International Series: Don’t Drink the Water

This is the first in our International Series here at The Exponent – over the next two weeks, we’ll be showcasing a variety of perspectives and viewpoints about life in the global church.  We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

mexico city aerial

An aerial shot of a small portion of Mexico City. It boasts an urban population of over 21 million people.

“Don’t drink the water.  Ever.”

That’s the first thing I remember learning after I stepped off the plane in Mexico City, having newly relocated there with my family at the tender age of twelve.  I was wide-eyed and terrified – I spoke no Spanish, so I couldn’t read any signs or orient myself to this brand new world.  I couldn’t eavesdrop on conversations to figure out where to go or how to get there.  I just clutched my suitcases tightly and followed my parents through an endless maze of people, into a car, and eventually to the house that I would call home for the next six years of my life.

“Remember, don’t drink the water.  Don’t take any taxis that aren’t approved – you can’t guarantee that unauthorized cabs will take you to where you need to go and that they won’t overcharge you or mug you.  If you need directions, ask multiple people – people will tell you directions even if they don’t know what they’re talking about, because it’s rude not to.  If you’re in a market, expect that they will quote you double the price of what they’ll actually sell it for.  Don’t worry about the guards armed with semi-automatic weapons outside the bank/grocery store/McDonald’s – they have to pay for their own bullets, so it’s unlikely that they’ll shoot them unless it’s a real emergency.  And don’t ever, ever, ever trust the police.  They’ll make you pay a bribe (at best) or kidnap you (at worst).  But don’t worry – you’re gonna love it here!”

Over the next six years, I developed a sixth sense for navigating the biggest city in the world as a blonde, blue-eyed, white girl.  I drove a low-profile VolksWagen bug so as to not attract attention from the police or thieves.  In the event that I did get pulled over, I knew to only lower my window enough to talk to the policeman and to hold my license up to the window, and to never – under any circumstances – hand it over.  If things went poorly, I knew to hold up a business card from a friend’s parent who worked at the US Embassy – that was usually enough to make me more trouble for them than it was worth.  I learned Spanish, stopped noticing the armed guards (who never did shoot), and depended on myself (and nobody else) to get me from Point A to Point B.  I learned to walk the fine line between being adventurous and being safe – as an American, I knew I had a certain amount of protection, because most violent criminals didn’t want to possibly deal with the blow-back of the US government.  But I also knew not to be stupid – just because people weren’t going to shoot me didn’t mean that they weren’t going to rob me or assault me.  I developed a strong sense of mistrust in almost everything I did – I knew to expect that any car would cut me off at any time (as they usually did).  I expected that anybody giving me advice or directions was either trying to sell me something or lead me into a compromising situation.  I expected to gather as much information as possible about any given situation, to review it with a healthy dose of skepticism, and then to make the best decision I could.

MyBug

This sense of suspicion, combined with a large dose of luck, kept me mostly out of harm’s way during my teenage years in Mexico City.  I wasn’t mugged (like many friends were), or kidnapped (like my classmate or family friend), but I did have to pay an occasional bribe and interact with some unsavory members of law enforcement.  This mistrust bled into other areas of my life – I began to question the motivations behind everybody’s actions, large and small.  Do I trust my American teacher in his telling of the Mexican-American war, where we were tearfully admonished to “Remember the Alamo?”  Or do I trust the next year’s Mexican teacher who tells the same story as America’s violent and merciless theft of Texas from a sovereign nation?  If a doctor suggests an expensive medical intervention, is he/she doing it with my best interest in mind, or because he/she stands to make a lot of money from it?  And when I was living in a country where it was common knowledge that the previous president stole millions of dollars, it wasn’t a huge leap for me to think that Bill Clinton actually did “have sexual relations with that woman.”  I found that just because somebody has “power” or “authority,” it doesn’t always make them right.

So when my bishop came into my Young Women class and explained to us that premarital sex is a sin next to murder, I was skeptical, even with his seeming scriptural support.  When he said that the atonement won’t save us when we inevitably get AIDS from being promiscuous, I began to doubt his teachings even more.  And when he said that even though Christ will forgive us, no returned missionary would want to marry “damaged goods,” I was outright incensed.  It definitely helped that when I went home and related the event to my also-generally-resistant-to-authority father, he looked at me and said, point-blank, “Well he’s wrong.  You just can’t believe everything you hear at church.”

