White Rose Collaboration Fund Project Update

White Rose

On Wednesday 10th October members of our White Rose Collaboration Fund Project met for an update.

The White Rose Collaboration Fund is designed to support emerging collaborative activities across the three White Rose universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Our project focuses on using religious imagery in popular culture to explore and challenge everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse together with secondary school students.

In consultation with secondary schools from all three White Rose regions and Fearless Futures, a third-sector organization offering gender equality training for school-age girls, the network will conduct three pilot workshops with secondary school students (girls and boys) to investigate interactions with religious imagery in popular culture and the ways in which these representations shape understandings of gender, sex and sexualities.

Members of the White Rose universities involved in the project include Professor Vanita Sundaram (University of York), Professor Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds), Dr Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Dr Meredith Warren (University of Sheffield), Dr Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Dr Jasjit Singh (Unversity of Leeds), Dr Caroline Starkey (University of Leeds), Sofia Rehman (University of Leeds), Dr Sarah Olive (University of York) an Emma Piercy (University of York).

As usual, the meeting buzzed with energy, ideas and enthusiasm. We’re very much looking forward to working with our partners Fearless Futures and the local schools. We’ll update again after our training!


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Religion as Gender Politics


Abstract: Far from being an unintended consequence of those ideologies which are religions, the subordination of women may be central to their raison d’être. The form that religions (primarily the Abrahamic religions) have taken would seem to reflect (i) male splitting, and (ii) a desire to trump woman, quite possibly on account of an unresolved relation to the mother. Insofar as the raison d’être of religion is to constitute male as normative, while woman becomes ‘the other’, it is fascism. Male power and control over women is legitimised as only natural. We know control, rather than lust, to motivate sexual abuse. But sexual abuse is part of a wider scenario of male exploitation of women, with seemingly deep roots. To see religion in this light is vital.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Professor Daphne Hampson held a chair in Post-Christian Thought at the University of St. Andrews. In her retirement she is an Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford. The author of Theology and Feminism, After Christianity, and editor of Swallowing a Fishbone?, she is at present writing a book Religion as Gender Politics.

Header image:  “Creation of Eve”, a fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo [via WikiCommons]

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“A man cannot in law be convicted of rape upon his own wife”: Custom, Christianity, Colonialism, and Sexual Consent in Forced Marriage Cases, British colonial Africa, 1932-1945


The mid-twentieth century saw an upsurge in campaigns around forced and early marriage in British colonial Africa, as missionaries, feminist organizations, colonial officials, and African communities contested the terms of marriage and gender relations in colonial settings. The issue of sexual consent in marriage proved an important battleground on which these contestations were fought. This paper seeks to explore how differing notions of consent – those embedded in notions of African ‘custom’, articulated through colonial courts, espoused by European missionaries, and expressed by African women and girls, came into tension in such cases.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Rhian Elinor Keyse is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the Centre for Imperial and Global History, University of Exeter. Rhian’s doctoral research focuses on imperial, international, and local responses to forced and early marriage in British colonial Africa, 1920-62. Rhian completed her BA in History at Cambridge before moving to Oxford to pursue an MSc in African Studies. She has recently held a Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress, as well as a Global Humanitarian Research Academy Fellowship. She is also an experienced activist and practitioner in the gender-based violence sector.

Header image:  Conference artist Lily Clifford talking Rhian Keyse through the creative response to Keyse’s research.

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“My prayers weren’t being answered”: The Intersection of Religion and Recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse


Abstract: Funded by the Wellcome Trust, this paper draws on a thematic analysis of an online qualitative survey (n=143) and 25 follow up semi-structured interviews with adults who experienced CSA/CSE to understand and explore how religion has affected their recovery. While some found comfort in religion the majority of those who were religious as a child, had rejected organised religion as an adult, despite often retaining a sense of spirituality.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Claire Cunnington is a Wellcome Trust funded Doctoral Research in the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. Her PhD title is “From Victim to Survivor: What actions do survivors take to redefine their identity when recovering from Child Sexual Abuse?” This research takes a salutogenic approach to recovery from child sexual abuse (CSA) and involved a qualitative survey followed by in depth interviews with adults who have experienced CSA/CSE to identify useful actions they have taken to improve their health and wellbeing. She is interested in the influence of religion on individuals recovering from CSA.

Header image: Creative response to Cunninton’s talk produced by Lily Clifford at the Religion and Rape Culture Conference. A glass collage.

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“The Evil Sirens”: Evangelical Christian Culture, Pornography and the Perpetuation of Rape Culture


Abstract: The current waves of feminism (or tapestry strands per Professor Liz Kelly’s analysis) are particularly divided on whether pornography can be a sex-positive tool for women’s empowerment or whether it continues to be the “common erotic project of destroying women”. Unsurprisingly, evangelical Christian culture’s engagement with pornography remains ignorant of any feminist analysis of pornography. This presentation will explore the nature of evangelical Christian culture’s engagement with pornography, its focus on the male pornography consumer as the victim of the “pornography siren”, and the centring of male consumer’s feelings within the response to pornography.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist, and works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She is the Creator and Director of the DAY Programme, an innovative youth domestic abuse and exploitation education programme. She organises Project 3:28, is a co-founder of the UK Christian Feminist Network, and founded the Fifty Shades is Domestic Abuse campaign. She has written a Grove Book on “Gender Aware Youth Practice”, is publishing a book with SPCK on Christians and domestic abuse, and is currently doing a Masters in Integrative Theology with London School of Theology.

