By Joanne Joseph
I distinctly remember sitting in our Anglican church on a Sunday morning in the 1990s when the call was made for congregants to vote as to whether women ought to be allowed to be ordained as priests in our denomination of the church. I was just a teenager, but felt secretly outraged as to why this even had to be put to a vote when the church leadership could simply have made a decisive call on this.
It was, after all, all there in the Bible that lay in that pew - the story of a revolutionary who had related to women in ways that customs of his time did not often allow for, and seen their value through the veil of patriarchy which had dominated his times.
Yet, my conversations with women of many different faiths and religious leanings over the years have revealed the same disillusionment. So many of us raised in the context of faith-based environments have encountered patriarchy in one way or another - some violently, others more covertly. Religious institutions the world over, with only a few exceptions, have become bastions of the male exercise of power, harbours of toxic masculinity and discrimination, and at their most extreme, perpetrators of sexual violence. its exploration of societies with high gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) rates, knowledge-sharing research portal, SaferSpaces makes the link between “the culture of violence” and male superiority manifesting as the norm so that men “feel entitled to sex with women, strict reinforcement of gender roles and hierarchy” and associate “masculinity with control of women”.
In societies where religion predominates (as in ours where close to 85% of South Africans subscribe to one religious ideology or another) it is therefore pivotal that faith-based organisations play their part in eradicating GBVF.
At the Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide which took place in 2019, faith-based organisations were accused of perpetuating the cycle of violence in South African society. It was a shameful truth that has led to increased internal scrutiny within the religious sector. Social and gender activist, Daniela Gennrich was on hand to receive this criticism and publicly apologised on behalf of the faith sector for all the damage done in its name. She also suggested that a new trajectory had already begun to be imagined for the sector’s role in addressing issues of GBVF.
Additionally, a sectoral Action Caucus took place at the summit, facilitated by leaders of the Faith Action Collective. At this meeting of about 25 people from diverse faith backgrounds, there was a clear admission that the faith sector is culpable for its role in the pandemic of GBV and femicide. Out of this, a summit resolution on the faith sector emerged. The current campaign has, in part, been motivated by this resolution.
Of course, religious followers or not, we as a populace are primarily dependent on the work of government arms, legislators, the police and justice system to prevent gender-based crime and to bring convicted perpetrators to book. But no amount of legislation or policing can penetrate the very fabric of societal religious and cultural customs which have become so interwoven with identity and praxis over the centuries that it is near impossible to root them out using the tools of secularist governance alone. The advantage that religious and cultural leaders enjoy (as these two facets often intersect) is that they hold the key to the hearts and minds of millions of religious followers. Using these powerful platforms, it is imperative for them to advocate for the rights and safety of women and other vulnerable groups and to begin the complex work of penetrating the intimate spaces in which much of the domestic violence in this country rears its head.
In recent years such initiatives have quietly been gaining momentum. In 2013, Anglican Archbishop, Thabo Makgoba launched the We Will Speak Out SA (WWSOSA) coalition as a collective of over a hundred members. It was formalised in 2017, having doubled its members. In 2020, a group of largely Christian faith leaders began to organise themselves into a loose collective in response to the dramatic spike in femicide that had emerged during the Covid-19 hard lockdown. They have come to be known as the Faith Action to End GBV Collective. They facilitate collaborative actions and jointly advocate for the faith sector to take GBV seriously, both within its own ranks and within wider society. In recent years, the Collective’s leadership has realised that little can be achieved if members of only one faith-based group are leading the charge. In order for it to succeed, it has had to broaden collaboration between existing multiple faith initiatives, and amplify a united voice to challenge and transform the key underlying drivers of GBV such as patriarchal norms and structures, the misinterpretations or misuse of religious texts. In this way, it can begin to transform sacred spaces for millions of South Africans who embrace a range of religious ideologies, but who are united in the goal of tackling the GBVF dilemma.
The Faith Action Collective has held a number of online discussions on what is required of the faith sector and what real accountability means within its ranks. These conversations continue through monthly forum meetings and webinars hosted collaboratively with Side by Side and other partners. With WWSOSA acting as its Secretariat, the Faith Action Collective has begun to emerge as a leading light and faith sector voice in the context of the runaway GBV and femicide pandemic, with a view to entrenching a more unified and effective response to South Africa’s spiralling GBVF rates.
Having agreed upon a joint interfaith vision of “an inclusive and harmonious South Africa free from Gender-Based Violence and Femicide”, the Faith Action Collective to End GBV launched a campaign in Benoni in November, at which this vision was shared with the country. In this unprecedented multi-faith mobilisation against GBVF, we heard what has emanated from intense and robust discussions among scholars, leaders, activists and members of African Traditional Religions and the Baha’i faith, Buddhists, Brahma Kumaris, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims.
The interfaith organising team has been careful to lead a research-based approach based on mutual learning and centres survivor-led proposals and action, although it has no illusions that the diversity of belief among participants will likely lead to fierce debate and divergence of opinion. Ultimately, the hope is that bringing the faith sector together on this occasion will elicit honest responses to tackling the dichotomy of faith and gender that is widely encountered in religious spaces. A jointly-crafted Interfaith Statement of Commitment will be presented to the faith leaders and other sectors present, for their endorsement and signature. This will launch a widespread ‘signature campaign’ in which members of diverse faith communities will make a signed, concerted commitment to disrupting the patterns which give rise to GBVF within and outside their religious institutions, and work to promote respect, the tenets of gender equality and intersectional inclusivity within their organisations.
For many, this will be a tall order. It will require individuals committed to the cause to bravely and vociferously challenge their religious institutions from within. They will face resistance, opposition and possibly alienation in response to the call for gender equality that will threaten to shake the foundations of patriarchal religious traditions and require significant shifts in power-sharing which patricentric leadership structures may well reject. But if not now, when? And is it so crazy to shoot for the sky when horrific rates of violence continue to ravage the land below? This has to be as good a time as any in history to start turning the toxic tide of GBVF.
*Joseph is a respected broadcaster with 26 years of experience in media. She has a Master of Arts degree from Wits University and is the author of two best sellers, ‘Drug Muled: Sixteen Years in a Thai Prison’ (non-fiction) and internationally released historical fiction novel, ‘Children of Sugarcane’.
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL