You are powerful beyond words, because you threaten to unravel the control of corrupt men who abuse their authority.
In the United States last week there were people who wouldn't let boys play a baseball championship final because a girl was on the opposing team. She'd already had to sit out two games because of their demands. Why? Did she, a competitive athlete and a member of her team, choose to? Was she being good and respectful when she acceded to their demands? Why were they not asked to forfeit their games? What messages were sent to her and her teammates? This is not complicated. It sent the wrong messages. Confusing messages. Incoherent messages. You need to know that she should have been allowed to play and not have had to sit out two games. These people, and others like them, all over the world, led exclusively by religious men, are scared of you and will not let you be. You worry them constantly.
If you were not powerful, they would not take you so seriously and they take you very, very seriously. You should, too. You can set the world on fire.
It doesn't feel this way, I know. If that were true, you think, I would not have to sit out baseball games out of respect for religious beliefs that require my subservience and call it a gift. I would not be turned away from serving God with my brothers. I would not be taught that I'm an evil temptress or the virtue keeper of boys. I would not have virginity wielded as a weapon against me and my worth determined by my womb. I would not be spat on and called a whore by men when I am eight because my arms are bare. I would not be poisoned for going to school. I would not be forced, at the age of 9, to carry twins borne of child torture. I would not have to kill myself to avoid marrying my rapist. If this were true, they would pursue my rapists instead of stoning me for their crimes. I, and thousands others, would not be killed for "honor."
Girls, these things happen because there are men with power who fear you and want to control you. I know that I have equated relatively benign baseball games with deadly, honor killings but, whereas one is a type of daily, seemingly harmless micro-aggression and the other is a lethal macro-aggression they share the same roots. The basis of both, and escalating actions in between, is the same: To teach you, and all girls subject to these men and their authority, a lesson: "Know your place." I also know that there are places where girls are marginalized and hurt that are not religious. But all over the world these hypocritical, pious men, in their shamefully obvious wrongness, represent the sharp-edged tip of an iceberg, the visible surface of a deep and vast harm. They employ the full range of their earthly and divine influence to make sure, as early as possible, that you and the boys around you understand what they want your relative roles to be. Where there are patriarchal religions girls, in dramatically varying and extreme degrees, disproportionately suffer. Understand these men for what they are: bullies. Do not internalize what they would have you believe.
Your very existence makes them anxious. And their anxiety is particularly high because you have something no generation of girls has had before -- globally connected communities of men and women who support your equality and freedom. Like guns, germs and steel, this transformative technology, which enables me to write to you here, alters geography, changes societies and dismantles systems of control -- it makes the world a smaller place and it creates, even if slowly in some places, positive change for girls like you. You see, until now, these men could count on, indeed they could ensure, that you and the women around you were house-bound and isolated. Many of you still are. But now, there are millions and millions and millions people who are thinking about you and challenging these men every single day. You have the speed of light on your side and unless someone permanently turns the lights out, those days are gone. So, although you might feel like you are alone, you are not.
How do you threaten them? A girl, alone? By being able, strong, confident and yes, shameless. You may not "naturally" be interested in domesticity, piety, purity and submission, and they rely on your commitment to those things to order their worlds. Their actions, from one end of the spectrum to the other, are designed to fill you with self-doubt and, ultimately, fear -- either bodily or spiritual -- because otherwise you, and the young boys around you, will be fully aware of your strength and potential.
Because of this, they single-mindedly focus their attention on you, your body, your clothes, your hair, your abilities, your physical freedom. When their "manners" and "morals" are not universally applicable, but different for boys and girls, you can be sure that this is why. They seek to teach you, subtly, through small slights and gendered expectations, that you are "different," weak, unworthy, incapable. The sadness is that, in their perception, if you are none of these things, then they are not strong, worthy and capable. This is not an excuse, but an explanation. It's why they find infinite "benevolent" ways to undermine and disparage you, all in the name of "God's word." When that fails, they resort to violence. All over the world, their anxiety is manifest in a spectrum of actions ranging from mild paternalism, respectful of "proper boundaries," to deadly enforcement of their rules.
Fear is why these men "officially" investigate Girl Scouts while perversely shielding child rapists. It's why they obsess over your "purity." It's why they segregate you in public and private spaces. It's why they instruct girls and boys that girls' bodies are either shameful and dirty or sacred and belonging to men. Fear motivates them to teach that you pollute others by your very nature. It makes them intent on making sure you stay home and not be fully engaged in the world. It leads them to sanction marriages of 8-year-olds to old men. It convinces them that rape and its consequences are a "gift from God." It's why they empower others to stone you to death and disfigure you with acid.
