Dignity for All: How “Purity Culture” Harms Girls and Women

Posted by on Jul 14, 2021

When I decided to participate in The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom reading journey, I was anticipating the ways in which it would enrich my current work with Tostan, an African-based international non-profit that empowers communities to develop and achieve their vision for the future and inspires large-scale movements leading to Dignity for All. We facilitate a three-year non-formal, holistic, human rights-based education program for rural communities in West Africa. In our partner communities we see the harmful ways that religion supports patriarchy, leading to forced child marriage, female genital cutting (FGC), domestic violence, and more. I believed that reading The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom would help me understand the root of this centuries-old tradition. I did not expect, perhaps naively so, to be impacted on such a personal level as I recalled my upbringing in a patriarchal, conservative church. 

Megan, bottom right, sharing a silly moment with Tostan participants.

The authors of The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom assert that “the mythological curse of Eve has had a more pervasive and indelible stamp on our collective spiritual imaginations than we can ever comprehend and pinpoint.” The story of Adam and Eve in the Bible is about humanity not believing God when He told them He had everything they needed for happiness and peace. However, most interpretations of this story portray Eve as a temptress who caused the fall of the world into sin. This belief has drastic and entrenched consequences. 

I grew up in the 90s, which was the heyday of the so-called “purity culture” movement of the American Evangelical church. The simple aim of this movement was to promote abstinence before marriage, but the way the message was delivered led to some harmful assertions, such as women being guilty for the sexual sin of men and women being ashamed of their bodies. My church, like many others, placed an emphasis on the modesty of its women and girls. We were taught that our purity was of first importance and that its harm would prevent us from intimacy with Jesus. We were warned not to “tempt our brothers into sin” by the way we dressed. There was cruel and often public judgement for girls who did not conform. 

Now, twenty years later, alongside #MeToo we are witnessing #ChurchToo, a social media movement to bring into the light a decades-long pattern of sexual abuse in the Evangelical church. Thousands of girls experienced abuse at the hands of men in their church, then had to endure years of shame, silencing, and victim blaming while the men remained in power. The line between purity culture and #ChurchToo is stark and painful. 

So, what do I do with this pain? With this anger? I take it to where I take everything else: Jesus Christ. Religion can be destructive, as we read in The Girl Child, because religion is created by people. Faith is liberating, because its object is Divine. The person of Jesus Christ was expected to be a political savior, a man who would bring liberation through power. Instead, he lived “on the edge,” with people who society scorned. He brought liberation through love. My great aspiration for life, as well as through my work at Tostan, is to bring liberation through love. 

At Tostan our vision is “Dignity for All” and we see this liberating love everyday! One need only look to the stories of two Tostan heroes, Demba Diawara and Oureye Sall, an Imam and former cutter, respectively. Before participating in the Tostan program, Oureye and Imam Diawara were perpetuating patriarchy in their own communities by encouraging, and in Oureye’s case, performing, FGC. After learning about the harm caused by the practice, they both became champions in the movement to end it, traveling to hundreds of communities, often by foot, to share what they had learned. Their love for the girls in their communities superseded the power of thousands of years of tradition and brought liberation for generations to come in the process. In West Africa, we are seeing thousands of communities coming together to change practices that harm girls; men are supporting their wives to pursue leadership positions; religious leaders are becoming advocates for human rights, and so much more. 

Positive social change can happen when we bow to the Divine in each other. There is inherent dignity in every human being, because each of us carries the image of God. We will begin to “reweave the cultural fabric” torn by patriarchy, as the authors of The Girl Child describe, when we see this Divine and put our faith to work through love. 

Megan Rast has worked at Tostan, Inc. for nine years, currently in resource development. A native of Atlanta, she holds degrees from Furman University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. She currently resides in Arlington, VA, a suburb of Washington, DC. Her life’s mission is “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8).