Religion and Rape Culture Conference

The Shiloh Project in Ghana


In late October we, Katie and Johanna, travelled to Accra. We were going there to participate in a collaborative project funded by WUN (the Worldwide Universities Network). This project is led by Rev. Dr. George Ossom-Batsa, of the Department for the Study of Religions, University of Ghana (UG). Alongside us three, the project also includes Shiloh’s third co-lead, Caroline Blyth, who will take the lead in compiling and editing a special issue on religion and gender-based violence (GBV) for the journal The Bible and Critical Theory (BCT).

Our project has the title ‘An Intersectional Exploration of Religion and Gender-Based Violence: A Case Study of Accra in Global Context’. The idea for the project grew out of the Shiloh Project.

Just looking out the car window on the way from the airport to our hotel, the prominent presence of religion in public spaces was very striking. Huge billboards depict Christian preachers and advertise crusades and prayer meetings, or promise prosperity and blessings, or proclaim the imminent return of Jesus. Religious leaders on these billboards take up the kind of space reserved in our own context only for mega-celebrities. 

Over the days we would see some publicity also about leaders and revered figures in the Muslim and African Traditional Religions communities – but a dazzling array of Christian churches certainly predominate over other religious communities. We would see all kinds of products sold using Bible verses and allusions to God’s will and endorsement. Be it gear boxes, drains, beauty products or foods – God is all around in public and commercial spheres.

The central part of our visit was a day-long conference followed by a day of workshops to investigate our topic from a range of perspectives. The conference day was opened on 30 October by the Provost of UG’s College of Humanities, Professor Samuel Agyei-Mensah. 

The keynote speaker was Prof. Akosua Adomako Ampofo who, until recently, directed UG’s Institute of African Studies. She is also founder of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy and winner of the Feminist Activism Award. A sociologist by training, Prof. Ampofo has a long and strong record of challenging GBV, including through her advisory role in the process of passing the Domestic Violence Act and criminalizing marital rape (2007), and her extensive empirical work on masculinities in a range of African contexts. Her work on African masculinities resists both what she aptly calls the ‘Western gaze’ and the disproportionate emphasis on South Africa – to the exclusion of other African contexts.

Prof Ampofo was a hard act to follow – but Katie’s and my joint presentation was next on the conference programme. We introduced the Shiloh Project and spoke on rape culture manifestations in the Bible (Johanna) and on the application of religious iconography in popular culture (Katie). 

The next co-presentation was by George Ossom-Batsa and Dr. Nicoletta Gatti, both biblical scholars from UG’s Department for the Study of Religions. Their presentation focused on the Hebrew Bible book of Job alongside prosperity preaching by Ghanaian Pentecostal churches. The paper demonstrated on the one hand, how in the prosperity gospel poverty has come to signify absence of blessing and, on the other, how poverty (and therefore such preaching) disproportionately harms women who are far more likely than men to be impoverished. One distressing statistic cited was that the estimated average hourly wage for women in Ghana is only 57% that of men.

The next two presentations moved away from biblical studies. First Dr. Rabiatu D. Ammah (of UG) explored the Qur’anic verse 4:34, sometimes described as ‘the verse of abuse’ or the verse that condones wife beating. Dr. Ammah describes herself as a scholar-activist and her paper covered a range of interpretations of the verse and infused this with her qualitative research consisting of in-depth interviews with 15 local imams, three of whom openly acknowledged having beaten their wives. Her conclusion was, however, that there is none the less no prima facie or Qur’an endorsed case for GBV in Islam. 

The final presentation of the day was by Dr. Yaw Sakordie Agyemang (University of Cape Coast) and explored GBV in the context of the indigenous beliefs of the Asante people. Again, research was centred on empirical research, this time constituting 16 focus group discussions guided by two questions: How do women and men experience violence? And, how does gender inequality affect violence? The paper offered insight into all sorts of forms of ritual violence, ranging from female genital mutilation, to the harvesting of body parts for ritual purposes, and rites surrounding both apotropaic and polluting qualities of menstrual blood. 

Whereas the first day focused on academic presentations, the second day gave the floor to practitioners, before we all separated into groups to discuss practical strategies to confront, address and eliminate GBV. 

The first practitioner to present was Dr. Angela Aboagye Dwamena, Executive Director of The Ark Foundation. The name of the Foundation already reveals its foundation in religious principles. It is not, however, named after Noah’s Ark but after the Ark of the Covenant, alluding to God as a refuge and strength. The presenter has a background in law and has for over 25 years defended the human rights of Ghanaian women and girls, and sometimes also boys, particularly with regard to GBV. The Foundation focuses on advocacy, community-based education, law reform and services provision. Dr. Dwamena was vocal as to the constraints of the Foundation. For instance, the first shelter for battered women was opened in 1999 but 17 years later it had to be closed, due to lack of funds. A campaign is in progress to reopen and keep open the Ark Shelter (see

Next up, was a representative from the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice. The Commission conducts research into social justice matters and offers protection on a range of human rights matters, including concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. In Ghana, the law, which has remained unchanged since 1960, designates a number of sexual acts ‘unnatural carnal knowledge’. These acts include ‘sodomy’ and oral sex. Ghana’s LGBT community is particularly vocal in resisting this law. The matter of LGBT rights was seized on in the discussion that followed the first two presentations and members from both Christian and Muslim communities expressed horror at homosexual orientation and acts, comparing them to the sin of murder, to bestiality and pedophilia. Also clearly articulated was that LGBT persons regularly do not receive justice – including in matters that have nothing to do with matters sexual (e.g. when they report crimes of property). The vulnerability to GBV of the LGBT community is likely to be considerable. It was very clear to us both that the conversation around LGBT rights in a setting like that of the conference and workshop, dominated as it was by religious leaders and practitioners, was a particularly difficult and unreceptive one. There was not really a sense that dialogue was possible. 

Three practitioners from the Muslim community presented next. First to present was Sheikh Yacoub Abban, the General Secretary of Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama, an organization that conducts marriage guidance counseling alongside other dispute settling activities (e.g. concerning inheritance). The organization has only men on its board but the perception by members of the Muslim community in attendance was that it was very supportive of women’s cases. The Sheikh reported a growing number of GBV cases brought before the organization by women. Whereas in 2016 cases (in Accra alone) by 96 men and 264 women were brought to the organization, by 2017 the numbers were 75 men and 384 women. Thus far in 2018, the number of women’s cases already stands at 407. The Sheikh reported that while men’s cases do not reflect physical violence, instead reporting wives’ ‘recalcitrance’ or wives who pressed for divorce in cases where husbands did not want divorce, the cases brought by women are often very disturbing and distressing. The presentation included anonymous examples of severe emotional torture, physical maltreatment and of marital rape. While the Sheikh did not deny the possibility that some men are also enduring physical violence perpetrated by women he confirmed that cases reflect that women are disproportionately victims of violence and that this violence shows no sign of abating.

Next up was Dr, Nas iba Taahir, Educational Consultant and Psychologist of the Montessori Foundation of Ghana. She disclosed that she herself is a victim of long-term marital GBV and reported, too, on her work in the capacity as a school psychologist. Both her accounts of counseling victims of physical violence in domestic settings and her own story of a six-year trial, exclusion from her religious community and of stigmatization were harrowing. 

The final presenter from the Muslim community was Hajia Maliki, a marriage guidance counselor with 15 years experience. She reported that marriages in the Muslim community of Ghana very often deteriorate quickly and end in acrimonious divorce. Unlike in Christian communities, she reported, pre-marital guidance counseling was not a requirement and nor was mandatory post-marital counseling.

The final practitioner to present was the most affecting. This was Superintendent Alice Awarikaro, Regional Coordinator for the Accra Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit. Charged with domestic violence and child abuse issues, the Superintendent had seen many awful violent crimes close-up. In 2017, her unit dealt with 4,511 cases (about one third of total cases country-wide) and, as she stressed, far more cases have gone unreported. Victims of violence, including sexual violence, were male, female, young and old. Again, however, violent crimes against women and girls far outnumber those perpetrated against men and boys. Also, perpetrators were far more likely to be male than female. She showed graphic images of terrible abuse and outlined efforts to address GBV, including sensitization programmes, capacity building, proactive and reactive measures. 

With particular relevance to our project, the Superintendent reported that in her experience religious leaders and religious beliefs play an obstructive role. Advice from religious leaders is often detrimental, delaying the reporting of crime, or adding to failure to report (e.g. on account of instilling stigma with regard, for instance, to divorce). She urged that counselors and advisors be properly trained professionals and advocated the following: creating safe spaces for those reporting GBV, not judging or condemning those who report GBV, education across the sectors, and encouraging reporting and following through with the legal process so that more perpetrators are brought to court and more victims protected. 

Following group discussions and then a plenary session that pooled key points from discussions, we collectively determined that the conference and workshops had done much to explain what GBV is and to begin to plumb the complexity of its causes and effects. We determined that we would endeavour to apply for more funding to harness the energy of the event and to achieve more concrete results through user-led and research-underpinned activities and resources. 

With the funds left in the budget from WUN we will produce and disseminate a leaflet that: 1) defines GBV; 2) supports intervening bystanders, with a section setting out what to do and where to turn (in Accra) if you suspect someone is a victim of GBV; 3) details victim support and legal rights for those who are themselves victims of GBV; 4) contains a section that specifies the rights and services of members of the LGBT community in Ghana.

While in Accra we also had opportunity to interview theologian and activist Prof. Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Mercy Oduyoye recently turned 85. She is a pioneer for African women and remains as active as ever – both in her Talitha Qumi Institute, based at the Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra and through the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, which she founded in 1989. Well before this already she initiated women’s rights initiatives, campaigning for women’s inclusion and against women’s economic deprivation and vulnerability to other inequalities, including GBV. 