Even "beating the gay" out of children, especially boys who are "more like" you, is aimed at you. Because if boys are "more like girls," something these men believe is fundamentally inferior, then you can be "more like boys." That causes ambiguity and destroys their carefully defined hierarchies and that is intolerable to them.
Fear is why they insist there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Don't believe them. Fear is why they want you to cover your body. There is nothing wrong with your body, and your body is not to blame. Whether you choose to expose your body or to cover it up, consider the degree to which either choice is defined by a reduction of your character to narrow sexuality by a culture that refuses to hold men accountable for their actions and requires you to either radically display ourself for men's pleasure or withdraw from the world and be held in reserve. Either way, ask who is defining your worth and by what measure. Fear is why they tell you you are so different from boys. You, and the boys you know, understand that your bodies are different, but that you are far more alike than dissimilar. Threatened, insecure, adult men say otherwise. Don't give in. Even if you're quiet. The differences these religious authorities exaggerate are simply pillars of oppression used to teach boys and girls that women's subjugation is "natural" and "divine." Reject them and their ideas.
This is hard to do. It requires that you, individually, be brave, strong, determined, fearless and confident. It requires that you demand that the adults around you pay attention and change their behavior. This is even harder.
First, and perhaps the most difficult to understand as a girl, is that women who love you and care for you often enable these men. This is what people say, "It's not JUST men!" And they are right, women support them, individually and in groups, in ways that have private, public, political and societal consequences. But, make no mistake -- although women are the enforcers of rules, they have no real, systemic authority in conservative religious hierarchies, and they know this. Yes, without their support these men could not continue, but until these women are truly free -- bodily, economically, physically, politically -- and their practical and spiritual salvation is no longer mediated by these very men, they will continue to support them. Enforcing the rules is a rational choice that enables them to survive, the world over, in unjust environments. You scare them too, because you call in to question their own complicity and cause conflict within.
Second, it is confusing that these men say they do what they do for your own good. They talk about respecting you and your dignity. You want to believe them; they have power and authority over you, your parents, your community and your access to God. They are often kind and benevolent and they love you. So, they must be right. But they are not. They demonstrate their own hypocrisy over and over and over again. They say they know what is best. They do not. You do. Don't believe them when they teach you in hundreds of ways, through sacred text, careful words, cherished traditions, hidden threats and frightening examples, that you are inherently more sinful, base and corrupt, less worthy and in need of constant male guidance. Reject them.
The adults around you may not appear to support you when you take your humanity to its logical religious conclusions. Do not let them off the hook. Do not let them use "tradition" as an excuse or say it "really doesn't matter." Do not allow them to get away with asking you to "sit out games," "be a good girl," "don't make a fuss," and "put something on." These are micro-aggressions that result in macro-aggressions. Adults often don't think these things through. Sometimes it's scary to them, too.
You can say: "There is nothing wrong with me. There is something wrong with you and your world."
Otherwise, when you get older, these same men, the ones who fear and hate you, will continue to undermine you. They will seek to control your body, keep you out of the public sphere, subjugate you in the name of a narrowly defined "family," create impediments to your equality, shame you at every turn and justify your continued oppression in convoluted ways that defy reason and morality. They will investigate you for being strong, violate you, stone you to death, charge you with witchcraft, punish you in every conceivable way to set an example for ... your children.
So, know that you are strong and powerful. Use your reason. Trust your instincts. Seek out those that would support you and, yes, know your place: on the field, in the street, on the bus (in the front), in school, at work and in public office.
You are not alone and you are brighter than the sun.
10 INSPIRING RELIGIOUS WOMEN
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Professor of Islamic Studies, founder of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program and director of the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT. She earned her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago in 1999. From 2006-2010 she served as President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); she previously served two terms as Vice-President. She is the first woman elected to those positions. Dr. Mattson was born in Canada, where she studied Philosophy and Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo, Ontario (B.A. '87). From 1987-1988 she lived in Pakistan where she developed and implemented a midwife-training program for Afghan refugee women.
