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Holy women: (male) memories, (male) privilege and (male) power

I have had a life-long fascination with the notion of female saints. And so far, it has been my undoing.

Looking back, it rather seems odd. I wasn’t raised in any religious tradition, so it isn’t as if I was raised to look up to saints of any sort as protectors or examples. Saints certainly weren’t subjects of dinner table conversation! And there was no religious art of any sort in our house. Maybe it was because “God” was a masculine noun. I was fascinated by the idea of God (yet another notion that had no place in our house), but didn’t see anything that I as a non-male could really relate to in the doctrinal fragments of Christianity or Judaism that occasionally came my way. Holy women seemed to provide a bridge of a sort into a religious universe, in which I too could encounter God.

Female saints tend to fall into several predictable categories: self-abnegating mother, devoutly obedient wife, pious virgin daughter. What are patriarchal religions to do with holy women who don’t fit into these neat little boxes? (Mary Magdalene as a penitent prostitute, Titian, ca. 1565,

Anyway. I am still trying to disentangle the role of holy women in my life. To that end, I recently listened to a sermon on Mary Magdalene (whose feast-day is on July 22). A Christian saint. It would be a nice break from agonizing over the stories of Muslim female saints and how they used to make us feel so guilty, so inadequate… and how they were utilized in order to keep us down… or so I thought.

Well, I was certainly wrong about that. The whole experience was quite triggering. Because it laid bare a whole lot of the dynamics of my and my convert friends’ relationships with Muslim female saints.

The sermon can be summed up in this way: Today is the feast-day of Saint Mary of Magdala. For about 1400 years, Christians have believed that she was a reformed prostitute who left her sinful life in order to follow Jesus. This isn’t true historically, but Christians believed it for centuries because of a sermon preached by Gregory the Great, in which he mistakenly conflated Mary with an unnamed “sinful woman” mentioned in the gospels who anointed Jesus’ feet. Whoops! Well, the church wasn’t right about that one, but anyway…. We probably can identify with the experience of being wrongfully accused of something, but this is not what we should take out of Mary’s story. Instead, we should look at what we do know about her. She followed Jesus, ministering to his needs. She was present at the crucifixion, and she was the one at his tomb on Easter morning, and he told her to go and tell the others that he had risen. So, she is known as “the apostle to the apostles.” We should follow her devoted example of faith.


Okay. First of all, the misidentification of Mary Magdalene as a “reformed prostitute” is not just a fluke. That kind of thing happens all the damned time to women in patriarchal religious communities, past and present.

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