FWF Q&A: Louise Omer

Each month, we interview an Australian writer about feminism, writing and the connections between the two. This month, we speak to Louise Omer – writer, critic and author of the upcoming book Holy Woman, about women and religion.

Photo: Bri Hammond

What does feminism mean to you?

To examine how sexism plays out in structural and individual realities. To learn about personal culpability in systems that perpetuate inequality. To cultivate empathy. And to act.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

When I was 19, I volunteered for a church group in Adelaide. On Friday nights, a bevy of smiling young women would pile into a maroon van, zip through the suburbs, park discreetly and pour out as if from a clown car to visit sex workers in brothels. We wanted to ‘reach out to women and men who are hurting and offer them an opportunity to meet Jesus’. We knocked on doors and hung out with bored women smoking in lounges between clients. Many of them shared sweets with us and kindly indulged our concerned questions.

As I got older, I began reading Charlotte Shane on her Nightmare Brunette blog, as well as local women like Grace Bellavue, and the Adelaide sex industry support network. They were extraordinary resources for me, in which women discussed the political, economic and emotional realities of their work. I began to understand my group’s rescue mentality, our white saviour complex; quitting the outreach group was a foundational part of my learning.

Firstly, it taught me to read and listen to other women, particularly marginalised women of whose experiences I am ignorant. And secondly, I discovered life’s tragic complexity. Ideas can oppose each other. Nothing is simple, but that’s one of the beauties of feminism: it has multiplicities. There is no one, objective truth.

You were shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for your essay In the Name of the Mother. What was the process of writing this piece like, including researching your family’s history?

Changing my surname – from my ex-husband’s to my mother’s maiden name – was an important step in my identity. After marrying at 22, I was conflicted by the patriarchal tradition of stepping out of the name that belonged to me, and into a new name in order to belong to my husband. It’s something I thought about deeply for years, and had many conversations with women about. It really strikes a chord: that conflict between feminist principles and mainstream convention, that has tangible emotional consequences.

When I separated from my husband, and therefore had the problem of a name that no longer belonged to me, I knew I wanted to acknowledge my matrilineage. I am glad I was able to work it out on the page, and have such a platform for it!

And perhaps it is a milestone, or maybe a cliché, for every young writer who has lived a somewhat sheltered life to write about the death of a family member. Sifting through memories of my Nan and having conversations with her children was a wonderful way of paying homage to her life. It was also a chance to recognise the privilege of growing up in middle-class Australia, as opposed to working-class Yorkshire. Nan began working as a shopgirl at 14, married at 19, and had her first daughter (my mother) at 20. Although we had similar passions, she didn’t have the same chance to pursue art and words.

You are currently working on your first book, Holy Woman, about women and religion. How do (or can) religion and feminism intersect?

This is what I’m trying to find out!

The major religions of the world worship a male God. I’m focusing on Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; the latter two I am still learning about. Patriarchal structures instil unquestioned male authority – as feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote, ‘If god is male, then the male is god’. After centuries of colonialism, racism and violence against women, and the recent revelations of child abuse, it’s clear this system is broken.

Not only this, these religions exclude women by nature of their androcentrism. But there are schools of thought which line up with feminist thinking (as in, women deserve equal rights and platform as men): in Christianity it is called prophetic or liberation theology.

Nevertheless, to take a feminist analysis towards religion is subversive. Women who do this are on the edges. They are renegades. So I truly believe it is a revolutionary act for women to read holy texts with a gendered perspective, and to evolve language, stories and symbolism to include them and their experience.

What insights have you gained about women and their experiences of religion, especially in different cultural contexts, so far in your travels for your book research?

Many are fed up. They are leaving church institutions. Around the world, religion is often viewed as static and stale, opposite to progressive politics and education.

Anna Karin Hammar, a retired priest who is married to a woman in Sweden, taught me the theory of cultural violence. She believes that ‘it is violent towards women – and everything that is female – that God is solely connected to male’.

But! We are all spiritual beings and many people still seek ways to engage with the Divine, even within religious paradigms. I have interviewed people who are destabilising the male symbolism of God. A small group in their sixties meet in a weekly bible study group in Umeå, Sweden, and pray to God the Mother. There is a festival in Faughart, north of Dublin, that celebrates Ireland’s Catholic St Brigid and simultaneously honours the stories of the pagan goddess Brigit.

Women are evolving traditions. Some powerful women stand at the altar, but many do this work from in pews and homes. Change exists on the sidelines.

What has it been like traveling for research?

The ease in which I can move through the world is astounding. As a white woman with an EU passport, my intentions are believed, my income rarely questioned, my ability to enter never refused. Besides an intimidating border crossing into Turkey at 3am, I’ve moved through seven countries quite freely; I’m aware many, many people in the world cannot. It’s been an education in privilege.

Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?

Simone de Beauvoir and poet Mary Oliver guide my travels. De Beauvoir for her sheer-bloody-mindedness, and courage to put principles into action, and Oliver for her embodiment of nature’s holiness: ‘I walk, all day, across the heaven-verging field.’

For feminist theology, Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Carol P Christ; Rev Denise Champion, who I met in my younger years when learning about indigenous women in the church, is doing incredible things incorporating Adnyamathanha stories with faith.

What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self?

Stop fearing being wrong. Do the work. Trust your mind.

Louise Omer has journalism and criticism published in The Guardian, The Australian, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow. She writes on religion, feminism, and books, and in 2017 was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize. She is currently working on her first book, Holy Woman.

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