A Message To Girls About Religious Men Who Fear You

A version of this originally appeared on The Huffington Post. Republished here with permission.

Don’t believe them when they teach you in hundreds of ways that you are inherently more sinful, corrupt, less worthy, and in need of constant male guidance. Reject them.

Dear Girls,

You are powerful beyond words, because you threaten to unravel the control of corrupt men who abuse authority.

Remember when a group of adults wouldn’t let boys play a baseball championship final because a girl was on the opposing team? She’d already had to sit out two games because of their demands. Did she, a competitive athlete and a member of her team, choose to? Was she being good and respectful when she acceded to their demands? The messages sent to her and the other athletes is not complicated. They were wrong, confusing, and incoherent. You need to know that she should have been allowed to play.

These people, and others like them, all over the world, led exclusively by religious men, are scared of you and will not let you be. You worry them constantly.

If you were not powerful, they would not take you so very, very seriously. You should, too. You can set the world on fire. It doesn’t feel this way, I know. If that were true, you think, I would not have to give up my rights out of “respect” for religious beliefs that require my subservience, and call it a gift to boot. I wouldn’t be turned away from serving God with my brothers. I wouldn’t be taught that I’m an evil temptress or the virtue keeper of boys. I wouldn’t have “virginity” wielded as a weapon against me, and my worth determined by my ability to produce babies. I would not be spat on and called gendered slurs because my arms are bare. I would not be poisoned and scared for going to school. I would not be forced to carry twins borne of child torture. I would not have to kill myself to avoid marrying my rapist. If this were true, these men would pursue my rapists instead of stoning me for their crimes or seeking excuses for their actions. I, and thousands others, would not be given up and killed for other people’s idea of “honor.”

I know I’ve equated relatively benign baseball games with deadly, honor killings but, whereas one is a type of daily, seemingly harmless micro-aggression and the other is a lethal macro-aggression, they share the same roots. The basis of both, and escalating actions in between, is the same: to teach you and all girls subject to these men and their authority a lesson: “Know your place.”

I also know that there are places where girls are marginalized and hurt that are not religious. But all over the world these hypocritical, pious men, in their shamefully obvious wrongness, represent the sharp-edged tip of an iceberg, the visible surface of a deep and vast harm. They employ the full range of their influence to make sure, as early as possible, that you and the boys around you understand what they want your place to be. Where there are patriarchal religions, girls and those boys who are “like” them, in dramatically varying and extreme degrees, disproportionately suffer.

Do not internalize what they would have you believe. Understand these men for what they are: bullies.

Your very existence makes them anxious. And their anxiety is particularly high because you have something no generation of girls has had before: globally connected communities of men and women who support your equality and freedom. Like guns, germs, and steel, this transformative technology, which enables me to write to you here, alters geography, changes societies, and dismantles systems of control—it makes the world a smaller place and it creates, even if slowly in some places, positive change for girls.

Until now, these men could count on, indeed they could ensure, that you and the women around you were house-bound and isolated. Many of you still are. But now, there are millions of people who are thinking about you and challenging these men every single day. You have the speed of light on your side and unless someone permanently turns the lights out, those days are gone.

So, although you might feel like you are alone, you are not.

Why do I say fear? You threaten them by being ablestrongconfidentand shameless. You may not “naturally” be interested in domesticity, piety, purity, and submission. You may not, truly disturbing to the universe, be interested in men. They rely on your commitment to those things to order their worlds.

Because of this, they single-mindedly focus their attention on you:  your body, your clothes, your hair, your abilities, your eyes, your voice, your physical freedom. When “manners” and “morals” are not universally applicable in a way that helps children be kind, empathetic people, but are instead different for boys and girls, you can be sure that this is why. They seek to teach you, subtly, through small slights and gendered expectations, that you are “different,” weak, unworthy, and incapable. The sadness is that, in their perception, if you are none of these things, then they, and so all boys, cannot be strong, worthy, and capable.

This is not an excuse, but an explanation. It’s why they find infinite “benevolent” ways to undermine and disparage you, all in the name of “God’s word.” When that fails, they resort to violence. All over the world, their anxiety is manifest in a spectrum of actions ranging from mild paternalism, respectful of “proper boundaries,” to deadly enforcement of their rules.

