men will ‘drool’ over seeing them uncovered! This quote has caused outrage, and people have protested at the appalling objectification of women in this statement. It has since become a source of comic relief in discussions of women’s clothing, gender equality, women’s rights and the like. This statement coming from a public figure, a religious speaker, is not only a public offence against women, but at the same time, it again justifies men’s abuse of women. The social manifesto regarding hijab, in my opinion, has outdone the religious one. Many women are not wearing hijab because they believe it represents any particular religious obligation, like praying or fasting does; they do it to satisfy the judging eyes of the society.

Sexual harassment of women from religious minorities in the country, especially of Hindus, is rising, as is harassment of women from less privileged sections of society. Women from the lower middle class and below, are the worst affected, as records confirm. Once again, this is not new. But the rate these days is alarmingly high. I have come to know, too, that some Hindu women, particularly from the lower socio-economic classes and from rural locales, sometimes take up hijab in an attempt to protect themselves. It helps in being identified as Muslim rather than Hindu and also confirms the social prerogative of hijab.

I am concerned about the religious classification of clothing, specifically of women’s clothing, as well as about the vague and baseless proposition that hijab keeps harassment in check. The bottom line is, yet again, that women are expected to take responsibility for keeping men in check and have to do so by confining themselves. 

I have already mentioned that religion and religious practices are very much entwined with political agendas in Bangladesh. The question here is, does this overarching need to ‘protect’ Islamic ways against non-Islamic, including ‘Hindu traditions’ of Bengali people, somehow bear resonance from the 1971 propaganda that Bengalis need to be taught Islamic ways and be made Muslims? Again, women, just like before, seem to be the primary mediums and victims to implement this idea. More than one school of political and cultural analysts in Bangladesh is of the opinion that finding ‘the right ways to practise Islam’ is not just done in a religious cause: it is also a politically invested one. With this I concur. 

In the political landscape of Bangladesh of almost 50 years ago, in 1971, there was a group who actively supported Pakistan and fought against the independence of Bangladesh. Holding on to the Muslim fraternity, as suggested by Pakistan, was of greater significance to this group than preserving Bengali identity or attaining sovereignty. Alongside the Pakistani army, they killed Bengali people and raped Bengali women. They were declared as war criminals, with proof of their crimes against the nation of Bangladesh, and after independence, most of the leading members fled the country. But after a few years, during the first military regime in Bangladesh, after 1975, these leaders found their way back into the country and were permitted to take an active part in politics. They formed political parties, which no longer spoke out openly in favour of Pakistan, but their political agendas and manifestos remained similar to those propagated during the period of the Pakistani regime, against Bengali nationalism. Although under the guise of Islamic fervour, it was no secret that they worked for and supported the cause of Pakistan.

Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-IslamiJamaat-e-Islami, and some other political parties and organisations, which are now banned and no longer eligible to participate in elections or any political campaigns, were formed in Bangladesh by the leaders who worked against Bangladesh during the war. And these parties have promoted values and ideas that replicated those of Pakistan prior to 1971, always in the name of Islam. Therefore, even upholding the Islamic tradition or being conservative and following the Islamic code of life is not as simple as being devoted to the primary religion in Bangladesh. There has been a persistent and politically invested religious cause at the heart of the very existence of Bangladesh and the identity of being a Bangladeshi national. The forces of Islamisation have some uncanny resemblances to the forces of ‘making Bangladesh Pakistan again’. And, as it happens, women were the primary targets of attack in accusations of marring or threatening the idealised culture earlier, and they still are. Hence, when it comes to making women become ‘ideal Muslim women,’ and making them dress in ‘proper Islamic ways’ and not in saree, which is sometimes labelled as ‘the attire of the Hindus,’ it is not just a religious manifesto, but an intended interference with the cultural ways of our people. Consequently, there is more to be read between the lines. Those who promote these ideas may be thinking and acting in ways that promote more than just religious ideals.

The rape of the ‘covered’, the ‘infant’ and the ‘old’: Does provocation matter?

Allegations about women’s clothing were confronted vigorously and belligerently, following the rape and murder of Sohagi Jahan Tonu, a nineteen-year-old college-going student, on 20 March 2016. Social media erupted, because Tonu wore hijab and followed strict Islamic dress code, fully covering her head with a headscarf and her body with modest full-length robes. Tonu was gang raped and murdered, her body discarded. People challenged that if women are really raped on account of wearing provocative dress, then how is it possible to justify the rape and murder of a girl wearing hijab? The motive for Tonu’s rape and murder is still under investigation. It is not established if this was a political murder, a case of revenge, or an act of random brutality. But the whole nation burst into protest in response for a couple of months. And then there were several cases of rape of children, aged from 3 months to 6-7 years of age, that followed the case of Tonu and also caught media attention. Moreover, there were rapes of more than one woman aged 70-80 years, one or more of them bedridden because of frail health. These, too, brought into focus the claims of victim-blaming.

Scorn and sarcasm followed in response to these awful cases, again challenging the argument that it is dress that does not conceal the curves of the tempting bodies of women that provokes uncontrollable desire in men. What ‘provocation’ might one find in the body of a young child or of an elderly woman? What dress code could possibly keep them covered enough to protect them from the perverted sexual drive of perpetrators? Is bodily provocation by women real in every or any scenario, or is it a generalised rape myth.

3. Religious preaching

In pinning blame on women for provocation, for being out of line in terms of behaviour, or dress, religious preaching plays a significant role. Every Friday, after the Jummah prayer of Muslims, there are sermons held in every mosque. These sermons are known as khutbah. These are religious talks and advice given by the imam, who leads prayers at the mosque and acts as the community’s religious leader. It is the men who attend the Jummah prayer at the mosque, and there are loudspeakers set up so that whatever is said during khutbah, can be heard by the rest of the community, who are not present at the mosque. These talks are generally meant for religious guidance, for the salvation of the soul, for addressing the wrongs in people’s lives, the corruption in society, and ways to avoid these, making reference to the Qur’an and Hadith.

One of the most popular topics is the demeanour and misdemeanour of women in society. Both those who give the talks, and the audience, take a particular interest in this topic – and I am speaking here from my first-hand experience of regularly hearing these talks. The way of addressing topics concerning women is very often not only demeaning but threatening. Criticism of women ranges from the age of Adam (meaning, Eve was responsible for the fall of humankind from paradise), to the present day, where almost every mishap in the world has got some sort of tie to wrongdoings of women. Criticism of the attire of women, women’s choice of career, women making decisions for themselves, speaking out for their rights, claiming equality with men, not being obedient to men as their masters and superiors, the modern feminist thoughts contaminating the psychology of women, and (mis)guiding them to fall from their God-given roles as wives, mothers and homemakers… these appear to be among the most popular focus areas of these discussions.

The other popular kind of religious conferences are known as Waj or Waz Mahfil.[6] Huge awnings are set up for these in open spaces, usually a field, or a large playground. A stage is built, loudspeakers are set up, and there is lighting and sometimes arrangements of food for attendees. There can be one specific speaker, or there may be more. These mahfils, or gatherings, sometimes go on for days and nights in a row. And the topics of discussion are not much different from the ones of the sermons I have just mentioned. The biggest difference is that they are much more elaborate, given the length of time to dwell on these topics.

The talks, or lectures, are religious speeches and emotional in nature, playing on the religious sentiments and sensitivities of devotees. Theoretically, they are meant to influence the good in people’s hearts and inspire benign deeds and charity, like any other sermons. But while maintaining the façade of godly guidance, these lectures occasionally turn into hate speeches directed at other religions, modern ways and values of life, as well as at women and some other groups in society. 

I must say that not just sensible women, but also many men, find some of these talks preposterous. But I must also note that these sermons do find their way into the psyches of those who are familiar and comfortable with patriarchal structures of society, or who are consciously or subconsciously willing to conform to them. Given the threatening nature of these speeches, they can brew fear and guilt in devotees’ hearts, especially concerning the consequences of present deeds for the afterlife. Consequently, these lectures can manipulate the psychology and actions of some listeners, including good God-fearing people. And it is not very difficult to persuade some of the male contingent of the audience, to agree with these sermons: not only do the messages conveyed benefit them but they are elaborated on with examples and quotes from religious texts. Moreover, (mis)interpretations of these texts are, unfortunately, often neither challenged nor authenticated. The disdain and misogyny that are transmitted build up and accumulate, and religious sensitivity works as the conduit.

