Soft rain pattered on the pavements outside and I tucked myself in closer to my corner table. In a very plain cafe in a small Scottish village, a friendly, roundish woman shuffled over with my homemade pea and ham soup and second (third?) cup of tea.
“Looks serious reading, dear.”
I nodded at her. Little did she know there were sparks flying in my belly and tears burning behind my eyes. It was serious reading indeed, but these felt like more than words on a page. This was an unsettling kind of spiritual experience – a stark reminder of the brutality in our world not yet redeemed, and a call to repent of my own blind apathy that lets it go unchallenged.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be too surprised by Scars Across Humanity, a product of eight years of Elaine Storkey’s work on gender-based violence across the world. I knew that Storkey’s experiences are extensive and expected her research to be thorough; I knew that her commitment to the issue is unwavering and that her passion would be obvious on every page.
But still. Working as I do as an editor for a Christian international NGO that tackles issues of global gender injustice, I’ve read my fair share of stories before – I didn’t expect to be hit too hard.
Surely to Storkey’s preaching, I’d be the choir: feminist, justice-seeker, development worker. Surely I should already be totally onside, and doing all I can to speak out against the violence that decimates the lives of women and girls. So I thought.
And then I opened the book. And I was soon deeply uncomfortable.
Elaine Storkey’s style is not sensationalist – she walks us through each section of her research with the calm clarity of someone who knows the facts speak loudly for themselves.
She’s systematic, starting from the tragedy of female infanticide and tracing the patterns of violence that follow women through every step and stage of their lives, and pausing often to consider the differing pictures from countries in all corners of the globe. There’s soon no room for doubt that violence against women and girls knows no borders of geography, class, religion or culture.
She’s honest. In particularly addressing the role of religion in perpetuating gender-based violence, Storkey describes a series of quotes from early Church leaders as “offensive, misogynous noises”, and today’s church doesn’t escape without critique either.
And she’s unflinching. There are no euphemisms in the descriptions of types and processes involved in female genital mutilation. The words made my stomach turn and I struggled to keep reading; more than once I put the book down and wondered if I should really force myself to press on. But there’s a reason for the unapologetic boldness on these pages: they tell the stories of real women with names and voices, memories and nightmares, ambitions and plans. Women who have no opt-out, no page-turning, no chance to skim the difficult lines.
For the heart behind this book is no mere academic interest in the subject, though it’s certainly robust. Nor is it even simply an attempt to better know the enemy, though the book makes an important contribution to our collective knowledge. No, it seems to me that the purpose of this book is found in the third word of its subtitle: ‘Understanding and overcoming violence against women.’
For the many women and girls whose stories are captured in these pages and for the many millions more who they represent, Storkey wants change. She believes there is hope for change. And if this book is taken seriously, she’s got a good chance of hastening it.
To those of us who consider ourselves already part of the movement for gender justice: we need to be converted again, to remember the suffering of those we’ve forgotten and repent for where we’ve shut our eyes to avoid the sight. Time to press on.
And to those who are not yet convinced that violence against women is quite your issue to fight on – I dare you. Read this book and be convinced that freedom from violence for women across the world is intrinsic to every picture of justice and hope for the world that you have. Then join in the movement for change, that humanity might one day be free from this horrific scar.
Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women by Elaine Storkey will be published on 25 November 2015, the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Order it from publishers SPCK now.