Could the Virgin Mary be your female role model?

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1. There's something about Mary

The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, is one of the most famous women in history. She is a key figure in the Christian story and has inspired worship, art, music and pilgrimage for 2,000 years. It’s not only Christianity that honours Mary - she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran, in which she has her own chapter.

For her supporters, Mary is a remarkable woman - a symbol of godliness and strength. But her critics – including Simone de Beauvoir, the godmother of feminism – berate the church for using Mary to create an inferior and unrealistic model of femininity. Richard Dawkins has described her as, a "submissive cosmic doormat" that has held back women for thousands of years.

How is it that Mary can be interpreted either as a powerful woman who elevates the status of womanhood in Christianity, and at the same time, as a tool of female oppression?

2. Mary in the Bible

Little is known about Mary. Much of what is known developed over the centuries that followed the death of her son, Jesus. Click through the seven images below to discover what we know about her from the Bible.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke say an unmarried virgin was visited by the angel Gabriel. He told her she was "blessed among women" and would conceive the son of God.

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Luke records that the pregnant Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth. She recited a prayer (the Magnificat) in which she states God will overturn authority, raising up the poor and bringing down the powerful and rich.

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The Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, where she was visited by shepherds and wise men.

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After the Roman King Herod ordered the massacre of all young male children near Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, becoming political exiles.

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Mary and Joseph lost Jesus following a Passover celebration in Jerusalem. When they found him at the temple in discussion with teachers, Mary is said to have told him how anxiously she'd been searching for him.

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Mary accompanied Jesus to a wedding in Cana, where he is said to have performed his first miracle. Mary turned to Jesus to tell him the wedding party had run out of wine. Jesus is then recorded to have turned six water jugs into wine.

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Mary is thought to have been present at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified, along with other female disciples including Mary Magdalene. Just before his death, Jesus is said to have told his disciple John to take care of Mary.

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3. Hail Mary - the Virgin in numbers

The virgin Mary's popularity in numbers

Source: Lourdes-France.org, Walsingham.org.uk, Pew Research Centre, Miraclehunter.com

Mary is one of the most popular figures in Christianity. Her power and holiness have led hundreds to report apparitions, attribute miraculous events to her divine intervention and make pilgrimages to Marian sites.

4. Reimagining Mary

Click below to uncover why feminist thinkers have traditionally criticsed the Virgin Mary - and how others are now recasting her as a progressive role model.

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5. Do you think Mary is a role model for women?