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Grant for Research with Ugandan LGBT Refugees

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Congratulations to Adriaan van Klinken and Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) on their latest grant success!

Adriaan van Klinken and Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) have secured a research grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, for a project entitled “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”. The project uses community-based participatory research methodology to undertake life story research among Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya.

The project engages established methodologies in feminist, queer, and postcolonial studies that emphasise the political and epistemological importance of autobiographical storytelling in research with marginalised groups. Expanding this existing scholarship, the project develops an innovative approach that explores the potential of biblical stories to signify the queer lives of the Ugandan refugees. Foregrounding the popularity of the Bible in contemporary Africa, and conceptualising biblical appropriation as a decolonising and queer process, the project reclaims the Bible as part of African queer archives.

We’re looking forward to hearing more about the project later this year!

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LGBTI History Month: Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church

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February is LGBT History Month, and this year, the central theme has been peace, activism, and reconciliation. To mark this, Project Shiloh is delighted to offer a blog post from Harriet Winn, who writes about the need and potential for reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the Christian Church. Harriet is an Honours student at the University of Auckland, whose research interests include queer theology and gendered histories within Christianity. Harriet is also an active member of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa, a student-led group campaigning to end campus rape, and Hidden Perspectives NZ, a student community that works to heighten LGBTIQ awareness and acceptance in the Faculty of Arts.

Reconciliation between the LGBTIQ community and the church

Harriet Winn

‘Theological ideas are powerful.’[1]

The queer community can understand the potent power of theology more acutely than many other groups. Historically, the church has contributed to the societal subjugation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer or questioning (LGBTIQ) people, appealing to destructive theologies that designated them “disordered” beings.[2] Yet, in recent years, some church denominations have begun to engage with queer communities in ways that hint at the possibility of reconciliation.[3] The issue of same-sex marriage, for example, has been considered or even embraced by a number of churches.

However, whilst theological engagement with issues such as marriage equality have value, true reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ people will not come from tokenistic gestures but needs to be deeply rooted in an embrace of queer theology. Queer theology presents a challenge to traditional methods of theology from the margins.[4] Through its rejection of essentialism, queer theology demands that the church dismantles and rebuilds its conceptualization of human relationships both with each other and with God, thereby articulating a theology of reconciliation which works both horizontally and vertically.

In this blog post, I will argue that for reconciliation between the church and LGBTIQ communities to take place, there must be a process of unlearning normative theologies, followed by a reclamation of queer identity rooted in faith, and finally the finding of common ground between both groups.

Stained-glass window at Church of Our Savior MCC (Metropolitan Community Church, Boynton Beach, Florida.

The discord between queer communities and the institution of the church has a long and varied history. The conflict between these two groups does not necessarily follow a monolithic path, as there are certainly Christian communities who welcome LGBTIQ people into their fold unconditionally. Moreover, the approach taken by churches to queer people varies between denominations.[5] Overwhelmingly, however, the Christian faith has expressed hostility towards the queer community which has served to rob LGBTIQ people of their ‘fullness of human expression.’[6]

This pervasive hostility has manifested itself in diverse ways. At a scriptural level, verses of the Bible such as the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative (Gen. 19) have been torn from their original context to elicit condemnation over queer sexuality.[7] Legalistically, conservative forces who seek to discriminate against the queer community have used the rhetoric of church leaders to bolster their political arguments.[8] In their denial of marriage to LGBTIQ people, various denominations of church – most prominently Anglicanism and Catholicism – deny the queer community a fundamental human right on the basis that same-sex marriage disturbs the sanctity and stability of the heterosexual family unit.[9]

All of these objections to queer humanity contribute to a rhetoric of violence which has taken root in the institution of the church and led to the exclusion of queer people from its varying communities. And while this may not involve the total exclusion of LGBTIQ people, this rhetoric has certainly made participating in Christian faith a less-accessible, and oftentimes hostile, experience for them. The question of how to reconcile the queer community with an institution that has historically pushed them to the margins is, therefore, a loaded one.

In tackling the daunting topic of reconciliation, Gregory Baum recognizes that in order to be truly effective, the process must elicit a ‘change of mind and heart’ within its participants.[10] As confronting as it may be, this radical change of position will not take place without a period dedicated to the practices of listening and dialogue between queer people and proponents of theology that oppose their sexuality. It is in these spaces that the unlearning of normative theology and a reorientation of faith towards the inclusion of LGBTIQ people will occur.

Gay Christian Jeff Chu believes that if people simply stop and listen to the stories of queer marginalization, their minds will be ‘positively transformed.’[11] Here Chu gives voice to the immense value of the role of witness within queer theology. Baum adds nuance to Chu’s assertion when he states that the participants of the dialogue must ‘be willing to examine their own history critically’ and ‘recognise the distortions of their self-understanding.’[12] Therefore, passive acceptance of the other party’s position is not sufficient – each group must embark on a process of deep self-reflection. For those who oppose queerness, this will involve maintaining an openness to queer theology’s criticism of binaries. Queer theologians proclaim that these binaries – whether related to gender (man/woman) or sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual) – are arbitrary forms of socially constructed categorization which generate discrimination through the process of othering.[13] Recognition and acceptance of the fluidity of identity embodied by queer people is a crucial part of their reconciliation to the church – they cannot and will not be subject to restrictive classification.

Capital Pride Parade, DC, 2016, image courtesy of S Pakhrin, Wikimedia Commons

This may be an unsettling prospect for Christians who hold theologies which support the idea of gender complementarianism, but as Gerard Loughlin proclaims – faith should be unsettling.[14] Furthermore, this part of the process will challenge many Christians to acknowledge how sin manifests itself in ‘conformity with the status quo’; that collusion with homophobic theology is displeasing to God.[15] The commitment to listening and dialogue allows the process of reconciliation between queer people and their theological opponents to begin on the foundations of truth.

