Protesting patriarchal power – T. van Wyk

Protesting patriarchal power: The task of political theology in creating solidarity and sustaining activism

by Tanya van Wyk

1. Responding to contexts? Political theology and its task today

In an article I wrote a few years ago[1], I argued that political theology is a critical theology, and that it is a theology with its face turned toward the world. I had learned this from Johann Baptist-Metz and Jürgen Moltmann, who count amongst the theologians who influenced me profoundly with regard to the articulation of my own understanding of political theology. 

When I wrote about it initially, I understood political theology in its broadest sense, namely as a hermeneutics of suspicion (as coined by Paul Ricoeur) with regard to power and its’ influence in the Christian church and Christian theology, which together constitute my main contexts. I maintain that departure point. Gradual experience of my contexts, however, has led me to the realisation that these contexts are profoundly influenced by a single facet of my existential existence, namely my gender: I am a woman. Therefore I am not merely part of the Christian church and I am not merely a theologian, I am first and foremost a woman that is part of the Christian church and I am a woman theologian. Being a woman in an ecclesial and theological context determines your experiences of that context in a profound and continuous way. Being a woman within those contexts within the broader South African context with one of the highest rates of gender-based violence and femicide in the world, further compounds and determines that experience. It is not an ‘add-on’ identity marker of my existence – it is the determining one. This has had a profound influence on my political theology and the way I characterise its content and purpose. Therefore, if I could make a more nuanced and focussed suggestion today towards the content and task of political theology I would probably argue that there is no such thing as a political theology, rather there are multiple political theologies, which are shaped by the context from which they emanate. Context shapes the questions and methodologies of political theology. This short essay is an attempt of reflecting on the possible contribution and/or tasks of political theology as response to the simultaneous increase of protest movements against gender-based violence and an increase in the violence itself.  

2. Gender-based violence: agency, activism and solidarity   

Women are dying, not because we don’t know how to save them. They’re dying because we have yet to decide they’re worth saving. And as a man, I am ashamed.[2]

At the time of writing this essay, the 2019 United Nations’ 16 days of activism against gender-based violence has commenced. This year it is aligned to both the UN’s UNiTE campaign[3] to end violence against women by 2030 and the UN Women’s Generation Equality campaign that marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing declaration and platform of actions that was established at the UN’s 4th World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace in 1995. 

That is a mouthful. Or a ‘bucket load’ of campaigns aimed at addressing the global pandemic of violence against women that is based on the persistent devaluing of women’s lives: #MeToo, #Time’sUp, #TheTotalShutdown and the ‘Am I next?’-protests. During 2017-2019 movements and campaigns organised by civil society, aimed at gender equality and protest against gender-based violence, have certainly gained momentum. Amid this, the Thursdays-in-Black movement initiated by the World Council of Churches (WCC) during the ‘Decade of Churches in solidarity with Women’ (1988-1998), has also received sustained attention.  

The momentum that these campaigns generate is a welcome turn of events. However, if both the UN and the WCC initiated formal protest and awareness campaigns more or less 25 years ago, what has the impact of these campaigns been in light of statistics that point to an increase in gender-based violence against women[4]? Two and a half decades is a long time for there to be only a slight to no difference in the lives of millions of women. 

In response to this question, it is alarming to note that there is a simultaneous phenomenon: there is an increase in gender-based violence and there is an increase in protest campaigns. Not that the campaigns themselves are to be blamed, rather the increase in awareness and protest with regard to the situations of women globally coincides with the emergence of debates about the marginalisation of men (which has happened in my own ecclesial context) are. It seems the protests are symbols of a growing threat to existing structures of power, be it power in relationships, knowledge-construction and leadership. This threat of diminishing power leads to increased violence. The decade after the end of apartheid in South Africa serves as an example. As Romi Sigsworth and Nahla Vlaji[5] have indicated, sexual and gender-based violence against women increased after the end of apartheid, because the violence is informed by pre-conflict power relations. ‘Pre-existing gendered hierarchies and patriarchal norms which inform the dominant forms of masculinity in pre-conflict settings, can run up against shifting gender roles and identities during the conflict, as well as new values of gender equality introduced during the transition’[6]. Violence against women is an assertion of power or a desire to keep power. There are different forms of violence in this regard: physical and emotional violence, as well as political, social and economic violence. The type of violence is related to the type of power that is under threat, because gender is embedded in relations of having power or being without[7]

