Today marks the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence Campaign. To commemorate, we’ll publish a profile of each of our project directors and members for every day of the campaign.
Our first interview is with project co-director Johanna Stiebert, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Leeds.
Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?
My name is Johanna Stiebert and I research and teach on the Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. I became an academic because I failed to make a career in human rights journalism and activism, which was my first quest.
What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?
The Shiloh Project grew out of a conversation with two friends who are also colleagues, Katie Edwards and Caroline Blyth. Katie teaches biblical studies at the University of Sheffield and Caroline at the University of Auckland, in my native New Zealand. Katie is also Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, which, thanks in large part to her leadership, has a strong track-record in organising innovative and activist events focused around things biblical, and Caroline’s publications and teaching have a strong focus on feminist approaches, as well as on LGBTQI rights. Working with them is not only fun, it makes work meaningful.
Katie and Caroline, together with Emily Colgan, were already working on editing a multi-volume collection (forthcoming with Palgrave MacMillan) of papers on religion and rape culture. We decided to hold a workshop in Leeds, which was attended by several more inspiring scholars – Nechama Hadari, Emma Nagouse, Valerie Hobbs and Jessica Keady – and it was there that we decided to launch The Shiloh Project and its blog, to create a forum and resource on religion, the Bible and rape culture. Since the launch, corresponding with contributors and readers and preparing posts for the blog has been one of my favourite work activities.
How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?
It relates to my work in a number of ways. First, I have a long-standing interest in the topic of gender-based violence and the Bible. In my PhD dissertation already, I focused quite a lot of attention on the woman metaphor in Ezekiel 16 and 23. In these chapters the relationship between Israel’s God and Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem, is depicted in terms of sexually promiscuous females (i.e. disobedient, abhorrent Israel) and violent men who ‘sort them out’ (i.e. God and the men who do his bidding). It’s appalling stuff.
Since then I have worked also on the image of the abused woman and man in Lamentations, on father-daughter relationships and, most recently, on the topic of incest and the Hebrew Bible. All of these have revolved around gender and power relations. I have also contributed a chapter to the rape-culture volumes, edited by Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and Katie Edwards, on the motif of the eroticized sister and rape in both the Hebrew Bible and contemporary popular culture.
But it’s also more personal than just about my research, which has been primarily focused on antiquity. I am well conscious that sexualized violence is multi-dimensional and ever-present. Not only are there constant revelations of sexual violence against boys, girls, women and men – be it in the context of on-street grooming in Rotherham or Rochdale, or in football coaching, be it sex-trafficking of women from Eastern Europe, or scandals erupting in Hollywood or Westminster, or revelations from public schools, children’s homes, universities or the church. I also have children aged eleven and nine and am frequently startled at the disturbing sexualized language and images they encounter (and then ask difficult questions about) – in instagram posts or mainstreamed music videos.
All of this motivates me to make my work relevant to present-day injustices concerning sexism, gender-based injustice and violence. The Shiloh Project has been one way to focus this endeavour and to find other like-minded persons working on related topics.
It has been very satisfying to make activism part of my work and, luckily, my subject unit at Leeds is supportive of this, too. Several of my Leeds colleagues (Adriaan van Klinken, Emma Tomalin, Stefan Skrimshire, Rachel Muers…) integrate social justice activism into their research and teaching. In my view this is an important responsibility for universities – including for subject units teaching about religion.
Through the energy harnessed by this project I have also become involved with applying for a number of research grants to focus on discrete topics. Recently, Katie Edwards and I received funding to take forward a collaboration with scholars, NGOs and women’s rights groups in Yorkshire, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho. We are also seeking collaborations with the University of Ghana and with the White Rose consortium (working across the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and York) to create networks and conduct research and grassroots projects to facilitate more critical understanding of and resistance to gender-based violence and inequality.
How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?
There is clearly a considerable need for gender activism. So much needs to be done. The dimension of religion, however, is often neglected. And yet, religious beliefs and imagery play quite a significant role in terms of shaping gender stereotypes and values. My colleague Emma Tomalin (at Leeds) is leading projects on how matters of religion interface with public health, with gender (e.g. in discussions of sex trafficking, dowries and on-street grooming) and development (particularly the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals) and I am persuaded that much more needs to be done to identify, understand and evaluate the influence of religion in all kinds of gender dynamics. Again, working with Katie and Caroline has made me think about this topic along new lines. Katie has done a lot of work on how popular culture distils and reflects cultural manifestations of gender values, while Caroline has recently demonstrated the impact of religious values (particularly of a very socially conservative brand) on gender public politics.
What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?
My next project is to look at contemporary rape myths and to examine how they relate to depictions in the Bible. I am starting with the myth that women often make false allegations – either because they are resentful at having sexual advances rejected, or because they want to abnegate blame for consensually entered into sexual misconduct they later regret. Yes, false rape allegations do happen – but they are far less common than claims about them. I am looking at the story of Potiphar’s wife right now (Genesis 39) in which she demands Joseph have sex with her, he rejects her, and she then claims he attempted to rape her. I’ll be giving the Humboldt Lecture at the University of Bamberg in the new year based on this topic. If you’re in Bamberg on 18 April at 6pm, come along.