By Emma Powell
Last week I attended the launch of Desmond and Leah Tutu’s ‘Ubuntu in the Home’ campaign which is being rolled out in partnership with the South African Faith and Family Institute, an organisation that challenges patriarchal traditions from theological perspectives. By asking religious leaders throughout the country to sign a pact promising to stand up and speak out when approached by victims of domestic violence, SAFFI and the Tutu’s Legacy Foundation strive to combat intimate partner violence at the very location in which it is so often concealed.
The aim of the campaign is two-fold. Firstly, it encourages religious leaders from all faiths to be mindful that the messages they preach do not in any way promote inequality prejudice or give the perpetrators of domestic violence any form of religious justification through which their behaviour can be normalised. Secondly, the pact asks that when religious leaders are approached by victims for help, they do not merely instruct the victims to pray, as is so often the case, but rather hold the perpetrator accountable, ensure the victim is safe and then meaningfully assist in the family’s healing.
During the launch, a video of victim testimonies was screened. Women from all walks of life recounted the abuse they had suffered at the hands of their partners. Many also testified about the lack of action taken by their religious leaders when approached for help. One women in particular notes, “I could see my pastor did not know how to handle this. He was thrown in the deep end’. The experiences of these women are a mere drop in the ocean in a country where 25% of women are victims of abuse, with one victim killed by her intimate partner every 6 hours.
These statistics demonstrate just how deeply ingrained gender prejudices are in our society. The perpetrators of these crimes do not just wake up one day and decide to become thuggish wife beaters. They are socialised to be authoritarian and violent in just the same way their victims are socialised to be dependent and vulnerable. Their prejudices are solidified over many years, in many ways. Listening to the interviews yesterday, it became apparent just how difficult it is for a religious woman to escape the cycle of abuse. In religious communities, these women often have a hard time negotiating their way to safety.
Having grown up in a Christian society myself, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and their interpretation within the modern-day church were a major bone of contention for me. The bit about women covering their heads as a sign of submission to the authority of their husbands was my best. New Testament to boot. No thanks.The Quran has also been known to raise eyebrows. Chapter 4, Verse 34 of the Surah authorises husbands to strike their disobedient wives. That’s before we even approach the subject of fidelity, inheritance and a woman’s standing under Shari’ah Law. Strict Hinduism and Judaism aren’t much nicer to women either.
So if these institutions have manufactured these prejudices, it is only fitting that are asked to deal with the results. That is what this campaign is about. Understanding that when gender based hierarchies are endorsed using religious scripture, there is going to be collateral damage. Personally, I think it’shigh time religious leaders are asked to own up to and deal with the stigma’s their messages so often perpetuate. Who better to do it than Leah and Desmond Tutu as they celebrate 57 years of wedded bliss? A strike of daring genius if you ask me.