Back in 2016 I released a YouTube video concerning Serena’s statement regarding women. Specifically she was telling girls to ‘Dream Big’ (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/29/dream-big-open-letter-serena-williams-porter-magazine-incredible-women-of-2016-issue-women-athletes ) and encouraging them to seek out the same success that men have in all aspects of their lives, whether that be careers or sports. It was a great, uplifting piece and was picked up by lots of media due to its nature. As a woman and mother to a seven-year old girl, I fully support everything she said but it left a bad taste in my mouth and I was not the only one.
Serena Williams is arguably the most famous ‘self proclaimed’ Jehovah’s Witness (I will elaborate on why I choose that wording later) and also perhaps the most famous female tennis star and this is a problem. I say ‘self proclaimed’ because, as has been pointed out to me, by ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, over and over since this videos release, she was never actually baptized, and therefore not bound by the rules that dedicated members are. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses and ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses are pretty much the only people who see this nuance. She has thanked Jehovah for her wins and has repeatedly talked about her ‘faith’ (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/07/11/the-surprising-faith-of-tennis-champ-serena-williams/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.aa938da8dc6e) and even about being out on the ministry. To all intents and purposes, to people with limited knowledge of the Organisation, she is a Jehovah’s Witness, and what she does gives a false impression of what is permissible as a member.
Technically, she is able to do whatever she pleases, to have a sports career, to have sex before marriage, to celebrate worldly holidays, without any come back from the organization. Which is fine, many that grow up a Jehovah’s Witness do these things as they move away from the faith they were brought up in, but at the same time she is proclaiming to be a Jehovah’s Witness… and then there was this public statement… So what are outsiders led to believe about Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Shortly after this piece was run in the media I had an online conversation with some of these ‘outsiders’ and they were discussing whether JWs were allowed to have sports careers and Serena was offered up as evidence that they clearly were allowed because here was the most famous female tennis star doing exactly that. I did try to educate them on the ‘rules’ that all JWs are under and also the nuances of baptised and non baptised members but of course that is difficult for outsiders to truly grasp. And so, a more permissive and relaxed ‘religion’ is seen, not the high control group we all know and are trying to expose.
And then there was the core message she was trying to convey, namely that girls need to ‘dream big’ and do whatever they wanted to do, to dream of being successful just like men. This coming from someone who must have knowledge of what it is like to grow up not only in an extremely isolated and controlling organisation (although clearly she did not experience these restrictions) but doing that as a girl/woman. How can anyone dream big in such an organisation? They do their best to keep minds as small as possible, to only dream of serving the organisation. Only dreaming of field service, dreaming of the dizzying heights of maybe being a regular pioneer! Or just maybe… marrying a Ministerial Servant or just maybe… maybe… being married to an Elder. That is it. That is the end of the road as a woman in this organisation.
They actively dissuade all youngsters from seeking any further education, not just women. There is no way to have a career, there is no way to dream big, there is no way to even be equal to a man. You cannot give a public talk to the congregation, you cannot hold a position of authority in the congregation, you must defer to you husband as ‘head of the house’, and let’s not even get into the ridiculous rule about covering your head to say a prayer. As a woman in the Watchtower you are not even trusted to handle a microphone, that is man’s work. At every step you are reminded of your inferiority as a woman.
I am happy for anyone, woman or not, that has managed to overcome these hurdles and had a successful career in any area, Serena Williams is an amazing athlete but telling girls to reach for the stars while proclaiming to be a Jehovah’s Witness is incredibly disingenuous. So what is the solution?
If she would stop proclaiming to be a Jehovah’s Witness, that at least would reduce the confusion about what the organisation is like, it would not give it an air of respectability that is just doesn’t deserve. Or perhaps she could call them out, use her fame and success to address the issues that she knows exists in her faith and acknowledge that she has had opportunities that almost no born in Jehovah’s Witness has experienced, without sanctions or possibly even losing their family ties.
 CC by 2.0 –
 Watchtower – 15 July 2009