Serena Williams, Wimbledon tennis champion and international sports personality, recently posted an open letter in the Guardian newspaper.
Entitled “We must continue to dream big” Serena’s letter sounds a call to action to address issues of gender inequality that affect women throughout the world. In part her letter states;
I was fortunate to have a family that supported my dream and encouraged me to follow it. I learned not to be afraid. I learned how important it is to fight for a dream and, most importantly, to dream big. My fight began when I was three and I haven’t taken a break since.
But as we know, too often women are not supported enough or are discouraged from choosing their path. I hope together we can change that. For me, it was a question of resilience. What others marked as flaws or disadvantages about myself – my race, my gender – I embraced as fuel for my success. I never let anything or anyone define me or my potential. I controlled my future.
Later in the letter she says:
As we know, women have to break down many barriers on the road to success. One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men, as if it is a flaw. People call me one of the “world’s greatest female athletes”. Do they say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes? Is Tiger? Federer? Why not? They are certainly not female. We should never let this go unchallenged. We should always be judged by our achievements, not by our gender.
These are laudable statements, and many would support them.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that Serena Williams is also a vocal proponent of the Jehovah’s Witness religion, and has repeatedly associated herself with it, even to the extent of frequently thanking Jehovah for winning tennis matches for her. And Jehovah’s Witness teachings emphatically disagree with almost everything she says. Women in the Witness religion are indeed treated very much in the way that Williams rails against; judged and restricted very much by their gender and not their abilities or dreams.
Equality for me but not for thee
This apparent double standard has not gone un-noticed by many ex-JW women, and one of them, activist Lydia Finch, has written an open letter in response.
Finch also reads the letter online the youtube video below.
There has been online coverage of the letter here.
Her letter is very supportive of Williams achievements and of her call for the greater empowerment of women, and of the need to address inequalities of opportunity and of the treatment of girls.
However, Finch’s letter points out that virtually all of the goals Williams supports are virtually impossible for women growing up in the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Her letter gives a long list ways in which a woman in the JW faith is restricted and oppressed, including:
All children raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses are strongly discouraged from attending higher education. Should their parents ignore this command, they may be sanctioned. If their father is an elder (a church leader) he may be removed from his position….
…She will be strongly discouraged from the pursuit of all extracurricular activities, including sports. A family that ignores this stance may face sanctions from church leaders…
…She will encounter daily indoctrination, teaching her that she should submit to male headship in all things, be it the headship of her husband or the headship of the all male church elders. She will be taught that she is not the equal of a man, and that her primary role is that of a helper, not leader or a decision maker. She will be told that her ideal position in is in the home…
Finch finishes her letter by calling on Williams to use her privileged status as an international celebrity to become a force for reform within her religion or, at the very least, to become less confused about the issue and to stop promoting a religion that oppresses woman if she wishes to champion the cause of women’s rights.
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Follow Lydia Finch on twitter @finchlydia