Gender Transformation – a Distraction or the Essence of our Faith?

“Theology is not just something you think about or discuss, it is something you do. Justice is something you do.”

This was the challenge offered by Nontando Hadebe at the launch of Side By Side’s (SBS) first Secretariat in Africa during the We Will Speak Out SA (WWSOSA) Annual General Meeting on 30 September 2021.

Side by Side is a movement of faith leaders and communities, faith-based organisations and individuals of faith who are committed to removing barriers to gender justice. As a global network, SBS draws together faith communities in different countries and works to meet local and global challenges to bring about justice and equality. Its agenda at a global level mirrors WWSOSA’s agenda in South Africa.

Side by Side has been coordinated from Scotland for a few years, and when the opportunity arose, WWSOSA, a member of SBS, made a successful submission to host the movement in South Africa for the next three years. Rev Bafana Khumalo, WWSOSA Acting Chairperson, who is also a member of the SBS Global Steering Group, spoke of the alignment of vision as WWSOSA continues to impact in the faith sector to change its damaging patriarchal narratives and practices. In committing to support Hadebe in her new role as International Coordinator, Khumalo said that this collaboration now gives WWSOSA global influence.

In an inspirational presentation entitled “Liberating Faith Through Gender Justice: “Weaving Global Networks Locally”, Dr Hadebe challenged participants and all faith leaders to bring back the imago Dei, the image of God, in all people, as central to guide all that we say or do as communities of faith.

Turning the spotlight on gender justice, she said: “It is not a programme or something we are importing from the world or the UN. It is absolutely fundamental to our faith because, if we are responding to the imago Dei that dwells in each person, it becomes impossible for us to think that any human being was placed in this world to be beaten, to be raped, to be abused. It is just so inconsistent with our faith that we have no choice but to act”.

What would a non-patriarchal religion look like, asked Dr Hadebe: “When a young boy steps into a faith space, will he emerge with a high regard for girls? When a young girl steps into a faith space, whether church or mosque, how will she experience what it is to be made in the image of God? What needs to happen for those spaces to be welcoming? To affirm the dignity of women and also to challenge masculinities as non-violent and appreciative of women? What kind of theology needs to be produced to be able to create those experiences so that gender equality is not in my head or in anybody’s head but is in the total experience of what it means to be a Christian?”

Dr Hadebe went on to challenge herself and other gender activists: “Could it be that we are trapped in the same patriarchal discourse that we are hoping to dismantle? It is easy to stay stuck in the binary thinking where it is women who are victims and men who are perpetrators of violence. While it is true that most perpetrators are men, not all men have raped, and not all men have beaten a woman. How do we integrate the many ordinary men who live in progressive inclusive ways? What is required is for us to step right out of the patriarchal binary narrative and develop an inclusive language to deal with gender justice issues. It is not just about women and men, it is about all of humanity, in all our diversity, as the imago Dei – whatever our gender, sexual preference, race, class or any other identity.

She challenged the participants to think about what it might mean for them to engage in multiple narratives that create a different, non-patriachal, story, “How do we integrate those multiple narratives in our theology? How do we build solidarity across genders, across people? Or do we prefer to stay in that binary thinking, where the struggle is? “

She painted a picture of a holistic vision that connects all these different narratives – that connects spirituality, gender justice and flourishing of life for all. So that justice becomes the essence of our everyday practice of our faith. Our fundamental belief in the imago Dei in everyone resists all forms of inequality and violence as contrary to our faith.

WWSOSA is planning to host a deeper discussion based on Dr Hadebe’s paper, for its members and partners together to reflect together on what it may mean for how we ‘do faith’ in our daily lives and places of worship. Please contact coordinator@wwsosa.org.za for further information.

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