Taking Stock of Gender-Based Violence
In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace
Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, proclaims in The Glorious Qur’an, in Surah al-Nisa, the Chapter of Women, chapter 4, verse 19:
“Live and consort with your wives in loving kindness and benevolence, and even if you happen to dislike something about them, patiently persevere, for it may be that Allah has made the very thing which you dislike about them a source of abundant goodness (for you)“ [Q4:19]
Today, 14 February, is commonly celebrated as Valentine’s Day. A day on which we are encouraged to celebrate romantic love, love between intimate partners, love that holds the promise of enduring devotion, affection, loyalty, care, trust and support. It is a celebration usually accompanied by flowers, gifts, cards, and intimate meals. And it is indeed a joyous time for many who have intimate partners or secret admirers. But it is also a time when the many women victims and survivors of gender-based violence remind us how this love between intimate partners, once full of promise of enduring devotion, affection, loyalty, care, trust and support, can turn into hostility, aggression, power, control, betrayal and violence.
Remembering the Victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV)
Remember Reeva Steenkamp? Anene Booysen? Dolly Tshabalala? Anni Dewani? Karabo Mokoena? Gill Pakham? Zolile Khumalo? Rubena Rocker? Dr. Shongile Nkhwashu? Leighandre Jegels? If you have not heard of any of them, I urge you to google their names and read the stories of their gruesome murders by former intimate partners. There are thousands more names of women I have not mentioned, whose murders did not make headline news, including women murdered by unknown perpetrators.
It is beyond insane if you consider the statistics in South Africa. How is it even reasonable to comprehend that for the past decade in South Africa, we have had an annual rate of more than 2000 women murdered per year in SA! And in cases where perpetrators have been identified, more than 50% of the victims were killed by an intimate partner, that is by a current or ex-husband or boyfriend, or a rejected would-be lover. A further insane statistic is that a woman is murdered every eight hours by their intimate partner in South Africa. These are partners and couples that in all likelihood also once upon a time celebrated Valentine’s Day together.
These statistics represent the stark reality in which women have to navigate their lives today. No space, inside or outside the home, feels safe for women any longer.
The Common Factor in GBV
If you consider the common factor in all these murders of women, it is not poverty, it is not so called race, it is not class, it is not religion, it is not guns or knives, nor is it age. The women who were murdered lived in townships, they lived in the suburbs, they lived in rural towns, they lived in cities, they lived in student residences, they lived in houses and flats, they lived in gated communities – in fact they lived in all parts and sectors of society. The only common factor in all of these violent deaths of women is violent MEN and the invisible hand of a patriarchal culture that spawns a toxic masculinity that pervades our society. This is the common factor. Violent men and toxic masculinity is the common factor that we need to take stock of, to challenge and resist, and to change.
In a khutbah at CMRM in 2017, Mujahid Osman put it succinctly when he said that ‘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’.
Normalising Gender-Based Violence
Femicide is defined as the killing of a woman or girl, by a man, on account of her gender, on the basis that she is a woman. Femicide represents the most extreme manifestation of gender-based violence. It is the end point of gender-based violence. There is no coming back from death. This is why the murder of women by men is always so tragic, harrowing and shocking.
Rape is another extreme manifestation of gender-based violence. It is the ultimate violation by a man of a woman’s body, a violation of her dignity and her spiritual being. Violated because of her gender. If there is no coming back from death, speak to any rape survivor and ask her what it takes to ‘come back’ from the violence of being raped by a man. The truth is, for women, rape too can be the death of their dignity and soul from which there is no coming back. So while she might have physical life, the rape survivor might exist in a state of spiritual death.
The irony and perhaps greatest travesty of the frequent headlines and sometimes sensationalised coverage of femicides and rapes is that there is the danger that we become de-sensitised to its gravity and that we begin to associate gender-based violence only with murder and rape of women by violent men. Let me state clearly, gender-based violence is NOT only about murder and rape of women by violent men. These are extreme forms of gender-based violence, but tragically the extremes of gender-based violence has become so normalised in our society that when a man rapes a woman, we think ‘at least he did not kill her’; when a man assaults a woman, we think ‘at least he did not rape her’; when a man verbally abuses a woman, we think ‘at least he did not assault her’; when a man cuts a woman off from any financial resources, we think ‘at least he isn’t abusive towards her’; when a man silences or excludes a woman, we think ‘at least he did not verbally abuse her’.
How can any of these abhorrent responses be okay? How can any of these reprehensible behaviours by violent men be acceptable in our society? It sounds bizarre to imagine thinking in this way. But I am not making this up. Countless women have testified getting these exact responses from policemen when reporting cases of rape or assault; from family and friends when complaining about partners who physically or verbally abuse or threaten them; from employers when laying complaints against fellow employees about sexual harassment; from pastors and imams when seeking counsel to get out of abusive relationships.
