I am a proud Dork Dad, and one of my favorite Dork Dad activities is reading Ms. Marvel comics to my four-year-old daughter, Lily. For those of you who are more productive with your reading time, there is a new Ms. Marvel character. Kamala Khan is a sixteen-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants who gets shape changing superpowers. The comics teach inspiring lessons about life and the experience of the modern American Muslim. Lily loves it almost as much as I do.
One issue focused on the concept of consent and body autonomy. Kamala had started dating a boy, and he offered to drive her to school. Instead, he drove her to the secret hideout of his evil boss. You know, as teenage boys will do right? The comic did a great job of addressing the violation of boundaries, and Lily picked right up on it. “That was wrong. Kamala has the right to decide what happens to her body,” Lily said without missing a beat.
Ever since the day Lily was born, my wife and I have been trying to teach Lily about body autonomy. “Body autonomy is the right for a person to govern what happens to their body without external influence or coercion.” When Lily was a young toddler, we always asked her if we could pick her up, give her a hug, or express physical affection in anyway. We also taught her that she can always say no. At a previous appointment, a truly wonderful man in his eighties went to pick Lily up. She told him no, but he wasn’t accustomed to asking for permission from eighteen-month-olds. Lily proceeded to scream bloody murder and mortified the poor man. Just like we taught her to do. He was genuinely confused when we celebrated Lily’s behavior, but since he loves us he didn’t say anything. I understand his confusion, he was from a “different generation,” “things were different when he was raising kids,” and I fully appreciate how weird and different that must have felt, but my daughter’s well being is more important than traditional expectations.
One in three women will experience unwanted sexual contact before they turn eighteen. The one thing we can do for our children is to teach them that they have the right to control what happens to their body from the very beginning. That is so insanely hard to do in practice though! Do you have any idea how hard it is to get permission from my wild two-year-old son to change his diaper without using coercion or force? I often wonder how many days of my life I have spent bargaining with my daughter to get her to eat a vegetable, but as hard as it is, it is more important for them to have established boundaries for their body and the confidence to enforce them. Going this route will make them less likely to be victims of sexual assault and much more likely to share their experience if it does happen. That’s worth a few years of frustration.
Do we practice body autonomy in church? While some would complain that mask mandates and singing restrictions are violations of their body autonomy, I would argue that our pandemic practices have enabled a deeper sense of body autonomy. We have set expectations, and we all know the rules even if they don’t fit our personal comfort zone. One of my close friends is an extreme introvert. The passing of the peace at her church terrified her! Especially since some of the men insisted that her church was a “hugging church.” There is nothing wrong with hugging, if everybody in the hug actually wants to be hugged that is. When the “this is a hugging church” expectation is standard, that drifts into the realm of coercion. It limits a person’s ability to refuse the hug. Everyone should feel safe, secure, and at peace in church. Church should be a place where people can be their authentic selves, be it introvert or extrovert. Non-huggers in a hugging church never feel secure. They feel like they have to put on a show to make others happy. They feel like they are in exile while in their own sanctuary. The discomfort we extroverts feel with social distancing is nothing compared to the constant boundary violations our introvert brothers and sisters have been enduring. My friend says social distancing made her feel more comfortable in church. She has the space and autonomy to feel at home. How do we balance personal space of others with the need for affection?
This might seem like a trivial thing, but a culture that doesn’t respect consent permits worse sins to take place. Two years ago, the North Carolina Conference produced a video of male clergy reading comments their female colleagues have received. I found this video shocking. Sadly, most of my female friends did not. This behavior happens in every church.
Teaching children about body autonomy, and empowering adults to practice it, will help, but we need to shift the focus and the culture. We have focused so much on preparing our women and girls to deal with this, but we need to establish healthy boundaries for interaction and hold everyone accountable to those standards. It should not be the burden of the victim to bear the harassment. Think back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus didn’t say “And if someone touches you in a way you do not like, tell them to stop.” No, he said “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:27b-30) Jesus was pretty clear who should be taking responsibility here, and we’ve failed to live into that standard.
For me, this whole issue became a lot more pressing last week. I weep everyday for the women and girls in Afghanistan. Of course I pray for the safe return of our service personnel and those who support them, but they have a place to come home to. But thousands of women and girls have an uncertain future. They are at risk of losing their body autonomy and could be very restricted in their educational opportunities. I cannot imagine the fear these women have right now. I can’t help but think “What if that was my daughter?” There is a psychological and spiritual compulsion to that thought.
Sometime look up Dunbar’s number or the social brain for more info on that. This thought comes across as patronizing and obvious. Duh! Obviously all those women are someone’s daughter. People struggle to see others, so far away and different, as actual people. We tend to minimize them to numbers, cultures, or concepts. For those slow to connect the dots people such as myself, we need to make that connection for the wellbeing of others to be personal and powerful. Jesus understood our cognitive shortcomings. If our minds can’t, or won’t, see these distant others as people we need to care about, then we are supposed to picture Jesus in their place. That’s why Christ told us ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25:45) As a global community we have failed those women, we have failed to see Christ in their midst, the least we can do is recommit ourselves to the safety and empowerment of the women in our community.
I am really thankful that I have been reading Ms. Marvel with my daughter because it was right to remind me that the terrible practices of the Taliban are not mainstream in the Muslim faith. Right and good people of all faiths work hard to serve and empower their children. I am thankful that my daughter has the opportunity to learn those lessons, and even more thankful that those lessons are affirmed by her loving church family.