Header Image:  The Sirens, Wilhelm Kray 1874 [via WikiCommons]

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The Religion and Rape Culture Conference: A Summary


The first Religion and Rape Culture conference was a huge success. We welcomed over 50 delegates from 6 countries and were treated to 14 fantastic research papers from a range of academics, research students, practitioners, artists, activists, and members of religious groups. The aim of the day was to explore the many intersections between religion and rape culture, and how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

Click here to see videos of our research talks

The conference opened with a powerful keynote address entitled “Rape by any other name: Cross-examining biblical evidence“ from Professor Cheryl Exum (Emeritus Professor, University of Sheffield). Professor Exum presented delegates with a survey of rapes in the bible, and demonstrated in her talk the ways in which commentators often work overtime to elide this violence. Professor Exum ended her address with a challenge to biblical scholars to make rape a visible issue in the discipline. Professor Exum continues to be an inspiration to staff and students in Biblical Studies, and is responsible for carving out a space for Sheffield as a leading place for feminist biblical interpretation.

After a short break, our first panel convened who explored “Biblical Perspectives” of rape culture discourses. This panel, chaired by Dr Johanna Stiebert, was well received, with thought-provoking papers from a variety of disciplines:

Lily Clifford (Inclusive Arts MA, University of Brighton) & Emma Nagouse (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): How to make a ghost: A collaborative approach to finding Dinah

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar (PhD Candidate, Drew University):  For such a time as this? #UsToo: Representations of sexual trafficking, collective trauma, and horror in the book of Esther

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris (Principal, Leo Baeck College): This may not be a love story: Ruth, rape, and the limits of readings strategies

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar discussing her research with a delegate.

As well as presenting on this panel, we were thrilled to welcome Lily Clifford from the University of Brighton as an artist in residence for the conference, who crafted creative responses to each of the presentations as they unfolded. We were delighted that this was received so warmly by delegates and our presenters – who were each able to keep their artwork.

Lily working during the conference

Our next panel,  “Theology and Thought” was chaired by Dr Valerie Hobbs and included papers which explored some of the ways in which Christian discourses and ideologies have engaged with rape culture, both historically and in contemporary contexts. These were fantastic papers, and while some of this content was challenging to listen to, they served to bring focus to how important and timely this research is.

Natalie Collins (Gender Justice Specialist, SPARK):  The Evil Sirens: Evangelical Christian culture, pornography and the perpetuation of rape culture

Claire Cunnington (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): “My prayers weren’t being answered”: The intersection of religion and recovery from childhood sexual abuse

Rhian Elinor Keyse (PhD Candidate, University of Exeter): “A man cannot in law be convicted of rape upon his own wife”: Custom, Christianity, colonialism, and sexual consent in forced marriage cases, British colonial Africa, 1932–1945

Rhian Elinor Keyse and Lily (conference artist) discussing Lily’s artistic response to Rhian’s research paper

After (a delicious) lunch, we picked things up again with our “Method, Critique and Discourse” panel chaired by Dr Meredith Warren. This was an interdisciplinary panel which explored the various ways rape culture is expressed politically by both oppressors, and those who seek to resist it. This was a fascinating session that inspired a lively panel discussion.

Kathryn Barber (PhD Candidate, University of Cardiff): “Rape is a liberal disease”: An analysis of alternative rape culture perpetuated by far-right extremists online

Dr Rachel Starr (Director of Studies: UG programmes, The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Research): Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence

Professor Daphne Hampson (Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford): Religion as gender politics

Questions being taken by the Method, Critique and Discourse panel
A rapt audience listening to Dr Rachel Starr’s presentation on “Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence”

Our final panel, “Media and Culture” was chaired by Dr Naomi Hetherington and included papers which explored how rape and rape culture discourses are presented in literature and artistic contexts. We couldn’t have hoped for more engaging talks to round off the day’s panel discussions.

Mary Going (PhD Candiate, University of Sheffield): Mother Zion, Daughter Zion, Witch Zion: An exploration of Scott’s Rebecca

Dr Miryam Sivan (Lecturer, University of Haifa): Negotiating the silence: Sexual violence in Israeli Holocaust fiction

Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Glasgow): The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics

The Religion and Rape Culture Conference was closed by a fantastic keynote address from Associate Professor Rhiannon Graybill (Rhodes College) entitled “Fuzzy, messy, icky: The edges of consent in biblical rape narratives and rape culture”. Graybill’s research brought feminist literature problematising the notion of consent to bear on biblical stories of sexual violence and rape, as well as the ways in which we as feminists read and respond to those stories. Graybill asked what a serious critique of consent means to a feminist biblical hermeneutic of sexual violence, and in response,  explored how feminists might engage with these texts beyond the position of mourning or recovering. We were thrilled to host Professor Graybill, and her insightful research has continued to be a point of discussion since the conference. We’re so excited to continue to work with Professor Graybill through The Shiloh Project.