Fear is why these men “officially” investigate Girl Scouts while perversely shielding child rapists. It’s why they obsess over your “purity.” It’s why they segregate you in public and private spaces. It’s why they instruct girls and boys that girls’ bodies are either shameful and dirty or sacred and belonging to men: father, brothers, uncles, husbands.

Fear motivates them to teach that you pollute others by your very nature. It makes them intent on making sure you stay home and not be fully engaged in the world. It leads them to sanction marriages of 8-year-olds to old men. It convinces them that rape and its consequences are a “gift from God.” It’s why they empower others to stone you to death and disfigure you with acid.

When they “beat the gay” out of children, especially boys who are “more like” you, it is a message to you. Because if boys are “more like girls,” something these men believe is fundamentally inferior, then you can be “more like boys.” That is intolerable to them.

Fear is why they insist there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Don’t believe them. Fear is why they want you to cover your body. There is nothing wrong with your body, and your body is not to blame. Whether you choose to expose your body or to cover it up, consider the degree to which either choice is defined by a reduction of your character to narrow sexuality by a culture that refuses to hold men accountable for their actions and requires you to either radically display yourself for men’s pleasure or withdraw from the world and be held in reserve.

Either way, ask who is defining your worth and by what measure. Fear is why they tell you you are so different from boys. You, and the boys you know, understand that your bodies are different, but that you are far more alike than dissimilar. The differences these religious authorities exaggerate are pillars of oppression used to teach boys and girls that women’s subjugation is “natural” and “divine.” Reject them and their ideas.

This is hard to do. It requires that you, as an individual, be bravestrongdeterminedfearless, and confident. Even harder: It requires that you demand that the adults around you pay attention and change their behavior.

First, and perhaps the most difficult to understand as a girl, is that women who love you and care for you often enable these men and participate in cultures that are harmful to them. This is what people say, “It’s not JUST men!” And they are right. Women support them, individually and in groups, in ways that have private, public, political, and societal consequences.

But, make no mistake—although women are the enforcers of rules, they have no real, systemic authority in conservative religious hierarchies. None. Yes, without their support these men could not continue, but until women are truly free—bodily, economically, physically, politically—and their practical and spiritual salvation is no longer mediated by these very men, they will continue to support these ideas because their lives depend on them. Enforcing the rules is a rational choice that enables women to survive, the world over, in unjust environments. You scare them too.

Second, it is confusing that these men say they do what they do for your own good. They are often kind and benevolent and they love you. So, they must be right. They talk about respecting you and your dignity. You want to believe them; they have power and authority over you, your parents, your community, and your access to God. But they demonstrate their own hypocrisy over and over anover again. They say they know what is best. They do not. You do.  

Don’t believe them when they teach you in hundreds of ways, through sacred textcareful wordscherished traditions, hidden threats and frightening examples, that you are inherently more sinful, base and corrupt, less worthy and in need of constant male guidance. Reject them.

The adults around you may not appear to support you when you take your humanity to its logical conclusions. Don’t let them off the hook. Don’t let them use “tradition” as an excuse or say it “really doesn’t matter.” Do not allow them to get away with asking you to “sit out games,” “be a good girl,” “don’t make a fuss,” and “put something on.”

You can say: “There is nothing wrong with me. There is something wrong with you and your world.”

Otherwise, when you get older, these same men, the ones who fear and hate you, will continue to undermine you. They will seek to control your body, keep you out of the public sphere, subjugate you in the name of a narrowly defined “family,” create impediments to your equality, shame you at every turn and justify your continued oppression in convoluted ways that defy reason and morality. They will investigate you for being strong, violate you, stone you to death, charge you with witchcraftpunish you in every conceivable way to set an example for…your children. They will use their power to deny you your rights.

So, know that you are strong and powerful. Use your reason. Trust your instincts. Seek out those who would support you and, yes, know your place: on the field, in the streetin the front of the bus, in school, at work, and in public office.

You are not alone and you are brighter than the sun.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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