Allow me to summarise the most common subjects about women in these talks:

  • Establishing the stereotypical gender roles for women as obedient homemakers, wives and mothers. Meanwhile, women who divert from this ‘righteous path’ are branded as whores.
  • Emphasizing the importance of purdah, or hijab, or veils, for preserving both women’s good character and men’s control of women, because, apparently, women without veils are the ones responsible for men losing control and deviating from the right path.
  • Focusing on the danger that women and men who believe in gender equality and women’s education and empowerment pose, because these ideas stand in opposition to the given code of life, which already, according to these speakers, gives women respect and equality. Such ‘Western ideas’ are ‘polluting’.
  • Badgering about women’s liberation, because this has led, or ultimately will lead, to the degradation of moral and religious values.
  • Speaking against women’s right to birth control, since the female body is designed to be fertile, ready for ‘ploughing’ and reproduction.[7]
  • Establishing that women are of lesser intelligence and worth and therefore always in need of being controlled by the men in their lives. Moreover, they are most often the reason behind any disaster that happens in a family.
  • Speaking hatefully of and demeaning women and justifying their abuse at home and outside. Occasionally, they speak of punishment for ‘deviant’ women directly, including of stoning and lashes.
  • Stating that if a woman takes control or leads, in the house or in the world beyond, it can only mean that disaster will follow.

These talks can get violent and graphic in their descriptions, and revulsion for women, implicit or explicit, can be intense. 

It is really important that I now draw some attention to the listeners. I have referred to classes earlier in my discussion. Here, in these Waj Mahfils, or extended religious sermons or conferences, a huge number of listeners, it is even no exaggeration to say most of the listeners, are from the lower and underprivileged classes of society. Attending the lectures is usually free of charge, meaning no registration fee or ticket is necessary. Therefore, attending Waj Mahfils becomes part of the extracurricular activities of their lives, with the advantage that learning about Islamic ways fulfils a religious duty. The other classes have more options for extracurricular activities, as well as for access to alternative sources of information. The social and economic insecurities and dependencies of the lower classes make them easy prey for manipulation.

But I would not want to characterise the audience as being limited to the poorer social classes. The organisers of these Waj Mahfils are usually from a section of the higher economic classes of society. They give large donations for these events to be arranged and have their ‘courtesy’ acknowledged. Speakers are also paid handsomely, and also belong to the well-to-do sections of Bangladeshi society. Furthermore, because of the availability of recordings of Waj Mahfils on YouTube, devout people from all sections and classes of society have opportunity to listen to these lectures on their smart phones or laptops. There are also apps nowadays that have the audio recordings of these speeches for download. When you are travelling on a bus, you may hear these lectures, because the bus driver is playing the recorded speeches on a CD player in the vehicle. (Protesting about this can lead to shocking reactions.)

The attacks in these speeches seem to be reserved primarily for a certain category of women: those who are educated, take up professions outside the household, live outside of stereotyped gender roles, and take control of their own lives, sometimes dressing in a fashion not approved of by conservative Islamic code. Most of these women are from the upper classes, or from the middle class of Bangladeshi society. They are diplomats, teachers, researchers, administrators, entrepreneurs, journalists, scientists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, activists, and they are almost equal in number to and successful alongside their male peers. They are forging their way through social prejudices and obstructions, and making their presence known. Exceptions apart, women from the lower classes cannot access such opportunities. The value system of these classes helps to keep them firmly within the boundaries of patriarchal structures. They do get education, and may also be employed, but what makes their situation different from the higher classes is that awareness and understanding of equal rights are not within their grasp and they are more vulnerable to the machinations of patriarchal structures.

The women who speak of equal rights can be perceived negatively by women of these socially disadvantaged groups listening to the sermons. They can trigger revulsion, as well as envy. And it is effective and unifying to point the finger at privileged women, singled out for blame. Vendetta against women, in a way, is sometimes a vendetta against women from a particular class, namely the privileged class, since this is where women are more able to practise the liberty to transgress. In this way the frustrations of deprivation and the detriment of underprivileged lower-class people can be manipulated by blaming select women.

4. Attacking attention

I came across several incidents of sexual assault and harassment posted by victims on Facebook. In one of these cases, a girl describes her incident as follows. She was working as a private tutor and was on her way to her student’s house in the evening. On her way, while crossing the highway by a foot bridge, she was approached menacingly by a male passer-by. She was prepared with pepper spray for this kind of situation and she sprayed it at him. As a crowd grew around them, it was the assailant who got the mob’s sympathy! First, members of the mob presumed her to be the attacker and a probable thief, who had tried to seize an opportunity to steal from the man. It took no time before the mob cast aspersions, saying why would a woman from a respectable family be out on the streets at a time like this (that is, in the evening)? She can be no ‘decent’ woman. And why was she not in hijab? She mentioned she was in regular clothing, wearing a top and trousers, with a dupatta. The crowd was not ready to hear her allegation of being menaced by the man. The language that men from the crowd used was horrible: they called her a slut, they threatened to rape her then and there, because she deserved it. Then they did physically attack her, throwing her to the ground, kicking and slapping her, and ripping off her clothes. She writes that it was by sheer luck that a police van appeared on the street right then and, although the police also did not believe her story, at least, in their custody, and at the police station, she felt a lot safer than she had felt in the crowded road. She had barely escaped being gang raped out in the open. She had not been in any dark alley, or lonely corner when she was attacked. Many had participated in the attack on her and others had lingered to participate as spectators.

I will not describe each and every incident that has sparked a public outcry or caught my attention. But I will mention the similarities of a number of incidents that have taken place – and are still taking place – in Bangladesh.

  • Several incidents have been reported by women that have taken place in public buses, when these were crowded. According to these reports, women have felt and seen male passengers press and rub their exposed genitals against them. If the women responded with resistance, the perpetrators often got off the bus at the earliest possible opportunity. Being touched intentionally and inappropriately during a journey on public transport is not new. In fact, this is one of the most regular kinds of sexual harassment that very many women in my country have experienced. I myself have had such experiences. But what I have heard in recent times is more bold and more outrageous.
  • There is an alarming number of incidents of girls travelling alone on buses being raped, gang raped, and occasionally murdered, with collusion and participation by bus drivers, supervisors and other staff. In most of these cases as they are reported, when a female passenger is alone on the bus, the driver and his assistant(s), on seeing an opportunity, plan an attack and call in some more associates (thanks to the availability of cell phones), picking them up from some convenient place on their route. Several social media posts have also described women barely escaping rape on a bus when they realized the risk, practically jumping off the moving vehicle and risking injuring themselves, and also men, helping women to safety when they anticipated the events unfolding in an almost empty bus. One of the early victims of a series of bus rape (and, in this case, murder) incidents was Jakia Sultana Rupa.
  • There are numerous reports of exhibitionists on public transport. Single female passengers in a cab, or taxi, or rickshaw, have found the driver to be masturbating in their presence. In some cases, drivers made advances towards female passengers in a vulgar and aggressive manner.
  • And then there are those incidents where a female complains and protests when harassed sexually in public and the crowd turns on her, blaming her for being ‘outspoken’ and for speaking of such things in public, or for dressing irresponsibly, especially is she is not in hijab. In a crowded bus, if a girl protests at being touched inappropriately by a male fellow passenger, he or others may suggest that she take a private means of transport if she cannot tolerate such accidents. It is now quite common for people present to side with the offender. The best justice that a woman can often expect in these situations is that the offender gets a slap on the wrist and she is requested to ‘let it go’ and forgive him.
  • Sexual harassment and other inappropriate and sexist conduct in workplaces are also not new. Topics of conversation and ‘banter’, like periods, pregnancy, speculations about the marital or relationship status of a woman, changes in a woman’s figure after giving birth, or simply the figures and features of female co-workers, can make the workplace one of vulgarity and voyeurism and, therewith, utterly unpleasant, hostile and threatening for women. Frustratingly, such talk is often not even considered harassment or sexism.

I classify all of these actions – from microaggressions to physical violence – as attacking attention against women. Such hostile attention is not new but is becoming bolder and more public, targeting especially women singled out either for their vulnerability or for being ‘deserving’. In either case, the victim is blamed – either for finding herself alone, or for deficiencies in her perceived ‘respectability’.

5. Class and rape

Why class is a factor in rape and in justifications for rape, is the next part of my discussion.

