Today’s post is by Karina Atudosie and Katherine Gwyther.
Karina Atudosie recently completed her MA by Research at the University of Birmingham (UK) with a thesis exploring hegemonic power in the Song of Songs. She is currently examining how queenship, gender, and power are constructed and imagined in the Hebrew Bible. Her Twitter handle is: @KAtudosie
Katherine Gwyther is a third-year PhD at the University of Leeds (UK) researching utopia and the book of Exodus. She can be found on Twitter: @katgwyther
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the kidnap, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, then a serving police officer. Sarah’s murder sparked a wave of grief, outrage, and public protest, and debate around women’s safety and the prevalence of gendered violence and abuse of male power throughout the UK.[i]
Only a week after Sarah’s murder first appeared in the news media, came the results of a UN Women survey, which confirmed that sexual harassment, one form of gendered violence, is endemic in UK society. 80% of women of all ages had recently experienced some form of sexual harassment. 86% of women aged 18–24 reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces; 76% of women of all ages recognised this experience. Only a shockingly small minority of a mere 3% of women did not recall ever experiencing any sort of sexual harassment. In the year since, multiple reports about other abuses of power and the rape culture underlying them, both inside the police and within our wider culture, have emerged.
But gendered sexual violence is not, of course, a modern phenomenon or a sign of just our times; we find it abundantly in our ancient and religious texts, too. Within the Hebrew Bible, we can call attention to Dinah’s rape in Genesis (34:2), to the ‘taking’ of captive Midianite girls for rape in Numbers (31:18), to the women offered as a sexual sacrifice in Judges (19:24), and to the mass rape ‘marriages’ of the women at Shiloh in Judges (21:21–24). These are just a few examples to be found in the biblical corpus.
It may come as a surprise that the Song of Songs provides a further example of gendered sexualised violence. After all, many readers of the Bible regard this biblical book as benign love poetry. But that evaluation is deceptive and ignores the text’s traces of horror. We will read Song of Songs to reflect on Sarah Everard’s murder and on how we can use biblical texts to contemplate issues of power, boundaries, and victim blaming in situations of gendered violence perpetrated by men who have and who abuse authority. One aim of ours is to point out how important it is to recognise and to detoxify such situations even when – as in Song of Songs – they are all too rarely acknowledged and confronted. Sarah’s murder was shocking and widely mourned for its violence and for taking the life of a young woman with so much life to live. But such extreme sexual violence – in the police force as elsewhere – is underpinned by other forms of sexual violence, down to microaggressions. We advocate that these, too, must be called out – in our own time and place, including in sacred texts.
The Song of Songs is a series of sensual poems centred around two unnamed lovers who move in the landscapes of the city and nature to be with each other, overcoming obstacles along the way. The Song’s cyclical nature allows the lovers to continually part ways and reunite in different settings. We will focus on the two instances where the female lover encounters the city’s watchmen, or sentinels, as she wanders in the city at night.
The female lover’s first search for her lover appears in 3:2-3: ‘“I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”’
The description of the watchmen invokes contemporary experiences of police officers patrolling cities by night to ensure that citizens are safe and protected. Both the watchmen and modern police officers are in positions of authority to enforce the law, and, as these verses demonstrate, the watchmen and their vigilant gaze are believed to have their uses: they are relied upon to provide information that could help the female lover find her beloved. In short, 3:2-3 implies that interactions with watchmen, as so often with police officers or other authority figures in our communities today, are not expected to end in harm or violence. Instead, there is an assumption of trust and an expectation of reliability.
But the female lover’s second time wandering around the city at night describes a rather different experience. And this one is also all too familiar for very many women. This time when the female lover searches for her beloved (5:6-7), she is met with a completely different reaction from the watchmen. Describing her experience of wandering in the city on the second occasion, the female lover recounts the following: ‘I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city, the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls.’
The watchmen’s actions stand in stark contrast to their earlier interaction with the female lover. Earlier on, their role was passive. This time the watchmen do not only keep watch – they act violently. As well as physically assaulting the female lover (‘they beat me’), it is also implied that they sexually assault her: this is hinted at through the removal of an unidentifiable garment which is here translated as ‘mantle’. Stripping or exposing can be a euphemism or a prelude for sexual assault.
Some scholars speculate whether the watchmen’s sudden and decisive reaction in 5:7 is in response to the female lover being dressed provocatively while wandering around alone at night, deducing from this that she is a sex worker. This, moreover, carries the implication that a sex worker invites and deserves the watchmen’s violence, or that their violent action is somehow defensible or ‘understandable’.[ii] This a very dangerous implication that legitimates violence, and demeans sex workers, erasing their human dignity and agency over their bodies and sexual encounters. Focus on the female lover’s removed clothing is quite prevalent in scholarship on the Song, and its depiction in the biblical text, without any criticism, let alone outrage, of the watchmen is indicative of victim-blaming. It serves an apologetic function, explaining, even excusing, the watchmen’s actions. Effectively, this echoes the well-known refrain from our own times: ‘she was asking for it.’
