When we see the images of Mary and her child this Christmas, may we pause and think of Maya and the countless victims of sexual exploitation, writes Sister Patty Fawkner.
It was the large brown eyes looking out from beneath the black burka that captured my attention. A few weeks ago the evening ABC news reported the plight of Rohingya women who had been gang-raped by the Myanmar military. ABC journalist Liam Cochrane had interviewed this traumatised woman, whom I will call by the Rohingya name, Maya.
Eighteen-year-old Maya had witnessed the slaughter of her family. She takes up the story:
“[The military] entered and aimed the gun at my forehead. They held my hands strongly and did what they wanted to me. Then I was told to go back. But I didn’t. I was sitting there. Then they started beating me and they took off my clothes. They beat me too much and did what they wanted. The military did this”.
Maya is one of countless Rohingya women who have endured systematic sexual assault by Myanmar soldiers. These women are victims of orchestrated rape used as an instrument of war. These women will be further traumatised if they tell their story to any surviving family members. Maya is the one who is shamed; Maya is the one who has brought dishonour on her family; Maya is the one who is ostracised. Yet again, rape becomes a woman’s problem, rather than a societal problem.
Maya is a person worthy of human dignity. Yet she is made an object of violence, domination and exploitation. She is a commodity used for male pleasure and specious military ends.
What has Maya’s story got to do with Christmas? How do we reconcile the brutality of her reality with the romantic notions of Christmas?
It occurred to me that Mary, real Mary – not the idealised or saccharine Mary – has something to offer.
From the Gospel infancy stories of Matthew and Luke we can conjecture many moments in Mary’s journey that are far removed from that of popular religious imagery where we encounter a very docile and subservient Mary.
There are intersections between Mary and Maya’s experience. Each share humiliation, pain and forced fleeing.
Mary is held suspect and shamed from carrying an illegitimate child. She then endures a 150 kilometre journey while heavily pregnant. For a time she faces the prospect of homelessness. She gives birth in an animal feeding trough, is greeted first by shepherds who were the social and religious outcasts of the day, and then flees with her newborn child as a desperate refugee.
Mary is declared and honoured as a virgin. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson claims that, more than meaning that she never had sexual intercourse with a man, an ancient and more archetypal meaning of being a virgin “is to be one in yourself, free, independent, insubordinated, unexploited, a woman never subdued” – everything that Maya is not, and everything to which she and other victims of sexual exploitation aspire.
Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation, celebrates neither a fairy tale nor a magical event. The WORD is made flesh. Jesus born of Mary, takes on flesh – vulnerable, weak, needy and suffering human flesh. Jesus takes on our humanity and gives his life so that all humanity will be “free, independent, insubordinated [and] unexploited”.
When we see the images of Mary and her child this Christmas, may we pause and think of Maya and the countless victims of sexual exploitation. And then as individuals and as a society, may we do all that is in our power to speak out, to shout out about sexual exploitation, and take whatever action we can to change society so that all women are free, independent, insubordinated, unexploited, and never subdued.
Spread the word
Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. In September 2017, Patty was elected as Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at their 26th Chapter Gathering. This article first appeared in The Good Oil.