close

Gender violence

16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Resisting Domestic Violence and Abuse: A White Rose Collaboration

Today we celebrate the UK’s Domestic Abuse Act, which received Royal Assent in late April 2021–though we have some reservation (see below). This Act is likely to protect millions of victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) who are disproportionately female. Alongside this, we celebrate the significant contribution that nuanced understandings of spiritual abuse, and of religion and religious studies, can make in DVA prevention and safeguarding.

Small grants can make a big difference. We hope positive action will grow from a new collaboration funded by the White Rose Consortium. The White Rose Consortium is a group of three northern universities: the Universities of York, Sheffield, and Leeds. The consortium’s Collaboration Fund provides the means for researchers from all three universities to pool knowledge, expertise, resources, creativity, and energies, in a common cause.

From the White Rose University Consortium website (white rose.ac.uk)

The Shiloh Project has had earlier success with this scheme (see here and here). Earlier this year, White Rose funding has been awarded for a project with the title ‘Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities’. Why? Because, while prevalence of DVA is fairly consistent across various groups (including different religious denominations), marginalised minority individuals and groups experience also additional inequalities, vulnerabilities, and risk factors. 

Black women and women from ethnic minorities, for example, frequently experience multiple additional barriers to escaping DVA and finding support. These barriers can arise, for instance, from systemic inequalities, economic dependency, cultural and religious expectations, and, in some cases, language barriers. The lockdowns and social isolation measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, have exacerbated pressures, increasing stress, economic difficulties, disruption in social networks and to normal life, and, along with that, risk to those vulnerable to or experiencing DVA. (Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, has reported a huge 700%+ increase in calls, compared with pre-lockdown figures.) The impacts of DVA on those from marginalised groups, therefore, warrants particularly urgent attention in research, policy, and practice.

Unfortunately, the UK government, in passing the Domestic Violence Act, failed to adopt the amendment which would have explicitly secured protection for migrant DVA victims and survivors. Moreover, the Act failed to implement reforms to the payment of Universal Credit, thereby risking situations where perpetrators of DVA have total control over the income of an entire household. This, in turn, can enable economic abuse. (For a fuller description in a news release by Refuge, see here). These shortfalls, affecting women from migrant communities and from socio-economically deprived sectors particularly harshly, accentuate the significance of the focus aims of this White Rose Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities project.

The project leads are Parveen Ali (Professor in Health Sciences) and Michaela Rogers (Senior Lecturer in Social Work), both of the University of Sheffield. They are supported by postgraduate intern, Moninuola Ifayomi. 

Michaela Rogers, Senior Lecturer in Social Work (University of Sheffield), Project Co-Lead

(There’s a podcast episode with Parveen here: it’s Episode 16 of the superb podcast series ‘Talking Research’, where Asmita Sood interviews academics across many disciplines who all research sexual violence. Parveen discusses gender-based violence and health inequalities, with particular focus on marginalised women.)

Parveen Ali, Professor of Nursing and Midwifery (University of Sheffield), Project Co-Lead

Given that DVA has many layers and contributory factors that intersect cultural, religious, gender and ethnic boundaries, solutions, too, need to be multifaceted. Hence, alongside Parveen and Michaela, other researchers involved in the project come from a diverse range of disciplines: Criminology and Criminal Justice, Social Policy and Social Work, Urban Studies and Planning, International Development, Management, Geography, Law, and Sociology. Emma Tomalin (one of our 2018 activists) and co-director Johanna Stiebert are contributing expertise from the area of religious studies. 

The collective working on this project will focus initially on two topics: first, the methodological complexities of addressing DVA alongside or within faith communities; and second, how to assist interpreters supporting victims of DVA. The aims of this are to highlight DVA experiences in marginalised communities, and to facilitate support through the exchange of knowledge and identification of gaps in current policy, practice, and research.

The collaboration has got off to an energetic start. We are motivated by our common purpose. DVA is a distressing social problem on a vast scale, but it has been fabulous to learn more from the other participants about other factors, reasons for and consequences of DVA, as well as to feel we are working towards something meaningful.

Great things can happen when good people work together – and that is worth celebrating. 

read more

16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Shiloh’s Routledge Focus series!

Today we celebrate our Routledge Focus book series. The Shiloh Project was the inspiration for the series and the series title—‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’—is the same as the sub-title for the Shiloh Project. 

Routledge Focus volumes are concise, no more than 50,000 words in length. Each volume In our series, consequently, is sharply focused. Each represents research-based activism on a theme within the orbit of religion and rape culture. While unified by this larger theme and purpose, the published and forthcoming volumes evidence considerable variety.

We endeavour to publish around three volumes per year. This year, two volumes appeared and a third is due out in January. (The publication of the third volume was delayed on account of its sensitive content, which had to be carefully vetted by Routledge’s legal team—more on that shortly.)

The first series volume of 2021 is by Shiloh co-director Caroline Blyth (profiled as one of our 2017 activists). The title of her volume is Rape Culture, Purity Culture, and Coercive Control in Teen Girl Bibles. Caroline examines several bibles marketed to teen girls and demonstrates how they perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes including rape myths at the heart of rape culture. It’s a searing read that will have you questioning how on earth such publications can justify their claims of helping young women grow in faith, hope and love. Caroline demonstrates the damage perpetuated by purity cultures, and systematically peels back how some teen girl bibles echo or affirm the strategies of coercively controlling parents or intimate partners. It’s brilliantly done. (To hear Caroline talk about her book in an episode of the Shiloh Podcast, see here.)

