Achieving gender justice: what can men and women do?

By Aslam Fataar

Cultural and religious expressions are complicit in the oppression of women in the public and domestic sphere. Religious discourse often provides justifying grounds for gender oppressive practices.  It is time for us to call attention to these complicities.

Recently in the Muslim community women’s position in religion was brought into stark view by the utterances of a religious leader. A clip that circulated on social media laid bare how religious language positions women as ‘lesser than,’ and as ‘available’ to men, in other words as less than worthy humans.

The clip received pushback. A petition collected 2000 signatures and many comments over 24 hours from mostly Cape Town women who condemned the religious leader’s language. 

What the women on the petition highlighted was the daily abuse inside many homes that curtail their freedoms. These injustices are increasing in all religious and cultural communities.

As the structural contexts of our lives become more precarious desperation increases.  And as the social fabric of families unravels, women take on multiple roles as providers of food and shelter, and as carers, and leaders in domestic environments. Families are run by women, yet they are at the receiving end of psychological and physical abuse, even death.

It seems many men are experiencing emasculation. Unemployed and unable to provide, they have lost the authority in the family that earning wage confer. In this context, bereft of socio-emotional, and psychological skills, men lash out, leading to hectic increases in gender-based violence in the domestic sphere.

Women are increasingly vulnerable. They live in harsh and unremitting circumstances. They confront the necessity to survive, they suffer abuse from men.  Theirs is a cry in the dark, a cry for help in desperate circumstances.

What is disappointing is that large numbers of men supported this religious leader, rationalising his words. The indicates a current of misogynistic language circulating in the community.

This situation was called out by a statement released by ‘men against misogyny in the Muslim community’.  As Muslim men we clearly stated our opposition to gender injustice. We called for in-depth dialogue about reforming our practices.

Gender violence and misogyny cannot be swept under the carpet. Religious communities must be encouraged to develop policy guidelines to govern the behaviour of all men and leaders in all spheres of life. Mosques and churches must be encouraged to adopt sexual harassment policies.

Muslim family law that governs marriage, divorce, maintenance, and post-divorce settlements remains largely unregulated to the detriment of women’s rights. Some cases have gone through the country’s court system that brought relief to women in their marriage and divorce disputes. This is not enough.  We have to campaign for the rights of Muslim women to become part of the country’s Constitutional dispensation.

Many Muslim women lawyers, academics and lobby groups have been doing sterling work in lobbying for the legal regulation of Muslim family law. This process has been ongoing for the last 25 years. The legal and constitutional route is an integral part of the gender struggle. It will secure a regulatory basis against which violations can be prosecuted and rights guaranteed.

Gender justice will not come easily. Misogyny is firmly lodged in our communities. Its defenders are willing to use holy texts, and violence and its threat to retain masculine power to the detriment of women’s worthy lives. 

The battle for gender justice lies in all spheres of the community, in advocating for politics of structural gender sensitive change and poverty alleviation, in changing the policies of organisations, in the daily examples that we set for our children, in the shelters we provide for battered women, and work in the legal realm where rights can be enforced and protected.

This is a complex struggle that we all must commit ourselves to if we want to participate in according God’s dignity to women.

This emerged from a webinar hosted by the Cape Cultural Collective and the Foundation for Human Rights, where Prof Fataar addressed how cultural and religious leaders can intervene to address gender oppression.

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