Thinking about Gender, Transitioning and the Christian response
There is a lot of talk about gender and birth sex right now. There seems to be a growing trend among young people to transition between sexes, which is often done before puberty. I have heard many Christians express concern about the momentous decisions young people are making before they may be mature enough to understand the full ramifications of transitioning. The general attitude among the people I speak to is that the desire to change sex is not genuine and falls somewhere on a spectrum between seeking attention or a mental health disorder. Many consider the issue to be just another bandwagon young people are jumping on.
I’m not so sure.
I recently read “The Underground Girls of Kabul: The hidden lives of Afghan girls disguised as boys“. The book has caused me to reflect much more deeply about the relationship between birth-sex and gender.
In Afghanistan, gender roles are extreme. Girls must remain in their house, and if they go outdoors, even to play or hang out, they must be accompanied by a male relative. Their bodies must be entirely covered by voluminous clothing that does not cling to any part of them, and their figures must be completely obscured. Even if a young woman works, society still expects her to do all the household work. Her only value is if she produces boys.
In light of these extreme restrictions, some families dress their young girls as boys, and the household pretends that she is a son. The girl is given all the freedom of being a boy in Afghan culture, such as playing outside, eating first at mealtimes and spending time with her Father.
The book presents three reasons for families to do this, two of which are perfectly acceptable in Western culture and I have no problem with. The last reason is somewhat spurious.
- A girl dressed as a boy can leave the house and run errands. If the family has no sons, this child can help out in the family business (e.g., shop), and she is a welcome help.
- A mother who has only produced daughters may be shamed and ridiculed by her in-laws and neighbours. Dressing a girl as a boy gets them off her back.
- Even if they are a pretend one, having a boy in the house is considered good luck. Afghans believe a mother is more likely to produce a boy in the future with a ‘lucky charm’ boy around. Of course, this is nonsense, but stress does harm fertility; perhaps she will be more likely to conceive once she has a fake son and the pressure on her is reduced.
Overall, the book helped me understand that gender is very much a product of culture and can keep girls oppressed and suppressed. However, it did not help me understand why girls in the West want to transition. They can dress as boys if they wish, study traditional boys subjects such as science and engineering, play any sport and on and on. Of course, I know total equity hasn’t been achieved, but girls have enormous freedom compared to their sisters in Afghanistan.
So, why is becoming a woman so unpopular? Something must be deterring girls from womanhood, and as Christians, I don’t think we should write them off or put it down to attention-seeking.
There are many answers to why gender transition has become so popular, and it is part of a huge discussion. Still, I would like to suggest one idea. It seems that the internet has taken women backwards (as it has with democracy, trust in experts etc.). My teenage daughter’s social media feed is full of heavily made-up women for whom image is everything. The pressure to look perfect is immense. There are also endless videos of lifehacks: tips and tricks to look better while baking and icing the perfect cake. It’s all so domestic and reminiscent of the stereotypical ideal housewife of the 1950s. No wonder girls are rejecting these ideas of womanhood; they put me off too.
Of course, the internet has plenty of admirable feminists (I’m a fan of Rebecca Solnit and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). It has been instrumental in highlighting sexual violence against women through the #MeToo movement. Yet, I suspect these women may come across as intellectual and intimidating.
Something is going on; much more listening to girls needs to be done. As Christians, we should try to understand what is happening and seek answers as to why girls do not want to grow up to be women.
The internet needs to be redeemed in countless ways. I pray that it will be a place where every woman and girl is celebrated, no matter whether they adhere to traditional gender roles or not.
The writings of the late Rachel Held-Evans are beneficial for this. In her hilarious book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood'” she explains the use of ‘Proverbs 31: The wife of noble character’. So often, this passage has been held up as a checklist for what women should aspire to do. This misses the point entirely; it was written so that men (and other women) can use the poem to praise the women in their life. The passage’s title can be also be translated as ‘Woman of Valour’ and is a term of encouragement, rather like ‘You go girl!’. Rachel suggests that whenever you see a woman doing something amazing, you cheer her on with this phrase. If we can do this more often, perhaps becoming a woman wouldn’t be such an unpopular choice.
If you have found this article helpful, you may also wish to read ‘Homophobia: there is an easy choice to make‘.
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