The next crucial stage of reconciliation sees LGBTIQ people reclaiming their identities rooted in faith. Liberation theology, arguably the predecessor of queer theology, presents the need for victims of oppression to find a ‘new self-understanding’ due to the internalization of hatred which can infiltrate their mindsets in an insidiously destructive way.[16] Reconciliation, therefore, implicates forgiveness of oneself as well as of others.[17] For queer Christians, the most profound affirmation of their identity can be found in the conceptualization of God as queer. Furthering the tradition of apophatic theology, which professes God’s transcendence of human understanding as being ‘above all essence’, Patrick Cheng argues that God is an ‘identity without essence’ much like, in its fluidity, queerness.[18] Queer theologians go beyond conceptualizing God as standing in solidarity on the side of the marginalized to contend that God actually becomes one with them; Loughlin believes that queer can be ‘offered as a name for God.’[19] This remarkable notion affirms LGBTIQ people’s sense of self in the most radical of ways as it expresses an unequivocal divine support for queerness.

A rainbow flag on Union Congregational Church in Hacksensack, Minnesota. Courtesy of Tony Webster, on Wikimedia Commons.

On a more pragmatic line of thought, reclamation of queer identity also occurs through the embrace of historic queerness. Lara Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan illuminate how both homosexuality, and same-sex unions, date back as far as heterosexuality.[20] They recognize the unproblematic, historic existence of same-sex unions in China, Egypt, within certain tribes of Native America, and in Māori culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.[21] Delving into the historical place of queerness illuminates how contemporary societal understandings of marriage and sexuality are entirely contextual and not ubiquitous across cultures.[22] Recognizing this offers the potential for liberation from the position of restrictive normativity which has often been the church’s default response to queerness. The reclamation of a queer identity rooted in faith is necessary for the establishment of justice within this process of reconciliation: it puts LGBTIQ people on equal grounding with their non-queer sisters and brothers in faith.

The restoration of justice for queer communities through their reclamation of identity is not the end of the reconciliation process. The next stage involves the growth of mercy between the two groups through the finding of common ground; as Baum has found, the ‘need for a common story’ is one of the most fundamental aspects of reconciliation.[23] In the same way that ecclesiastical endorsement of same-sex marriage will not instantaneously lead to the rooting out of all theological homophobia, simply existing on an equal platform within the Christian faith does not immediately bring about unconditional acceptance of queerness within the church. Therefore, it is vital that LGBTIQ people are able to show a sense of mercy, and patience, towards their theological opponents as they gradually embark upon the path of understanding and accepting queerness.

And conversely, theological opponents of queerness must root their discernment process of trying to understand queerness in the attribute of mercy. Reconciliation is a time-consuming process – not a one-off event; this sentiment is aptly summed up by Leah Robinson who conceptualizes reconciliation as ‘an inspired lifestyle.’[24] Due to its ongoing nature, mercy must undergird the process as it entails a certain sense of compassion which is ultimately conducive to the establishment of peace: the ultimate goal of reconciliation. The finding of common ground between both parties is a practical method of helping establish merciful attitudes and can be done within this context through illuminating the intersection of queerness and theology. By demonstrating the queerness inherent to both theology and Christian faith, queer theology could gently show its opponents that queerness is not a terrifyingly ambiguous and threatening concept, but something which has a long-standing place in the Christian tradition.

Chicago Pride, 2013. Image courtesy of Richie Diesterheft, https://flic.kr/p/eZv88z

The queerness of Christianity is widespread. It finds itself in defiance of the status-quo, and its seeking of the strange – ‘the unknowable in Christ’, just as the desire to deconstruct ‘traditional boundaries’ and binaries within queer theology demonstrates a commitment to uncertainty.[25] Moreover, the destruction of binaries is not a practice exclusive to queer theology. By existing as both human and divine, Jesus epitomized Christianity’s flagrant disregard for binaries.[26] If traditional modes of theology find the blurring of boundaries between humanity and divinity unproblematic, they should be able to conceptualize, and thus show mercy towards, the blurring of binaries within the human realm.[27] Mercy for the other can take root between the queer community and their theological opponents through the finding of common ground; the queering of Christian faith.

Reconciliation between the queer community and the church will only occur when queer theology is fully embraced by normative theology as a legitimate and life-giving source of faith. The road to peace between these two communities will certainly not be a smooth or swift process, as the hurt that has been wrought by homophobic theologies is deeply entrenched in the psyche of LGBTIQ people. However, through the practical steps outlined earlier – the establishment of truth through listening and dialogue, assertion of justice engendered by reclamation of identity, and the nurturing of mercy by finding common ground, peace becomes an exhilarating possibility. Amidst all the incongruous debate taking place about same-sex marriage and the place of queer people in the highest echelons of the church, queer theology presents the most hopeful way forward.

Image courtesy of Theoroditsis, ‘Jesus Loves You All’, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/h4tsB1

Queer theology transcends the bounds of theory to become praxis – it precipitates, and requires ‘authentic Christian discipleship.’[28]  Therefore, it requires sustained commitment, which is a crucial component to reconciliation and will aid the long-term inclusion of queerness. In order to avoid the disconnect between itself and society being further widened, all Christian theology must be undergirded by the declaration made by eminent archbishop and theologian Desmond Tutu that ‘he would rather choose hell than worship a homophobic God.’[29] Patrick Cheng proclaims the church as an ‘external community of radical love’,[30]  and now is the time for the church to fully embrace this role.

 

Bibliography

Ahmed, Lara Aasem, and J. Michael Ryan. “Same-Sex Marriage.” In The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, edited by Nancy A. Naples, 1-2. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016.

Althaus-Reid, Marcella, and Lisa Isherwood. “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory.” Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007): 302-314.

Aspin, Clive, and Jessica Hutchings. “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality.” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007): 415-427

Baum, Gregory. “A Theological Afterward.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 183-192. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

Cheng, Patrick S. “Contributions from Queer Theory.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Cheng, Patrick S. Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. New York: Seabury Books, 2011.

