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Another pandemic

The translated and printed version of this text in Uppdrag Mission.

I count it a privilege to pen a few words for this esteemed publication, for many reasons, not least of all because the Lund Mission Society supports the work of the Desmond Tutu Chair in Religion and Social Justice. The aim of the chair is to support both textual and empirical research that analyses the relationship between the lived beliefs and experiences of religion, and actions for social justice.  We work within a number of thematic areas, the main one being a focus on religion and gender justice. The opportunity to interrogate the links between belief systems and gender based violence, presented itself again when on 17 June 2020, the State President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, made one of his regular COVID-19 addresses to the nation. We had come to expect these addresses to be sombre in detailing the scale of the escalating pandemic in the country. This address was even more grave, because added to his regular updates on the pandemic, the president called on the nation to acknowledge gender based violence as a second pandemic in the country – one as serious, or if not more severe than the coronavirus. Adopting a tone even more solemn than his usual pandemic address one, he stated:

It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country…At a time when the pandemic has left us all feeling vulnerable and uncertain, violence is being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension.[1]

The president’s strong statements about GBV being a second pandemic, and his assertion that the brutality defies comprehension strengthened the resolve of my colleagues and I to continue to host an annual lecture we have been hosting since 2017, commemorating what is now known as “women’s month” (August) in South Africa.  (We were hesitant to take, what was for the past four years, a very embodied and robust space onto an online platform). In these past four years of hosting these annual lectures we have called attention to the “economies of violence” which sustain the brutality that our president says, defies comprehension. Many people do indeed struggle to comprehend how, in a country with arguably the most progressive Constitution in the world regarding gender equity, we still have one of the highest rates of gender-based-violence. Through these public lectures we have sought to disabuse the public of the popular notion that legislation is enough. The president’s reminder that in the first few weeks of lockdown alone there were over 2000 cases of GBV reported and that just in the past few weeks  preceding his address no fewer than 21 women were murdered, underscored our point. His words were a stark reminder that even the most progressive legislative change and policies are not enough to ensure women’s safety because “women are dying with protection orders in their handbags!”[2] as Mbuyiselo Botha observed.  Feminist scholars of religion have convincingly shown that laws and policies do not function independently of the religious and cultural values that people hold about gendered norms – interrogating religious and cultural belief systems about gender is therefore as critical in gender based violence interventions, as making laws and policies about it.

Traci West.

Buttressed by the increased visibility of violence during the pandemic, we decided to go ahead and  host  the annual lecture online with Rev Dr Traci West, Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew University, on 31 August 2020.  The lecture began with a slide show rolling news-report after news-report of the gender based violence of the past year. This set the scene for West’s interrogation of what she called the “moral economies” which sustain violence. She persuasively argued that religion grants moral permission for the violence, and then offers moral impunity to perpetrators. She bravely called out the hypocrisies of religious leaders who speak with forked tongues about racial justice, while promoting misogyny and queer-phobia through their teachings. In my response to West’s lecture I highlighted three specific points which were of particular value to us in the South African context:

  1. Disruptiveness – In her lecture, West laid out “disruptiveness” as the main paradigm for ending  violence. This was important particularly for our graduate students who often focus in their research, on the ways in which economies of violence displace and disempower women.  The response of the South African government too,   especially during women’s Month, is to point out that women are powerless, and therefore somehow need special protection. The call to disrupt narratives of powerlessness as a means for moral action was therefore deeply significant in a context where the moral economies found within religion, and which sustain violence remain largely intact; while women’s so-called powerlessness is taken for granted. A disruption of that narrative is crucial for us in the South African context.
  2. Crisis Intervention – The second point of West’s lecture that stood out for me is the problem of engaging with violence as crisis intervention. This method of addressing gender based violence is very popular especially in religious communities who are happy to do crisis intervention through collections for building shelters for battered women or setting up GBV helplines etc. This seems to be the “safe” method, particularly for churches who even set up commissions to investigate cases of abuse, without disrupting the deeply held beliefs that sustain the violence..
  3. Survivor/Victim Paradox – Finally, as one of our Masters students noted, she was deeply grateful for how the lecture pointed out the paradox of the strength of black women – how we glorify black women’s strength in the face of adversity. There is a fundamental problem with glorifying survivor-hood – and condemning victimhood as mutually exclusive options for black women – between seeing them as super strong with lots of agency or super submissive with no agency, as West put it. I would argue that we may very well need to get to the point of seeing the strength of black women as simply strength in its own right. As a woman said of the portrayal of Black women in the Black Panther movie “They weren’t strong because they were angry, they weren’t strong because they were hurt, they were strong because they were strong! “

