Reading about the birth of Moses as an autistic person throws a whole new light on the story, reflects writer Caroline Henthorne.

It is 1970-something and I am a child in a Sunday school class being told the story of the birth of Moses. It’s all rather shocking: the teacher explains that the midwives lied to Pharaoh and that this was the right thing to do! Ten years ago, I was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Autistic people are by nature honest to the point of bluntness, and suspicious of the idea that it is ever right or necessary to lie. As a child in Sunday school, I had been presented with the all-pervasive cultural assumption of the non-autistics that lies serve some other purpose than obscuring the truth. What if I chose not to believe that?

There has always been debate over how literally to interpret the Bible. It was written, one assumes, in the main, by people who, had they lived today, would not be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. The Bible has its own storytelling style, sometimes poetic in nature, and there are cultural as well as stylistic issues which get lost in translation.

But what if I were to assert my right as a literal thinker, cast in the divine image, to take the Bible at its word and choose to take what the midwives said literally? The results are liberating.

What if I were to assert my rights as a literal thinker?

According to Exodus, the Hebrew midwives were told by Pharaoh to kill all the male children at birth. They did not kill them, and they explained to Pharaoh why they hadn't "The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." Id like you to consider the possibility that the midwives were brave, not because they dared to lie, but because they dared to tell it like it was: the Hebrew women really did have an easier time giving birth than their Egyptian counterparts. In the west we have assumed that the midwives lied because we could think of no reason why the women of one culture would give birth more easily than those of another. Have we been, like Pharaoh was, wilfully ignorant of women's concerns? I cannot believe that Pharaoh was duped due to ignorance of how children come into the world, or of his culture and its ways.

It is a drizzly evening in London, in the spring 2015. I am at a drinks reception at the Shape Arts pop-up gallery in the Stratford Westfield shopping centre. Shape supports people who have every type of impairment you can think of to build careers in every kind of artistic field. The gallery is showcasing some of this work.

One artist, Maryam Tafakory, has made a video, in which images of her using a sewing machine are accompanied by a voiceover of her telling the story of how as a five year old, an anonymous person, voiced by Maryam, was stitched up by her family: leading her to having her genitals mutilated. Seeing this video is a lightbulb moment for me.

These casualties of the battle of the sexes are not just wounded women, but part of the disabled community

I realise that the victims of female genital mutilation are disabled. These casualties of the battle of the sexes are not just wounded women, but part of the disabled community. Their bodies are impaired and the issues that result are disabling: the problems with managing their menstruation, their inability to manage their emotions through sexual release, their difficulty forming a sexual identity, and taking this identity onto the dating scene, then forming sexual relationships, and founding a family by giving birth safely - all these problems are disabling. And these women have been further disabled by our society, because we see their oppression as culture not torture. Ashamed of our imperial past. Are allow ourselves to be silenced. We sit like Pharaoh sat, dumb upon his throne.

My choice to be myself as a disabled woman, and take the Bible Iiterally, has enabled me to see the women disabled through genital mutilation for who they really are: women, who like me, are in need of a God who stands with them. Maryam Tafakory shares, in translation, the name of Moses' big sister, Miriam, who watched over the basket in which the baby Moses was hidden. Before this person represented by Maryam reached the age when I first heard the story of Moses' birth, they had been mutilated in a manner unimaginable to my Sunday school teachers, who I can only assume were unaware that female genital mutilation was practiced in some sectors of Ancient Egyptian society. No one watched over ‘Maryam’. 

Centuries after Moses was born, another woman, another of Miriam's namesake in  translation, Mary, gave birth. The wonder over the miraculous conception of her child has obscured the ordinary nature of the birth itself. A holy infant was born via a perfectly ordinary vagina. God coming to be with us through an ordinary woman, and no less holy for that. Here is a truth worth telling with all the daring we have.

Caroline Henthorne is researching autism and disability theology. She contributed a chapter on autism and church to Lives With Autism edited by Steve Mee (M&K Publishing, 2014, £25). The original magazine article 'The Autistic Bible' was commissioned by Reform Magazine.

Maryam Tafakory is a film maker from London with an Iranian background. Maryam’s work draws on the notion of ‘personal as political’ in a fractured narrative that involves a subtle negotiation between factual and fiction, exploring allegorical forms of visual narrative, using abstracted, symbolic and textual motifs and their on-screen representation.

Maryam’s piece for the exhibition was a film narrative portraying how a young person suffers from genital mutilation. To discover more of Maryam Tafokory’s work visit her website at this link:

Banner image: 'When I was five' - from a film by Maryam Tafakory, which was shown at The Shape Open in 2015 as mentioned in this blog.