Johanna and Saima (Blackburn, December 2023)

Routledge Focus Series: Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible

Today’s spotlight features two authors and two books. Johanna Stiebert is book series editor and author of the inaugural volume, Rape Myths, the Bible, and #MeToo, which was published in 2020. Saima Afzal and Johanna co-authored a second volume, Marriage, Bible Violence: Intersections and Impacts, which was published in 2024. Both are active in a women-led Community Interest Company, SAS Rights, which was founded by Saima. 

How do you reflect back on writing?  

Johanna: The first book feels, in some ways, from a different time, when the MeToo movement had brought a great wave of momentum to the work Caroline Blyth, Katie Edwards and I were doing together – both as co-directors of The Shiloh Project and as initial editors of this series. It was a busy time, with unexpected success with grant capture and many new and meaningful collaborations. There was a real sense of motivation and optimism. Some of that sustains me still but I also feel a sense of ‘flatness’ some days. In the big frame, rape culture remains a tenacious presence, and the political and human rights climate, along with the climate crisis – are all cause for bleakness. In the smaller frame, both Katie and Caroline have left academia, and the world of Universities and conferences, grants, public engagement, and publishing is for me a sadder place without them. Also, I write this during stop-and-start ceasefire negotiations, amid on- and ongoing suffering, and shortly after the news broke that Harvey Weinstein’s rape conviction of 2020 has been overturned. It feels like there is an unrelenting stream of things to stand up to and speak out about.

On a positive note, the book series continues to thrive and I have two other fabulous co-editors, Barbara Thiede and Emily Colgan. Both are women I met through our shared research interests and both are not only colleagues whose work inspires me but also friends.

Collaboration is a big part of what motivates me. Working with Saima on the second book was uplifting. Saima is absolutely not someone to back down from a challenge! She has resisted and got out of a forced ‘marriage’, has raised a child on her own into a most wonderful adult, gets up and shows up every day, in spite of exhausting cancer treatment, and is a tireless advocate and campaigner for many, many under- and unrepresented and marginalised members in her community. I have so much admiration for Saima. 

Our co-authored book focuses on the many and strong associations between marriage and violence in the Bible. It also challenges complementarian theologies that oppress and demean women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. For me, this is my second co-authored book (the other is Sacred Queer Stories, 2021) and I have really enjoyed how energising and inspiring collaboration with Saima is!

Saima: Writing a book with Johanna was an amazing experience where I could indulge my inquisitiveness in critical thinking. It is fantastic to work with peers who are there to help develop and enhance your ideas and perspectives, to let you ask questions and nurture mutual knowledge-sharing and -acquisition towards publication. Co-authoring a book is something I never thought I’d do. It’s been a real privilege to share my experiences, capture them in writing, and put them on printed pages to go out into the world. It takes away some of the insults I’ve had levelled at me, of having the community and activist work I do trivialised and dismissed, or being told my own or the experiences of women I work alongside are ‘merely anecdotal’. This series shows that victims of gender-based and sexual violence (many of them women) are silenced by a complex array of religio-cultural dynamics. Our book has tried to demonstrate and to resist this. 

Normally I deal with such issues as part of my work as an expert registered on the National Crime Agency register. I am called by the Crown Prosecution Service, or by police forces, for example, to assist in investigations, examine statements, and provide the courts with detailed reports to help them decide on the innocence or guilt of an accused. With such work, it’s often too late: a crime has occurred, victims are in crisis, justice can be slow in coming, or inadequate; often, quite honestly, there is no opportunity for release or expression, and no justice at all. 

What the book has allowed me to do is apply some of my training and experience to better understand and prevent violence before it happens. Just maybe, if we know more about the silences and oppressions imposed by religio-cultural forces, then we can do more pre-crisis. This is what motivates my work with SAS Rights. We are trying to build the micro-infrastructure so there are safe spaces in our communities where we remove the stigma of rape and sexual abuse, including when it is silenced or legitimised through the institution of marriage. 

What has been the response to your book? 

Saima: The response has been a mix of the positive to the ‘oh really, you wrote about this?!’ and then quickly moving on to another topic. The response amongst my peers in the policing world, most of whom are not in my immediate local community, has been extremely positive, and I have received multiple requests to expand on the religio-cultural dynamics that are discussed in the book. The book shows that religious texts and laws emerged from particular contexts and are now shifted into very different settings where they continue to exert influence. Many practitioners recognise the need for understanding such dynamics better – not least, because they still have bearing on the discussions in religious communities that centre on topics in the orbit of marriage – like conjugal rights, consent, gender and family hierarchies. There is definitely interest in the book in sectors that are not primarily academic – like the practitioners I work with (police officers, community and social workers, for instance). Also, these are busy people – so they are happy to see our book is tightly focused and succinct. 