Dickinson, Colby, and Meghan Toomey. “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field.” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017): 1-16.

Endsjø, Dag Ølstein. Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.

Kirby, Andrew, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper, and Shoba Nayar. “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy.” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017): 901-918.

Loughlin, Gerard. “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity.” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008): 143-152.

Robinson, Leah. Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology. Bern: Peter Lang, 2015.

Shaw, Jane. “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by Adrian Thatcher, 1-20. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Wells, Harold. “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace.” In The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells, 1-14. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.

[1] Harold Wells, “Theology for Reconciliation: Biblical Perspectives on Forgiveness and Grace,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 1.

[2] Gerard Loughlin, “What Is Queer? Theology After Identity,” Theology & Sexuality 14, no.2 (2008), 144.

[3] Jane Shaw, “Conflicts Within the Anglican Communion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11-12.

[4] Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood, “Thinking Theology and Queer Theory”, Feminist Theology 15, no.3 (2007), 304.

[5] Althaus-Reid and Isherwood, 9-12.

[6] Colby Dickinson and Meghan Toomey, “The Continuing Relevance of “Queer” Theology for the Rest of the Field,” Theology & Sexuality 23, no.1-2 (2017), 10.

[7] Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury Books, 2011), 12-3.

[8] Dag Ølstein Endsjø, Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 165.

[9] Andrew Kirby, Barbara McKenzie-Green, Judith McAra-Couper and Shoba Nayar, “Same-Sex Marriage: A Dilemma for Parish Clergy,” Sexuality & Culture 21, no.3 (2017), 908;

Lara Aasem Ahmed and J. Michael Ryan, “Same-Sex Marriage,” in The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, ed. Nancy A. Naples (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016), 1.

[10] Gregory Baum, “A Theological Afterward,” in The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to Churches, eds. Gregory Baum and Harold Wells (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 198.

[11] Dickinson and Toomey, 6.

[12] Baum, 190

[13] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[14] Loughlin, 143.

[15] Patrick Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Adrian Thatcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 10.

[16] Baum, 189.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[19] Cheng, “Contributions,” 9.

[20] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[21] Ibid;

Clive Aspin and Jessica Hutchings, “Reclaiming the past to inform the future: Contemporary views of Māori sexuality,” Culture, Health and Sexuality 9, no.4 (2007), 417-8.

[22] Ahmed and Ryan, 2.

[23] Baum, 190.

[24] Leah Robinson, Embodied Peacebuilding: Reconciliation as Practical Theology (Bern: Peter Lang, 2015), 35-6.

[25] Loughlin, 143;

Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 9.

[26] Ibid, 6.

[27] Cheng, “Contributions from Queer Theory,” 11.

[28] Dickinson and Toomey, 4.

[29] Shaw, 18;

Ibid, 12.

[30] Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, 106.

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Challenging Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church: An Interview with Rocio Figueroa Alvear

Rocio

Today, over 100 senior Roman Catholic bishops from around the world will meet in Rome for a 4-day summit called by Pope Francis to address the long-standing crisis of clerical sexual abuse. It’s fitting, then, that today’s post is an interview with a scholar and activist whose work highlights and challenges the crisis of abuse in the Catholic Church.

Dr Rocio Figueroa Alvear is a Peruvian Theologian, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Good Shepherd College in Auckland and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University, New Zealand. She has a bachelor’s degree and license in theology from the Pontifical Faculty of Theology in Lima and her doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She has previously lectured and worked in Peru, Italy, and Mexico. She worked in the Holy See as head of the Women’s section in the Pontifical Council for the Laity. She has published on women’s studies and reciprocity between men and women.

Rocio’s present research focus is theological and pastoral responses for survivors of Church sexual abuse. She spoke about her work at a recent public lecture organized by Voices of Faith, ‘Overcoming Silence – Women’s Voices in the Catholic Abuse Crisis’. She also appeared earlier this year on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour programme, #NunsToo: Nuns abused by priests and bishops. Rocio works with theologians Professor David Tombs and Dr Jayme Reave on a project, ‘When did we see you naked?’, which considers the historical, pastoral, and theological questions around faith-based responses to sexual abuse.

More details of and links to Rocio’s research are listed below.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I am a Peruvian Theologian and currently I am a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Good Shepherd College in Auckland and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University, New Zealand.

I did my doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. I have previously lectured and worked in Peru, Italy, and Mexico. I lived for 15 years in Rome and while there I worked in the Holy See for five years as the head of the Women’s section in the Pontifical Council for the Laity. I have always enjoyed working on women’s issues. While in Mexico I developed a program to promote micro-businesses and the empowerment of women in an indigenous community in Puebla.

Following my research and activity on the promotion of women, I am currently focused on theological and pastoral responses for survivors of sexual abuse.

Can you tell us more about this aspect of your research – what inspired you to focus on this topic, what research you’ve done to date?

My first inspiration was my own experience. I am a survivor of sexual abuse within the Church. I belonged to the Sodalicio Catholic community in Peru, where I was abused when I was 15 years old by the second-in-charge.  It took me twenty years to be able to face my own abuse.  I was a member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), a Catholic Association of lay consecrated women, which is the female branch of Sodalicio. I served as the MCR General Superior for 9 years (1991-1998). In 2006 I began to receive reports of sexual abuse of male members of the Sodalicio community. Because of what happened to me personally these reports immediately made sense. In 2006 I began an investigation and I helped these victims to present accusations to the ecclesiastical court in Lima, and to the Vatican in 2011. During this time, I developed a relationship of trust with the victims and because of this, I felt the necessity to do even more work for survivors using my theological and pastoral research.

