“…One never is just a single person. One always is already a set of relationships, multiple intersections of connectivity. It is the relationships that position a person for access, rights, privileges, resources. It is the relationships that shape selfhood and identity.”
In primarily collectivist societies, members of the community, from birth onwards, are integrated into strong cohesive in-groups. These are formed around the extended family, the tribe, the community, and in our modern history, the nation, where unquestioning loyalty is given in exchange for protection and provision. Social harmony in the in-group is maintained by members subscribing to the established social norms, with shame and honour being the currency of exchange. Belonging and acceptance in the community is set against indifference or even hostility toward those who don’t belong or who break the accepted social norms. Hierarchy and harmony are emphasised within the community.
Overlaying this moral framework for social relationships is the gendered nature of shame and honour. Socially legitimated constructs of gender, or what it means to be a woman are informed by shame and honour . Women’s identities within the family and community, their connective identities, are linked to honour . See a series of blog posts earlier on this site by Moyra Dale  exploring this gendered nature of shame. Females are most often seen as symbols of shame, men as symbols of honour.
Hierarchy orders relationships in shame and honour cultures, and has particular importance in shaping the way women negotiate their daily lives. Connectedness is hierarchical, with status, value and rank providing the framework for negotiating life and its relationships. Directions are taken from above. A conversation with a friend a little while back about a decision that was needed in her family, and how it was worked through the layers of those with authority, mother and mother-law, and finally husband and father, demonstrates the outworking of power and authority in hierarchical social structures. Behaviour is deemed appropriate according to role and is enforced through the limits set by the boundary makers, those with the power and authority.
This is the frame within which women negotiate their everyday, not just their behaviours, though these too must be worked out within intricately connected relational hierarchies, but their ‘self’. This ‘enmeshment’, as Joseph calls it, is hard for those of us from more individualistic cultures to understand. Joseph speaks of how the ‘[t}he enmeshed self privileges relationships and context … and identifies persons as active agents rather than passive victims.” . She goes on to describe how “[p]ersonhood is understood in terms of relationship woven into one’s sense of self, identity, and place in the world. One is never without family, without relationships, outside the social body. The self is not sealed within boundaries separating self from others. To be whole is to be part of, related, connected… Relationships may change, break, mend. The boundaries and sense of self change, break and mend. One’s self is always ‘in relationship to’.” . With this connectivity comes rights, claims that people have on each other; claims that are made on each other and from each other.
How do we navigate these relational connections in our friendships journeying with women? For those of us not from cultures and worldview that frame relationships in this way it can be challenging sometimes. When I worked at a large college in South Asia, there were benefits and challenges in ‘becoming a part of the family’ of one of my students. They helped me navigate rules and relationships in ways I could not have done as an outsider, but it meant I ‘lost’ certain ‘freedoms’ I deemed a part of being a mature adult. Should I be allowed to travel by myself? Could I go to the markets on my own? But when I needed to navigate government departments the men in the family took on that responsibility on my behalf. The reverse also become true. When their daughter ran into trouble in college I was expected to play my role in dealing with this for the best outcome.
The Christian community expected me to assist them get their daughters a place to study at the college. What could I do? I had no idea and rules were rules to me. I was also the privileged member of staff to whom they looked for help in a place where they felt their minority status. And as one with privilege and connection I had a role to play, even within the rules.
How do we deal with the apparent limitations a friend may place on what we can and can’t say about Jesus? There are so many who still need to hear about Jesus, so is there a time to move on from an ‘unproductive; relationship? How is that perceived by the community? A colleague once spoke of this dilemma. Her team mates had said that if the relationship was not going to yield fruit then she should move on and find other more productive relationships. This colleague described the struggle, and her ultimate decision to stay with that friendship. Some time later, another woman in the community became a follower of Jesus and told my colleague she knew she was real, that she would have a place to belong, because she had watched her remain friends with this woman who had rejected Jesus. She was convinced that relationships, a necessary part of her navigating her new identity, were real.
Relational connections bring responsibilities as well as privileges. Understanding where we are in the hierarchy will help us negotiate those. For those of us working cross-culturally, whether outside or inside of our country, we have status and all that accompanies that. There will be expectations on how we will support, help, resource, open doors for those we work with. Requests for a loan are often challenging, and all of us struggle to know how to deal with it. It took a long time, but I learned that I should be generous, but also honest. When I could give something I did, and when I had nothing I tried to help find a way to help them get access to other ways of meeting their need. What it took me time to realise is that they always paid it back, usually in kind: a mango, a plate of food, washing my car, introducing me to family and friends that opened new opportunities for conversations and relationships.
Belonging and identity are intricately linked to relationships, which has implications for the way we think about discipleship. It has been said that Muslim women want to know first what the community they will belong to is like before they make any declarations of allegiance to Jesus. They may even begin to behave as a follower of Jesus when they start to find a place of belonging and begin to renegotiate identity and self, and it may be much later that they declare their allegiance as a follower of Jesus. Creating communities of belonging with investment in relationships is fundamental to discipleship. What does that mean for the way we work and the way we conceptualise church?
All of this is challenges, and I don’t want to minimise those in what I have said so far. We can start with exploring what relational connections mean in the communities where we work, identifying the challenges it brings for us, and identifying the opportunities it creates. And then we can start rethinking the way we live the good news as part of such communities.
 Joseph, S. (1999). Searching for Baba. In S. Joseph (Ed.), Intimate Selving in Arab Families; Gender, Self, and Identity: Syracruse Univeristy Press. p73
 Sen, P. (2005). ‘Crimes of Honour’, value and meaning. In L. Welchman & S. Hossain (Eds.), ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London and New York: Zed Books. p48
 Joseph, S. (1999a). Brother-Sister Relationships: Connectivity, Love, and Power in the Reporduction of Patriarchy in Lebanon. In S. Joseph (Ed.), Intimate Selving in Arab Families: Gender, Self and Identity: Syracuse University Press.
 Joseph, S. (Ed.) (1999). Intimate Selving in Arab Families: Gender, Self and Identity: Syracuse University Press. p4
 ibid. p54
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(c) When Women Speak … January 2019
CH spent nearly three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).