Feminism is not exactly like a religion to me, but if we’re talking about religion as the framework through which you understand life and make meaning of it, then it’s pretty close. And whilst I am in conversation with my ‘religion’, like all people who hold fast to our frameworks, there are a few immovables, some lines I have always thought cannot be crossed.
At the discussion (titled ‘Stopping Gender-based Violence: Whose job is it anyway’) hosted this week by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, two of those were challenged. The question posed by the event title is at once obvious and confounding. I was drawn to this event because it is the question that drew me to feminism. Feminism gave me the tools to understand gender-based violence as a symptom of social ills. As Melanie Judge, the panel moderator put it, gender-based violence is a social problem, one in which we are all complicit, and one for which we are all responsible for fixing. Seen this way, GBV is everyone’s problem and stopping GBV is everyone’s job. But how many of us actually do this ‘job’ consciously? And what does it actually mean to do this work?
The panel was made up of people who have, in one form or another, made the task of stopping gender-based violence their actual day jobs. Kath Dey, director of Rape Crisis was joined on the panel by Desmond Lesejane, deputy director of Sonke Gender Justice, Dr Zethu Matebeni of UCT’s HUMA Institute and Reverend Alan Storey of the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town and Gun Free South Africa. Of the two panelists who spoke, I closely identified with the ‘jobs’ as done by Kath and Zethu. Between 2009 and 2011, I was a volunteer crisis counsellor for Rape Crisis. It was a deeply rewarding, complex experience that brought me face to face with women who carried impossible traumas with strength i’ve never seen anywhere else. The stories I heard there were varieties of the stories Zethu told at the event, all with one central theme: unbelievable, unspeakable violence meted out to destroy women because of who they are, to disappear them. I was lucky enough to experience first-hand strength in the face of such violence and to witness healing. As Kath Dey put it, the rape is when the emotions and frustrations imposed on (mostly) men by society become too much for them to carry and they engage in a physical, violent and sexual ‘dumping’ of such emotions and frustrations into the bodies of women. At Rape Crisis, Kath reported, you see women take these emotions and turn them into something of beauty.
The jobs I could least identify with are those done by Desmond and Alan. I am not a man-hating feminist, and feminists are not, as a general principle, man-hating. But looking back on my involvement with feminist responses to GBV, I have not spent much time actively engaging with the masculinities that wreak havoc on the women I encountered. I mean, I am aware that part of the work of stopping GBV requires an honest, active and on-going conversation about masculinities. I haven’t spent a great deal of my individual energies thinking further than this point. Am I a man-hater? Well, obviously, no. But when you’re sitting in a counselling room with survivor after survivor after survivor who has been brutalised at the hands of men, it’s difficult to develop and maintain a clear sense of how men can be brought into prevention processes, and then, perhaps, into the work of repairing the damage done by other men and masculinities. So, I was curious, if initially…hesitant, about what the two male panelists had to say.