Forced and non-consensual intercourse, or rape, and other abuses of women, happen in all social classes. A rapist, an assailant, someone who nurtures the intent to rape or assault, can come from any class or section in society. But upbringing, surroundings, experiences, lessons and guidance from those to whom one looks up, do contribute to the construction of one’s values and perspectives and character.

There are two points that I would like to focus on in this section. First, when I refer to ‘class’, I tend to mean the three basic economic and social classes (‘lower’, ‘middle’, ‘upper’). But apart from these, there are those men and women who belong to another group that believes in gender equality and think beyond barriers of religion. This class is formed of men and women from all of the socio-economic classes, but middle-class and upper-middle-class persons form the majority. Second, this is also the class that happens to be ‘the other’ and, therefore, the target of aggression and attacks.

As it happens, there seems to be some pattern in the current kinds of public assaults on women, and in the words spoken by the men who are taking part in these assaults. Most of these men are not ready to accept or assimilate ideas like ‘gender equality’ or women being anything other than homemakers. While they may encounter women in positions of authority, they do not respect them, or identify the women in their own homes or communities with such women. They may assume that career women neglect the responsibilities of a ‘proper’ wife, mother and homemaker and look down on them, seeing them as other.

My observation is that since these women are others, it is easy to lay blame on them: any kind of blame. And this othering also makes them a target for assault. This is fuelled further when the dos and don’ts come through what is supposedly a religious filter, like the speeches in the Waj Mahfils. Like these speeches, the growing and blatant aggression against women happens in public spaces, as discussed in the previous section. Additionally, there is also verbal assault and ‘trolling’ on other public and social media fronts, like Facebook and Twitter. I do not find it surprising that the UN and human rights organisations like Amnesty International have released statements expressing concern at the escalating cases of sexual violence against women in Bangladesh (see here).

Economic class also plays a role in terms of who is most at risk of rape and abuse. Women who can afford to travel by private vehicle are less exposed to some of the threats I have described. They have higher levels of security, as well as comfort, and greater choice in terms of what to wear. But women who travel by public transport are regularly subject to harassment and are subjected to more judgment and social pressures to conform to dress codes. 

It is said that wealthy women, travelling in private vehicles, are beyond the reach of ordinary men, but none the less incite male desire. They are imagined with smooth skin, manicured nails, a well-maintained figure, and as living in luxury with the time and leisure to care for their beauty. This, in turn, drives men crazy, because they know that they can never ‘get’ these women. The women who are raped, are therefore, often constructed as ‘substitutes’ – as having ‘to do’ because other, more privileged, women are unattainable. I intentionally use the descriptor ‘substitutes’ in inverted commas, as it comes from public opinion, and is not my word. Notable is, again, that either which way women are blamed – blamed for being unavailable and raped on account of being unable to escape.

I concede that men may fancy women from posh and polished backgrounds. But I do not agree with blaming women – either for their privilege or for their vulnerability. Once more women have become the culprits, accused of aggravating men’s sexual desire.

6. The influence of media

To deny that media, especially visual media, plays a significant role, in my opinion, is to turn a blind eye to a blatant truth. Fictional representations in movies or television drama may not be the ultimate determiner of who we are or become, but they do shed light on some realities, and on how we choose to represent them. Moreover, they have an effect on audiences – and producers and advertisers are well aware of this.

In Bangladeshi media, there are different kinds and genres aimed at different audiences. (This is likely to be true also elsewhere – but here I confine my focus to Bangladesh.) The audiences that I am referring to here are not necessarily determined only by age groups. Some productions are aimed at particular classes in society. 

There are two mainstream cinemas in Bangladesh. The films of one of these streams are made by educated film makers, intellectually rigorous in content, and many have won international awards. The audience for these is from all classes, but the majority is from the middle class and educated sector. Rape is not a recurrent subject in these films. I should rather say that rape is most often a subject when a film is about the 1971 war. This is because to picture this war in any way honestly or accurately, it is impossible to avoid altogether the stark reality of the mass rape that happened then. Also, I think it is easier for the filmmakers to address the subject of rape with regard to events in 1971, because rape happened at the hands of others, namely Pakistani soldiers, and it is easier to pin blame for such a gruesome crime on those from whom we have some distance. But any fictional portrayal of recent rapes, happening in Bangladesh at the hands of Bangladeshi men, is not a subject in these films – probably in part because of the soul-searching and discomfort it would raise. 

I would also like to raise the fact that portrayals of the 1971 rapes, end with the horror of rape at that time. To my knowledge, other than a handful of documentaries, there has not yet been a film that shows the terrible aftermath of rape or gives insight into the lives of rape survivors following the war, the women whom our father of the nation, Bangabandhu[8] Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared the Heroines of War, or Biranganas.[9] Their treatment, their struggle, their rehabilitation and their lives after all these years, are not a subject of these films. And neither are the lives of the children born during and after the war from the rapes a subject of fictional representation in drama. In my view, this is indicative of the topic being still too entangled in stigma to be explored in film before an audience. 

And then there are the other mainstream commercial cinemas of Bangladesh. Commercially successful, these target predominantly the large audiences from the lower classes. Viewers from the middle class, or the upper classes, scarcely go to the cinema houses to watch these movies, because, for the most part, they fail to meet sophisticated tastes and expectations. Leaving out the details of these productions, I will come to the subject at hand: the representation of rape, rape victims, attempts of rape, intentions of and reasons for rape, and planning of rape.

When I say that rape happens to be a very popular and intense subject in multiple plots, if not the main plot, I will not back down. Let me summarise the facts and features of rape scenes in films from this category:

  • The rapist is almost always a powerful man, either a local leader or the head of the community, or a wealthy businessman, or a politician. Sometimes, when the subject is gang rape, the group of thugs is sheltered by an influential, powerful mastermind.
  • The reasons for rape are lust for a woman, to humiliate, to take revenge, or simply to make a point about the power that the rapist wields. The implication is that the powerful think it is within their rights to enjoy any female body they fancy, since they hold power, be this economic or political, or both.
  • The trauma of the victim is almost always absent in the after-rape scenes. A few bruises suggest hurt, but not the full extent of the matter. What remains in focus is the unbearable shame that the rape victim endures. A suicide scene follows in many films, and sometimes a permanent psychological disorder caused by utter shock from the debilitating shame of the incident.
  • Although in many cases, the target of rape is the heroine of the movie, almost every time, her ‘honour’ is preserved, because she has a saviour, the hero. She is the victim of attempted rape, but not rape. The side-actors, however, are not so fortunate. The rape victims in these films, therefore, are almost always someone other than the heroine, though mostly someone close to the hero, a sister or the mother, so that rape works as a strong incentive in the story for her honour to be avenged.
  • The act of rape and the struggle of the victim to escape are pictured with details that are disturbing and may incite sexual excitement or feelings of voyeurism in the viewer.

Do aspects of the presentation of rape in these movies seem similar to what I have described above about reasons for rape, political rapes and social victimisation of rape victims? Seemingly, these echo elements of reality. But one major problem lies in the fact that these realities are presented in a manner that creates pathos, sympathy and titillation more than revulsion at and resistance to rape. Rather than focusing on the severity of the crime, the terrible impact on the victim, or raising an outcry against rape, rape is presented with a reluctant acceptance: as an inevitable thing, something ‘men do’ when they have power or want to practise revenge. That means, although rape is recognised as an offence in these films, rape is also accepted as a vice that just ‘is’ and will continue to exist in society. The force with which other vices are depicted and critiqued – like corruption, murder, abuse of power, or exploitation – is somehow lacking with rape. Even when rape is central to the plot of a film, it is the shame endured by the victim that is emphasised, not the violence and repugnance of the crime itself. The revenge taken on the rapist also plays a central part, while matters of justice and law are side-lined completely. Revenge, however, while it can serve a release of emotion, is not a realistic solution to the problem of rape scarring our society. 

There is another matter, too, that cannot be overlooked: namely, that the image of a beautiful woman being raped is the focus of these dramatized rape scenes. This trope apparently has tremendously commercial value. And again, what tends to be stressed is voyeurism, not the fact that this act is a terrible crime. The rape scene can even be said to be a perverted substitution for a scene of lovemaking. In Bangladeshi films, scenes that contain kissing or intimations of sexual intercourse are very uncommon. Depictions of sex, which play a part in making a film a commercial success, are instead channelled in rape scenes. In this way, the protagonists stay ‘chaste’, in accordance with social ideals, by not being depicted as engaging in explicit sensuous actions. This way, the viewers can continue to idolise them. But audience demands for sensuality or titillation are met as well through the conduit of another actor, the ‘stained’ one. Disturbingly, therefore, rape fulfils a consumer demand in these films. 

