Aware and empowered responses to gender injustice: A Challenge to the church

Aware and empowered responses to gender injustice: A challenge to the Church

Elize Morkel

Published chapter in Living with Dignity:  African Perspectives on Gender Equality. 2015.  (Eds) E. Mouton; G Kapuma; L. Hansen & T Togom.  Sun Press: Stellenbosch

Violence against women in South Africa came under the spotlight in February 2013 when seventeen year old Anene Booysen was brutally gangraped and murdered in Bredasdorp. Twelve days later, on Valentine’s Day, paralympic sport icon, Oscar Pistorius, shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in Pretoria – an event that attracted unprecedented global media and public response.

In my middle-class practice as a psychologist, my work as a supervisor and trainer, and my collaboration with disadvantaged communities, I have witnessed countless stories of violence, violations, and oppression experienced by women. While we were bombarded through the media by the stories of violence in February/March 2013, my practice was hit by a wave of women who were experiencing violence in their relationships. My involvement in this work resulted in a threat to my own safety, which confronted me with ethical issues regarding client confidentiality versus public protection. At that time a journalist discarded my critical analysis of power relations in a contribution to an article on gender abuse. Furthermore, responses to a talk on issues relating to masculinity and gender with a group of men in a church context left me completely shaken up. In the last week of February 2013 I contracted a virus and was ill for two weeks.

A personal story through the ‘witness positions’ grid

It was clear to me and everyone around me that my body was reacting to what I had been witnessing personally, professionally and publicly. In her book, Common Shock – Witnessing Violence Every Day (2003), psychologist Kaethe Weingarten discusses people’s responses to the everyday witnessing of violence and violations and its effect on their bodies.[3] Weingarten (2000, 2003, 2010) developed a grid with four witnessing positions that arise from the intersection between two dimensions: awareness and empowerment (below). Position 1 occurs when a person is an aware and empowered witness to violence or violation (Weingarten 2010:11). People may move around in the grid as their awareness and position of empowerment change over time, in different contexts and in different roles:

All of us, whichever role (victim, perpetrator, witness) we are currently in, can witness ourselves. We can become aware of what we see – witnessing ourselves as witnesses. We can become aware of what has happened to us – witnessing ourselves as victims. We can become aware of what we do to others – witnessing ourselves as perpetrators. More able to witness ourselves in each of these roles, we will be better able to witness others in each of these roles as well.                           (Weingarten 2003:26)


I have found this grid extremely useful in making sense of my experiences as a white Afrikaner woman and a member of the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), who has lived in apartheid South Africa for the first thirty seven years of my life (Morkel 2012). I have witnessed my own movement around this grid as I became more aware of the injustices of the apartheid system and its horrendous effects on the lives of millions of South Africans – both black and white[4]. I have described its devastating effects on my faith, life and work when I became aware of the extent to which “my” people and “my” church were responsible for justifying and supporting this evil system (Morkel 2011, 2012). I had to face my own complicity and the many ways in which I had benefitted and still benefit from the injustices of apartheid. When I was confronted with (the consequences of) my disempowered position, I became physically and mentally ill, especially when I realised that my training in Western medical models, coupled with my sheltered and privileged life, did not adequately equip me to respond to the trauma experienced by the majority of people in our country. By developing a participatory praxis based on narrative therapy principles, I eventually moved to a more empowered position from where I am currently participating more effectively in a wider South African community.

I have also used the grid to witness my own life as a woman in the patriarchal context of the South African society in general and the DRC in particular. I have become aware of the complexity of being part of the oppressors as a white person, while simultaneously being part of the oppressed as a woman, realising that, compared to most black women, I am very privileged indeed. For the purpose of this chapter, I will explore my personal experiences as a woman in the church in relation to the witness positions on the grid.

Unaware and disempowered (position 4)

I am the eldest of four children of a farmer. I knew that the birth of my brother, the third child, was of great significance since he would be the heir of the ‘family farm,’ who would carry the ‘family name’ and ensure that the farm stays in the family. The photographs of three generations of landowners and their wives in the farm’s office depict this connection between male linage and the land. Despite her yearning to teach, my mom had to give up her career as a teacher to become a farmer’s wife. As the only son in the family, my scholarly brother had to give up his dreams to study medicine, simply because he felt that he had no choice but to farm. At the same time, the need to attract a husband who would ‘look after me,’ was impressed upon me from a very young age as the ultimate goal of womanhood. It was also regarded a great tragedy that two of my aunts never married. The bridal pictures above my parents’ bed bear testimony to their three daughters’ success in this sphere!

