Feministing Sarah and Hagar by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


sarah_hagarOne story that has marked my life as a feminist is that of Sarah and Hagar. This is a story of pain and enmity among women under patriarchy that despite its age, is still relevant to illustrate the negative effects of the androcentric socialization. But it can also hold an inspirational feminist reading that leads us towards a reflection on the amazing possibilities of a shift in the way we women look at each other.

Feminism is a political practice, an ethics for living based in an option for women. It is not or should not be a Diploma, a chair where to work from 9:00am to 5:00pm, or an excuse to act from our own privileges against other women. In private and in public, in academia or in the street, in sexual, cultural, intellectual and religious affairs, a feminist is a feminist, without excuses or regrets.

This year I was part of the anthology “Jesus, Muhammad and The Goddess” with an essay called “The Wounded Goddess: The History of Sarah and Hagar From a Feminist Outlook” from which I want to share some excerpts with you, as follows:

I see in what happened to Sarah and Hagar the story of a wound that has its origin in harsh spiritual violence. A wound infringed by patriarchy to the souls of each one of them but also, to the tie that could awake empathy for one another in behalf of the Divine Feminine.  The relationship between these two women is influenced by a religious belief founded in male privilege: God promised a son to Abraham. Unlike other promises made by male characters in the history of humankind, this one cannot be undone and must be fulfilled no matter what, because is a divine decree and God’s word is always a definitive truth.

The atavistic wound to Hagar and Sarah allows patriarchy domination and control on the bodies and lives of these women. Sarah and Hagar–how their lives  intertwine in accordance with the wishes of male authority, the way which their identities, potential and agencies are put in trail against each other to meet a man’s need–is the depiction of the universal and original performance of women in the history of patriarchal domination over us.

The paradigm of enmity in the relationship of Sarah and Hagar is instilled as a constant in the relationships between women. The alienation imposed by patriarchy through enmity not only separates women from their own identity as individuals, but separates us from our spiritual and divine dimensions. This separation also becomes a distance from other women veiled by an ignorance of what we share in common as gender and also in the specific, regarding our life stories. This enmity is not always a feeling of antipathy, but is always evident in the inability to be empathetic. It affects our potential to know ourselves and recognize ourselves in other women.

This wound is, according to Mexican Feminist Marcela Lagarde, a “Gender’s rift” and is made of all those insurmountable barriers that prevent women from recognizing and identifying with each other. Women put aside what we have in common and emphasize the difference, to make other women feel inferior and justify power over them.

As for Sarah and Hagar, our goals as women have been set to please men and infringe suffering in members of our gender. Is not enough to KNOW how this operates. The wound between us has been made at soul level so, any attempt to heal it must first address our spiritual essence, the Divine Feminine. This Divine Essence that dwells in us has been denied to women along with our lives, as was denied to Sarah and Hagar. It has been denied, because it is a source of power, autonomy, sisterhood and freedom for us.

Sara and Hagar are mythical characters for us. They lived in a world very different from ours, but we constantly recreate them when we compete against or are unfair with ourselves or with other women. When we are silent to abuse, when we use our privileges to cause pain or take advantage of other women, or when we judge other women’s reality assuming ours is perfect and universal.

Feminisms challenge the stories that patriarchy has built on us to legitimize our submission and, at same time, they enable sisterhood as a tool for counteracting enmity among women. Sisterhood starts in an effort to deconstruct the notion of what it means to be a woman in patriarchy, as a process that begins with the rejection of enmity and being bounded as victims, advancing toward friendship, to rescue our particular stories, meeting with what we have in common, searching for new times, new identities outside the patriarchal models that define us and link us in destructive ways.

This friendship between women is a conscious work toward the recognition, promotion and support among women in a patriarchal and violent world. It has nothing to do with being friends in the traditional way. This would limit sisterhood to only those women we know or to those who are in our circles. Sisterhood is the commitment to love all women as our friends, to prevent patriarchy from dividing us and making us suffer.

We will never win in Patriarchy, no matter if it seems so. Patriarchy will be always the foreign land where our voices are not heard; a desert where our questions will never have an answer. Only a shift of awareness to a daily and committed practice in behalf of gender justice, in all our relationships among women, can change the enmity for sisterhood, heal personal and cultural wounds inflicted by spiritual violence in our souls, repair the rift between all the Sarahs and Hagars of our lives, and bring opportunities to all women for holding and enjoying the part of heaven that belongs to us.

Vanessa Rivera de la FuenteVanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities. 

