South Africa: Empowered faith, empowered women

Date: May 4, 2011
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“Your husband is king.”

This was recently the group consensus at a ladies faith-based study in the informal settlement of Masiphumelele in Cape Town. Agreement was muttered around the room as heads nodded.

“His way is the only way. Even if he does not work, even if he drinks, even if he beats you, you must stay or you are not a real woman.” None of the women present felt this was right, but none of them felt they could change it. They were trapped by a potent, twisted combination of culture and religious teaching. For these women, their perceived truth was not going to set them free.

While the Rainbow Nation is striving to support and empower women in many societal spheres, one wonders what is being done in churches, mosques and temples. Women are gaining seats in parliament, making strides in education and law reform; yet, domestic abuse, rape and incest remain at alarming rates.

How does one reshape biases passed down in time and cultivated by environment? How does one tackle a war against a world view? How does one change instinctual, rather than purposeful behaviours? The key is to address the root, not only the symptoms, of gender-based injustice. Bias and inequity lie in the heart of every man and woman, deep inside our core beliefs. Gender injustice is the tainted fruit of wrong beliefs. There is no institution on earth better designed to reach into the heart of humankind, to flush out wrong belief, than our religious and spiritual homes. We must empower the faiths to empower women.

“You are what you worship,” says David Hamilton, author of Why Not Women?, a book championing women as equal partners in ministry. Faith shapes cultures, and culture plays a key part in shaping world view. Our world view is the grid through which we interpret all things; for example, right and wrong, success and failure, and the worth of humankind. Religious or not, no one can escape the impact of the major faith or traditional beliefs they were raised with. Faith is a cornerstone of society that must be taken into account.

Often a source of inequality is, sadly, the one place where women should be empowered the most – their local church, mosque, temple or religious space. While women are empowered politically and educationally, they may be told each week their primary role is to serve their husbands and have children: their own contribution to society, outside of traditional roles, is undermined.

Traditional Christianity teaches a woman she is created to be her husband’s helper and restricts women’s roles in the church. Traditional Islam grants women equality at creation, but still teaches women are one degree short of a man and their primary role is in the home. Judaism historically taught that a woman is more intrinsically evil than a man. A traditional Buddhist proverb claims a person is born a woman as a result of 10 000 sins in a previous life. Until 1998, a woman in a customary marriage was considered a perpetual minor. And today, polygamy, eschewed by most women’s rights groups, is not only legal, but South Africa’s president is a partaker.

Do the faiths believe they teach such inequality? They would shout out a resounding NO! And they’re right, but they’re also wrong. The histories of all faiths have at some point intertwined with the biases of those interpreting their scriptures and perpetuating their doctrines. Thus, women across the globe are still battling the residue of false truth about their sex taught by ancient Greek philosophers, church fathers, rabbis, imams, gurus and tribal chiefs.

Two university-educated, ambitious girls in the religious study group had questions about their identity as females when it came to the question of marriage and lobola. One young woman found it offensive; the other found it a harmless custom to be honoured. But they asked the same questions: “Who am I after I get married? Do my ambitions and dreams dissolve after I am a wife?”

Both were taught by culture and religion that God created women primarily to serve their husbands. The empowerment of women is greatly compromised, if not defeated, when their places of worship settle for unchallenged traditional teaching, and do not make an effort to re-explore scriptures in light of cultural changes and modernisation.

So, do we turn our back on religion? Definitely not. The answer is to empower faiths to empower women. Spiritual institutions must do the hard work of sifting truth from culture and bias passed down from history. This is how world views are shifted. Reinterpretation does not mean abandoning the authority of our holy books. It does not mean abandoning faith in God. It does not mean abandoning culture, but rather redeeming it.

The Bible was once used to condone the ownership of slaves, until society changed. Christians began to ask, in light of the glaring truth of equality, why it was okay to own slaves. They questioned what they were taught and discovered an overarching theme of equality in the scriptures. They were empowered to use the same Bible as a basis for ending legalised slavery.

Truth is constant, but it is also generational. Historically the world has woken up to certain truths in certain generations; humankind is both deceived and enlightened together. Widows were once forced to throw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyres in India. Pope John Paul II apologised to Muslims for the crusades. Husband and wife now have equal rights to children born in customary marriages. Generational truth is a real phenomenon.

But, it’s not enough to simply empower women.

“There’s a realisation that if we don’t bring men in as partners we won’t win the battle”, says Sheila Meintjes, an official with the Commission on Gender Equality.

Women receive the message of equality and shift their world view accordingly, but for men, this message can challenge their very identity, causing them to ask, “Then who am I?”

Religious institutions are uniquely positioned to answer these core questions, if they are willing to do the hard work of sifting culture from truth.

We must empower our faiths to empower women. We must empower our faiths to guide men in a generation where identities are being challenged. Loren Cunningham, founder of one of the world’s largest mission organisations said, “What is the greatest issue in the 21st Century? It is the women’s issue.” The beautiful truth is at the fingertips of this generation. Let’s grasp it together.

Tonya Stanfield is the Director of Justice ACTs, a faith-based alliance working to combat human trafficking. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.



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