We also taught classes both at the Trinity Theological Seminary and at UG, which was a lively experience.

Lastly, no travelling in Ghana should be complete without visiting the coastal fortresses that facilitated the Portuguese-, Dutch- and British-administered slave trade. We visited both Castle Osu and Elmina and saw the awful dungeons where slaves were crammed together in tight, dark stone surroundings before being herded into ships bound for the Americas. While African slaves sat in fear and terror below, the European slave administrators sexually abused those whom they selected, dined while looking out at the sparkling ocean, and prayed in their chapels. Here, too, as everywhere in the streets of Accra today, biblical verses were prominently displayed – mere metres from where massive atrocities took place. 

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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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Fuzzy, messy, icky: The edges of consent in biblical rape narratives and rape culture (video)


This paper was the closing keynote address for The Religion and Rape Culture Conference.

Abstract: This paper explores the fuzzy, messy, and icky boundaries of “consent” in biblical rape narratives and in rape culture.. More specifically, I want to bring feminist literature problematizing 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.. Consent, including such formulations as “affirmative consent,” “enthusiastic consent,” and “consent at every stage,” has played – and continues to play – an important role in attempts to respond to sexual violence.. However, the emphasis on consent has also engendered feminist and queer critiques. Notions of consent assume a fully self-present, self-controlled, and able subject: the very sort of subject that feminist and other postmodern critique has aptly criticized.. Discourses of consent ignore the ways in which, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “A feminist account of gender as a social relation might need to include analysis of how women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised” (Willful Subjects) or in Wendy Brown’s formulation, “Consent …functions as a sign of legitimate subordination” (States of Injury).  Such feminist critiques of consent vie uneasily with feminist readings of biblical rape texts, which often seek to recover women’s voices, or at least to commemorate their stories (Phyllis Trible famously punctuated her Texts of Terror with gravestones for four of patriarchy’s victims: Hagar, Jephthah’s daughter, Tamar, and the Levite’s concubine; all but one the victims of sexual violence).. But if we take this critique seriously, what happens to a feminist biblical hermeneutic of sexual violence? I will explore this question via a wandering itinerary through the biblical rape texts, beginning with Tamar, Dinah, and the Levite’s concubine, and then moving to consider what I will call border cases.. My central concerns are (1) how can a feminist hermeneutic of sexual violence respond to feminist and queer critiques of consent discourse, (2) what might we learn from observing not simply the paradigmatic  “rape plots”(Susanne Scholz) or “rape narratives” (Frank Yamada) but also what I will call the “icky, messy, and fuzzy edges” of both rape stories and consent discourses? (Of course, this icky, messy, and fuzzy space is also the space named by rape culture, at least in one formulation of the term.) Thus I will turn from the rape plots to the icky, messy, and fuzzy narratives found elsewhere. Finally, I am interested in (3) what postures feminists might adopt toward these texts beyond the position of mourning or of recovering.

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

Dr Rhiannon Graybill received her MA and PhD from Berkley, University of California and is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Program Director of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Rhodes College, Memphis. Dr Graybill is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible whose work brings together biblical texts and contemporary critical and cultural theory. Her research interests, on which she has written prolifically, include prophecy, gender and sexuality, horror theory, and psychoanalysis and ancient Near Eastern literature.

Some of Dr Graybill’s current teaching includes modules on The Bible and Social Justice; The Bible, Sex and The Body; and LGBTQ Biblical Interpretation. She is the author of Are We Not Men? Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets (published by Oxford University Press, 2016). Dr Graybill’s upcoming monographs include “The Cannibal Bible” and “Eve Take The Wheel: Queer Feminist Readings of Biblical Women”, they are also working on a commentary to the book of Jonah with Steven L. McKenzie and John Kaltner. Dr Graybill is currently on the editorial boards for both the Review of Biblical Literature and Biblical Interpretation.

Header image: Slime [via pixabay]

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The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics (video)


Abstract: With an increase in comic book representations of biblical stories on our bookshelves, discussions surrounding how to approach retellings of difficult material such as rape narratives, extreme violence, murder and genocide are at a critical juncture. For those comic book creators who want to include every aspect of these stories, questions concerning how they interpret and represent such narratives abound; for those who are less concerned with fidelity to the text, questions concerning what they leave out and what they leave in present themselves.

In this paper I will discuss the representation of Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah in biblical comic books, arguing that the creators of such comics rarely depict the scenes as rape or sexual assault narratives.

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

Zanne currently holds a postdoctoral position with the University of Glasgow, teaching in Biblical Hebrew, the Hebrew Bible, Bible and popular culture, and Bible and reception history. She completed both her PhD and MTh degrees at the University of Glasgow, focusing on remediations of Genesis in comic books and artwork, and in particular, how women were represented in biblical comics. Her current research projects broadly involve remediations of the Bible in comic books, issues related to representations of gender in the Hebrew Bible and popular culture, and the reception of biblical text in marginalised communities.

Header image: Sarai suggests the use of Hagar’s body to Abram (Genesis 16:2) in R Crumb’s The Book of Genesis.

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Fuzzy, Messy, Icky: The Edges of Consent in Biblical Rape Narratives and Rape Culture

Rhiannon graybill square

The following post is a version of the closing keynote paper by Rhiannon Graybill  (, presented at the Shiloh Conference (July 2018). Rhiannon is an academic at Rhodes College and has a long and strong record of publication in the areas of Hebrew Bible, gender and sexuality, including rape culture.

Fuzzy, Messy, Icky: The Edges of Consent in Biblical Rape Narratives and Rape Culture

Rhiannon Graybill

Today I want to explore the problem of consent as it figures in and around rape culture.[1] Consent has become a rallying point in feminist activism against sexual violence. Colleges and universities teach — and, increasingly, require — ‘affirmative consent’ as a precursor to sexual activity. ‘Enthusiastic consent’, ‘consent at every stage’, even consent (and thus sex?) is like tea. Sex without consent is now officially rape in Sweden, as on many US college campuses. But even as what I will call ‘consent discourses’ have gone mainstream, significant feminist critiques of consent, and of the ways it is mobilized, have emerged.

I have several goals here. The first is to bring biblical stories of rape, and feminist biblical studies’ responses to those stories, in contact with the critique of consent discourses. I will argue that insofar as our analyses of sexual violence are predicated on an idea of consent, and of rape as sex without consent, they are both insufficient and insufficiently feminist. A feminist analysis of rape stories in the Bible must respond to feminist critiques of consent discourses.

My second goal is to begin a process of thinking about sexual violence in the biblical texts that, instead of relying on appeals to consent, centers the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky. I have chosen these terms intentionally, as each speaks to a specific area of difficulty:

*Fuzzy names the ambivalence that surrounds many situations of sexual violence, an ambivalence that extends to the complex feelings of survivors.[2] Fuzzy also alludes to memories under the influence of alcohol, which is at once common in sexual assault and often off-limits to discuss.

*Messy identifies the aftermath of sexual violence, and the ways that it defies a tidy resolution, or the ways that survivors’ stories cannot fit into a neat pre-ordained narrative of suffering and recovery. Often “things get messy” — a grammatical construction without an actor that neatly reveals how the situation grows beyond a single person, or even a single story (Jennifer Doyle provides a beautiful description of this in Campus Sex, Campus Security, which chronicles the ‘psychic life’ of the institution in relation to sexual violence and sexual harassment complaints.).[3] Messy is a consequence of fuzzy.

*Finally, all of this fuzziness and messiness creates something icky.[4] Thinking about sexual violence beyond a narrow framework of consent is ‘icky’, because it questions the clear lines between sex and rape. Icky invokes ‘creeps’, ‘gross guys’, ‘sketchiness’, and ‘weird things’ that happen at parties – and, of course, at academic conferences and in work places and environments of all kinds – which may or may not be rape. That last phrase ‘weird things’, came up repeatedly in Vanessa Grigoriadis’ interviews with college students about sexual violence, as recounted in her recent book Blurred Lines. Grigoriadis further reports, ‘About half of the women who click a box for behavior that meets the definition of rape or sexual assault will say no when they’re asked point blank if they’ve experienced rape or sexual assault.”[5] This is fuzzy/messy/icky in action.

I also use the term icky because it suggests affect. Like affects, it is sticky.[6] Sexual violence is sticky, both in the sense of a ‘sticky problem’ and in the way that it clings to and spreads between certain bodies, communities, and identities. It has become common to describe consent as an idea as simple as a stoplight: green (‘yes!’) means ‘go’, red (‘no!’) means ‘stop’, yellow means ‘proceed with caution’.[7] But sex is not a traffic pattern, and neither is rape. And so, instead of relying on a theory of traffic signals, this paper takes on the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky, to complexify our readings of biblical rape and rape culture.

Part I: The Trouble with ‘Consent’

My first goal is to sketch the landscape of debates over consent in which biblical discussions about rape and rape culture are placed (whether or not this landscape is perceptible from within biblical consent discourses).[8] With this in mind, here are six difficulties with the way we talk about and deploy the idea of consent.