Excerpt from p.3 of Caroline’s book

The second series volume of 2021 is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar’s Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. Ericka’s book identifies the enterprise of rounding up girls from across the empire for the Persian king’s harem, as constituting sexual trafficking on a huge scale. After refuting claims that this is some light-hearted biblical story about a beauty contest, Ericka highlights parallels between sex trafficking in the book of Esther and the cultural memories, histories, and materialized pain of African(a) girls and women during the Maafa, or slave trade. The book is a powerful call, both to responsible Bible reading and to action in the face of human rights violation. (Ericka, too, is featured on the Shiloh Podcast: hear Ericka talking about her book here. For a short Q&A with Ericka, see here.)

‘Slavery’, by quadelirus (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and available @CreativeCommons)

The third volume has a publication date of 18 January 2022 and is available for pre-order now. This one is by Miryam Clough and has the title Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo. Miryam’s book begins by pointing out that sexual violence is systemic in many workplace settings, including in Christian churches. From here, she focuses on how, among many other devastating consequences, this can destroy women’s careers and vocational aspirations. Because Miryam’s study draws on empirical evidence, including personal stories from survivors of clergy abuse, it required scrutiny by the Routledge legal team. The book is an intense and often painful exposition of clergy sexual abuse of adult women, the conditions that support it, and the pain left in its wake. Bringing testimony into dialogue with theoretical perspectives, the book also makes constructive suggestions for theological models that can heal a broken Church.

‘Devil and Praying Women’, Linde Church, Gotland (from CreativeCommons)

We are delighted with the seven published series titles and excited about the further six that are under contract and due for release over the next two years. 

The volumes are making a timely and important contribution to scholarship on sexual and gender-based violence in religious texts and contexts. They are also ideal for teaching, given their compactness and their availability in affordable e-book format. 

If you, or someone you know, is interested in publishing in our series, please contact series co-editor Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk). Volumes for the series can be sole-authored, co-authored, or edited collections of essays. Proposals are peer-reviewed, and manuscripts must meet Routledge’s criteria for academic rigour and marketability. Routledge prides itself on a prompt production process and on being in the forefront of publishing cutting-edge research. All volumes are copy edited to a very high standard. Titles appear first in hardback and e-version and, sometimes, later, in paperback, too.

We’d love to hear from prospective contributing authors, and also, from anyone with feedback on volumes in the series, or on topics you’d like to see represented.

read more

16 Days of Celebrating Activism… the Statement by the Wijngaards Institute!

Today we celebrate ‘The Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships’, which was guided and published by members of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. The Statement was launched in May 2021. You can find it here. (Shiloh followers will see some familiar names among the signatories.)

If you are homosexual or same-gender-loving and devout, to be told the faith community, spiritual leaders, sacred scriptures, or deities you hold dear condemn who you are and whom you love is violence.

Such condemnation has caused significant harm to untold human lives over a considerable span of time. 

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church, the largest religious denomination, and the oldest and largest continuously functioning international institution, with around 1.5 billion members worldwide. It has also contributed significantly to this harm, which can rightly be called a form of religious violence or spiritual abuse

(Courtesy of Shutterstock Images)

The aim of the Statement, which exists in multiple languages (with more translations under way), is first, to alert Vatican authorities and Catholic bishops across the world to the disconnect between papal teaching, on the one hand, and recent academic scholarship about human sexuality and sexual orientation, on the other. Second, the Statement aims to bring rigorous scholarship to the endeavour of creating and promoting inclusive Christian communities. 

The Statement is of value particularly to those who desire a robust theological and scriptural foundation when they challenge and confront homophobia that is generated by Christian figures, or that uses Christian scripture or theological concepts.

The Statement is not the last word on the matter. However, it makes a positive contribution towards challenging the sexualised toxicity, violence and discrimination that is homophobia. 

There are more conversations that need to continue alongside the Statement. These include conversations about the problematic content of biblical and other religiously authoritative texts and what best to do with and about such content, about abusive theologies, and abusive and abuse-tolerating religious institutions and hierarchies, and about the possibility of fulfilling relationships that may with integrity reinterpret the word ‘faithful’ to mean something other than ‘monogamous and life-long’.

The Statement is meticulously researched and makes its case persuasively and powerfully. We hope it will be widely read and disseminated. Above all, we hope it will achieve its aims and reduce homophobia and the suffering homophobia brings.

read more

Meet Erin Sessions

Our post today is an interview with Erin Martine Sessions, the Quality and Inclusion Officer at the Australian College of Theology, and a PhD candidate working on violence and the Song of Songs.

Tell us about yourself and about how your work is compatible with the aims of the Shiloh Project? 

The first thing to know about me is I do things in the wrong order. Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; if it’s not at breakfast time. I make trees out of old books (see the picture!). And I haven’t had a “traditional career trajectory.” That last one might resonate with a few of you. My Doktorvater jokes I’m not keeping balls in the air, I’m juggling chainsaws. And they’re on fire. The complete chaos of single parenting, sessional lecturing, fitting my thesis into the interstices, going for ordination, and harbouring not-so-secret desires to be poet laureate (even though Australia doesn’t have one), makes for the opposite of order. But actually, it’s less “things in the wrong order” and more gatekeeping, middle-aged white men telling me I do things in the wrong order…

This year I found myself in possession of the holy grail of higher education employment (especially for the disordered* with unfinished PhDs): a permanent full-time job! Thankfully, the thesis and the job intersect, and both align with the objectives of the Shiloh Project. I’m currently working on a training module for students and staff which targets first, the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) and, second, when it does occur, a response that is appropriate and effective. Preventing SASH looks a lot like preventing domestic and family violence (DFV), and that’s what my thesis is devoted to (but more on that later). For now, I want to unequivocally say that I am committed to dismantling rape culture—that is, dismantling gendered power structures that sideline and discredit women and minority groups, dismantling societal systems that foster and perpetuate inequality, and calling out the blaming of women and minorities for the very systems and structures that victimise and disempower them. 