In the decade after the formal end of apartheid, Graeme Simpson and Gerald Kraak (1998) provided an analysis of the link between a loss of power and increased violence against women in South Africa: 

Given the enduring tradition and history of patriarchal society, in which men have been accustomed to political and economic power, and the more recent realities of political and social change in which they feel a loss of power and control, violence has become an important vehicle for re-asserting their masculine identity and influence. This is true of family killings in white middle-class Afrikaner society – where political and social changes have eroded the traditional power base of Afrikaner men – as it is in black working class society – where unemployment may be experienced in exactly the same way. Economic and political changes are fundamentally undermining the identities conferred upon men by patriarchy …men as bread-winners … as guardians …as protectors. They must seek alternative vehicles for sustaining a sense of self and identity. And violence is such a vehicle.

In April 2019 the results of the first gender survey to be conducted in South Africa was released[8]. It was reported that culture, traditional practices and customary law influenced gender attitudes which are contrary to gender equality. The study illustrated that there is a significant gender gap regarding attitudes about employment, but there is a much smaller gender gap with regard to certain cultural aspects. Some of the results include: 

  • When jobs are scarce, men have more right to work than women (41% men;  28% women agreed)
  • Women should listen and obey when traditional leaders speak (85% men; 71% women agreed)
  • In your culture, a woman should listen to her husband (85% men; 82% women agreed)
  • Women should take their husband’s last name when they get married (85% men; 78% women agreed)
  • Women who know their place will not get beaten (60% men; 52% women agreed)

Religious contexts are not exempt from the phenomenon that growing awareness and focus on gender equality leads to resolute resistance that result in different forms of violence. It accounts for the dynamics I recently witnessed at the general assembly of my church denomination, the Netherdutch Reformed Church (NRCA). This year (2019) marks 40 years since the NRCA allowed women to be ordained as ministers in the church in 1979. During the ensuing four decades a steady stream of women studied theology and were ordained as ministers, even though at present women make up 28% of the entire minister-corps as opposed to 72% men. During the general assembly (held during September 2019), a survey about women’s participation and representation in the NRCA was introduced as one of the main discussion points during the assembly[9]. The main purpose of this was to highlight the non-existence of women in leadership positions and the prevalence of sexual harassment and unethical labour practise in the church. 

Although the delegates supported the research conducted in the survey, acknowledged and emphasised the importance of the representation of women in all levels of leadership within the church and condemned sexual harassment and violence[10], the assembled delegates did not elect one single woman minister on the executive council of the general assembly. This is significant, because one woman was part of the previous executive committee. This meant that a purposeful campaign to raise awareness about the lack of female representation amongst ministers and leadership structures in the NRCA coincided with an election in which the presence of female ministers on the executive committee was removed. Coupled with that, sexist language and prejudices about women’s ability to lead congregations remained rampant[11]. Transitions in gender and power relations have led to a crisis in masculinity (for the NRCA), as mentioned above. There is an increase in the number of female theological students in the NRCA. This phenomenon occurs in a time where there is a decrease of the institutional church’s loss of authority, which leads to dwindling numbers of members and less financial security for ministers. The amount of men enrolling for theological studies with the aim of becoming a minister in the NRCA has decreased significantly[12] to the point where some of the year groups consist of women entirely. Is this a welcome change or is it another indication that women ‘may’ occupy a position, so long as it does not hold any power? This requires further investigation and is beyond the scope of this essay.