I became a committed Christian at a young age and was very active in church and youth organisations, where I also served as a leader. I accepted unquestioningly that only men filled the pews of the Church Council, and that only men discussed important matters in Church meetings, while women were to tend the children and serve the tea. Despite its male dominance, I had no doubt that God had gifted me for, and was calling me into, fulltime ordained ministry in the DRC. Rude was my awakening when I had to face the fact in my last school year (1975) that only men were ordained in the DRC! I vividly remember a conversation with a career counsellor where I just sat and cried about the disempowered position I found myself in. I (uncritically) accepted and internalised the patriarchal culture of the church as a given, and even felt guilty for being so ‘out of line’ with my idea that God was calling me in a way similar to how God was calling men. As a young person I was unaware and disempowered on the bottom of the hierarchy, where children were taught to respect the authority of the church and its elders.

Unaware and empowered (position 2)

I was able to complete my university studies in psychology and education with success. During my student years, I remained very active in the church, and served in various leadership positions together with a large number of men who attended the Seminary. Since then, God truly blessed my career as a psychologist – I became a popular public speaker in our community, where I acted and spoke with the authority of a professional expert. In our personal lives, my husband Jaco and I were confronted with the problem of infertility. I struggled with my identity as a woman and with my relationship with God who called me to be a wife and a mother, but here I was “not woman enough” to be a mother and “too much of a woman” to be ordained in the church!

I increasingly experienced a deep sense of frustration in the Church where I always had to keep quiet and know my proper place, while men were taking important decisions and had plenty of opportunity to participate and develop their gifts. Yet, I kept on participating according to the rules and within the limitations prescribed by the church. I even used to give talks on marriage, presenting people with a very patriarchal (and harmful, I now realize) blueprint of the roles of husbands and wives! While I was occupying position 2 on the witness position grid, being unaware and empowered, I was in an extremely dangerous position, as Weingarten observes:

Position Two may be the position that is most dangerous to others. People who witness violence and violation, who are oblivious about what they are witnessing, but nonetheless respond as if they know what they are doing, will be misguided. Their actions will be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. The negative impact of witnessing from this position may be far-reaching, particularly if the person witnessing occupies a position of power or is perceived as having power.   (Weingarten 2010:11)

Aware and disempowered (position 3)

My growing awareness of the implications of the social injustices of apartheid was heightened through the political changes in South Africa during the early 1990’s. I began to understand the way in which the DRC abused the Word of God to justify apartheid. I was filled with anger and despair because of the numerous lies that I had been fed with all my life, and the many ways in which I had swallowed these – largely because it suited me so well. Then, in the (re)structuring processes of our new democracy, my husband was retrenched, and I found myself having to juggle the responsibilities of supporting him in redirecting his career and caring for a young child[5], while managing a fulltime psychology practice that was now to provide our family with financial stability.

Suddenly the “proper” gender roles that I previously subscribed to were turned upside down. In 1997, the year of my 40th birthday, I was diagnosed with a major depressive episode. I subsequently had to leave my practice, and it took me two full years to recover. Mid-life reflections during this (forced) sabbatical time got me to understand that my generation could no longer be passive, blame others, or look at our parents to do restitution for the mistakes of the past. “We” would have to read the Bible and be the church in new ways. I experienced this period – of raising and often acute awareness yet being disempowered to do what I knew I was called to do – as extremely disheartening, uncomfortable, and undermining of my confidence and hope for the future.

Weingarten (2010: 12) acknowledges that people often want to move back from this position to unawareness, which would cognitively be a numbing strategy. She points out that true relief only comes when people are prepared to move into the aware and empowered position

Aware and empowered (position 1)

During my sabbatical leave, I attended training sessions in Narrative Therapy – a healing approach which takes the broader socio-political context , its power relations, and its effects on people’s lives and relationships into account (White & Epston 1990:18). In the process I learnt more about how to approach communities in distress, and how to combine therapy with a firm stance on social justice (cf Waldegrave, Tamasese, Tuhaka & Campbell 2003). When I resumed my career as a psychologist, I worked from home in order to keep overhead costs low, and to enable me to volunteer my services as a psychologist in poor communities for two days a week. This work became known to colleagues in psychology and pastoral therapy who were keen to do similar work and I started offering them training and supervision.

When I became a supervisor for MTh students in pastoral therapy, I was introduced to liberation and contextual theologies which yet again raised my awareness of social injustices. I decided to enrol for the MTh in pastoral therapy. During this time, the writings of feminist practical theologians marked another significant shift in my awareness and empowerment. I learnt that racism and sexism use similar methods to justify the domination of one group over the other. The more I grew in the understanding of the oppression that I have experienced as a woman, the more I became sensitised to the oppression of racism. Through my training work, I was able to develop a strong network of colleagues who shared my values. They served as an alternative faith community where I could practise and give voice to the ways in which I believed God was calling me.

