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Defying the norm for Jesus

high heel 400SXRev Suzanne Cooke reminds us that we sometimes need to defy cultural norms to make a stand for what is right.

As I write, the annual Cannes Film Festival is taking place in France, and for all the wrong reasons the issues surrounding the equality of women, their place in society and modern culture are particularly under the spotlight.
Not because the Festival had opted for the first time in 25 years to allow the opening screening to be the work of a female director, and not because of the talk that was held by UN Women to highlight sexism in the film industry.   No- issues of equality are in the spotlight because a group of women, including one with a partial amputation to her foot, were turned away from one of the premiers because they were wearing flat shoes.

The Festival organisers, of course, are claiming that the dress code only stipulates that ‘smart footwear’ should be worn, nowhere does is say that high heels are a must.  But, clearly, the reality is a little different.  
On the odd occasion that I happen to be in Norwich on a Friday or Saturday evening I am horrified at the sight of young girls teetering around on ridiculously high heels.  The shoe shops for some time now have been full of heels that result in the wearer effectively walking on tip-toe.  For very many women this means that, in the short term, evenings out are marred by pain, and in the long term our chiropractors, osteopaths and physio’s can be assured of thriving business. 
Two images come to mind when I wonder at these women’s determination to walk in footwear whose aim is to be virtually unwearable. 
The first is of Emily Davison.  Emily was a militant activist who fought for women's suffrage in Britain, for which she was jailed on nine occasions and force-fed 49 times. She travelled from her home in Morpeth, Northumberland to attend the 1913 Epsom Derby.   Some say she was not actually trying to martyr herself, but merely wanted to disrupt the race.   Whatever her intention, stepping out from behind the rail and trying to catch hold of the reins of a galloping horse proved to be her final fatal act of defiance.  She died four days later of her injuries.
The other is a far older story, not fatal in outcome but in its way just as subversive.  This story is of a woman who was also willing to defy the men closest to her, a woman who knew exactly how to make her point, without words yet with great impact. I have often pictured the room where the woman, maybe Mary Magdalene, poured a jar of expensive ointment over Jesus.  In the heat and emotional upheaval of that moment in Jesus’ ministry, the woman chose to overwhelm the room and all its occupants with the intoxicating smell of the expensive nard – a powerful symbol of her love, devotion and regard for this extraordinary man Jesus.

I imagine she knew exactly what she was doing, what impact she would have with her actions – I imagine she was already ruffling feathers, a woman, such as she was, so close to this man, this Rabbi Jesus. The story, gives the woman no voice.  For me her actions needed no words, Jesus understood what she was doing and was quick to silence the voices of those who clearly did not.
Throughout history women have often been denied the opportunity to speak into the worlds they live in, and have had to be creative in their attempts to affect those worlds.  But there have always been women like Emily Davison who have fought to give others a voice, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Some would like to sit back and believe that the work these women started is complete and that somehow ‘equality’ has been achieved.  I believe rather that the picture is now just more complex; for instance, don’t modern women have the freedom to choose what shoes they do or don’t wear?  
The pressures on women, and men, to conform to certain stereo-types, certain cultural norms, is strong and, in our time I believe, highly subversive.  It’s easy to say that a woman has the freedom to ‘choose’ but as history shows us you have to be strong, independent, unafraid to ‘choose’ to truly go against the grain. 
So let us be unafraid in our attempts to root out the subversive inequalities in our lives and creative in our actions to expose them. 
Long live flat shoes and all who wear them!

Shoe image is courtesy of John Nyberg at www.hdrfoto.dk


Suzanne CookeRev Suzanne Cooke is the priest-in-charge of the Upper Tas Benefice in South Norfolk and the founder of Soul Circus, a regular creative, experimental service supported by the Diocese of Norwich and the Youth Task Force.  You can find out more at www.soulcircus.org.uk

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