We have traveled several hours from the capital city to visit Fatima in her home, in a tiny village which overlooks miles of hills covered in orderly lines of olive trees. Fatima, from an oppressed minority group within her country, is a cheerful, intelligent young woman with a passion to learn. But her three siblings are all mentally handicapped. So when Fatima’s father died and her mother had to go out to work for an income, she asked Fatima, the unmarried sister, to leave her studies in the capital city, to live in their tiny village and care for her siblings. Fatima’s life now revolves around caring for her siblings, cooking for them, tidying up the chaos they create around them, protecting them from harm. She has little chance for conversation with friends, almost no opportunity to continue the study or work that she longs for. She hardly ever leaves the tiny, isolated village where they live. She is often exhausted and sometimes depressed about her life. Yet she nearly always shows us a cheerful face.
For Fatima, ethnic and geographic origins intersect with gender and unmarried status, and the needs of her family, to curtail the possibilities for her life.
The previous blog asked what sort of social hierarchies are operating where we are, and how we can become more aware of them and our place within them? It can be easy to be uncomfortable with the hierarchies we encounter in another community, that are different from the ones that operate where we have come from (and of which we may be less conscious). In one Middle Eastern country, a common saying advised parents to ‘treat (with medicine when sick, or provide education for) your sons’ (in preference to your daughters). Traditionally among western couples, it has often been more common for the man to go to conferences, or to spend years in graduate/post-graduate study than it was for the woman.
In particular we ask, what’s cultural, and what’s Christian? What were the hierarchies operating in the world in which the Biblical narratives were written, and how do those narratives interact with the hierarchies? For example, how do the Genesis narratives undermine the primacy of the eldest son? What are the promises given to women who are childless?
In some communities, being married and having children offers more prestige. In others, having a job which is significant or ‘strategic’ may confer more group- and self-esteem. In the west, older people can struggle with ‘ageism’ and lack of job opportunities and respect: in non-western countries, being older brings more deference and influence: whereas younger people may find it harder to be listened to.
The status hierarchies may differ between cultures, or in sub-groups within specific locations. Frequently sect/religion or race/ethnicity are significant, including skin colour and physical features. Grace al-Zoughbi highlights some of these issues, as a Palestinian Christian woman, in her article on the book of Ruth. Often social position is impacted by who people are related to, or caste or class.
A feature of hierarchies is that those highest up are least consciously aware of the hierarchy, of privilege and of the reality of social distance: whereas those at the bottom are most aware of it. My Egyptian friends indignantly denied that there was any racism in the community: however anyone who was Sudanese was very aware of it. Similarly Anglo-Australians may argue for Australia being non-racist. However anyone of non-Anglo background can tell me of their experiences of being the target of others’ racial hostility, and none more so than the first indigenous Australians.
If you have colleagues who are from a different ethnic or national background than you, ask them about their experiences. Even within a team of people working together, we can ask if people of a particular ethnic group or gender are given more voice, more space to contribute. Who dominates the airwaves when we meet?
Many women, or people of minority ethnic origin, have the experience of saying something in a mixed group and their contribution is ignored: but the same comment is taken up enthusiastically when a man or someone from a dominant group says it. What are practical ways to deal with such hierarchy of voice and attention? Some groups deliberately take up a policy of amplification, where when someone says something and it is ignored, of endorsing or pointing back to it: ‘As Xiaoxi said a few minutes ago, … .” This role of amplification can be taken up by anyone attentive in the group, of whatever background.
Wealth and geographic origins also affect people’s place on the food chain, their right to a voice. It can be easy for those who come from wealthier countries or communities to assume as normal the right to education and resources, including health care and travel. Realising these as privileges, not available equally to everyone, challenges us to go beyond a sense of entitlement to gratitude. It also makes us ask how we can support those with less access to good education or health care, or resources at times of crisis.
Different responsibilities and roles are not necessarily intrinsically better or worse than each other. I can cook a meal or teach a class: both are significant contributions to the community. What matters is the value and honour attached to those who occupy those roles. How do I honour and be attentive to the needs and voices of those who have roles that are given a different place and status in the social hierarchy? Paul spent chapter 12 of his first letter to the Corinthian Jesus community, exploring Christian community and giftedness, dignity and honour, so that all can share in suffering and in rejoicing (leading into his famous chapter on love, 1 Cor 13). We can ask, how is our community practically living out Paul’s exhortation, giving honour to one another?
“God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honoured, all rejoice with it.”[i]
[i] 1 Cor 12:24b-26: NET Bible.
© When Women Speak… September 2021
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she has been writing, teaching, training, and supervising students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and Doctor of Theology (Melbourne School of Theology).