*pun intended, I’m neurodivergent.

Can you tell us more about rape culture and religion in the context of Australia?

Allow me to give you some context by (briefly!) answering this question in two parts: first, addressing rape culture in Australia more broadly, and then looking at the relationship between rape culture and religion, particularly Christianity, in Australia. 

We know that rape culture exists the world over: beliefs and practices which regulate and shame women and gender-diverse people, that promote, accept, minimise, or ignore violence, and then trivialise the resulting trauma. This violence is perpetrated against women and girls regardless of age, dis/ability, ethnicity, level of education, location, religion, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Australia is no different. Yet, we also know that along with the gendered drivers of violence come reinforcing factors which make certain minoritised people groups—like Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women—more likely to experience abuse. 

Rape culture in Australia is particularly pernicious with its potent combination of: high rates of violence, shocking inaction, our history of (colonial) violence, and a lack of data and research. Australia has significantly higher prevalence rates of intimate partner violence and sexual violence than western Europe or North America. It’s a well-worn statistic that one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner, and we’ve become complacent. Even though DFV is a national crisis, and even though each egregious act of violence is followed by vigils, intense discussions, and calls for reform and further research, there is little change. 

Early on in my research journey, my psychologist gave me a fittingly crass (and memorable!) lesson: “Abusers have the same toolkit, but their choice of tools varies, and the way each victim-survivor gets screwed is personal.” The same can be said of rape culture. Instructing us women to change the way we dress, speak, and walk home at night, with no equivalent instructions for men (to take responsibility for their behaviour) can be observed almost universally, but each context, community, and individual will have their own unique experiences.

Much like my disordered career (chaotic calling?) might be similar to yours in some ways, I’m willing to bet you also recognise these all-too-familiar failings of (Christian) faith communities: wives being told to submit to their husbands—irrespective of abuse and with no mention of mutual submission; women being urged to forgive their abusers—often at the expense of their safety and without corresponding compunction for the perpetrator to stop abusing; and victim-survivors being re-traumatised by (male) leadership who do not understand the dynamics of, or what constitutes abuse and are ill-equipped to refer women at risk to specialist services. This Lausanne piece (July 2021) has the title “Gender-Based Violence and the Church.” One thing that makes it so poignant is that it has global relevance and urgency.

So, what makes the relationship between rape culture and religion unique in Australia? Up until recently, I would have (again) cited shocking (church) inaction and a lack of research (into religion and violence), especially when compared to similarly developed nations. The tide is slowly turning as more research is being done in, with, and by religious organisations, and as they work to redress the damage done, and to prevent further violence. But there is still a long way to go. Recent studies suggest that the incidence of DFV is higher in the Anglican church than in the general population. And, devastatingly, we (Australians and the church) have not reckoned with Australia’s violent history and church culpability in violence. The racist, heteropatriarchal cultural legacy—as Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives makes clear—is a country that has rationalised violent behaviours over time and allowed rape culture to flourish.

Why and how do you read the Song of Songs alongside gender-based violence?

I love this question! Churches don’t include the Song of Songs in their services too often, and the Australian church is none too fond of talking constructively about gender-based violence. So, as you can imagine, my invitations to write and speak on the Song and violence aren’t exactly bursting through my door like letters from Hogwarts. The long story short is victim-survivors stated that using religious texts to promote gender equality will prevent gender-based violence in faith communities. What better text to use than the Song of Songs, where the poetic protagonist is a woman of colour, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to speak truth to power? 

This topic is at the heart of my ongoing PhD research. I have published an article on this question, too, with the title “Watching the Watchmen: How Does the Violence in Song of Songs 5:7 Speak to Australia’s Problem with Violence against Women and vice versa?” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 34/1 (2021), a special issue on Religion and Violence.

You can read more of Erin Martine Sessions’ work on the Song and violence here and you can email her: esessions@actheology.edu.au   

read more

New Book!

We are thrilled to announce the imminent publication of a new book in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, a series inspired by the Shiloh Project. The author is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar and her book has the title Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. 

This is a searing book, that turns its direct and unwavering gaze to some of the most pressing and distressing gendered and racialized atrocities of our time. Moreover, it roots these atrocities in both ancient and more recent history and urges us to break harmful cycles that inflict disproportionate suffering on African(a) girls and women. (The word ‘African(a)’ refers to both African persons and persons who are African-descended.)

Trafficking Hadassah is available for pre-order and is shipped from 12 November 2021. The book is available in hardback and eBook versions. (Find out more here.)

We also have an interview with Ericka and a sneak-peek at an excerpt from the book.

Tell us about yourself, Ericka. 

I’m Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar, Visiting Professor of Hebrew Bible at Payne Theological Seminary, Wilberforce, Ohio, in the USA.

How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

The book sheds light on sexualized and gender-based violence, specifically against African(a) girls and women across ancient and contemporary contexts. This project is an expansion of my scholarly-activist work of children’s advocacy and activism to dismantle intersectional violence and oppression. 

This book is a condensed version of my doctoral dissertation.   

What are the key arguments of your book?