The first outcome of this research was a project with Prof. David Tombs at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University. This report was entitled “Listening to male survivors of Church sexual abuse. Voices from survivors in Sodalicio”. The aim was to explore the impact of church-related sexual abuse on each of the interviewees and to identify the short and long-term psychological and spiritual consequences associated with it. There are a lot of studies about the topic of sexual abuse within the Church, however, the spiritual impacts of sexual abuse are a largely neglected.  One lesson from this report is the devastating effects on the faith and the spiritual identity of survivors. This made us conclude that the spiritual impact of abuse should be included in any full understanding of impact and consequences.

At this time my research is focused on the response of survivors to recognizing Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse.

What do you see as the main significance of this research?

Prof. David Tombs and I wanted to uncover the responses of survivors to the naming of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. This research has as its basis the idea that the torture and crucifixion of Jesus involved sexual humiliation.

The first academic discussion of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse was developed by Prof.  Tombs in 1999. In the ancient world, crucifixion as a practice imposed on prisoners was not just meant to kill the victim but also to sexually humiliate them. Nakedness during execution was a sign of humiliation and absolute powerlessness for both the Romans and the Jews.  Jesus being stripped of his clothes by the soldiers and his nakedness on the cross allow us to read the passion narratives as the story of someone who was sexually humiliated (see also Tombs, 2018).

Historically, the sexual component of Jesus’ torture was minimized in the artistic representations of the crucifixion by depicting him wearing a loincloth. We wanted to know how survivors felt about this idea. We asked them if they thought the historical evidence of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse was persuasive. We also asked them if they thought the topic could help victims and the wider Church. The responses have been fascinating.  We think that their insights could help the wider Church in confronting the crisis of sexual abuse and improving their understanding of survivors.

How important do you think it is for researchers and teachers in theological education to bring activism into their work and teaching?

Theology is not just a theoretical science isolated from the reality of the world. On the contrary, it is concerned with how to express the meaning of faith and how to respond to God in the present. Inspired by the Latin American way of doing theology I consider that discipleship comes first, and theology is a second step on this path. As disciples we want to live the Gospel and be committed to the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, and those who have no voice. By doing this, I believe that our theological reflections and teaching can only be enriched and fulfil the purpose of doing theology.

What would you like to say to our readers about the importance of engaging with the topic of religion and gender violence in our research and teaching?

There are some challenges in our society that cannot be avoided. The topic of religion and gender violence is one of them.  Religion is such a fundamental dimension in the life of so many people in the world that we need to reflect on how it can help those who have experienced any kind of gender violence. At the same time each religious community must become a welcoming place for healing and reconciliation. However, it is important also to analyze how many times religion has been misused to excuse or condone abusive behavior. Religious communities have leaders with spiritual authority. This authority can be used for healing and guiding, but it can also be misused to abuse members of the community. The religious worldview and the faith of members of the community can be harnessed to justifying gender violence. Religious communities are never neutral; they need to play a role in gender violence.

Some of Rocio’s publications include:

Figueroa Alvear, R., & Tombs. D. 2019. ‘Recognizing Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. Responses from Sodalicio survivors in Peru’.

Figueroa Alvear, R., & Tombs. D. 2016. ‘Listening to male survivors of church sexual abuse: Voices from Sodalicio abuses in Peru’.

Rocío Figueroa Alvear and David Tombs. 2016. ‘Escuchando a sobrevivientes masculinos de abuso sexual en la Iglesia: Voces de sobrevivientes de abusos del Sodalicio en el Perú’.

Figueroa Alvear, R., & Tombs. D ‘Lived Religion and the Traumatic Impact of Sexual Abuse: The Sodalicio case in Peru’ in: Trauma and Lived Religion. Transcending the Ordinary, ed. R. Ruard Ganzevoort-Srdjan Sremac, Amsterdam: Palgrave 2018).

Figueroa Alvear, R., Covenant of Love – Sources (México City 2015).

Figueroa Alvear, R., Man and woman, equal or different? (Puebla 2013).

Figueroa Alvear, R.,  Towards my own true self (Mexico City, 2011).

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Rolling out the fine mat of scripture: Church responses to gender-based violence in Samoa

Samoa_traditional_mat

In 2017, I was invited to join a research project titled ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua: Rolling Out the Fine Mat of Scripture. Church Responses to Gender-Based Violence Against Women in Samoa’. The project has investigated how Samoan churches can best participate in wider national efforts to tackle the troublingly high rates of violence against women (VAW) reported in this island nation. Particularly, those involved in the project considered how the church in Samoa might develop its capacity for transformative social leadership in tackling VAW.

The ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua’ project ran between 2017 and 2018, and was funded by the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research (NZIPR), which promotes and supports excellence in Pacific research. Project members were affiliated with the Universities of Auckland and Otago, and the National University of Samoa. The project lead was Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko, a lecturer at Piula Theological College, Samoa and research affiliate at the University of Otago’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues. Professor David Tombs (Howard Paterson Chair of Theology and Public Issues, University of Otago) was the principal investigator, and other team members included Dr Melanie Beres (University of Otago), Dr Ramona Boodoosingh (National University of Samoa), Dr Tess Patterson (University of Otago), and myself (University of Auckland). Together we made up an international and interdisciplinary team, drawing on our combined expertise in theology, biblical studies, sociology, gender studies, and the health sciences.

