Coming Out of the “Christian” Box
Even before my distaste for the workings of organised religion became self evident, I hated those pointy, triangle-shaped headscarves often donned by young Catholic girls. It was one thing I was grateful for my parents for: they got my sisters and I perfectly-sized hats and scarves, and allowed our creativity to flourish in our head-tying.
When I recall images of these — often, white — headscarves billowing in the winds, it is often attached to chatty heads with an already established Sunday routine which had always seemed to signify that there could never be too much church. In this way, I was thankful for the dampened effect that comes when one half of the parents is not the same religion or denomination, if at all. These girls would later grow up to take pride in the identity bestowed by the environment they grew up in, until they begin to note pauses before what they, without a second thought, had once deemed normal.
It is a semiotic theory that a book that lies before you is not exactly the same as the words “a book.” “A book” conjures up different images at the same time: it could be that the man sitting next to you thinks of a jotter, you think of a Tess Gerritsen novel, while the woman in the same room as you all thinks of an encyclopedia. Which book then? Anyone would ask. When a form slides out for me to fill the check boxes of religion, I want to ask, “Which Christian then?” I don’t even know why a checkbox for something as arbitrary as a practicing faith is important, especially given that different stages in life find different people at different points in the spectrum, even though you’ll find few people willing to admit this.
But I kid, I know. I know at least what it means for a Christian woman. In one of my transitory stages of life, I would look up to those women I imagined to be the pinnacle of holiness. Headscarves again, but this time the grown-up version. Stern looks if your skirt was dancing across the line of acceptability. Frowns and outright discomfort if they particularly couldn’t do anything about it. A heavy affinity to the image of the Virgin Mary — another thing I wondered about: why was it necessary to highlight the sexual status of a woman even after death, or supposed assumption? And then, that heavy but subtle allusion to the sexual purity of the woman who ticks the box “Christian”.
The realities and statistics say otherwise but that is a whole different ballgame from an image. An image will hold up its representation until there is enough destruction to prove otherwise. And even then, it’s a cocktail of disbelief. A Christian woman is thought to be chaste, pure, saving it for her wedding night. Virgin. Ever since St. Paul proselytized his views on “sexual immorality”, the crux of what it means to be a Christian woman has been hinged on how much she denies her body and its following sexuality — despite Jesus himself having little to say about the issue. The “loss” of her “virginity” has described the ideology identified with her sex for the longest time: the woman gives, and the man takes — a common scenario in most heterosexual relationships.
“We’ve been so objectified that we objectify our own selves,” Glennon Doyle Melton says in a podcast with author of Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she postulates that women have been estranged from their bodies in the same way that men have been estranged from their emotions. “We only know how to be desired, we don’t know how to desire. We only know how to be wanted, we don’t even know how to know what we want.”
Virginity, apparently, has not always been associated with ignorance (or feigned ignorance at least) about one’s sexuality. According to Rebecca Farrar in Reclaiming My Virginity, the Greek origins of the word meant “one unto herself”, one whose identity was unattached or did not belong to a man — as marriages then (and even now) used to suggest. In this way, a “maiden”, or “unmarried woman”, does not preclude sexual activity. And neither should the image of a Christian woman.
It never occurred to me that altar boys did not at least masturbate, they had to have been releasing their sexual tensions and curiosities someway. We heard all about the wet dreams and the fantasies that come with being a boy at early ages. We heard none about the girls at those same ages. We laughed and we scorned them when their names made the rounds: yet another “holy Mary” has fallen to the sexual prowess of the boys. Traditionally, rights of passages and transitions designed for “becoming a man” usually involved trips to the forests, mountains, or some other activity that involved father figures, before it devolved into finding it in-between a woman’s thighs. The transition to womanhood only involved a man’s pleasure.
The concept then, of a virgin as a woman unto herself is even more wholesome than the loopholes afforded by a concept which did not know where to draw the line in sexual activity (I once met a priest who, flustered by my questions, had immediately offered to arrange for me to speak with a ‘sister’). It affords the woman complexity from the either/or presets of womanhood. It affords personhood. And although, I would like the term “virgin”, especially in the puritan way it is associated with “Christian”, to die a sudden death, for now, this knowledge will suffice.