  1. Consent discourses assume a liberal Enlightenment subject; this assumption prevents a complex analysis of rape culture

A fundamental issue with consent concerns the sort of subject that discourses of consent assume: a self-contained, self-controlled, and self-evident subject. The consenting subject is the liberal Enlightenment subject, the subject we encounter in Kant and Locke and so on. As we know from a lengthy tradition of feminist critique, this subject, while putatively universal, is often coded: as male, as white, as owning property, as cis-abled, and so forth. Therefore, there is at the very least an irony in predicating a feminist theory of how to end sexual violence on the very figure feminist theory has so vigorously critiqued.[9]

An understanding of rape defined against consent and predicated upon the idea of a subject who is self-contained, self-known, and able to choose whether to give or withhold consent has unintended consequences. One such potential consequence is the erasure of rape as a category when we are talking about non-modern and/or non-western contexts. There is a frequent line of argument around rape stories in the Bible that goes something like this: because women were not empowered as subjects to consent, it is meaningless to talk about consent, and without the language of consent, it is meaningless to speak about rape. While this argument can be critiqued on many grounds, I want to suggest that by relying on a model of rape that itself assumes a liberal understanding of the subject, we undercut our own efforts to name and understand both sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible and the phenomenon of rape culture more broadly.

It may in fact be true that biblical women were unable to consent: both because ancient legal norms do not have the same ideas of the individual and of personal autonomy that are foundational to modern definitions of rape, and because biblical women are characters and not actual people, a point that the legal reconstructionists nearly always miss. However, the nitpicky arguments that it wasn’t ‘really’ rape in ancient Israel (because women were not able to consent, because it was ‘really’ an abduction marriage, because the ‘real’ victim was the woman’s father, etc.)[10] focus on a narrow, legally grounded definition of rape (itself based on problematic ideas of consent) while missing the broader nuances of the term ‘rape culture’ — a term coined, in fact, to speak to the fuzziness and messiness of sexual violence, without differentiating out what Whoopi Goldberg infamously called ‘rape-rape’.[11]

  1. Consent discourses ignore more subtle techniques of power, such as discomfort

The model of all subjects as equally empowered to give consent ignores the weight of our personal histories, as well as the contingencies that attend any given sexual interaction. The assumption that subjects can simply give or withhold consent also neglects the influence of more subtle forms of pressure, as well as discomfort.

This is a point that feminist and queer theorist Sara Ahmed has analysed incisively in her study Willful Subjects. Taking up the fuzzy/messy/icky problem of ‘how women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised’ and ‘the cases in which yes involves force but is not experienced as force’, Ahmed draws out the power of discomfort.

Discomfort constitutes ‘a polite strategy or technique of power (the capacity to carry out will without resistance, or with the will of others).’[12]  The significance of discomfort, and its role in leading victims/survivors to compromise their own wishes or will, is a point made again and again in contemporary analyses of rape culture, both first-person accounts (such as those in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad) and in reportage (such as Griogordias’s Blurred Lines).[13]

This is clear in the story of Tamar (2 Samuel 13). More than any other biblical rape story, the narrative of Tamar offers a clear lack of consent. Tamar is entrapped and raped by her half-brother Amnon, whom she visits when he is pretending to be ill. When he solicits sex, she verbally refuses him: ‘No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame?” (13:11-12).[14] Nevertheless, Amnon rapes her. Tamar is distraught but asks Amnon to marry her — an act that her full brother, Absalom, discourages, telling her ‘Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.’ The text adds, ‘So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house” (13:20).

This story presents at least two modes of coercion: one explicit, one more subtle.  Allow me to quote again from Ahmed:

There is a history whereby men give themselves permission to hear no as yes, to assume women are willing, whatever women say … as if by dressing this way, or by doing something that way, she is enacting a yes, even when she herself says no. We certainly need to hear the violence that converts no into yes. My additional suggestion is modest: we also need to hear the cases in which yes involves force but is not experienced as force, when for instance a women says yes to something as the consequences of saying no would be too much. … If being willing does not mean the absence of force, then we need to account for the social and political situations in which yes and no are given.[15]

If the first episode of the Tamar story is ‘the violence that converts no into yes’, then what follows — when Tamar expresses her desire to marry Amnon, even as she mourns the rape — offers an instance of ‘say[ing] yes to something as the consequences of saying no would be too much’. Thus the Tamar story is one case study in why ‘women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised’ — a situation that consent discourses, in their rigid and positivistic formulations, are unable to accommodate. Perhaps this is why so much feminist reflection on Tamar focuses on the rape itself, or on mourning with/for Tamar, and not on the question of why Tamar might marry her rapist.[16] The fuzzy/messy/icky possibility that Tamar might be acting willingly, or in her own best interest — or that her own best interest is not accommodated in a rigid form of will — is rarely taken up here, a silencing that consent discourses, in their rigidity, can inadvertently encourage.

  1. Consent discourses neglect intersectional analysis (especially concerning race, sexuality, and disability)

The right to say ‘no’ has been historically denied to many categories of people. This persists today; research on bystander intervention shows, for example, that bystanders are more likely to intervene to help a white woman than a woman of color, and a straight-presenting, heteronormative woman rather than a queer person.[17] In this situation, ‘intervention’ is a public recognition of ‘hearing’ the ‘no’ (whether or not this ‘no’ has been uttered).  In addition to race and sexuality, this raises serious questions around the issue of ability and disability.[18]

Consent discourses are also informed by troubling racialized assumptions surrounding sexual violence. In the contemporary USA, as well as Canada and Europe, the victim of sexual assault is imagined as a white woman; rape is figured as a threat not just to women, but to whiteness. In this way, representations of rape offer another iteration of cultural narratives protecting (and policing) white womanhood, such as panic over ‘white slavery’ and sex trafficking of white women.[19] Furthermore, the imagined whiteness of the ideal rape victim is bound up with the implied blackness or brownness of the imagined rapist. Protecting (white) women from rape means protecting them from (black) men.[20]

In particular, the appeal to consent often ignores the ways in which consent runs up against race, sexuality, and other vectors of identity. In the context of the biblical stories, ethnicity is a key concern. Thus, while the Dinah story is frequently read as a narrative of interethnic encounter, the specific colonial context of the encounter is often downplayed or glossed over. This is taken up by Musa Dube in her recent study ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, where she foregrounds the imperializing move that the promise of the promised land makes.[21]

As Dube analyses, Shechem occupies the place of the colonized man who targets the body of the female colonizer. That Shechem represents the colonized subject does not mean that he is not a rapist. But it does mean that we need to accommodate a more complex analysis that also accounts for ethnicity and coloniality. This is a point made, variously, by Dube, Franz Fanon, and Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather. One of Dube’s key insights is that the construction of colonizer/colonized relationships, even with the gender script flipped, as it is here, ‘serve[s] the interest of the colonizer’.  In this case, this happens after the rape, when Shechem is represented as ‘good native’. As Dube writes, ‘The Other who occupies the coveted land in Dinah’s story is often constructed negatively, but not exclusively so. The Other also appears as the good natives, who love/cling to/adore their potential colonizer (23:1–20; 34:8–10). Both constructions serve the interests of the colonizing power.’[22]

The ethnic dynamics of the Dinah story are particularly interesting because they push back against the normative biblical move of constructing a binary between good and bad women, where ‘good’ is also ‘Israelite’ and ‘sexually pure’, while ‘bad’ is collocated with both ‘foreign’ and ‘sexually loose’. (J. Cheryl Exum has of course analysed these binaries in her classic Fragmented Women.)[23]

Across the Hebrew Bible, there is a tendency to associate promiscuous sexuality with foreignness, and foreign women in particular, as in representations of Moabite and Midianite women. The flipped script, as in the Dinah story (Dinah is ‘a woman from the colonizer’s camp’ who goes out to visit ‘the native women of the land’[24]), seems to promise an alternative narrative. However, it instead resolves in favor of the colonizers/Israelites. The colonizer always wins;[25] sometimes consent discourses are used to cover over or distract from this truth.

Additional Difficulties with Consent[26]

I want to list, briefly, some additional difficulties with consent.

  1. Consent is a legitimized form of subordination. This is a point Wendy Brown makes clearly in States of Injury. As Brown writes, ‘If, in rape law, men are seen to do sex while women consent to it, if the measure of rape is not whether a woman sought or desired sex but whether she acceded to it or refused it when it was pressed upon her, then consent operates both as a site of subordination and a means of its legitimation. Consent is thus a response to power—it adds or withdraws legitimacy—but is not a mode of enacting or sharing in power.’[27]
  2. Consent risks becoming colonialist, as consent discourses are often used as part of a hermeneutic practice of ‘saving women’ or ‘recovering women’.[28] This is especially clear in the literature on Dinah and on Tamar, which is almost obsessive in its desire to remember, recover, and re-voice. This desire to recover women, while grounded in feminist commitments, is uncomfortably close to the desire to ‘save’ women that postcolonial feminist theory has so soundly critiqued. If colonialism is ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’,[29] as Gayatri Spivak has quipped, then this saving certainly involves saving from rape.[30]
  3. Consent is a low bar. Finally, consent discourses risk evacuating the question of sexual pleasure from sex. As I have argued elsewhere, ‘consent is a low bar’.[31] Or as Kelly Oliver writes,

Affirmative consent should not be conflated with desire. Just because a woman submits to sex, does not mean that she wants it, especially in a culture where women feel pressured to please men.[32]

Or even more clearly, as a college student activist told feminist writer Rebecca Traister,

Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.[33]

To this, I will only add that we might say the same about sex in the Bible.

In Sum: Consent discourses fail to accommodate complexity

I am suggesting that the framework of consent, while useful, though not unproblematically so, in describing and diagnosing sexual violence in contemporary culture, is insufficient and indeed inadequate in addressing sexual violence, in all its fuzziness, messiness, and ickiness. It also suggests a limited horizon of creativity and critical engagement — which, I would insist, is a key feature of feminist and queer critique. What else might we do with these texts, if we move beyond a posture of documenting and mourning?[34]

Part II: Fuzzy, Messy, Icky

I want now to offer some preliminary thoughts on what a fuzzy, messy, icky theorization of rape in the Hebrew Bible might look like. I have drawn on the work of four feminist thinkers: Donna Haraway, Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, and Meredith Minister.