My participation in the DRC, on the other hand, became increasingly problematic. Although the offices of the Church were all open to women by 1990,[6] the clerical paradigm and hierarchical structures of the Church made it almost impossible for ordinary members to utilise and develop their gifts. I declined opportunities to serve in offices because I knew that my theological understandings and the leadership style in the church would create tension and conflict. While my participation in formal church structures was marginal at that stage, my involvement in underprivileged communities, and with colleagues from other racial groups expressed what I believed the church should actually be. In the process, I embraced the empowering knowledge that I was embodying the church wherever I participated in practices of healing and justice.

In 2004 my relationship with the Church changed drastically when my husband and I decided to move our membership to another congregation within the DRC – a painful step, for it was like leaving a beloved family. In the new congregation the leadership honoured and embraced the gifts of ordinary members. The congregation was involved in outreach work on various levels of society, and I took the courageous step to serve as an elder in this community. Later I served as chairperson of the council.

A turning-point in my participation in the wider DRC came in 2005, when I was invited to be a plenary speaker at a seminar attended by a large group of ministers and other leaders from a regional synod. I gave a prophetic message about the importance of contextual listening[7] from the side of the DRC, as the church largely responsible for the biblical and theological justification of apartheid. As a woman who had felt discredited, excluded and marginalised for so many years, claiming a public voice from within the DRC became a significant and healing event for me. More invitations to speak followed, and when the Synod of the Western and Southern Cape decided in 2008 that they should have more women[8] in their leadership structures, I was co-opted to serve on the Moderature. In 2010, I was elected at a meeting of the synod  meeting as a member of the Moderature, and in the same year I became the representative of this regional synod at the General Synod. Now, in my middle-age, I was granted the opportunity to serve God in the leadership of the DRC. My focus has now become that of an aware and empowered witness (of my own life as an Afrikaner, as I struggled together with “my” church and “my” people to deal with our racist and sexist past.

 Feminist practical theologian Denise Ackermann (1998:90) asserts that “(t)he longing for changes that will mend the world, is born in awareness.” She continues to say that

(t)he healing we require is one which combines both a rigorous accountability to our different communities and histories with a reaching across differences to ‘the other’ seeking collaboration in the cause of healing, and being prepared to be vulnerable yet actively contributing and concerned citizens. (Ackermann 1998: 91)

What Ackermann refers to as awareness, accountability and healing seem to be similar to the aware and empowered responses that Weingarten refers to.

 My story through a critical lens

I will now use the critical lenses of contextual theology, especially feminist theology, as well as the post-structuralist theories offered by narrative therapy and feminist theory to reflect on my personal story. I believe that these are the lenses that may assist the church in becoming more aware and empowered regarding gender injustice.

Denise Ackermann (2003:xvi) reminds us of how the outcries of prophets in the Old Testament, and the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry as told in the New Testament, revolve around the themes of justice and love as God’s intentions for the world. She points out to show how the analysis of social reality is done through the recording and analysis of stories. She explains how women doing theology can (and should) allow their experiences and stories to engage critically with biblical and theological traditions. She concludes: “Out of experience and critical questioning the search for clues for transformation emerge that can translate into actions on behalf of healing and freedom.”


My story as the daughter of a farmer vividly illustrates the concept of patriarchy which is a key category for social analysis in feminist theologies. Rosemary Radford Ruether (1996:173) describes patriarchal societies as “those in which the rule of the father is the basic principle of social organization of the family and of society as a whole.” The family pictures in my father’s office depict the patriarchal system whereby male family members become the masters and owners of the land passed on from father to son. It is difficult not to see my brother’s privileged position – as heir and owner of the farm where we all grew up as siblings, but from which my sisters and I have been marginalised and excluded – as a concrete confirmation of the superiority of sons (men) and the inferiority of daughters (women). However, we as his sisters find it difficult to talk about our sense of sadness and loss. We dare not speak about the injustice of significant financial benefits and opportunities that my brother enjoys for fear that it would be interpreted as greed.

Power and discourse

Referring to the relationship between discourse and power as described by Michel Foucault, Burr (1995:62) explains the kind of power that silences people. For Foucault, “knowledge, the particular common-sense view of the world prevailing in a culture at any one time, is intimately bound up with power” (in Burr 1995:63). A discourse provides a frame of reference from which to interpret the world to give it meaning (Burr 1995:57). Some discourses, however, have greater potential for having ‘common-sense’ or ‘truth’ status in a given culture, which may marginalise other discourses at the time. In the farming community where I grew up, the patriarchal discourse about the ownership of land is such a dominant discourse, that my sisters and I were silenced or deeply frustrated when we tried to raise the injustice of the social practices associated with it.