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Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology

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27 replies

  1. I happened to read your full essay last night. One of the things that struck me in reading it was that Sarah was given (for sex) by her husband to a more powerful man, and then she was the one who gave (for sex) Hagar to her husband. Sadly, under the conditions of patriarchy women who have been abused “normally” participate in the system: rather than identifying with abused women (including themselves) they all too often jump at the opportunity to abuse someone, usually another woman. In Greece and India, where marriages are arranged, the new bride is often abused by her mother-in-law, who herself was abused by her mother-in law, and the system continues.

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    • Sadly, we seem to totally lack any sort of system, social or psychological, to break these abusive cycles. I teach high school and I hear stories, like one a student told me yesterday, where each generation repeats the behavior unless somehow they manage to get far away from their families and even then it is difficult regardless of the awareness level of the individual.

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  2. What a beautiful post, Vanessa! I love your definition of true sisterhood, extending beyond our intimate circles. Thank you. A few weeks ago, I also mentioned Sarah and Hagar in my post, “A New Covenant,” citing Jacqueline Kahanoff who wrote about them in the 1960s and made an argument quite similar to yours.

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  3. I’m thinking of a situation here in Canada – a well-known radio personality was on trial, accused of attempting to strangle several women. He hired a high-powered female defense lawyer. Her strategy was to grill the three complainants relentlessly about the fact that they contacted him after the incidents, destroying their credibility and implying collusion. Even the judge said that the events probably took place, then he found the perpetrator not guilty and tore into the victims for lying about their subsequent actions. The defense lawyer, interviewed afterwards, said this was a success of the justice system. She added that some women think she isn’t a feminist – because she wears designer clothes. That feminists don’t try deliberately to destroy other women, particularly women who have been victimized by a man, does not seem to be part of her definition.

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  4. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    This resonates with me in part because I am working on a set of poems written from the viewpoint of these and other Biblical women rather than from the viewpoint of the males who “wrote” the Bible.

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    • Are your poems available anywhere? I’d love to see them. My favourite pair of Biblical women set against each other are Vashti and Esther. As well as Rachel and Leah. And, of course, Jezebel.

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      • Some of my poems have been posted occasionally on my blog. I also had a book of poems published two years ago: “On the Rim of Wonder”–it contains a variety of poems, a sort of memoir in poetry, but not the usual. I plan to eventually publish the poems I am writing on biblical women and goddesses–maybe a chapbooks. However, my publisher thinks it should be a book. Not sure I am up to that–sometimes these stories how women have been and are treated get too depressing.

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  5. Thanks, Vanessa. On your statement: “This friendship between women is a conscious work toward the recognition, promotion and support among women in a patriarchal and violent world.” And it is also an ecologically challenged world.

    The Book of Ruth should be titled the Book of Ruth and Naomi. The Hymn to Demeter should be called the Hymn to Demeter and Persephone. In both of these ancient texts, there is a famine in the land and as the women work through their relationships with each other they somehow heal the famine. Subconsciously if these were dreams, we are identifying the separation of women as the famine, and the resolution of bringing ourselves back into solidarity with each other as a profound way to heal the Earth and maintain its return to fecundity.

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    • That’s a very perceptive a wise point you make Sarah – its *is* Ruth *and* Naoimi – Demeter *and* Persephone.

      Joseph Campbell always said that there are patterns in myth but IMPO, he never got a around to really exploring the deep patterns in what I call Distaff Power-Myth. In so many cases, there are doubles, as you’ve pointed out here that heal the land. That dynamic needs to be more deeply analysed and explicated . I see a PhD thesis :)

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      • Thanks for the comment Kathleen. Interesting your phrase, Distaff Power Myth, new to me, but I like it a lot. Why do we need a twosome to heal the land? Maybe because if there are two working together, there is often some sort of love in between or affection or bonding. And that love is taken up also in the project somehow and produces a more beneficial result. I have an extensive website I did all alone, but not really alone. In the background a great coach and friend creatively prodding me on :-)

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  6. It seems to me that where-ever patriarchy rules, there are divisions. Divisions are necessary to maintain power. Perhaps it is the task of our day to re-write the story and have Sarah and Hagar, and their children, resist separation and unite to create a better world.

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    • I agree, Barbara. Divisions abound in patriarchy, because it realizes that it must divide in order to conquer. Otherwise, all of us “peons” (women, minorities, LGBTQ folks, etc) would get together and overturn the system patriarchy has created.