As I said already, the heroine is almost never the one who is molested or raped, although she is almost always an object of the villain’s sexual desire. Her allure for multiple men (including the villain and the hero) actually enhances her sexual appeal. But the heroine, who is meant to capture the attention, admiration and affection of the audience, is not someone who is or can be ‘stained’. To remain acceptable to the audience and to the hero she cannot be. Whether consciously, or not, this reinforces the notions that rape renders a woman unworthy and that a man cannot accept, or continue to love, adore and respect a woman who has been ‘stained’ or ‘enjoyed by other men’. The presentation of rape in the movies, in short, focuses on the shame of the victim, not of the rapist. If a rapist is ever depicted as having any regret, it is because his life is under threat, not because he comes to understand the harm he has wrought. Rape stigma is reinforced in these films, not resisted.

Rape is still a largely absent theme in television dramas, another popular media genre. The audience of television dramas is even larger than that of the mainstream commercial films I have just discussed, and viewers are from all classes in society. In these productions, the topic of rape is avoided. While they offer somewhat realistic presentations of other aspects of everyday life – family dynamics, day-to-day failures and frustrations, struggles and troubles, joys and successes, heartbreaks and unions – the subjects of rape and sexual assault are not represented. And yet, as discussed extensively here already, these can now be said to have reached crisis proportions, constituting a grievous social problem that many in Bangladesh, particularly women, have to contend with on a daily basis. Indeed, the omission is a surprising and glaring one. Harassment is sometimes a topic in the television drama, but the extent of the problem is not captured in this genre of visual media. 

The representation of career or professional women in both cinema and television drama or soap operas is another factor that I find contributes to the perception and, consequently, treatment of women. More aptly, the woeful absence of the representation of professional women and the misrepresentation of women’s careerist attitudes are what is damaging. Does this aspect seem irrelevant to the topic at hand? It is not, actually. While discussing rape culture in Bangladesh, I have already made the point that sexual aggression, while targeted at all kinds of women, often seems pointedly targeted at professional, progressive-minded and career women. Even with a considerable percentage of women from all sections of society being in the workforce and supporting their families, the judgmental attitudes to educated women, or women ambitious in their career are worrying and designed to keep women subservient and disempowered. Media representation plays its part in this.

I repeat, the influence of media cannot be overlooked. I have witnessed how dialogue from a blockbuster movie, or a popular television drama, is on everyone’s lips overnight. A particular design of a saree or salwar-kameez can become popular fashion because it is worn by the key character in a popular television serial or a famous heroine in a movie. I have seen particular occasions, like Valentine’s Day, Fathers’ Day or Mothers’ Day, being popularised due to their gorgeous presentations in media productions. And with media influencing our lives and affecting our choices, I have not found its contribution to affirming women’s equality with men, or women’s roles in professional sectors to be helpful.

I can be more specific in terms of the representation of professional women in television dramas in Bangladesh. Older women, meaning women playing the roles of mothers, for instance, are almost never portrayed as professionals. They are always ‘just’ housewives and mothers. The only profession they are sometimes to be found in is teaching. But a point to be noted is that a considerable number of women from this generation in Bangladesh have for long been serving in a variety of professions with commendable proficiency and success. And yet, they are almost never depicted in such ways in the media. So, the representation of older women does not accurately reflect Bangladeshi society, but it does serve and reinforce conservative expectations and stereotypes! 

As for the representation of younger women in the media, meaning the heroines or female protagonists, they are mostly university-going students. While this sounds promising, the troubling factor is, that they are depicted as preoccupied entirely with their love-lives. Anxiety and stress over study, or employment after graduation are a preoccupation only for the loves of their lives, meaning, their boyfriends or fiancés. The chief tragedy in their lives is that they cannot get married to the man they love, since he is not yet employed, and her family wants her married at the right age and to an established and employed suitor. Their tragedy does not, somehow, concern their own employment or unemployment, or their own career. Again, this is not an apt representation of young women’s lives and again, serves the convenient agenda that women ought to get married, be dependent on their husbands, and seek fulfilment in homemaking and motherhood. 

On rare occasions when women are shown to be professionals, they are usually teachers. Some are shown to be in the corporate sector, and a small number of them as doctors. But the many other professions that women are in nowadays, which they willingly and adventurously choose, are never in the picture. There is a popular idea in Bangladesh, something that nearly qualifies as a proverb, that ‘teaching is the most suitable profession for women’. The portrayal of women in television and media only conforms to that belief and ignores a whole lot of women thriving in other occupations.

When a woman is shown to be in a high-ranking position, in a corporate job or similar, she is represented as a divorcée, or unmarried. The implication in both cases is the same: she has chosen her career over family life, or love-life. And it is also common in these depictions to find sarcasm and disapproval coming from a man that she once loved. Moreover, it is not uncommon that she regrets her decision to pursue a career and sacrifice a relationship. A woman who is both married and with a thriving career is almost never to be found in the media productions. The problems and stresses faced by women who negotiate both within the patriarchal structures and expectations of society, also receive no mention. 

While discussing rape and rape culture, why did I go to such lengths about the misrepresentation or the absence of realistic depictions of professional and career women? Earlier, I pointed out the harassment that women face in public places or on public transport, and the reactions of some men when they are confronted by women who resist, or when they themselves confront the women. My discussion on the misleading representation of professional women serves to point out that if such depictions, which profess to be realistic portrayals of life, fail so miserably in capturing the realities of life, then the viewpoints of much of the enormous audience is distorted. I do not claim that all media productions are the same or that there are never exceptions. I do not argue that the viewpoint of a society is formed entirely or even predominantly by media productions. But I do dare to say that it is high time that the entertainment sector, particularly of visual media, in Bangladesh does more to become part of the solution, rather than perpetuating distortions, damaging stereotypes and, consequently, some of our society’s grave problems. Media does play a role, sometimes a subtle one, but certainly a role in shaping or consolidating mindsets. Social media is playing a vital role in raising issues of equal rights for women, as well as publicising both domestic and public harassment and abuses of women. Both men and women are speaking up, writing on these issues, raising awareness, and taking a stance. Some television programmes, like the talk shows, also discuss issues of rape, oppression of women, and gender equality. But I feel strongly that the popular media productions meant for entertainment should also be providing more truthful insights and perspectives into women’s lives and experiences. This, surely, could achieve a great deal in terms of summoning empathy and understanding for women’s circumstances and difficulties in the home, in public and in places of work, including for victims of harassment and abuse. And that could be an important step towards addressing rape culture in Bangladesh.

Next, I want to touch on representations of women in productions from Bollywood and Hollywood, as well as on the effect of these on Bangladeshi audiences. Bollywood and Hollywood films have an enormous audience and influence in Bangladesh.

Unlike Bangladeshi films, recent Bollywood movies portray working and career women. It is commendable that these movies have normalized the portrayal of women working in multiple sectors. The movies portray, for instance, female astronauts and police officers – even within their commercially-geared storylines. The prime, let alone the only, target of a woman’s life in these films is not necessarily to find a husband and the motto is not just to devote oneself to family life. Also, protests against assaults on women, issues of rape and sexual abuse are vibrant themes in Bollywood films. One very worthy example of a stand against sexual assault of women is Pink (2016).[10] The same can be said for a good number of Indian television and web-based serials, which also portray women as active in the workforce, or which deal with themes such as assault and abuse, both sexual and domestic, in a nuanced and believable way. 

These films and serials have an audience in Bangladesh, too. Their influence on Bangladeshi audiences is two-fold, roughly speaking. There are those who appreciate these films, and there are those who are not swayed by the depictions of sexual violence. This is not only due to patriarchal attitudes (which, of course, exist in India, too) but on account of these films being hard to relate to and perceived as exotic, from a different world and reflecting different worldviews. The dress that the female characters in these movies wear is one reason why audiences from Bangladesh do not identify with them. Their dresses may be very regular ones for upper-class Indian women. I take it that in the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai, professional women sometimes dress freely in western-style attire. Short skirts and tank tops may be common alongside salwar suits and sarees. But this is not the case in Bangladesh. I have mentioned before, Bangladeshi women are more reserved in their dress, right up until now. And, with the increasing number of hijabs, and the rising pressure on women to be in Purdah, it is likely that a big portion of the viewers are of the opinion, ‘it all happened because of her dress’.