I don’t doubt that I would’ve had a subversive streak even if I had grown up in the US, but I know that my inherent suspicion of power and authority was extensively nurtured by growing up outside my native country.  When I went back to the US for college and couldn’t remember the words to “The Pledge of Allegiance” (and when I questioned the USA’s motivations in starting a war in the Middle East), I was called anti-American.  When I attended classes at BYU and scoffed at the conservative political bias of my PoliSci professor to a classmate, I was told that I wasn’t the expert, so I was wrong, and my opinion didn’t matter.  But that’s just it – after six years of navigating a foreign country and questioning every little thing in my life, my opinion DID matter – a LOT.  I had learned to trust my intuition, to listen to that pit in my gut, and to make my own assessments about life instead of being told what I should or should not believe/think/do.  And while I think everybody goes through this stage of questioning authority to some degree or another in life, it felt like my life as an expatriate teenager made me go through it at hyper-speed.  I suppose it’s no wonder that you now find me blogging at a feminist Mormon website!

As my time in Mexico City was drawing to a close, and I was packing my bags to head to college, I remember staring at the sink in my bathroom.  For six longs years, whenever I woke up in the middle of the night, I had to stumble down a long hall, down a flight of stairs, through the dining room and kitchen, and all the way to the water cooler at the far end of the house to get a drink of filtered water.  Never once, no matter how tempted, had I broken the cardinal rule of living in Mexico: don’t drink the water.  And I debated: do I take the chance?  Is it worth the risk?  Should I always just listen to what people tell me to do?  I picked up a cup, filled it, and held it in my hand.

And then I dumped it down the sink.  But it wasn’t out of blind obedience, or without any thought of weighing my options.  It was because I knew it was a bad idea – I had heard enough tales of severe gastrointestinal distress to know that it wasn’t a risk worth taking.  Even as I ultimately followed the advice of those in authority, I made my own decision.  That is what living in Mexico City taught me to do.

***

I could write volumes on how living internationally shaped me as a person, and especially as an LDS woman.  We experience the church through the lenses we’ve been given, and while many of us have been given the American lens, it’s prudent to recognize that while church headquarters is in Salt Lake City, not everybody in the global church sees through that lens.  I’m eager to read the international perspectives that we have coming up, and we hope that our readers will gain a better appreciation for the diversity of experience that can be found in the international LDS church.

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Total Game Control

Guest Post by Emily Holsinger Butler

the playahs

A Catholic friend of mine once offered the idea that world religions exist for one single purpose: to control women. “A bit reductive, no?” was my response. But this guy was wicked smart—never flippant, never glib. And his assertion has stayed with me like a compass point. I refer to it whenever “things happen” in our Mormon universe. Who is trying to control whom, I ask.

I’ve been controlled, sure. In fact, I’ve often given courtesy control to people out of sheer politeness—like all those times on my mission when I submitted to a young district leader’s efforts to foist a personal priesthood interview on me. That was how the game was played. If there was a priesthood leader present, a sister would hop out of the driver’s seat and let him commandeer the wheel. “Take ‘er for a spin, Elder! Don’t scratch the paint!”* Results varied. It was usually fine, and sometimes funny.

Controlling women—have I been complicit? Heck yeah. I’ve collaborated. I’m not proud of myself. Holy cow, I’ve been Vichy France with a temple recommend.** Like that Saturday in 1994, at some church basketball tournament. As a very lovely break from law school exertions, I played on our ward’s women’s basketball team, coached to great effect by our Stake President. It was super fun. We made it to some sort of regional event, and drove down to a building in southern Virginia on the appointed day. Men were playing in a separate but equal tournament on the full-sized court. We were playing on a smaller one, and I wasn’t about to look that gift horse in the mouth, believe you me. As the female players gathered together, we were addressed by a priesthood leader who may or may not have also been the referee (I don’t recall). He outlined a few basics of the tourney, and then, in all seriousness, admonished us to dress modestly on court.