Such accusations might be launched at the female lover for walking alone at night searching for her lover: ‘She is looking for sex… She is asking for sex… No wonder people assume she is after sex’ – with the word ‘sex’ all too often actually pertaining to ‘rape’. As it happens, the female lover is looking for her beloved – not for sex. And if she is looking for sex, it is for sex with her lover, not sex with anyone or everyone. To imply or argue otherwise is rape suggestive.
In chapter 3 we saw the female lover’s first search for her beloved; here she wanders by night and encounters the watchmen without any violent consequences. So, what happens in chapter 5 that results in such violence? Apparently, nothing about the female lover’s behaviour has changed; rather, it is the watchmen’s behaviour that has changed: this time they transgress boundaries and abuse their authority. They cross a corporeal boundary by physically and sexually assaulting the woman and inflicting pain on her. But they also cross a boundary in their role as watchmen, by digressing from keeping watch over the city and perpetrating an act of violence against a citizen. In their assault of the female lover, the watchmen go from those who are at the city walls, protecting its citizens, to abusers who use their authority to commit outrageous acts instead of guarding and protecting. In a vicious reversal, the watchmen, who should be protecting the city’s inhabitants, become the ones that women need to be protected from.
The Song, composed over two thousand years ago, contains a violent motif that is eerily reminiscent of events in our own times, and which speaks to the tragic fate of Sarah Everard, and to that of many other women who have suffered at the hands of men or authorities who should have protected them. Moreover, with these contemporary stories, too, we still often find the same problematic questions being asked: What was she wearing? Why was she out at night? Why was she walking alone? Why did she not see this coming? Such questions reinforce a system where people in safeguarding roles or positions of power can abuse their authority by blaming the actions of the victim rather than the actions of the perpetrator.
Asking such questions facilitates victim-blaming; at its worst, it conveys that certain lives matter more than others – for instance, that sex workers matter less than ‘respectable’ persons. It says that a woman walking alone at night can expect, in some cases deserves, to be kidnapped, raped, or killed; her clothing and behaviour can become a justification for such horrors. Victim-blaming takes the focus away from perpetrators, from those who cross boundaries and who should be held accountable.
In both the Song and in Sarah Everard’s case, accountability should be with those who abuse their authority and positions of trust – the watchmen and Wayne Couzens. Whereas the fact that Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer who violated and violently abused his authority added to the horror and outrage of the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, the actions of the watchmen are often passed over. Similarly, many less grave infringements of authority by police officers and other authority figures in our own times are also passed over. It is only in very recent times and in response to the emergence of multiple cases that so-called ‘banter’ between police officers on WhatsApp and other media is finally beginning to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be.
Allegations and concrete examples of police malpractice and abuse of power are, unfortunately, neither rare nor isolated. The Sarah Everard case is tragic and has elicited outrage, heartache, outpourings of grief and calls for investigations. All indications are that while Sarah’s kidnap, rape and murder are particularly brutal examples of fatal violence executed by a police officer, Couzens was not a case of ‘one bad apple’. Instead, investigations and tip-offs have shown the scale and depth of both racialized and misogynist abuses of power within the police to be far greater.[iii]
The Song might lull us into thinking about all kinds of sensualities, but we should remain alert to its abusive elements, no matter how fleeting these are. By drawing attention to the actions of the watchmen we can and should reflect also on sexual violence and on the abuse of power in our own contemporary society.
The anonymity of the female lover in the Song makes it easier to see her as everywoman. Her encounters with the watchmen show us how an ordinary and everyday experience might turn into a nightmare for any one of us when those in power decide to transgress their boundaries and abuse their position.
We mourn for Sarah Everard and for the many, many women who have suffered violence and lost their lives at the hands of abusers.
Davis, Ellen F. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.
Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs: A Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Fox, Michael V. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
LaCocque, André. Romance, She Wrote: A Hermeneutical Essay on Song of Songs. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998.
Longman III, Tremper. Song of Songs. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2001.
Smith, Mitzi. Womanist Sass and Talk Back. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.
[i] The rallying cry of public protests, ‘she was just walking home’, is now the name of a movement seeking change.
[ii] Davis (p.278) and LaCocque (pp.119–120) argue that the guards assume that the woman is a sex worker. Fox (p.146) offers a sexual, and arguably inappropriate reading of the text, noting that the description of the lover’s mantle invites the audience to ‘imagine the Shulammite running about the city hastily dressed and half-naked.’ Longman (p.169) and Exum (p.197–199) reject this designation.
[iii] For just a few of distressingly many examples from the UK, see here, here, and here. The last example pertains to revelations of police misogyny and racism following the brutal murder of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Alongside appalling WhatsApp messages there are also examples of police officers charged with rape (e.g. see here and here). There are also very many examples from beyond the UK, with the US case of Daniel Holtzclaw constituting a particularly shocking example (see here). Womanist biblical scholar Mitzi Smith has discussed this case alongside the book of Susanna (pp.118–140).