I interpret the first two chapters of the biblical book of Esther through a contemporary lens of sex trafficking. I argue that sexualized and gender-based violence are initiated in the first chapter with the treatment and abuse of Queen Vashti. This systematic abuse is expanded to include large-scale legalized sexual trafficking of young virgin girls who are gathered from locales across the Persian Empire, which spans from India to Ethiopia. I then put this interpretation into dialogue with the sexual abuse and enslavement of African(a) girls and women during and after the Maafa,* identifying the abuse as a collective, cultural trauma. I identify and critique social and cultural attitudes that have been embraced and asserted to justify such abuse and outline physical and psychological consequences of sexual trafficking on individual and collective bodies and identities. Additionally, I challenge biblical readers to engage in morally and ethically responsible biblical interpretation by giving attention to intersectionality, polyvocality and the euphemisms and silences often embedded in both texts and traditional interpretations of texts. 

*The word ‘Maafa’ is derived from a Swahili word meaning something like ‘Great Calamity’. It refers to the atrocities of the slave trade and slavery.

What do you hope your readers will take from this book?

I hope that readers will begin to apply intersectionality and polyvocality as frameworks for reading and interpreting biblical texts like the book of Esther, so that their analyses of what is depicted can be deepened and expanded. I hope that readers will wrestle with discerning meaning for those who are embedded within but not often considered in interpretations of this story. I hope they will come to consider how minoritized identities are impacted by the story and by subsequent interpretations of it. I truly hope that people will wrestle with the portrayal and meaning of such widespread and largely uncontested sexualized and gender-based violence in the ancient context and allow this wrestling to inspire action to dismantle and eradicate it in contemporary contexts.

Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.

“When the treatment of the virgin girls depicted in the second chapter [of the book of Esther] is assessed alongside the treatment of Vashti, it becomes clear that gender and ethnicity intersect and play a major role in othering foreign, minoritized females. Othered, these girls are rendered exploitable and consequently trafficked. Accordingly, the king’s dismissal of Vashti is only a first step in a more elaborate process of imperially sanctioned patriarchy that also feeds sexual trafficking. By this process, the seeking out of girls is legitimated, as is their transport, custody, subjection to a year-long beautification process, and sexual abuse and exploitation by the king (2:1–9). The Persian king and his imperial team target African and other virgin girls for sexual trafficking. In its deployment of this political strategy, the text depicts Africana girls and women as expendable, commodifiable, and rapable. Such intentional displacement, colonization, and sexual exploitation of Africana girls and women are not, however, restricted to the pages of this biblical text, but have been practiced throughout much of history, leading to collective cultural trauma.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Thank you, Ericka. We hope your book will find many readers and much acclaim and lead on to inspire effective resistance to the multiple and widespread oppressions and exploitations to which you draw attention. 

Please help us spread the word about this important publication and please order a copy for your library.

read more

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

read more

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.

read more

Shiloh Project Interview with Dr CL Nash, Founder of M2M

Please read all about M2M – Misogynoir to Mishpat.

You are invited to the project’s inaugural seminar in the series ‘Decolonizing God’ by Prof. Esther Mombo. The title is: Decolonizing God: African Women’s Epistemic Challenges to Patriarchal Jesus.

This event has now been rescheduled for Thursday 13 May, 16:00-17:30h. Please join via this Teams link.

Launch of the MISOGYNOIR TO MISHPAT RESEARCH NETWORK, and of the seminar series “Decolonising God” (organiser: CRPL Fellow Dr C.L. Nash).

1) Dr CL Nash, tell us a little bit about who you are, and what drives you. Also, what is M2M, which you’ve launched recently?

I am a woman from the U.S. and an independent scholar at the Centre for Religion and Public Life of the University of Leeds, where I manage two research projects. One project deals with religiously ensconced nationalism; and the other, amplifies the religious epistemologies of women of African descent.

This second project has the name ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’. ‘Misogynoir’ refers to misogyny directed towards Black women, and ‘Mishpat’ is a Hebrew word used in the Bible, which means ‘justice.’ The project is necessary, because the ability and capacity of people of African descent to produce knowledge – such as conducting research, writing and publishing – is often overlooked, pushed to the peripheries, obstructed, or denied. This is especially true for women of African descent. ‘Misogynoir to Mishpat,’ ‘M2M’ for short, will serve as a corrective by resisting and filling this gap in knowledge production. The very title says a lot about who we are and what we strive to do: we strive to move away from the hatred and discrimination of Black women toward fulfilment and social justice.

The challenges for women of African descent are stark, unsettling and undeniable. In my home country, the U.S., for instance, it has recently been revealed that even when all things are comparable (education, training, number of years in work, etc.), African-descended women earn staggeringly less by retirement than their white female counterparts.[i] While there has been a great deal of discourse about the gendered pay gap – and there should be! – African-descended women are doubly discriminated against, and consistently left behind.

Not only are their work contributions valued less and paid less, but there is also other workplace discrimination: such as bullying and other exclusionary practices, including being refused opportunities for promotion, often a consequence of racial biases. African-descended women in the U.S. (to give an example from the setting I’m most familiar with) are significantly economically disadvantaged, as they are also the group who bears the heaviest student loan debt. This means that African-descended women are often precluded from wealth acquisition strategies, such as home purchases, and are also less able to help defray the cost of higher education for their own children, such as via home equity loans. In short, this creates a downward racial-gender spiral.

As an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me how invisible we are. A 2017 article, ‘Black Women Professors in the UK,’ shows that white women and women from certain other ethnic minorities are gaining some measure of presence and visibility in universities. But we represent less than 1% of the British academy. Figures in the U.S. are only slightly better.[ii]

While it is good to see diversity increase, with better representation by South Asian women, for example, as an African-descended woman academic, it is concerning to me that our invisibility persists. When we African-descended women are made invisible, so is our research and our writing. In the course of this, the public declarations of universities wanting greater inclusion, are overshadowed by the private resignation to a status quo which continues to deny our relevance and importance.