Incredulous, I looked at my teammates. We were for the most part women of a certain age, some of a more certain age than others. Our power forward was a professional nurse of repute. Our best shooter, the only one who could almost dunk, was the Stake President’s wife (and mother of many). Then there was me—I was a terrible player, but was equipped with two sports bras (worn simultaneously) and shorts that covered my thighs very adequately. I honestly don’t remember the other women’s names, but do remember their tolerant, almost vacant expressions as the brother went on about the necessity of sleeves and such. Nobody batted an eye. We regarded him with distant benevolence. We permitted him to tell us how to dress.

And so it was that we were unprepared for the vision that was unleashed upon us a few moments after the good brother concluded his remarks. It was then that the men’s teams emerged from their changing area. Unlike us, they had actual uniforms with actual numbers. On the other hand, it was clear that said uniforms had been handed down through generations of Mormon men, languishing in a Stake Center closet between basketball tournaments that began sometime in 1972. Sleeves they had none. Manufactured from some sort of skin-tight polyester fabric, the shorts stopped mere centimeters south of the groin area, which (how to put this) was exceptionally pronounced, if not practically articulated—so clingy they might have been codpieces for all intents and purposes. The men’s teams were composed primarily of middle-aged priesthood holders who (like us) were in it for a good time, and who (like us) could stand to lose a good twenty or thirty or forty pounds. It would have been a tender mercy for me to offer my second sports bra to any number of those players. Yeah. Their costumes left very little to the imagination.

Again I looked at my teammates. Bless them, their faces were frozen in alarm, not at what they were seeing, but at what was about to happen. We removed ourselves at once to a secluded area behind the bleachers, and fell to the floor where we rolled around unleashing howls of laughter. Personally, I laughed so hard I pulled a muscle in my abdomen, which didn’t help my game at all. We laughed until the tears ran. Someone almost choked. It wasn’t pretty.

What did I learn that day? Can’t say, really. But it does occur to me that we have a ways to go in our church before we can say that we love each other more than we love controlling each other.

Play on, sisters.

*It was, in fact, literally the case that sisters did not drive cars in my mission. That privilege was reserved for the missionaries who worked in the mission office. Who, incidentally, were all elders.

**I’m paraphrasing the wonderful Caitlin Moran, here. Email me if you want the original quote, which is pretty salty.

Emily Holsinger Butler is a hausfrau living in Utah with delusions of grandeur & survival, a writer of books, a hoper of all things and a believer in several of them.

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We Are Putting Our Eggs in the Wrong Basket

In the wake of Kate Kelly’s excommunication a lot has been said about the proper way to do things, the proper way to ask questions, the proper way to advocate for change. As someone who is interested in making changes regarding gender in the Mormon church my ears perk up at these suggestions–I would love to know the most effective way to see progress.

The most concrete suggestion has been to seek for changes on a local level. I don’t think this is a bad idea, there are so many little things that can be done in our local congregations that would make women’s experience in church much better.

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Guest Post: Auto-Pilot to Heaven

 

by Jenny

baptism dresses 4“What day is your daughter going to get baptized?”

It’s an innocent question, but it rips at my heart a little more each time it is asked. I have too many skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have two baptism dresses in my closet, one that I couldn’t resist because it was on sale at Costco, and another that was given to us. It was all so simple then, back when I was on auto-pilot to heaven. The path was steady and sure. My plane was headed straight toward the Celestial Kingdom and all I had to do was sit back and check things off my list. Married in the temple, check. Motherhood, check. Endure Sacrament Meeting with toddlers in tow once a week, check. Ten years of smooth sailing from the temple to my first-born’s baptism. Of course she would be baptized right after she turned eight, and taut her new cleanliness by wearing a pure white dress to church. That was one more thing to check off my list.

Then I woke up.

When I realized that I was flying on auto-pilot, I also realized that my path wouldn’t necessarily lead me to heaven. The dread set in. You mean I actually have to learn to fly my own plane? The flying lessons were short because I was already in midair. Now I am awake, and I am flying, and I am thinking about the covenants I make. I don’t want my daughter to grow up on auto-pilot. I want her to think.

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Paper Cuts

Paper Cuts

Sunday after church, my children occupied themselves by making paper airplanes with scraps of paper while waiting for my meeting to finish. Monday morning, while tidying up, I found one of their airplanes, made from a copy of the First Presidency’s invitation to the General Women’s Meeting later this month.

