Book Review: Scars Across Humanity

n. b. I originally wrote this review whilst working at LST, before working at SPCK (who publish the book and used to employ me)

[Update 11th December 2-18 – Scars has been named the winner of ‘Book of the Year’ in the Politics and Public Life category of Christianity Today’s book of the year awards]

Scars Across Humanity

I was delighted to recieve an uncorrected proof review copy of a new book by Theologian, Philosopher, and Sociologist, Elaine Storkey. Storkey’s latest contribution is the aptly titled “Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence against Women“. Packed with statistics, theological and socio-cultural reflection, and a sobering but challenging read, ‘Scars’ was written to coincide with the annual UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25th November 2015) and represents an excellent primer for those of us who might be aware of the problem, but not perhaps fully clued up or in mind of any kind of solution.

Throughout the book the stories of women from diverse cultures, classes, countries, faiths and perspectives are put front and centre. Whether it is the sobering statistics that accompany the chapters on Female Genital Mutilation and Wartime violence, reflections on rape, or the necessarily distressing recollections of childhood victims of abuse, one of the most powerful parts of this book is the way in which Storkey weaves into the narrative the lived experiences of the global female community. The author is also aware of her own privilege, assumptions and cultural-theological lenses – which adds powerful authority to the words with which she frames the problem of violence against women. And it is a problem. The first nine (of thirteen) chapters of ‘Scars’ documents and highlights the global scale of the problem. Reading it is literally difficult – as Storkey does not hold back or pull punches when describing the truly vile depths to which people can stoop.

Whilst written and published to coincide with 2015’s UN day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, this is a book that is far more than a snapshot of the 2010’s. Storkey draws throughout on her own experience as President of Tearfund, an international charity, surveys literature from the last fifty years and beyond, and uses historical examples to present her case. This, then, is something of a timeless book – not least because it details a timeless, historical problem. I came away from reading the first half reflecting that the threat of violence hangs over the entire timeline of a female life – from an increased likelihood of foeticide (sex-selective abortion), the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM), the startlingly common phenomena of becoming a child bride, and all that before a woman has reached 20. The way in which death and violence is intertwined with being a woman across cultures and history is firmly and clearly presented by Storkey.

Some readers may find the first nine chapters hard going. Others may complain that there are not trigger warnings on the front cover. I think this is deliberate. Particularly for white, Western men like myself the problem of Violence against Women simply doesn’t penetrate our consciousness as often as it should. And this is important. As Storkey rightly observes, this is not a female problem, this is a human problem. Were this ‘just’ a book about the problem of FGM, or the global spread of domestic violence against women, then it could have been titled ‘Scars against Femininity’. But that is not what this book is about. In her appropriately detached yet clearly (and rightly) passionate style, reading Storkey’s reflections and interactions with victims of domestic abuse in all cultures, or examination of the amount of rape and violence done to women in wartime, it becomes clear that this problem, this violence, is one that affects the whole of humanity.

At the heart of this book is the recognition of the problem, a deep desire to do something about it, and an activists passion to provoke, inform, and prepare. Yet this book also undoubtedly has a ‘head’. Storkey is well known for her work on gender and sex – personal highlights for me include ‘Men and Women: Created or Constructed?’ and ‘What’s Right with Feminism?’ – and ‘Scars’ begins to draw to a close with a close examination of the problems. Storkey devotes her tenth chapter to engaging with some of the explanations offered by scientists, sociologists and other scholars as to why Violence against Women is such a global problem. This is one of the strongest parts of the book – I found myself particularly resonating with Storkey’s identification of a ‘functionalist’ understanding of humanity as a key part of the problem: when we reduce a person to merely their social or market functions, we inevitably dehumanise them. Naturalistic and materialistic understandings of human identity are not enough to challenge the global issue of Violence against Women.

The closing chapters of ‘Scars’ deal with two religions, offering a different angle and perspective on the challenge facing global society. Chapter twelve considers the history, theology and problem of Violence against Women in the world’s second largest religion: Islam. Storkey notes that “ideas about human personhood in most historic religions may be at odds with ideas which predominate in Western secular societies“, an observation demonstrably true in particular as regards Christianity, if not also Islam. This chapter notes that injustices to women are “worryingly evident in Muslim majority cultures“, even as she notes that we need to hear “the authentic Islamic voice“, which is heard in this chapter by engagement with Islamic religious texts, and the voices of scholars of Islam, including and especially feminists. Storkey notes by way of conclusion that “Changes to Islamic gender culture will have to come through its Qur’anic sages, young and established, as they challenge the authenticity of a monolithic, aggressive, global Islam“. This is an important point, valid to debates beyond the present concern of this book and this review.

The final chapter of ‘Scars’ attempts to present Christianity as a possible solution; ‘Christianity and Gender: A fuller picture’. It is important to note Storkey’s critical honesty: “Both an insider and an observer of a tradition which spans centuries, I have a responsibility to listen to critics, especially critics who tell the truth“. After recounting some of the historical misogyny of Christian thinkers (though not, she contends, the actual Christian faith), there is a helpful survey of feminist responses to, reimagining of, and departures from, Christianity. However, Storkey contends, Christianity offers a way out of patriarchy and Violence against Women:

… yet radical liberation is evident, in Christianity… We see it in women prophets and sages, respect and mutuality in marriage, strong female leadership, gifts of teaching and directing, women’s spiritual authority and the fundamental union of male and female in biblical metaphors of ‘the image of God’ and the ‘body of Christ’

In recounting the surprising history of feminism in Christianity, and offering a critically careful yet ultimately positive understanding of Scripture’s witness, Storkey points the way to how Christianity might be a driving force in healing the ‘Scars across Humanity’. If I had one criticism of this final chapter, it would be that the sections on Sin and Human Personhood were good enough as to be tantalising by not being fleshed out more! Storkey closes her book with a robust challenge, rooted in Christian theology: “Ending the violence is urgent. The scars across humanity are deep. It is time to join the healing and the work of restorative justice“.

Overall, then, this is a comprehensive and provocative book. Comprehensive in that it offers a deluge of evidence to anyone who doesn’t think that Violence against Women is a problem, and provocative in that it exposes the problem so thoroughly and suggests a solution that goes beyond easy answers, cultural and religious blaming, and platitudinous ideas. I would recommend this book to pastors and Christian leaders – even if you are personally not called to engage (though I would recommend at the very least praying and weaving this challenge into appropriate sermons, etc) then it is likely you know someone affected by violence, or called to confront it. I would recommend it, too, to those concerned human beings of all faiths and none, daunted by the scale of the problem yet keen to engage with it thoughtfully, globally and holistically.

You should go and follow Elaine Storkey on Twitter, where I’d also love to connect with you. I’m also on Facebook, if you want to keep up to date with this blog.

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