Ruether (1996:174) further points out that, despite changes regarding women’s rights, patriarchal culture – particularly through religion – continues to reproduce the ideal (discourse) of the dependent housewife whose main work is in the home. The idea of complementarity is partly based on obvious physiological differences between men and women, but is mainly based on traditions of biblical interpretation and on historically based Christian practice (Gelder 1996:33). This has led to the assumption that the sexes are not whole without one another. Biblical claims that women and men were created to complement one another begin with the Genesis account of creation. The argument for rigid complementarity is that woman is made from man, for man, after man and named by man, all of which are said to indicate her inferiority (Gelder 1996:33). New Testament texts are abused to say that the submission of women to men is divinely ordained and that it is wrong for women to take leadership roles. Gelder (1996:34) explains how these texts have been used as proof-texts for woman’s inferiority to man, justifying her position as a secondary or incomplete image of God. She points out that since these arguments have taken place in the context of patriarchy, a hermeneutics of suspicion towards the notions of female inferiority and rigid complementarity is necessary. In the process, many other dualisms have been set up, resulting in the perception that male as ‘mind’ is closer to God, and female as ‘body’ is closer to the earth:

Rigid complementarity is a type of apartheid. It pays lip service to a form of equality between the sexes but sees nothing valuable in women beyond their difference from men. It is inextricably linked with false claims about inferiority of women. It works to prevent both women and men from developing full humanity and more perfectly imaging God.                           (Gelder 1996:34)

During my childhood, most Afrikaner women resigned themselves to patriarchal authority and domestic roles (Du Pisani 2001:164). My mother’s function was a private one as mother to the children and head of the household. It was a role that denied her the opportunities to develop her many gifts (which were much better suited for public life) while she supported my father. The picture of my brother in the public space of the farm’s office signifies his calling as a man, while the bridal pictures of my sisters and me in the privacy of my parent’s bedroom signify the reaching of our destiny as women in the domestic sphere. I have thus struggled with my identity as a woman.

Social construction of identity

Weedon (1987:3) discusses how poststructuralist theory provides a way of understanding the relationship between the individual and the social, the private and the public domains of life. She explains that the social institutions we enter as individuals –the family, school, university, church, and fashion culture – pre-exist us. We learn that the values and norms that they seek to maintain and the ways that they operate, are true, natural and good. This is how we learn, from an early age, what and how girls and boys – and later men and women – should be.

These ways of being an individual (subject positions)[9] might not always be compatible and we learn that we can choose between them. Although a range of subject positions exist for women, all the possibilities nevertheless involve accepting, negotiating or rejecting what is constantly being offered to us as our primary role – that of wife and mother. In my family I have learnt that spinsterhood reflects failure and tragedy, while marriage and motherhood speak of fulfilment. Foucault’s ideas of self-surveillance in response to what is perceived to be ‘natural’ in a society, would offer an explanation of how women internalise and act according to these dominant discourses (in Burr 1995:67). Isherwood and McEwan (1993:24) aptly describe the effect of these stereotypes as follows:

Sex-role stereotypes, sweetly smiling females neatly turned out and proportioned, ever submissive, docile, helpful, as if developed according to a formula, replicate the pattern of domination and subordination: if one sex is defined as being submissive, if stress is laid on this quality, then it follows that the other sex is rightfully dominant.

Foucault regards power and resistance as two sides of the same coin (in Burr 1995:64). The power implicit in one discourse is only apparent from the resistance implicit in another. This can be illustrated by the way in which both my parents supported and celebrated my gifts and talents, thereby providing me with an alternative subject position. This led to confusion at times, when I realised that to achieve and beat boys at public speaking is rewarded, yet it is also dangerous as it might make me less attractive as a woman. I sensed this same tension in my parents who expressed fear that I might not get married if I was ‘too career-orientated,’ yet they both took my call to ordained ministry seriously and shared my pain at the injustice of exclusion from this calling by the patriarchal DRC.

In a patriarchal society the Christian God is male, communicates with men first, who in their turn share the message from God with the community of believers (Aguilar 1996:43). I experienced overwhelming confirmation of this ‘truth’ in church and at university as my male friends became increasingly educated as theologians while my voice as a theological agent was effectively marginalised in the process. The story of my calling to the ordained ministry soon became subjugated to what Laird (in Bons-Storm 1996:57-58) describes as an ‘unstory’ or a ‘story that is not there’. The door is shut on an ‘unstory’, for it contains roles for women that clash with the proper roles dictated by dominant cultural discourses. I was coerced into accepting my ‘proper role’ as one of following: a second choice career, or fitting into life as a married woman whose husband’s career came first. It was when I struggled to fall pregnant that I got angry and confused about my worth and identity in relation to an ‘Almighty God’ who had rejected my gifts for ‘his’ church (sic). Moreover, ‘He’ had prescribed the role of wife and mother for me, but had then deprived me of the fulfilment of motherhood.


