Moosnick Lecture creates powerful dialogue surrounding religion and the #MeToo Movement

Photo by Diaka Savane

The Moosnick lecture entitled The Violence We Face: Women, Faith, and the #MeToo Movement was a powerfully moderated open dialogue among three leaders from different religious communities including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Senior Shawna Morton, currently specializing in religion, introduced the panel of leaders: Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D. Director of the Center for Jewish Ethics and Assistant Professor of Rabbinic Literature at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Dr. Nadia Rasheed, and Dr. Emily Askew.

The lecture began with each leader describing their connection to the #MeToo movement in their respective lives and religious communities. Rabbi Wasserman, who has been speaking and teaching about Jewish ethics intertwined with the #MeToo movement for the past two years, provided the audience with an anecdotal background which established her foundation with the movement: in 2006, Tarana Burke, a community organizer and counselor working with African American youth, was approached by a young woman with whom she worked. This young woman eventually revealed to Burke that she had experienced sexual assault. During this encounter, Burke later explained, she felt an overwhelming urge to say “me too” in the moment because she too was a victim of sexual assault, yet she refrained.

This story set the tone for the lecture which fixated on one overarching theme with regards to sexual assault and harassment within religious communities and the #MeToo movement (the # breaking later in 2017). The theme being the lack of attention and dialogue surrounding the reality that women of socially marginalized (race, gender, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation) communities face within their respective communities.

Rabbi Wasserman’s teachings have elucidated the fact that Jewish and ethical teaching have historically been employed to diminish the validity of women’s experiences and she now spends time trying to shift that narrative.

For Dr. Rasheed, a Muslim physician from New York who attended medical school in Iraq, her work embodies the difficult task of rewriting and reinterpreting a misrepresented and mistranslated text: the Quran. She advocates for the sayings of the prophet to be analyzed in a more objective fashion in order to deter fueling and providing ammunition for Islamophobia.

The over-representation of extremism we witness today with relation to Islam is not what the Quran teaches nor what the majority of Muslims support. Yet, for the skeptic, this fuels anxieties particularly in relation to Muslim women seemingly being subordinate to men.

Dr. Askew’s brilliant assessment of the connection between religious communities and sexual assault was that scripture and religious leaders often play a large role. Dr. Askew teaches a Theology and Domestic Violence course and is heavily involved with a Domestic Violence Clinic for women. This was one story she shared: Deborah is Black and White, not Latinx; she is rich and she is poor with kids and without kids. One day Deborah walks into the clinic to explain that her husband was arrested for choking her. When she went to her pastor, he told her that if only she had been submissive and acted in her place he wouldn’t have to lash out in violence and that she should go pray. Her pastor also told her that she would need to welcome him back. “Bad theology will get you killed,” said Dr. Askew.

The panelists then fixated on victim blaming and perpetrator shaming. It is clear that a cultural shift needs to manifest in the form of allowing vulnerability: both for survivors and perpetrators. Presently, survivors are seldom validated in their experience while perpetrators are publicly shamed. At the same time, perpetrators have the option of public emancipation that often sounds something like this: “If I did something wrong, I’m sorry” while there is no recognized system in place to remedy the social, psychological, and spiritual ramifications for survivors.

All agreed that there are very real power dynamics in regards to religious leaders who are often charged with responding to the lived experiences of their members. In general, religious communities tend to put leaders on pedestals. So, when they deviate from how they are supposed to act, the not so secret incident is maintained within the community to the detriment of the survivor and the destruction of that community as well.

Another subject that was covered was emancipatory passages in religious scripture that help survivors cope with their experience. None of the women on the panel denied that the Torah, the Quran, or the Bible have not perpetuated the subjugation, subordination, and submission of women. To that end, they declared that often those passages that are in nature more emancipatory are seldom regarded and they need to be highlighted as a means to reconcile with sexual misconduct.

Final thoughts encompassed the concept of forgiveness, particularly self-forgiveness for victims that report and those that do not. All advocated for the value of religious institutions who can oppose violence and confront unrestrained power in addition to facilitating open dialogue about threats to members in the community concerning sexual abuses.

Walking away from this lecture, the room felt alleviated in the sense that this discourse is not being brushed under the rug and that there are leaders out there, and particularly female leaders in positions dominated by males, that are advocating for those without a voice.