After a break, there was a drinks reception where everyone was invited to view our research posters. Authors who were in attendance were invited to speak for one minute about their poster. Topics included: Consenting Adults? Faith formation’s less-than-immaculate conception of consent (Catherine Kennedy, University of Sheffield); Preaching Texts of Horror: How Christian Pastors teach about Dinah, the Levite’s Concubine, Tamar, and Potiphar’s Wife (Dr Valerie Hobbs, University of Sheffield); A Climate of Taboo: Trauma and the graphic novel Blankets (Hugo Ljungbäck, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee); Veils and ventriloquists: How do creative interpretations depict narratives of trauma for those who remain voiceless? (Lily Clifford, University of Brighton); “Life made no sense without a beating”: Religion and rape culture in US Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited (Liam Ball, University of Sheffield), and The girl needs some monster in her man: Rape Culture, cis-male allyship and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Ashley Darrow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Emma Nagouse, University of Sheffield).

What kept coming up in discussion was pedagogical questions on how these challenging topics should be taught in educational settings such as universities and colleges, but also in religious settings. It became clear that academics, teachers, practitioners, and activists alike all craved more tools when it comes to how to teach, research, and facilitate discussions around these urgent and important issues. Perhaps a topic for a future conference…? You can see some of the online interaction from the conference by searching for #ShilohConf18 on Twitter.

It was a powerful, energising and galvanising day – and, on a personal note, I was thrilled with the huge amount of interest we received from a cross-section of people from a wide variety of sectors and community groups, and the level of extremely positive and encouraging feedback we received from participants.

We would like to take this opportunity to extend our warmest thanks to WRoCAH for funding this much-needed conference. We look forward to continuing this important work and making the most of the inspiration, networks, and new friends which were made at our first conference.

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Silence as Defiance: Tamar’s Desolation


Today’s post is an anonymous, personal reflection on the experience of sexual exploitation in childhood. The reflection also draws in the biblical story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13). On the one hand this is a declaration reminiscent of #MeToo but it is also an expression of defiant and articulate silence and a reminder that there isn’t a single, let alone a ‘right’ response to sexual violation.


“I come from a place where breath, eyes, and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head.”

Edwidge Danticant, Breath, Eyes, Memory

I have always been intrigued by silence; it has given me the space to observe and understand people.  Because of my mother’s influential position as a prayer warrior within the Christian community, our house was constantly filled with people, especially troubled women.  Since I was just a young girl, invisible in a patriarchal world, no one seemed to notice me.  So I just listened and studied the women who came with their stories, women who were under-appreciated, disrespected, unloved, silenced, cheated on, battered, and raped.  Too many stories to tell.  Yet the advice was all too familiar, quietly endure the mistreatment and abuse for the sake of the children, for the family.

It was the same advice that my mother kept for our own family.  And so I was silent when I had to deal with my own sexual molestation.  When I was young, I didn’t have the emotional capacity and definitely not the words to understand what was happening.  My mother knew what was happening but she failed to protect me because it was a family member she wanted to protect even more.  It was an ongoing shameful “event” that was confused with love, loyalty, and duty to the family.  All integrally connected to Korean cultural values that I only understood to be burdensome in my adulthood.  My mother, herself a victim/survivor of molestation and rape, tried to normalize the “event.”  It happens in all families and it was my responsibility from making it happen yet again.  I, the woman, had the power to say no and avoid the situation.  Since it was understood that men had no self-control, he could not be expected or punished to stop. But I was just a child, confused, not a woman.  So I was silenced or had no choice but to be silent.  I would not have known what to say or to whom I would have spoken. After all, it happens in all families.  So I tried to listen to my mother’s advice, to avoid situations and learned to say, “No.”  But it was at the cost, the loss of a loving relationship that I needed and valued.  Of course, the perpetrator had his reasons, perhaps justifiable to him, for his perversion but that is not my story to tell.  The burden is on him to explain his behavior to the world and God.  But most likely, he will choose silence for fear of jeopardizing his standing in the family and without question, his community.  I just wanted to make sure that it never ever happened again in the family. Never.  And it never did.

When I came into my personhood, I chose to be silent about the “event.”  Perhaps I was ashamed and somehow blamed myself for not stopping the “event.”  But more than anything, I still did not know how to express the inexplicable rage, hatred, self-loathing, and disgust that lied underneath.  And as always, I felt the responsibility to protect the perpetrator and my family which had a reputation to keep in the community.  I was not equipped emotionally to share this story with my close friends.  I remember just uttering a few words to a couple of people who were victims of molestation to make a point.  But it was all in passing, nothing to brood over or deal with.  This was the norm for a dutiful person who wanted to honor her mother’s implicit wishes.

