Women, religion and rights

In 2011, I attended and led a discussion group for the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forum, with the theme of Religion, Belief and Women’s Rights.  You can learn more about that forum in my short post at the Immanent Frame.

The Carter Center, along with its partners across the globe, sponsored a follow-up to this forum in June of 2013, titled Mobilizing Faith for Women: Engaging the Power of Religion and Belief to Advance Human Rights and Dignity.  Although I wasn’t at that event, I’m viewing the web-cast several weeks later, after returning from vacation and a couple of busy weeks at work!

Much of my work has been at the intersections of women’s lives, religion and human rights, and it is exciting to see how much work organizations like the Carter Center have dedicated to exploring these issues with a vast range of academics, practitioners, and people on the ground.  As we continue to think about how these pieces and issues intersect, I think that it’s important to remember that religion matters in women’s lives in various and complex ways – not just by way of institutions or leaders, but also through the diffuse practices, traditions and beliefs that people hold.  As I’m revising my dissertation for a book project, it’s this nugget of a finding that sticks out to me.  As women talk about when “God was there” or as they turn to prayer and mothering practices to heal from conflict, post-conflict or gender-based violence, it’s not always the institutions or leaders that matter most (although they often do – and they can do so much to help and/or harm women and men who have experienced violence).  Sometimes it’s the more diffuse practices or affective ways of experiencing the divine that make the most difference in how survivors are able to heal (if and when they are).  More on this later, as I continue to dig back in to the writing.

Sexual assault, trauma and the brain

Last weekend I went to the annual meeting for the Society for Pastoral Theology (SPT), where along with my colleague and friend Abigail Holland Conley, I presented a workshop on gender-based violence, narrative and healing.  During our workshop, we used interactive exercises to help participants to understand the barriers that survivors face when reporting or telling their story, and Dr. Conley discussed recent brain science research on trauma.  

A recent Slate article by Rebecca Ruiz highlights some of this research:

In the past decade, neurobiology has evolved to explain why victims respond in ways that make it seem like they could be lying, even when they’re not. Using imaging technology, scientists can identify which parts of the brain are activated when a person contemplates a traumatic memory such as sexual assault. The brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory—often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information. Victims can also experience tonic immobility—a sensation of being frozen in place—or a dissociative state. These types of withdrawal result from extreme fear yet often make it appear as if the victim did not resist the assault.

This is why, experts say, sexual assault victims often can’t give a linear account of an attack and instead focus on visceral sensory details like the smell of cologne or the sound of voices in the hallway. “That’s simply because their brain has encoded it in this fragmented way,” says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and forensic consultant who trains civilian and military law enforcement to understand victim and offender behavior.

As we discussed at SPT last week, understanding the effects of trauma on the brain and body is a vital first step for faith communities, law enforcement, university officials and others who interact with survivors of gender-based violence.  Learn more about some of this research on the neurobiology of sexual assault by listening in to Dr. Rebecca Campbell‘s 2012 presentation for the National Institute for Justice.