Those to whom women survivors turn for support, are often ready to point to the extremes of gender-based violence and say, ‘it could have been worse’. And indeed it could be worse in many situations, but why must we only be outraged by the extreme behaviours, and not act against the seemingly less extreme behaviours that equally violate the rights, dignity and spirit of women? This is what the normalisation of murder and rape of women by violent men has wrought in our society.
Broadening Our Understanding of Gender Based Violence
Let me repeat my point, which is the one take home message I hope you all hear today, namely, that gender-based violence is NOT only about the murder and rape of women by violent men. Gender-based violence constitutes every action, behaviour, word/expression, attitude, by men that violates the bodies, the dignity, the spirit and the voice of women. Gender-based violence can take the form of emotional, verbal and psychological abuse of women, it can be economic violence against women, and it is of course also physical and sexual violence against women. Violent men are the perpetrators of gender based violence and these violent men will persist with their repulsive and detestable behaviour in a society such as ours where patriarchal institutions, cultures and traditions are ubiquitous – and are to be found everywhere. Patriarchy reigns in our homes, our workplaces, our sports clubs, our places of worship, and in our educational institutions. Violent men lurk in all of these places, fuelled by cultures and traditions where men feel entitled to assume power, authority and control over women.
Muslim Community Is Not Immune to GBV
Our Muslim community is of course not immune to the scourge of gender-based violence. Who has not heard of an imam or madrassa teacher accused of abusing young girls or boys in their care? Domestic violence does not only happen in non-Muslim homes. A unified Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) khutbah on gender-based violence in August 2017, reported that ‘the MJC Social Welfare Department states that more than 50% of their domestic issues, such as divorce (Ṭalāq) or annulment (Faskh) has an element of gender based violence. What’s an even more frightening statistic is that the MJC handles more than 20 of these type of cases, a day!’.
Sadly, it is also the case that many men use or misuse Qur’anic texts and ahadith prophetic traditions to assert their authority and power over women and to justify abusive behaviours and discriminatory practices towards women. Rather than continue to bury our heads in the sand, we should undertake critical exegesis (tafasair) of these texts that are used to justify abuse and discrimination of women and strive to reclaim the gender egalitarian spirit of our sacred texts and traditions.
Acknowledging that the Muslim community is not immune to gender-based violence, Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM), in 2019, developed a Sexual Harassment Policy for the masjid. This policy reflects our zero tolerance regarding all forms of sexual harassment in the CMRM workplace or congregational spaces. We will endeavour to treat all allegations seriously and promptly conduct an investigation and inquiry into all allegations of sexual harassment. The policy recognises that sexual harassment is a manifestation of power relationships and often occurs within unequal relationships in the workplace. At CMRM we have Board members and an Imamat in leadership positions, and we also have other employees, congregants, casual workers, contractors and visitors who inhabit our congregational space. Everyone in this space who sexually harasses another will be dealt with in accordance with this policy. The policy is publicly available on the masjid mobical online platform or available on request from the office. I encourage all congregants to familiarise themselves with this masjid policy. We also hope in the coming months to convene a workshop at the masjid on sexual harassment.
Calling Out Violent Men
I am fairly confident in making an assumption that there are no men present here today who have murdered a woman, because I hope they have all been incarcerated. I am a little less confident in assuming that there are no men present here today who have never perpetrated physical or sexual violence against a woman because this violence is often kept private and very under reported. So perpetrators can stay under the radar and so we will never know them. However, I have no confidence in assuming that there are no men present here today who have never perpetrated some other form of gender-based violence against their wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers or female colleagues. Again, I repeat, gender-based violence is not only the murder and rape of women. Why do I have no confidence in this assumption? Let me share some statistics that make me hesitant to make such an assumption.
In 2011, the Gauteng Gender Violence Indicators Project study, conducted by Gender Links (GL) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) was the first comprehensive community-based research study of the prevalence of gender based violence. They surveyed a representative sample of over 1000 men and women in Gauteng province. They asked the women interviewed about their experiences of gender based violence and they asked the men about their perpetration of gender based violence. Their findings were stark, particularly with respect to the perpetrators of gender-based violence.
51% of the women in the study said that they have experienced some form of gender violence; and 76% of the men conceded to perpetrating some form of GBV (emotional, economic, physical or sexual). Emotional/psychological violence – a form of violence not well defined in domestic violence legislation and thus not well reflected in police data – was the most commonly reported form of gender based violence, with 43.7% of the women experiencing such violence and 65.2% men admitting to its perpetration. That is almost 2 out of every 3 men admitting to perpetrating emotional/psychological violence against women. Emotional and psychological violence comprise acts that do not render women dead in an instant but kill them slowly and blow by blow…..denuding women of their confidence, their security and safety, their body integrity and autonomy, their dignity and freedom of movement and expression.
Furthermore, one in four women (25%) had experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. An even greater proportion of men (37.4%) disclosed perpetrating sexual violence against a woman. That is, almost 3 out of every 8 men admitted to perpetrating sexual violence against a woman. This is a statistic that should make headline news.
