This post is written by Daphne Marsden (BMin, MTh). Daphne works with Project Esther, a charitable trust that works with and for women to ensure they are valued, respected, and can reach their full potential. Project Esther offers an impressive range of services to women, including wellbeing support groups (Waiora o te Wahine), temporary and emergency accommodation for women in crisis, supporting women of faith who are experiencing domestic violence, and advising church leaders about responding pastorally to disclosures of domestic violence. Project Esther staff also contribute to the Chaplaincy work in Christchurch Women’s Prison providing pastoral care, crafts, music lessons and a bookclub for the women in the prison.
The first part of Daphne’s post is based on a presentation she originally gave at a 2018 suffrage event in Christchurch, New Zealand, titled “Women on Fire.” Daphne presented this extended version at our recent Shiloh Project workshop, held at the University of Auckland on 4 July, 2019.
Nga mihi tena koutou katoa – Greetings everyone
No Ōtautahi ahau – I am from Christchurch
Ko Opawaho te awa – The Opawa is my river
Ko Alice raua ko Betty ōku kuia – Alice and Betty are my grandmothers
Ko Fay tōku whaea – Fay is my mother
Ko Anna raua ko Emily āku tamāhine – Anna and Emily are my daughters
Ko Daphne Gracie tāku ingoa – I am Daphne Gracie
No reira tena koutou katoa – Greetings to you
I want to give voice to past and present stories.
The present stories are from the places I work.
Rachel McAlpine’s novel, Farewell Speech (Penguin, 1990) gives voice to the ordinary women who worked as suffragettes. In the novel, we read about suffragette Ada Wells, who had a daughter called Bim. Bim describes the following:
I woke up suddenly and I heard the noises. A thump thump thump, and then a silence and another thump. I pushed the door open and there was father in his rage. I wanted mother to scream but she just stayed there with her hands over her head.I once asked, “Why did you let Father hit you, Mother?”
In frustration, she said, “He was bigger than me.“
In a support group, a woman shared with us how she grew up in a cult. During her childhood, all the decisions concerning her schooling, social, and home life were made by men. The man in charge was a bully to her family:
“There was so much I wasn’t allowed to do, like simply reading a novel or having friends outside the cult. We had no freedom, we were all controlled. I have come to Christchurch to get away from a very controlling and abusive husband; I brought my young children with me.”
A woman who used our accommodation tells us how she came to New Zealand with her husband of many years. Soon after arriving, he did not want her anymore. He left her for another woman. She says:
“He said he did not love me, he does not want to look at me, and I bring him bad luck. The police came one day when I was injured and in hospital and I got refuge help. I have a lawyer now and I am waiting to know what will happen with our children. I still love my husband and I feel very sad.”
A disabled woman’s diabetic son got taken from school to hospital by ambulance. He stayed overnight. When he was discharged they took turns riding home on her disability scooter. She says:
“He was weak and couldn’t walk far. It was dark and cold we had to do it this way I only had $30 in the bank till Tuesday and couldn’t afford a taxi it would have cost $30. But we did it because we had to, life can be like that, but when you have kids you find a way.”
There is a school nearby our workplace; the teachers sometimes ask us, can we provide bras, underwear and sanitary pads for young women students who have special needs? These requests make me wonder, what other issues are these young women facing and struggling with? Thankfully, there are women school teachers who advocate and care for them. It’s not right though, that the girls who are the most vulnerable in our community have so few resources, and must rely on the support of teachers and charity.
In the Christchurch women’s prison where I am chaplain, the women often ask me if I can get them a bra, socks, or a pair of undies. Some women arrive at prison in what they wore to court, or in the police cells. For others, their size has changed or their only bra has worn out. It’s embarrassing for them to have to ask; the older ladies whisper their size to me and I have to explain, “You need to fill out a special form and give it to someone who works here.” In my mind I think, “She will need to keep going through this embarrassment time and again. This is not justice.”
The role of chaplain involves a lot of listening to stories about gender injustice, women who can’t leave the prison as they don’t have a safe place to go to. Some women say, “I will be sleeping on the street when I get out,” or “I don’t want to go, I am better off here,” despite the fact that being “here” is not an easy option, no matter what people say. It is sad to hear these words from both young women and older women. It is also sad when women come back after only a short time of freedom, and I ask myself, “was she ever really free?”
Years after the vote was won, a Women’s Christian Temperance Union editor wrote of the suffragettes,“We, the mothers of the present, need to impress upon our children’s minds how the women of the past wrestled and fought, suffered and wept, prayed and believed, agonised and won for them the freedom they enjoy today.” Gratefully, we walk in their footsteps of advocacy but need to leave our own. Present freedoms remain partial. Stories still need to be rescued, heard, understood, felt, and resourced so that allwomen have choices.
One hundred and twenty five years after suffrage, we still have a long way to go in Aotearoa New Zealand. There are still bastions of patriarchal power which do not enable freedoms or goals of equality and respect. We are told that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treatsits weakest members. Women and girls remain in positions of exploitation and disadvantage in every area: education, health, employment, and safety. That our sisters are needing help to access sanitary pads, bras, transport, domestic safety, homes, health services and a basic income screams injustice.
We are women on fire. In our communities we smoulder away; some of us are infernos which people try to dampen down. Fires destroy rubbish, give direction, signal danger, and clear paths. Margaret Atwood says:
is your ambition:
to swallow the flame down
take it into your mouth
and shoot it forth, a shout or an incandescent
tongue, a word
exploding from you in gold, crimson,
unrolling in a brilliant scroll
To be lit up from within
vein by vein
To be the sun.