Desmond framed his work against GBV as a “faith imperative”, something he is compelled, as a Christian, to do. What struck and stuck with me about the approach he was describing is that it prioritises the diverse experiences of men: so in this approach men can exist as both perpetrators and as agents of change. It seems simple enough to accept, but when working in GBV, and you are in contact with the trauma done at the hands of men, it’s difficult to hold both truths intact. Zethu, in her talk, decsribed South Africa as the only African country that is oft-lauded for its respect of diversity. But, as the violence against black lesbians that she described illustrates, there are limits to what is accepted within this ‘diversity’, and when you step outside the bounds of this, the punishment is often devastating. So what does it mean to truly accept diverse masculinities, given these unstated, violently policed limits and bounds? This seems to be one of the key principles underpinning the work Desmond is doing. By creating spaces for men as change agents against an epidemic that is mostly perpetrated by men, diverse masculinities emerge, and opportunities to shift the societal dynamics that produce GBV are operationalised. Desmond was also careful to stress that work he – and Sonke does – is positioned firmly within the proud tradition of women who have gone before. Whilst Sonke is working to shift the idea that ending GBV is ‘women’s work’ and make real the idea that it is the job of all in society, including men, they do not claim that they are doing anything radically different from the women’s movement that provides the blueprint for this work. I think one of the things that irritates – nay, infuriates – feminists about ‘mens rights activists’ (groups that have cropped up in recent years and claim to be reclaiming and redefining masculinities) is that they often position their work outside of the existing, rich tradition of the women’s movement. In fact, some go so far as to position themselves in opposition, as if the problem is that women have had far too much power. Especially those uppity survivors of GBV – how dare they claim some semblance of identity at the expense of the men who violated them?? The refusal of MRA groups to acknowledge the role of some masculinities in GBV (and other expressions of patriarchy) and their insistence in continuing to define masculinities in opposition to femininities is off-putting, to say the least. So, it was a real relief to hear more about work on masculinities that is done in the name of the women’s movement, and that is proud to associate itself with the movement and its principles.
Alan’s work challenged me in a different way. I was – for all intents and purposes – raised Christian but have long since abandoned the church and what I always experienced as its limiting (and often dangerous) rhetoric. So a Methodist minister, who is making it his work to address GBV? That’s new. In fact, when Alan got up to take the podium carrying what looked suspiciously like a bible (it was a Torah), it was all I could do not to leave immediately. But, I thought, dude, brought a bible to a discussion on GBV hosted by a Jewish organisation: this I have to see. He surprised me by drawing on women theologists who have employed what he called and ‘imaginative’ and expanded hermenuetics. Rather than taking dominant interpretations and readings of holy texts as fact (which was my overwhelming experience of religion), he encourages the practice of reading these texts with an ear for women’s stories and voices. He acknowledges that in much of the texts, women’s stories aren’t told: we know of Isaac but what of Sarah? But I think an imaginative hermeneutics would know that the holy texts – in the same way as the readings of those texts – are not themselves asocial objective, exact retellings of events. So, an imaginative hermeneutics means reading both the past and current contexts, and most importantly, asking what the current context is asking for in terms of spiritual guidance from holy books. Is it spiritually wise, then, Alan asked us, for men to insist on a narrow reading of the bible verses that state that wives must be submissive to their husbands, given the kinds of stories Kath and Zethu told? What would an imaginative reading, one that is looking for the voices and stories of women, for gender relations that reflect respect, kindness and equally value the lived experiences of all men and women, mean? I have to say that my experiences with religion make it very difficult for me to imagine such a reading of the Christian bible, and the implications of that for the church. And I think Alan was clear and frank about that: he, and others like him, are going up against lifetimes of oppressive theology, and hermeneutics of prejudice. But if you capitulate religious spaces to those voices, then what hope is there that such spaces can turn the social tide against GBV? If we accept GBV as a social problem (check) and it is the responsibility of all society to address it (double check), then can we afford to cede any social space to ideas that contribute to the problem? His answer is no. And the work he does in his church and beyond continues to say no, and to reclaim spiritual life and space and bring it into the work of ending GBV.
So, what did I learn from last night? More than can be encapsulated in one wrap-up paragraph for sure. But the bottom line for me is that if we are serious about making a job of stopping GBV, then we need to let go of some of the ‘holy cows’ that may limit our imagination of what this job means. ISome of my experiences have led me to position men and people of (relatively mainstream) faith as adversaries rather than as possible allies in the work against GBV. Which I wouldn’t call religion, but damn near fundamental fact in my world. Last night’s conversation opened me up to new allies, I had previously been closed to because of the lines i’d drawn around myself and my feminism. So, I’m going to let go of the ‘religion’ a little bit, and find out a bit more about these ‘new’ solutions to GBV. If GBV and the attendant patriarchy are social problems, all of us in this fight ought to make it our jobs to engage with all available approaches and allies.