Shame is an emotion that everyone can experience but not everyone experiences in the same way. According to Brené Brown, shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Feelings of shame have both physical and cognitive elements. In other words, we can experience shame as heat and discomfort in our bodies and shame leads us to think that we are bad or that there is something wrong with us. Experiences of shame bring up fears of being abandoned by those we love or rejected by the groups we belong to.
Shame is relational – feelings of shame point towards breaks or tensions in our most valued relationships.
Many conservative religious groups teach that mothers are created for caring and nurturing their families. My research with Christian and Muslim women shows that care is an important aspect of their identities and practices. Caring for others through service is meaningful to women. Their physical and emotional labour helps ensure that their husbands, children, grandchildren and aging parents are fed, clothed, encouraged, and ready to face the world each day. Caring service to others develops women’s virtues of patience, kindness, generosity, hospitality, compassion, self-sacrifice and forgiveness.
Religious women deeply value the caring relationships that they contribute to both inside and outside of their families. This is one of the reasons why violence and abuse within families of faith causes them enormous pain.
Religious survivors of family violence often report feeling shame. Some of the feelings of shame arise because women believe they have failed in their responsibilities for caring. When religious leaders idealize in-tact, happy families, women whose families do not match that ideal feel judged. Perhaps a woman has been told time and again by her husband that she is a bad mother or a selfish wife and she believes him.
Whether it is the church’s ideals for families or the abusive actions and words of her husband, a religious woman’s feelings of shame must be addressed. When we fail to address victim’s shame in communities of faith, fear, blame and disconnection are the results.
As a victim of violence, a religious woman should not be blamed for the suffering in her family – she has not failed. She is not the cause of her broken family. Responsibility for violence and abuse lies with the perpetrator of harm. Her husband has broken his promises to love and honour her when he manipulates emotionally and hurts her physically.
Empathy is necessary in acknowledging religious women’s experiences of abuse and feelings of shame. Religious leaders and followers can develop empathy by listening to women’s stories in order to understand their perspectives. Listening to the stories of survivors and providing them a safe space for exploring and navigating their feelings and beliefs about shame can restore connections between them and communities of faith.
Catherine Holtmann, 17 February 2022