In poststructuralist theory, language is the common factor in the analysis of social organisation, social meanings and power, as well as individual consciousness (Weedon 1987:21). Our subjectivity is constructed through language and is produced within a whole range of discursive practices, such as economic, social and political discourses. Experiencing myself as ‘the infertile woman’ had devastating effects for my identity as a woman:

The prevailing assumption that motherhood and child-rearing bring women ‘natural fulfilment’, and by inference, that childless women are not quite what they should be, involves attributing particular social meaning and values to the physical capacity to bear children.                                                                                                                                                    (Weedon 1987:130)

Ironically, it was an experience in church that provided me with an opportunity to deconstruct the meaning of infertility. The minister, once preaching from John 15, said: ‘Wees vrugbaar’ (Be fruitful), and immediately I thought: ‘No, you don’t understand, I am infertile.’ I then realised that I had huge potential to bear the kind of fruit that comes from abiding in God and loving others in the way that John 15 teaches. Referring to the work of Derrida, Sampson (1989:7) explains: “To deconstruct is to undo, not to destroy.” Placing a term under erasure means to cross the word out, but to print both the word and its deletion. Putting ‘infertile’ under erasure, I am able to understand that it is both necessary to hold it in order to acknowledge a painful part of my life and identity, while at the same time it is also an inaccurate description of my life and identity. This understanding gave me many alternative ways to live my life. My act of resistance to the pain, loss and helplessness of infertility was to focus on bearing fruit through living the marginal (paradoxical!) discourse of a married woman being a public figure in a successful career. Weedon (1987:125) points out what Foucault’s work offers feminists:

Although the subject in poststructuralism is socially constructed in discursive practices, she none the less exists as a thinking, feeling subject and social agent, capable of resistance and innovations produced out of the clash between contradictory subject positions and practices. She is also a subject able to reflect upon the discursive relations which constitute her and the society in which she lives, and able to choose from the options available.

Patriarchy affects everyone in society (Isherwood & McEwan 1993:105). Morrell (2001:17) describes the dominant discourse of being a white man during the apartheid era as “being a protector, a wage-earner and knowing the right thing to do.” My father lived strictly according to these prescribed principles. For the thousands of white men who, like my husband, lost their jobs as a result of the transformation, restructuring and affirmative action in South Africa post 1994, it has been extremely difficult to lose the central part of their identities as ‘breadwinners’ as prescribed by a patriarchal culture. I have indicated how my brother struggled with the conflict arising from his dream to be a medical doctor and the discourse about ‘the right thing to do’, which prescribed that he took up his role as heir and farmer at significant personal cost.

Becoming aware and empowered: A case example from the DRC

South African feminist theologian Sarojini Nadar (2006:361) believes that every woman is called to the ‘fullness of life’ as expressed in John 10:10, and concludes that one could question the spirituality of the church that denies the full humanity of women. Colleagues often confront me with the suggestion: ‘If your church discriminates against you, leave it!’ But this is not such a simple choice at all. Through my growing awareness of the powerful strand of prophetic, liberating thought within the Christian tradition and particularly in the Bible, I have come to understand that God is calling me to counter racist, discriminatory and patriarchal traditions and practices within the DRC – right in the midst of where the majority of my people, the white Afrikaners, still worship.

My doctoral research in Practical Theology (Morkel 2012) includes various examples from my participation within the leadership of the DRC. For the purpose of this chapter I will focus on a short summary of the feedback about my participation in, and its effect as received from my colleagues on the moderature[10] of, the Synod of the Western and Southern Cape. I hope to illustrate how the participation of politically aware women[11] can serve to raise awareness and encourage empowered responses in relation to gender injustice in the church and society. I add two points of my own reflections on my participation in the Moderature at the time.

Prophetic stance

My colleagues emphasised that it was my prophetic stance and active, purposeful contributions that raised their awareness of patriarchal ideology and the way in which sexism, racism and homophobia are interrelated. They pointed out that not all women would be able to act as agents of transformation. They felt that my personal story, my professional experience, and academic research added authority to my voice. This reminded of Isherwood and McEwan (1993:17) who articulate the position of women in analogous ways:

Women on the margins of the church assume the role of prophets. They protest against the injustices emanating from the pinnacle because, from their position outside the power arena, they see how inequalities affect those on the margin – and in the ultimate analysis those at the pinnacle as well. They have nothing to protect as participation as equals is denied them. To protest is a way to survive. To protest is the way to deal with the situation, forcefully but non-violently, peacefully to enter into dialogue and to learn to understand phobias and fears.