Even when I was heavily influenced by the Oprah-era of needing to share one’s life publicly, I chose silence. I knew the rhetoric that silence equaled death and courageous women were the ones who came out with their stories.  After all, truth or finding one’s voice liberates the person.  However, I chose silence to deal with the “event.”  I still did not have the words to describe the “inexplicable.”  How does one talk about trauma?  What words can encapsulate the “event”?  Who will be able to understand the mixed emotions of being hurt by a loved one?

But I have decided now to talk about the “event” through the story of Tamar (2 Sam 13).  In the biblical story the daughter of King David, a virgin princess, is raped by her half-brother, Amnon.  The author explains that he was “tormented” because he was madly in love with a virgin who happens to be his sister.  He could not help himself; he was ill with lust so he had to possess her sexually.  And he does, forcibly against the wishes of his vocal sister.  She resists, fights, but he overpowers her.  Afterwards, she tries to talk sense into her half-brother, begging him to marry her so that they do have to bear the shame.  He does not listen; he is after all the crown prince, the heir apparent to the throne of Israel.  She will be shamed, not him.  Why would he listen to a woman?  He commands the servant to kick her out, whereupon she puts ashes on her head, tears her garment, and leaves the premise crying out loud.  She rightfully mourns for herself.

Everyone in the palace would have known; it would not have been a mystery that Amnon had raped his sister.  Yet everyone was silent.  The servants were silent.  Amnon disappeared into the background and therefore became silent.  Her father, the almighty King David knew but he remained silent.  Absalom, her full brother, found out but he too kept silent.  And it would appear that Tamar was silenced or became silent.  Yet their silences were not the same.

The servants did not have the power to speak; they would have spoken only at the cost of their livelihood or lives. If they spoke of the “event,” it would have been in hushed tones.  Amnon himself chooses silence because he probably did not believe he wronged anyone. Why would he talk about a trifling matter?  Is he not the prince who will one day rule the kingdom as he saw fit?  King David, the father and executor of justice, should and could have punished his son and uplifted his daughter but he chooses silence.  He did not want to punish his beloved son.  But then what about his daughter?!  He, by his silence, became complicit in Amnon’s crime.  Absalom, the rightful defender of his sister’s honor, also decides to remain silent.  His silence hid his determination to kill Amnon.  But who knows if he was defending his sister or making a run for the throne.  All three men in position of authority should have spoken up for Tamar; yet they chose silence to protect, to ensure their own power.

Then what about Tamar’s silence?  Scholars have argued that Tamar was silenced; Absalom asked her to remain quiet.  I argue just the opposite.  She chooses to remain silent.  Given her characterization throughout the story in which she, a woman, speaks against her brother is quite significant.  No female biblical character is more vocal than Tamar.  A woman who demonstrably cries out her pain most likely could not be silenced by her brother, Absalom.  Yet her silence is not quiet but defiant.  Rather than use words, she decides to speak through her “desolated” body.  It is not clear if the court historian had personally experienced or knew of her story but s/he aptly encapsulates Tamar’s response with the word, “desolated” (2 Sam 13:20).

The Hebrew word conjures imagery of devastation in the aftermath of war, the absence of life in the midst of charred ruins.

She embodied the “event” so that every sigh, every pained look, every deadly silence bespoke the devastation of the violent rape.  She did not need to utter a word because she had become a living monument to the “event.”  So she speaks without words; she breathes her pain. And everyone would have experienced and known of the “event” through her very presence.  Though men have refused to publicly acknowledge the “event,” she used her desolated body to tell her story.  She created a space that defied the men of power, ultimately undermining their authority.  This is real power, power to throttle or overthrow unjust leaders.

The emboldening story of Tamar’s rape and her desolation has given meaning to my silence. I do not necessarily think a survivor’s silence is an act of acquiescence to the cultural silencing of women.[1] Yes, one could argue that my mother had been silenced by the expectations of her culture.  It was shameful for a woman to discuss sex, especially sexual violence that was committed against her body by a family member, a much older half-brother. However, she embodied the desolation in the silence.  She, who constantly remembered and repeatedly told stories of her emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, did not utter a word about the sexual abuse.  But I knew she had been molested before she even mentioned it. Her body language bore the desolation. She only said a few words to me just once, not twice. And I knew of the rape because I was physically there.  I was not a direct witness but I knew with all the yelling, bashing of fists one particular night that a rape followed.  I just knew. I did not know the word for the violent violation but I knew it was the “unspeakable” act of terror. She did not say anything.  She again bore the shame of the event and I have inherited her pain.  I bear in my body the burden of her rape.  But again I have chosen to be silent about her story.