‘Misogynoir to Mishpat’ deliberately alludes to ‘Mishpat’, a biblical word, because much of the resistance to inequality is grounded in religious institutions, particularly within the Christian faith. Mishpat, ‘justice,’ is a term which occurs in the Bible over 400 times. It is the primary standard by which the Bible writers understood God to evaluate their faithfulness and righteousness as people of God.

Misogynoir is a portmanteau word which combines ‘misogyny,’ or ‘hatred of women,’ with ‘noir,’ which is ‘Black’ in French. The word is apt for me, because it refers openly to the recognition that women of African descent are prejudiced against and nearly non-existent when it comes to representation in the academic study of religions. In the UK, because the term ‘Black’ has often been expanded to include non-African-descended women (that is, ‘anyone “of color”’), the situation of erasure becomes even more acute and problematic.

Through M2M, we are working to cultivate a strong relationship with churches and community activists who share our concerns. There are many issues to address, from lack of representation in politics and higher education, to poverty and over-incarceration, to lack of mental health and other medical resources, and environmental racism – all of which plague African-descended women disproportionately. To give one example, in the U.S. approximately 70,000 Black women and girls are ‘missing.’[iii]This is a staggering statistic. It might point to other crimes: some may have run away from abusive relationships, others may have been kidnapped, murdered, or sex trafficked. But these women and girls matter. They belong to families and communities who feel their absence and need their loss to be acknowledged and addressed to make them feel whole again. M2M has worked to form partnerships with women in various countries including: Kenya, the Netherlands, Ghana, the UK, the US, France, and South Africa. We want to work with African-descended women in religious academia and religious leadership across the globe: women in the World Council of Churches, women who are local pastors, and lecturers and professors in biblical studies, theology and ethics. We are seeking to strengthen the contributions of them all.

2) What are your aims, vision and hopes for M2M?

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

Postgraduate students of color often wish to engage in research which amplifies their own backgrounds and cultures. But these students will disproportionately fail to complete their degrees, or go on to fail their viva. And sometimes – I would venture to say, often – this is because universities do not have qualified academics who can engage with, supervise or examine such research. An examiner may decide that a student is inadequate, because they, as examiner, lack knowledge of what the student has outlined in their research. This means that not only are academics of color under-represented but postgraduates of color also stay under-represented.

Our research network seeks to draw attention to such gaps, so that we can walk alongside and support postgraduate students, in particular African-descended women postgraduates. We can assist in creating mentorship and visibility for them – even when they do not have scholars of color in their institutions. We also want to ensure that the research agendas of African-descended students are supported, that they are hired in full-time tenured posts, and that their work is valued in the university system.

We are proactively engaged in the current funding cycle, with the intention of being able to provide such support. Currently, African-descended women (few as they are) are much more represented as independent scholars than as scholars in stable, permanent posts. This marginalization is exacerbated by institutions not considering them for, or not involving them in, significant grants, or in training on how to make an application for a grant. Moreover, such grants are often not even open to, or actively publicized among, independent scholars. Currently, programs like Marie Currie, for instance, which are highly competitive, in my view effectively bypass people of color without any accountability. This must stop.

Our new M2M website will amplify the voices of women of African descent who are religious leaders or scholars or students of religion and theology by: highlighting their achievements (promotions, PhD awards, new pastoral posts), sharing career and information resources (including publications, but also collegial opportunities, such as funding or grant writing possibilities) and disseminating teaching resources, such as ‘video shorts,’ of 3-5 minutes in length. Taken together, these will explain more about, promote, and celebrate African-descended women’s contributions to academia and religious communities. This will include the ongoing work of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (‘the ‘Circle’) and by womanist scholars.

We will post monthly profiles of women. Please see our profiles for Mitzi Smith and Esther Mombo! We also have a new M2M blog series: ‘Conversations in Race, Gender and Religion’ (the call for contributions is here) where we examine our intersectionality more closely. We ask, for instance, ‘In what ways can women in Kenya find synergy with women in Sheffield, England? How might their goals differ? How are their goals compatible?’ And this is just one example of what we hope to grow and nurture into a richly diverse resource.

By balancing these needs of religious leadership and academic religious thinkers with community objectives, I hope we will make a significant difference in the lives of African-descended women and girls.

3) The Shiloh Project is focused on intersections between ‘rape culture’, ‘religion’ and ‘the Bible’. There are some synergies with M2M, particularly given the shocking vulnerabilities of Africana (that is, African-descended) women to gender-based and other forms of violence, including in biblical texts and in religious or religiously influenced communities, right up to the present. How can we support each other’s projects and endeavours? 

It’s true that we have a bit of intersection. There are many social issues that womanist scholars, for example, seek to address – and women who emerge from vulnerable communities frequently emphasize wanting to increase the agency of members of their communities.

Historically, Black American women, as one example, have struggled against ‘Christian’ assumptions of the sexual availability of the Black female body. In other words, women and girls who are African-descended, were regularly raped with impunity. Yet, the rhetoric created was that slave holders were ‘bewitched’ by these vulnerable people. White men could rape Black women and girls without being criminalized for it. Instead, the victims were blamed. Christian theology was not guiltless in this.