Those who argue that women’s dress is responsible for assaults, point the finger at the garments of the heroines, or at what Bollywood actors wear, especially in the songs that are included in the films. They say things along the lines of, ‘These dresses not only taint the tastes of women in our country, but also, women in those dresses play on the desires of men and leave them lusting.’ It is not surprising that when the regular, modest dress of women in Bangladesh is criticized for being too revealing, then dresses that are intended to allure and invite the gaze will be met with a frown. Bollywood presents a way of dressing up, both for men and for women, which influences fashion trends. While western dress is not yet in the mainstream fashion for us in Bangladesh, Bollywood has more influence on saree, salwar-kameez and other local dresses. When it comes to Bangladesh, dresses are made to be less revealing than the pieces of inspiration from Bollywood. 

In the songs in Bollywood films, especially the party songs and those that are known as ‘item songs’, women, including the heroine, dress in ways that reveal, display, market and commodify each part of the female body. Let me say emphatically that these are not the dresses that are available in the markets of Bangladesh, or seen on women anywhere, let alone on the streets. These dresses are meant for those particular songs, which are one of the key attractions of the films. The songs are designed to sell the films and the product on display to the gaze is the sexualised female body. I am aware that there is research being conducted on Bollywood’s representation of women, so what I have to say here is not new. So, in these songs, there is usually a large number of female dancers dressed in as little as possible. Moreover, they move their bodies – their breasts, waists and hips – in ways that are sexually suggestive. They dance and physically engage with the hero or other male actors. In another scenario, there are songs where there is only one female dancer, usually the heroine, or another famous actor cast only for that song in the film, and there are multiple men dancing with her, and shown to be enraptured by her beautiful body. The settings for these songs are sometimes brothels, or dance-bars, or strip-clubs – places suggestive of sex, while the lyrics objectify the female form. The songs portray the woman as just a body, and a very sexually enticing one at that. I refer you to the lyrics of two very popular songs from two very box office successful movies. The first is an item song from the movie Dabaang 2, released in 2012 (see lyrics here). Bollywood superstar Kareena Kapoor was cast for this song. She does not appear in the main storyline of the movie, only in this song. The second is a song from the film Agneepath, released in 2012 (see here). Another Bollywood superstar, Katrina Kaif was cast in this song, which again is an item song, where she appears only for this song in the film. The metaphors used in this song can be said to be aesthetically beautiful, portraying a woman along with her sexual and sensual potency. The setting of the song, the gestures of the male co-dancers, and the dance moves, however, serve to render the lyrics more vulgar. I could go on and on with examples like these.

As I see it, the dress that I choose to wear is meant for my own comfort and satisfaction. Neither the skin I show, nor what I cover, is for the pleasing of men. The portrayal in these films suggests something very different. I am not against expressions of feminine sexuality or against showcasing female beauty. But when these become above all an exhibition, there to feed the male gaze, and when female beauty and bodies become commodities, then any potential for these being liberating or affirming for women is diminished. Some of the Bollywood productions, even those that are actually worthy of some aesthetic and artistic merit and of critical acclaim, in my opinion, compromise their value and worth by objectifying women. 

In terms of Hollywood, or other popular English-medium movies, I have just one observation to share here. Although there is a big audience for English language films, which are usually produced in either the USA or the UK, the viewers treat these films as from a very different culture, where women behave differently, unlike ‘our’ women, and dress up different ways, which are not common in our culture. Some women in my country wear trousers and tops, or, skirts and tops, and these are not uncommon. Rarely, however, would women wear any garment that goes above knee-level, or any top that is more revealing (such as crop tops). Modest dress is important, not least because, whenever conservatives in my country accuse ‘the West’ of ‘corrupting’ and ‘polluting’ our women and our culture, they never forget to point a finger at Western dress. 

Somehow, Western dress for Bangladeshi women, is synonymous with corrupt Western thoughts and with ideas of women’s independence and empowerment. At the same time, ‘women’s independence and empowerment’ is somehow equated with women believing in ‘free sex’. Hence, a common comment, found, for instance, on social media goes along the lines of, ‘she is dressed in Western attire, which means she is inviting; if she can give out to someone of her choosing, then why wouldn’t she give out to me?’ According to conservatives, meanwhile, the idea of gender equality or women’s empowerment, is ‘foreign’, ‘imported from the West’. Some maintain that India has already given in to such ideas, and this might ‘contaminate’ out women, too. Again, the first step of that contamination is dressing up in Western fashion. 

At the beginning of this article, I refer to cultural confusion and to our culture being caught between Western ideas and conservative standards. My point is that a substantial portion of the young population in my country, both men and women, from almost every section of society, try to adapt to Western modes of life, while at the same time, feeling the pressure to devote themselves to traditional and to Islamic ways. This leads to conflicting ideologies. Caught in this struggle, I find them often to be confused and lacking in perspective.

In discussing media and its implications for rape culture, there is another dark side that I cannot ignore, one that usually reaches its audience through the internet and social media technology.

7. Porn: Feeding the fantasy

What I have to say in this section is already being widely researched. I will, therefore, just summarise a few observations:

  • In porn films rape is widely presented as sexually exciting. This misrepresents or ignores the experience of rape for rape victims and rape survivors.
  • Even in films where rape is not shown to be a pleasurable experience, the pain and tears of victims are presented in a way to feed the desire of viewers. 
  • In rape films, rape victims (most often women) are shown as totally defenceless. During rape, they are shown to be fully dominated and also, as cooperating unwillingly. The whole presentation is made to make the voyeuristic male feel powerful and aroused by the feeling of power and dominance.
  • There are videos that gratify and normalise the concept that ‘pain is pleasure’. Participants are shown to want or enjoy painful or ‘rough’ sex. While desire for such sex does indeed exist, in porn films it is standardised, which can set up expectations that violent sex is what most people want, or should want, or will come to like.
  • There are videos that show women and young girls being sexually harassed in a crowded bus or train. Sometimes, these videos culminate in the rape or gang rape of these females. Other passengers are often depicted as completely indifferent, as if there could be nothing more normal than a girl being abused. The girl, on the other hand, is shown to be either embarrassed and uneasy, or to be giving in to pleasure, but never as protesting. The early scenes of these videos are alarmingly similar to the experiences of women in public transport that I have referred to earlier. The escalating boldness of male attackers on public transport may, in part, stem from such videos. What is entirely inauthentic and most alarming of all, however, is the victims’ response of compliance or complicity in the videos.

The impact on actual victims’ lives is vividly recorded in the reports that I have come across, many of which focus on settings in Japan. Shockingly, in one of these, a victim, reminiscences, ‘When I was in high school, every [girl] was a victim’ (see here). I am not surprised that there is a special category of pornographic video showing Asian schoolgirls being abused on public transport. And I have little doubt that the gropers on public transport in Bangladesh are encouraged by these videos.

  • Not only porn films acted out by professional porn actors, but videos of consensual and non-consensual sexual intercourse also find their place on different porn sites. There are numerous reports of such videos or photographs being used as revenge porn or for blackmailing the female. But once these are leaked and disseminated, the victims suffer a fate comparable in some respects to that of a rape victim. 

Rape is indicative of perverted sexual drive and/or a desire to exert power violently. Pornographic presentations of rape feed this. I will not rehearse here the various arguments as to whether pornography has positive or negative impact on society. But I will say for sure that there should be some measure of control, even if pornography is to be sustained as a necessary viceIt cannot be left unchecked so that it is easy for an already corrupted mind to get more ideas to indulge in.

I have discussed here the subject of rape and the matters relating to rape in the context of Bangladesh. But I understand that variants of these matters are to be found in almost every society and culture. Rape, oppression and sexual abuse exist in many, or most, societies, though in different forms. I have not tried to compare the situation in Bangladesh with that in other countries but rather, to provide some insight into what ‘rape culture’ looks like in my country. In doing so, I have pinpointed particularly some of the most disturbing features about the sexual abuse of women and girls occurring in Bangladesh in present times.

There is one last point I would like to call out: namely, the shocking failure of the judiciary in Bangladesh. ‘Naripokkho, a women’s rights organisation, found that in six districts between 2011 and 2018, only five out 4,372 cases resulted in a conviction. Overall, only 3.56% of cases filed under the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act have ended up in court, and only 0.37% have resulted in convictions’ (see here). Bangladesh is not treating the violation of women and children with anything like the gravity and urgency it needs and deserves. Much more needs to be done to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice. This must include making the process of judicial trials more efficient and more effective. It is necessary to change the mentality and machinations of the patriarchal society; this is a slow and gradual process. But justice in the judicial system can and must be expedited right away.