The primary aims of the project were fourfold:

  1. To investigate current attitudes within Samoan churches about VAW, particularly their understanding of VAW as a pastoral and public issue. The project looked at the level of church support for tackling VAW, as well as church norms and structures which might sustain this violence. In particular, the project sought to assess the extent to which there may (or may not) be a disconnect between Samoan church responses to VAW and international, national, and local initiatives on VAW prevention.
  2. To develop contextual and participatory group Bible study resources that could be used to foster church conversations about VAW. These resources were grounded in biblical and theological scholarship, focusing on biblical texts that speak to the issue of VAW. They also included texts that are sometimes used to justify the subordination of women (particularly in marital relationships) and, consequently, to excuse domestic violence.
  3. To pilot and assess the impact of these Bible study resources in Samoa, introducing them in a series of workshops delivered to church groups, theological students, and women’s groups. These workshops were guided by the transformative and dialogical pedagogy pioneered by Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire.
  4. To consider the practical decisions, actions, and policy recommendations that church leaders might take in response to the Nadi Accord 2014, in light of the issues raised by the project. The Nadi Accord arose from the Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme, and declared that culture, tradition, and religion ought never to be used as an ‘excuse for abuse’. It also called on religious leaders to ‘champion the elimination of SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] and to act with strong leadership in this regard’ (Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme, 2014).
Russell James Smith, University of Auckland clocktower, 2010 https://flic.kr/p/8uvteo

Throughout the project, there has been a range of conferences and conversations with colleagues in Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand (more details here), including a conference held at the University of Auckland on 11 June 2018. The conference, titled ‘Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua: Church responses to gender violence in Samoa’, aimed to initiate new conversations between academics, researchers, church pastors, and community activists about the role of the church (in Samoa and the wider Pacific region) in tackling VAW.

The conference included presentations from three esteemed keynote speakers: Dr Ah Siu-Maliko, Rev. Dr Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono1 (lecturer at Kanana Fou Theological Seminary, Tafuna, American Samoa), and Rev. Dr Nasili Vaka’uta (Principal of Trinity Methodist College, Auckland). In the afternoon, there was a screening of the 2015 documentary Sisi le Lā’afa – Raise the Sennit Sail, directed by Galumalemana Steven Percival. Following the screening, there were group discussion sessions, where attendees could share their responses to and reflections on the documentary, which highlights the complex intersections between religion, cultural tradition, and VAW in Samoa.

In the rest of this blog post, I focus on the keynote presentation delivered at the conference by Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko, Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua (Rolling out the fine mat of scripture): Constraints and opportunities.2 I have chosen this as the basis of my discussion as it captures so beautifully the aims, motivations, and challenges of the wider ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua’ project, not to mention the vital role that Mercy has played in shaping the philosophy that underpins it.

At the start of her presentation, Mercy spoke about how important it is for researchers to feel connected and committed to their work, particularly when this involves the vital issue of gender-based violence. She described her own ‘passion’ for researching VAW in Samoa, and her commitment to speaking openly about it in order to bring about positive change in Samoan churches and society. ‘Gender-based violence is part of my being’, she admitted, ‘I wake up thinking about gender-based violence. When I breathe, it’s gender-based violence. When I look around – my whole being is dominated by this issue’.

Dr Mercy Ah-Siu Maliko, speaking at the Tatala le Ta’ui a le Atua conference, 2018

Referring to some of the recently published reports which record the growing rates of violence against women and girls in Samoa, Mercy noted that there have been a number of responses to these reports from government ministries, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and some religious institutions, many of whom have initiated projects to challenge VAW.

Nevertheless, Mercy noted that there is still one key voice absent from the conversation about gender-based violence in Samoa – the ‘prophetic voice’ of the Samoan church. While Fijian church leaders have recently made a public commitment to VAW prevention initiatives, including participation in the country’s 16 Days of Activism campaign, the Samoan church has remained relatively silent, preferring not to engage actively with government and NGO initiatives that aim to tackle the crisis of VAW in Samoa. It is this silence that Mercy seeks to break, in her capacity as a member of the Methodist church in Samoa, an academic, a public theologian, and a ‘concerned citizen of Samoa’. In these intersecting roles, she spoke of her determination to move out of her ‘comfort zone’ to ‘mingle with the vulnerable in Samoan society’.

Mercy then went onto explain the context of tatala le ta’ui a le Atua – rolling out the fine mat of scripture. The phrase conveys the importance of being relational in Samoan culture, and the Samoan belief that the self takes its form from maintaining relationships: ‘It articulates the necessity to reconnect with one’s God, and sisters, neighbours, and environment in order to reveal one’s genuine self-identity rooted in relationships of respect’. In Samoan culture, ta’ui has a particular use, referring to the finest woven mats, which have been cared for and cherished over the years within their Samoan homes. These mats are old and delicate, and are only rolled out in public on special occasions.

A fine woven mat from Samoa. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fine_mat_from_Samoa,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art_accession_328.1.JPG

At this point in the presentation, David Tombs and Mercy rolled out a large ta’ui that was lying, rolled up, beside the presenter’s lectern. As Mercy explained, the conference was a special occasion – an opportunity to talk about a vital issue affecting not only Samoans but the entire world. The phrase tatala le ta’ui a le Atua also emphasises the significant role of the Bible in this conversation; the fine mat of scripture has to be rolled out to transform human relationships, including those damaged by violence.

Mercy also spoke about some of the constraints and challenges she has faced researching gender-based violence in Samoa. The first challenge was her status as an ‘insider researcher’ – a Samoan woman theologian researching a Samoan issue. As she noted, a researcher’s ‘insiderness’ can be of benefit, as long as it does not bias their study; for example, her identity as a Samoan woman has facilitated safe and honest communication with the Samoan women she interviewed during the course of her research. Moreover, her Samoan identity has also allowed her to represent faithfully Samoan understandings and worldviews and to engage critically with scholarly research about Samoa.

Another research challenge that Mercy raised was that, although VAW is a public issue in Samoa, it is often regarded as a ‘woman’s issue’, with the result that men are reluctant to engage with it. She noted that some male participants in her research interviews seemed to feel uncomfortable talking about the topic, resorting to humour in an attempt to evade having serious conversations. She was also aware that some men did not want to be interviewed by her in case others thought they were perpetrators of gender-based violence. As she noted, ‘Finding ways to engage with this issue in a public arena when it has historically been shrouded in silence and secrecy has required great sensitivity and patience’. Being an ‘insider researcher’ in this project has therefore been of great value here, allowing her to approach these difficult conversations with greater understanding.