Haraway: Refusing innocence

First, it is absolutely essential that a feminist response to sexual violence abandons the claim to an innocent critical position. As I have already suggested, one of the great weaknesses of consent discourses, and ways in which they break with feminist thought, is their assumption of a self-contained, self-controlled subject. Feminist critique has long decried this idea as at once naive and exclusionary, insisting, instead on what Haraway calls ‘situated knowledges.’[35] Crucial to the idea of situated knowledges is the insight that there is no master vantage point or innocent subject position from which the world can be judged. The critique of innocence also emerges in Haraway’s famous cyborg manifesto; the cyborg is a manifestly non-innocent being.[36]  In Haraway’s more recent work, this critique of innocence continues: ‘Acquiring knowledge is never innocent’, she writes in When Species Meet.[37] Elsewhere, I have argued that a hermeneutic of flourishing vis-a-vis the biblical text requires us to abandon claims to the position of innocence.[38]  Now I want to suggest that this is especially essential in the case of interpreting texts about sexual violence.

But what does this look like? Refusing the pose of innocence takes multiple forms (here, in imitation of Haraway, I offer a list):

  • Rejecting reductive historicizing oversimplifications, such as the suggestion that if women are not legal subjects with the ability to consent, then ‘unwanted sex’ is not rape
  • Resisting the temptation to claim the moral high ground in interpretation
  • Being wary of sloganeering applied to the past
  • Refusing stridency and seeking complexity
  • Allowing for the possibility of multiple, contradictory truths
  • Adopting a position of ‘Modest Witness’ (another expression borrowed from Haraway, this one from her study Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium:FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™)[39]
  • Keeping in mind that, as Haraway writes, ‘The familiar is always where the uncanny lurks.’[40]


Refusing innocence means embracing fuzziness, messiness, even ickiness.

Sedgwick: Avoiding paranoid reading positions

Related to the refusal of innocence is the effort to avoid paranoid reading positions. The notion of ‘paranoid reading’ comes from Sedgwick, in an essay entitled ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You’ (found in Touching Feeling).[41] Drawing on a thick diagnostic description of paranoia, Sedgwick argues that the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ – that cornerstone of so much feminist and queer work – has the same intrinsic structure as the paranoid subject position. Paranoid reading, like paranoia, is ‘anticipatory’, ‘reflexive and mimetic’, and a ‘strong theory’. It is centered on ‘negative affects’ and ‘places its face in exposure’. Sedgwick challenges the seeming monopoly that paranoid reading holds, and calls for it to be joined by ‘reparative reading’ open to contingency, pleasure, and play.

A hermeneutic of rape that takes as its starting point consent discourses and the binary theorization of consent/rape is a ‘strong theory’ that is also ‘strongly paranoid’. Sedgwick’s reading, which is grounded in queer but also feminist commitments, invites us to open up texts, even texts of sexual violence, to other ways of thinking. As Sedgwick writes, ‘for someone to have an unmystified view of systematic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences. To be other than paranoid … to practice other than paranoid forms of knowing does not, in itself, entail a denial of the reality or gravity or enmity or oppression.’[42]

This means, in the case of sexual violence and the Hebrew Bible, we can do more than simply compile lists of rapes, or lists of scholars who do not sufficiently acknowledge, or properly respond to, these rapes. (Here I’m thinking of certain tendencies in ‘call out’ and ‘clapback’ culture, which extend to certain scholarly forums, and which I think are in fact often unproductive, if sometimes viscerally satisfying.) A non-paranoid reading of sexual violence is a reading that’s open to fuzziness (paranoid readings, like paranoia, demand strong theories and eschew ambiguities of all sorts). It’s a reading practice that allows space for messiness. And it even gives us space to consider ickiness.[43]

Ahmed: Considering affect and contagion

In thinking about non-innocent, non-paranoid responses to sexual violence in and beyond biblical texts, I also think it’s vital to consider affect and affective contagion. In The Promise of Happiness, Ahmed describes how objects become affectively charged as good or bad objects; she further suggests that the ‘stickiness’ of affect means that this goodness or badness can be transmitted between objects.[44] Elsewhere, I have written about how institutional responses to sexual violence often inadvertently treat survivors as unhappy objects: ‘From the perspective of the prevention campaign, the survivor is an unhappy object because she reminds us that the campaign has failed’ to prevent a rape.[45] Survivors also become unhappy objects when their stories fail to conform to certain preordained narrative trajectories. Just as the woman who ‘overreacted’ to sexual violence was once scorned, in the present moment there is a criticism of survivors who fail to narrate their experiences properly (even as this demand is itself grounded in the imperative to ‘tell your story’). Here, I would note as well that the invitation to share stories can also become an imperative, and/or a compulsion.[46]

Centering affect, with a particular attention to its stickiness, ickiness, and messiness, helps open up the story of the rape of Tamar. Tamar is an unhappy object in multiple ways. This is immediately clear in Amnon’s reaction to her; after the rape, he is filled with loathing toward her. Tamar is also an unhappy object, though differently, to her brother Absalom; he rejects her desire to marry Amnon and by extension her narrative of the events, urging her instead to be silent and calm.[47]  Affective contagion also offers another model for thinking about the way that Tamar’s rape spreads bad feelings and trauma throughout David’s family, without reducing the story to a simplified ‘argument between men over a woman’. This is a move that both non-feminist and some feminist critics make, but that has the effect of hedging in the text and foreclosing other feminist and queer ways of thinking, while constraining Tamar to the exclusive position of victim. Of course, it’s messy, and a bit icky, to think about Tamar beyond the contours of what Trible calls ‘The Royal Rape of Wisdom’,[48] and yet it’s also necessary, I would suggest, if we are to find other feminist ways of being with these texts.

Minister: Allowing for compromised pleasures

A feminist and queer theorization of sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible also needs to leave space for compromised pleasures. This is an idea I adapt from Meredith Minister and her work on ‘sex and alien encounter’. Drawing on the work of feminist science fiction pioneer Octavia Butler, Minister closely reads Butler’s descriptions of sexual encounters between aliens and non-alien beings. These include Butler’s novelette Bloodchild, in which benevolent aliens can reproduce only by gestating their eggs in humans (either women or men) and the Xenogenesis trilogy, in which another species of aliens engages in sex – not always fully consensually – with humans and eventually create a new hybrid species with them. Minister uses these stories to put pressure on received ideas of consent, autonomy, and ‘the bounds of the self’, offering a theory of ‘compromised pleasure’ that challenges us to ‘engage questions around language and communication, the bounds of the self and individual autonomy, and the nature of pleasure.’[49] This touches on both communication and consent.

First, while consent discourses typically emphasize the verbal,[50] Minister notes the challenges that Butler’s fictions pose to this norm. The aliens in Xenogenesis communicate primarily through touch; in another of Butler’s works, ‘Amnesty’, communication occurs through light. Minister uses this to explore a response to sexual violence that doesn’t depend upon ability.

Second, consent. Minister writes,

I hesitate to use the word consensual … to describe the human-alien encounters in the Xenogenesis series, ‘Bloodchild,’ or ‘Amnesty.’ Butler, however, does consistently describe these encounters as pleasurable. And the pleasure of these encounters between humans and aliens often exceeds the pleasures of sexual encounters between humans. While the compromised nature of communication and the lack of clearly definable individual boundaries do not excuse the overt forms of violence sometimes exerted by the aliens against the humans, it can help explain why the encounters between the humans and aliens can be described as both coercive and pleasurable.

Minister further suggests using Butler’s work to open up conversations about sexual violence and sexual pleasure that move beyond the liberal model of the subject and the binary formulation of consent/rape.

Applied to the biblical rape texts, Minister’s work directs our attention to alterity. We find this in the Dinah story — as postcolonial analysis shows, Dinah and her family are literally aliens in the land. As many feminist critics have pointed out, we do not know how Dinah responds to the rape; at least one midrash speculates that Dinah enjoys Shechem so much that she has to be forcibly removed from his home. While most modern readers, including nearly all my students, find this suggestion repulsive,[51] Minister’s theorization of sex and alien encounter opens a space to consider it, and the question of pleasure more broadly, without the sort of romanticizing rape erasure that The Red Tent undertakes. We might think similarly, if carefully, about Tamar, or about the various ‘non-rape’ arranged marriages in Genesis and the Deuteronomistic History.

Alien encounter and compromised pleasure might even offer a way to think about sexual violence in the Prophets. Scholars have long struggled with the sexual violence levied against metaphorical, gynomorphic bodies in the Prophets, such as the feminized Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16 and the sisters Oholah and Oholibah in Ezekiel 23. While these are stories of rape, there is also a current of eroticism and erotic play — not in the text, but in its reception by and among at least some readers, as queer scholarship has pointed out. Minister’s Butler-inflected theory of compromised pleasure offers a way to describe and understand complex hermeneutical responses to a text such as Ezekiel 23 without reducing its sexual violence to a joke (as, for example, in Stuart Macwilliam’s illuminating but occasionally discomfiting camp reading, or Roland Boer’s jokey, insistently masculinist readings.[52]) This is a messy reading, even perhaps an icky one (Minister herself writes ‘I hesitate to use the word consensual…’), but it also opens new possibilities.

