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Holy Recognition and the #MeToo Movement
Caryn D. Riswold

The #MeToo movement isn’t about Hollywood. It’s about the holiness of being seen and heard. It’s about the strength found in community and the grace of solidarity.

We long to have the pain of our lives carried by someone else. To be held, acknowledged, and validated by another is to be known and thus to become more human.

For survivors of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault, the moment when someone else believes your story has profound, irreplaceable significance. The default in patriarchal culture to not hear, trust, or believe women exists even in the United States today. So, when others start to hear and believe the experiences of survivors, it fundamentally alters reality.

Tarana Burke, activist and founder of Just Be Inc., established the Me Too Movement in 2006 as a way to name the connective tissue of sexual abuse and assault that binds innumerable women and men, and that linked her to one young member of a community group she was working with at the time. After hearing the girl share details of the “monstrous things” that her stepfather was doing to her, Burke confessed her inability to respond in the moment. She cut the girl short and referred her to another counselor.

“I will never forget the look [on her face] because I think about her all of the time. The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed again—it was all on her face. And as much as I love children, as much as I cared about that child, I could not find the courage that she had found. I could not muster the energy to tell her that I understood, that I connected, that I could feel her pain. …  I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.” (Burke, 2013)

When someone says “me too” in response to another’s pain, the two become bonded, and open wounds receive the healing art of attention. The grace of being recognized displaces the shock of rejection. Being seen and heard is the only way we find and found community, and it’s how we are loved by the divine.

In Genesis 16, Hagar has struggled under her abusive mistress, Sarai, who “dealt harshly with her.” Unable to stand any more mistreatment, Hagar, pregnant with Abraham’s child, runs away into the wilderness. An angel of God finds her there, speaks to her, and counsels a difficult path forward: Return to Sarai. Though we aren’t told Hagar’s immediate response, based on the angel’s promise that “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude,” we can imagine that Hagar balked. Return? Submit to the woman who abused me for doing as she instructed me to in the first place? As I was supposed to do? Are you kidding me?

Hagar in the Wilderness (detail) by Camille Corot, 1835.

After the annunciation promising her great things through the son she had conceived, Hagar names God: “You are El-Roi [God who sees]; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen 16:13).

Hagar is the only woman in the Bible who names God. She gives name to the experience of having been seen struggling in the wilderness. The name given to her son, Ishmael, which means “God hears,” as announced in Genesis 16, takes on more significance in Genesis 21, where again the reader finds Hagar and her boy in the wilderness. This time they have been sent away by Abraham with few provisions that soon run out.

“When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’” (Gen 21:15-16).

The pain is unimaginable, a mother anticipating the death of her child because she has fallen out of favor with her abusive mistress. Indeed, “she lifted up her voice and wept.” Here is where Ishmael’s name takes on significance:

“And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (Gen 21:17-18).

Ishma-El, God hears. El-Roi, God sees. Hagar is known, validated, and held by God’s promise of life. She is sustained by holy recognition.

Delores S. Williams suggests that “viewed within the context of Hagar’s Egyptian heritage, this act of naming the deity takes on added significance. [The name] recalls certain Egyptian myths associated with the God Ra, his eye and the creation of humans” (Williams, 1993: 24). The intersection of Hagar’s life in Hebrew culture and her heritage as an Egyptian woman finds expression in the hybrid name she ascribes to the deity: El-Roi.

Muslim women such as Asra Nomani and Amina Wadud reflect extensively upon the importance of Hajar (the Arabic name for Hagar) within the Islamic tradition. Through her participation in the hajj, Nomani connects her experience as a single mother to the mother of Ishmael, whose run between Safa and Marwah in search of water for her son is reenacted as part of the ritual experience. Wadud points out that in participating in this ritual, “pilgrims have the opportunity to focus on [Hajar’s] predicament and the reality of a single female head of household.” (Wadud, 2006: 149-150). She too connects this to ongoing challenges of single motherhood in a culture that values heterosexual marriage and a patriarchal family. “Although the experiences of women really do occur, they are deviant within a legal construction that is premised upon the patriarchal extended or nuclear family.” (Wadud, 2006: 153). Both authors highlight that women’s actual struggles to survive and provide are holy even when—perhaps especially when—when they challenge patriarchal norms.

What we are experiencing now as the #MeToo Movement is the newest expression of a painfully old truth. For women and some men, patriarchy inevitably distorts our lives. It causes pain and dehumanizes us all. When a person is not seen, heard, trusted, or believed, they are left to feel crazy, question themselves, and wonder whether to believe a twisted version of events that don’t ring true to their experiences. The story of Hagar points beyond a dominant narrative and structural inequalities, toward deeper truths about humans and their connection to divine grace, to holy recognition.

Why are we experiencing such national media attention to this simmering human tragedy now? I suspect the 2016 election had something to do with it. When millions of American women saw the Access Hollywood tape, heard the now-president of the United States brag about sexual assault, gleefully describing how he abused his power, buoyed by boyish chuckles from the show’s host, many of us thought of the women to whom he had done this, and we whispered… me too.

In some way, that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that the majority of white Christian voters overlooked the pain that so many women and men carry every day and voted for him anyway. They trusted him and disbelieved survivors.

So, survivors turned to each other because that seemed like all they could do. Solidarity, as described by Chandra Mohanty, includes “mutuality, accountability, and the recognition of common interests as the basis for relationships among diverse communities.…Diversity and difference are central values here—to be acknowledged and respected, not erased in the building of alliances.” (Mohanty, 2003: 7). Women and men of the #MeToo movement are not all claiming to have had the same experiences. Rather, they are empathetically standing with, seeing, and hearing each other when it seems that no one else does. Like Hagar, they are in the wilderness where “survival and quality of life come to the surface … And the divinity is at work in the process.” (Williams, 1993: 20). Together, seen and heard by God, they are naming a common threat—abuse in its manifold incarnations—in pursuit of a common goal: truth; recognition; maybe even justice. Because only in solidarity can survivors say confidently: It’s not us. It’s you.

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is professor of religion and gender & women’s studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois.

Works Cited

Burke, Tarana. “The Me Too Movement.” Just Be, Inc. Last modified 2013. http://justbeinc.wixsite.com/justbeinc/the-me-too-movement-cmml

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University, 2003.

Nomani, Asra Q. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Harper San Francisco, 2005.

Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

Williams, Delores S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-talk. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1993.

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