Lucy Winkett writes about the origins of International Women’s Day, and how we can commit this Lent to listen, to imagine, to pray.
Today, International Women’s Day, was founded by the German activist Clara Zetkin, a day when the situation of women, especially the inequalities they experience receive focus and attention.
But the reason it’s this day – 8th March – is because of the women of St Petersburg in Russia. In 1917, women went on strike and took to the streets demanding ‘Peace and Bread’. If the women of Ukraine were able to leave the underground shelters they are in today, they might demand the same. Today Russian and Ukrainian women find themselves on opposite sides of a brutal war, an act of aggression from a government led by a president who has been notable in his own projection of his gender as a ‘strong man’: propaganda films often show him bare chested, riding horses, fishing or fighting.
Any war polarises, separates, brutalises. It makes liars of truth-tellers, killers of pacifists. Teachers, journalists, scientists, artists become simply ‘refugees’. Women across the world in Iraq, Myanmar/Burma, the Central African Republic, and many more places, know what it is to be shelled, assaulted, to be left, to have said goodbye for the last time. And the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan is well documented and appalling. Here in the UK, the news is full of the government’s declaration that domestic violence is now at such epidemic proportions, and so serious, that it is being given the same priority in policing as terrorism. And the terrible news for the family of Sarah Everard that the indecent behaviour of her police killer wasn’t picked up, and if it had, her murder may have been prevented. This because the reports of his behaviour weren’t followed up by a police service that wasn’t taking incidents of indecent exposure seriously.
There has been so much change in the situation of women in western societies in the last 100 years, since the demands of the 1914-18 war meant that women worked in factories, farms, and became much more visible as active agents in the economy. And the legal position of women has changed beyond recognition in many ways. But just as important as the legal, economic and political arrangements on the lives of women are the cultural expectations, the stories we tell ourselves, the images we see and the subtle day – to- day interactions that make up our conversations and group dynamics.
The season of Lent is a time for reflection in Christian practice, a time for exploring the depths of who we are in the light of our faith, and a time of listening for the presence of God in the world, even if, as the Lenten story goes, we find ourselves with Christ in the wilderness. The Greek description for the temptations Jesus faced in the gospel stories is diabolos, the one who separates, or in Hebrew Satan, the one who deceives.
Christian spiritual practice in Lent then, is about doing the opposite. Being a follower of Christ in the world has a way of demanding that all of us, whatever our gender identity, pay attention to one another, and know deep within our souls that I am not well unless you are well: we are connected, and community is built by the building of empathy, connection, and prayerful solidarity. It’s not about trying to assume some kind of false knowledge: that I as a woman somehow know what every other woman experiences, cis-gendered or trans: that would be foolish.
Of course the experience of, for example, Ukrainian women of Afghan women today is in unimaginable for some. But Christian spiritual practice, in this holy season of Lent as in every season, says this in itself isn’t good enough. Declaring another woman, another human being’s experience just unimaginable produces more separation, more assumptions of irreconcilable difference. It keeps us separate and perpetuates what in western society is increasingly framed as ‘culture wars’ or keeping genders isolated and apart. But reconciliation is the core of Christian living. We are all connected not only to all humanity, but to all that lives and has lived in creation. This we know because of our creation by and connection to God. And so, as one Russian orthodox monk teaches, part of a Christian commitment is to ‘keep your mind in hell and despair not’. Both of these halves are important. Don’t look away. Go to that hell in your imagination. At the same time, refuse despair.
And so, alongside the practical donations and solidarity events for International Women’s Day, I want to commit this Lent to listen, to imagine, to pray. To insist to the woman of Ukraine that she remains a mysterious, precious soul, not a statistic, whose distress I have witnessed, whose voice I have heard. And that as part of humanity, we will remain forever stricken, complicit in the knowledge that this cruelty is part of that same humanity. Part of us.
The challenge for us as Christians, whatever our gender identity, is, in the name of Christ who suffered as the presence of God in all humanity, to practise our empathy, and commit to understanding the experience of others, however different, however ‘unimaginable’ another’s experience might seem.
This takes work, and the building of confidence, and a willingness to really listen. But building this sort of God-infused listening, and the Lent confrontation of lies and separation in modern society, is part of what building a church community is for.
To the women of Ukraine, holding unfamiliar weapons, queuing at the border, shepherding your children and your elderly parents, bracing yourselves for the next siren, for the next shell: to the women of Afghanistan, heartbroken at the loss of your opportunities to learn, to work, to teach. To the women around the world who have new-found freedoms to play sport, earn a salary, lead your households, find fulfilment in your family life. To all these women, whatever your faith background or religious practice: I am you. You are me. There is no them. There is only us.