Conclusion: Don’t stop imagining a world without rape

Rape and rape culture remain challenging and sometimes heartbreaking matters, in the biblical texts and even more so, in the world. In pushing back against consent discourses, my aim has been not to reject consent itself, which plays an important role in contemporary understandings of sexual encounter and sexual violence, but to summon us as feminists to think beyond the limitations of consent. Consent discourses flatten and erase the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky. They impose anachronistic and, more importantly, anti-feminist notions of the liberal subject on to ancient texts. They ignore discomfort and subtle forms of coercion. They neglect race, ethnicity, and other questions of intersectionality, and risk slipping into a colonialist project of saving women. They legitimize subordination. And they set too low a bar, foreclosing questions of pleasure.

And yet we also have alternatives. Haraway, Sedgwick, Ahmed, Minister and Butler all provide resources for thinking differently about sexual violence, in the text and in the world. I have begun to sketch what this might look like in a few select biblical texts, but there is still much more to be explored. Phyllis Trible often employs the image of wrestling with the text, using Jacob and the angel as a metaphor for the work of feminist criticism. I want to end with a quote from another wrestling angel, this one from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: ‘The great work begins.’[53]


[1] I have also written about these topics in Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Critiquing the Discourse of Consent’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33/1 (April 12, 2017): 175–76; Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, Teaching Theology & Religion 20/1 (2017): 70–88; Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Good Intentions Are Not Enough: A Feminist Critique of Responses to Rape Culture’, in Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements, ed. Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[2] As Schulman writes, ‘we do not always know what we feel’. See, Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). The complexity of response is also analysed by Vanessa Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017).

[3] Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security (Semiotext(e), 2015).

[4] Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines; Rebecca Traister, ‘The Game Is Rigged: Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It.’, The Cut, October 20, 2015,

[5] Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines;  Kindle Locations 2338-2340.

[6] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010).

[7] This image of consent as ‘like a traffic signal’ is increasingly common. See, for example,  Red-Light, Green-Light consent games have been organized at universities such as George Washington University, the University of Calgary, and Washington State University. Grigoriadis provides a description and analysis in Blurred Lines (the scene below takes place at Columbia University): ‘[Suzanne] Goldberg began a monologue about Columbia’s new sexual-assault policies, then added, “It’s hard for most people to navigate sexual relationships, and particularly challenging for young adults.” She clicked on her computer screen to show me a poster hanging in undergraduate dorms with red, yellow, and green lights. Red means stop—someone is drunk, asleep, or passed out, or one person doesn’t want to have sex. Yellow is pause—mixed signals. Green—a mutual decision has been made about how far to go and “all partners are excited and enthusiastic!”…In the moment, on a mattress, students may not interpret signs and signals as easily as Columbia’s Suzanne Goldberg, promoter of the traffic light, imagines. Kimberly Ferzan from the University of Virginia put it this way: “Reformers say, ‘What’s the big deal, you stay at the red light until you’re sure you have the green,’” she explained in a lecture. “But that’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here is that you have to think of our population reaching the level of red-green colorblindness where we can no longer rely on red and green lights, and so we decide we’re going to change the rules and have orange and purple. All of a sudden it’s orange and purple, and you think, I don’t know what that means, does it mean stay or should I go?’ (Blurred Lines, Kindle Locations 2413-2417; 2779-2784).  In 1993, the US Navy used a similar strategy (based on traffic signals) in an attempt to address sexual harassment.

[8] I will draw on work by a number of feminist theorists, as well as some of my own writing in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Teaching Theology and Religion, and the forthcoming volume Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements. I also recommend Meredith Minister’s forthcoming monograph Rape Culture on Campus, which covers some of this ground, in greater and more sensitive detail.

[9] As Donna Haraway wrote already in the 1980s, ‘Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges’. See her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 2001), 188.

[10] Robert Kawashima, for example, argues that because women who were raped in ancient Israel cannot ‘constitute victims of a legally prosecutable crime’, what happens to them is not actually rape. For Kawashima, interpreting ancient laws requires ‘reconstruct[ing] this episteme, that is, the legal concepts and principles operating in ancient Israel.’ This reconstruction leads to the conclusion that ‘If I [Kawashima] am correct, this verb should never be translated as “rape,” as it often is. Inasmuch as biblical legal thought recognized the basic personhood of all people, neither women nor girls could ever be reduced to pure objects. But neither did it recognize them as full subjects, and so they could never constitute victims of a legally prosecutable crime.’ Robert S. Kawashima, ‘Could a Woman Say “No” in Biblical Israel? On the Genealogy of Legal Status in Biblical Law and Literature’, AJS Review 35/1 (2011): 1–22, 2; pp. 2-3, note 4. Kawashima is hardly alone in this finding; Susanne Scholz has tracked a similar tendency in a wide range of scholarship on biblical and ancient Near Eastern laws — what I, and she, would call ‘rape laws’. See Scholz, “‘Back then it was legal”: The epistemological imbalance in readings of biblical and ancient Near Eastern rape legislation,’ The Bible and Critical Theory, Vol. 1/4, 2005. pp.36.1–36.22.

[11] Goldberg’s comments were widely covered in the media; for example Maev Kennedy, ‘Polanski Was Not Guilty of “Rape-Rape”, Says Whoopi Goldberg,’ The Guardian, September 29, 2009, sec. Film,; Lindsay Robertson, ‘Whoopi On Roman Polanski: It Wasn’t “Rape-Rape,’” accessed June 15, 2018,

[12] Ahmed also specifically describes this situation as ‘messy’: ‘Tangles are messy, and accounts of the social will thus need to be messy in turn’ (Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 56).

[13] Roxane Gay, ed., Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (Harper, 2018); Vanessa Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines.

[14] There are a number of other troubling details in the story that suggest the presence of not just rape, but rape culture. Amnon is known to Tamar, making this a clear account not just of rape, but of acquaintance rape, as Susanne Scholz draws out. Amnon entraps Tamar, through a plan (pretending to be ill) that he has devised with his friend Jonadab — a clear example of the toxic masculinity described by contemporary accounts of rape culture. (See also Gerald O. West, ‘The contribution of Tamar’s story to the construction of alternative African masculinities’, Bodies, embodiment, and theology of the Hebrew Bible (2010): 184-200. The rape also causes a crisis in the family; David refuses to act because he loves Amnon; Amnon is eventually killed by Absalom, Tamar’s full brother (and his own half brother). Cynthia Chapman analyses this detail as indicating the significance of the uterine family and ‘house of the mother’ in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel. See her The House of the Mother: The Social Roles of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Yale University Press, 2016).

[15] Ahmed, Willful Subjects, p.55.

[16] For example, Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Fortress Press, 1984), Charlene van der Walt, ‘Hearing Tamar’s Voice—How the Margin Hears Differently: Contextual Readings of 2 Samuel 13.1-22’, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles I: Texts@ Contexts 1 (2016): 3, Denise Ackermann, Tamar’s Cry: Re-Reading an Ancient Text in the Midst of an HIV/AIDS Pandemic (CIIR, 2002), Diane Jacobson, ‘Remembering Tamar’, Word and World 24 (2004): 353–357. Note also the use of ‘Tamar’ as signifier in e.g., Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (Fortress Press, 2012),  S. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, ‘Daughters of Tamar: Pastoral Care for Survivors of Rape’, Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Care, 1996, 222, and the South African Tamar campaign (Gerald O. West and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela, ‘The Bible Story That Became a Campaign: The Tamar Campaign in South Africa (and Beyond)’, Ministerial Formation, 2004, 5.

[17] Samuel L. Gaertner, John F. Dovidio, and Gary Johnson, ‘Race of Victim, Nonresponsive Bystanders, and Helping Behavior’, The Journal of Social Psychology 117/1 (June 1, 1982): 69–77; Christine A. Gidycz, Lindsay M. Orchowski, and Alan D. Berkowitz, ‘Preventing Sexual Aggression among College Men: An Evaluation of a Social Norms and Bystander Intervention Program’, Violence against Women, 2011; Sidney Bennett, Victoria L. Banyard, and Lydia Garnhart, ‘To Act or Not to Act, That Is the Question? Barriers and Facilitators of Bystander Intervention’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2013.

[18] Meredith Minister, ‘Sex and Alien Encounter: Rethinking Consent as a Rape Prevention Strategy’, in Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements, ed. Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[19] See e.g. Maria Bevacqua, Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000); Lisa Lindquist Dorr, White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Crystal Nicole Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[20] Already in the nineteenth century, Ida B. Wells described the ways in which the fear of rape of white women was used to justify the lynching of black men. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2014); originally published as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (New York: New York Age Print, 1892); A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892-1893-1894 (Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1895); Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death (Chicago: Ida B. Wells, 1900).

[21] Musa W. Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone: Shall Our Sister Be Treated like a Whore?’, in Feminist Frameworks and the Bible: Power, Ambiguity, and Intersectionality, ed. L. Juliana Claassens and Carolyn J. Sharp (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 39–58, 51.

[22] Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, 50.

[23] J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives, JSOT Supp 163 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993).

[24] Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, 51.

[25] The reference is to Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel The City always Wins (New York: Macmillan, 2017), about the failed Cairo revolution.

[26] It has been argued that consent is a conservative notion that promotes ‘dominance feminism’. As Janet Halley argues, ‘affirmative consent’ is fundamentally conservative, in a way that opposes radical feminist ideals while insisting on a model in which ‘male domination and female subordination become the structure underlying all of social life’. Halley argues that affirmative consent policies create ‘repressive and sex-negative’ norms around sex while ‘install[ing] traditional social norms of male responsibility and female helplessness. See Janet Halley, ‘The Move to Affirmative Consent’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42/1 (2016): 258 n4.

