On Wednesday 9 August, South Africans across the country will be commemorating the historic actions of over 20 000 women of all races who marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings on 9 August 1956, to present a petition against the carrying of passes by women to the prime minister, JG Strijdom. Within this spirit, the month of August at this masjid has been understood as a time for a deep, critical and honest reflection on the gender jihad or the struggle for gender justice in this country and our community. I would like to continue this tradition, from a position of solidarity, in the hope that it will help us become more conscientious Muslims and responsible South African citizens who engage in the struggle for social justice for all oppressed and marginalized groups in which we affirm the full human dignity (karamat al insan) for all.
Over the last few years there have been a number of well-documented gruesome cases of gender-based violence in our country in which women have often been at the receiving end of this wanton violence. For a time, it has flared societal outrage, protest and collective introspection. We then live in a moment of hope. Hope for renewed moral courage in which we will tackle this epidemic. But nothing really does change in a country marked by unusually high levels of rape, femicide (killing of women and girl children) and gender-based violence.
Human Beings, Social Justice Work and Human Dignity
Before we critically engage with some of the root causes of the gender-based violence, it might be beneficial to have a brief spiritual reflection on the potential of human beings. In Chapter 95, Surah Tin, Allah the Sublime proclaims:
لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنْسَانَ فِي أَحْسَنِ تَقْوِيمٍ
ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ
إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ
فَلَهُمْ أَجْرٌ غَيْرُ مَمْنُونٍ
We have indeed created the human being in the best of moulds
(i.e. with great potential for self-growth),
Then We render him the lowest of the low,
Save those who believe
(not in a God that sanctions superiority),
and do righteous deeds
(including works of compassion and justice),
for them is a reward unending
In these well-known verses of the Qur’an, human beings are created with the capacity to be “the best of the best” or to be “the lowest of the low”. In this regard, we have choice to either display the best behaviour or to sink to the unthinkable. Moreover, when it comes to the unthinkable, the words of our illustrious Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) are quite poignant. In a hadith report found in the collection of Imam Muslim, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said:
“Whoever of you sees an evil must then change it with his hand. If they are not able to do so, then [they must change it] with their tongue. And if they are not able to do so, then [they must change it] with their hearts. And that is the slightest form of faith.”
What this hadith indicates is that social justice work, is the work of faith. Fighting inequalities, discrimination and injustice is a cornerstone of our religiosity and our belief in Allah. In this regard, Allah proclaims in Surah Al-Maida, Chapter 5, Verse 8:
اعْدِلُوا هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَى
Be Just and Equitable: it is the closest manifestation of God-consciousness (Q5:8)
Our pursuit of taqwa (God-consciousness) is directly linked to being just and acting with justice. Moreover, when we think about fighting injustice, I would argue that our struggles need to linked to the commitment, upholding, preservation and continuation of human dignity for all of God’s children. In this spirit, I would like to echo the sobering words of the Qur’an in Surah al-Isra’, Chapter 17, Verse 70, Allah the Lord of Justice proclaims:
وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِي آَدَمَ
Verily We [Allah] have conferred [innate] human dignity on [all] the Children of Adam (Q17:70)
“Conferring karamah or dignity on all of Allah’s creation is the primary organising frame of human existence and it is to this pristine cause that we should now commit with clarity and unwavering purpose” (Fataar 2017).
Understanding the Root Causes
There are a number of factors, which perpetuates gender-based violence and if we seriously want to tackle this epidemic, we need to, firstly, acknowledge the failure of our current models and start creating new ways of being human, in which our humanity is not dependent on the violation of the dignity of others. While gender-based violence affects all women, women of colour, poor and working-class women experience this violence in an exacerbated form. Therefore, when we study the case studies and think through solutions, we need to use the lens of intersectionality to help us reflect holistic solutions to this vexed problem.
The media has often singled out murder and rape as the only or most prevalent form of gender-based violence. However, gender-based violence manifests in many ways. In this regard, the other forms of gender-based violence are also direct consequences of our patriarchal society in which the gender-based violence manifests in our homes, masajid, schools, work places and sports fields. Here, I am talking about the ‘silent’ or ‘structural’ violence that often happens in a home, when men verbally or emotionally abuse women through powers of control and manipulation. For example:
- Women are made to feel so dependent on men, that they will live with verbal or emotional abuse and control even though it completely undermines their dignity.
