As part of our blog series #MyGirlChildLongWalkStory, we are pleased to share this personal story by Maria Lígia Conti from São Paulo, Brazil. Lígia discovered the Girl Child project after googling the word “patriarchy” which led her to our animated explainer video Understanding Our History of Patriarchy: What’s Faith got to do with it? Finding herself deeply inspired, in just a few weeks she translated the script of the video into Portuguese and found a producer and voice artists to convert the original video into this new Portuguese translation. She is now a Girl Child Long Walk fellow, and shares with us here her brave journey to stay true to her own personhood and spiritual quest within deeply entrenched patriarchal familial, religious, and cultural structures.
I am the second of the eight children borne by my mother. We are four girls and three boys; the last one, a boy, died soon after his birth. As my mother had had two miscarriages just before getting pregnant with this boy, my father, who was a physician, and her male obstetrician decided to sterilize her “for her own good” during the C-section. My father worked with X-rays, and his long exposures to the radiation might have been the cause of both of her miscarriages and my baby brother’s death, she was told later. I was 15 years old and was there in her hospital bedroom when she woke up and, hearing the news, told my father she wanted a divorce and that she would sue him for making a decision she would have never taken. “It is my body,” she kept saying.
I was about ten when she reclaimed her life. Because she was not home for a good part of the day while taking classes and doing her internships, and my oldest sister did not take up the task, I ended up taking on a large domestic role in the family. I went to school but before and after school I was responsible for part of the house work and taking care of the young ones. At eleven, my father took me to work in his office as a receptionist, which just added to my regular daily tasks. I was the only kid in the house to ever work before the age of 18. I was a hard worker and my father knew he could trust me even at this young age but, because of gender norms, my father never counted this work and made sure the three boys in the family got their social security paid for starting at the age of fourteen, so they would retire earlier, but never filed this for me. Perhaps he thought a husband would take care of me.
Five years earlier they had had a fight — fights and quarreling were a normal part of my life at home, though my father never hit my mother. He would throw things in the air, smash the windows, shout, bang doors, drink himself out, but never hit her. On this occasion, he was complaining about her use of “his” money and how much he worked while she never did anything. She said she was busy all the time, cooking, washing, ironing, looking after the five kids… And he told her: “Any ‘thick-lipped’ woman can do that.” She got so mad that she decided to go back to study. She first had to complete high school and then decided to apply to law school, which she finished in five years, while getting pregnant five times.
I studied part of my life in a Catholic school, but I do not believe I was ever a Catholic. I always doubted the stories I was told. To me, the saints did not seem like saints but more like victims of their society. I saw how the rich were held apart from the not-so-rich (and far, far apart from the poor) in that school while I was being taught to grow up to be a good, clean, silent and respectful wife — perhaps a teacher, if I had brains enough.
I married at the age of 18, divorced at 23, married again at 25, had two kids by my second husband, was betrayed by both of them, and have been single since the age of 38. I raised my children with great struggle and with no support from their father. But I showed them the path to be good and caring people. They have love and respect for one to another and I consider this my greatest success in life.
My search for a God has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. As a little child I stared at the planet Venus, not knowing it was Venus, and used to tell my siblings that I had come from there. I would tell them incredible stories of how we lived and I promised I would take them with me for a visit.
I never accepted the idea that Jesus had died for me or for anybody — I would tell myself, they killed him and had no excuses, so they said it was God’s plan. Another thing it was hard for me to accept was the story of an angel coming to Mary and telling her she would have God’s child. How dare He? How can you come to a woman and tell her she is having your child? Just because you are God? And she had to be a virgin? Like — a girl?? No, I could never accept this god as my God. But I grew up in this land where Catholicism is the power (or was when I grew up), and to say you have any doubt is considered a sin and asking too many questions just shows how much of a sinner you are (and has terrible consequences in hell). So I learned to ask the questions to myself and try to answer them by observing what was going on around me.
In my life I have entered as many “houses of the Lord” as I could. You name the temple, I was there — from the South American indigenous religions to the Afro-Brazilians to the Eastern ones, to New Age… In most of them I felt welcomed and, from each place, I have carried a little. But none would completely fill my vessel. Still so empty of acceptable “answers” which my mind and heart just could not accept.
As time went by, I grew farther and farther from Christianity, to a point of considering the possibility of it being a total fake. And I denied Jesus and his father. Not God, but the Christian and the Muslim and the Hindu and the ancient gods — all of them. And so, there was not even a vessel anymore. I let it all go… That is when I believe I started to form my own conception of God.