2 Halley, 259. Halley concludes, ‘Affirmative consent requirements don’t deserve their progressive reputation, and the many progressives and leftists (including those scholars and activists who have no indebtedness to the dominance framework) who support it should, I think, give their support a second thought’ (278).

[27] Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[28] See further Graybill, ‘Good Intentions are Not Enough’.

[29] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press), 93; reprinted from C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Macmillan Education: Basingstoke, 1988, 271-313.

[30] I have explore the risks of ‘saving’ biblical women in Rhiannon Graybill, ‘No Child Left Behind: Reading Jephthah’s Daughter with The Babylon Complex’, The Bible & Critical Theory 11/2 (2015): 36–50.

[31] Graybill, ‘Critiquing the Discourse of Consent’.

[32] Kelly Oliver, ‘Party Rape, “Nonconsensual Sex,” and Affirmative Consent Policies’, Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2015, Volume 14/2, p. 7. The quote continues: ‘As Lise Gotell argues, “even when framed through an ‘only yes means yes’ standard, consent is not a measure of whether a woman desires sex but, instead, whether she accedes. Consent thus functions as a sign of subordination (that is, subordination to another’s power) and a means of its legitimation” (372). In this regard, affirmative consent reinforces the stereotypical notion of active masculine agency and reactive feminine agency wherein the woman’s power to choose is circumscribed within the very limited confines of consenting to let someone do something to her.’

[33] Rebecca Trainer, ‘Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It’, The Cut, October 20, 2015,; accessed Dec. 2, 12017.

[34] This is a question I have explored elsewhere in my work, with other difficult texts or ‘texts of terror’ — using horror film to read the marriage metaphor in Hosea and Lee Edelman’s work on reproductive futurism to read Jephthah’s daughter. Now I want to explore with you how else we might read these stories.

[35] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 188.

[36] Haraway writes, ‘Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of a community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust….’ Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 151.

[37] Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 70.

[38] Rhiannon Graybill, ‘When Bodies Meet: Fraught Companionship and Entangled Embodiment in Jeremiah’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, forthcoming.

[39] Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[40] Haraway, When Species Meet, 46.

[41] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, ed. Adam Frank, Series Q (Duke University Press, 2003), 123–52.

[42] Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’, 128.

[43] The ickiness of non-paranoid reading, particularly with reference to racism, has been explored by Jennifer Knust in her affect-centered response to the curse of Ham: ‘Who’s Afraid of Canaan’s Curse? Genesis 9:18-29 and the Challenge of Reparative Reading’, Biblical Interpretation 22/4–5 (2014): 388–413.

[44] Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness.

[45] Graybill in Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, 74.

[46] I explore this point in greater detail in my contribution to Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, 72-73.

[47] Here Ahmed’s work on queer trajectories, set forth in Queer Phenomenology, is useful as well. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, First Edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2006).

[48] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror.

[49] Minister, ‘Sex and Alien Encounter’, in Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[50] For example, defines consent as ‘Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games’,

[51] Another possibility is reading this story as s/m, as Lena Salaymeh suggests (personal communication). To my knowledge, this reading has not been explored in biblical studies.

[52] Stuart Macwilliam, Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, BibleWorld (Sheffield, UK; Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2011); e.g., Roland Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible: Fleshly Readings of Sex, Masculinity, and Carnality, BibleWorld (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[53] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Revised and Complete Edition, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013). ‘The great work begins’ is uttered by the Angel to Prior, the ‘prophet’, at multiple points in the work; it is the last line of the first play, Millennium Approaches.

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Negotiating the Silence: Sexual Violence in Israeli Holocaust Fiction (video)


Abstract: When American Jewish writers write about sexual violence against Jewish women in the Holocaust, they talk around the subject. Rape is implied. Sexual slavery described in broad strokes. Euphemisms abound to explain scenes in which women use sex in an attempt to bargain their way to survival. By contrast, when Israeli Jewish women write about sexual victimization during World War Two, there is a direct attention to detail; in fact, the sexual sadism experienced by the female characters is often a central point of the text. My talk will explore how the literary treatment of rape can act as a litmus test for a community’s sense of vulnerability or, its opposite, self-assurance, while keeping in mind that obfuscation and euphemism are linguistic acts of denial seeded in the Biblical story of Abraham and Sara’s first sojourn into Egypt.

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

Miryam Sivan is a former New Yorker has lived in Israel for twenty years. Much of her fiction is about the experiences of ex-pats in love, in flux, in the liminal space between cultures, languages, and historical epochs. She is a lecturer of English Literature at the University of Haifa. Her book, Belonging Too Well: Portraits of Identity in Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction, was published by SUNY Press (2009). In addition to numerous scholarly publications, she translated On the Blossoming, a book of poems by Leah Goldberg (1992).

Her short fiction has appeared in Lilith, Arts and Letters, Wasafiri, Jewish Quarterly, and other publications. A collection of short stories, SNAFU and Other Stories was published in 2015. Her novel, Make it Concrete, will be published in the fall of 2018 by Cuidono Press in NYC.

Header image: Taken from the cover of “And the Rat Laughed” by Nava Semel

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The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing Sexual Assault and Rape Narratives in Biblical Comics


Zanne Domoney-Lyttle teaches and researches at the University of Glasgow. Her research centres on comic book and graphic novel adaptations of the Bible through the perspectives of literary criticism, art criticism, comics theory and gender studies. Her doctoral thesis explored the space of comic books as visual aids to scripture, the tension between authorship and authority in biblical comics, and who has the right to reinterpret ancient sacred texts in a new graphical-visual medium. The following essay is based on Zanne’s presentation at the Religion and Rape Culture Conference organized by the Shiloh Project in July 2018.

The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing Sexual Assault and Rape Narratives in Biblical Comics

Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle

“Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived.” (Genesis 16:3b-4a)

In a post I wrote for this blog in November 2017, I discussed how biblical comics tend to avoid difficult scenes from the Bible, including visual depictions of rape, torture, violence and slavery. I argued that there is a reason and a need to represent such events in the graphic medium, because excluding difficult narratives erases not only violence and horror but silences the voices and experiences of the victims involved.

An alternative perspective is that comic book artists who choose to leave out “texts of terror” (Phyllis Trible, 1984), may do so because they do not want to be complicit in any act of sexual violence or of assault on the memory of the victim. Another reason is that they do not want younger or otherwise vulnerable readers to see violent scenes. Because of this, biblical scenes, which are unambiguously about rape and sexual assault – such as the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) or the rape, murder and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) – are intentionally left out in the majority of biblical comics.

But while these stories, which we might term “obvious” rape narratives, are often left out and often for reasons such as those just proposed, less “obvious” stories also depicting rape and sexual assault are often included. Moreover and disturbingly, there is often no indication that these stories can and should be read as stories of sexual aggression. Instead, violence is elided, rape becomes “just sex”.

To give one example, the story of Hagar in Genesis 16:1-4 is usually included in biblical comics, but never with any indication that Hagar is subjected to sexual servitude and abuse – namely, rape – in order to fulfil God’s promise to Abram for descendants.

A number of feminist biblical scholars, including J. Cheryl Exum, Phyllis Trible, Renita Weems and Susanne Scholz, have written compellingly about the importance of reading Hagar’s story as one of enslavement, rape and forced marriage and pregnancy. This is a burgeoning area of research in biblical studies and yet, the idea of reading biblical stories through the lens of classism and enforced motherhood is not one that is represented in mainstream comic adaptations of Bible material.

Comic book adaptations of Hagar’s story are always shown from the perspective of Abram and his “need” to have children. Depictions rarely, if ever, concentrate on the perspective of Sarai his wife, let alone on Hagar, a slave. Hagar is not so much suppressed in biblical comics but her representation is “shallow”, without autonomy and reflects a purely patriarchal perspective. Added to the exclusion of her voice, comic book creators also employ certain visual tools and word-choices, which further misrepresent the experience of Hagar. The effect of this is to imply her consent to sex and surrogacy and to normalise the treatment she receives at the hands of God, Abram and Sarai.

© R. Crumb, 2009

Let us turn to R. Crumb’s visual rendering of the story of Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6) in his The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R, Crumb: Hagar is introduced here as a solution to the problem of Sarai’s infertility. Given to Abram “as a wife”, the striking image which accompanies Genesis 16:3-4 depicts Sarai presiding over the “marriage”. This ceremony (of which there is no trace in the biblical text), moreover, resembles a traditional heterosexual Western wedding ritual, complete with officiant (Sarai), binding of hands and the face-to-face positioning of “bride” (Hagar) and “groom” (Abram). By referring to Hagar as a “wife” and graphically capturing her union with Abram in this way, Crumb encourages the reader to view the union as legal, consenting, sanctioned by God and as legitimate – rather than as a forced marriage between a slave and a powerful man for the purpose of producing Sarai’s surrogate child. This is further supported by Crumb’s word choice in his remediation: he uses “handmaid” rather than “slave-girl”.

Throughout the creation of his Genesis, Illustrated, Crumb relies heavily on three translations of the book of Genesis: the King James Version (KJV), the Jewish Publication Society version (JPS) and Robert Alter’s translation of and commentary on Genesis. The latter is the most prominent in his work and is clearly the source he relies on most.

This makes Crumb’s decision to use the word “handmaid”, rather than Alter’s “slave-girl”, even more conspicuous. Alter argues persuasively in his commentary that to describe Hagar (and Bilhah and Zilpah) as handmaids imposes a misleading sense of gentility on the sociology of the story. He goes on to suggest that describing Hagar as a maid rather than as a slave conveys the sense of a person in paid employment of their own volition, as opposed to somebody who is forced to work without wages, rights or freedoms.