- The abuse of Muslim women within the context of their marriages, which is justified and supported by patriarchal outdated understandings of Muslim personal law.
- Within the majority of masajid in this country, women occupy a space in the basement, mezzanine floor or in a separate room. What this spatial arrangement says is that women cannot be in the main masjid space, which is reserved for men.
- Within the work space, men often speak over women in an attempt to make sure their opinion is heard.
- How many men are forgiven by long suffering wives for having affairs or taking a second wife?
These are behaviours that are endemic of our patriarchal culture that inflicts violence on women by making us believe that men’s ‘needs’ and men’s ‘voices’ are more important than women’s rights, freedom, safety and dignity in our society. This is the real structural gender-based violence.
In her well-written, accessible and cogently argued book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, Pumla Dineo Gqola writes on the “historical context of rape in the country: how colonisers raped slaves in the Cape and the way in which white men were let off the hook for sex crimes against black women during apartheid, while black men were hanged for the same crimes against white women” (Pather 2016). She also writes about the normalisation of violence in our society, in which the existence of some of our people is a result of violence, the violent formation of our state and the violent behaviour of men within our society, which further perpetuates this cycle of violence (Gqola 2015). I would like to very briefly focus on three causes of this gender-based violence:
One of the main contributing factors to the scourge of gender-based violence is what activists are calling “toxic masculinity.” What this understanding of toxic masculinity or ways of performing “manhood” or “being a man” displays is that to be a real man “is to be dominant, powerful, unemotional, rational, entitled to respect and sex-obsessed. But on top of that, this masculinity is always cast as the opposite of anything deemed feminine or queer” (Jameel 2017).
What kind of messages are we sending here?
While this limited understanding of manhood is harming to other people, it is also detrimental to men themselves (Jameel 2017). In this regard, “toxic masculinity casts a vision of a human who is not allowed to feel, must bear the brunt of all their problems alone, is unable to express emotion and must at all times conform to a very narrow ideal of what it is to be human. It’s very limiting – and this kind of existential repression can lead to serious mental health issues” (Jameel 2017).
The thing about “toxic masculinity” is that it is a learnt behavior. We learnt how to be cold, unemotional and dominant. We can learn how to be warm, compassionate and caring. i.e. we can learn how to be different men.
The second contributing factor I would like to highlight is understood as “rape culture.” A basic understanding of rape culture involves how we as a society think about, commonly engage with, and subtly perform types of gender-based violence. When we talk about rape culture, we are critically discussing something more implicit than a society that openly advocates forms of sexual violence. We are talking about social, cultural, political, religious practices that excuse or otherwise tolerate sexual violence. Rape culture plays out in “situations in which sexual assault, rape, and general violence are ignored, trivialized, normalized, or made into jokes” (Ridgway 2014).
And this happens a lot. All the time. Everyday.
- Certain forms of pop music would say “you know you want it” because of these “blurred lines” (of consent).
- Some Imams in Cape Town are known to have encouraged women to go back to their abusive husbands and try not to ‘provoke him’, thus putting the blame for abuse on women.
- Calling women who report their rapes, liars.
- Finally, saying that certain women deserved to be raped because of how they are dressed or because they were intoxicated (Ridgway 2014).
Gender-based violence in our country is intimately connected to this culture, which allows it to flourish and survive. Ending the rape epidemic is going to require that we think “critically about how seemingly benign behaviour enables rape to thrive. In other words, we have to think unrelentingly about how [and] what we are taught in a patriarchal society…” (Gqola 2015, 5-6).
Failure of Our Models
Finally, what this crisis has shown is a particular failure of our models to be human beings, more particularly, gendered human beings. The violence in this world is a product that we have created. Here, I would like to echo a point made a few years ago on this very platform. In April 2013, A/Prof. Sa’diyya Shaikh made an astute point about this very same topic and said:
“We cannot think of the problem as out there. We are not separate from the people and the things that take place in our society. The dehumanisation of human beings around us, is the dehumanisation of each of our own beings. Each of us is intimately connected with each other’s life around us in ways that are both subtle and evident.”