The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in June 2006. She serves as Chief Pastor and Primate to the Episcopal Church's members in 16 countries and 110 dioceses. She joins with other principal bishops of the 38 member Provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, seeking to make common cause for global good and reconciliation. Over the course of her nine-year term, Bishop Jefferts Schori is responsible for initiating and developing policy for the Episcopal Church and speaks on behalf of this Church regarding the policies, strategies, and programs authorized by General Convention. She has been vocal about the Episcopal Church's mission priorities, including the United Nation Millennium Development Goals, issues of domestic poverty, climate change, and care for the earth, as well as the ongoing need to contextualize the gospel.
Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins serves as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. As General Minister, she is general pastor of the 700,000-member denomination, responsible for representing the wholeness of the church, for reconciling differences, and for helping the church retain its clarity of mission and identity. As General President, she is the chief executive officer for the denomination, responsible for overseeing the work of the church's various structures. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Phillips Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from the Yale Divinity School, and a Bachelor's Degree in French and Economics from Butler University.
Sharon Salzberg has been a student of Buddhism since 1971, and has led meditation classes and retreats worldwide since 1974. She teaches both intensive awareness practice (insight meditation) and the profound cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion in a non-sectarian, inclusive framework. She is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Her newest book, Real Happiness, The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program was published in January 2011. She is also the author of The Force of Kindness, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart as Wide as the World, and co-author with Joseph Goldstein of Insight Meditation: a Step-by-Step Course on How to Meditate.
Ruth Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization providing support to more than 200 grassroots social change projects in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Ms. Messinger is also a visiting professor at Hunter College, teaching urban policy and politics. Prior to assuming her position at AJWS in 1998, Ms. Messinger was in public service in New York City for 20 years. She served 12 years in the New York City Council and eight years as Manhattan borough president. She was the first woman to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for major in 1997. Among her numerous accolades, Ms. Messinger has been named one of the 50 most influential Jews of the year by the Forward for the last five years. Ms. Messinger graduated from Radcliffe College and received a Master of Social Work from the University of Oklahoma in 1964.
Rev. Joyce Meyer is one of the world's leading practical Bible teachers. A New York Times bestselling author, her books have helped millions of people find hope and restoration through Jesus Christ. Through Joyce Meyer Ministries, she teaches on hundreds of subjects and has authored over 80 books, which have been translated into over 80 different languages. More than 12 million of her books have been distributed around the world, and in 2007 more than 3.2 million copies were sold. Joyce holds a PhD in theology from Life Christian University in Tampa, Florida; an honorary doctorate in divinity from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and an honorary doctorate in sacred theology from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Rev. Dr. Suzan D. Johnson Cook is a United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, pastor, author, and presidential advisor. She has had a distinguished career in public service, having served as a White House fellow on the Domestic Policy Council and worked with a Cabinet Secretary. She participated in the historic Obama Presidential inauguration at the National Cathedral. Rev. Suzan Cooks is also the president and CEO of Charisma Speakers Inc. She was a television producer with NBC and ABC and also served with CBS. She is the author of three bestsellers, Moving Up, Live Like You're Blessed and Sister Strength.
Sister Carol Keehan is the ninth president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA). She assumed her duties as of October 2005. Sister Carol has worked in administrative and governance positions at hospitals sponsored by the Daughters of Charity for more than 35 years. Sister Carol has held influential roles in the government of a variety of health care, insurance, and educational organizations. She is a representative to the International Federal of Catholic Health Care Associations (AISAC) of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health Care and serves on the board of Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) also known as the LGBT synagogue, and is regarded as one of the most important rabbis in America. Under her leadership, CBST has become an important voice in Judaism, in the worldwide discourse on the nature of religious community, and in the movement to secure basic civil rights for gay people everywhere. Prior to joining CBST, Rabbi Kleinbaum was Director of Congregational Relations at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC, from 1990-92. Rabbi Kleinbaum is a recipient of the Jewish Fund for Justice Woman of Valor Award. She is a graduate of the Frisch Yeshiva High School and Barnard College and was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Anju Bhargava is the only Hindu American appointed to President Obama's Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and was the only Indian-American to serve in the Community Builder Fellowship, President Clinton's White House initiative. She is the Founder of Hindu American Seva Charities, which is now becoming a national movement for Hindu faith-based community service programs addressing social issues. A Vedantic teacher, she strives to combine philosophy and practice from a contemporary view and is active in interfaith collaboration. She was a founding member of the New Jersey Corporate Diversity Network, is the President of Asian Indian Women in America (AIWA) and a Trustee of Council for a Parliament of World Religions.
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