A personal reflection by Jonah Gokova, Zimbabwe, first published in Gender and religious education
I wanted to be different
I was born in 1956 in a family of very devout Christian parents who both were active leaders in the Methodist Church. I was number two in the family but first born son. I have a young brother who comes after me and four sisters.
Traditionally my status in the family was higher than the one of my sister who came before me. In my case, my sister is seven years older than me! It is not about, who is older; but who is the son. This emphasis was repeated throughout my formative years and even up to now.
The Zimbabwean society, in which I was born, is not different from any other society in the world in terms of social expectations relating to gender roles between boys and girls who grow up to be men and women. There was an unwritten law, which regulated behavior and was read as the following: boys must be tough, boys do not cry, boys do ‘men’s work’ outside the home. At every step the requirement on maleness had to be confirmed. Physical ability, toughness were objectified as necessary ideal, that had to be achieved by every boy in our society.
I had four sisters who had an enforced ‘cultural and religious obligation’ to cook, wash dishes and clothes for me. In my younger days I was not satisfied with this arrangement and wanted to be different from other boys in my community. I was interested in assisting my sisters in doing household chore and I gained a lot of satisfaction from it. I learnt to cook, to iron and to perform household tasks, normally done by girls and women. My mother encouraged me to work together with my sisters and I enjoyed sharing the tasks with my sisters. My brother was rather different. He enjoyed playing with other boys away from home and his level of gender sensitivity is not notably high today.
Well my involvement in all this is definitely not the result of some fantastic gender theories I had read before. At that stage of my development I was not even aware of the work of feminists, who later assisted me with tools of analysis of social organization and unequal power relations that seem to be consistent in our societies today. I was simply doing what I felt as the right thing to do at that moment. It is important to note that my mother played a crucial role in encouraging and supporting me. She did not read any of the feminist theories and up to now, at the age of over 80 years, she is not familiar with the gender theories that are beginning to inform our critic of social and power relations between men and women in society.
It is very possible that as a leader in Church she must have been influenced by her belief in God to develop a sense of justice, that is reflected in the way she worked hard to create opportunities for her daughters, and the encouragement she gave me to develop a sense of equality between me and my sisters. I listened to her and I have never regretted.
My concept of salvation
As I look back I always ask myself, what specific contribution has the church made to my gender consciousness? What I remember from Sunday school theology and youth leadership lessons in the church is that God has always been neutral to these issues. Gender stereotypes have always been glorified as God-ordained. Boys should strive to positions of leadership while girls should be submissive and learn to obey.
I have always felt the gradual development of some sense of justice in my life but for many years I could not articulate it. I knew how to live it out in my life but had no preparation to take it beyond of my direct surrounding. When I decided to study theology I had a specific interest in Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology. I discovered that there is a particular way of reading the Bible and relating it to the own reality in which God plays a central role in motivating and directing the human search for freedom. I understood that the discipleship has inherently the sense of obligation for every Christian to fight, expose and eliminate forces of domination and exclusion in society. For Christians class divisions and gender divisions in society were creating new frontiers for struggling. So my involvement in the struggle for gender justice becomes a direct expression of my understanding of salvation and is part of the broader struggle for social justice which has its roots in the Gospel.
Being a man and a Christian in a society that enforces strict divisions of gender roles, left me with only one option and that was to refuse to be a collaborator in institutional and social structures that deny women any access to opportunities while fitting men with all privileges.
My understanding of the concept of salvation is all-encompassing. In our context, class divisions must be narrowed and gender roles eliminated, so that when we proclaim Abundant Life in Christ (John 10, 10) the proclamation finds a liberating meaning in the lives of God’s people. As a man I consider myself directly responsible for the necessary process of deconstructing manhood in order to get rid of offensive macho stereotypes that are prevalent in our society and world today. Those of us who have already developed some Gender-consciousness must openly challenge the patriarchal nature of social organization by standing as possible role models offering alternative expressions of manhood that do not depend on the exploitation and domination of women by men.
The most inspiring biblical passage for me is the account of the resurrection, in which was reported that women discovered that Jesus rose from the dead. The male disciples heard for the first time the message of the resurrection from the women! And Paul says if it did not exist the resurrection for our (Christian) faith, our faith would be in vain. Women discovered the resurrection while men were hiding in some room somewhere because they were afraid.
