Losing My Head
I accompanied my grandmother one afternoon as she paid her weekly visit on a trio of children. At the request of their mother, she studied the Bible with them. On the day I joined them, my grandmother was compelled to don a head-covering. As she tied the scarf around her head and tucked in her graying hair along the sides, she explained to the children that since she was about to lead them in a Bible study, she was required to show submissive respect to the male in the room—her grandson. Trying to dispel their smirks and giggles, she raised her eyebrows and puckered her lips as she explained the reasons why women, especially in religious matters, were subject to men.
But I wasn't a man. I was only twelve. The children looked at me, snickering, wondering how I could be the head of my own grandmother, a woman nearing 60 years of age who had been a member of the religion for most of her life and had been studying the Bible for decades longer than I had been alive.
My presence during the Bible study that day was awkward. But at other times, my presence was positively nerve-wracking.
For most of the year, I only participated in the door-to-door proselytizing on Saturdays and Sundays. But during the summer, when school was in recess, my little sister and I joined our mother in preaching midweek. In the morning, we met with other Witnesses at the Kingdom Hall, which is what they call their churches. We held a brief meeting to share a scripture, discuss the latest Watchtower periodicals, divide into car groups, and pray.
During those summer breaks, I frequently was the only baptized male in attendance and was thus obligated to conduct these meetings. The attendees consisted of my aunts, my grandmother, former baby-sitters, and other women who were four or five times older than I. Occasionally we arrived late, and I caught a glimpse of the woman in front, demurely kowtowing to my headship as she scooted back to her chair and pulled the shawl off her head. It was difficult to project an air of authority and respect with my squeaky pre-teen voice, and I struggled to conjure up an eloquent prayer. But there was no other option.
Often, there was another boy, about two years older than me, who likewise showed up for the morning meeting with his mother. In the minutes leading up to 9:00, Bobby and I alternately made eye contact and diverted glances—each hoping the other would make a move to the front of the room and thereby letting the other boy rest easy. The minutes swept by. My mother nudged me, "Don't you think it's time to get started?" she whispered. I hesitated, silently hopeful that Bobby—by virtue of his two additional years of life—would stand up and call the meeting to order. But it was unfair to expect Bobby to conduct the meeting every day. And on some days, he wasn't there at all. So, reluctantly, I stood up, and walked to the front of the room.
I didn't feel very well equipped to lead all of those adults. And I felt positively silly later in the morning as I dictated, quite arbitrarily, who would be accompanying whom, and which women were to knock on the doors on the north side of the street, and which women were to knock on the doors on the south. Sometimes I was busy laughing with my sister, and had to be prodded back into my headship role by my mother politely saying, "Okay, Brother Zimmerman, tell us what to do."
Thus, in a way, abdicating my headship was a natural outcome of my observation that women were not, in fact, unequal. Growing up, I sensed the oddness of it all, but it was only once I had a girlfriend, then a fiancée, and then a wife that I detected the absurdity. My spouse, I recognized, was not like an employee or a child or a pet—she was a co-creator of our marriage and an equal hand in our new life together. She didn't need a head. She had her own. And thus my announcement that Friday evening during the commercial break.
James Zimmerman is editor of The Minnesota Atheist and frequent host of Atheists Talk television show. His writings have appeared in several secular periodicals, including The Humanist and Free Inquiry. His book Deliverance at Hand! is being published by Freethought House in the fall of 2013.