The M1 was its usual unmoving self as I trekked north to Pretoria last week. The monotony of the staccato traffic flow on our roads is these days only interrupted by a generous helping of over-zealous football themed marketing. There’s no escaping it folks. The World Cup, like an untimely Armageddon, is drawing precariously close. And if it does happen to fall short on any of its lofty objectives at least it’s united us all- in gridlock. My trip to Pretoria was however no footballing matter. A women’s forum from Laudium, a suburb to the west of the capital, had invited me to share my experience as a magazine editor and then discuss opportunities for the empowerment of women. I took the liberty instead to speak about the place of young women in South African Muslim society.
It was no call to revolution, a well worn topic, but one I feel that needs to be addressed from within South African Muslim contexts. The subjugation of women is not created by scripture or law it is created and maintained through ideology. Ideology is a lot like common sense, the sort of things we take for granted, care not to question. So, young women grow up desperately coveting the attention of men, equating their self-worth to their cup size, feeling less than whole unless they are made the object of a man’s attention because the pervasive ideology is one that promotes the looks and marriagabilty of a woman above her grey matter. I warned that in a society where the media is lambasted for everything from a rapacious taste for fast food to fast cars and even faster living, the media cannot alone be held responsible for spinning disconcerting ideologies . Social norms are not created on the back of a cover girl alone, we are all responsible, I argued, for the girl who is forced into a sexual relationship to maintain the farcical obligation of having a boyfriend.
I sought to stress the importance of education, of the re-evaluation of social norms and the dire need for critical thinking. When I stopped talking and faced a group of women who wore matching expressions of bewilderment, I was afraid I had misread my cue. But then, someone volunteered, ‘That was inspiring,’ and my traitorous head burst at the seams with such delectable food for vanity. My delirious glow of self-congratulations was however short-lived.
An Apa1 replaced my haze of complacency with a burning anger as she countered, ‘Well, if your girls don’t go to school then they don’t have to experience all these things,’ and someone else furiously asked, ‘ But how can you deprive them of an education?’ She replies, ‘The threat of peer pressure is worse than the lack of an education!’ I stepped in and tried to explain that peer pressure is unavoidable, manifesting itself in various places, including the home and in many instances can also be positive. She, though, was doggedly determined to be unmoved. I had to remember to bite my tongue being a guest of this forum. And a very inspiring woman, a spritely minded 70-something, said to her, ‘So tell me your daughter’s at home and does what?’ And she says, ‘You can spend 200 years learning Quran and Sunnah and you won’t be done.’ According to this Apa-at-large secular knowledge and Islamic knowledge are like oil and water, inadmissible by nature.
At this point, I think, everybody in the room was praying she just shut up. No one there agreed with her but everybody was too afraid to further engage her. Someone else then asked me a question, deftly redirecting the conversation in an effort even the most astute diplomats would be proud of. While we were served cake and Pepsi, Apa got up, excusing herself citing a dentist appointment. The relief her departure brought was much sweeter than the finest confectionery. It is easier to believe people like her don’t exist. It’s easier, on the mind and purpose to believe women are uniformly unshackled of such ignorance. Yet she was there. Real. Proof that there is more than one ideology we need to be rid of. Still, it amazes me that though she can lambast pursuits of ‘secular knowledge’, relegating it to the annals of impermissibility she remains a witting beneficiary of someone’s university-going. Because even though educational institutes are dens of iniquity and vice we need to have our teeth fixed. But will the hypocrisy of it all ever be realised?