Mary Magdalene and the women’s struggle
A recent documentary on TV explores the life of Mary Magdalene, which, depending on whose interpretation you choose to believe, was either the “Apostle of the Apostles,” Jesus’ chosen follower entrusted with the good news of the Resurrection, his consort and wife, or a former prostitute drawn to the Christ before whom she publicly atoned and of whom she subsequently became a “camp follower.”
In the Bible, say scholars, nothing is said at all about a link between Mary Magdalene and the unnamed “sinner” who fell to her knees before Jesus, washing his feet with her tears and wiping them with her long hair. The merging of the two women’s identities took place only after Jesus’ death, when the apostles, but especially St. Peter, sought to challenge the role ascribed to Mary Magdalene and to all emerging women leaders in the Church by labeling her a “former prostitute.”
Or as Jaime Licauco writes in his column, “Inner Awareness”: “The male disciples and the early Christian fathers could not accept the idea of Christ having a female consort or intimate partner, and that’s why Mary Magdalene had to be emasculated and her image reduced to that of a penitent prostitute. Almost all early paintings of Mary Magdalene portrayed her as either completely or partly naked, sensuous and erotic.”
In many ways the early fathers succeeded in marginalizing the two most important women in Jesus’ life from the center of the emerging Church: Mary Magdalene by painting an unsavory portrait of her, banishing her to the status of repentant sinner and heaping scorn on her for her supposed former profession; and Mary, Our Mother, by elevating her to the status of sainted intercessor, pure and sinless, but ultimately powerless.
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There is a term for what happened to Mary Magdalene and to Mary, Mother of Jesus, in media studies. This is called the “virgin or the vamp” syndrome, the “Madonna or whore” dichotomy.
In most media portrayals of women, women are reduced to these either/or extremes: temptresses who lead men to their doom, or virginal saints who sacrifice their all for the men and children in their lives. There is no room for complication or reality in these extremes, when in truth the vast majority of women fall somewhere in between: sensual creatures who nevertheless think of (and accomplish) other things besides procreation.
But by being labeled as either sinners or saints, women are effectively driven to the margins, to the dark areas beyond the limelight where they are supposed to play mere “supporting” roles.
Perhaps this is the reasoning that underpinned the thinking of the sponsors of the enrolled substitute measure for Senate Bill 2726 and House Bill 4936, which amends Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code. This article lays the basis for the crime of vagrancy, and while the substitute bill would decriminalize vagrancy, it would retain the crime of prostitution in the statute.
If P-Noy fails to act on the bill (by either vetoing it or signing it), it lapses into law. And the deadline was, literally, yesterday. Perhaps even as you read this, all this ranting would be for naught as we would already have to live with the bill as the law of the land.
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But, in the spirit of Easter Sunday, in the spirit of the Risen Lord who chose to share the Message of the Resurrection with two women and who taught the world respect for women, even for those of ill repute, let’s spend more time discussing why the enrolled bill has got women all riled up.
The enrolled bill, says Jean Enriquez of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP), “mocks women in the Philippines and around the world, as only the women are left as criminals, while the bill decriminalizes pimps.”
Under the heat of the Holy Week sun, some 80 women survivors of sex abuse and exploitation, and activists with groups that are part of CATW-AP, took part in a procession from Bustillos Church in Sampaloc to Mendiola Bridge precisely to move the President to hold the bill in abeyance. After all, while the passage of the bill by both chambers of Congress and its submission to Malacañang was done stealthily and without the knowledge of the groups working with legislators precisely to amend the laws on prostitution, women’s groups had been working for almost a decade in good faith and in utmost cooperation with our lawmakers.
CATW-AP and allied organizations, social movements and human rights institutes have been lobbying in the last nine years to pass a comprehensive anti-prostitution law which would repeal the Vagrancy Act (and not merely amend it), and, it was hoped, decriminalize the victims while punishing buyers and profiteers, also known as clients and pimps.
Instead, what the enrolled bill did was eradicate vagrancy as a crime while keeping women in prostitution as criminals (under the law, only women can be prostitutes), and decriminalizing everyone else, including pimps.
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During their “procession,” the survivors and advocates “reflected on each station of the cross, using the allegory of Mary Magdalene.” Said Liza Gonzales, a survivor of prostitution: “She, too, like other women, was persecuted.” Each station recalled the sufferings women like them have endured: being born to poverty, being victims of incestuous rape, sexual abuse by their employers, and the final station: “being condemned to criminality by policymakers.”
Mary Magdalene, a powerful and beloved woman in the Gnostic Gospels reduced to a figure of scorn and condemnation during the early life of the Church, lives on in the women who continue their struggle for dignity, rights and freedom.