There is of course another reason for the phenomenon that increasing campaigns of protest and awareness with regard to women’s lives do not necessarily yield changes for many women around the world. Even though Valentine Moghadam[13] has argued that there is considerably evidence of transnational activism – that is, cross-border collective action in the form of advocacy, it remains a question if women are truly united in protest against the way patriarchy is maintained. With the acknowledgement of the phenomenon of intersectionality  – that is, the way different identity markers such as ethnicity, culture, gender, and sexuality intersect to create different epistemologies and paradigms, I sometimes wonder if women are collectively able to reconcile their diversity and work as a collective whole to combat patriarchy. Can the acknowledgment of these differences be a vital power to stimulate uniting across borders, in families, cultures, the church and the workplace? I ask this because there are also women, for ideological, psychological, economic and religious reasons, that view feminist/womanist activists as a threat to what they perceive is a natural, balanced order to the cosmos[14]. This order is based on gender binaries which are expressed in gender roles that are assigned according to an either/or permutation of humanity: either male or female.  These women fear marginalisation and in many cases, they fear what was described earlier: a violent reaction to what would be perceived as a challenge to male authority. This is nothing more than a perpetuation of male power and constitutes an unfinished reformation.

[1] T. Van Wyk, 2015, “Political Theology as critical theology”, HTS Theological Studies 71(3), Art. #3026, 8 pages.

[2] N. Rao, ‘Sound Bite’, TIME Magazine 18. (2019), 56-57. Dr Naveen Rao is the senior vice president of the health at the Rockefeller Foundation and he made this remark during a presentation at the TIME 100 Health Summit in October 2019.

[3] United Nations Women, 2019, ‘UNiTE to end violence against women’, accessed at on 25 November 2019.

[4] There is a host of statistics available. For example:; UNFPA (United Nations Population FUND), State of the world population 2019: ‘Unfinished business: the pursuit of rights and choices for all’, accessible at; UNICEF, 2017, A Familiar Face: Violence in the lives of children and adolescents; ‘South-African Demographic and Health Survey’ and ‘Crime against women in South Africa’, accessible at StatsSA-website;  the South-African Human Rights Commission at and also SaferSpaces:

[5] R. Sigsworth/ N. Valji, ‘Continuities of violence against women and the limitations of transitional justice’, in S. Buckley-Zistel/ R. Stanley (eds.), Gender in transitional justice, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp. 115-116.

[6] Ibid. p. 117.

[7] C.O.N. Moser, “The  gendered continuum of violence and conflict: An operational framework’, in C.O.N. Moser & F.C. Clark (eds.), Victims, perpetrators, or actors: Gender, armed conflict and political violence, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, 35-39, here 37.

[8] A. Gouws, SARChI Chair of Gender Politics, Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University, 2019.

[9] NRCA (Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk van Afrika), Agenda van die 72ste Algemene Kerkvergadering/ Agenda of the 72nd General assembly, 2019a, pp. 74-78. at [18 November 2019]. 

[10] NRCA (Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk van Afrika), Konsepnotule/ Minutes of the general assembly, 2019b, at [18 November 2019]. 

[11] E. Van Eck, ‘’n Vergadering van die vroue, of nie?’/ ‘A meeting of women, or not?’, Die Hervormer 8. (2019), p. 3. 

[12] NRCA (Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk van Afrika), Agenda van die 72ste Algemene Kerkvergadering/ Agenda of the 72nd General assembly, 2019a, pp. 269-281. at [18 November 2019].

[13] Valentine M. Moghadam, “Transnational activism”, in L.J. Shepard (ed.), Gender matters in global politics. A feminist introduction to international relations, New York: Routledge, 2015, 331-346.

[14] E. Kamaara & M. N. Wangila, Contextual theology and gender reconstructions in Kenya, Theologies and Cultures VI.2 (2009), 131.