Challenging the power of the patriarchy
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.