Women are and have been oppressed, in Bangladesh, as in other countries. In my view, the present Bangladeshi brand of rape culture is in some part at least the product of and is sustained by a struggle between different kinds of patriarchy – which draw from Bengal tradition and history, conservative religion, local and external, including Western and other sub-continental, influences. Resisting this rape culture will also need action from multiple directions – from educational and religious, political and legal, entertainment and popular culture directions among others.


[1]Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country. Approximately 80%+ of the population of Bangladesh is Muslim. Although the religious environment of Bangladesh is largely harmonious and friendly towards other religions practised here, the Constitution of Bangladesh declares Islam to be the state religion. 

[2] With the word ‘stained’, I am trying to capture a very literal English translation of the Bangla word most commonly used to describe a woman who has been abused, raped or molested.

[3] The concept of a woman’s ‘chastity’ is a sensitive one in Bangladeshi communities. It can be partially interpreted as a synonym for ‘fidelity’ and it also connects to virginity (in the case of an unmarried woman). But it is more than that, because it applies only to women. Chastity for a woman becomes compromised when she is involved in a consenting relationship outside of wedlock and also when she is molested, or forced. There is no real distinction between the two in terms of damage caused to her chastity. As I said before, a woman used or abused by a man with or without her consent is taken to be one who has been ‘stained’. The unchaste, meanwhile, has no place within the circle of acceptability.

[4] For one example, published in the New York Times in 1972, see here.

[5] For more detail and analysis, see Nusrat Sabina Chowdhury, ‘The Ethics of the Digital: Crowds and Popular Justice in Bangladesh’, pp.133-150, in Crowds: Ethnographic Encounters, ed. by Megan Steffen, London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2019. 

[6] A Google search for Waz Mahfil yields many examples of these sermons.

[7] In a YouTube video, I have heard one speaker go to the extent of saying that pregnant women, or women in labour, should never go to a medical practice where they might ‘lie naked’ in front of a male doctor, because this is despicably sinful. He added there are bitches giving birth on the street and they don’t need a doctor and survive. He also made the analogy that women in the past also did not have to go to the doctor or to hospital and yet bore 10 to 15 children. He even said that his own mother gave birth to 11 children and never saw a doctor. According to him, these ‘modern practices’ of regularly seeing a doctor when pregnant, or ‘opting’ for a C-section are against God’s will.

[8] This is a title given to him by the people, which means, ‘the friend of Banga’. Banga is a region of Bengal and is equated here with Bangladesh.

[9] The word is Bangla and feminine gender for ‘hero’. The raped women of 1971 were termed Biranganas, or Heroines of War, in recognition of their suffering and sacrifices, the torture and the trauma they suffered. Instead of the shame so often attached to raped women, this designation and address signifies a reversal. The Biranganas are held in no less regard than those who lost their lives and limbs fighting in the war as soldiers.

[10][10] Pink is critically acclaimed and has been nominated for and won several best film awards. The movie’s plot circles around an incident of sexual assault of three independent working women who live together, and the repercussions within and beyond the judicial procedures. The conflict between ideas of women’s rights, and traditional ideas of how women should act and behave, is competently portrayed in this film. Through the mouth of the Bollywood legend, Amitabh Bacchan, the movie sends the message that when a woman says ‘no’ before, or at any point during a sexual encounter, that refusal must be respected and not violated. If it is, Bacchan conveys, then this is not ‘just sex’ but rape. 

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Leaving a high-control faith behind – an auto-ethnographic account

by Heather Ransom

Heather Ransom is a PhD student at Edge Hill University. She is currently researching the effects of religious ostracism when leaving the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Specifically, she is exploring the impact on identity, self-esteem and belonging, as well as wider detriments to mental health and wellbeing.

Leaving a high-control faith behind – An auto-ethnographic account

Note: All scriptures quoted are from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, as used by Jehovah’s Witnesses (the JW version of the Bible)

My relationship with the Bible started in infancy. My mother, a perfect example of Jehovah’s Witness (JWs) recruitment, was a doorstep convert when she was 22 years old. Consequently, myself and my siblings were raised in a strict, Bible-based religious environment, with ‘the meetings’ (church) three times a week. We also had an active preaching schedule every Saturday morning (door knocking). My father did not convert, despite my mother’s dominant personality, which meant we came from what was described as a ‘divided household’.

My early life of ‘inculcation’ (Deuteronomy 6:6,7) into the JW faith included a plethora of images of paradise (Psalms 37:10,11), interspersed with those of death and destruction as described in the Bible. Zechariah 14:12 remains dominant in my mind. Here, the destruction of the ungodly is described:

their flesh will rot away while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot away in their sockets, and their tongues will rot away in their mouths.

Scriptures such as this one, and the powerful imagery used in the literature to convey Armageddon, had a significant impact on my young mind, and kept me in fear for many years. Interestingly, the only mention of Armageddon in the Bible is in Revelation 16:16, yet it forms one of the main tenets of the JW faith. Believing that the world was full of wickedness, and that the JWs are the one true faith, I was taught that soon ‘Jehovah’ (the vocalisation of the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH together with the vowels of the Hebrew word for ‘LORD’ that is pronounced) would annihilate all those who do not believe, and as long as I stayed faithful, I would live forever in paradise.

After decades of devout membership, and for many reasons, I decided to leave the JWs. The maltreatment I experienced from the elders (church leaders), which felt both spiritually and psychologically abusive, made me start to question the love that is supposed to mark true Christians (John 13:34,35). I started to analyse critically, the shunning doctrine, and could not align this with the tenets of scripture regarding love (Love never fails – 1 Corinthians 13:8), judging (Stop judging, that you may not be judged – Matthew 7:1-5), forgiveness (If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you – Matthew 6: 14,15) and imperfection (We all stumble many times – James 3:2). It seemed to me that when a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is at their lowest ebb, disfellowshipping them (being forced to leave – similar to excommunication) for their ‘sins’ and, in doing so, depriving them of the assistance they need is akin to depriving a sick person of their medication

Described as a loving arrangement, JWs are required to shun those who have been disfellowshipped. This has a two-fold purpose: (1) to protect the congregation from the influence of the defector, and (2) to motivate the ex-member to return to the fold. However, more recently, former JWs who had left voluntarily (as I did), have also reported experiencing shunning from their family and friends.

Consequently, JWs are considered a high-cost group  (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010) as exiting, whether forced (disfellowshipped) or voluntary, typically has negative consequences. These might include, amongst others, loss of supportive ties, challenges to self-perceptions and psychological distress. The adverse effects of ostracism are well-established within the wider psychological literature (Case & Williams, 2004; Wesselmann & Williams, 2017; Williams, 2001; Williams, 2007). Although there has been diminutive research amongst former JWs, leaving religiously exclusive groups generally has been associated with diminished wellbeing; in addition, ostracism (religious shunning), amongst other things, has been identified as a barrier to exit (Scheitle & Adamczyk, 2010).

As I traversed my own journey upon leaving the JWs, it became apparent that leaving experiences and outcomes were not the same. I wanted to explore if there were differences in wellbeing between those who had been disfellowshipped compared to those who had left voluntarily. I also aimed to examine the impact of forming alternative social support following religious exit. For example, social media groups set up by former JWs may act as a buffer against the effects of shunning, by allowing former members to build new relationships. Finally, I wanted to assess whether earlier socialisation into the JWs (being born and raised JW), as opposed to adult conversion, may differentially affect the process of identity transition post-exit.

Leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Bible retains a significant influence within Christian religions, and although modernity has meant that some Christian faiths have adopted modern concepts, such as female priests/vicars, more fundamentalist Christian religions have not. This is perhaps, in part, due to scriptures such as 1 Timothy 2:11, 12 where the apostle Paul states:

Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but she is to remain silent.