During the Antebellum, pregnant Black women thought to ‘require’ severe beatings, could be and were beaten, and sometimes beaten to death. A hole was dug into the ground and the woman was placed over the hole with her belly inserted into the ground. This was done to ‘protect’ the soul of the unborn child while the woman’s flesh was beaten from her body, her blood soaking the ground around her.

In Christian teachings, there is sometimes this ‘Platonic’ assumption that ‘the spirit’ and ‘the flesh’ are antithetical to and separate from each another. So, according to this, the body can be destroyed and the spirit spared. But the assumption that a person’s spirit is not aggrieved at the evil of destroying that same person’s flesh, as if we can physically torture the body without causing trauma to the person’s very spirit…

I must visit Toni Morrison’s Beloved to tease this out a bit further. Baby Suggs, a character in the novel, walks with other African-descended people into a clearing in the woods. This is significant, because the woods were frequently regarded as ‘wilderness,’ or as a ‘wild and dangerous’ sphere of uncivilized society.

Baby Suggs preaches a sermon in that forest which tells the members present to revalue their flesh. She encourages them to take every inch of who they are, and to find something there to love – and to love it fiercely. Black beauty was all but an oxymoron to most in 19th century America. To be beautiful, lovable, intelligent, human was to be white. But Baby Suggs encourages people to create a new theology of self love which renounces the hatred espoused by the dominant majority culture.

With that in mind, women who have been abused need to touch those harmed and swollen joints, the discolored limbs, and love themselves. Those who have had body parts torn and bloodied through rape and other forms of assault, must practise looking at themselves, touching and loving themselves. Just as Baby Suggs encourages her congregants to touch the spaces between the grooves of fleshly abuse, so also we, in M2M and Shiloh, need to encourage people to touch and reclaim all those spaces which were stolen. And, like Baby Suggs did, we need to encourage people to love their bodies, hearts and minds.

In fact, M2M can be summed up in this way: Black women from every land and every religion, are summoned to come and kneel at the altar of self acceptance. We want to encourage all of them to love themselves fiercely – body, mind and spirit. And, for those who are academics, we urge them to share that love of mind and spirit in their research and writing. We will walk alongside you. We only ask that when your legs get strong, you do not run away, but you turn to your left or your right, and you walk alongside someone else. As you stand with us, we also will stand with and support the amazing work of the Shiloh Project.

Indeed, we may kneel as hundreds, but we will stand as tens of thousands.

Thank you, Dr Nash. Thank you for telling us about your important work. We look forward to watching M2M grow and thrive.

_____________________________________________________________________

Dr CL Nash recommends the following sites for further reading:

‘Black Then,’ a website to address American Black History, here

‘Black Women’s Experiences in Slavery’ (chapter 2), here

‘Word to the Wise: African American/Black Women and Their Fight for Reproductive Justice,’ here


[i] See the Pew Research Center, which reports the staggering pay differences that can add up to in excess of $1M by the time of retirement. You can see more here and also look at this reference about Black women’s lack of fair pay. For another perspective, see also here. For more statistics on the sharp disparities along color lines, see also this.

[ii] Dr. Nicola Rollock indicates that there are only twenty-five Black female professors (see here). According to her research, this is due to such issues as Black women being bullied, feeling forced to work harder and, ultimately, being drained when working as academics. The Guardian supports her findings. See ‘Black women must deal with bullying to win’, here.

[iii] For more information on the missing Black women and girls in the U.S., please see this reference by the Women’s Media Center. Also, please see the Black and Missing Foundation (here), which also explores the issue of Black Americans missing – an under-reported phenomenon. Because a portion of those missing are presumed to be sex-trafficked, there are activist groups, which are also monitoring and aiding with that situation. Check out Black Women’s Blueprint as one example (here).

@Dorret (15/365BLM)

read more

The Rape of Men and Rabbinic Literature

Today’s post is by Tali Artman Partock and examines the much-neglected topic of the rape of men in rabbinical texts. Tali studied Hebrew literature and psychology as an undergraduate, followed by a Masters, and PhD in rabbinic literature, all at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Her diverse research interests lie in the areas of Judaism and early Christianity; midrash, folktales and hermeneutics; gender studies; and the Bible in literature and film. Tali teaches at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge, and Leo Baeck College.

_________________________________________________________

The rape of men is something that is often just hinted at in the Hebrew Bible. It tends to be confined to, or is threatened during times of war, or in warlike situations. The rape of men by men in “everyday life” is not only not mentioned, but is not even conceptualized, or labelled as rape. In fact, as both Judith Hauptman and Ronit Irshai argue [i], the word “rape” in the Hebrew Bible refers only to penetration of a female virgin without the authorization of her father.

The early layer of rabbinic literature (that is, Tannaitic literature, 2nd-3rd century CE), however, marks a radical change. Not only is the forced penetration of men here becoming marked as rape, but a whole discourse emerges to deal with its criminal and sacral implications.

The problem troubling the rabbis concerns the soul both of the rapist and of the raped. But above all else, the rabbis want to prevent the crime. Towards that purpose, from a Jewish legal perspective, the Mishnah allows an extraordinary thing: namely, the right not only of the rape victim but of any bystander to kill the attacker-rapist in (self-)defence.

The first text to address the issue in a legal codex appears in the Talmud in Mishnah Sanhedrin 8:7 (edited circa 220 CE). Here it says:

“The following must be saved even at the cost of their lives: he who pursues after his fellow to slay him or after a man or a betrothed maiden [to rape them].”