In the light of this fact I do not understand why men still want to remain as obstacles the ordination of women. Men were strangers to the message of resurrection!
A dysfunctional model of family in church
The church is not an easy institution to deal with, particularly when you are introducing new ideas and asking new questions. There has always existed the assumption in church that differences between men and women in society are God-ordained and therefore they should not be questioned or challenged. This applies especially to the Zimbabwean Church. There is a strong traditional belief in the church, that the family in its hierarchical form is the best foundation for the rest of society.
The diagram below reflects an unjust structure of the family that needs to be challenged and exposed because it creates and perpetuates the subordination of women by men in society.
What we observe from the above triangle is that the hierarchical structure of the family represents a universal basis of a traditional family unit that is responsible for the oppression of women in society.
The existence and function of Masculinity and Femininity is consistently enforcing the dominant role of the masculine while at the same time insisting on the subordinated role of the feminine.
The existence of the two ‘identities’ is fixed in boxes from which any attempt to escape is criminalized. The enforcement of heterosexual relations is prohibiting any other alternative identities that are possible. The above structure meant to provoke and encourage discussion on possible more just structures that could be the basis for social organization that acknowledges respects and seeks to protect the dignity and rights of women as human being.
Attempts to do gender work in the church have often been blocked by interpretations passages from Genesis and Apostle Paul where women are perceived to be subordinated to the interests and needs of men. A rereading of the bible is required in order to develop new liberating meanings of the bible in which we can celebrate the existence of women as challenging and fulfilling for men, enabling us to create relationships between men and women that are not dependent on the oppression and exploitation of women.
A confession of renewed masculinity
We are creating a situation in which more and more men share the view that if expressions of masculinities and manhood require us to be collaborators in the oppression of women then we refuse to be men, opting instead to sharing gentle feelings, dedicating ourselves to expressing a kinder, more caring, less aggressive and less competitive existence.
We refuse to live the myth that makes us claim status and privileges at the expense of women and on the basis of possession of a penis! For many men the pressure is unbearable. There is also the fear of stigma associated with those men who are uncomfortable with expressions of masculinity.
Refusing to be a man is a concept that expresses our collective desire to create an image of manhood that does not depend on or tolerate the oppression, exploitation and abuse of women in our society. If the passive and arrogant reaction to the women’s call of reason is part of the definition of manhood, then we refuse to be men. If the existence of men depends on proving the greatest, dehumanizing and destructive behavior, then we refuse to be men. If society continues to encourage men to engage in risky sexual behavior that does not respect and protects the sexual and reproductive rights of women, then we refuse to be men. If approaches to the seeking of eradication of HIV/AIDS continue to stigmatize women while at the same time they are unnecessarily and unjustly protecting men, then we refuse to be men. If power relations between men and women in our society remain the monopoly of men, then we refuse to be men.
The message is clear. While we refuse to be men in the current stereotype sense, we are also seeking to create a new image of manhood, an image that is based on justice, on the respect of women and the acceptance of women as equal partners who should continue to challenge us to move towards a realization of our true humanity.
Men can change
The purpose of sharing this experience is to encourage other men elsewhere to see the possibility for change. Men have conveniently postponed involvement in gender issues for a long time. Now there is no excuse. Society, culture and religion are no longer sufficient excuses for men to insist on playing gender roles that depend on the subordination of women. Men ought to change, men can change and men must change.
The church must position itself in the forefront of the struggle to end patriarchal dominance by discovering and promoting alternative structures of family and society.
Jonah Gokova was born in 1956 in Zimbabwe. He is a trained theologian and belongs to the Methodist church in Zimbabwe. He leads the Christian non-governmental organization Ecumenical Support Service (ESS). For a long time ESS sticks up for the compliance with human rights in the country, for more democracy and additionally for the commitment of gender justice. In courses they cooperate with different churches and offer training courses for church personnel. Furthermore Jonah Gokova is the founder of the men forum Padare, in the Zimbabwean Shona-tradition, a place of meeting and exchange, which argue with questions of gender seen from the man perspective. Due to his public commitment he received threats in the last years. The work of ESS was kept from the police under surveillance. In the year 2008 he had to leave, for his own security, the country with his wife and his two daughters for some weeks. However, he continues getting involved in men and gender questions in Zimbabwe.