A derogatory term, “freedom cunt” uttered against a female is offensive, but it is also instructive. Such a term communicates that she has “gotten out of her place” as a woman and that, by participating in a political protest, she has failed to remain silent and submissive (from the perspective of the dominant authorities). Interestingly, the concept of gender connects both of these ideas.
Our traditional concept of gender presumes that there are only two genders: men and women and that their qualities are in opposition to one other: men are dominant, but women are subordinate, men are leaders, but women are followers, and men are meant to function in public life, but women are meant to remain in the home. Jessica Hiu-tung Tso’s article illustrates the many ways that the Hong Kong protests have challenged that traditional understanding of gender: women serve as leaders, housewives have taken to the streets, and the use of online media has blurred traditional lines between groups based on class and age, among other things.
Since women have served capably in these roles, they demonstrated that leadership abilities are not limited to men. In other words, the traditional gender distinction that would claim only men can be leaders is false: women can speak out and communicate effectively in the public square. Consequently, the use of the derogatory term indicates that the traditional gender distinctions are not natural. To the contrary, these socially constructed gender differences must be continually upheld through various forms of violence, beginning with slurs, mocking, and humiliation.
In this context, the derogatory slur is a form of sexualized violence that reinforces traditional gender norms. In her article, Tso connects the slurs, mocking, and humiliation that happened to female demonstrators to the comparable treatment Jesus received at the hands of the soldiers, as told in Matthew 27:26-31 and Mark 15:16-20. Because Jesus was stripped naked and that, in all likelihood, he would have been hung naked on the cross, he was subjected not just to violence; he was subjected to sexualized violence. Gender constructs, then and now, envision a man who is dominant, in control and invulnerable. Therefore, to be stripped and mocked, is to be both vulnerable and humiliated: qualities that could not be associated with any man worthy of respect. Jesus was subjected to gendered violence that served as a warning to others against challenging the status quo. Such gendered violence against Jesus is similar to the historical practice of lynching in the United States where white people hung black men whom, on more than rare occasions, they also castrated. The dominant message in these different historical contexts is the same: This is what happens when you get out of place; this is what happens when you fail to be silent and submissive: you are not a man worthy of respect.
We are, however, much more familiar with gender-based violence when women are the victims, and we have to create constantly new names to cover the different forms of such violence, examples of which are date rape, intimate partner violence, and femicide. Given the high percentages of women in most Christian congregations, it would seem that churches would have a vested interest in preventing violence against women, whether it happens in the home or in the streets. To prevent sexualized violence, though, we will need to read the Bible differently. Specifically, we will need to reconsider the use of problematic marriage metaphors found in the prophetic tradition. For example, Hosea 2:3 has a husband telling his wife that she must stop her whoring ways “or I will strip her naked as in the day she was born,” and Ezekiel 16 and 23 describe the violent sexualized acts to befall the wayward wife in excruciating detail. Of course, such language is dismissed as “only” a metaphor; but since violence against women is so prevalent today, these texts should be understood as contributing to the normalization of violence against women.
More specifically, these prophetic texts of sexualized violence in a marriage metaphor reinscribe traditional gender roles. They assume that the wife should be faithful to her husband, without a corresponding obligation from the husband (Deuteronomy 22: 22), and that the wife’s unfaithfulness warrants such severe punishment. In other words, these metaphors are based on gender notions that the husband should be in control, the wife should be under that control and, if she is not, his honor can be avenged through violence. Biblical illustrations can be found in the stories of Dinah (Genesis 34) and the unnamed Levite’s secondary wife (Judges 19-21) where violence awaits women who leave the protection of their male-headed household.
In a patriarchal society, since heteronormative marriage is the norm, it is not unreasonable to think that men (not just husbands) are to be in control and that women (not just wives) are to be under that control. In this context, a derogatory slur against a female during a protest is a way that anyone who supports traditional norms can remind a supposedly wayward female that she has violated the accepted societal role for women: she has forgotten her place, and she is not submitting to authority.
Tso’s article reminds us that, in spite of the consequences, there were women from Galilee (Mark 15:40-41) who did resist the authorities and they did so by weeping and lamenting publicly. A comparable example in the Hebrew Bible is the story of Rizpah, a woman whose sons had been hung by the Gibeonites, after having been handed over to them by King David. She protected their bodies from birds and wild animals for five months until King David took the bodies down and laid them to rest (2 Samuel 21). Rizpah, Mary Magdalene, and the other women of Galilee demonstrate that women can leave their homes, protest, and even force the current political authority to act.
In her article, Tso raises a question for all who call themselves Christian. Will we read the Bible in ways that reinforce traditional gender norms, or will we read it in ways that resist those norms? Unfortunately, with the overwhelming male leadership in our governments and in our churches, we usually just uphold the traditional norms. Whether it concerns the protests in Hong Kong or the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, women and men are reminded that they must not forget their place and that they must submit to authorities. Failure to comply with these norms seems to justify the sexualized violence that results, and the derogatory term, “freedom cunt,” is merely one example of such violence.