/ 4 August 2008

When did the ‘rock’ become weak?

I was driving behind an Ethekwini Municipality bus during the 16 days of activism against gender violence last year when I saw a poster highlighting the support of the municipality for the campaign, captured by the slogan: “Defending the weak!”

I was startled by the incongruence that the ideology of weakness which girds discrimination was being used to thwart discrimination. It got me thinking.

And as another Women’s Day dawns on us, I find myself, as a gender activist, becoming increasingly frustrated by the way in which these days are being understood and commemorated. Retailers have seized on the chance to make a quick buck out of the event. We find ourselves bombarded with advertisements to buy women presents for Women’s Day — everything from dishwashers to lingerie.

I ask myself how we got from the powerful slogan “Strike a woman, strike a rock! — Wathint’ Abafazi! Wathint’ Imbokodo!” — to “Defending the weak.”

In observing Women’s Month, Women’s Day and the 16 days of activism, we have lost the real political and liberating philosophy of days past and have transformed it into a meeker and milder version.

I was at a strategising meeting for Women’s Month recently and the constant cautionary refrain from certain women in the group was: “We have to be careful not to be too radical. We must not be anti-men.”

All the pussy-footing around this issue really concerns me. Instead of wasting so much time trying to convince men that we love them so much, we should be taking the more radical stance of identifying the elephant in the room – the belief systems that continue to define women as the weaker sex.

The slogan “Defending the weak” is simply using a romantic version of this insidious myth.

What if a campaign to end racism had as its slogan “Defending the weak”? We would rightly be outraged. But in the slogan lies the answer to our question about how we can have progressive legislation and state machinery to overcome gender violence and still have one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.

It is because legislation alone (notwithstanding its importance) can never overcome violence and discrimination against women unless we deal with people’s world views and belief systems.

As a feminist researcher in the field of ethics and religion, I can say with certainty that most people’s beliefs about women are not reflected in the Constitution; they are found in the pages of their Bibles and Qur’ans and Vedas, in the oral traditions of their cultures and in the ways in which print and visual media portray women.

Take the early church father, Tertullian (150-220 CE), who said: “You [Eve] are the devil’s gateway — you are the first deserter of the divine law. You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.” Or the Indian proverb: “Kanavane kann kannda deivum” which means: “The husband is the wife’s god in sight — by worshipping her husband she actually worships God.”

There is enough research to show that the principles of male headship and the submission of women to men in most religions and cultures are directly linked to gender violence and, more alarming, to women’s decisions to stay in these abusive partnerships.

Even those churches which observe Women’s Month and decry violence against women continue to peddle this “soft theology” of headship and submission from the pulpit, clothing it in language of “God’s will”.

Clerics often advise women not to divorce their abusive husbands because the Bible says that divorce is wrong, or to persevere in the marriage because she made vows which said: “Until death do us part.”

I once saw an interesting slogan on a T-shirt: “Does until death do us part mean until he kills me?”

Why are the constitutionally guaranteed rights of women not enough? What more do we want? Why am I complaining when we have such a public holiday?

Shouldn’t I just be grateful? I am complaining because the constitutionally enshrined rights of women have failed to enhance their lives.

I am complaining because until the religious and cultural ideology that values women only as the “weaker sex” is not interrogated and transformed, we will not achieve the ideal of gender equity which women continue to pay for daily with their lives.

Sarojini Nadar is the programme director of gender and religion and higher degrees coordinator at the University of KwaZulu-Natal