She then goes on to indicate that while we might brand these men as monsters, evil and others, we also need to take note of the fact that these men were also created and are part of the society that we allowed to be fashioned (Shaikh 2013). While these men have decided to sink, to what the Qur’an (95:4) describes as the “lowest of the low” these human beings are part of our society. Furthermore, what she is suggesting is that our communities have not provided proper systems in place in order to protect these men from turning into “monsters” and that we have not provided proper models of masculinities for these men that are not toxic and destructive but are nurturing, loving and kind.
This is not my attempt to discount individual agency. However, I am rather commenting on structures, which act as a contributing factor to this issue of gender-based violence. In this regard, what this crisis shows is the failure of our current ways of being. Ways that are destructive. Greedy. Self-indulgent. Violent. Ways that mimic broader structural injustice of racism, classism, homophobia, capitalism, ableism, and environmental destruction.
In the final part of this Jumu’ah khutbah, I would like to briefly suggest three ways in which we can try and tackle this scourge of gender-based violence. Hopefully, these suggestions will help us become better people who live our lives in accordance with the Islamic spirit of justice, mercy, love, tenderness and compassion.
- Rethinking of the Tradition
It would be naïve of us to think that gender-based violence occurs in a religio-cultural vacuum. Therefore, I would like to suggest that we continue to nurture the many ways in which Muslim scholars and activists are trying to rethink the Muslim tradition, which will allow it to be true to its own goal of justice. The work of the locally-based scholar of Islamic Studies, Sa’diyya Shaikh on her ideas of “tafsir of praxis” or “embodied tafsir” could go a long way in helping us rethink the tradition.
Moreover, I would like to suggest that this masjid convenes a reading group or workshop in which we further this discussion. I would suggest we read the wonderfully crafted, intellectually robust and ethically grounded volume: Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, edited by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger. In his review of the book, the Islamic Studies scholar of law, Khaled Abou El Fadl, said:
“Bar none, this is the best treatment of women and Islamic law that I have read in the past twenty years… profound, eye-opening and even exhilarating. It is difficult for me to take seriously any student or scholar dealing with the subject of guardianship of men over women in Islam unless, or until, they have read and digested this book.”
- Support NGOs: Ihata Shelter and Saartjie Baartman Centre
My second suggestion, is a lot more practical. I would like to make a plea for us to seriously think about where we send our charity donations, zakah and sadaqa. It has become a tradition at this masjid to send portions of our sadaqa to just and noble causes. However, I would like to challenge other economically-mobile masjid communities to do something similar in the hope that it could make a tangible impact on the lives of women whose humanity has been routinely denied. In this regard, I would like to mention the Ihata Shelter and Saartjie Baartman Centre.
Moreover, I would also like to challenge all of our masjid communities to go above and beyond. In this regard, I would suggest that we organise regular visits (as we do for the Dunoon or farm communities) in the hope that we can affirm our humanness when we spend quality time with women, who have not been granted that opportunity. So, by spending time and being in solidarity with these women, who are victims of structural and physical violence, we are starting to show them that we stand with them and we are affirming their God-given human dignity.
- Gender Roles
My final point is about gender roles and how this contributes to gender-based violence. In our homes, how many of us have taught our boy children that it is fine and okay for them to do absolutely nothing while our girl children must do all sorts of domestic activities like cooking and cleaning? How many of us emotionally and financially manipulate our wives or daughters to do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, child care, while we sit and watch TV, or socialize on the sports field, or sleep after a long day of work. Don’t the women in our families work as well? In our religious spaces, what messages do we send out when women are not allowed or given the opportunity to take leadership of anything?
The point of this suggestion, is to make us aware of how we are raising and caring for the people in our communities and what messages we are sending them through our actions.
If we want to change the narrative of gender-based violence in our society, we have to start at home, especially when it comes to raising our children. And the best way to raise good morally conscious children is to model this goodness on our own behaviour.
Men helping with domestic chores is a more authentic and functional sunnah than those who believe sporting a beard is a sunnah. Domestic chores similar to social justice activism are much neglected dimensions of the sunnah of our beloved Prophet (pbuh).
The topic of my khutbah has perhaps painted a gloomy picture of the human condition and our ability, especially as men, to commit all forms of horrendous acts of violence. However, I think we should find comfort in the idea that as human beings we have the possibility to moral agent of God on the earth (khalifah) in which we fulfil Allah’s promise of human beings be created in the best of images.
