The Sacred and The Profane: Church Girls and ‘Convertibles’

You want a freaky woman? Go to the church. Church girls are the FREAKIEST!’ It was a saying repeated by the good ole boys inside of the church and the non believers outside alike. Though some may take umbrage to this saying, in my experience there is certainly a grain of truth to it.

To come of age as a female in a religiously conservative household is a challenging experience. All of a sudden notions of purity, decency and honor are determined by your behavior and thoughts. You want to make your family proud, right? You want to be perceived as a lady and  a ‘woman of God’ who knows her ‘place’ in the hierarchy established by God himself. You want to live up to the expectations laid on you by your community. In adhering to the norms set by your faith community, you can be considered a ‘good’ woman, a ‘godly’ woman. As long as you conform to those expectations you can remain on the positive side of the Madonna-Whore complex.

No one asks you how you feel about these expectations. No one asks you if you even agree with them and want to abide by them. Deviating from them in the slightest isn’t even given as a real option. To question such things, to question the idea that your worth as a woman and as a believer  is determined by your ability to adhere to a list of do’s and don’ts regarding dress,beauty and grooming choices, make-up, attitude and submission is a no-go. Doing so would make you an outcast, a scarlet woman, a ‘jezebel’, a whore, a woman of the world and a slut. Because we fear being thought of in such a way, some of us go along with the Madonna-Whore dichotomy outwardly. When around our family and other believers, we’ll dress the part. We’re often the first ones to denounce other women for dressing differently and making themselves attractive. To our families and fellow believers we’ll claim that we are keeping ourselves till marriage in obedience to the word of God. We’ll click our tongues in dismay at the other people our age who go out dancing and drinking. And often our elders will smile, pleased that they are raising ‘good girls’ who will stand for purity and righteousness.

But when we get away from this environment, another side comes out. The repression we’re subjected to ends up achieving the exact opposite of what our elders want. Instead of becoming well-balanced young women, we lead double lives. The Muslim girl who doesn’t leave home without hijab on removes it once she gets away from home. The Christian girl who is told she cannot wear makeup simply gets to school early so she can spend thirty minutes painting her face and removes it before she gets home. The girl who preaches against the evils of the ‘world’ moonlights as an eager participant of that same world. They are the true Transformers, more than meets the eye.

In my area it is not uncommon to see young women from one of the strictest Muslim communities in nightclubs. They dance as provocatively as any stripper, touching their toes with hair unbound and flowing loosely around their shoulders, clothes gripping their ripe curves and garish makeup distorting their features.

It is easy to look at these girls and young women of faith and judge them. It is so easy to refer to them as ‘convertibles’, a term that is sometimes applied to Muslim girls who don’t want to conform to hijab. It is easy to look at them and call them hypocrites and frauds. But when I look at them I can’t help but feel empathy, for I see myself in them.  Repressed by a one-dimensional standard of womanhood, we simply become schizophrenic. Unable to reconcile the expectations of our family and faith with our own feelings on identity, we live at extremes.

However, in my opinion living this way is not healthy. As human beings our nature and identity isn’t as black and white as some would make it out to be. For women in particular, I think it’s imperative that we understand we do not have to define ourselves according to the standards of Middle Eastern nomads, who lived thousands of years ago in a world very different from ours. We can develop a more moderate view of our femininity. In reality there is much space between the archetypes of virgin and whore, and this is the space where we must learn to live for the sake of our own health and sanity.

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A native Seattleite and recent East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been. I reside in the suburbs of NYC with my husband, daughter, and our two feisty but deeply loved cats.

2 thoughts on “The Sacred and The Profane: Church Girls and ‘Convertibles’

  1. The schizophrenia delema you describe is very intense, real and a torment for many. But let me address the polarity of morals from a diferent perspective. As I have gotten older and also gotten to know people from different cultures, I observe that there can be good healthy conservative values that are not so religiously based. Did you know that in Korea over 80% of people, male and female, are virgin when they marry? There can be a conservative side to dressing modestly based upon the value that women should not be treated as sex objects. Even my friends from China who are atheist communists are very conservative. So we could view this subject purely as sociology and not as religion. For a class project on gender roles I came upon a doc film called “Sexy Inc, the sexualization of childhood” that I recomend. So, I don’t understand why, but it seems that in religious cultures, the shchizophrenia you describe is more intense.

  2. Hi Maark :),
    Thank you for commenting, you bring up excellent points! I am going to look into the documentary that you mention, it sounds quite interesting. Have you noticed that we seem to be living at extremes when it comes to sexuality in the religious cultures? I think that one way to avoid this situation is to take a path of moderation. The anything-goes attitude about sex can be damaging as well, so I certainly wouldn’t advocate that for any society. Coming to terms with our nature as human beings and working with it instead of trying to completely suppress it is the way forward for thise of us in religious societies, in my opinion at least.

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