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Chal­leng­ing the power of the pa­tri­archy

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- Saro­jini Nadar Society · Austria · South African government · Iceland · Belgium · Somalia · Belarus · University of KwaZulu-Natal · KwaZulu-Natal · Susan Shabangu · Medical Research Council

ANOTHER 16 days of ac­tivism against gen­der-based vi­o­lence has dawned on us, and I find my­self vac­il­lat­ing be­tween feel­ings of anger and despair yet again at the in­ad­e­quate and “palat­ably pa­tri­ar­chal” re­sponses from the South African gov­ern­ment, in the face of enor­mous and un­ac­cept­able rates of gen­der-based vi­o­lence.

“Palat­able pa­tri­archy” is a term I use to de­scribe a sys­tem that as­cribes ab­so­lute power and un­fet­tered au­thor­ity to men when they ex­er­cise re­spon­si­bil­ity and care, which seem­ingly is out­side the am­bit of their “mas­cu­line na­ture”. This pa­tri­archy (which lit­er­ally means “rule of the fa­ther/male”) is palat­able: after all, who doesn’t want a so­ci­ety where men take more re­spon­si­bil­ity?

Min­is­ter of Women in the Pres­i­dency, Susan Shabangu, dur­ing a meet­ing in Ekurhu­leni to an­nounce the Pres­i­dency’s plans for the 16 Days cam­paign, said: “Men are sup­posed to be pro­tec­tors of so­ci­ety. Men are sup­posed to be pro­tec­tors of fam­i­lies. We need to bring back th­ese pro­tec­tors of so­ci­ety. We need to mo­bilise our pro­tec­tors.”

In ad­di­tion, the Pres­i­dency de­clares that the cam­paign will be a year-long pro­gramme which will be “mon­i­tored and eval­u­ated to de­ter­mine the ex­tent to which laws and pro­grammes aimed at erad­i­cat­ing vi­o­lence against women and chil­dren have sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved their lives”.

Shabangu ended her speech in Par­lia­ment on the same is­sue with a call to join the “Count Me In” cam­paign which fo­cuses on “en­gag­ing men and boys to stand up against vi­o­lence”.

Count Me In: I will pro­tect my sis­ter.

Count Me In: I care for the safety of women and chil­dren.

Count Me In: I am cool – I do not bully.

Count Me In: I pro­vide fi­nan­cially for my fam­ily.

Count Me In: I do not punch oth­ers.

Among the ac­tiv­i­ties as­so­ci­ated with this cam­paign are “clean­ing of hot spots: open fields, high grass, di­lap­i­dated build­ings and de­serted ar­eas… where fa­tal­i­ties of gen­der­based vi­o­lence are of­ten found”. The other ac­tiv­i­ties are prayer ser­vices – the main ones to be held at Grace Bi­ble Church and Zoe Bi­ble Church.

Why do th­ese cam­paign state­ments and as­so­ci­ated ac­tiv­i­ties con­cern me so much? It is be­cause all the ef­forts fo­cus on pol­icy (and law), palat­able pa­tri­archy and prayer ser­vices as so­lu­tions to over­come the scourge of gen­der-based vi­o­lence.

The fu­til­ity of fo­cus­ing ex­clu­sively on pol­icy and law as a means to over­come gen­der-based vi­o­lence is re­flected in a 2009 Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil survey in which one re­spon­dent, who ad­mit­ted to abus­ing his girl­friend, said: “I do not be­lieve in democ­racy in the home.”

The ac­tiv­ity to clean up “hot spots” en­cour­ages the myth that most “fa­tal­i­ties of gen­der-based vi­o­lence” are found in dark al­leys and di­lap­i­dated build­ings. This ig­nores ex­ten­sive re­search show­ing that the place where gen­der-based vi­o­lence oc­curs most fre­quently is the home.

While pol­icy and law are cer­tainly im­por­tant in en­sur­ing that per­pe­tra­tors of vi­o­lence are con­victed of th­ese crimes, this only ad­dresses the is­sue at an in­di­vid­ual level. What is needed is a fo­cus on the struc­tures which en­able and en­cour­age th­ese crimes to be­gin with. Iron­i­cally, one of th­ese struc­tures is the very “palat­able pa­tri­archy” the cam­paign is ap­peal­ing to as a so­lu­tion.

The “pro­tec­tor, provider, priest” roles as­signed to men from the pul­pits of many churches, and found within var­i­ous cul­tural tra­di­tions, are at the heart of the prob­lem of gen­der-based vi­o­lence.

Why are men the pro­tec­tors to be­gin with? Who are they pro­tect­ing, and from whom? The gov­ern­ment tells us that “the cam­paign will be in­ten­si­fied, and will en­sure that men and boys are part of the so­lu­tion”.

But this so­lu­tion comes with the re­quire­ment that men in­ten­sify their tra­di­tional pa­tri­ar­chal roles, not trans­form them! Th­ese roles are in­tri­cately tied to the re­li­giously and cul­tur­ally sanc­tioned idea that men are the heads of homes, and there­fore de­serve re­spect. When women don’t ad­here to this pa­tri­ar­chal script of head­ship, which de­mands re­spect, obe­di­ence and sub­mis­sion, one of the many con­se­quences is vi­o­lence – emo­tional, phys­i­cal and sex­ual.

In a doc­toral study on why vi­o­lent men do what they do, a re­sponse by a per­pe­tra­tor cap­tures this well: “Some­times women’s rights is when you tell her some­thing and she would tell you to mind your own business… she for­gets that you are the head of the home.”

This and other re­search shows clearly that the most common jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for vi­o­lence is when a woman does not obey the re­li­gious and cul­tural “rules of mar­riage”, which po­si­tion the man as the head of the house­hold.

Con­comi­tant with this head­ship role is the “pro­tec­tor, provider and priest” role which is be­ing ped­dled by this gov­ern­ment cam­paign. In the Christian ex­am­ple, teach­ing a man that he is the head of the home as Christ is the head of the church seem­ingly pro­vides men with divine sanc­tion to be­have like “gods”.

The ap­peal to hold prayer ser­vices to ad­dress the scourge of gen­der­based vi­o­lence is an im­por­tant in­ter­ven­tion in a coun­try that claims to be 85 per­cent re­li­gious. How­ever, to hold th­ese ser­vices in churches that overtly preach the head­ship of men and sub­mis­sion of women as a divine sanc­tion is a slap in the face (ex­cuse the pun) of the very ac­tivism against gen­der-based vi­o­lence which the cam­paign wants to high­light.

Ob­vi­ously, re­li­gion can be used to over­come gen­der-based vi­o­lence, but not the kind of re­li­gion that the gov­ern­ment is align­ing it­self with.

Con­trary to the gov­ern­ment’s cam­paign, I would ven­ture that in or­der to ad­dress gen­der-based vi­o­lence we do not need to res­ur­rect mod­els of men be­ing pro­tec­tors and providers, but we need to un­der­stand and be crit­i­cal of the power that comes with th­ese mod­els and how they con­trib­ute to gen­der-based vi­o­lence.

It is not the abuse of power that is the prob­lem, but the fact that men have this power to be­gin with. If we want to re­ally ad­dress gen­der-based vi­o­lence, we need to rad­i­cally and coura­geously take away the power men claim to have by divine com­mand, in the same way that power was taken away from the white apartheid rulers who claimed their power by divine elec­tion and na­ture.

Saro­jini Nadar (PhD) is Pro­gramme Leader: Gen­der and Re­li­gion in the School of Re­li­gion, Phi­los­o­phy and Clas­sics at the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal.

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