Overall, notwithstanding the limitations of online spaces, this lecture fitted perfectly well within the tradition of the annual lecture that seeks to expose those moral economies that need dismantling and disrupting.  

To conclude, since our motive for hosting these annual lectures is that there is substantial research to suggest that religious belief systems play a leading role in perpetuating dangerous conditions for women, some might ask what these belief systems are. On 22 July 2020, I, together with a group of Anglican women clergy, engaged in an online public dialogue with Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. The basis of our dialogue was a statement that we issued calling the church to account for its role in perpetuating violence.  We asked the Church to condemn all of its own teachings and practices that are less than life-giving for women. The following is a summary of the list we drew up[3]:

1.                   Male Headship – We call on the church to denounce theologies of headship and “natural order” which suggest that men are by nature to have dominion and power over women. Male authority must be dismantled in all spheres – from the family to the pulpit. Therefore the church must avoid language like calling male priests ‘Father’ as it reflects a male clericalism which renders women priests ‘invisible’ in the presence of male colleagues who close ranks and insist on addressing one another as ‘father’. Liturgical language that reflects the images of God as gender-neutral should be encouraged and practiced.

2.                   Female submission – We call on the church to denounce theologies of submission, which require women to be submissive to men, to their husbands, and by extension other forms of male authority. The Church must intentionally address the transformation of previously male dominated ecclesial spaces by authorising and using teachings, liturgies and practices that are life-giving for women. 

3.                   Family Values  – We call on the church to denounce the recent call to return to “traditional family values” where power differentials are not acknowledged, and where the sanctity of family takes precedence over the sanctity of the lives of women and those who identify as LGBTQI+.

4.                   Codes of Purity – We call on the church to dismantle codes of purity. Teachings about modesty and purity which young women are expected to adhere to, promote rape culture and apportion blame to women for violence against their bodies.  We condemn the ongoing practice of sanctions against women for “sexual impurity” while the men who are directly involved continue to enjoy pastoral care and impunity.

5.                   Discourses of Powerlessness  – We call on the church to stop peddling discourses of powerlessness and vulnerability about women. Women are not naturally powerless and vulnerable – they are rendered powerless and vulnerable through the harmful and toxic theologies of the church.  We call on the church to refrain from grouping women with children as a category. We recognise that the abuse of children is an important matter to address, but the continuous grouping of women with children reinforces the idea that women are minors.

6.                   Discourses of Protection – Women do not need to be protected. They need equal access to power; then they would not need protection from those who are given more power than them. The church needs to model equal access to power, material resources (including theological education and formation) and structural representation for women through the way in which it engages with women clergy and leaders.

7.                   Discourses of Pity – We call on the church to stop perpetuating a discourse of pity and charity surrounding “our women.” When men speak of “our women” they perpetuate the idea of ownership of women and their bodies – this is at the heart of the problem of gender-based violence.  Responding to gender based violence is an issue of justice, not of charity.

What was the result of our call after the public engagement? We wait…. Aluta Continua!

[1] accessed on 31 August 2020

[2]  Mbuyiselo Botha, “Women dying with protection orders in their handbags”, Sowetan Live, 19 June 2019, accessed 31 August 2020

[3] The full statement can be found here: accessed on 30 August 2020

Sarojini Nadar.