Interestingly, in my immediate, local community, professionals and institutions have not really acknowledged my achievements, including the book. Maybe this is because I am considered a non-conformist woman, and because reliance on traditional patriarchal structures remains, including in matters of marriage and divorce. That is disappointing – but it spurs me on, because there is still work to be done. 

Johanna: It is still a bit early for published reviews. It is good to see, though, that the topic of our book is clearly one that’s ‘in the air’. Jennifer G. Bird’s book Marriage in the Bible: What Do the Texts Say? (Rowman and Littlefield, Dec. 2023) came out around the time ours did. I can also reveal that two more books in the series are soon to appear and both have areas of overlap and synergy with our book. One is on coercive control and another is focused on marriage equality. 

How and where are you now and what are you doing or working on at present? 

Saima: I have ongoing cancer-related issues, which makes work hard at times. Locally, I am working on a number of cases through my policing work, as well as, mostly in a volunteer capacity, on amplifying minoritised women’s voices and on designing equitable and trauma-informed services that factor in religio-cultural dimensions. SAS Rights services (ranging from bicycle riding lessons and group bicycle rides, to counselling, advocacy, arts and crafts and Zumba for women in the Blackburn region) are in high demand, so fundraising to fund and subsidise these is a critical part of what I am currently focusing on. This ensures that no one who needs our services is left out. 

Johanna: It is nearing the end of the semester and another academic year. This is always a busy time. Editing has been a big part of my work of late. Alongside editing for this series, I am also co-editor (with Chris Greenough, Johnathan Jodamus and Mmapula Kebaneilwe) of a massive Bible and Violence publication, under contract with Bloomsbury. Some days it can feel all-consuming.

Do you have any advice for authors of future publications in this series?

Saima: Make time for friendships, including in the work you do. Nurture patience and perseverance, and don’t be too precious about ditching some of your writing along the way if it just doesn’t fit the remit of the book. None of that’s a waste – it’s part of the process. (I wrote so much and probably have another book I could publish!!)

Johanna: What Saima says! Also, we try hard as editors to support our authors along the way. We know writing a book is not easy and that in the expanse of time it takes, between the proposal and manuscript submission, a lot can happen to interfere with writing and deadlines, or to transform and change initial plans and intentions.

What topics in the area of rape culture, religion and/or the Bible would you like to see a book on? 

Saima: I really wish there was more literature that discusses together all of conjugal rights, sharia law, marriage and rape. There is a great deal of reluctance to talk about such subjects, and too much is hushed up because it is ‘a cultural issue’. What I see is that religious leaders across faiths have a great deal of influence but they don’t often encourage critical thinking or alternative viewpoints. But I do think we need a deeper discussion. I have been confronted with such topics again and again in my over thirty years of community work and I would love to see careful research and exposition in this area. 

Johanna: There are some proposals and books-in-progress in the series that focus on lived religion and on sacred texts other than the Bible vis-à-vis rape culture manifestations. I welcome that. I have a lot to learn on how differently rape culture manifests in other religious communities and literatures in and from diverse parts of the world. I would also like to see books focused on neurodiversity and on disability studies to open up perspectives on rape culture that we don’t hear about nearly enough.

Do you have a shout-out to anyone working in this general area? Please shout about them! 

Saima: I always shout about my mum, she moulded me into the critical thinker I am. Without Mum I would have not survived the ‘community-based’ sanctions (mainly exclusion and slander about my personal life and non-conformism) that have been imposed upon me over the years. Mum is my biggest ally. I also am thankful for my son, for putting up with the fall-out that comes with having a mother like me. My granddaughter, is the biggest reason I keep speaking about these issues; I do not wish for her to grow up in a world where she can’t as a girl or woman be free to be herself or choose the relationship she wants. I need her to be growing up in a better world free from violence.

Johanna: There are many. There is great work happening in this area. Most recently, I’ve really valued and admired the scholarship on violence against displaced women and girls by Sandra Iman Pertek. Her book with Elisabet le Roux, On the Significance of Religion in Violence Against Women and Girls (Routledge, 2023) is open access and superb. 

Tags : ActivismJohanna StiebertMarriage and ViolenceSaima AfzalSAS Rights

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