I can hear voices in my head the words of my Western education – “you have been silenced by your family, by your traditions, by your oppressive culture.”  Perhaps.  But like Tamar, I know that my silence has been an act of defiance.   First, it has given me the space to formulate my own narrative of the trauma.  I own the story and in my silence, I have refused to acquiesce to the counter-stories created by my mother and perpetrator.  Second, silence has allowed me to mourn the pain on my own terms.  No one has been able to dictate on how and why I should feel the way I do.  Third, I have been able to share my story through my desolated body, not through words but my very presence.  I have found that words almost always fail but silence embraces all – the tempest of emotions, the pain, the profound sadness, the confusion.  In other words, silence allowed me to be all and nothing at all.[2]  And it is through this choice that I have forced the perpetrator to break, to apologize.  Interestingly, that was not I wanted.  I had forgiven him a long time ago.  Nothing would have given back my innocence, my trust, my childhood.  No.  All  I really wanted was him to acknowledge his perversion, to admit his culpability and therefore find a road to his own healing.  As for my mother, she is too broken to understand her role in my trauma.  She utters a few words because she sees my pain in my silence.  But I do not want to hurt her more as Buki, a character who had undergone female circumcision in Breath, Eyes, Memory writes to her dead grandmother:

Because of you, I feel like a helpless cripple.  I sometimes want to kill myself.  All because of what you did to me, a child who could not say no, a child who could not defend herself. It would be easy to hate you, but I can’t because you are part of me.  You are me.[3]

It is in the silence that I have been able to express all the raging emotions and it is through my desolation that I have been able to tell my story, my version of the “event.”

Therefore, I do not believe in asking, encouraging, and definitely not forcing women to verbally share their stories.  If we just listen to their defiant silence and observe their desolated bodies, we will be able to piece their stories.  For me, it is the silence of the perpetrators and their complicit partners who should be encouraged, perhaps forced to speak about their acts of violence against women.  They should be shamed for their cowardice in wanting to hide behind a deafening wall of silence.  They should be forced to acknowledge and speak about their crimes.

You may ask.  Why have I broken my silence now? I felt a responsibility to a community of women who have chosen to remain defiantly silent.  I laud their decision to silently speak of the atrocities committed against them.  They may not use words but in their very being, in their embodied desolation, they have and continue to share their stories.  And their stories resonate with the stories told by other women.  Think about it.  Despite all the silence around Tamar, her story is included in the Court History in the Bible.  And so her story of her desolated body echoes to this day.  She has spoken so loudly through her silence that now everyone knows her story.  So we all should listen to her cries and say, no more. Never again, Tamar.

Dedicated to a woman whose desolating silence has inspired me to write this story.


[1] I am not including numerous instances in which women are forcibly silenced.  I am speaking of instances in which women have the choice, the privilege to choose between speech and silence.

[2] After much contemplation over silence, I have a deeper appreciation of the divine name, Yahweh (“I am/I will be”).  It allows God to be present without being defined, without being named.

[3] Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory (New York: Soho, 2015), 206.

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Broken Bodies: Trauma, Ruptures, and Theology


It was once believed that [traumatic] events were uncommon. In 1980, when post-traumatic stress disorder was first included in the diagnostic manual, the American Psychiatric Association described traumatic events as “outside the range of usual human experience.” Sadly, this definition has proved to be inaccurate. Rape, battery, and other forms of sexual and domestic violence are so common a part of women’s lives that they can hardly be described as outside the range of ordinary experience. And in view of the number of people killed in war over the past century, military trauma, too, must be considered a common part of human experience; only the fortunate find it unusual (Herman, 1992: 33).

So opens Judith Herman’s chapter on Terror in her influential book Trauma and Recovery. Writing in 1992, she could hardly have known how prescient her words would be nearly 30 years later. Trauma, it seems, is now a common part of human experience.

As a theologian concerned with human experience, particularly the embodied, material experience, I am aware that we are only just beginning to understand the impact trauma has not only on individual lives, but also on theology. The field of trauma theology is nascent but growing and finding its place somewhere in the intersection of practical and constructive theology. That is to say, trauma theology is interested in the embodied experience of people and in shaping theology that takes account of such experience.

It is from this intersection that my own research into trauma theology began. I was interested in the way in which the experience of trauma causes a rupture. Taking the experience of trauma seriously in theology means contending with the rupture it causes. For the constructive theologian, such a rupture is an ideal place to begin constructing something new. I think of it in terms of an earthquake. Trauma shakes the foundations of our theology; the devasted landscape it leaves behind is the place where we can begin to build fresh theology. Theology that is better able to withstand such a rupture.

Trauma is intimately connected to bodies and memories. The traumatic experience is profoundly individual and yet, almost all traumatic experiences share three things in common:

  1. Trauma causes a rupture in bodily integrity. You do not feel safe.
  2. Trauma causes a rupture in time. This is often seen in the frequent intrusion of nightmares and flashbacks.
  3. Trauma causes a rupture in cognition. You cannot readily articulate what has happened to you.

