We are about 3 years into the #GirlChildLongWalk project, which began as a pilot in the fall of 2018 with 88 readers from 15 countries around the world, and is wrapping up a second cohort this month. This project has grown out of the founding DNA of the Imago Dei Fund as we have sought to do our part to support the sorely needed and still unfinished work of transforming deeply entrenched harmful gender norms which tear the social fabric and undermine progress toward shared human rights for all. As this project continues to unfold in new directions, we thought we would ask Emily a few questions to reflect on the origins of the project.
#1: Can you tell us about the why behind this project? What got you to sit down and write this deep dive “reading journey” into the ancient yet still widespread system of patriarchy and the role of religious faith in both maintaining it and dismantling it?
When my husband and I started the Imago Dei Fund in 2009, our intention was to look for “movements of God at work in the world” that we could get behind and invest in. We were motivated by our faith and sought to do what we could to alleviate suffering and repair the fractured wholeness of our world. One cause which we dove into as our first funding priority was to end the scourge of human trafficking and modern day slavery. As we began to learn about this problem and the various efforts to stem it, I went on my own personal journey of utter heartbreak as I came to learn more about the whole continuum of modern day enslavement and how poverty and gender norms which view females as lesser than and akin to property make too many girls vulnerable to a life of being treated as a transaction rather than as a human being. It is no accident that 70-80% of the world’s enslaved people are girls and women.
What really kept (and still keeps) me up at night is that women and girl’s already tenuous rights and status have been sliding backwards in many places. I wanted to learn more about the women’s movement around the world and went on a few vision trips with organizations like the Global Fund for Women and was able to hear directly from incredible local women’s rights leaders about what this regression has looked like in their context. Voice after voice said the same thing: the needle had been moving forward for democracy and women’s human rights, but both have recently been set backwards by a rise of both religious fundamentalism and authoritarian politics.
I eerily began to notice the needle sliding backwards in my own faith pond—American evangelicalism—with start-up churches popping up, right in my home city of Boston, which did not allow women to serve in leadership positions. I became sort of a watch dog and uncovered a widespread and enthusiastic (though sort of cloaked) neo-patriarchal movement in the U.S. that was indeed setting American evangelicalism back a century or two. Many of these churches and organizations were working with young people (including a few campus ministries at Ivy League colleges) and many were passionate about fighting human trafficking and rescuing women and girls from brothels, but this same quest for freedom and justice did not extend to letting the very people “rescued” serve in leadership positions in their organizations. I had numerous moments of utter shock attending conferences where white men writing books on “radical justice” were being celebrated and held up as exemplars but with a little clicking online found that they still attend churches and networks where only men are allowed to be in leadership positions. I got to the point where I could not sit back and watch people talking lofty, pious and even “radical“ language of justice while ramping up their patriarchy.
So the real why behind this project was and is to get the freedom needle moving forward again for our world’s girls who are in the morning of their lives. I had gotten to know a brave and kind Anglican priest named Rev. Domnic Misolo from Kenya and was so impressed with how he was using his platform as a faith leader to challenge harmful and deeply entrenched gender traditions in his culture all too often sanctioned by the church. We both embody a similar spark of not being able to politely give the church a hall pass on its patriarchy. I asked him if he would co-author this project with me and it has been a joy to work together.
#2: Tell us a little bit more about the name of the project—“The Girl Child and Her Long Walk to Freedom”.
Just as here in the U.S. we are undergoing a deeper reckoning of the intergenerational and structural harm that persists from the moral blight of the transatlantic slave trade that began five hundred years ago, so too the humanitarian scourge of what is now called “gendercide” does not spring out of thin air but rather stems from ideas, beliefs, and norms which been transmitted from literally the neolithic age. If you have a girl in your life, you know they are not born into the world with any notion that they are lesser than and not worthy of shared honor and expectations that the world will treat them fairly. They are socialized into these, as are boys. “Girl Child… Long Walk to Freedom…” The Girl Child is the protagonist of the reading journey and represents this presumption of equality that all females come into the world with. She represents femalekind before “the world told her who She should be”.