Similarly, other Bible verses paint the woman as inferior in intellect. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 states that if a woman wants to learn something, she must ask her husband at home, as it would be a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in the congregation. Further, submission to the male is encouraged in passages which urge women to have deep respect, a quiet and mild spirit, and to be subject to their husbands. Indeed, the scriptures relate that Sarah referred to her husband Abraham as ‘Lord’ (1 Peter 3:6), and although there are some positive female references in the Bible (for example, the prophetess Deborah), derogatory figures are often portrayed as female. The great harlot of Revelation 18:1 for example, and the nation of Israel, referred to as an unfaithful wife in Ezekiel 16, with the entire chapter peppered with references to prostitution. Similarly, the book of Jeremiah chapters 2-5 describes Israel as a woman trained in wickedness, stained with the blood of the innocent (2:33, 34), and having the brazen look of a wife who commits prostitution (3:3).

In light of this less-than-positive view of women often portrayed in the Bible, it could be postulated that attitudes in some fundamentalist-style religions who adhere closely to the scriptures remain archaic in nature. Indeed, the qualitative data I have recorded as part of my doctoral thesis offers some support for the notion that fundamentalist organisations, such as the JWs, may mean women are not taken seriously when it comes to issues such as domestic violence and misogyny. For example, one participant was prevented from reporting domestic violence to the authorities, because of the ‘reproach it would bring upon Jehovah’s name, and to the congregation’. This respondent was ‘disfellowshipped’ from the congregation for talking about the abuse, rather than keeping silent, and thus cut off from all her social support.

Being disfellowshipped from the JWs is a serious matter. Congregants are not permitted to talk to disfellowshipped ones; therefore, anyone disfellowshipped is effectively silenced. There are many reasons for which a JW can be disfellowshipped, these include, but are not limited to: sex before marriage (fornication), sex outside of marriage (adultery), all forms of homosexuality, viewing pornography, smoking tobacco, drug taking and gambling. Other JWs leave the religion of their own free will because they find the way of life restrictive, or have experienced what they perceive as unjust treatment. Nevertheless, despite the method of exit, former JWs typically report religious ostracism from their family, friends and the congregation in general.

In conclusion, although ostracism is well-researched, religious ostracism remains a harmful phenomenon in contemporary society, the effects of which are under-explored. By studying religious ostracism, and recognising its harmful effects, including exploring the factors which may affect outcomes, attempts may be made to offer further support to those who transition out of high cost religions such as the JWs.

References

Case, T. I., & Williams, K. D. (2004). Ostracism : A metaphor for death. New York : Guilford Press.

Scheitle, C. P., & Adamczyk, A. (2010). High-cost religion, religious switching, and health. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. doi:10.1177/0022146510378236

Wesselmann, E. D., & Williams, K. D. (2017). ‘Social life and social death: Inclusion, ostracism, and rejection in groups’. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 20(5), 693-706. doi:10.1177/1368430217708861

Williams, K. D. (2001a). Ostracism : The power of silence. New York: Guilford Press.

Williams, K. D. (2007). ‘Ostracism: The kiss of social death’. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 236-247. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00004.x

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Premiere of Kenyan, Christian, Queer

Premiere of Kenyan Christian Queer: 5 Days To Go! poster.

This coming Friday (31 July 2020) is the world premiere of the film Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Struggle for Faith, Hope and Love, directed by Aiwan Obinyan. 

You can see the trailer here

For an earlier Shiloh post on the book of the name Kenyan, Christian, Queer, by Adriaan van Klinken, see here.

About this Event:

Is it possible to be African, Christian and queer? The members of the first LGBTQ church in Nairobi Kenya certainly believe so. The Cosmopolitan Affirming Community (CAC) seeks to promote an inclusive and progressive form of Christianity, in the midst of a rather conservative society.

The screening link will be live from 9am to 12midnight (Eastern Africa Time/Kenya Time) with a live Q&A at 2pm BST (= British Summer Time) / 4pm EAT (= Eastern Africa Time) / 9am EST (= Eastern Standard Time).

The Q&A will feature:

  • Aiwan Obinyan (Film Director)
  • Pastor David Ochar (CAC)
  • Bishop Joseph Tolton 
  • Prophetess Jacinta Nzilani 

Book your ticket now, to receive the link & password for the secure film screening and Q&A.

You can book your free tickets here https://www.eventbrite.com/e/kenyan-christian-queer-premiere-tickets-113871003236?aff=CACAdriaanTFAM

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Privilege Beyond Bounds: A Response to the Conviction of Jan Joosten

A view of Oxford Cathedral.

On Monday 22 June 2020 the news broke of the conviction of Jan Joosten for downloading thousands upon thousands of images and videos of child abuse and pornography. I first read about it in an article in The Guardian. There are numerous other reports in other papers, too: the Daily Mail , The Timesof Israel, and Euro Weekly. The images that accompany these articles show the protzy façade of Christ Church, Joosten smiling, Joosten mid-lecture. An older, white male scholar who has blended right into the various biblical studies conferences he’s attended over many years – Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Society for Old Testament Study(SOTS), International Organisation for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT)… I’ve seen him there, talked to him, received his recommendation for a publication of his to read and for references to chase up.

As the newspaper articles report, Joosten is a former pastor, who taught for 20 years at the University of Strasbourg before, in 2014, taking up “the prestigious regiusprofessorship of Hebrew at Oxford.” Until his suspension, Joosten was based at Christ Church, renowned for its academic excellence, Old Master paintings, and for being home to Oxford’s cathedral. Until recently, Joosten was editor-in-chief of Vetus Testamentum, according to its site, “a leading journal … generally recognized to be indispensable for scholarly work on the Old Testament,” publishing articles in English, French and German, all languages in which Joosten is fluent. 

The lashings of respectability, status and privilege that have until recently enveloped Joosten – “pastor”, “Regius Professorof Hebrew” (founded in 1546 by Henry VIII), “Christ Church”, “University of Oxford”, “Princeton Theological Seminary”, “Hebrew University, Jerusalem”, “father of four”, “married”, “one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation” – add force to the shock and outrage that havemet the revelations of Joosten’s conviction. Shocking, too, is the sheer volume of images (27,000) and videos (1000) depicting abuse, including rape of children, which Joosten downloaded. The brilliant man falling from his high pedestal: as a German, I think right away of the legend of Faust. Such hubris and such hypocrisy. Did Joosten think a different law applied to him? Did he believe he was too clever ever to get caught? 

Joosten did get caught and his reputation is shot. His sentence, however, is paltry: one year in prison, placement on the sex offender register in France, a three-year programme of treatment, and a ban on any activity bringing him into contact with minors. Furthermore, Joosten has not gone to prison (yet?): his sentence will be “supervised” and “may be amended.” The Guardian reports that “Joosten was yet to decide whether to appeal on Friday” (he gets to decide that?!). His family “were aware of his offences” and argued Joostenshould not be imprisoned, “because he was a first time offender” (hardly: he was caught for the first time – he is now known to have been offending thousands of times for six years), “presented little risk of reoffending” (how so?), and “had sought psychiatric help voluntarily” (albeit only following arrest). In court, so it is reported, Joosten declaredthat he was relieved to be arrested. He described his addiction as “a secret garden, in contradiction with myself.” To many ears, including those of biblical scholars, this expression is particularly jarring and repugnant. It conjures up imagery from Song of Songs, of eroticism and lovemaking (e.g. “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride…” Song of Songs 4:12). But this is brutal child pornography that is at issue! And watching such is not a victimless crime. Child pornography is no “virtual reality”; it depicts suffering, severe and profound damage; the demand for it proliferates this; in some casesconsumption of violent pornography leads on to committing sexual abuse.

As would be expected, the general public and the scholarly community to which Joosten belonged have been vocal in their outrage and repulsion. Twitter is abuzz. People are “reeling”, “shocked and horrified”. A terse comment on the SBL website, stating that the Society had requested Joosten’s resignation, evoked protest on account of being woefully inadequate – rather like the Christ Church statement that “Our thoughts are with anyone affected by this news” (reminiscent of the “thoughts and prayers” routinely following school shootings in the US – in lieu of doing anything). A petition led promptly to a fuller statement sent to all present and past members of SBL. SOTS followed with their statement soon after, resolving to build “a more inclusive and ethical Society” and expressing concern “for the unknown children who are the ultimate victims of such crimes” as well as for Joosten’s family, colleagues and supervisees. One of Joosten’s co-authors has expressed feeling “shocked, shattered and disgusted” – he is donating all royalties of the book, past and future, to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Another scholar has set up a GoFundMe page “Biblical Scholars Against Child Abuse”. There is a powerful piece out deploring “himpathy” for Joosten (that is, excessive sympathy that is directed at perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse) and there are many expressions of contempt for a situation where “*reputations* of men are more important to keep safe than the *bodies* of women, children.”