© R. Crumb, 2009

So, Crumb choosing to call Hagar “handmaid” and depicting her transaction with Abram as a consenting marital union, suggests to the reader that Hagar enjoys some status and privileges, including the ability to choose marriage and pregnancy. This is further enhanced by Crumb’s commentary on his graphic version of Genesis where he provides his thoughts on Genesis 16:4b, “and when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress seemed diminished in her eyes.” Crumb argues that Hagar’s attitude towards Sarai is threatening, because by being pregnant, Hagar is in a position to usurp Sarai’s position as matriarch of the family.

Crumb encourages readers to see Hagar’s treatment in Genesis as consensual and in her favour by choosing specific words and visual codes for his images. By doing so, narratives of slavery, rape and assault against Hagar are erased or forgotten and the reader glosses over her story, understanding it only as a means to fulfilling God’s promises to Abram.

One could argue that Hagar’s depiction in Crumb’s Genesis, Illustrated is representative of her appearance in the biblical text. The biblical text, too, is primarily focused on Abram and his role in God’s plan. The biblical text, too, focuses on Hagar’s role as child-bearer, which addresses the situation of Sarai’s apparent infertility.

© Siku, 2007

Let us now turn to the treatment of Hagar by Siku, artist and writer of The Manga Bible as well as the first section of The Lion Hero Bible. In both these versions by Siku, representation of Hagar is minimal. In The Manga Bible, Hagar’s story is glossed over entirely. Sarai hangs off Abram’s shoulder, whispering into his ear like a seductress as if playing into, as Susanne Scholz suggests (2010), an androcentric fantasy that imagines wives inviting their husbands to sleep with other women. Hagar is in only one panel, where she is represented as an object shaped like a trophy or vessel ready to be filled with Abram’s seed.

In The Lion Hero Bible, where Abram is called “Faith Man” Hagar is given space across four panels. Her face is either turned away from the reader or is in darkness. Most troubling with this remediation of her story is the panel where Abram leads her into ominous darkness. Rape is not visually depicted. Instead, one narrow panel fits in between the panel of Hagar being led into darkness and another showing her advanced pregnancy. This panel alludes to the circumstances of conception but functions like an ellipsis. Still, at least the panel creates a small space for the reader to imagine what happened rather than being presented with Crumb’s version, which assumes consent and respectability.

Siku briefly acknowledges Hagar’s enslavement by visually alluding to her bondage but he spends no time reflecting on what this status means for her as a victim or on what it means for the reader receiving the text. Possibly, this is because Siku focuses on Abram and his progression as a patriarch – not on Hagar. Hagar remains above all a tool in the narrative, a way for God to fulfil his promises.

© Siku, 2015

Brendan Powell Smith’s The Brick Bible: A New Spin on the Old Testament is similar in its execution of Genesis 16:3-4. This time Hagar’s slave class is highlighted by her ragged clothing, which is juxtaposed with the robes and jewels of Abram and Sarai. Unlike Crumb, Powell Smith chooses to use the designation “slave-girl”. However, again Hagar’s status as slave is not challenged, highlighted or problematised: once more there is no allusion to forced marriage, or rape or involuntary impregnation. The Brick Bible is known for its humorous take on the Bible and this might be why Powell Smith chooses to ignore “difficult” or violent elements in the text.

© Brendan Powell Smith, 2011

Choosing whether to, and how to depict violent stories in biblical comics is a choice rife with responsibilities.

In a recently published essay, actor Molly Ringwald reflects on watching a scene of sexual assault in the film The Breakfast Club, in which she stars, given the revelations of the #MeToo movement. She asks:

“How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? […] Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art – change is essential, but so too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism.”

This is a question that must be asked of the Bible as well – especially when it is adapted in modern times into new media. The responsibility of those who make biblical comics is to represent the troubling texts and multiple voices within the stories instead of presenting only the version of the Bible that aligns with any one dominant ideology. This might include, for example, acknowledgment of Hagar as a victim of a class-driven system wherein God, Abram and even the matriarchal figure of Sarai are guilty of oppressing and abusing lower-class women in a quest to produce children “for Abram”. By not problematizing the text, retellings only reinforce and endorse damaging (such as androcentric) readings of the Bible. They fail to free Hagar from the constrictions of her story, thus jailing her both graphically within the panels of the comic book, and literarily within the word-choices of the written text.

Skipping over narratives of rape and sexual assault in the Bible can be a dangerous road when it comes to biblical interpretation. It is essential to remember also the violent stories and to revisit them with all of their transgressions and barbarities. In the conclusion to her essay, Molly Ringwald suggests that that it is up to future generations to respond to stories of rape and sexual assault like those in The Breakfast Club, in order to make those stories their own.

Biblical comic creators also need actively to challenge and reframe stories of rape and sexual assault in the Bible so that we can redeploy them as potential challenges to androcentric readings, and to oppose their examples of female subjugation. By accepting the existence of these texts and by probing and if necessary problematising and challenging their effects, resonances and implications, by both cherishing and opposing them, we can both remember the violence of the text but also ensure the victims in the texts are given focus and centrality, so as to recover and honour their voices.


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Negotiating the Silence: Sexual Violence in Israeli Holocaust Fiction

miryam 2

Negotiating the Silence: Sexual Violence in Israeli Holocaust Fiction


Dr Miryam Sivan

Miryam Sivan lectures at the University of Haifa. Her research interests include contemporary American and Israeli literature and literature of the Shoah, and she has written about authors such as Cynthia Ozick and James Baldwin. She is also a creative writer and has authored a number of short stories, a novel, Make it Concrete (to be published in April 2019, with another, Love Match, undergoing revisions), and a collection of short fiction, SNAFU and other Stories. The essay below is based on Miryam’s presentation at the Religion and Rape Culture Conference organized by the Shiloh Project in July 2018.

‘Do you remember the three girls that were taken out one night for an orgy? The Germans were drunker than ever. At dawn two of them crawled back, their bodies bruised all over. The third girl had been rolled up in a carpet, her long hair hanging out of one end, dragged into the garden, and set on fire. The drunken Germans stood and watched the hair, flaring up readily, and the smell of burnt flesh filled the rooms until the wind blew. One of the girls told us, before she was taken to the doctor and never returned, that the Germans had strangled her friend while violating her body. In the morning the other girl began to spew blood. She came to my room for shelter and showed me the fist marks on her lower abdomen.’

Savyon Liebrecht, ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies,’ Apples from the Desert: Selected Stories     

To write about the Holocaust is to enter into dialogue with an extreme epoch of Jewish vulnerability and helplessness. Writing about sexual violence committed against Jewish women during the Holocaust highlights this. In fiction by Israeli writers Savyon Liebrecht and Nava Semel few details of these atrocities are spared. The sadism and perverse violence to which some Jewish women were subjected is exposed in their stories, making readers inadvertent ‘witnesses’ to this significant Holocaust accounting.

Israeli writers came to the Holocaust as a subject for their work in the 1980s. This rather late entrance reflects a predilection in Israeli society for creating psychological distance. There are a number of reasons for this: the depth of Holocaust trauma caused some degree of collective repression; there was a great need for post-war Jews, both survivors and those already living in pre-State Israel, to ‘normalize’; the heroic narrative of the New Jew returned to the historical homeland actively rejects the image of the diaspora Jew going passively to the slaughter; survivors were judged for having made it through the war ‘by any means necessary’. Today we recognize the injustice and immorality of this kind of victim blaming. But back then, in the first decades after the war, energies in the Jewish world were dedicated to rebuilding – and trauma was repressed, suspended.

There were exceptions, both in terms of individuals talking about their experiences and writers writing about them. A handful of Hebrew language novels published prior to the mid-1980s deal with the Holocaust – but these were small glimmers of light in what was otherwise a virtual black hole in Modern Hebrew literature about the Holocaust.

The forty year time-span may not be a coincidence. In the Bible, when the children of Israel leave Egypt, God understands that the impact of hundreds of years of slavery can not be washed away in one sea-crossing, no matter how miraculous. The generation born in Egypt has to die out and only their children and grandchildren, raised in freedom, can enter and take possession of the Promised Land. Hazal, Judaism’s traditional scholars, called the Egyptian-born Israelites Dor Hamidbar, ‘the Desert Generation’. Forty years of wandering in the liminality of Sinai constructed a new identity for their progeny.

A similar weaning away from diasporic exilic mentality occurred in 20th century Israel. The first generation raised in Israel, many children of survivors among them, lifted the veil of silence around the Holocaust. In 1985, exactly forty years after the war ended, Nava Semel’s collection of short stories, A Hat of Glass, was the first book of contemporary Hebrew fiction that deals with second-generation trauma. Its title story, ‘A Hat of Glass’, was also about sexual violence against women during the war. This story, this book, was too loaded for Israeli society to embrace it and Semel’s book received little attention.

A year later, in 1986, David Grossman’s post-modern novel See: Under Love was published. This book also deals with the Holocaust and with first- and second-generation trauma, but its highly intellectual language and structure create emotional distance. Naturally, Grossman being a man helped his brilliant novel receive the attention it duly deserves. And naturally, Semel being a woman and dealing with sexual violence against women in the camps and frontlines, helped bury its publication under the habitual blanket of silence and denial.

Rape. Why is the literary treatment of this subject a litmus test for a community’s sense of vulnerability or, of its opposite, self-confidence? In Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking academic study of rape published in 1975, Brownmiller describes how ‘[m]en of a conquered nation traditionally view the rape of “their women” as the ultimate humiliation, a sexual coup de grace. In fact, by tradition, men appropriate rape of “their women” as part of their own male anguish of defeat’ (31).

