Reconciling gender and justice in religious cultural and traditional practices

By Commissioner Rosieda Shabodien

When President Zuma, who already had two wives at the time, married his third wife, an international media frenzy erupted, ensuring that the issue of polygamy became an instant hot topic for global debate.  In discussing the President’s polygenous marriage, much attention was focused on tangential issues such as which wife would be the First Lady, the President’s Spousal budget, and so on. 

What we did not discuss is the fact that President Zuma was exercising his legal right to be married to multiple wives at the same time – a right granted to South African men under the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act which permits polygyny, a form of polygamous marriage in which a man can be married to more than one woman concurrently.

As President Zuma concluded his third marriage, we chose to zoom in on one individual who had acted in accordance with what his cultural traditions and our legislation permit him to do, rather than question the practice of polygamy in its broader sense. This one event exposed some of the difficult issues we are grappling with in South Africa. For example, does South Africa have the capacity to accommodate multi-cultural diversity whilst still subscribing to universal human rights and values of civil liberty?  What are the implications when one citizen’s practise of their faith and traditions infringe on the rights of others to do the same? 

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) entered into the debate armed with its mandate of ensuring that gender equality is attained in South Africa. In addressing the issue of polygamy it was important to widen the discourse to include the broader issue of how the practice of religion, tradition and culture intersect with gender equity, women’s liberation and their empowerment.  On the issue of polygyny, we asked:  Does the practice infringe on the rights of women and/or girl children?  Do these religious, traditional and cultural practices enforce negative gender stereotypes about women and men? Do they tip the gender justice scale in favour of men?  Put more plainly: when religion, culture and traditions are practiced, do they have the same impact on men and women?

Under the Apartheid regime, black people were denied citizenship and the concomitant citizenship rights.  In addition to its ideology of white race supremacy and black race inferiority, the Apartheid Government also maintained a Christian theocratic State in which Christianity was considered the only ‘legitimate’ faith of South Africa. This meant that other religions were rejected and even vilified. For example, the Apartheid State did not recognise customary marriages performed by adherents of the African Traditional Religions and Islam.

With the dawn of South Africa’s democracy it became important to redress the injustices suffered during Apartheid. South Africa’s Constitution was crafted in this spirit.  The right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion was secured, ensuring that all faith and traditional communities’ practices are treated as equally valid and worthy.

South Africa embraced a unique secular State model. Secular States generally assume a completely neutral stance towards matters of religion and faith and treat these as personal matters, but our Constitution deliberately included clauses relating to religion, traditional leadership and customary law in recognition of the crucial role they played in overthrowing the Apartheid regime. 

Notably, whilst the Constitution is very lucid about the rights of citizens to freedom of religion, belief and opinion, it articulates these rights with the proviso that they cannot violate other rights clauses in the Constitution. In practice, this is easier said than done. For example, if customary marriages are recognised, does one also have to accept the ideology that informs the power relations between men and women?  Furthermore, what if a particular faith or cultural practice patently discriminates against women by not allowing them access to places of worship or participation in decision-making structures?

The irony is that religious and traditional leaders insist on the freedom to express their beliefs, yet justify gender-based discrimination based on religious and traditional decrees.  Often this justification serves to preserve patriarchy, misogyny and the perpetuation of discrimination against women and girl children.

What is needed now is an unambiguous message by the State: Practicing one’s faith, tradition and culture cannot be done at the expense of the civil rights of women.  It is crucial to remember that South Africa’s liberation struggle was not only for a non-racist society, but also for a non-sexist society and the eradication of all kinds of human rights discrimination.  With the same ferocity as the Apartheid State pursued its race and monoculture agenda, it perpetuated patriarchy and women’s oppression. Consequently, although the Apartheid policies were damaging to all black people, black women were subjected to greater oppression. Within this context, we need to understand the impact that religious, cultural and traditional practices has on gender equality and gender equity.

Religious, cultural and traditional practices have every right of expression, but within a human rights framework and without minimising any other values as expressed in the Constitution. Therefore, when these practices are patriarchal, misogynist and/or discriminatory, this cannot be allowed with the State’s consent.  The State has the responsibility to unequivocally condemn such practices.

It is therefore critical that we interrogate the boundaries of religious freedom, and what is permitted within the context thereof. Any practice that diminishes the rights of one human being at the expense of another’s must be exposed and dealt with in accordance with the spirit of our Constitution.

The CGE is adamant that no gender discrimination takes place on any basis, whether supposedly ‘divinely’ inspired or not. We cannot allow the hard-won gains we have achieved to be eroded in the name of religious and traditional freedom. Every one of us must vigorously embrace our responsibility to speak out against gender injustice, and actively work towards ensuring equal rights for men and women and the creation of a gender equitable society in South Africa.