For years my position on the margins enabled me to see the injustices more clearly. In fact, I had nothing to lose in protesting for survival. I had limited opportunity, however, to dialogue and be heard within the church structures. This changed (ironically) when I started to participate in the power structures of the church.

Embodied presence

Our male colleagues experienced that the embodied presence of two women in the male dominated meetings brought greater awareness about the use of language and the assumptions on which arguments and perceptions were based previously. In this regard, Ackermann and Bons-Storm (1998:2) remind us that the male was the subject of modernity. The male was also the subject of the clergy where a male clerical paradigm excluded women from being theological subjects and actors. The result was an androcentric focus and ethos where male experience was viewed as normative and female as ‘the other’ (Moore 2002:102). This has serious implications for the church:

Hierarchies of power, a separation of the laity from the clergy, and preaching and teaching based on men’s experience and insights in the world, all give rise to a clericalism which makes it difficult for the church to live out its prophetic calling.
(Ackermann 1994: 204)

Ackermann proposes new models for church and ministry that will acknowledge differences, but at the same time be inclusive and sensitive to patterns of injustice and discrimination.

It is as an embodied participant within the power structures of the DRC, that I experienced most profoundly the pain, discomfort and challenges that confront the church when engaging in efforts to include the marginalised and oppressed. When Franziska and I joined the leadership structures through a quota system, we experienced a significant difference in power compared with the men. As women we found ourselves to be a very inexperienced minority who were not elected on an equal basis with the men.[12]Carol Becker[13] (1996:30) describes how women – though invited into leadership positions in the church – do not necessarily feel welcome there since these positions often remain fundamentally male-oriented. I experienced enormous impotence, frustration, anger and despair at times. My experience in the church formed a particularly stark contrast to the level of participation, legitimacy, authority and congruency that I was used to within my profession as a psychologist. In hierarchical systems, the dominant group – white males in the case of the DRC – is the norm. This eliminates diversity and instead supports sameness, uniformity and control (Becker 1996:67). In the process women experience the ‘ungifting’ of their gifts and of themselves as givers (Yocum in Becker 1996:68).

Voicing injustices

Some of my male colleagues reported that the voicing of ‘my prophetic stance’ was most effective when engaging in ‘well-informed debate’, and when presenting training sessions or papers. I was heard most clearly when I fitted the white male paradigm of speaking with power and authority. For women a part of speaking up does mean speaking in a language which men understand (Becker 1996:169). They also emphasised the importance of using my prophetic voice in a gracious, compassionate, respectful and sensitive way. Hardy and Laszloffy (2008:233-234 point out that most people find it painful and difficult to realise that they have unintentionally supported pro-racist (or patriarchal) ideologies, which deeply challenge individuals’ preferred views of themselves. The realisation can invite tremendous defensiveness and anxiety and, if sensitisation is not pursued in a thoughtful and gentle manner, it might even have the opposite effect.

Apart from structural power inequalities, patriarchal leadership models make participation difficult for women. I often felt like an “immigrant in a foreign land” (Becker 1996:95) where I did not understand the language or rules of the dominant culture. It was, therefore, in the context of meetings and discussions that it was most difficult to find the language and the courage to speak, especially about issues of justice. A number of my colleagues mentioned that their awareness was raised to the ways in which women’s voices had been silenced when these became discordant with the dominant discourse. This intolerance of the voices of others is reflected in the dismissal of critical voices, the denial of women’s experience and the unwillingness to engage in critical self-reflection. There were many occasions when I experienced silencing, invisibility and a lack of emotional safety in meetings. I found this to be extremely oppressive, often leading to severe feelings of violation and rage. I frequently did not speak up in meetings, out of fear of what others might think of me, fear of conflict, or because I needed time for reflection to understand what it was that I was experiencing. At times I spoke up in a ‘raw voice,’ the primitive, unrefined voice that is often the result of having been mute and evolving your own voice for the first time (Hardy in Wyatt 2008:5). While speaking in and listening to a ‘raw voice’ might be very uncomfortable, fear of using it promotes silence.

At those times of deep emotional turmoil and outrage, after meetings, there were always colleagues who were affirming my voice, willing to ‘listen me to speech’[14] (Morton in Bons-Storm 1996:12). This would take place in private conversations subsequent to these meetings. I suspect that these ‘authentic conversations’ (Hess 1998:58) were (for us) some of the most valuable experiences in terms of raising our awareness of injustices. We learnt that a becoming mixed gender team required courage, time and patience.