Yet, Mercy admitted in her presentation, patience is sometimes hard to come by when there is still so much work to be done. She therefore described her role as lead researcher in the Fola le ta’ui le Atua project as a ‘God-given opportunity’ that has allowed her to begin urgent dialogues with Samoan churches about their role in tackling VAW. She noted without irony that her academic status allowed her to speak to those in the ‘upper level of Samoan society’, such as male church leaders.3

Image by AJC1. On https://flic.kr/p/mRP7Qv

Much of Mercy’s research has been guided by the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is rooted in the imperative to see everyone’s potential, regardless of their life situations, and to treat research participants as agentic subjects rather than passive objects. Drawing on Freire’s work has allowed Mercy to forge strong and fruitful networks with Samoan women from all walks of life, including women in leadership positions. And, while challenges remain and progress can appear awfully slow, she reminded the conference audience that ‘it’s about taking small steps, with passion and love’.

Mercy also took time during the conference presentation to discuss the preliminary findings of her research. She admitted that initial analysis of her interviews with Samoan church leaders and members has provided her with an ‘eye-opening opportunity’, both to assess the extent of work already being done by churches to address VAW and to consider what else they could and should be doing.

Of especial interest, her research findings uncovered an overall philosophy that guides Samoan relationships and engagements: as she puts it, ‘keeping the face, or keeping the front matters tidy’. While some of her research participants understood this as an enactment of the Samoan concept of teu le va (respecting and honouring the relational space between two people, Mercy contended that it is, nevertheless, a key contributing factor to gender-based violence being hidden, or, as she put it, ‘swept under the carpet as if it’s not a problem’. She also noted that this philosophy was particularly evident in the responses she received during her interviews with church leaders and NGOs in Samoa. The only exceptions to this were some of her female interviewees, who admitted that the confidential space afforded by the interviews gave them ‘a moment of liberation from the fear of the status quo’.

Speaking openly about gender-based violence is still taboo in many cultures and countries around the world, and Samoa is no different. Yet, as the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project has found, the silence that often surrounds VAW only perpetuates the sense of shame and stigma experienced by its victims. In both Samoan churches and wider society, women who are victims of gender-based violence are more likely to be blamed than offered support; even when they are not directly blamed, many still fear the stigma they will encounter in their local communities and churches. The church’s silence about VAW is therefore never neutral, but can often be harmful.

Piula Theological College, Samoa, where Mercy is the first woman to be appointed to a teaching position. Image courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piula_Theological_College,_Upolu_island,_Samoa,_2009.jpg

Mercy also stressed that her research provided her with a valuable opportunity to engage with the wider Samoan public and thus to create concrete platforms from which work can be done to tackle VAW. It has also enabled her to develop strong networks with other women who stand with her on the ‘battlefield’, waging war against those systems and ideologies that sustain VAW. In these networks, she noted, ‘we are not only developing and sharing resources, but nurturing human relationships as a way to prevent violence against women’.

Mercy ended her presentation by offering the audience a glimpse of the ‘end product’ of her research, which incorporates one of the key goals of the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project. Drawing on material from her research interviews, and working alongside biblical scholars and theologians (including myself and David), she has developed a series of Bible studies for use in Samoan churches to foster dialogue about VAW. Based on the transformational model of Paulo Freire, these Bible studies aim to liberate people through the process of self-awareness and consciousness raising. The studies eschew passive learning and encourage participants to think and speak for themselves, giving them the confidence to break the silence that surrounds VAW. As Mercy explained, the studies are not a ‘quick fix’ to VAW, but rather move participants from reflection to concrete action as part of an ongoing process.

Crucially, these Bible studies draw churches into this process, enabling them to dialogue openly about VAW, to participate in tackling VAW, and to offer healing and support to those impacted by it. The Bible studies also break the silence surrounding VAW in Samoan society, inviting members of the Samoan churches to publicly challenge the shame and stigma that many victims experience. Churches clearly have massive potential to lead the way in tackling VAW, but they need to recognise and embrace this as an integral part of their mission and ministry at both national and international levels. Mercy’s Bible studies offer an invitation to the Samoan church to recognize this potential and to begin taking action; as such, they are worth their weight in gold.

Mercy concluded her presentation by noting that her participation in the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project has reminded her of the importance of knowing herself – ‘my tūrangawaewae – my standing place – and believing I can be a part of making a positive change’. She acknowledged that her commitment to making change is an ongoing process that affects her personally at every level – her self, her family, her church, her nation. But, as she noted:

Every little step counts, as they are steps driven by a passion and conviction to enhance the common good of Samoans and all of God’s people. God did not put me here for no reason. There is a purpose for everything. And despite the challenges entailed in combatting gender-based violence, we are discovering in our faith tradition and our sacred scriptures resources that can guide us towards liberation and empowerment.

It was a privilege working with Mercy on the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project, along with the other researchers who made up the project team, and also those who participated at the Auckland conference. As Mercy observed in her presentation, those of us working to end gender-based violence find ourselves very quickly on a ‘battlefield’, waging war against the systems, ideologies, and structures that sustain such violence. This work can be exhausting and demoralizing, but we support each other, and draw strength from each other, refusing to give up while there is still so much work to be done. And, as Mercy reminds us, ‘Every little step counts’.

Notes

1 Rev. Dr Filemoni-Tofaeono is co-author (with Lydia Johnson) of the ground-breaking book, Reweaving the Relational Mat: A Christian Response to Violence against Women from Oceania (Routledge, 2006). Prior to Ah Siu-Maliko taking over the role, she also co-ordinated Weavers: Women in Theological Education, which developed resources for use by theological colleges to open up dialogue about violence against women in Oceania.

2 The other two keynote addresses at the ‘Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua’ conference were presented by Rev. Dr Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono, University of Auckland, Embrace our Voice: A call to re-image Tama’ita’i Samoana (women) in the image of God, and Dr Nasili Vaka’uta, Trinity Theological College, Auckland, #MeToo: Troubling ‘Sexual Abuse’ in Scriptures.

