A FEW years ago, I spent a short time with my cousin in Chennai, India, working with a charity that supported homeless women. These women were among the most disenfranchised and least visible in the city. A year later, Chennai was hit by terrible floods, and, as I saw Facebook images of my cousins wading through waist-high water, I wondered how the homeless women I had encountered were coping.
The following year, Chennai was hit with a crippling drought, the ramifications of which are still ongoing. The implications for the poorest and the least visible are catastrophic. It is an indisputable reality that women — and women in the majority world in particular — disproportionately experience the impact of the havoc caused by climate breakdown.
Climate breakdown is recognised as creating higher levels of violence and abuse against women. Physical and sexual violence is used as a way of silencing female environmental campaigners, and children are married off in areas that have been affected by climate breakdown in order to help address family hardship.
Women and girls are often the last to eat or be rescued; they face greater health and safety risks as water and sanitation systems become compromised. It is women and girls who take on increased domestic and care work as resources dwindle.
On the thorny issue of population growth, research demonstrates that women and children in sub-Saharan Africa have scarce access to reproductive and maternal-health opportunities now, and this will only get worse in an age of climate crisis, where money and resources diminish further. This will undoubtedly mean more pregnancies, more risks, and higher rates of maternal morbidity and mortality.
The weight of grief which I feel for my sisters is heavy. We are woefully ignorant of the lives of millions who bear the burden of “progress” now and will continue to do in the future.
We seem to ignore the voices and the plight of women and girls. I hear earnest climate campaigners in the UK talking about how they are acting for the sake of their grandchildren, and I want to cry out in despair for the forgotten lives of those people in our world right now, who, unseen and unacknowledged, are sinking deep into the muddy plains of our greed and wilful obliviousness.
The balance of justice does not fall in favour of women. It repeatedly tips away, in a patriarchal reality that has woven itself through the story of time, right back to the woman in the garden. The woman named Eve.
EVE. What is the story behind the person who holds the biblical title of being the first woman on earth? In the third chapter of Genesis we hear how a crafty serpent spun a seductive tale to Eve about the benefits of eating fruit from the forbidden tree, and Eve took some of this fruit, gave it to her husband, who was with her, and they both ate it.
When God found out, he responded by cursing the culprits. The first part of Eve’s curse is generally understood to mean that she will have increased pain in childbearing, but it could be translated to mean, “I will greatly increase your toil” (that is, your physical work), “and in grief you shall bring forth children” (relating to the harsh reality of high childhood mortality in Ancient Near Eastern times).
The second half of the curse relates to how Eve will be subordinate to male rule. Adam’s curse relates wholly to the hardship of working the ground, the reality of which must not be underestimated; but this job is not something that only men do.
Women throughout the ages have battled with and worked the ground. It seems that the curse relayed to Adam is far less than the curse meted out to Eve.
I have always been intrigued by this. So I began a journey of exploration into the meaning of the first woman mentioned in the Bible. My first encounter was with “transgressor Eve” — the one so familiar to many of us.
The writer of 1 Timothy identified Eve as the transgressor, and suggested that, therefore, women should not exert authority over men.
Both Calvin and Wesley argued that, even though scripture suggests that Adam was with Eve at the time of the taking of the forbidden fruit, this could not have been the case. Such a suggestion is simply not “credible”, Calvin asserted, and Wesley said that the woman deviously manipulated him into eating the fruit and, had Adam been there earlier, he “would have interposed to prevent the sin”.
Despite the lack of scriptural evidence for these assertions, the message is clear. As the feminist theologian Phyllis Trible acknowledges, traditional, misogynistic readings of Genesis have almost “acquired a status of canonicity”. In a way, “transgressor Eve” became a “blueprint for Woman”.
She became “everywoman” in the sense that the perception of Eve as untrustworthy, and therefore to be “contained” by man, defined how all women were then perceived. This perception has validated patriarchal notions of male leadership and female disempowerment.
Despite influential people throughout history rallying against such notions — none more notable, for Christians, than Jesus — this perception of male dominance and female subjugation pervades many areas of our modern world.
And it contributes to the situation we now find ourselves in, where women and girls are once again overlooked, disempowered, and disproportionately affected by climate breakdown.
I WANT to propose a different way of viewing “everywoman” Eve. One that could stand in solidarity with those women and girls in the midst of the climate gender imbalance. I began to see a woman who could speak into the grief born of frustration and injustice that continues to dominate this world.
This new “everywoman” Eve arose from a different way of approaching the texts in Genesis. The creation narratives in Genesis are considered by many biblical scholars to be myths. Myths were used as a form of telling stories in Ancient Near Eastern times. They communicated truth, even if they were not historically true.
Myths gave meaning to life and explained the part played by humans in the world. The creation poem in Genesis 2-3 sought to explain the conditions of the author’s context.
Carol Meyers has argued that Eve’s primary purpose was to represent the woman of this era, an “everywoman” for that time.
And this was a very different “everywoman” to the one she became later. Life for people in ancient Israel was hard. Tending the ground that produced little food was physically exhausting.
Women were expected to play their part in this hard labour, pregnant or not, and a combination of hard physical work, unforgiving living conditions, poor nutrition, and limited access to health care resulted in high rates of prenatal and infant mortality.
The curse of Eve maps on to Meyers’ concept of Eve as “everywoman”: women will toil, have multiple pregnancies, and will endure anguish as a result. Women will struggle in their relationship with men.
The curse of Eve parallels the struggles of ancient Israelite women, and her story gave the women a reason for why things were so hard. Eve was their “everywoman”.
The contemporary impact of climate change on women evokes the lives of ancient Israelite women. I can’t help but see a solidarity between the world’s most politically and economically marginalised women and the first woman.
In journeying with Eve, I have found that she represents all women whose lives are immeasurably hard and who have little agency or voice.
The struggles of Eve speak into the struggles of women in a time of climate crisis: their huge workload, lack of basic health care, lengthy and dangerous journeys for water and sanitation needs, and their lack of power within a patriarchal context.
Eve’s life and experience just as easily speaks into the lives of many women today as she did to women more than 2500 years ago.
The idea that myths help to explain the world around us is not a way to validate the situation, to make it acceptable, but, instead, a way to give understanding and, therefore, a sense of belonging to a wider community; a sense of togetherness and a comfort in knowing that you are not alone; a recognition that the story of many women and girls today is not a new story but an ancient one.
Expressing grief for a dying world and grief for the plight of our sisters is the first step to offering a response of solidarity. Eve as everywoman steps through time, looks at her sisters today, and nods in understanding.
To the women straining every muscle, digging, planting, pruning, and picking in a battle with the broken earth: Everywoman Eve stands with you.
To the woman climate campaigners, brutally silenced and forced to comply: Everywoman Eve gently sits with you and sighs in recognition.
To the young girls, married off to reduce the burden on their family: Everywoman Eve’s tears fall with yours.
To the women whose bodies are wracked by injury following multiple births, whose hearts ache for the children lost, and whose hands struggle to feed the children they have: Everywoman Eve wraps her arms around you and shares your pain.
To the women last to be fed, last to be taught, last to be saved, last to be heard: Everywoman Eve hears you. She knows.
The Revd Grace Thomas is a curate in Greater Manchester and an active member of Christian Climate Action.
This is an edited extract from Words for a Dying World: Stories of grief and courage from the global Church, edited by Hannah Malcolm and published by SCM Press at £15.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.99).
Listen to interview with Hannah Malcolm on the Church Times Podcast.