Opinion piece by Esma Ourkiya (They/Them), Dublin (Ireland)
At a very young age, almost every human being’s self-perception is shaped by their physical and social environments: home, school, and wider society. These three environments are often predetermined for any child before their birth, based mostly on their birthplace and the people bringing them up. Physical and social places and positions contribute to shaping our beliefs, values, spoken language(s), and desires. Our childhood experiences mould who we become as adults, rendering most of us, if not all of us, beautifully and uniquely unbalanced creatures in continuous search of meaning, purpose, and self-worth. Consequently, our trajectories towards emotional maturity are, most of the time, inescapably impeded.
Be that as it may, it is almost undebatable that various religions collide with bodily autonomy and integrity. This piece aims to broadly shed light on how religions may shape our self-esteem, our pride in who we are, and how dignified we allow ourselves to be.
Considering that the majority of the world’s population is religious, chances are high that if you are reading this piece, you were brought up believing in divine entities. Within this framework, and regardless of the religious affiliation of your family, your school, and your community, a significant number of religions have specific teachings on bodies, gender, and sexuality. And as absurd as it may seem to some, religions (especially Abrahamic ones) are binary, essentialist, patriarchal, and do care about maintaining heterosexism, normativity, and sexual purity: one shall only mate to reproduce, in a heteronormative way as the only way, strictly within wedlock.
This, unfortunately, eliminates room for the existence of transgender, non-binary, gender-fluid, gay, bisexual, and pansexual people. Although the list of labels is much longer, the only labels accepted are heterosexual and cisgender. Anything else that falls outside these two is called into question at the least.
Another point is our upbringing and how our religious environments influence our individual development. At a certain point in our childhoods, the majority of us tend to develop sexual curiosity. We are eager to explore our genitalia, those of other people, and some of us even experience erotic impulses before even reaching puberty. Yet safe and open environments are seldom provided and fostered for such exploration. We thus learn, very early in life, to withhold our thoughts, to self-oppress, and to question, perhaps, our own sanity. As a consequence, we are taught that we do not have full autonomy over our bodies and that our genitals determine our gender identities and, therefore, who we are meant to mate with (sexuality), who we are meant to be, and how we are meant to act accordingly (gender).
Considering that, unlike species who separate from their parents and rely on themselves very early on, we spend almost, on average, around two decades in the care and at the same time at the mercy of the people bringing us up – parents, relatives, but also teachers, neighbours, and ultimately people in activism and politics. With often limited capacities to leave and start off on our own, our adolescent years reflect the conflicting feelings we develop as a rebellion against those who have for years been telling us how to live our lives.
As these people have most likely used religious texts to strengthen their arguments for restrictive teachings, some of us are very likely to rebel against the religion that those who raised us follow. In an attempt to understand why a certain system dictates how we should look and what we can do with our bodies, many of us have the privilege of safety to reject such systems, sometimes internally or with the people we trust, and other times loudly to the world. Others may abide without questioning for multiple reasons like seeking validation, pleasing adults, or fear of punitive or economic consequences. Whichever category we might find ourselves in, the result remains the same: an internal conflict between what I want to do and how it goes against what God wants me to.
Sadly, we become prone to developing self-hatred and slowly lose our sense of self-worth (if we ever developed any in the first place!). We begin to question the ‘natural’ (whatever this might be in a human context), and why we do not fall under it. Self-labelling, be it conscious or unconscious, starts to take place: abnormal, deviant, atypical, unnatural, etc. This is what society has told us since we were born, and now we know that we fit the description. We do not belong. We are rejected by God. We are, in some religions, eternally damned for who we are. A sense of alienation becomes inevitable. Yet, where do we draw the line and separate the belief from practice, from tradition?
Not as an ultimate solution, but to find a self-empowering stance, one may enter a battle, trying to find acceptance and flaws in religious textbooks in order to reverse the alienation. Because, let’s face it, no one likes to be an outcast. We all long for belonging, for community, and for acceptance and validation. So, we read, and engage in dialogue and debates, and we listen, hoping to find a common ground where we can be accepted for who we truly are without the rejection of where we came from.
In efforts like this, religion, as complex as it is, is already undergoing a metamorphosis. It is becoming more colourful, more lenient, and with time, it will (hopefully) empower people to take ownership of their bodies, their hearts, and their decisions regardless of their genitals. With the social evolution that our species has demonstrated over the past decades, there is hope that we will witness a world in which religion in all its forms will be free from hierarchical favouritism based on people’s bodies and what they choose to do with them. We will finally and collectively understand that religion means compassion, love, and freeing oneself from prejudice.
Esma Ourkiya (They/Them) is a writer, researcher, human rights and climate justice activist, and mentor whose work has been published on numerous platforms and whose excellent research skills have been awarded throughout their academic journey. In May 2020, they were awarded the prestigious MIC Doctoral Studentship Award for their academic excellence. Esma was also a beneficiary of the U.S Department of State MEPI Student Leaders Program grant where they studied leadership and project management at Benedictine University, Illinois. Deeply invested in matters revolving around gender, queer theory, ecofeminism, and politics, Esma is currently editing a book entitled Queer Ecofeminism: “From Binary Feminist Environmental Endeavours to Postgender” which is set to be published by Lexington Books.
˝DialoguePerspectives offers a unique change of perspective! The programme allows you to really grapple with current and highly societally relevant questions, to reflect on your own identity, and to get to know the diversity of European identities. I am very grateful for the intensive personal discussion and encounters, and the great amount of food for thought that has stuck with me long past the seminars.
Ezgi, DialoguePerspectives alumnus