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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

At this time of the year, we can take inspiration from Mary's story

As we approach Christmas, Shelina Janmohamed reflects on the centrality of Mary to the story of Jesus

The cave in Bethelehem where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus. Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters
The cave in Bethelehem where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus. Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters

We’re in peak festive season in the UK counting down the days to Christmas. Our screens are full of snowmen, tinsel and Christmas trees, the airwaves are blaring out seasonal favourites that give you the feels. And trending on Twitter is the hashtag #AVeryMerryMuslimChristmas. Wait, what?

It’s a catchy hashtag highlighting the huge amount of charity work Muslims do at Christmas. And also we enjoy a big family meal during the holidays. But the Christmas grinches were out in force to complain. One troll – entirely without irony – told me that there are no hijabs at Christmas.

Except of course the single most important hijab, worn by Mary, the mother of Jesus. In every nativity play, in every depiction, Mary is present. And more often than not, she’s there with her hijab. The role of Mary is central to the story of the birth of Jesus, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or of any other or no faith.

To erase Mary and her identity from the celebration is endemic of how extremists on all sides – and sadly even those who consider themselves supporters of women in the places in between those extremes – seek to erase women from our founding stories. Worse, by dispensing platitudes it's thought that the real daily suffering of women doesn’t matter, or in fact doesn’t even happen.

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You’ve heard the platitudes. Women are amazing. Women are held in high regard. Mothers are the linchpin of our societies and no one ranks higher than them.

This was the year we interrogated those platitudes and started finally getting a spot in the global conversation about what it’s really like to be a woman. If women are amazing, do we treat them as such? If women are really held in high regard, is that respect a reality in day-to-day life? If mothers are so revered, then why is abuse and abandonment so high, and the resources and support given to them so scant? If women are central to our stories, why do they suffer such high rates of domestic violence, rape and poverty?

Whatever telling of the birth of Jesus you believe in, Mary is at its heart. And we need to reclaim women being at the centre of our stories. I’m getting tired, as many women are, of all the empty praise of women. It’s time now to start demanding that those saying these words deliver against them.

Mary should be one of our heroes, one that can unite, one that can display the blatant double standards between how we talk about women and how we actually treat them.

Mary the mother of Jesus needs to be a figure for more than lip service. Her story must be a rebuke to all those who are explicitly and implicitly denying the abuse women face. And it must act as an inspiration to those who are marching ahead with change.

In the Quranic telling of the story, Mary’s mother broke through the barriers, which meant places of worship were only for men. Mary’s presence in the temple is a beacon till today of the central role women have to play in our sacred spaces. So why do so many mosques around the world exclude women or relegate them to dingy backrooms and basements?

Mary is the symbol of compassion and forbearance. Yet trolls like mine think they can co-opt her story to create hatred. We should be fierce in defending Mary’s legacy.

Mary was the target of gossip, abused for her unusual family arrangements. She was a single mother. If you’ve found yourself gossiping about single mums, failing to support them or seeing them as a social failure, check yourself when you praise Mary.

At this time of the year, we can take inspiration from Mary to continue the struggle and keep pushing to change the story. Her enduring presence is a challenge to those who say women should stay out of public, be anonymous and remain unnamed and erased. Mary is a hero figure. We can either be a hero like her, or make sure today’s heroes are supported as part of her legacy.

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