First Presidency Invitation to the General Women's Meeting

Click to enlarge

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Claiming Our Name

Several years ago someone made a surprising and hurtful remark to me. This person was aware that I was working through painful memories of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by my father. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, because she had previously implied she did not believe these horrific events really happened. On this particular occasion, she said, “It seems if it were as bad as you say it was, you wouldn’t want to keep your father’s name.” I had legally taken back my maiden name a few years earlier after divorcing my husband. So, indeed, I carried my father’s surname. I still do.

After recovering from the initial shock of her remark, I responded by saying, “I wasn’t the one who sullied this family’s name. I am not the one who corrupted its value in the world and made it into something ugly. In fact, I am reclaiming the name and cleaning up generations of familial destruction perpetrated by a long line of abusers. So, actually, I deserve to bear this name even more than my father does.”

This experience empowered me, not only because I declared the truth of my life to someone who wanted to deny and invalidate it, but also because I claimed my name – with all its sordid history—and, by so doing, I transformed it into something beautiful and ennobling for me and for my children.

Feminism (the name and the cause) has been made to seem ugly by those who are not comfortable with the intent and meaning of feminist efforts. For many Latter-day Saints, feminism equals selfishness, un-womanly-ness, unrighteousness, or simply “Not The Lord’s Way.” My own opinion is that even the most radical of feminists have been and are working to ennoble and uplift women. For me, this is an important part of the Lord’s work in mortality–to lift and empower all His children.

I may be preaching to the choir, but perhaps there are those among our readers who are uncomfortable calling themselves feminist, uncomfortable with the word itself because of negative connotations. I can understand this. I kept a safe distance from the word for quite some time. Until I remembered how it felt to claim the truth of my family name—the truth of who I am and where I come from.

Melody and Hannah Melody

Melody with her grand daughter, Hannah Melody.

My four sisters and I call ourselves The Newey Girls. Our daughters are Newey Girls too, as are our granddaughters–regardless of their surnames. They are part of a legacy of courageous work that we, their mothers, have done for ourselves and ultimately for them and for their brothers. By stating this fact clearly, firmly and without apology, we bring beauty and honor to a name that might otherwise be held in derision. I have a secret hope that many more LDS women will find the courage to bring their particular goodness to the name Feminist. What a wonderful, powerful, legacy this could add to the already rich history of the LDS church organization and to the community of saints whom we love.

Last week I linked via social media to an essay written by Neylan McBaine. I highlighted this:

If you care about the spiritual, emotional and intellectual development opportunities available to you, your wife, your sister or your daughter, you are a feminist. Period. Based on this definition, the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is inherently feminist . . .  - Neylan McBaine

One of my friends, Meg, responded as follows:

You know, I’ve stopped calling myself a feminist because of the unwanted (by me) baggage of the word. Its true definition and the definition assigned by other people are often so at odds. Perhaps when we reclaim its real meaning (and understand that is an umbrella that covers so many different schools of thought), I will begin to use it again. Until then, I guess I am a child-of-God-ist. All of us together, male, female. No patriarchy, no matriarchy. Just united in true equality. It happens in my house…so it can happen in the world at large, right? Maybe? Someday?

My response to her:

Meg, I love your thoughts. I’m a feminist ;)

As a result of this brief interaction, Meg reflected on her negative associations with feminism and wrote an essay about a shift in her perspective. I think her words may help Exponent readers who are reluctant to fully acknowledge their feminist heart. Here is the essay. And here is one quote I particularly love:

It is not owned by any one person, any one ideology, any one movement. Feminism belongs to every girl that hoped to make her life better. It is the birthright of any woman that has looked into the night sky and felt the heat of the stars reflected in the chambers of her heart. It belongs in holy places and in the workplace and around kitchen tables. It isn’t radical. It is right. – Meg Conley

The act of naming ourselves is an act of empowerment and self-respect. We are Christian, we are Daughters of God, we are Mormon (a name reclaimed by our religious community).

My name is Melody Newey. I am a kind, compassionate, courageous, hard-working, nurturing and maternal, morally sensitive disciple of Christ.

I’m a feminist.

 

Who are you?

What are some of your names?

If you have felt to call yourself feminist, can you do so now?

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