An open letter to Serena Williams about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ treatment of women.
I want to start by applauding everything you said in your open letter that was reproduced on The Guardian website last week. As a woman, I too have experienced firsthand the inequity and unfair treatment that results from gender inequality in our society. Whilst it is true that great strides have been made in this area in recent decades, it is also true that there is still much work to do. I support and commend every sentence of your letter.
It is thus in this spirit of co-operation and progression toward gender equality that I must respectfully draw to your attention the following serious matter. Namely that you have on a number of occasions associated yourself with and promoted the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization. This organization teaches and enforces gender and social doctrines upon its members that are the exact opposite of the stance you advocated in your letter.
I speak as someone who was raised in this religion and who is intimately familiar with its rules and teachings, and with the sanctions imposed upon members should they disobey those teachings. In your letter you speak of the need to remove hurdles to a young girl’s development. Thus, I must respectfully remind you that a young girl growing up today in the religious faith we both shared will encounter the following hurdles and blockades.
All children raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses are strongly discouraged from attending higher education. Should their parents ignore this command, they may be sanctioned. If their father is an elder (a church leader) he may be removed from his position.
She will have control over her reproductive health taken from her by rules forbidding abortion and some forms of contraception, under pain of total shunning should she disobey. This includes the use of the emergency contraceptive pill (also known as the morning-after pill), sterlization is also strongly discouraged (concessions made for medical complications of pregnancy) and abortion is never allowed, even in the event of rape.
She will have her right to her sexual identity taken from her by rules forbidding same-sex relationships and sex outside of marriage, under pain of total shunning should she disobey.
She will be strongly discouraged from the pursuit of all extracurricular activities, including sports. A family that ignores this stance may face sanctions from church leaders.
The above points apply to boys as well as girls but there are additional blockades put before girls, holding them back even further.
She will encounter daily indoctrination, teaching her that she should submit to male headship in all things, be it the headship of her husband or the headship of the all male church elders. She will be taught that she is not the equal of a man, and that her primary role is that of a helper, not leader or a decision maker. She will be told that her ideal position in is in the home.
In short, it is increasingly unlikely that a young girl growing up in the religion you identify with will be able to follow in your footsteps. It is possible that she may even find herself totally shunned and thrown out of her family under official church sanction for attempting to doing so.
In fact, as a direct result of these teachings and sanctions, my own development as a woman was indeed severely curtailed. I am only now, at the age of 38, beginning my journey into higher education. And this is a normal story for someone that leaves the faith. Many never get to reclaim their education and instead are sentenced to a life of low-paid, unfulfilling work. It can take a long time to realise that as a woman you are a man’s equal and forget the years of being told the opposite.
To summarize, the problem is that you rightly encourage girls to dream big, but then endorse and promote a religious organization that demands under threat of excommunication and subsequent shunning that they remain small.
As a world-class athlete and international personality who has achieved incredible things due to your skills and determination, you are a role model for many young women and girls worldwide. Ideally, it is my hope that you might become a voice for reform within the faith you associate with, to speak out for the countless Witness girls like me who were denied their voice due to the patriarchal structure and beliefs that control the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the very least, I hope you will reconsider in future making statements of support for an organization that strictly enforces upon young women, sometimes by the use of total familial shunning and other psychologically damaging practices, a worldview that is completely at odds with the admirable and progressive goals that you expressed in your letter, and to which we both aspire.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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