Imagine you knew about a faith in which women are stopped from seeking true education, which (in this view) sullies them for their true purpose: total submission.

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This article was published 30/5/2015 (2588 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Imagine you knew about a faith in which women are stopped from seeking true education, which (in this view) sullies them for their true purpose: total submission.

That means submission in everything, from what they wear to how they speak. Some of this sect's most influential voices will write that women must submit, even if their husbands hit them. They submit, even -- and in some ways, especially -- when it hurts.

In this belief system, every flicker of a woman's internal life must be scrutinized for sin. Being visibly unhappy is shameful, since it doesn't "glorify" the man who leads her. Aching to follow a calling outside of church or home, holding female friends close -- these, too, are sins that women own.

Knowing these things, you wouldn't be stunned to learn one of this sect's most famous sons molested five girls, including some of his sisters, and in response his parents did... well, not much. They sent him away to pray and remodel houses for a few months, declared the matter "forgiven" and, it seems, moved on.

So goes the sudden fall of the Duggar juggernaut: Stars of television's 19 Kids and Counting on TLC, mac-'n'-cheese Arkansas family, and warriors for an extremist ideology in which virtually all of women's hardest-won rights are seen as pathways to sin -- and their bodies valued largely as vessels from which to beget a new army for their faith.

By any mainstream measure in the U.S. and Canada, the Duggars' values are far from the norm. And yet, they are not isolated extremists in the way of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose leader, Warren Jeffs, is currently serving life in prison for raping his underage "wives." Indeed, the Duggars in particular, and many of the leading lights of the Quiverfull ideology and broader Christian Patriarchy movement to which they adhere, are stars.

They are also not harmless to those outside their fold. Christian Patriarchy luminaries have long rubbed shoulders with real American power. The Duggar family is close with many politicians and well-greased lobbyists; Josh Duggar, whose abuse of his sisters as a teenager opened this dark chapter, had a prominent position in the influential lobbying group Family Research Council, and posted photos of himself hobnobbing with a who's who of the American religious right.

From this vantage point, they have attacked not just abortion rights, but also protections and rights for LGBTQ people, and sometimes take aim at equal-pay laws and no-fault divorce. In her seminal book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy movement, journalist Kathryn Joyce describes how adherents have helped push for (and often win) limits on access to contraception, putting the wider public's freedoms at risk.

(In a stomach-churning example, Joyce cites David Hager, who, as a U.S. Food and Drug Administration committee member, stymied efforts to make emergency contraception more accessible; driven by his beliefs of "Christian male headship as granting him unfettered sexual access to his wife's body," Joyce writes, he also raped his sleeping wife.)

All this, you'd think, would be abhorrent to the wider public. But the Duggars look familiar, in nations long dominated by a white Christian majority. The surface vernacular of their particular theology is familiar too, in societies widely fluent in the basics of Christianity.

So when the Duggars spoke of their faith in God, casual viewers were largely charmed by their piety. That their particular brand of faith holds women under the thumb of fathers and husbands, that their daughters have been raised to dream only of bearing children, well, that part was gently euphemized and generally less-mentioned.

Through this sleight of hand, the Duggars became famous. For 10 seasons, their lives, carefully stage-managed, were consumed as mass entertainment, the controlling aspects of their beliefs (Google Bill Gothard's Advanced Training Institute for an idea) rendered harmless by virtue of an oh-gee-shucks white-American veneer.

Until the revelations about Josh Duggar's molestations forced TLC to remove 19 Kids and Counting from its schedule (for now), the show excised its stars' most-troubling dogma, repackaging it as quaint, even "retro" beliefs (they won't even kiss or front-hug until they are married, how sweet!). Entertainment media played along with cuddly headlines: "How The Duggars Support 19 Kids and Live Debt Free!" "Jessa Duggar: Ben and I Want a Big Family!"

That there was so little broad mainstream critique of the TLC show underscores a troubling point about how we engage complicated matters of women in faith and about the differences in perception that attend to what is familiar, and what is "other."

Earlier this year, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prosecuted a proposed ban on Islamic niqab in citizenship ceremonies, he declared the covering "rooted in a culture that is anti-women." Some feminists sighed: "I look forward to PMSH taking on the great scourge of the Duggars," I tweeted snarkily at the time.

Which is to say: Political types in both the U.S. and Canada have long used their perceptions of the lives of Muslim women at home and abroad as a political lever, while ignoring -- or actively being supported by, and in return supporting -- oppressive Christian movements.

It's not for lack of women speaking out. For years, women who have escaped Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy communities have stood up bravely to report harrowing tales of spiritual, physical and sexual abuse, writing extensively about their experiences of living under relentless control at blogs such as No Longer Quivering.

Here's the thing: No, I don't know exactly what to do about it. Every family in Canada and the United States has the right to share its religious faith with its children, a right I will passionately defend. Still, we must wrestle with what that means, when faith is inextricable from oppression.

So what do we do, then? At the very least, we can refuse to whitewash those beliefs for spectacle. We can call out entertainment media that uncritically presents extremist views as a more innocuous sort of "family values," and we can refuse to lucratively reward them by consuming their lives as harmless entertainment.

It took news of a great harm to chip away the Duggars' squeaky-clean public veneer. Maybe now, we'll be quicker to pick away at similar glossy idols.

 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.