Stories are significant, especially the ones that get retold each year. Riena Eisler writes, “we humans live by stores” and the Christmas holidays are a testament to that for it is hard not to see a nativity scene displayed in our neighbors’ lawns, in front of churches, or in all types of stores. The stories that are passed down to us as children imprint on our hearts and minds shaping who we grow up to be. I couldn’t help but think about this as I watched Hans set up our nativity scene. After putting each figure in its place I was struck by how Mary is the only woman present, and therefore, her vulnerability as a young mother surrounded by strangers is almost palpable. Where are the other women? Surely, she had a midwife or other female relatives who traveled with her! Why are they excluded from the story?
I will never forget the support I received when I gave birth to Hans at Beverly Hospital in Massachusetts, for at one point I was surrounded by a handful of female nurses, two midwives, my mother, and Sam. Sam’s presence was incredibility reassuring through the whole ordeal, but there was something special about being surrounded by women during one of the most vulnerable moments of my life. During my stay, I learned that all of them were mothers so they had gone through what I was experiencing, which gave me hope. Their constant encouragement was powerful and I will never forget them. So, it is hard not to see Mary differently when looking at her in the nativity scene. The story was first written by men, but I wonder if it would have been told differently from a woman’s point of view. Maybe more of the birthing struggle would have been captured or the emotions of Mary and Joseph emphasized more? Or maybe we would know about the person who actually delivered the baby?
I recently had the privilege of learning about women all over the globe who have dedicated their lives to making women’s voices and stories known. Women worldwide continue to be underrepresented and overlooked across all spheres of society. Even now in the US we see the invisibility of the female experience with the slow and steady exodus of women having to leave the workforce to take care of children or elderly family members on account of the pandemic. We catch glimpses of the magnitude of what this means with an article here or there, but time will eventually tell just how serious the consequences really are. Women are leaving the workforce faster than men due to an imbalance of responsibilities placed on them in regards to the home and family care. Anxiety has risen higher in women than men due to the pandemic and has led to an increase in health complications for women on a greater scale in comparison to men. These aren’t exaggerations. This is the reality I see in my family, friendships and in myself. In spite of the extra stress, the burnout, the anxiety, I have seen many women fight for life to continue on as normal as possible for the wellbeing of their families. That is incredible.
Which brings me back to the story of Jesus’ birth and the absence of women. The tragedy that takes place in Bethlehem shortly after Jesus is born serves as another example. Matthew’s gospel briefly touches on Herod’s tragic decision to kill all male children aged two and under in the town of Bethlehem on account of the rumors of the birth of a “new king” (Matthew 2:16). How long did it take for news of this horrific event to reach Mary? And if so, did she carry an immense guilt realizing that her son was the cause of many women losing their own sons? Again, the verses that mention this instance are incredibly brief, making the painful realities of what the women of Bethlehem went through invisible. The gospels never mention Jesus returning to Bethlehem during his ministry and maybe this is why. Maybe he didn’t want to face the mothers whose pain and loss he had caused. And with that, their stories are easily forgotten.
Violence is a reality for most women with 1 out of 5 women worldwide experiencing some form of physical abuse in their lifetime. Despite such high statistics, acts of violence against women are the least criminalized or accounted for. Is it because most of our “sacred” stories gloss over the female experience reinforcing the the absence of women? What if we changed the way we tell our stories and put women in the forefront instead of keeping them in the back? Riena Eisler wrote something that I have wrestled with for many years now, “Nor can we realistically expect an end to racism, anti-Semitism and other ugly isms as long as people learn early on to equate difference—beginning with the fundamental difference between female and male—with superiority or inferiority, with dominating or being dominated.” Change is possible, starting with how we tell stories to our children.
Reflecting on the other stories of women that I grew up being exposed to when I was young made me realize just how thankful I am towards Hollywood. During my younger years, there seemed to be a plethora of movies that came out with strong, leading female roles and I wanted to watch all of them! If I hadn’t watched movies like The Long Kiss Goodnight with Gina Davis, or G.I. Jane with Demi Moore, or Vampire in Brooklyn with Angela Bassett, then I may not have known stories with tough, women protagonists. When Mad Max: Fury Road came out a few years ago, I loved it and couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly why. Then I realized that it reminded me of the movies I watched growing up. Furiosa’s character seemed so similar to the roles I mentioned above: strong, tough, resilient, virtuous and self-sacrificing. Now that I am older, I realize too the significance that the violence plays in these movies for like I mentioned earlier, it is a present reality for most women or a part of their history.
So I leave you with a challenge: think about the women in your life. Show them gratitude, acknowledge them and pay attention to how they are being affected as the pandemic continues. Ask them how they are doing and how to help. Realize the ways they have been fighting for life to continue on even in the midst of social upheaval, daily life changes, anxiety and with a looming uncertain future. Look at them. They are not invisible and their stories matter.
Incredible women that are supporting women today:
Riena Eisler: Founder of The Center for Partnership Studies, and Pioneering Social Scientist
Zainab Salbi: Founder of Women for Women International, Women’s Rights Advocate
Memory Banda: Founder of Foundation4GirlsLeadership, Advocate for Girls Rights