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11 March 2021
Dismantling unjust systems that enable inequality
Words Star Conliffe
I love a good birth story! There’s something about childbirth that is endlessly fascinating. It’s one of the most extreme, amazing things a human body can experience.
You know, birth stories, and many stories that women tell about the way we experience the world, are not often told publicly. Women’s stories are sometimes ignored or censored. So, we women tell them to each other in our women’s spaces, away from the hearing of men. Some stories we secret away in our hearts, and never tell anyone because they cause us anger or pain or even shame.
On 8 March we observe International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the achievements of women, and for fighting for gender equality. The story in the biblical book Exodus of midwives Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew girl Miriam and her mother, and an Egyptian princess, is perfect for this day.
The king of Egypt had ordered the midwives to kill all the Hebrew baby boys as he feared being overtaken by the people he had enslaved. The midwives told him that these women were so strong that they had usually given birth before the midwives had arrived to assist – they were not about to kill the babies of other women!
Violence against women and children is a tool that has always been used in war and peacetime to suppress and control populations. And because women have not had the same social, economic or political power as men, they have had to rely on strategic thinking and creative non-violence to survive this violence.
The women of Exodus are an excellent example of that.
Shiphrah and Puah use the king's own lack of knowledge about women to protect other women and their babies. A Hebrew mother finds a way to keep her baby safe when she follows an order to put him into the Nile River by using a basket. An Egyptian princess falls in love with this baby and uses her privilege to give him the legal protection of adoption. These women all find creative ways to protect themselves and their children from the king.
Isn’t it ironic, that although the king dismisses the baby girls as not worth killing, it is women and girls who undermine his plan to kill the Hebrew boys. He underestimated women’s value. He messed with the wrong midwives.
Girls learn very early in life that the way they are permitted to move in the world is different to that of boys. Research suggests that about the age of 11, many girls learn two things. Firstly, that their bodies are shameful and they must be vigilant if they want to keep their bodies safe. Secondly, that to be accepted they must be good girls, that they should not be too loud or assertive or seek to have their voice heard. And if you are a girl who belongs to a minority, or who has a disability, or comes from a poor neighbourhood, these expectations and risks are worse.
To all the women reading this: To God, your life is not worth less than a man’s. Your life is not less important than a man’s. Your story is important. Not because women’s stories are more important or special than men’s, but because we are also human, created in the image of God, and so our lives must not be overlooked.
God doesn’t see you as a secondary character whose only identity is in relation to men as a daughter, sister, or wife. You are a primary character, in your own right. God hears your voice and knows.
I pray that God would help us dismantle the unjust systems and attitudes that contribute to inequality for girls and women. I pray that change would happen, and that we will see women and men, boys and girls, living, working, and striving together, as equals, sharing the gifts, skills and wisdom we have each been given, to bring about real change in the lives of our families, communities and nations.
Lieutenant Star Conliffe is a Salvation Army officer (pastor) in Victoria.