You in your small corner ... subverting bad-news-Britain

by - 26th June 2013

Amid the gathering religious gloom, and the regular hammering from the news, it is not just the roses that fling out joy heedlessly on a summer’s day. 

Modesty and the politically correct brigade mean that radical goodness is suppressed in the national discourse; but that does not mean it’s not there.  We are used to subversion being a dirty word; but subversive love is a far more potent and present force.

There was plenty of it at the conference of a once-famous medical mission I attended at the weekend.  That mission was founded by a 35-year old woman - - Mary Kinnaird - who also founded the YWCA.  The year was 1852 – and women would not be able to practise medicine in England routinely for another 100 years.  That did not stop them setting up hospitals in dusty, hostile, fever-ridden parts of Asia, or trying to get the zenanas open to treat the women who lived and died in them.  Zenanas were the harems, or women’s quarters.  Women were not allowed to be seen by men who were not their immediate family, and women’s education was largely banned.  If they were ill, they were permitted to stick their tongue through a hole in a curtain.  The trials of life for women in India are little known, and rarely believed even if known; dismissed as the prejudice of white imperialists, who often just added to their woes.

What makes the medical mission I’m writing about different is that Mary Kinnaird did not care much for white imperialists herself.  She was Church of Scotland – Presbyterian in other words – which made a virtue of not conforming, and not submitting to hierarchical structures.  She deliberately kept this mission outside the denominational straitjacket.  Contrary to Marxism-riddled historical revisionism, empire was not all about the jackboot of exploitation, or the corruption of pristine cultures where all was sweetness and light.  Pandita Ramabai (1858 – 1922), the first female pandit in India’s history, a social reformer and scholar, campaigned against child widows – infants left to the mercy of the temple priests for sex and exploitation when the ‘husband’ died.  And she shone a light on the practices of Hindu rulers who would sometimes do away with their excess wives by hanging them in the basement of their palaces.  (The story is told in the book she wrote, Pandita Ramabai’s America which compared the lot of women in the West and the East.  An extract of Richard Symonds biography is the day’s reading in the Church of England’s Calendar for 30 April.)   Ramabai was converted through the love of the Wantage Sisters – nuns of the Community of St Mary Virgin in Berkshire – who helped fund her work and her travels.

Social reformer Pandita Ramabai. Photo: Mukti Mission‘In studying books of Hindu law whilst preparing her lectures, Ramabai was struck by the fact that although the sacred books were inconsistent on many things, they were unanimous in holding that women as a class were bad, worse indeed than demons.  Their only hope of liberation from millions of rebirths and suffering was through worship of a husband, with no other pleasure in life than the most degraded slavery to him.  Women had no right to study the Vedas, and without knowing them no one could know the Brahma; without knowing Brahma no one could obtain liberation.  Therefore no one could obtain liberation whilst incarnate as a woman’ (Celebrating the Saints, p. 224).

The mission whose conference I attended went on to pioneer all kinds of help for Asian women – and did not allow men in for a hundred years.  They sent single women into the Himalayas to work as surgeons – sometimes with a manual in one hand and a scalpel in the other.  They lived sometimes in mud-walled huts, undergoing monthly banishment when they had their periods.  One I met even suckled – and saved - the dying baby of a shaman whose mother was too malnourished to do so.  Even as I write, an eyecare trainer who left the mission years ago following a stroke, is back in Afghanistan under armed guard, in a burka, fulfilling a need in a country with almost no healthcare infrastructure.

Ms Rachel Karrach, Director of the United Mission Hospital Tansen (UMHT) receiving the 'Best Hospital 2012' Award. Photo: United Mission to NepalAt the weekend, I met Rachel Karrach, an ordinary-looking former GP in sandals and cotton skirt, who runs the extraordinary United Mission Hospital in West Nepal, at Tansen.  When I visited this hospital nearly 25 years ago, the incubator was a crate covered in a plastic film, with a light bulb suspended over it for warmth.  Today, under a succession of dedicated Brits, at least two of them unmarried women, that hospital is the top hospital in Nepal: it recently won the award for Best Hospital 2012 run by Nepal’s monthly health magazine,  Swasthiya Kabar Patrika.

The Holy Spirit is still motivating women  and men  to seek to raise up civil society institutions with whatever materials lie to hand, in languages they have had to learn, supported by small cheques from home, in the hardest corners of the earth.  In parts of the world, we are only 50 years away from no hospitals at all. 

If we think civilization is collapsing, we are suffering from loss of perspective.  In the great scheme of things, it's only just begun.