At the age of 56, I went to Ethiopia as a volunteer English teacher. My kids were aged 3 and 4. They had “English conversation” classes with me. I loved them so much. But it was Ethiopia that stole my heart — the whole country, its culture, its people, its history. It was there that I started finding purpose in my life. Visiting Lalibela, the sacred city, I learned stories that are told to the people there. I also learned that the ark of the covenant is supposedly there in Ethiopia and heard the beautiful story of how it got there, brought by Prince Menelik, the son of Sheba and Solomon. Where exactly is the ark? “No one knows, for it is a secret kept by one blind man. And when he dies, another blind man will be in charge.”
“Don’t you ever think of investigating this story, finding the truth about it?” I asked a local History Professor at Addis Ababa university. “No,” he answered. “This story is the basis of our entire life and culture and structure. If we dismantle it, we will be no more.” So, this is how it works? I thought. Of course. Just imagine if one decides to prove that the whole story is a man-made story. We can’t do it.
Or can we?
In 2018 I went to India to stay in an ashram to take a course this man I wanted to call my guru was offering. I took the course and volunteered for a while in this ashram feeling I had found something, but did not know what yet. In 40 days in the southern part of India, I visited a number of temples for all kinds of gods — the elephant, the monkey, the ten-armed woman, the blue boy… I was even bowing down to Nandi, Shiva’s bull. And then, on my very last day in India, I saw two images of white people. Saints? She could be Mary… Him, I had no idea. I took a picture and sent it to my loyal Roman Catholic sister-in-law, who did some fast research and found the St. Mary’s Co-Cathedral, a Catholic church in Armenian Street, Chennai, India constructed by Capuchins in 1658.
The man I had seen was Saint Anthony. With a few hours before my flight back home, I decided to visit the church for the sole purpose of taking pictures for my sister-in-law, who showed great interest in it. As I left the tuk tuk and entered the church, to my right, in an atrium-like area, I saw the same figure of Mary I had seen in the street, and for whatever reason — totally unknown to me then and now — I cried like a baby for a few minutes. I cannot describe what I felt. Something about Her touched something nameless within me. An image of God I could not yet name?
Then, I walked towards the entrance of the church, took a picture of Saint Anthony, and was walking past an image of Jesus when I heard a voice — Why not me? In a flash of a moment, I saw before my eyes all the gods I had been rendering honor to, and felt deep in my heart, why not him? I cried a little more, and then felt really relaxed and happy. I believed I had made peace with Jesus and Mary and the Church and all the images of God that had drawn me in some way.
It was only two years later, at the age of 65, that I heard about this word “patriarchy” and the possibility of God beyond the Father image I grew up with. And here is where I stand today. For the last months during the pandemic, I have been reading and listening and researching and watching films about goddesses, the God woman, Girl Gods, the masculine civilization, “the story that shall put an end to what it is” … The good news is, in my understanding, that what is to come in my own expanding image of the Divine is far better than what it is or what was. I did not exchange the God man for a God woman, that would make no sense to me. But I can now imagine and recognize a God, the Creator, who is beyond all of our limited constructs who embodies both feminine and masculine qualities, who created us all in their likeness. In the sense that we are all equal and that we are meant to walk together side by side in order to be blissful, full-fledged human beings.
I have an Indian guru, but I have no religion. I am a seeker — open to learning, thinking about life, and enjoying being alive. But most of all, I am a woman willing to change the story of the world ruled by men, with stories told by men about men and reproduced unconsciously by so many of us women.
I thank the Girl Child Long Walk video which opened up a new door on this journey of mine. I have translated the video to Portuguese in the hope that many girls and women in my country and the other Portuguese speaking countries find, if not “answers,” at least more questions. All of the countries where Portuguese is spoken as an official language, except for Portugal, were once Portuguese colonies. In addition to all that being a colony meant for each of these countries, patriarchy has always been an ingrained and established condition. Colonization and patriarchy are one and the same.
Thanks to my mother, I had an example of not being obedient to patriarchy. But it took me until I was 65 to name and really unpack what this is. After seeing how simple it can be explained and understood, I see this video as a wakeup call to help women and girls to at least consider rethinking their condition — as girls, women, wives, and mothers. As an essentially Catholic country, in Brazil we take our “position” in society as set, as taken for granted. Even if we don’t agree with it, we are told and soon learn that “this is the way it is, no use trying to change it.” And I am from São Paulo, the most prosperous state in the country where many people are educated. What about around the world and in the Central, Northern and Northeastern states of Brazil where the population struggles to live and not as many receive the gift of a good education?
I was about ten when my mother reclaimed her life. My journey has been to do the same.