Last week I met a young Palestinian woman visiting New York from Israel. She was raised in a Muslim family, went to a Catholic school and, in her teens, declared herself an independent woman capable of taking care of herself, an incredibly bold thing to do within her community. Today, she works to help other young women to do the same.
Needless to say, I adored her.
Over dessert, we got to talking about the three years of interviews I did with young women who grew up in the American evangelical Christian church.
“What did you find in these interviews?” she asked, digging into a mound of caramel custard. “Were there similarities among their stories? Struggles they shared that they may not have known about?”
“Many,” I answered her.
“Such as…” she prodded.
I named one. Her jaw dropped. “I thought I was the only one who experienced that….” she stuttered.
“Everyone thinks that,” I answered her. “That’s the problem.”
Here she was, this amazing young woman living across the world, born into another culture, taught another language, raised into another religion. And yet, as we continued to talk over our dessert, she admitted identifying with each of the issues that I explained having found among American evangelical Christian women (including myself). Until finally, I stopped naming them. And I simply said: “I’m sorry that you have to go through this too.”
She shook her head. “Wow,” she muttered.
Riding home on the subway later that night, I asked myself what it was that this young Muslim woman, and the young evangelical women I interviewed here in the states, have in common that would lead to such incredible shared experience.
Each grew up in communities that said it was God’s will that we be controlled by others—in this case, because of our gender. Certainly, this has extremely deep effects on a person’s psyche. But as I rode home, I realized that there was something else they had in common. Something I call “fierceness.”
Here’s the thing: Not all of the evangelicals I interviewed struggled with issues of sex and gender to such an extent that it was destroying, or even seriously disrupting, their lives. There were some for whom the evangelical rules were quite comfortable. Sure, they showed some of the symptoms of deified sex and gender control, but it was nothing to write home…or write a blog post…about.
But more than half of the young women I spoke with were deeply uncomfortable—though some had never said it aloud before our conversation—within the system the church told them was “God’s way.” Sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, they doubted their leaders on this, even while they trusted them. Sadly, these women experienced the most horrific effects of the church’s sex and gender control–torn between black and white images of themselves, their worth, and the world.
The young Palestinian woman I met, she may have been from another religion, another part of the globe, but she–like these women–was fierce.
It is encounters such as these that remind me, again and again, that our healing—as women, as people—is wrapped up in one another’s. We are interconnected, interdependent, and none of us is going to get anywhere by going it alone, keeping things secret. We’ve done that; it’s time to try something different.