There is a young woman in the kitchen. She is gently rocking a baby on her back, whom she just finished feeding and is now starting to fall asleep. One down, three to go she thinks as she begins to cook the bogobe for dinner that evening. Maybe she has a husband who will soon return from work expecting a hot meal on the table, or maybe she is alone and must feed her three other children and help them prepare for school the next morning…
Either way, this is the life of many South African women, especially in rural areas. Their full-time job is to cook, clean, and care for all the children- and they do so with amazing strength and love. Women in South African culture typically carried a lot of weight on their shoulders when it comes to household affairs, and many continue to do so. But as times progress, and women enter more into the workforce, these cultural roles of women are coming into tension and beginning to be questioned. I encourage this questioning process to continue. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a woman cooking, cleaning, or caring for children, but I do believe that when they are forced or expected to do so at the expense of their education, career, or happiness there is a problem. Of course,
The Bible is reputably the must influential book in our world, in both the past and present times. For centuries it has been used by many as a reference to how our lives should be lived, and is of course interpreted differently by each individual. This text has been used to justify the submission of women to men, and encourage the belief that women are the “weaker sex” (1 Peter 3:7) and because of the power of the Bible, this has translated heavily into the gender roles constructed in our society. Women in South Africa cover their heads in church to comply with 1 Corinthians 11:5, are prohibited from being pastors in some denominations because of 1 Corinthians 14:34, and are pushed into submission in the household because of 1 Corinthians 11:3.
But the Bible is dangerous. Because of its’ power, influence, and endless possibilities for interpretation, it can be used in harmful ways- especially if taken out of context. For a well-rounded interpretation, the context of when the Bible was written and by whom is extremely important. Firstly, the societal norms of the time placed women in submission to men, thus this was the only reality known by the writers. It’s hard to write about the equality of women if you have never been introduced to such a concept. Secondly, due to this suppression of women, the Bible was written by those who were capable of reading, writing, and “higher thought”- by MEN! So what does this mean? It means that the stories and rules for life laid out in the Bible are almost entirely male-dominated and thus portray women from a man’s perspective- as submissive, silent, motherly, and often evil in some way! This does not mean the words of the Bible should just be dismissed due to their one-sided short-sighted perspective, but rather we should be aware of this when we read and interpret the Bible in our own way. Also, when verses of the Bible are used to found the suppression of women, they are usually taken out of context of the rest of the chapter of the book.
A few weekends ago I attended an all-day youth workshop in Masealama. We were our own teachers and students, as each person brought a different topic to the table to present and discuss. No one claimed to be experts on the topics, but rather opened them up to debate and support from everyone so together we could learn. As I have experienced more gender roles and restrictions here than I am used to in my family and community back home, I decided to speak on the portrayal of women in the Bible, and how this affects our society.
Our conversation started by discussing the roles of women, as defined by the Sepedi culture, so we could determine how the Bible either upheld or contradicted these roles. According to the youth (mainly composed of young men) the roles and expectations of women in their culture are as follows: women must respect men, they should do all domestic work, they should not wear short skirts, they should not walk at night, they are not equal to men, they should submit to a man who is the head of the household, they must love children, they should not go to work, they should not wear trousers, and they should not touch or smell alcohol. While some of these are traditional cultural restrictions that are not still upheld by all, they certainly still play a role in the ideas of who a woman should be and how she should behave.
Next, we listed out Bible stories that we could remember involving women. Interestingly enough, almost all the stories named portrayed women in a negative or submissive way- Delilah, the women of
These Biblical stories correlate well with the roles expected of women in the Sepedi culture. While they are all negative, they show what women should NOT do. They should not disrespect the authority of their husbands, they should remain silent in church, they should dress modestly, they should provide for men, and the list goes on. The portrayal of these women as bad apples in the Bible further solidifies the overall message that women are lesser than men. But how many of us have actually looked far enough into the Bible to examine these topics from a well-rounded perspective? We may know one verse or two, but is that enough to dictate a lifestyle for centuries?
There are many assumptions made about women in our society that can be proven and disproven using the Bible. Thanks to Martin Luther, who began translating the Bible into the languages of the people, we can all read the text for ourselves and determine our own take on each subject, and I think this is our responsibility. That afternoon in the workshop we sat down and did just that for various topics dealing with women. We researched Biblical text proving that: women should cover their heads in church, Eve is responsible for sin in the world, women should not have authority over men, women were made to help men, men and women are not equal spiritually, a man is the head of the household, a woman can not be a pastor, women should be solely responsible for the care of children, it is okay for men to cheat, polygamy is acceptable, men are stronger than women, and that God is male. The verses which back these have been used for centuries to force the submission of women, and we still hear them used today, but what we don’t hear is the verses which speak out opposing these views of women. For each and every verse speaking against women, there is a counterpart which is usually stronger than the first, but is unfortunately often overlooked, or purposefully avoided.
I attended a wedding here at Christmas, and the preacher who came to speak wise words of advice to the happy couple chose to base his speech on 1 Corinthians 11:3. “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” He went on to speak that the man, now that he was a husband, needed to take full command of his household and ensure that they live lives devoted to Christ. He was the one who was responsible for this, because he was closer to Christ and he must teach his wife and children the proper way. My skin was crawling, but I said nothing. How, in this day and age, can this preacher still believe that a man is closer to Christ than women and that he should be solely in charge of a household? These words written by Paul to
Obviously, Paul himself was struggling with the proper place of women in his society. He grew up in a world where women were forced into submission by men, but what he knew of Jesus Christ was saying the opposite, that everyone is equal. Let us not forget that he was human- at times he reverted to the restrictions put on people by this world, and at times he was able to break free of worldly concerns and see the greater heavenly ways. He eventually arises at the conclusion that empowers us all. Male or female it does not matter. We are all ONE in the same in Jesus Christ.
We are all like Paul. We try to live our life according to Christ Jesus, but we are pulled back into the concerns of this world. We read our Bibles in hopes to determine how we should live, but we misinterpret. We do not see the whole picture; we can not see the whole picture. No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to fully understand God and Christ Jesus and how our lives should be lived on this earth. Once we realize that, maybe we can stop using the Bible as a weapon to suppress and destroy each other.
… and as her children all finally rest, she pulls out her Bible and finds strength in these words “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” No matter how she is treated, no one can take that truth away from her. She is not weak.
~Heather Anne Nelson