We wore headscarves.
We stayed in the back of the women’s section of the mosque.
We stayed on our knees.
It wasn’t enough.
Later, much later, when we rejoined the men in our group, we listened to their stories of camaraderie with the men of a different faith. We, the women, had experienced the social element of the mosque too. Yet in the aftermath we glanced at each other with hooded eyes, finding too few words for what had happened.
One in our group got the basics out: “They forced us to bow our heads to the ground. Their hands pushed us down, over and over.” The men were startled by this but what could they do? We returned to our Cairo flats, too silent, recoiling a little harder every time we were catcalled in the street by men who assumed Western women were all whores.
Like assault victims, we fought to separate what happened to our bodies with what happened to our souls. We were devout Christians and the focus of our prayers hadn’t changed. In my spiritual tradition, we bow and prostrate ourselves regularly, though with an intentional energy that feels very different from the moaning and falling of the mosque.
I haven’t spoken about it for years. When I have mentioned it, I am met with wide eyes and no questions. To this day I don’t know if the impact of that moment is self-explanatory or totally beyond the comprehension of those who have never left the West. It has been sixteen years and I still feel the tearing inside of being physically forced to worship a certain way, fearing what might happen if we resisted.
Sometimes people question what it means when we say the military protects our freedom. Looking back, I see that those women who forced our submission were probably frightened of the alternative. If we didn’t bow, would they be tainted by our presence? What would the women of other households think if they didn’t intervene? The United States of America has its roots in the quest for religious freedom, a concept that enrages those who fly airplanes into our buildings, bomb our marathons and behead those who make a stand for their faith. Argue the politics and foreign policy all you wish, but at the end of the day we still have something special in this country, and our military is a major part of its defense. Inside America, we still have the freedom to call out religious coercion for what it truly is: an assault on the God-given dignity of humankind.
Yet we’re not done. There are still too many corners of our society where people attempt to curtail others’ religious freedom. When we say, “freedom isn’t free” the most common image that comes to mind is the flag-draped casket, and rightly so. Right now, as our society argues over an ad about “sacrificing everything” we need to remember that image. Yet it is not the only cost of freedom. Freedom has a daily cost.
Starting with the Constitution, we rely upon our laws to protect us and our freedoms, but we have seen too many times when the people of our nation have been willing to bend those laws for their own purposes. In many cases they are well-intentioned…and this is where the hardest work comes in. It is relatively easy to speak out against blatant evil. It is far harder to resist a decent person who doesn’t see the flaws in their efforts, who genuinely believes they are acting for the good of others. The most recent time I told the story of the mosque, a friend shared her story about being coerced to worship in the style of another tradition. No, no one would kill her for it if she refused, but she was under intense pressure to conform due to her husband’s position.
Our dwindling ability to speak the truth –and listen- in civil discourse is the internal threat to our freedom, and it requires just as aggressive response as the wolves at our gates. We need to speak up in these moments, maintaining everyone’s dignity despite the offenses that come our way. If we fail to defend our freedom at home, the flag-draped coffins will stand in silent witness against us.