Though celebration of difference is an appropriate part of conversation, authentic conversation is not a ‘tourist’s delight’ where surface sharing takes place. Real conversation that highlights difference entails clash and conflict. When we ‘celebrate’ differentness, we must be aware that the exhilaration that can come from engaging others is often on the other side of pain and struggle.                                                                                                                                                                  (Hess 1998:58)

Checking my realities with Franziska, and engaging in conversations with other women assisted in strengthening our authentic voices. Writing down my thoughts and reflections after meetings became a useful way to gain clarity, develop my voice, and assert my understandings. I spent hours and hours developing these documents. I often shared these with supportive colleagues who assisted me in finding ways to express my anger in respectful and gracious ways before sharing it in the wider group. Becker (1996:173), writing about being angry and merciful, quotes Schaper’s suggestion that women should “require the church and society to repent of their sins against us as women, while standing ready to forgive and receive the transformation that it implies.” Being open to forgive – while refusing to be abused again – we may find new ways to move forward as leaders.

Men listening to women

Some of my male colleagues reported on their raised awareness and about the importance of men listening to women. The first requirement from men to change sexism within the church is to admit that it exists, and that it is subtle and insidious. While some men do not understand sexism at all, there are others who react swiftly and decisively: they want to hear all about it, fix it and move on in a typical male dominant style (Becker 1996:149).

I have, however, encountered a third group of men among my colleagues who display real courage. Upon hearing about gender discrimination and their participation in it, they pause and listen. It takes a lot of patience indeed. They are willing to look inward and to learn. I was often deeply touched by the effort from male colleagues to make time and provide safe spaces just by listening – without pretending to understand or know – and by accepting my experience as valid. I know that it has been very hard for them at times. Women have an advantage when listening is required. As women living in a male-dominated world we already know much about the world of men: we have been required to listen to them (particularly in the church) for most of our lives. For men, it is harder. Once men have started undertaking reflective tasks of looking inwardly and listening to women, they can start taking positive action.

Men assisting women’s participation

In my relationship with the men on the Moderature, I encountered many of the actions that assist women’s participation in church leadership as listed by Becker (1996:155–159). Male colleagues created an environment of safety for me to speak honestly when I most needed it. Their affirmation of my contributions and encouragement to voice my experiences assisted in growing my confidence and the authority with which I was able to participate. These men were willing to share power with me by valuing my opinion and entrusting me with specific tasks. It was through men’s advocacy for women’s participation in leadership that I was co-opted in the first place, and through men’s constant creation of an atmosphere of acceptance for women leaders that opportunities opened up and that my voice could be heard. I received consistent thoughtful and untiring mentoring from a number of my male colleagues. At times this implied sacrifices – like taking on more assignments in their already over-loaded schedules, or by going way out of their way to be there and act as ‘cultural consultants’ within the culture of male leadership.[15] Their role was of utmost significance in helping me succeed in a culture where I was an ‘immigrant’ or ‘alien,’ so that they and others could learn from me.

Men teaching women to be direct and ambitious

It was not until my participation in the leadership of the DRC that I became aware of the complexity of my own response to power and authority. As chairperson of the church council I became aware of a reluctance to claim authority. I resonate strongly with Becker’s observation (1996:162) that women have been oppressed and abused by power for so long that we almost automatically come to reject authority as a bad thing: I feared that through claiming (any) authority I might hurt others, or be abandoned. In the process I learned that I personally prefer a collaborative leadership style. Another reason for not claiming power is the internalised oppression of sexism which constantly makes me doubt my own abilities and power – especially in the context of the church where I do not have the authority of an ordained minister. In many ways it is easier and safer not to claim authority, but to hide behind the men and get them to take care of difficult tasks. ‘Men can teach women to be direct and to be unapologetically ambitious’ (Becker 1996:167). This requires women to speak frankly and unapologetically, to take on tasks and to do them well. It is through hard work and determination that women can manage to break through the glass ceiling in male dominated contexts. This is as true in the secular world as it is in the church context.


I conclude with two quotes from feminist and pro-feminist practical theologians that summarise two important points that this chapter attempts to make – firstly, that gender inequality is constructed as a social hierarchy with devastating effects on the safety of women, and secondly, the importance of understanding the role of language in sustaining these hierarchical structures and the effects thereof on the mental health and identity of women.

As women have become conscious of themselves as an oppressed class [cf Weingarten’s concept of ‘awareness’], although experiencing different kinds of oppression from one another depending on race, economic status, sexual orientation, religion, and nationality, they have challenged both the liberal and conservative views [cf Weingarten’s concept of ‘empowerment’]. They reject the conservative view that gender inequality is God-ordained and that restoration of male dominance will decrease male violence. They also reject the liberal view that violence is caused by individual sinfulness. Violence is not evenly distributed within society as it would be if its basis were a fallen human nature. Rather, women and children, especially girl-children, experience violence out of proportion to their numbers.