I concluded my talk at the suffrage event last year by saying I hope an evening such as this encourages us to keep our feminist fires burning, to gather fuel, stoke up embers, eliminate dead wood, and choke with smoke if we need to. Our fires need to rage and burn the rubbish and dross of patriarchy. There is so much more work to do. Some structures are difficult and take a long time to burn. I say, let’s turn up the heat. Justice still needs to come. For so many women and girls, things are far from what they should be. I ended my talk with the lovely words of New Zealand’s most famous suffragist, Kate Sheppard: “Women, take the matter up”
But for now, I don’t quite want to end there.
We have some more precious and significant words from women of faith who journey with domestic violence.
The first time that Sam hit me, he just … I was on the bed and he was slapping my face, side to side like that, you know (moves head) … hurting … and I thought to myself, “I’m not going to cry, I’m not going to let him see that this is upsetting me.” And I just lay there and let him do it to me. Where did that come from?! I’ve not a clue. He just slapped, slap, slap – like this – and I didn’t know it was abuse. I just lay there, thinking, “There’s one thing I’m not going to let him do to me – and that is I’m not going to let him break me.” …. That was so early in our marriage, like, maybe a year into our marriage …. something just shifted in my thinking towards him, from then on – and I was married to him for thirteen years. Covenant is something to be taken seriously. I didn’t think God ever broke covenants – so if we made a covenant with God, then we shouldn’t break it either. Which sort of takes my mind down the road to, well, how bad is divorce, then?
In secular situations when a woman continues to return to a violent relationship, the question most often asked is, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
Within the church, however, leaving, even as a temporary measure is a possibility that is frequently denied an abused woman. When seeking help from her faith community it is more than likely that she will be asked a series of faith-related questions which she no doubt has already asked herself:
Have you prayed about the problem?
Have you forgiven him?
How have you contributed to the conflict?
Have you been a good witness or example?
Have you been submissive?
Didn’t you promise to stay for better or for worse?
Doesn’t the Bible say we are to suffer for our faith?
Each of these questions is undergirded by and justified with traditional understandings of particular scriptures, such as forgiving seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22), women remaining silent (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18). Literature and stories women share with us continually highlight these particular scriptures.
Another woman has spoken to me about her experiences of church culture which shaped her husband’s behaviours:
In our church there was a theology of domination. The great God does all these things and is in control and takes charge – and that was mirrored by men being the ones who take charge, and they solve things by taking charge. Women are there to assist. Subservience and suffering are somehow virtuous in their own right.
A big issue of course was sex. I was “being cruel” and depriving him of something that was really essential to him by not wanting to go to bed.
If we disagreed about sex, who gets to decide? Well, he’s the man, he’s in charge, and I’m the woman. How important am I as a person? and in fact, do I even own my body?
Christian women are a very vulnerable group who, in the main, wait longer to seek help for domestic violence than their secular sisters.
The churches that hold onto patriarchy and non-egalitarian beliefs and practices (which I would say areunbiblical) create a lot of hard work. The church is very happy to celebrate and draw attention to itself for the work that women do to help other women, such as providing services like refuge, food, and education. But the church does not want to see or take responsibility for the ways it contributes to the plight of women, especially those who are vulnerable. There continues to be resistance to basic practices like the use of inclusive language and the equitable sharing of leadership between women and men. Church leadership commonly continues to withhold power from women and other marginalized groups in patriarchal and hierarchical ways. There is resistance to appreciating how pervasiveand complex violence against women is, and of course many male church leaders are certain that God is a man.
The patriarchal tenets of this hierarchical model can be replicated in the Christian family and increase the risk of family violence. Some Christian women experience their marriage as a place of vulnerability and danger, as their husband is guided by beliefs adhered to within their faith communities: that a wife’s submission is biblically expected and directed. Abused Christian women describe their marriage relationship as one of inequality, where the greater power is held by their husbands. Christian husbands mayembrace traditional ideas about family and gender roles,especially that the husband is the supreme and superior leader in the home and,as such,has the power to control family members. Choices made by husbands may leave women feeling disadvantaged and, in many instances, vulnerable to harm. The children within these families also suffer as a result of this misuse of male power.
Let me share another woman’s story:
My husband had an affair; our baby was six months old. Once he was angry with the dog and he threatened, “You wait ‘til I get home, I’m going to fuckin’ kill it; I’m going to fuckin’ wring its neck.” I was frightened. He would get angry with our little son and push him into the corner and I push my way between them, the kids were only little. I’d go back to “you made your bed and you lie in it.” So I’ve made my bed and I’m lying in it.
Research highlights the connection between violence within marriage and the subordinate position of women within marriage. The abuse of women exposes the potential danger of men’s sense of entitlement and their claims to control within the family structure.
In my work at Project Esther, I meet women who have encountered similar circumstances. Sometimes they just want to chat, to ask questions about scripture; many feel they need to justify why they believe they cannot leave the abusive relationship, and some to ask for advice about a safe place to go with their children for a reprieve from violence.
I always feel that it is a privilege to listen to a woman sharing her difficult story of abuse; it is sacred listening which behoves respect. We must do justice with her trust, offer her support, and respect her choices.
This and the following quotes are from Daphne Marsden’s Masters Thesis, “Dishonoured and Unheard: Christian Women, Domestic Violence, and the Church,” Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School of Theology, 2013. This thesis is now published by Archer Press(2018).