3 Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko is the first Samoan woman to be awarded a PhD in theology, and the first to be appointed to a teaching position in a Samoan theological college. For an overview of her research, see her article, “A public theology response to domestic violence in Samoa.” International Journal of Public Theology 10(1), 54-67.

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Book Launch of Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology

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Thirty seconds before I was due to take the podium, I opened my copy of my new book and realised that my carefully prepared notes were on my desk in my office halfway across the building. And that was how I winged my first ever book launch. Best laid plans…

On a cold Tuesday January evening at Sarum College in Salisbury, I was delighted to celebrate the launch of my new book Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology (SCM Press, 2018) with colleagues, friends, family, and members of the public. Despite leaving my notes in my office in my haste to get to the launch on time, it was a real privilege to share my research (a project I’ve been working on since 2013!) with so many interested people. I shared some of the inspiration for the project with those gathered; my frustration at the eliding of bodies in theology and my sense that the concept and experience of trauma offered real potential for doing something creative and fresh in theological scholarship.

A short section from the middle of the book entitled ‘Rupture’ sets out the task I am undertaking in Broken Bodies.

The experience of trauma is a rupturing event. Like an earthquake rolls through a landscape and radically alters the topographical features, so does trauma roll through lives, stories, memories and bodies, leaving them radically altered. Allowing the traumatic memory of the Body of Christ to be framed in terms of the Annunciation-Incarnation event and moving it away from the destructive power of the Cross causes a rupture in traditional Christian narratives. The way in which the Christ-event has been understood, along with the intertwined narratives of priesthood, sacrifice, and the Eucharist, are radically altered in the light of this traumatic reframing. It is from this rupture that new, fresh, life-giving theological narratives come forth. They blossom in the space cleared by the rupture of trauma. Like a forest awakening in the aftermath of a fire, or a trauma survivor stirring up a survivor’s gift in the aftermath of trauma, some stories can only be told in the wake of the rupture. These are those narratives.

Highlighting the way in which my reading of trauma through and against traditional Christian narratives of death and destruction brought to light a theology that was full of generativity and flourishing, this sense of traumatic rupture captures something of what this book is about.

The discussion afterwards ranged from questions about caring for those who had been in war zones, self-care when supporting people who had been traumatised, and the responsibility of the church to be a place where trauma was acknowledged and where liturgy and ritual for post-traumatic remaking was offered. It was a rich conversation that helped make the connections between theological work and praxis. I was reminded once again of the words of Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado who urged me to do my theology from the place where it hurts. Broken Bodies is theology from a hurting place and I’m really delighted it is available for people to read.

You can buy it from SCM Press in hardback or if you can wait until late March you can buy it in paperback!

Karen O’Donnell

Coordinator, Centre for Contemporary Spirituality and Programme Leader for MA in Christian Spirituality, Sarum College.

kodonnell@sarum.ac.uk

@kmrodonnell

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Interview with Professor Mercy Oduyoye

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While on our WUN-funded research trip to Ghana, Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert interviewed veteran academic and activist Prof Mercy Oduyoye and gender educationalist Joyce Boham. Mercy is the founder of the Circle for Concerned African Women Theologians and of the Talitha Qumi Centre Institute of Women in Religion and Culture in Legon, Ghana, where this interview was conducted. The short version of this interview links to a much longer conversation with both women. Enjoy!

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ANNOUNCEMENT: Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’

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We are delighted to announce our new Routledge Focus book series ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’, edited by The Shiloh Project co-directors Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert.

Titles are peer-reviewed, short form publications between 20,000-50,000 words, published within 12 weeks of submission.

If you would like to discuss a potential proposal, contact the series editors at shiloh@sheffield.ac.uk

Look out for exciting titles coming later this year!

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 16: Susannah Cornwall

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Today’s activist is Susannah Cornwall.

Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Susannah Cornwall, Senior Lecturer in Constructive Theologies at the University of Exeter, UK, where I also direct EXCEPT, the Exeter Centre for Ethics and Practical Theology. In my current research project I’m working in partnership with the West of England National Health Service (NHS) Specialist Gender Identity Clinic on spiritual care for people transitioning gender.

Lots of people who transition find faith is a source of support for them, but others might face opposition from religiously-conservative family and friends, or worry that God will be angry with them for ‘rejecting’ their bodies. Trans and non-binary people frequently experience physical, emotional, spiritual and conceptual violence, including erasure in religious traditions that find it hard to conceive of gender as fluid.

My theological work on variant sex and gender also extends to intersex (variant sex characteristics), and I recently contributed to and hosted the first UK screening of a new documentary film, Stories of Intersex and Faith, produced by Megan DeFranza, Lianne Simon and Paul Van Ness, which follows intersex people of faith in the USA as they negotiate living in and educating their communities. This formed part of a series of events bringing together faith practitioners, academics, advocates and activists from groups such as Intersex UK, Liberal Judaism,  the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) Sibyls, and OneBodyOneFaith to network and make new plans for co-created research on sex, gender, sexuality and religion.

I’m also currently contributing to the Church of England’s major new project on sexuality, Living in Love and Faith, which is due to publish its findings in 2020. I regularly provide teaching and training on gender, sex and faith in schools, churches, and activist conferences, and through professional training for groups such as teachers, clergy and medics.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

In the coming year I will be doing further work on religion and transphobia, exploring how religious communities might interrogate their own traditions and recognize the diversities of accounts of human sex and gender that are within them. I’ll be working on a new book project on trans and Christian ethics and continuing to work with activist and advocacy groups. I’ll also be speaking on the importance of spiritual care for people going through transition at the forthcoming conference of EPATH, the European Professional Association for Transgender Health.