      And I agree that our task is to rewrite the story of Sarah and Hagar. I’ve always found it a horrifying tale, and since these are the mothers of Islam and Judaism, a tale that continues to horrify. In 1989 I attended a Women and Religion conference in which one of the presenters used this story as a starting point for pairs of women to discuss. Maybe because as a feminist it was already clear to me that sisterhood in the larger sense was necessary. But I was completely non-plussed attending this gathering that such an anti-feminist tale would be used as a jumping-off point for conversation. How much further can we get by discussing it? All we can say is this is the problem women have under patriarchy. What we need to be creating are alternative myths, alternative institutions, alternative politics.

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      • Perhaps our art is to create new myths while re-interpreting the old ones. I think the story of Sarah and Hagar is important to show that oppressed can become oppressors, and that is perhaps where we can start to change. For religious people, it’s also good to point out that G-d took compassion on Hagar and made her the mother of a great nation as well. There is no approval of oppression of any sort.

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  7. Then what ought Sarah to have done instead of what she did do? How should the story have played out instead?

    I have this notion that we can write a new scenario if we first re-vision it.

    I very much agree that each generation repeats the abuse of the previous generations. The new science of Epigenetics seems to indicate that trauma is remembered on a genetic level, which may then induce feedback loops, so breaking these cycles and beginning the healing on a Soul level is, indeed the right place to start.

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    • Here’s my first attempt: Sarah adopts Hagar into the family as her sister, already undercutting the social distinctions of “lady of the house” and maid. That has to happen first. Then when she is unable to have a child, she talks to Hagar about this problem. Does Hagar offer to bear the child? Or do they decide together that childbearing is not the be-all and end-all of women’s lives? At least they talk about this.

      But of course, there’s God’s promise. The story writer has to decide at this point if she is going to remain within the religious confines of the original tale. If she decides this is necessary, then God’s promise must be fulfilled. If she decides otherwise, the tale could go off in all sorts of directions; Sarah and Hagar become lesbian partners and leave for a better life; they stay, but the major relationship becomes theirs, rather than the relationship with Abraham; they each have children in a polyamorous 3-some, breaking the hold of Abraham on each of them; in any case their friendship, their sisterhood transcends the givens of patriarchy. Some of these endings could also result in God’s promise being fulfilled. But none of them would lead to the mythical underpinnings for patriarchy to continue and Muslims and Jews to see themselves as enemies.

      This kind of “feminist midrash” was used in “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” on the other very problematic story about Abraham and Sarah, namely God’s telling Abraham to kill his son. Each of us was to think about this tale from Sarah’s perspective. My revision was entitled, “Nobody’s Gonna Mess With My Kid!”

      Any other revised stories out there?

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      • I am beginning to wonder whether the arc of the heroine’s journey is the attempt to establish an inclusive community and failure to do so results in an exile from the community = establishment of the crone-hermit/ or death (Antigone).
        Hajar’s journey could be seen as an attempt to create a community independent from patriarchal abuse..

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      • NMR’s comments on the heroine’s journey are really interesting. What comes to mind for me is Miriam, who danced with the women at the Sea of Reeds. Somewhat later, when she asked for more of a say in running the community (possibly in support of Moses’ abandoned wife) she is punished by God with a disease that exiles her. However, the community won’t stand for it, and don’t move until she is back among them.

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      • Sadly Miriam’s (alleged) song celebrated Yahweh who threw the horses and horsemen of the Pharaoh into the sea. It even celebrates Yahweh as a man of war.

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      • I agree, Carol. Miriam’s song was only for her own community. When we re-write it, let’s make it more inclusive and less violent. (Miriam’s song was also one verse of her brother’s much longer one, although some commentators believe she wrote the whole thing)

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      • If I was re-writing the story, Sarah would be moved to compassion for her slave, Hagar. The two women would then start influencing other women they knew, gradually moving into freedom and action. :-)
        Given the social situation of the time, this would be proclaimed a great miracle and all would …….???

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  8. It would be great to see a movie made with just female Biblical characters/their stories from feminist perspective, or book of short stories. I know a little of their tales but not a lot of them…Would make a great anthology, too.

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  9. I love how you wrote: “Patriarchy will always be…a desert where our questions will never have an answer”

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  10. Does anyone happen to know where the image is from?

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  11. I was just wondering where the image is from? I think it’s fantastic and would like to use it in my assignment :)

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Trackbacks

  1. Etheree for Dverse | petrujviljoen
  2. Sara y Agar: Una Lectura Feminista a La Enemistad entre Mujeres | Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles

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