This is not only a recognition of the danger of rape of men by men, but a conceptual revolution. The idea of pre-emptive killing of the pursuer extends from the right to self-defence in the case of attempted murder. But how?  The answer comes from the fate of the raped betrothed maiden (mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:24), who is sentenced to death herself, even though she was raped, because the rape happened “in the town.” In other words, the rape, beyond being terrible in itself, leads to the victim’s death (on sacral grounds), and to the attacker’s death (on criminal and sacral grounds). In that sense, raping a betrothed virgin is like murdering her, making the argument of killing in self-defence comprehensible. The same logic is then applied to the biblical verses regarding male-male sex: here, too, the death penalty is threatened for both the penetrator and the penetrated (Leviticus 20:13).

The Bible does not address the problem of coercion when it comes to men, which poses an ethical dilemma for the rabbis, and an opportunity to learn something new: that in this case, too, rape is like murder, and killing in self-defence, therefore, permissible. This is in line with Roman legislation by Emperor Hadrian, which allowed de facto rape victims (male or female) and their family members to kill the rapist on the spot if caught in the act.[ii]

But what if an attacker is not killed in time (that is, before the rape takes place)? Are rape victims, male or female, to be executed, in the way that might be derived from Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:24? The rabbis have a new agenda here, too. In Sifre to Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei, a Tannaitic midrash on the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

“Just as when a man rises against his neighbour and murders him (Deut. 22.26), teaches that all who are raped [coerced] in the Torah are blameless, but [also]  that we save them by the life [of the one who pursues them] only in this case. Where, then, do we learn that one should [do the same also in the cases of] he who chases his fellow to kill him and after the man [to rape him]? It is said: so is this matter (Deut. 22:26). Can one do the same to he who pursues a beast or desecrated the Shabbat or worships idols? The Torah said: ‘this matter’ [only] (Deut. 22:26), ‘this’ is punished by stoning and all the rest – not by stoning.”

The verse the Sifre relies on is no longer Deuteronomy 22:24, but Deuteronomy 22:25-26: the case of the betrothed virgin who is raped in the field (rather than in the town). In her case, she is found blameless and only her rapist is put to death. This is another step forward for both women and men as victims: not only does this passage offer victims protection (like the Mishnah passage), but it also cleans them of all fault and blame.

The Amoraic Babylonian sources (3rd-6th century CE), much like those from Israel (3rd-5th century) follow the same logic to the same result.[iii] An interesting point is made also about the strange spelling of the word for “maiden”: in Hebrew the word for maiden is na‘arah, whereas the word for a male youth is na‘ar. In Deuteronomy 22:26, unusually, the word for “maiden” is missing the final consonant (transliterated as “ah”). Noting that the spelling is gender-ambivalent, the rabbis reach their conclusion on the basis that just like in the case of a girl (na‘arah) so in the case of a boy (na‘ar) there is no guilt for the raped.[iv]

In its Roman context, the question of rape of men becomes more complicated. On the one hand, unlike in Livy’s testimony, according to which a man who has been penetrated could not stand in a court of law, unless he was raped in war or by pirates [v], rabbinic literature does not deny a raped man any legal rights. On the other hand, the Roman economy of desire, making boys and slaves particularly vulnerable, still influenced the rabbis in many ways – but that will be a subject for a different post.


[i] Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice (Boulder, CO and Oxford: Westview Press, 1998), 81; Ronit Irshai, “Rape of Unmarried Women: From Hazal to Maimonides.” Shnaton ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri 28 (2014-15): 177. (Irshai’s paper is in Hebrew.)

[ii] See Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law & Society (London: Routledge, 1995), 118-19.

[iii] There are two main Talmudic traditions: the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi). Talmud is aptly described as a discursive and intergenerational rabbinic discussion. It is one primary focus of traditional Jewish scholarship.

[iv] This might be surprising in a Babylonian context. After all, in the Zoroastrian tradition represented in the Videvdad (8:26-32), the punishment for a man who submits to anal intercourse against his will is “eight hundred strokes with the horse whip, eight hundred with the bastinado.” While the editing of the Videvdad might be two or three centuries later than that of the Bavli, much like the Bavli, it, too, reflects oral traditions that are centuries older.

[v] Craig Williams, Roman Homosexuality, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010),  106.

read more

Writing the History of Sexual Harassment: The Avisa Project

In recent days there has been a flurry of reports on the depressing ubiquity of sexual harassment and sexual and gender-based violence. In France there is a project, the Avisa Project, taking a look at the long and horrible history of sexual harassment.

Today’s post about this project, which is likely to be of interest to supporters of the Shiloh Project, is by Armel Dubois-Nayt of the Université de Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines.

We would especially like to congratulate Louise Piguet (whose presentation is mentioned below) for successfully defending her doctoral thesis. Wonderful news, Dr. Piguet!

The Avisa Project

Avisa is the eponymous female character of a sixteenth century narrative poem, Willobie his Avisa (1594), who successfully rebuffs a series of persistent and aggressive wooers. The Avisa Project is named after her and was launched in September 2020 by two French universities: the University of Evry and the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin. One aim of the project is to identify, collect, and examine behaviours in times past that can be classified today as sexual harassment. What can we discern about how harassment was experienced, exposed and resisted by the women and men who endured it? How did they challenge sexual harassment, be that in in court, or through creative modes of expression?

The project is currently funded by the MSH-Paris Saclay and offers webinars, held every two months, giving scholars and PhD students from different disciplines (literature, history, the history of ideas and the sociology of film) the opportunity to present their findings and work in progress.

The first term has been dedicated to designing the bilingual French and English platform, which will continue to present collective research. It will contain a searchable glossary of the French and English terms and phrases used to identify, document and report this type of sexual violence. Alongside this, the platform will assemble information about all of historical, literary and filmic victims and survivors of such crimes. In time, the platform will develop into a corpus database of all works analysed, with up-to-date bibliographies, and other research information on the topic. The site will also advertise forthcoming events and summarise findings of prior project activities.