In this khutbah, I have attempted to briefly map a set of contributing factors to the current scourge of gender-based violence in our community. There are a number of other factors, however the ones I have highlighted are part of the structural causes of this violence, which need to be tacked at both an instructional and a personal level.
Finally, Gendered violence, is among other things a failure of our own moral capacities to imagine, demand and live with a vision of human flourishing which is premised on social justice (`adl), compassion (rahma) and human dignity (karama). Our current situation is both a time of crisis and a time of opportunity. At this time, I think we are broght back to the primordial creation moment when the angels asked Allah why Allah created a being on the earth who is going to perpetrate corruption and shed blood (Q.2:30). Allah the defended us by saying, “I know that which you do not know.”
The question we have to ask ourselves is, what did Allah know that the angels did not know?
At this sacred time of Jumu’ah, please join me in making a special supplication, du`a, in which we can beseech the Most Merciful to give us hope and courage to overcome this issue of injustice and wrongdoing.
Ya Rabbal `Alamin – O Lord of the Universe, You created all human beings from the same essence and breathed of Your spirit into each one of us. Assist us to affirm the full dignity and honour of all human beings.
Ya Rabb al-Nas – O Lord of all Humankind, You made and fashioned us into diverse human beings in order for us to love each other and to find gratification and peace of mind in one other.
Ya Rabba al-Salam – O God of Peace, there are some women and children who do not experience Your peace and tranquility. There are some women and children who live with the daily threat of violence in their homes and their neighbourhoods.
Ya Rabb al-Rahma, O Lord of Mercy and Compassion, we beseech you to protect these women and children from all forms of violence and abuse. We lament and mourn the lives lost at the hands of violent abusers. We deplore the stolen dignity of abused women. We bewail the plight of families and communities torn apart by fear.
Ya Rabb al-Qist – O Lord of Justice, we beseech You to assist all of us in stemming the epidemic of violence against all.
We ask this in all of your beautiful and holy names.
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Fataar, A. 2017. From Responding to the Water Crisis to Actively Addressing Poverty and Hardship [Jumu’ah sermon]. Claremont Main Road Mosque. Available online at: http://cmrm.co.za/khutbah-friday-24-february-2017-from-responding-to-the-water-crisis-to-actively-addressing-poverty-and-hardship-by-professor-aslam-fataar/
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Omar, A. R., Towards Intersectional Social Justice [‘Id al-Fitr sermon]. Claremont Main Road Mosque. June, 2016. Available online at: http://cmrm.co.za/id-al-fitr-khutbah-towards-intersectional-social-justice-confronting-homophobia-in-our-communities-by-imam-dr-a-rashied-omar/
Osman, Nuraan. “Keeping a constant and consistent focus on gender based violence.” [Friday sermon], Claremont Main Road Mosque, 10 February 2017. Available online at: http://cmrm.co.za/pre-khutbah-talk-friday-10-february-2017-keeping-a-constant-and-consistent-focus-on-gender-based-violence-by-nuraan-osman/
Pather, Ra’eesa. 2016. “Stats SA report on sexual violence questionable and ‘ridiculous’, say experts.” Mail and Guardian, 13 May 2016. Available online at: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-05-12-damned-lies-and-statistics-on-sex-crimes
Ridgway, Shannon. 2014. “25 Everyday Examples of Rape Culture.” Everyday Feminism, 10 March 2014. Available online at: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/03/examples-of-rape-culture/
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Shaikh, Sa’diyya. 2007. “A Tafsir of Praxis: gender, Marital Violence, and Resistance in a South African Muslim Community.” In Violence Against Women in Contemporary World Religions: Roots and Cures, edited by Daniel C. Maguire and Sa’diyya Shaikh, 66-89. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.
Shaikh, Sa’diyya. 2013. “Violence Against Women.” [Jumu’ah lecture] Claremont Main Road Mosque. Available online at: https://soundcloud.com/cmrm-media/sadiyya-shaik-violence-against-women-april-2013
Shaikh, Sa’diyya, 2012. Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn `Arabi, Gender and Sexuality. United States: North Carolina Press.
Shaikh. Sa’diyya. 2015. “Islamic Law, Sufism and Gender: Rethinking the terms of the Debate.” In Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, edited by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Mulki Al-Sharmani and Jana Rumminger, 94-119. London: Oneworld Publications
I would like to acknowledge the contributions of a number of CMRM congregants who provided constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this khutbah.