We Have Work To Do

written on 17 March 2021 by Indy Hollway

Art by Benjamin Hollway

Trigger Warning: This piece talks about sexual harassment and violence. Although there is no description of events, please read cautiously.

In November of last year, I was sexually harassed by someone I knew. The harassment threw me into a season of fear and depression, where I could not leave the house alone, and the sound of the doorbell caused my heart to pound. I had nightmares which made me afraid to go to bed and anxiety which cast shadows forcing me to be continually alert. I went to therapy, I had a support group, I had loving friends and family around me, but I still struggled with my emotions and felt guilty bringing them to God.

Over the last two weeks, the awful and unjust murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer in London has sparked an important and necessary conversation: why is there so much violence against women? Those who have been impassioned by this injustice have cited a recent survey which states that almost every woman in the UK has experienced some form of sexual harassment, their cries of “we are the 97 percent” throwing our minds back to the global #metoo movement. These conversations have been triggering for many of the people in my life, both those who are remembering unsavoury events, and who are reassessing their behaviour.

Not so long ago, there was a trend going around on TikTok where women would try, and sadly often fail, to name three men who they would feel comfortable being alone in a room with for an extended period of time. Some women showed videos of their husbands, dads, and children, others showed fictional characters, but an alarming amount of women could not think of a single name. I was doing an internship at the church at the time of this trend and enthusiastically showed it to the two male pastors who I was working for. I was simultaneously overjoyed that I could name a multitude of males who I felt comfortable with, including the two with whom I was discussing the video, and outraged that other women were not sharing my experiences. “This is something we can do as the church” I remember saying. “Create a safe space for women.”

On the one hand, I have felt safe as a woman in the church. When the church was represented by my father in law, staying up until past midnight listening to, and learning from, my mother in law and I talking about the unpleasant atmosphere some men create, whether intentionally or not. When the church was represented by wonderful close friends who carry themselves with self-awareness, never blocking exits, never coming too close, and never saying anything inappropriate. When the church was, and is, represented by my justice warrior husband who emphasizes consent and continuously stands up for the women in his workplace. In all these moments, surrounded by all these men, I feel safe and secure.

But there have been moments where I haven’t felt safe. There have been moments when men in the church have gotten cross with me, or frustrated, for whatever reason, and I have felt that nauseating sense of uncertainty. There have been times where men have commented on how I look, or how women I’m with look, which has come across entirely inappropriate (saying thank you and looking flattered is a coping mechanism sometimes). There have been times when female friends have shared with me concerning and upsetting stories about their boyfriends, friends, or even leaders.

“What can we do?” I ask myself, as the faces of my sisters, friends, cousins, and even my own future daughter swim before me. I know what I can’t do. I can’t destroy the patriarchal systems which uphold a sexualized view of women and support the perverse and disgusting outlook of some men that they have a right to a woman’s body, at least not on my own. I can’t teach all the men around me and listen to and share the stories of all the women around me because it is too exhausting for one person to carry all that burden. But, I can’t continue to accept things the way they are.

When the police told us that they were unlikely to press charges against my harasser because he ‘expressed a sincere apology’ something switched in my brain. Despite many wiser women than I telling me repeatedly that anger for justice is ok, and that God also has anger for justice, I had been suppressing these emotions, afraid of what they might do to me. Guilt I had felt, guilt about my anxiety and inability to pass everything to God, guilt at my stupidity for putting myself into a situation where I could be harassed (yes, even this ridiculous thought goes through a survivor’s mind). Sadness, yes, fear, oh yeah. But anger, only at this moment did I finally cry out “God, why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to women? Why are men’s stories heard and our stories silenced?” (except with a bit more profanity, I do have to say). And God, graciously, gently, carefully took my burdens, loved me, and guided me to write this article.

Maybe that’s not a good enough answer for you. Maybe you were hoping that God would break into this injustice, and say a whole load of extremely useful and specific things that we could then live by. Well, He already has. God has already told us that we are all equal, and thus he condemns gender-based violence of all types (as well as any intersectionally based violence, might I add). God has already uplifted and loved endless amounts of women, most remarkably revealed by Jesus’ time on Earth. Most importantly, God has already forgiven and loved us, and is pulling us towards Himself in a beautiful act of redemption. We are not spotless, we are not blameless, and yet we are God’s children. Just as my dad came to my sixth form to address my stalker, and my father-in-law lamented over an inappropriate comment I received at church, God is our daddy, we are his babies, and He will fight for us. That terrifyingly awesomely protective look in my husband’s eyes when he finds out one of his sisters is upset about some of the world’s injustices, the one I’m sure could straight up turn people to stone, that look is mirrored in God’s eyes, but 10,000 times 10,000 more powerful.

Emboldened by the promises of God, knowing that justice is not our burden but our inheritance, we can reassess ourselves. What are we doing, as men and women, to uphold, whether intentionally or not, systems and practices that exacerbate violence against women? We all do it, I do it, you do it, the church does it. If we are ready and able to move forward and out of our old ways, then our past sins can be forgiven, the future is what is important now. It might not come quickly, forgiveness takes time, healing takes time, but all we can do is set our eyes on God, and try to become more like Jesus. That being said, here are some practical things that we can do as we move further down the path of gender equality:

  • Remember that it is not a woman’s responsibility to teach you how to behave/ be respectful. There are plenty of women who are in a good place to assist and guide, but don’t assume that everyone has the capacity for this. Do your own research and soul searching. At the same time, create a space for women's voices to be heard. Allowing women to share their experiences and interpretations of the Bible decreases harassment and pulls the church up (more on this in the future).
  • Be respectful and speak up. Take a careful look at the words you use to describe women/ other women: are they uplifting? Are they honouring? Do the people around you speak about women/ other women in a respectful and loving way? Do you call people out for inappropriate language/ jokes/ behaviours? It might make you feel uncomfortable to tell your friend/ uncle/ guy at church that touching women when walking past is inappropriate, but I can guarantee it makes that woman significantly less comfortable.
  • Read, explore, and research. Think about your own biases: what are they based on? Have you ever read articles/ looked at websites that explain gaslighting/ catcalling/ harassment? Or deeper things like androcentrism/ patriarchy/ intersectionality? Have you ever fully researched menstruation/ pregnancy/ menopause? Women aren’t mystical creatures, and the church has a really bad history of holding women up as mythological. Talk to us, we are humans too.
  • Pray for and experience gratefulness for the women in your life. Really feel the love you have for mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, aunts, friends, mentors, girlfriends, wives, fiancees, church leaders, and use this love to motivate you. When my husband says something mean about himself I always say “don’t talk about my husband like that.” We need to say “don’t talk to my sister like that” when we see a woman in need.
  • Be aware that this world is broken, but God’s redemption is beyond our understanding. We can be light in the darkness, but we cannot fix the brokenness without Jesus. Jesus is the centre of our redeeming love and His grace gives us the strength to carry on. It will be difficult and painful, but Jesus never called us to an easy life.

I’ve said it a hundred times, but I’ll say it again: the church really has an opportunity to do better, and we should grasp it with both hands. Until the world is safe for women, the church has work to do.