Added to the already heavy burden of shame that tragically haunts the crime of rape, within the context of war this common weapon proves to an already defeated nation that the frontline moves into homes sparing no one. Rape has come to represent literally, literarily, and allegorically the depths of an individual’s and a nation’s defenselessness.

For Jews this climactic powerlessness is seeded in the Bible. When Abraham takes his entourage down to Egypt (Genesis 12), he instructs his beautiful wife Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister (not his wife). For if she were to please Pharaoh he would have Abraham killed. Taking a man’s wife sexually was abhorrent. Taking his life to obtain a desirable woman was justifiable. Murder is, by implication, more acceptable than adultery.

And indeed, Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s palace but, as midrash Bereshit Rabbah 41:2 explains, Pharaoh was struck with impotence and his lust for Sarah is never consummated. Ketubot 7:9 says leprosy or venereal disease prevented sex. And Tanhuma Lech Lecha 8 recounts that an angel struck Pharaoh every time he tried to touch Sarah. Of course the rabbis and scholars writing midrash would make all these ‘convenient’ claims. The obfuscation of rape is no modern invention.

The litmus test of vulnerability resides here, in this story (Genesis 12:10-20). The first precondition is exile. Once there, the woman is defenseless and her husband has no means to protect her, only deception – which may in the end save his life but does not necessarily spare her the trauma of abduction and rape. A similar story is repeated in Genesis 26: 7-11 when Isaac and Rebecca also leave Canaan and go south in search of water and food. They tell King Avimelech that they are brother and sister – again, so Isaac won’t be killed. These deceptions are, according to Arnold Eisen, a ‘lesson directed particularly at partisans of the diaspora – the sexual politics of homelessness are always demanding and at times devastating. The rape or near-rape of the matriarchs and their daughter Dinah are emblematic of the large set of compromises and violations to which the Jewish people stands exposed to as a stranger in strange lands’ (183).

By contrast, the language used to describe acts of rape in Canaan is usually plainspoken and direct. A strong example of this is when Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13:14:

 וַיֶּחֱזַק מִמֶּנָּה וַיְעַנֶּהָ, וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ ולא אבה, לשמוע בקולה.

‘But he would not heed her and being stronger tortured her, and lay with her.’

Gone are the euphemisms and obfuscations of exile.

Nava Semel and Savyon Liebrecht, daughters of mothers who lived through European labor and concentration camps, take on the sexual politics of exile. They begin filling in the silence plaguing their mothers’ lives, telling tales of women’s sexual abuse. These are traumas that their mothers witnessed and/or experienced. These are stories that reach back to Genesis and create a link with the disavowed suffering of Sarah in Egypt. For these 20th century women writers, the denial that smothered the subject of the Holocaust in their childhoods is compounded by the shame, guilt, and denial that haunts victims of sexual crimes.

In Semel’s ‘A Hat of Glass’, sexual violence is not explicitly described. One reason is that the story’s narrator is not actually present when Clarissa, a former Feld-Hure, is summoned to the room of the ‘golden-haired officer, Brunhilde of the Black Forest’ (190), as the camp inmates jokingly refer to the German officer in charge of them. At only one point in the story is ‘the Brunhilde’ seen touching Clarissa in public and this is done in anger, because Clarissa has shared forest berries with the women on the factory floor. But what actually enrages ‘the Brunhilde’ is the concern and nurturing sympathy Clarissa reserves exclusively for her fellow inmates. The German officer may be able to use Clarissa’s body as she likes, but she has no control over her mind or heart: ‘She went over to Clarissa, took her by the shoulders and shook her with one power jolt. “Das ist meine Clarissa,” she said in a stiff voice. “Sie ist Mein.” “Mine, mine”’ (196). To remain alive Clarissa accepts being this woman’s sex slave, but she also uses her position to help her sister inmates.

One night the narrator asks Clarissa what the officer does to her and she recalls how suddenly Clarissa’s face contorted with a pain so intense that she recoiled. Then Clarissa reassures the younger woman that she was not being hurt. Yet the narrator knows better and says how other women used as sex slaves ‘had already thrown themselves against the fence to sever the frenzied memories. Others had turned into wild dogs, directing their humiliation and disgrace at women as yet unafflicted’ (191).

Savyon Liebrecht, too, creates a narrator who is only witness to, and not herself a victim of, sexual abuse. In ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies’, the unnamed narrator sits among a group of women minding babies in a Tel Aviv park. She spent part of the war working as a seamstress in a house of sexual slavery. One morning, years after the war, she sees a new nanny with a small child in the park and recognizes her immediately as one of the more exquisite women from the so-called brothel. Watching her care for the young child, the narrator is transported back to those scenes of hell and addresses her in her mind: ‘How did you guard your soul in that place?’ (183). Like Clarissa in Semel’s story, this beautiful woman did not allow the torment to take hold of her. At least not in any externally visible way.

Liebrecht’s prose is graphic and direct. She does not airbrush away the particulars of the torture and literary close-ups are key to understanding women’s suffering. For Liebrecht ‘that creature, the Shoah survivor, has always been a sort of asexual. There was a reduction of gender subject […]. Specifically, I am talking about women, the experiences of women at that period. And it’s not only that, but – of women who were used, who were used for the pleasure of the Germans. I mean, a woman’s most feminine element, a woman’s eroticism’ was deliberately ignored for so long in the writing of the history of that period.

Liebrecht and Semel courageously take on the painful subject of sexual abuse of Jewish women during the war. They do so by describing it directly and unsparingly, without euphemism or indirect references. But it is not until Semel publishes The Rat Laughs (2001) that a first-person habitation of violent experience of sexual abuse during the Holocaust era occurs in Hebrew Israeli literature. This novel recounts the abuse of a five-year-old Jewish girl at the hands of the peasant family paid to hide her. In the first section of this mixed-genre work, the narrator, middle-aged now, like the narrators in ‘Hat of Glass’ and ‘Morning in the Park among the Nannies’, recalls her war time experiences. When her granddaughter prods her to tell her story she omits much more than she tells. In her mind though, she recalls a great deal and so once again readers become inadvertent witnesses to the horrors of the lightless potato pit where the child lives.

The use of euphemisms here for the continual rapes the five-year-old child suffers at the hands of ‘the Stephan’ as she calls the teenage son of the household, is understood as an expression of (grand)-maternal protection and do not constitute repression, or any deliberate white-washing of sexual torture. She simply cannot endure having her own granddaughter, herself still a child, think about the nightmare of her grandmother’s serial pedophilic rape. The child is spared; the reader is not.

In a later section of the novel, composed of small poems written in a child’s voice, in a verse entitled ‘Cradle Song’, the effect of the rapes is tangible and acutely painful:

There once was

a small Jewish girl

and she had

small Jewish hands

and small Jewish eyes

and a small Jewish mouth

and a small Jewish body

and a big hole (134).

In this novel, Israeli Hebrew literature redeems the lost experience of lived nightmare and treachery and violence. In these scenes any standard of moral security is rendered unstable. Here a first-person female narrator, reflecting on herself as a child, a complete innocent who does not even know enough to name the act of rape being perpetrated against her, inhabits the hell of sexual violence. Here the constraints of fear and insecurity fall away. Meaning lies in the power of deconstructing the biblical paradigm of obfuscation and telling directly and explicitly what occurred and how – to the best of the narrator’s ability. This draws and derives in no small measure from the process of normalized confidence and security: a people, a land, a language. It is no longer now from the position of exile that Liebrecht and Semel confront us. These tales are a reckoning, a filling in of the gaps, a determination to give voice to an important frontier in the ongoing study of the Holocaust – namely, women’s experiences in general, and women’s suffering at the hands of sexual predators in particular.

The fact that the language of composition of these narratives is Hebrew gives these tales of brutality and grief an added poignancy. Within the cadences and images of their sentences, in direct and unapologetic language for the sexual abuse endured, a sense of time compressed resonates. And the resilient thread that stretches from Sarah, Rebecca, Dinah, Tamar, and Esther, to countless unnamed Jewish women in Egypt, in Spain, in Morocco, Poland and Germany is pulled taut. Their voices are not part of the biblical canon. Their female progeny suffered silently in concentration and labor camps, ghettos, forests, and hidden shelters. Semel and Liebrecht, Israeli writers, are finally able to write the stories of this anguish, negotiating the silence, expanding the discourse, and insistently setting new terms.

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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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Research as Resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence


Abstract: Feminist research into violence, within sacred texts, traditions and contemporary contexts, tends to be motivated by a desire to confront and challenge violence. This is certainly true of my own research into how dominant theologies of marriage function as risk factors in contexts of domestic violence.

This paper explores how being ‘research active’ can be understood as a form of active resistance. It suggests that this resistance begins with paying attention to forms of violence that have been normalised or ignored. Biblical scholar Gina Hens-Piazza argues that readers must be willing to name every occurrence of violence within a text; to fail to do so is to risk failing to name and resist violence encountered in everyday living. Secondly resistance requires commitment to a range of voices and methods of investigation, rather than reliance on tried and tested methods. In so doing, such resistance is creative, in reimagining both problems and solutions.

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

Rachel Starr is Director of Studies (UG programmes) at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham, UK. She completed her doctorate at Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (Protestant Institute for Advanced Theological Studies) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her book, Reimagining Theologies of Marriage in Contexts of Domestic Violence: When Salvation is Survival is published by Routledge in April 2018.

Header image: Ni una Menos (Not One Woman Less) march in Santa Fe, Argentina. 2018. Photograph by Agustina Girardo [via WikiCommons]

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