I wondered what would happen if we read theology through the lens of trauma. The most obvious place where bodies and memories come together, in Christian doctrine, is in the Eucharist. Here we are given a body, we are told it is flesh and blood. We are told to consume it in memory of Jesus. Whilst this is a very familiar activity, it is a ritual full of ambiguity. We often make the connection to the cross and yet I find this odd! The Last Supper happens before the crucifixion so when Jesus says “This is my body” and “Do this in remembrance of me”, he isn’t referring to his dead body, but his living one! So, eschewing the easy answers, I went in search of a traumatic theology of the Eucharist that was not only focused on the cross.

The early church had a wide range of theological understandings of the Eucharist. One of the most common was to understand the Eucharist as a generative act. In fact, these early liturgies drew their reference points from the Incarnation as often as they did from the crucifixion. The transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood was as likely to be paralleled with the experience of Mary at the Annunciation as anything else; something material and physical is transformed into something transcendent and divine.

Mary’s experience at the Annunciation is a traumatic one. Regardless of whether you consider her to agree to her impregnation or not, her body is ruptured to make way for someone else. That she is suddenly pregnant without the preface of intercourse, ruptures the usual timelines of reproduction – a radical discontinuity in the history of humanity. And the event escapes accessibility. Mary is perplexed and confused.

What happens when we read the Eucharist like this, when we understand the celebration of the Eucharist to be a non-identical repetition of the traumatic Annunciation-Incarnation event? It means we have to take human bodies seriously in theology. It means the Eucharist is as intimately associated with the broken female body as it is with a broken male body. We have to reassess what it means to be a priest, what sacrifice looks like, what Real Presence might mean. Trauma ruptures theology and leaves behind it a space for new theological constructions.

It is this theological construction that I undertake in my book Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary, and the Body in Trauma Theology which will be published with SCM Press in November 2018.

I am currently working on an edited volume with Dr Katie Cross (University of Aberdeen) focused on feminist and trauma theologies. Trauma theology is a rare field of theology that is well-represented by women’s voices. Many of these theologians are clearly informed by feminist theology, if not overtly feminist, in their approach to the study of trauma. This isn’t surprising given that the issues of trauma are similar to, and intimately connected with, feminist issues—questions around power, control over the body, bodily integrity, activism, and narration of experience as liberative—to give just a few examples.

We are currently accepting proposals for contributing to the volume. Abstracts are due in 7th September 2018. For more information on how you can get involved, take a look at our website or get in touch with me at karen.o’


Karen O’Donnell is a Research Fellow at Durham University where she spends her time researching digital theology, trauma, and theological anthropology.



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‘Feminism and Trauma Theology’ project


To live in 2018 is to live in a ‘moment’ for feminist issues. Late last year, the #MeToo movement, originally founded by African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, became a viral hashtag when co-opted for use following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal. Through #MeToo, women from various industries, careers, perspectives and social backgrounds began to share their stories of trauma relating to sexual harassment or assault.

What has happened since has been unprecedented. The realisation that we do not live in an equal, post-feminist society has become inescapable. Slowly, it is being realised (albeit not without some resistance) that violence against women is, tragically, a far more pervasive and ordinary occurrence than ever understood.

The #MeToo hashtag is not the only social movement in which women’s trauma is being voiced. Say Her Name seeks to raise awareness for black female victims of police brutality and anti-black violence in the United States. There are ongoing protests by Sisters Uncut, who protest the cutting of services for women and gender-variant domestic violence victims in the UK.

Recently, the Repeal the 8th Campaign has taken place in Ireland, and we have heard stories of suffering related to oppressive reproductive legislation. Movements such as the Dahlia Project seek to care for women who have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM). Everyday Sexism is an intersectional online project, documenting experiences of sexism, harassment and assault.

In these movements, and in this wider moment, there is a turning point. The normalisation of systemic violence against women is being denounced. Those who have committed violent acts are being exposed and shamed in public view. In ways big and small, in politics and in pop culture, the violence women have experienced as a result of power imbalances is being acknowledged. Now, more than ever, a new story is beginning to take shape – one in which women’s experiences of trauma are being articulated in their own voices, and in their own time.

It is because we are on the opening pages of this new story that Karen O’Donnell of Durham University and I (Katie Cross, University of Aberdeen) find it so important to give voice to the many varied experiences of suffering that women face. As such, we are in the process of putting together an edited volume on feminism and trauma theology. The area of trauma theology highlights the ways in which studies in trauma have impacted and reshaped the central questions of the Christian faith. Some notable works in this area include those by Shelly Rambo, Serene Jones, Stephanie Arel, Musa W.Dube and Jennifer Beste.

Notably, all of these thinkers have either been informed by feminist theology, or are overtly feminist in their approaches to the study of trauma. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the issues surrounding trauma are similar to, and intimately connected with, feminist issues – those concerning power in both individual and societal contexts, control over the body and bodily integrity, and the narration of experience as liberative. Even so, trauma theology remains a small and underrepresented area.

We hope that our collection will provide a space in which to voice women’s experiences of suffering, abuse, and trauma from the perspectives of feminism and theology, and that it will speak to the new and unfolding context we find ourselves in.

