In this post, we feature the book, Marriage, Bible, Violence: Intersections and Impacts (Routledge, 2023), by Saima Afzal and Johanna Stiebert, which is out this week! We caught up with them both for an interview.
How did the book come about?
The two of us have been friends for some years. We first met at the University of Leeds when Saima was completing her MA in Religion and Public Life, and we have collaborated on a variety of campaigns focused around preventing gender-based violence.
The book, while succinct, took longer to write than we had anticipated – not least, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the harder it was for us to find time for writing, the clearer the importance of this book became. We could see the harm and damage caused by instrumentalising sacred texts to afflict real people, with women and girls disproportionately represented among victims and survivors. This was exacerbated by the pandemic. Resisting such violence on multiple fronts, including with research-based arguments, drove us on.
Tell us about your collaboration – how you met, what work you do.
Like we said, we met at the University of Leeds where Johanna works, and Saima completed an MA. Saima has a wealth of practitioner experience from working in local government, child protection, and as National Crime Agency-registered expert witness and Independent Member of the Lancashire (UK) Police Authority, with a national Equality, Diversity, and Human Rights portfolio. Johanna is a biblical scholar with particular interest in topics of gender and gender-based violence. She co-founded and co-directs The Shiloh Project.
Together we co-direct (together with researchers Mmapula Kebaneilwe and Emma Tomalin) a Community Interest Company (CIC) founded by Saima, called SAS Rights. This CIC is the primary vehicle for much of our activist work. The book is our co-production and an attempt to combine our perspectives as researchers and as activists to explore the multiple ways the topics of ‘marriage’ and ‘violence’ are enmeshed. We use the Bible as our focus for demonstrating some of these intersections and the impact they have on real lives.
What does ‘activism’ mean to you, and how does this relate to religion and gender-based violence?
Activism is central to much of what we do. Religion is central to our research and central to the lives of many in the communities we work in. Each of us identifies as both scholar and activist, even if in our working lives, these carry different emphases. We share a conviction that activism benefits from a basis in research and research benefits from having impact on positive social change.
The book is based on research and analysis of biblical texts, yes. But in the course of this, we are mindful of and remind readers why these matter: that is, because recourse to the authority and ‘plain meaning’ of the Bible has had and continues to have impact on real people’s lives. Sometimes, this impact is violent and traumatic, notably when the Bible is weaponised to justify intimate partner violence. As such, the book explores aspects of family violence and domestic abuse and the role of religion within this. These discussions are increasingly in the public domain, which is a welcome development.
What are the main themes of the book?
‘Marriage’ and ‘the Bible’ are both prominent themes in day-to-day contexts, including in popular culture. One ideology very prominent in claims about ‘biblical marriage’ is complementarianism. One purpose of this book is to explore the disjuncture between, on the one hand, complementarian accounts of biblical marriage and, on the other, intersections of marriage and violence in texts from Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
We challenge authoritative complementarian claims to the Bible’s allegedly clear and unequivocal directions on marriage, and we refute these claims with analysis of the muddled and often violent depictions of marriage in the Bible itself. We focus on the influential pronouncements on ‘biblical marriage’ by the US Family Research Council and Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and analyse such key texts as Genesis 1–3, Malachi 2, and Ephesians 5.
Who would benefit from the book?
This book will, we hope, appeal to students of biblical studies and theology, as well as anyone interested in research-based activism and in how sacred texts are directed towards modern day-to-day life.
Give us a quote from the book you are most pleased with and why!
Can we have two? (We are two authors, after all!)
“[In Genesis 2–3] one woman (Eve) is created to be the companion of one man (Adam), and prior to this humanity is told to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). Extraordinarily, this story is used to justify all of monogamy; heteronormativity; heterosexual, monogamous, sexually exclusive marriage to the exclusion of all other kinds of marriage; female submission to male headship; and procreation. It is also used to condemn homosexuality, non-binary gender, transgender, polygamy, feminism, abortion, divorce, and, though less often, single life, elective childlessness, and women’s ordination. Wow. For a short mythological story, featuring an anthropomorphic deity, a talking serpent, and magical fruit, in a biblical book that makes no claims to divine authorship or inspiration, a story which never makes any explicit reference to marriage, let alone feminism, or homosexuality, this is quite something…”
This quote shows up some of the brazenness of claims regularly made about the clarity of the Bible’s claims on ‘marriage’ – yet there is not even a word that captures ‘marriage’ in the whole of the Hebrew Bible!
“Often laws are characterised as ‘secular’, with religious law overriding secular law. Adherence to religious law over secular law is even seen as a proof of faithfulness to God. One woman I am working with acknowledged her husband’s abuse and abandonment. But he had made her swear on her sacred book that she would not report him to the police. She will not budge from this oath, and I know that if I suggested it I would lose her trust.”
This quote is a reflection by Saima on some of the hands-on work she does. It is a reminder of why we wrote this book.
The book is in the Routledge Focus series Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible, edited by Emily Colgan, Johanna Stiebert, and Barbara Thiede. Books in the series are concise (between 25,000 and 50,000 words – all inclusive) and explore some aspect of rape culture (e.g., sexualised microaggressions, sexual violence) alongside some aspect of religion and/or the Bible. We are very interested in proposals exploring religions other than those associated with the Bible. If you would like to find out more, discuss this, or propose a volume, please contact Johanna: email@example.com.
If you are interested in the topic of marriage, Bible, and violence, you might also like Helen Paynter’s book, The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So. It is reviewed on our blog, here.