Seeing the invisible

When I first arrived in the city that I live in, one of the things that struck me was that I did not see many women. As I walked along the main road outside my house, I saw children going to school, some of them carrying their own little plastic chairs for school over their heads; I saw men greeting each other with warm handshakes and long embraces; I saw shopkeepers (men) sitting in their shops waiting for customers; I saw bakers (also men) baking bread in ovens that were set in walls—but hardly any women.

In preparing to come to Central Asia, I had read many books about the country and its culture. Again and again, I read that its women were oppressed, victims of domestic violence and systemic abuse. My first impressions of this country seemed to prove these notions right. Women are hidden behind the walls that surround their homes, and when in public many are “invisible” as they are covered by veils their husbands or fathers force them to wear.

Or are they?

First impressions can be deceiving. As I started to get to know the women here, I began to understand that they are only “invisible” if we do not take the time to see them. I have met women who are juggling full-time jobs and raising a family; women who are furthering their education by studying at university after a full day’s work; still others who are working hard at home raising their children, caring for their families, and making life decisions for their family members such as who their sons can or cannot marry. These women are by no means invisible to their families or communities. It was not until I lived life alongside these women that I was able to see them … their hopes, dreams, joys and sorrows.

Interserve’s approach to ministry through wholistic mission resonates strongly with me. As I learn more about wholistic mission, I am beginning to understand that it’s not just about how we can use our professional skills in ministry, but rather how we can use our whole life for ministry. If that’s the case then, as I grapple with what wholistic mission looks like in my life here, I should not just be asking myself how I can use my professional skills for Kingdom work, but also how I can use my roles as wife, mother and woman to connect with other women.

So I do what only a woman can do in this culture. I spend time in the kitchen with friends who want to learn how to bake cakes and share stories as we eat together. I attend women-only parties to celebrate an engagement or a birth and eat, laugh and dance with them. I sit with a lady who has lost her child and cry with her and pray for God’s comfort to be upon her. I listen to a woman whose husband is sick and has lost his job and pray with her as she worries about her family’s future. I sit around with the girls in my neighbour’s house and in my conversation with them I tell them a gospel story.

In short, I share life with the women around me and, as I do, the veil of invisibility quickly falls away as we connect as people. The women of Central Asia are not invisible but, in a gender-segregated society, it takes a woman to truly see them and then to point them to One who sees them fully.

The author is a psychologist serving long-term in Central Asia.