Religious traditions have enormous resources for overcoming homophobia, transphobia and gender-based violence, but need to get their own houses in order and recognize that they have often been part of the problem.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 15: Mathew Guest

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On the penultimate day of the UN 16 Days of Activism, we speak to Professor Mathew Guest.

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 

I am a professor in the sociology of religion at Durham University, and have been on the teaching staff there for the past 14 years. Working in a department of Theology and Religion has meant I have several colleagues whose work engages with issues of ethical significance, but my own research has for the most part remained fairly dispassionate, focusing on a range of institutional contexts that frame religious identities within contemporary western cultures, especially families, congregations and universities. This changed in 2013 when I co-wrote (with my colleagues Sonya Sharma and Robert Song) a report on gender imbalance within departments of Theology and Religious Studies in UK universities. Researching the experience of women working as academics or as students within my own discipline opened my eyes to how embedded gendered disadvantage is within the academy. It’s one thing to appreciate this on an intellectual level; it’s quite another to hear the stories first hand. The report mapped patterns of disengagement by gender among students at undergraduate and postgraduate level, tracing experiences of alienation to structural problems that continue to inform the professional lives of women in Theology and Religious Studies as they progress from early career fellowships, to being a full-time lecturer, through to more senior appointments. It’s the work I’m most proud of, and has had real impact on challenging practices that disadvantage women in my subject area, although there’s a lot more work to be done.

It was listening to women’s testimonies about their experiences that led me to get involved in a campaign against gendered violence. Alongside my academic work, in recent years I have become more engaged in activist networks, driven chiefly by my convictions as a Quaker and a pacifist. A couple of years ago I became involved in the establishment of Tyne and Wear Citizens, an alliance of organizations in the north east affiliated with the national organisation Citizens UK. We use broad-based community organizing to identify challenges facing local residents and pool our resources to exert influence on those in power in order to bring about positive change. Two of our most vibrant and committed organizational members are Newcastle Central Mosque and the Islamic Diversity Centre, based in multi-cultural Fenham, in the west end of Newcastle. Religious-based hate crime is a serious problem in the north east, often targeted at Muslims or others presumed to be Muslims but who are simply dark skinned or cover their heads in public. This highlights how colour prejudice is a big part of the problem. Another major dimension is misogyny, as this is largely gender-based violence. In researching religious-based hate crime in the north east region, we learnt that many of its victims were Muslim women, especially those wearing the hijab or niqab, a common act of assault being the forceful removal of the face veil, although others had also been physically hit, spat upon and verbally abused, often on public transport. Whether driven by the cowardice of racist men too afraid to confront male Muslims, or by a perverse sense of entitlement to have dominion over women’s appearance, the experiences we heard about were unsettling and abhorrent. Unfortunately, they are not uncommon, and recent comments by public figures like Boris Johnson, presenting the veil as a dubious cultural oddity, risk validating existing prejudice and ignorance. In response, we launched a campaign to get hate crime addressed more seriously, particularly on public transport, where many incidents take place.

The testimonies I heard from Muslim women were truly shocking, recounting acts of disrespect, verbal abuse and physical violence. In some cases victims were too afraid to go to the police; in others, their reports were dismissed. Some felt supported by the authorities, but our campaign group felt too little was being done to address acts of religious-based hate on the region’s buses and on the Metro network.  So we arranged a meeting with representatives of the region’s main transport companies, and they too were faced with the testimonies of the Muslim sisters who had experienced some of the abuse we hoped they would want to address. They spoke with passion and conviction, and it was inspiring to see these two women – who I can now call friends – tell their stories to a row of white men in suits in a city centre boardroom. They spoke truth to power, and were visibly empowered as a consequence.

We were asking these representatives of the transport companies to work with us in devising a hate crime policy for the region, and they agreed. I believe the testimonies of the Muslim sisters were too powerful to ignore. That’s not to say our corporate colleagues didn’t need a little more encouragement, and so we organized a public demonstration – a celebration of our diverse Tyne and Wear community – in order to raise awareness of hate crime and demystify the hijab for those unfamiliar with Muslim traditions and what they signify.  This demo took place on 13th October. Entitled ‘Reclaim the Metro’, around 160 of us gathered at the Grey’s Monument in central Newcastle and listened again to the testimonies of our Muslim friends. In solidarity, we then all boarded the Metro and took a trip to Whitley Bay, where we enjoyed together a fine British tradition: fish and chips on the seafront. We also deployed an activist tradition very much at the heart of the Citizens method: we invited the media and got the event covered on BBC Look North. We also informed our colleagues from the public transport companies that the media would be covering the event, and that we could tell a story about how wonderful it is that they have responded to our concerns with a change in policy, or we could tell a story about how awful it is that they hadn’t. Their charter on hate crime on public transport – clarifying reporting processes, committing to training staff, and to working further with voluntary groups to tackle this urgent issue – was published just before the demo.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

Given my work with the local Muslim community, as well as current research I am undertaking about the experiences of Muslim students, I would really like to see more work done on engaging British Muslim women. Their voices often go unheard and their experiences are often grossly misunderstood. Unfortunately, secular feminist commentators do not always help, and the common equation of the hijab with gendered oppression is symptomatic of how certain women’s voices are often privileged over others. Let’s hear more from the testimonies of Muslim women.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

Well the hate crime campaign still has a lot of work to do. Our success in securing a hate crime charter does not solve the problem, although it was a pragmatic step towards creating safer public spaces in the region. We at Tyne and Wear Citizens need to ensure that the hate crime charter is adhered to and translates into practical solutions, like improved training for bus drivers, publicity to inform the public on what is religion-based hate crime and why it is not acceptable, and a system of accountability that joins up public transport providers with local police so that all incidents are properly followed up. I know that my fellow citizens at Newcastle Central Mosque and the Islamic Diversity Centre will be at the heart of this, and hope that Muslim women will feel safer and more secure in their communities as a result of the campaign.

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