As my own awareness of global gender norms was expanding, my rose
colored glasses that presumed a march of progress were shattered to pieces. I was in the thick of my mothering years at this time with three young children, two boys and a girl, and my daughter was at the same age that all the traditional/exploitative practices like early marriage, female genital cutting, menstrual banishment, overwork, neglect, and being preyed upon sexually by men begin to happen. This made all I had been seeing in various places around the world feel very close to home and I could feel this fierce inner “mother bear” surfacing. This writing project is my way of channeling this heartache into a love-filled and hopeful endeavor, to work in partnership with change agents on the frontlines to advance freedom in our world.
The title and the meta-narrative of this reading journey is to continue to walk the “exodus path” that we see as a emancipatory, overarching symbol in the Bible and is one and the same as the “long walk to freedom” that Nelson Mandela and freedom fighters in every generation have been walking. The free world we all seek begins within each of our hearts and minds and involves a journey of curiosity and awareness of digging deeper into all the traditions and belief structures we have inherited from the past to liberate ourselves from the interlocking supremacy systems of race, gender, and last but not least, belief—all of which for too many centuries have sanctioned myriad forms of enslavement and oppression which over time became hardened into norms and traditions which look holy and honorable, but are utterly inhumane.
We still have many miles to walk on the exodus path to a world where our common humanity can be taken for granted and we leave all supremacy systems in the past where they belong.
#3: What is your hope for the project?
I want to get the needle moving forward again for women and girls’ basic human rights and know that this will not happen unless people of faith do this deeper work of unraveling the ancient yet still stubbornly persistent contradictions which live on in our own traditions and pews. The verse we selected as a mantra for this project is Galatians 5:6–“What matters above all else is putting faith to work through love”— which underscores the journey into a more conscious faith/love that can be and is a powerful catalyst to uproot and move the ancient and oppressive “mountain” of patriarchy.
My hope is that anyone who participates in the reading journey and/or watches the videos will grow in awareness of how the system of patriarchy has and continues to undermine our shared exodus as a human family from all forms of slavery and caste-based oppression. It is only in seeing and lamenting the errors of our patriarchal past that we can heal from the inhumane grip that this system has had on our faith traditions, on family life, on many institutions of society, on gender relations, on democracy, on the planet itself, and on most importantly how we value and raise the next generation of little girls and boys. I get tired of the language of “women’s and girls empowerment” because it suggests that there is something deficient in them that needs remediation and places the onus on them, when in fact the onus is on all of society to stop the traditions and norms which disempower them in the first place. I hope more than anything that people get excited to take the baton and put their faith to work in their own religious and social ponds to create the world that our girls deserve and we all seek.
Like many new endeavors, this project has taken many twists and turns, but from the beginning it’s twin aims were to 1) raise awareness of the “intolerable status quo” that still surrounds girls lives from cradle to grave and 2) spotlight brave faith-inspired change agents around the world who are examples we can follow of untangling their faith and their own lives from the false certitudes and grip of patriarchy.
#4: How did the idea for the animated videos come about?
It is hard to tell this very ancient story of how patriarchy arose thousands of years ago and over time became sanctioned and veiled by layer upon layer of tradition and ideologies which claimed that male dominion over females was a reflection of a “natural and divine order” but in fact is the world’s oldest oppression. We partnered with Do Good Better and enlisted advisors to help us bring the long ancient tale we wrote about in the reading journey into a short animated explainer video which would awaken curiosity and invite people of faith to take whatever is their next step on this exodus path. We are so excited, thanks to some really organic and fruitful partnerships, that it is being translated into a few different languages and a new Christian sequel was recently released.
Each of our exodus paths will look different based on where we live and what chains are in our hearts and minds and our cultural and religious contexts. This quote by an incredible woman I met in a Maasai community in Tanzania on a trip with World Vision captures my heart and hopes for this project:
“It is afternoon for us, but still morning for our daughters.”
Indeed, the better more free world we seek for our world’s girls is the better world we all seek, one where we can all walk together side-by-side as sister and brother and leave all vestiges and sanctions of slavery in the dust bin of history. People of faith need to work harder and more courageously to unravel the patriarchal contradictions in our own traditions which speak the language of freedom, justice, and dignity for all but are still steeped in an archaic view of females as lesser than and not fully possessing the same agency and birthright of freedom as males. Bon courage as you walk this path in your own corner of the world to affirm the common humanity of us all. Please check out our website and feel free to use any resources that look helpful and consider joining us on this journey!