So far, the webinars since December, have focused on words (i.e. the vocabulary of sexual harassment) and images (i.e. the visual depiction of sexual harassment). Recurring in both focus areas are markers of masculine domination and female victims.

In the first webinar, Guillaume Peureux discussed Idylles (1605), poems by Jean Vauquelin de la Fresnaye (1536-1607), in which the terms harceler and harasser appear (both translate into English as “harass”). Peureux revisits Idylles in the light of a recent controversy in France (2018), which was initiated by the candidates for the agrégation (i.e. the high level competitive exams for teachers), and centred on how texts depicting sexual violence should be taught in class and whether focus on sexual harassment constitutes anachronistic reading of early modern literature.

Next, Chloe Tardivel presented  on two explicit cases of sexual harassment from 14th-century court records from Bologna: those of Margarita (in 1351) and Maria (in 1373). Neither case, however, was tried for the sexual violence involved but for the physical violence and injuries that followed the women’s resistance. This paper illustrated how historians can recover cases of sexual harassment even in the absence of a law that recognises the offence.



Archivio di Stato di Bologna, Comune, Curia del Podestà, Giudici ad maleficia, Libri inquisitionum et testium, boîte n° 219, registre 1, fol. 30.

Rejane Vallee discussed the corpus of films identified as dealing with sexual harassment on the IMDb.com website, the content of which is supplied by anonymous contributors. On this website, 750 films appear under the category “sexual harassment,” a figure far below the 5400 entries under the word “rape,” and the 1151 entries under the word “stalking.” It is, however, higher than the 661 films listed under the category “sexual assault.” The corpus covers films between the years 1899 and 2021, 40 different nationalities, and 16 different genres. It also raises a series of questions, starting with the criteria applied by contributors to categorise films as containing sexual harassment, which appears to have changed considerably over time.

Brigitte Gauthier looked at social fracture and harassment in South African cinema. Hence, sexual harassment in South African university contexts might be seen to be debunked in Steve Jacobs’s film Disgrace, adapted from J.M. Coetzee’s complex novel of the same name. The film portrays but does not resolve themes of sex and sexual violence cast against a background of racialised violence and territorial fights. Gauthier mentioned that South Africa has implemented new laws regarding sexual harassment in the film industry to fight the “embedded” harassment processes in an industry that capitalises and thrives on female beauty. Local filmmaker and member of Sisters Working in Film and Television (SWIFT), Tiny Mungwe, has encouraged people to take the pledge against sexual harassment by using the #Don’tLookAway Mzansi Facebook profile frame (Mzansi is another name for South Africa).

In the second webinar, Susan Baddeley looked at words used in 16th-century French and English to describe acts that we would today classify as sexual harassment. She showed that the words we use in the present – namely, (English) harass and (French) harceler – were not then generally used in the same way. They did, however, in the past, too, describe repeated and hostile attacks, which explains how these terms acquired the meaning they hold today. An intuitive search, from synonym to synonym, through various lexical databases (FRANTEXT, EEBO-TCP, LEME) yielded a few terms (such as attempt in English, attoucher in French) which could be construed as having this meaning, among other meanings. One term however, stood out, and referred to “sniffing around (a potential sexual conquest)”: this is the French verb mugueter. Although several dictionaries attempt to play down this meaning, the fact that others coyly include the word (but not the definition), and that translators tend to under-translate or even omit it, speaks volumes about the true meaning of the word at the time.


The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 177

Louise Piguet investigated the extent to which we can apply the present-day notion of sexual harassment to 17th-century French society. She took the case of Madame Guyon (1648-1717), and considered how the practice of “controlled anachronism” (Paul Veyne) can help us use her spiritual autobiography to shed some light on domestic abuse in late 17th-century high society. In her autobiography, Guyon recalls a violent past of constant surveillance, attacks, pressure and unwanted sexual intercourse with her husband. This would be labelled today as marital rape but, at the time, it was depicted by the victim as part of her conjugal duties. Piguet concluded that if self-sacrifice on the altar of wifely obedience was in this specific literary genre a major trope to demonstrate a woman’s forbearance and holiness, it can still prove useful material for present-day social history on sexual harassment.

Armel Dubois-Nayt analysed the historical case of sexual harassment of Elizabeth Tudor by Thomas Seymour between 1547 and 1548, which was placed in the limelight by a recent documentary on Channel 5 (2017). Dubois-Nayt examined the confessions of Elizabeth Tudor’s governess and treasurer, as well as a hand-written note on the back of a letter dated 9 June 1548, by the princess herself, on which the case is built. She then turned to and confronted the gender-prejudiced treatment of these texts by generations of historians, going on to propose an alternative philogynist version of events, underpinned by texts such as Willobie his Avisa (1594).

The next seminar will be held on 2 April 2021, and will welcome three speakers. Anne Rochebouet will survey courtesy in medieval fiction, with a view to determine how behaviours associated with courtly manners and courtliness fit with our assumed conceptions of medieval misogyny.

Line Cottegnies will discuss harassment and the battle of the sexes in Mary Astell’s philosophy.

Fanny Beure will talk about the ambiguities of the acts of loving conquest pictured in Hollywood musicals.

For more information about the project see: https://avisa.huma-num.fr/s/avisa/page/accueil

We look forward to Avisa and Shiloh collaborations.

read more
1 2 3 5
Page 1 of 5