“And ladies?” the pastor turned toward us, sitting politely on our side of the black curtain, “You might want to watch those Oreo cookies! They may be double-stuffed, but you don’t want to be!”
My husband and I had arrived at our couples’ Bible study to be greeted with a new floor-to-ceiling black curtain running down the center aisle of our meeting room. We sat down with our friends, only to be told by the leader that, today, we were going to reenact the environment in which Jesus’ followers would have learned. Ladies would sit on one side of the curtain and men on the other.
“What if I’m not actually a lady?” I whispered to my friend. “Hush,” she said, laughing. “Don’t get all feminist-y on me now.” She knows me well.
My friend and I obediently stood and walked to our side of the curtain, where we spent the next 90 minutes staring at the side of the speaker’s face as he spoke to the men. Except for the few times he addressed us. He did face us to tell us that we could help our husbands’ pornography problems by laying off the Oreos and dressing well.
A year later, I found myself sitting with only women, again on “our” side of a black curtain. Around me, women in hijabs, brilliant sarees and the occasional head-to-toe niqab sat eating, wrestling small children, and listening to the loudspeaker piping in the teaching from the men’s side of the muslim wedding. If I leaned forward a few inches, I could see the talking Imam through a crack in the curtain. He faced the men. His words spoke only to the men, to men’s life experiences, men’s needs, men’s wants, men’s fears, men’s faces. We, the women raising the men’s children, were again invisible and irrelevant.
Despite my fantasies of marching to the other side of both those curtains and plunking myself into a chair directly in front of the male speakers’ faces, of demanding their acknowledgement and the respect of basic eye contact…I sat.
I thought a lot about Mary and Martha’s story on those two days. The first people to pull me back from leaving my place would have been the women around me, extended family and dear friends. Not out of hatred, but out of fear, out of ingrained compliance with sexist norms. Out of sheer exhaustion as they too wavered under the relentless, unappreciated, invisible labor so often piled on women’s shoulders.
But I was tired, jet lagged, unfamiliar with the languages swirling around me. I sat where I was supposed to sit.
Mary didn’t just pursue learning – she left the duties that were considered her “job” – her identity, her means of demonstrating her value in a segregated culture that demands women earn their worth through beauty or duty – and walked past her equally bold sister (look at the way Martha calls Jesus in John 11) who had either internalized the misogyny or bowed to it in her own exhaustion.
Mary walked into a room of men raised in a culture that expected her in the kitchen, silently and invisibly serving their needs. She sat down, leaving “her duties” undone, saying INCLUDE ME in a visible way!
It is terrifying to be a Mary.
The Bible honors women and men who ease the impossibility of a woman’s path. It honors the women who walk into the misogyny and demand that they be served as well. It honors Tamar walking out to the gates of town to force Judah to give her what is hers. It honors Esther walking into the throne room (and the king’s bedroom) as a warrior who lays down her own body to save her people. It honors Ruth walking alone to the family of a depressed mother-in-law, walking alone into fields filled with misogynistic men, walking alone at night onto the threshing floor. And it honors Mary: walking past her overburdened sister, into an environment reserved for men, demanding with her presence that she also receive the knowledge that creates the men’s privilege…
The Bible honors the women who walk into difficult spaces and claim God’s path for them.
Ken Bailey points out in “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes,” that Jesus engaged in unusual openness toward women. Women are repeatedly included among His disciples, and mentioned among those who traveled with Jesus, a shocking situation even today in many Middle Eastern countries. Jesus was known to speak to women directly in public (the woman with a menstruation illness, the woman at the well). So when Mary walked into Jesus’ talk, perhaps he already had a reputation as someone compassionate to female inclusion…And perhaps that reputation fed Mary’s boldness.
And in that, we find another lesson for allies of Women of Color. As allies, we are to provide such an unquestionable affirmation of WOC’s equality, that it feeds their boldness as they pursue God’s path for their lives.
As an ally to WOC, it’s powerful to note what Jesus doesn’t do:
He doesn’t encourage Mary to listen to Martha – “She’s just expressing her opinion.”
He doesn’t ride the fence to keep himself safe – “Honestly, both sides have a solid point.”
He doesn’t police anyone’s approach – “I really value your approach Mary, but you’re distracting the men in that outfit anyway. And Martha, you sound very abrasive right now.”
He doesn’t value peace over what is right – “Guys, I really just want to get through this event. Could you go work this out in the kitchen?”
He doesn’t trivialize the impact of cutting a woman out of the public sphere – “Women: so emotional! Amirite, guys?”
He doesn’t attack the personhood of Martha – “Are you jealous of your sister?”
He doesn’t ignore the situation – “If I don’t make eye contact, maybe this will just go away.”
He doesn’t make it about him – “I feel awful about this, guys. This is just tough for me to hear. I mean, I’ve always tried to be supportive of you both. Can we maybe not fight?”
He doesn’t entertain misogyny simply because the request comes from a woman – “Hey, you said it, not me … Mary! Your sister wants you.”
His words are clear and concise: She has chosen what is good and it will not be taken from her!
First, he focuses on her and her well-being. Implicit in Jesus’ response is the message that what he will says will benefit Mary. Perhaps it will even be said with her in mind.
In a culture where women weren’t even expected to be present, it would be less shocking if Jesus had said, “Hey, she can say, even though this is really geared toward men – obviously – so I’m not sure how much she’ll get out of it.” Instead, in his proclamation that her choice is good, he implies that he will be addressing things relevant to the woman in his audience, that it will benefit her, rather than use her as a “seat filler” while ministering to men.
Second, it will not be taken from her. Jesus doesn’t minimize the obstacles she faces as a woman who has finally obtained a seat at the table. Jesus will stand in the gap to make sure no one takes it back(!), so she can focus on moving forward, instead of obsessing about hanging on to it.
Jesus’ kind of advocacy calls us to act consistently, to have a reputation for our advocacy and support of WOC. It is to be clear, unapologetic, concise, and immoveable on the subject of WOC in the church. It is to be outspoken about their right to access the same value, the same tailored teaching that’s available to everyone else. It is to call for a society, not simply to include WOC, but to provide for them directly “what is good.”
May we walk as boldly as Mary. And may we be as unshakable in our advocacy as Christ.
Raya Parvez is a mom of one energetic, insomniac American-Bengali toddler in vibrant Austin, Texas. She’s a privacy engineer during the day, and spends her occasional free time writing and lobbying for gender equality in the church.