God vs. Girls?

As we all continue to take part in the global campaign “16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women & Children” (aka 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women & Children, but I prefer the former title) I was wrapping up my day by reading through the abundance of resources available over at Sonke Gender Justice. Sonke is a South African non-profit organization that works with men and women to build a movement to achieve gender equality, prevent gender-based violence and reduce the spread of HIV and the impact of AIDS.

I have been following Sonke’s work throughout sub-Saharan Africa for some time now, but somehow missed learning of a fascinating workshop they put together down in SA.

The workshop was an examination of the intersection of “Religion, Gender and Sexuality.” Held in June 2015, this collaborative effort of Sonke Gender Justice, MenEngage Africa, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (WICDS) brought together participants from 10 countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s purpose? To challenge gender transformation activists and members of the religious community alike to think critically about the intersection of their two often disparate worlds.

“At Sonke, over the years, we have come to realise that as we engage communities around gender transformation issues, there is always some reference to religious beliefs and [cultural] norms, people quoting text to justify male dominance and patriarchy… and these institutions, therefore, become major drivers of gender inequality.”

Attendees at the workshop spent the week discussing how the strong religious backgrounds of so many Africans from each country represented often contribute to gender imbalances. Participants reflected on the ways in which the patriarchy inherent in religious texts often serves to disenfranchise women and justify their oppression, in the past as well as in the present.

As I continue my work on gender inequalities in the Ugandan context, I am forced to reflect on these issues daily. Christianity and Islam both contain within them certain components and (misinterpreted) teachings that all-too-often propagate the subservience of women in Uganda. In many of my discussions with boys and young men over the past two years, a male God – as well as His male son in Christian texts and male prophets across nearly all faiths – is used as justification for gender inequalities.

These discussions have (literally) kept me up at night. How can we, as a highly evolved species, believe this? How do these ideas continue to be passed down from generation to generation?

Despite my deeply held spiritual beliefs, I have never been able to ascribe to any religion, because I could never overcome the nonsensical acceptance of a male God in a world created and nurtured every single day by women.

While I do not advocate for the entire world to adjust their belief in a higher power to accommodate for a feminine spirit or visage (even though I do), I think that efforts like that of Sonke are both timely and essential. It is critical for us, all of us, to critically examine the overwhelming and often crippling impact that misinterpretations of religious teachings have on women and girls around the world.

Young girls are forcibly barred from attending school by acts of extreme violence; women are made to cover their faces in respect to God (and their husbands); the perceived subservience of Eve (who was clearly framed) to Adam is used time and again to justify domestic violence and the archaic notion that a woman has a particular “place” that is distinct and inferior to that of a man.

I am thrilled that Sonke Gender Justice and its collaborators were able to hold this event, and I hope (and trust!) that it is the first of many like it to take place around the world.

Although I do not ascribe to it, I believe that organized religion has a powerful place in the collective human experience, one that brings people together under the ideals and virtues of love and unity, and offers both inspiration and solace to so many in their darkest hours.

But religion’s place is NOT to perpetuate the oppression of women and girls. Plain and simple.

We should all follow in Sonke’s footsteps and start more dialogues like these – in our communities and in our work – and start changing that.

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