Tell me your story. It’s an invitation issued by God again and again in his encounters with individuals, particularly women, in scripture. When Adam and Eve confronted their shame in the garden God invited them to tell their story with a very simple question, ‘where are you?’ ‘Where have you come from and where are you going?‘ were questions God used to invite Hagar to tell her story. A woman who reached out and touched Jesus garment as he passed was invited to tell her story when Jesus asked, ‘who touched me?’
Brene Brown says when we deny our story it defines us, whereas when we own our story we can write a brave new ending. Over the last few years we have been working with a small group of women followers of Jesus from Islam. By creating safe, open spaces they have begun to tell their story; not for consumption of the outsider but because it’s their story that they have chosen to share. At a gathering in March 2019, two women said the same thing, ‘for the first time I own my story’.
What does ‘I own my story’ mean? What happened for Hagar, or the women who had been bleeding when they told their story? What happens for my sisters when they tell their story?
It is not a story imposed on them. Imagine the woman who was bleeding, known through her community as ‘that unclean woman’. With that came all the things said about her and used to define her. Everyone else owned her story and used her story, maybe even for their own ends, but all with profound impact upon her. The shame of her story, when owned and told by others, excluded and marginalised her. Her story became bigger than her, exacerbating her shame and the way it defined her.
As an outsider to my sisters’ stories, I too can take their stories and recreate them for my, and my community’s, consumption. I can focus on the exotic about their story: exclusion from their family networks, being a minority, opposition, threats, need. I reinscribe shame on them through imposing my narrative upon their story.
When God asked Hagar what she was doing, God put the story back in her control. God journeyed her to a place where she could acknowledge her pain and shame, breaking its power over her and opening her to new possibilities for what the end of the story would be. The choice for vulnerability, for interpreting what was happening, for owning her situation was hers.
The woman who was healed of bleeding rewrote her exclusion from the community. The shame and its cost in lost years no longer defined her. She wrote a new ending in concert with Jesus’ declaration that she was no longer ‘the bleeding woman’. She was the ‘healed, clean, included woman’.
For my sisters, the safe space in which to tell their stories establishes deep relational connections that are essential to identity and belonging. And it is those relational connections which are part of addressing shame.
Suad Joseph, a Lebanese anthropologist says: “…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.” This linkage of relational connectivity with shame is about the vulnerability of being known. Whereas shame demands to hiding, telling my story allows me to reconnect and come out of that hiddenness. I can begin to recreate those connections that are integral to my identity and belonging.
What telling my story does is help me create order out of chaos. Hagar’s situation was chaos in action. Connections were gone and she swirled around in a void of despair. Telling her story gave her the tool to start to make meaning in this chaos. It gave her the space to begin to re-establish the connectivity that was essential in knowing who she was.
My sisters’ stories all included periods of chaos and its turmoil. Disconnected from their sources of protection and provision, telling their story becomes the word spoken to bring new creation out of that chaos. They had the power to bring meaning and life, to re-establish connections, to build new pathways for relationships.
Shame silences, but when we are invited to tell our story we break the silence and release ourselves from shame’s burden.
How does this speak to the way we engage women who live under Islam? Let me make four suggestions:
- Learn to listen more than speak, and that means listen to hear, not to answer.
- Cultivate the ability to ask good questions, questions that invite our friend to tell their story as and how they want.
- Create safe spaces where relational connections are the focus, the person matters.
- See the world as others see it, develop empathy.
Shame cannot survive being spoken. What might that look like in the community where you are working?
 Joseph, S. (1999). Searching for Baba. In S. Joseph (Ed.), Intimate Selving in Arab Families; Gender, Self, and Identity: Syracruse Univeristy Press. p. 73
Featured image: Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash
Image:Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash
© When Women Speak … July 2021
CH spent more than 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. She recently returned to a leadership role. 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
Brilliant reflection and advice, thank you! It is so tempting sometimes to tell people’s stories in a way that promotes us to ‘hero’, but letting people tell their own story and define their own narrative is much better, you’ve convinced me! I wish we could hear even more (in the Bible) of what happened to Hagar from her perspective, but at least we know she feels seen by God.