This survey may have been done only in one province and almost 10 years ago, but I am hard pressed to imagine that results of a similar survey today will be any better in Gauteng or anywhere else in our country. These statistics that focus on the perpetrators of violence underscores the point I made earlier, that combatting, challenging and resisting violent men and toxic masculinity should be the chief focus of our efforts in the struggle against gender-based violence.
n conclusion, I am appealing to all men today, whether you are single or married, whether you have intimate partners or not, whether you are young or old, to take a moment and reflect on your past actions, behaviours, words/expressions and attitudes towards women, be they your wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, female colleagues or strange women. Consider whether any of your actions, behaviours, words/ expressions or attitudes have:
- impugned the dignity of a woman,
- crushed the spirit of a woman,
- violated the fidelity of a woman,
- exploited the vulnerability of a woman,
- triggered fear in a woman,
- caused physical or psychological harm to a woman,
- allowed you to assume power and control over a woman.
If you can answer yes to any one of the above, then you have to admit, at least to yourself, that you are indeed one of the violent men who is guilty of gender-based violence, and pledge that today is the day you will make the change. Today is the day you will walk out of here, self-aware of your male privilege and power, and vow never again will you be one of those violent men who is guilty of gender-based violence.
If you could truly answer no to all of the above, then I urge you to pledge today to become an ally of women in the fight against gender-based violence. I urge you to pledge and embrace the #, #DONTLOOK AWAY in the face of gender-based violence. To be an ally in this struggle, don’t look away, instead, call out the men who are guilty of gender-based violence that you see around you, in your families, your work places, your sports clubs, your places of worship, your social circles.
My call for men to be allies of women, echoes the exhortation in the Glorious Qur’an, in Surah Tauba, chapter 9, verse 71, where Allah, the Sublime, proclaims:
The Believing men and the Believing women are protectors and allies (awliya’) of one another: they (jointly) enjoin and promote what is good and just, and forbid what is evil and unjust: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and pay heed unto Allah and His Messenger. They are the ones on whom Allah will bestow Allah’s Grace and pour Allah’s Compassion: for Allah is Exalted in Power, All-Wise.” [Q 9:71]
If you are a father, a grand-father, a son, a brother, a father-in-law, a nephew, an uncle, a grandchild, call out the men in your families who use their male privilege and toxic masculinity to denigrate and humiliate women, who verbally abuse women, who physically harm women, who exert such power and control over woman that the emotional and psychological scars on the women are evident. Never say to any woman who complains of any kind of abuse by a man, that it could be worse, and that she must be patient and persevere. #DONTLOOK AWAY.
Don’t make excuses for aggressive men, as if that is just their personality because they are aggressive towards men too. Ask yourself, do these aggressive men verbally abuse men as easily as they would abuse women? Will the aggressive man ever say to another man ‘who are you to tell me anything, you are just a man’ or does the phrase ‘who are you to tell me anything, you are just a woman’ come more easily too him? Will the aggressive man slap another man as instinctively as he would a woman who crosses him? #DONTLOOK AWAY.
If you see a colleague or friend who abuses his position to sexually prey on vulnerable women or women in less powerful positions, don’t look away, don’t say ‘at least they are not under-age girls’ or ‘at least it is consensual, he did not force them’. Call him out if he is a sexual predator who is abusing his power over women to seduce them. #DONTLOOK AWAY.
This then is my call for today to all men – pledge never to be one of those violent men who is guilty of any form of gender-based violence and pledge to become an ally of women in the struggle against gender-based violence by calling out violent men around you.
I conclude with an instructive hadith (prophetic tradition) that provides hope of redemption for all of us, and especially for violent men. In this hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) exhorts us as follows:
“Whosoever truly repents of and changes his errant and sinful behaviour will be forgiven and seen by Allah as someone who has not sinned” (Reported in ibn Majah)
At this sacred time of jumu`ah please join me in a special du`a for the protection of women against violent men:
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.
Ya Rabb al-Nas – O Lord of all Humankind
You made and fashioned us into males and females, without one being superior over the other; Guide us to cherish each other, to get to know and love each other and to find gratification and peace of mind in one another.
Ya Rabbal Qist – O Lord of Compassionate Justice
Protect all women from the violence and abuse of violent men.
Open the hearts of all men to become allies in preserving and defending the dignity of all women.
Osman, M (2017) Challenging Gender-Based Violence: A Position of Solidarity. Khutbah, Claremont Main Road Masjid, August 2017.
Rasool, S. & Suleman, M. (2016) Muslim women overcoming marital violence: breaking through ‘structural and cultural prisons’ created by religious leaders. Agenda, Vol 30 (3).
MJC (2017) Unified Khutbah on Gender-Based Violence. Muslim Judicial Council.
CMRM Sexual Harassment Policy. Claremont Main Road Masjid, May 2019
Machisa, M. et al (2011) The War at Home: Gender Based Violence Indicators Project. Gender Links & South African Medical Research Council.
 Economic violence can take the form of, for example, property damage, restricting access to financial resources, education or the labour market, or not complying with economic responsibilities, such as alimony.