If you are interested in contributing to the volume and being a part of this project, you can find information about our call for contributions on our website: The deadline for abstracts (of 250 words) is 7th September 2018, and these should be emailed to Karen and I are also happy to answer any questions or queries about potential pieces of writing. We look forward to hearing from you!


Author bio:

Dr Katie Cross is a newly-appointed teaching fellow in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen. Her doctoral work examined trauma and suffering through the lens of the Sunday Assembly’s ‘godless congregations’ in London and Edinburgh.

You can find her on Twitter at @drkatiecross.

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Ní Saoirse go Saoirse na mBan: There is no Freedom until Women are Free

Clíona Ó Gallchoir Yes

Today’s post is on the long-awaited repeal of the amendment of Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, which was achieved in the referendum vote this past May.

The author is Clíona Ó Gallchoir, an academic in the School of English of University College Cork, Republic of Ireland. Clíona has expertise in Irish and British 18th and 19th century writing, Irish women’s writing, the writing of Maria Edgeworth, and the figure of the child in 18th century Ireland.

Clíona is also a former volunteer with VSO and has spent two years as a teacher trainer in Eritrea.

Ní Saoirse go Saoirse na mBan: There is no Freedom until Women are Free

by Clíona Ó Gallchoir

 On 25 May 2018, Irish people voted by a significant majority (over 66%) to repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, otherwise known as the ‘Eighth Amendment’. This notorious amendment had been inserted in the Constitution in 1983 in order to guarantee the right to life of ‘the unborn’: foetal life at all stages from the moment of conception was described as having equal status with the life of ‘the mother’.

When it became clear that the proposal to repeal the Eighth Amendment had been overwhelmingly endorsed, the reaction among the majority of Irish women was not just one of profound relief, but also of joy and celebration. Although some had counselled that the response to a Yes vote should not be celebratory, in the end the joy of women, many of whom had campaigned on this issue for decades, could not be contained. The decision of the electorate, including 65% of the men who voted, was seen as the final, decisive rejection of a regime in which the control of women had been at the centre of how the Irish state defined itself.

The repeal of the Eighth Amendment was about much more than the decision, finally, to legislate for abortion in Ireland. It was also about an end to a shameful history in which unmarried mothers and children were institutionalized and abused so that a mythical image of Ireland as a country composed of perfect, patriarchal family units could be maintained. The facts of sex and pregnancy outside of marriage were not – in fact, could not be – acknowledged in a state in which adherence to a rigid version of Catholicism was upheld as a key marker of national identity. The inconvenient evidence that life in Ireland did not correspond to this strict ideological pattern therefore had to be hidden, and the Church and State operated in tandem to ensure that this was the case.

Pregnant girls and women were sent either to Mother and Baby Homes or to Magdalene Laundries. Women were often forcibly separated from their children, who were in some cases illegally adopted, either in Ireland or overseas, in transactions that benefitted the religious orders concerned. In other cases, children were, in their turn, institutionalized in orphanages, industrial schools, and sometimes, in a disturbing cycle, subsequently in Magdalene Laundries.

The fate of some of these children was uncovered in 2014 by Catherine Corless, a local historian living in Tuam, County Galway. Her research, originally disputed and ridiculed, found not only a shockingly high mortality rate among the babies and young children in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, but also that the remains of potentially hundreds of children had been discarded in an unmarked mass grave, on a site on which a septic tank was later located. The total figure of bodies in this mass grave is as yet unknown, but a total of 794 children died at the Home and have no recorded place of burial.

This regime of institutionalization and incarceration gradually waned as the century progressed, but the last Magdalene Laundry did not actually shut until 1996. It is not hyperbolic to say that in the twentieth century women and children in Ireland who fell outside of the narrowly defined parameters of social acceptability were subjected to a form of state violence in the service of an ethno-religious identity.

In the most private and intimate ways, women’s bodies were controlled by a medical establishment that was dominated by Catholic teaching. Contraception was banned until 1980 (after which point it continued to be relatively inaccessible). The idea of women limiting their pregnancies or planning their families was so antithetical to the establishment that for decades, women in labour in some hospitals were subjected to the practice of symphysiotomy. This discredited procedure involves the breaking of the pelvic bones in order to facilitate childbirth, because caesarean sections were seen to present too high a risk for subsequent pregnancies, and might therefore be seen as a justification for birth control. There was no concern for the fact that the procedure left many women with lifelong chronic pain. The inclusion of the Eighth Amendment to the constitution in 1983 was therefore not an isolated occurrence, but part of a long history in which Irish women were treated as disposable, as acceptable collateral damage in an atmosphere in which ideology trumped reality.

The constitutional ban on abortion was however in some ways the most extreme form of ideological falsehood, and as the years passed, the gap between reality and ‘pro-life’ rhetoric became more and more difficult to sustain. In 1992, the case of a 14-year-old rape victim, who became the subject of an injunction preventing her from travelling to the UK for an abortion, exposed the full extent of the barbarism inherent in the constitutional ban.

