The wrong kind of power

Later this month 140 000 men, paying R150 each, will descend on a Greytown farm outside Pietermaritzburg for the religiously inspired Mighty Men’s Conference. Will the Medical Research Council’s findings in June last year — that one in four South African men admit to rape — be on the agenda? I doubt it.

What these men will hear is what they have heard every year since the movement started in 2004 — that they should be “prophets, priests and kings” when they return home.

How does that help us? In a country that claims to be 85% religious, yet where so many men are confessed rapists, shouldn’t we be concerned about the link between religion and violence against women? Why are men violent and what sustains male violence?

Masculinity theorists Stephen Whitehead and Frank Barrett argue that masculine power is maintained in three ways: as brute force; as relational and positional (men are heads of the homes, companies); and through discourses of power, the language we use to construct “everyday wisdom” such as “men are naturally better at mathematics”.

The Constitution and courts provide mechanisms to deal with violence as brute force, but South Africa remains helpless in dealing with the latter two ways in which male power is created and sustained.

This is nowhere clearer than in the discourses and practices of religion and “culture”.

The annual Mighty Men’s Conference is an example of a men’s movement that wants to “reclaim” these two latter forms of masculine power. This movement is characterised by “soft” statements about men becoming more responsible. These “palatable patriarchal” statements translate into men assuming leadership roles that demand submission and obedience from wives.

Take the statement of Mighty Men’s leader, KwaZulu-Natal farmer-turned-evangelist Angus Buchan, on Carte Blanche in 2008: “Wives, respect your husbands, submit to your husbands — it’s very easy when your husbands love you, you see, when your husbands are doing the job properly.

“It’s not a case of saying the man is superior to the woman — never! On the contrary. But there is an order that is established in the Bible. And the Lord Jesus said: ‘Husbands, love your wives.’ Now if a husband loves his wife, his wife will gladly submit to him.”

Jesus, in fact, never said this. Buchan is clearly reinforcing male relational power, which taken to extremes leads to violence against women.

As the writer Anne Borrowdale says: “If submission continues to be the ‘theory’, then abuse will inevitably continue to be the ‘practice’.”

What if women don’t submit?

Feminist research shows that this is what leads to violence, while the belief that men are household heads enables violence to go unchallenged and leads women to remain in abusive partnerships.

Men’s movements, including those with a religious underpinning, also sustain male discursive power.

Buchan tells us that “man’s masculinity in the world today — is being eroded and broken down. And some young men don’t know what a man is supposed to be! — I believe not we, but the Lord, restored masculinity.”

By asserting that the restoration of masculine norms is God’s initiative, power is established through an appeal to religious language. After all, one can argue with Buchan, but who can argue with God?

It is a good thing that we have feminist theologians who challenge these beliefs. Feminists are often accused of having problems with Jesus’s masculinity — to this we reply: “The problem is not that Jesus was a man, but that more men are not like Jesus.”

Inherent in this is the idea that we should uphold male role models who value women — like Jesus — rather than those that don’t.

In opposition to most of our religious and cultural beliefs, we must develop an appreciation of human value that recognises and celebrates leadership and responsibility regardless of gender.

Leadership is not a birthright related to whether one has a penis, as Buchan tries to pretend. That view can only spell danger for women.

Dr Sarojini Nadar is a senior lecturer in the school of religion and theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and director of its gender and religion programme.

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