God knows women’s bodies always have a way of getting our attention. This is not breaking news. But in the past two weeks two storylines have been breaking out and gaining traction on the female body, and I have been both painfully and gratefully reminded that there are always at least two sides to any story.
The headlining of the two stories started back in January of 2011 when Egyptian men and women joined in the collective unrest and civil protests against political and social injustices in North Africa and the Middle East known as Arab Spring. But the story reached a new chapter last week in Tahrir Square in Cario, where the Egyptian military and governing forces offered the world yet another powerfully devastating example of what seems permissible to do to a woman’s mind, body and spirit. It is difficult to shake the images from the viral video of Egyptian soldiers kicking and clubbing a half naked female protester on the streets. One soldier’s army boot stamping purposefully on the woman’s exposed chest has made an indelible mark on both Egypt and the world.
Reuters quoted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent speech at Georgetown University saying, “Women protesters have been rounded up and subjected to horrific abuse. Journalists have been sexually assaulted. And now, women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets. This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people.”
Unfortunately we cannot look at Egypt and shake our heads because based on what we see occurring in both the developing and developed parts of the world, this “systematic degradation of…women” points to the prevailing narrative capturing our human imagination on what it means to be a woman, namely that our bodies are without value, are dispensable, and are public commodities to be acted upon freely by others. Just last month NBC covered the story of North Carolina’s eugenics program for women in which mostly poor, black women were forcefully sterilized. A few years back Nicholas Kristof wrote in the NYT about the acid attacks on women in Pakistan. We hear so much of the horrific sexual and physical violence against Congolese girls and women that I worry we are becoming immune to the shock and horror of such atrocities. All the ways in which we treat women’s bodies point to the sort of imagination we hold for women. Naturally, how we imagine women has clear ramifications on how we relate to women. Pick from any number of taglines to follow: advertising, pornography, video games, music lyrics. Each will take you down a similar trail of research and conclusions. This stuff is not new. But that doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention.
There is another story worth listening to that has also been breaking out over the last two weeks. It tells another side of how to hold women in our collective imagination. Last week, in another country but not too far from where the Egyptian women have been protesting for their civil rights, marching in solidarity for one another and demanding justice from governing forces, a young unwed girl in an insignificant town gave birth to a baby boy. The girl’s name is Mary and both she and her family say she has never had sex. But she just delivered a child and people have been saying that the child is the son of God, and the girl, virgin or not, claims that the Holy Spirit got her pregnant. She has also claimed that her child has been born to answer the cries of the oppressed, to upturn power from unjust governments and to lift high those considered without value, dispensable, in other words, “the lowly.” Naturally, a lot of people have a problem with this story. But I’ve been wondering, as I listen to the news around the world, if our biggest obstacle to paying attention to this story is that it would mean adhering to a different narrative about what it means to be a woman, a God-centered narrative, a narrative that suggests that women have a sense of their own power. Such awareness should be enough to threaten armies and governments. Those in political power should be worried. What if a woman’s body held the beginning of the end of their oppressive regimes? What if resistance took the nonviolent form of bodily protest issued from a female body? What if a woman actually stood up to fear and consented to have her body bear the mark of God’ strength, God’s mercy, God’s gaze and God’s justice? What if a girl like Mary did say to God, “Here, I am,” and chose to align her power with God’s power? If this is true then it means that God has a wholly different sense than we have sinfully imagined of what it means to be a woman. If it is true then it means that God has heard countless other women say, “Here I am.” God has heard women like Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR). say, “Here I am. ” God has heard Elaine Riddick, who sought justice after she was forcibly sterilized say, “Here I am.” God has heard Congolese women, rape victims ready to speak out say, “Here I am.”
There is a beautiful Chinese proverb that says, “When sleeping women wake, mountains move.” Egyptian women are awake. In response to seeing their “sister” and “daughter” violated by the Egyptian military’s abuse of power these women have taken to the streets in continued protest marching together and in effect promising one another not to turn away in fear, promising one another to keep testifying against an unjust and false narrative of what it means to be a woman. And instead to courageously keep trying to create a new narrative for all Egyptians to bear witness. The response of Egyptian women is a promise to stand firm and to be present, here, now.
If the story about that young girl named Mary is true then it means that God is in the business of aligning God’s power with willing women for the healing of the world regardless of their country of origin. God is in the business of seeking justice for any woman, child or man whose mind, body or spirit has been misused, abused and “systematically degraded.” Creative power aligned with the power of women. Surely we should be paying attention.
Enuma Okoro (M.Div) was born in the NYC but reared in four countries on three continents. A writer, speaker, consultant, and retreat / workshop leader, she writes regularly for abc Good Morning America, Sojourners, Christianity Today and others. Okoro is the former director of the Center for Theological Writing at Duke University Divinity School, of which she is a graduate.
Her spiritual memoir, Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent, Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community was released in September 2010. She is also co-author with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, on Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. When she’s not writing she can be found with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in hand, depending on the time of day. Visit Enuma at www.enumaokoro.com