(Neuger & Poling 1997:146; emphasis added)

Chopp and Taylor (1994:36–37) describe how language impacts the lives (and health) of women:

Social structures create individual ills. And social structures are linguistic – they are created, sustained, and mediated through language. Oppression, then, is not simply a physical reality but a psychic reality, for one’s perceptions of self and world are formed linguistically, and the language is received from the social reality within which one is embedded. When this language makes the male gender systemically normative, then women as the other gender are precisely that: other, outsiders, marginalized. In addition, insofar as the language pervades the culture, all of the institutions within that culture will reflect and perpetuate the normative and therefore privileged status of the male as over against the female. This pervasiveness not only includes the religious institutions within the culture; indeed, insofar as religious institutions are the culturally appointed conservers of value, these institutions become prime guardians of the patriarchal status quo.

I therefore challenge and urge the church in Africa in general and the DRC in particular to become (more) aware of its patriarchal language and structures, as well as its devastating effects on both women and men in the church and wider society, and to act as empowered agents of change in (Southern) African societies.


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Questions for reflection:

  1. What are some of the hardships and inequalities that women suffer in your community and church? Could they be explained in terms of patriarchal structures and beliefs?
  2. Where would you plot yourself on the witness positions grid in terms of your awareness of gender injustice?
  3. What is the percentage of women participating in the leadership structures of your church and what is their experience and contribution?
  4. In which ways have you been challenged or encouraged through reading this chapter?
  5. Can you think of possible empowered responses to support the dignity of women in your church and community?

[1]Although my personal story and the case example which I use refer to experiences in the Dutch Reformed Church of which I am a member I challenge the church in general. My participation in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, exposure to theologians from Africa and reading of feminist theology support my position that this is a challenge faced by the wider church, particularly also in Africa.

[2] Please note that this paper has been submitted as a chapter in the book Living with Dignity edited by Elna Mouton and Len Hansen which will be published later this year.

[3] Kaethe Weingarten (PhD) is a feminist, narrative therapist, and Associate Professor in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry. Her book, Common Shock – Witnessing Violence Every Day, won the 2004 Nautilus Award for Social Change. She has visited South Africa several times and has participated in the teaching and mentoring of colleagues locally.

[4] Analogous to the effects of patriarchy on both women and men as illustrated further on in this chapter.

[5] Our son was adopted in 1991.

[6] The office of deacon had been open to women since 1982 (Büchner 2007:225) and that of elder and ordained minister since 1990 (Büchner 2007:268)

[7] I was asked to talk about listening skills as the DRC was in a season of listening. Using the parable of the Good Samaritan I discussed the way in which power differences in relationships often create deafness in the listener.  We are challenged to listen to those who live on the margins of society and to take the context into account in terms of the power relations that exist.

[8] At that stage only one woman, Rev Franziska Andrag-Meyer, served on the Moderature. She was elected as an additional member in a position reserved for a woman.

[9] According to poststructuralist theory personal identity is not fixed, but shifts continuously as the individual finds herself in different contexts of society and depending on which discourses are dominant in that particular context. In the subject position of the career person she might experience success, but in the subject position of a family experience herself to be a failure, depending on the discourses that informs her thinking at a given time and within a given context. Where the idea of a “gender role” refers to a fixed position the idea of a “subject position” points out the openness to change and challenge as informed by the context and ideologies prevailing in particular contexts.

[10] Eight members comprising of four male members who are senior ordained ministers elected into office on merit, a further two members who are senior ordained ministers in full-time service of the DRC and the two women, which included me and Rev Franziska Andrag-Meyer, an ordained minister. Both of us served as additional members in positions reserved for women.

[11] Although I researched and asked specific feedback regarding the effect of my own participation many of our male colleagues included references to Franziska Andrag-Meyer’s participation as she shared my prophetic stance and participated in very similar way.

[12] I have limited theology training and am not part of the clergy. Franziska was at least 15 years younger than the rest of the group, and far less experienced as a minister. Neither of us had experience of church leadership.

[13] Prof Carol Becker is Dean of faculty and professor of the Arts at Columbia University School of the Arts. She is a feminist writer who has published extensively on topics involving mixed gender teams in religious settings and women in positions of church leadership.

[14] This phrase coined by feminist Nelle Morton literally means to listen carefully and patiently while someone finds the courage to say what she or he really means. It has become a well-known concept in our meetings as I kept reminding those with more power that finding a voice and words to speak is not so easy for us as women and requires this special kind of listening.

[15] I could not have done the gender and race awareness training in the context of the church if Nelis Janse van Rensburg, one of my colleagues on the Moderature, had not been prepared to assist me with the selection of appropriate material, accompany me as cultural consultant during the workshops, and add his voice to mine at times when men found it difficult to hear a woman speak critically, especially one who was not a church-insider.

The whole book is available online at: