Elle* has recently started serving on the Indian Ocean Islands.
“Hey lady! What’s the news with you?”
“Good, thanks! You?”
“It goes, it goes. Are you married?”
“What?! Oh! No, I’m not married.”
“Really? Why not? Don’t you want a husband? Don’t you want children? I will marry you!”
So starts another conversation on the street with another man I’ve never met. I’m tempted to get angry or to be offended, but I remember how unusual I am here as an older unmarried woman. I’m on an island where marrying and starting a family young is important, especially for women. I’ve not been here long, but it seems a woman’s identity is tied up in whether you’re married and how many children you have. Women with children are often called ‘mother of ….’ instead of their own name, even by their own friends, to their face. There is a lot of shame in not being able to have children.
Instead of getting angry, I try to give praise to the God who really gives me my identity and worth. I never planned to stay single. I knew as a teenager I wanted to be a missionary, and that I would only marry someone who felt the same way, and it just never happened for me. Then, a few years before I joined the field, serious illness took my ability to have children. But I have been blessed with the gift of contentment in singleness and childlessness, and I try not to take that for granted. God has given me a testimony that I can share with women here; that he is enough, and that we are enough in him.
A deeper cultural understanding
There are other, smaller, nuisances about being a woman here: having to wear several layers so that no-one can make out the shape of your legs, in extreme heat, while you watch your male neighbour happily walking around outside topless. Making sure you’re not smiling too much at men, in case you give them the wrong idea (I do know of female workers in far more restricted locations, who suffer a lot worse). But there are positive things about submitting to this culture’s expectations for women. It allows us to understand a little more of where they’re coming from, their particular frustrations and joys. We hope and pray that it will give us ways in to telling these women the good news, about a God who is interested in their character and not just their dress, a God who can give them honour that cannot be taken away.
There are also many good things about being a female worker here. A local saying goes, ‘The woman is the guardian of the family’. Women raise the children and manage the home. They may not have much public influence, but they can be key in reaching a family. There are many opportunities to chat over fiddly food preparation and cooking. They tend to get into fewer heated theological debates where the aim is to win the argument, and speak more from the heart.
Of course, men and women, single and married are needed to reach a people group. Our team is mostly single women, and we would love more married women and mothers to model these roles to our fledgling church. We would also love more men, to speak into men’s lives in a way that we cannot. Each of us in our different circumstances will have particular challenges to face, but with them, special opportunities to bless the body, and
*Name has been changed for security reasons.