When I read of Joosten’s conviction I, too, was reeling, shocked and horrified. I probably shouldn’t have been. Sadly, I know many people who are survivors of child abuse and of rape. The statistics of The Office for National Statistics do not strike me as exaggerated. And when you know there are so many survivors, you know there are very, very many perpetrators, too – the numbers have to add up. Even taking into account that perpetrators tend to abuse multiple victims, the numbers of perpetrators must still be very high. The same goes for the abuse that is consumption of child pornography. The amount of child abuse material is staggering – so, really it isn’t surprising that I know people who are revealed to be abusers. I also know that – for all the stereotypes and rape myths about rapists and pornography users (“creepy men in raincoats” we used to jest) – there is no “type” – so a depraved person can be an Oxford don (clearly). Having worked in universities for over 20 years, I’ve twice known of cases where a member of the university community was charged with child pornography. Two people I have encountered in my community have been charged with possession of child pornography (one committed suicide). I had already reeled a few years back at the conviction of Holt Parker, who received a four-year prison sentence for offences not dissimilar to Joosten’s. I had admired Holt’s work and wrestled then with the question of “do you cite scholars who have done appalling things?” (I still wrestle with that question – as compelling as I find Stephen Young’s article, I also see some of the complexity so well articulated by Sarah Scullin. Do I read a biography of every author before I cite their work?) 

Fact is, in my earlier work I have cited Joosten. I met Joosten in 2011 in South Africa. We were both attending a meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA) (my first far-flung work trip since my younger child was born). I had not met Joosten before and I was mostly preoccupied with dear friends from my years in southern Africa. But on some bus trip or other we sat together and had one of “those conversations” about research that you have at these kinds of conferences. He was friendly but quite intimidating. One of those scholars who can quote in multiple languages and recall titles and years of publication of articles on any topic that arises in conversation. I was working on my book on fathers and daughters in the Hebrew Bible at the time and told Joosten so when he asked me. He told me he had published an article on the missing daughter in the laws of Leviticus 18 – but it was in French: did I read French? I admitted that my French is pretty lousy. Not much more was said, as I recall it.

Shortly after I returned home, there was an email from Joosten. (I have been re-reading the short exchanges he and Ihad in 2011 and 2013 and they make me uncomfortable now.) It said, “It was nice to meet you at the conference. While browsing through my computer I came across an English translation of my paper on the missing daughter. I attach it herewith.” I was touched. It was a nice thing to do. I thanked him. I read the article and found it helpful for my research. In the book I published I thank Joosten. That’s what you do. 

Two years later I received another email: “While searching for something else on the internet I came across your recent book on Fathers and Daughters. Congratulations! And thank you for the generous reception of my article on Lev 18.” (Two short emails, in each a mention of a computer or the internet. Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time – it only reads as sinister in retrospect.) After 2013 I did not communicate with Joosten again. I did cite his work in my next book.

When I read about Joosten in the paper, I felt deeply troubled. I couldn’t shake it. I searched for and found the emails from years before and eventually decided to write to him. 

I wrote of the revulsion I felt and of wondering how manyhands of “respectable men” I had shaken without fathoming what they were capable of, of being repelled at the “secret garden” obfuscating, even romanticising and eroticising the brutal abuse of frightened and utterly vulnerable and helpless children. I wrote that I cannot comprehend why, if he acknowledged the harm he had done, he would not willingly go to prison, “Why should you not go? What will you do now, I wonder?”

To my astonishment, Joosten wrote back very soon after. He said my words hurt but that he deserved them. That he had always known his “doings” were not victimless, that they were “sordid and destructive”. He wrote that he “came across” the images and videos looking for pornography and that they were “freely available and easily accessible”. He describes how this became an addiction from which he could not break free, that he did not want to make excuses but did want to heal, with the help of a psychiatrist. He spoke of the support of his family who accepted him with his defects, characterizing them as an ugly “stain” on a beautiful painting. Ever the linguist, Joosten explained the expression “jardinsecret” as “a mental and emotional space one doesn’t wish to share with anyone” but that he had not intended to evoke anything positive but rather that “the world of those images and videos and the real world” in which he lived his life were “completely separate”. He closed by saying he felt deep regret for what he had done, could not undo it and had to look to the future. The closing words were, “I hope one day you will be able to forgive me.”

The email troubled me. (A part of me was very surprised that Joosten clearly had access to a computer and to his University email address.) The sheer eloquence troubled me – but of course he is eloquent: he is a linguist, scholar and prolific writer. I was troubled that he wrote of “coming across” horrendous child pornography (is it that easy and happenstance?), and of the addiction and harm that he acknowledged as a “stain” and something to “heal” from, as if it were somehow separable from him, a “secret garden” apart from his “real life”. There is nothing “unreal” about the violence depicted in child pornography – enacted on real children whose lives, psyches, futures, potential, are deeply harmed. 

As I read Joosten’s email I found myself recalling a correspondence I had over many years with a prisoner in the notorious Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. It started when a letter addressed in meticulous handwriting to “The Bible Department” landed in my office at the University of Tennessee. The writer, “E.”, had found Jesus in prison, where he was incarcerated for life. He had also taught himself Hebrew. He had questions about grammar and points of translation. It was enjoyable finding ways to explain features of Hebrew and reasons for translations that might not match the Hebrew text. E. was always eager to learn. Years passed. I moved to England. In time, we came to write about more than the language riddles that had brought us together. E. spent hours in the prison workshop and made my daughter a wooden box and some metal earrings with her (Hebrew). name engraved on them. I wrote about my children growing up, juggling work and family life, travelling; he wrote about his past, including (eventually) the crimes that transpired in his incarceration. What began to unfold was an early life of chaos, deprivation, struggle and petty crime. Next came an act of violence done to him by a sheriff, when he was put in a cell overnight for marijuana possession. E. was cagey about what took place but I was able to find newspaper articles, which reported that the sheriff was found guilty of sexually abusing young men in his custody. If that is what happened to E., he could never bring himself to say so, stressing instead how many girlfriends he’d had in his youth. He never used this as an excuse for the violent crimes he went on to commit. What struck me was how hard he tried to do something good – even from within prison where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement or labouring, with only one library book to read each week. He had written to all his victims; he was always worried about his mother and the pain he had caused her; he wrote to his son, who seldom replied; he worked hard at learning Hebrew; he tried hard to convert me to Christianity, earnestly believing that if he didn’t, I would not be saved. 

Unlike E., Joosten has enjoyed enormous privileges. He still does. Life must feel frightening for him and his prestige and reputation will never recover. But he has his freedom, the support of his family, access to a psychiatrist, even access to a computer and his email account. He also has a first-class education and tremendous talent. 

I feel the same anger as many of my colleagues on Twitter and Facebook. Condemnation is right; outrage at the light sentence is right; donating to organisations that support vulnerable children is right. But what more? The SOTS statement goes some way towards pointing out that more must be done within our discipline, too. A legitimizing patina of respectability has for too long shrouded a great deal of ignominy. What Scullin says of the discipline of Classics is true also of biblical studies: both have “a troubled history (that, unfortunately, continues to the present) of participation in various oppressions.” Just as the BLM protests have led to a flurry of statements and self-searching, that momentum must be harnessed and taken much further. The cracks in the patina have become very visible in recent days and weeks. It is no surprise at all actually that Joosten was able to persist in his “doings”. In large part, his respectability and his privilege have enabled it. They have also, I have no doubt, cushioned him from a harsher sentence. E. would have stood no such chance in the same court room. 

It is one thing – in the case of Joosten – not to read or cite his scholarship, to evict him permanently from all societies he has belonged to, and to support his students. But what more? Even if Joosten receives a prison sentence that reflects the gravity of his offence, is that then adequate? Eventually, he would leave prison. It is not possible “to lock up all paedophiles and throw away the key.” 

What I see in E. and find myself missing with Joosten is any attempt at restitution. I do hope that as Joosten looks to the future he will apply all his abilities – his mastery of languages, his research and writing skills, his experience and insight gained from therapy – for helping other addicts and for helping victims of sexual violence and human trafficking. If I can help with that, I will.

The forgiveness he says he hopes for from me is not mine to give. Vladimir Jankelevitch writes, “forgiveness is not for swine” and the first step towards forgiveness is full admission of wrong. Today Joosten may appeal. I hope he takes full responsibility and does not. 

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