The response of the government at the time was to amend the amendment, giving women a constitutionally-guaranteed right to travel for abortion services, thus formalizing an extraordinary hypocrisy. It is estimated that 3,000-4,000 Irish women access abortion in the UK annually; meanwhile, however, importing and taking an abortion pill in Ireland is currently punishable by a sentence of 14 years imprisonment. The Ryanair flight to London, Liverpool or Manchester, and the illegally-imported packets of pills, taken alone at home in fear of the consequences, are the twenty-first century equivalent of the hiding of ‘fallen women’ inside the high grey walls of institutions.

Is it any wonder that Irish women wept, then sang and cheered when they realized that they no longer had to be the secret that Ireland kept about itself? They also wept for the memory of Savita Halappanavar, whose tragic death in 2012 was caused by the fact that doctors could not terminate her unviable pregnancy for as long as any foetal heartbeat was detected. By the time they realized she had developed sepsis, it was too late to save her. The Yes vote was a belated but necessary atonement for the fact that a woman who had come to Ireland to make her home and start a family had died, cruelly and unnecessarily.

This historically significant result comes at a time in which Ireland is developing a new relationship to its history, and in which some of the buried potential of Irish radicalism is being reclaimed. In contrast to the highly-conservative nature of the Irish state after independence, those involved in the campaign for Irish independence in the early twentieth century were also involved in trade unionism, in educational reform, in campaigns for women’s suffrage, in anti-imperialism more generally, and in campaigns for housing and health. Following independence, the aspirations for a nation and a state that gave a better life to all its citizens dwindled in the face of economic stagnation and political instability. The meaning of Irish independence shrank to a sterile assertion of national distinctiveness understood largely in terms of the identification of Irishness with Catholicism. As we have seen, in order to preserve the image of ‘Catholic Ireland’, women and children who did not fit its image were hidden, silenced and often brutally excluded from society.

But things are changing. In 2016, one of my neighbours in Cork city hoisted a green flag emblazoned with the words ‘The Irish Republic’: this, not the Irish tricolour, was the flag that was flown by the rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916. Around the corner, in another front garden, the ‘starry plough’ could be seen: this was the flag of the Irish Citizen Army, a republican socialist organization led by James Connolly, who was later executed for his part in the Rising. These flags represented a slightly subversive response to the the fact that the Irish political establishment had decided, initially tentatively, to celebrate the centenary of the Rising, which is traditionally seen as the foundational moment of the independent Irish state.

Since the outbreak of the Northern Ireland conflict (‘The Troubles’) in the late 1960s, celebrations of ‘physical force’ nationalism had become politically toxic, and official commemoration of 1916 was for decades extremely muted. In 2016, however, with the Northern conflict consigned to history, the government decided that it could safely lay claim to the historical tradition of Irish nationalism.

Something happened in 2016, however, that was entirely unexpected. Ordinary people and communities displayed enormous curiosity and enthusiasm for the history of the revolutionary period. Local groups organized lectures, memorial events, plays, parades and celebrations. But following nearly a decade of economic austerity and in the wake of an endless cycle of scandals about abuse and neglect of the vulnerable in church institutions, facilitated by the state, the enthusiasm of Irish citizens was not for the official version of history. The flags that were flown by my neighbours were a reminder that the Ireland that was created after independence was not the only Ireland possible – there were and there are other possible futures.

The sense of an aspiration for these new futures was already evident a year prior to the centenary celebrations, when the Constitution was amended by popular vote to guarantee marriage equality to same-sex couples. A document largely authored by the arch-conservative Eamon De Valera had been rewritten to reflect values of tolerance, equality and respect for diversity. The referendum result in 2015 was undoubtedly indicative of progress in terms of attitudes in Ireland, but it was also part of the movement to reverse the clerical control that had been imposed on Irish society since independence.

The 1937 Constitution was in many ways a concerted move to erase those elements of political thought that did not fit with De Valera’s conservative worldview: this was recognized and resisted by women such as Kathleen Lynn who had been active in the revolutionary period and who campaigned against the adoption of the new constitution. The campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment was thus not just a moving forward, but also a movement back, to reclaim the history of women who had imagined and worked for an Ireland that they hoped would bring equality for all.

For nearly 100 years, the idea of women’s equality in Ireland was abandoned in the interests of a particular version of Irish nationalism.  The fact that there were advanced feminist movements in Ireland in the early twentieth century was either forgotten, or dismissed as trivial. The recovery of that history was however evident in the popular campaigns with slogans in the Irish language: #TáForMná (‘Yes for Women’) trended on Twitter; people wore sweatshirts that proclaimed ‘Stand in Awe of All Mná’ (from Emmet Kirwan’s powerful poem ‘Heartbreak’); and an old slogan resurfaced: ‘Ní Saoirse go Saoirse na mBan’ (‘No Freedom Until Women Are Free’).

The Repeal Campaign can be seen as a social movement that recalls some of the radical feminist and progressive ideas of the past, and that creates a new cohort of women engaging in activism and political campaigning, many of them for the first time. Because of this, although the euphoria of the result will fade, the campaign will resonate into the future.

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