The views expressed by the writer, MAHMOOD SANGLAY, in this article are followed below by relevant disclosures and disclaimers.
Moulana Dawood Sampson’s announcement on August 14 to take a second wife sparked a controversy, adding another to the catalogue of controversies routinely spawned by the Muslim community in South Africa.
The dust around the saga is nearly settled but there remain important lessons on which we can reflect.
There is good reason to take the moulana’s apologies at face value as opposed to denouncing his failure to clearly detail, in his apology, precisely how he offended women. Is it reasonable to expect a misogynist, prior to rehabilitation, to articulate the nature of his offence and to offer a lucid deconstruction of his own wrongdoing?
There is also no merit in overly personalising an instance of an individual cleric’s misogyny. The issue is not one man’s misogyny, but rather how his utterances are emblematic of a wider affliction in the Muslim community. And the affliction is not polygyny. It is the abuse of polygyny as a means for licentiousness and as justification for misogyny.
It is important at this point to clarify that my use of the term misogyny is not limited to hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, involving physical abuse, sexual harassment, rape and social alienation. In this instance especially, misogyny extends to ingrained and institutionalised prejudice against women and includes behaviour, conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on gender.
The instance of the moulana is, in an important sense, a useful case study which illustrates three ways in which Muslim women are generally prejudiced by Muslim men. Let’s set out these ways for the record.
Three instances of prejudice
The first is the use of animal species as analogy to illustrate marital relations between men and women. Male animals – especially among mammals – typically exhibit a dominance hierarchy over females. This usually occurs in polygynous harems where females are herded together by the dominant male who competes with other males for possession and control of his mating partners. The distaste for the analogy is obvious, perhaps unintended in its full import but unsavoury nevertheless. Above all, it is characteristic of misogyny among Muslim men.
The second is the advocacy of polygyny as a means to ‘get those hens’, without reference to the provisions in Islam that regulate this practice. The problem here is the disjoining of a right – namely the right of a Muslim man to take a second wife – from the responsibility to ‘deal justly’ with his wives, as provided for in the Quran (An Nisa 4:3), and as exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Again, the disjoining of rights and responsibilities in this case may have been unintended but the consequence remains: a triumphalism over the fulfilment of a right but failing to mention the corresponding responsibilities. This attitude, again, is characteristic of misogyny among Muslims.
The third is the foregrounding of a grossly sexualised rationale for polygyny in Islam. Men who ‘still got it’ and first wives who still say ‘meow’ is a vulgar expression that disjoins men’s sexual needs from more noble motives for polygyny. Such motives are exemplified by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who did so, inter alia, out of compassion and to build alliances within the nascent community of Muslims.
Men who are motivated exclusively by their baser desires to practice polygyny typically rely on a skewed reading of this Quranic concession in Islam to justify their self-gratification. On the other hand, a balanced reading of this concession reflects a more responsible and compassionate practice that embraces its spirit and a recognition of the needs of women.
The latter, in essence, does not presume a renunciation of the sexual motive but rather a balance in which spiritual and altruistic motives are foregrounded, and founded on reciprocal love. This is especially important in the case of women who become financially dependent on men in polygynous marriages. Such women are particularly vulnerable and exposed to misogyny. This includes sexual exploitation, subjugation and servitude in a marriage where the balance of financial power is skewed in favour of men.
The invocation of informal language defence
An oft-repeated defence of the moulana’s supporters is that his language reflects the informal usage prevailing in his local community. They insist that if his own community does not take offence, then why should others?
There is nothing wrong with exercising one’s free speech using slang and informal language. Such language usage reflects our diversity, which should be embraced by all people. And the Quran affirms this as part of the Divine plan. However, misogyny in slang remains an injustice irrespective – and independent – of the informal language usage in local suburbs. And such injustice is not rendered innocuous by informal language in one’s local community. The freedom to speak informally to one’s constituency lends neither an excuse nor any mitigation for misogyny. A misogynist who happens to talk like the locals is no less a misogynist because of his local language usage.
Local slang may not be understood by people beyond the boundaries of a local community. However, the offence in misogyny knows no such boundaries. The offence is conveyed and understood far beyond one’s local community. The moulana – affirming in the clip his reputation as a ‘logo in the country’ – is clearly addressing a national audience. And his chosen platform is social media which transcends even national boundaries. Hence the impact of the misogyny is aggressively widespread, no matter where and in which language it occurs.
The vision beyond misogyny
This episode is a reminder that the protection of the dignity of Muslim women must progress beyond public outrage. It should drive Muslim leaders, activists and civil society organisations to obtain sufficient consensus among our Muslim leaders and pressurise the government to approve legislation in this regard.
This matter was left in the hands of the officialdom among religious leaders, relevant interest groups and state officials for over three decades. It is now time for a civil society movement to bring pressure to bear on the relevant powers to act in the public interest to resolve the impasse. To this day Muslim women married only by Islamic rites enjoy little protection under South African law.
The MJC’s Women’s Forum (MJCWF) is arguably the most important forum that can influence policy with respect to transformation on gender issues in the Western Cape. Of particular interest is the forum’s position on a call for policy guidelines to govern the conduct of Muslim men, including ulama, and the recommendation that mosques and other Muslim institutions develop sexual harassment policies in consultation with their women congregants and committee members.
On August 18 an open letter to the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) jointly authored by Prof Aslam Fataar, former Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and Prof Farid Esack circulates on social media. The letter calls for a series of actions, including the implementation of policy to transform Muslim institutions and a meeting with the MJC to discuss the matter.
Following seven days of deliberation between the two parties, mainly over the terms like the number of delegates for the meeting, the authors of the open letter decided to stop engaging with the MJC. They felt the conditions were not conducive for ‘substantive dialogue’, ‘deep discussion’ and for a recognition of the ‘need for policy and regulation’ of gender equality and women’s rights.
This is regrettable. The authors of the open letter gave up on engaging with a major stakeholder in the Muslim community over a matter as important as misogyny. In addition, they also gave up on engaging a leading religious organisation on related matters like gender-based violence, Muslim marriages and the transformation of institutions that marginalise Muslim women.
It appears their requirement for the number of delegates and the time allocated for the meeting were set as non-negotiable. It further appears that the authors of the open letter deem an impasse over the terms of the meeting as justification for ceasing engagement with the MJC. Do these differences necessarily supersede the gravity of the compelling issues at stake?
It is also apparent the authors have not consulted adequately with the signatories before deciding to ‘immediately’ stop engaging with the MJC. Would it not have been wiser to consult, seek consensus and a mandate before taking such decisive action on behalf of co-signatories?
It is worth reiterating that this matter, above all, transcends the utterances of a moulana. It is still opportune, over a month later, to grasp the moment that offers the possibility of addressing crucial issues affecting Muslim women in our community. It should be viewed as an important and timely catalyst for a call for the transformation of Muslim society and institutions in South Africa.
Disclosure and disclaimer
It is a matter of public record that I am one of the signatories of the open letter referred to above. In a series of anonymous social media posts ad hominem attacks have been launched on individual signatories. These attacks include one that I have ‘openly defended’ Nouman Ali Khan for his alleged acts of misconduct committed in the United States some years ago.
Some context is needed here. In the June 2019 edition of Muslim Views, soon after Khan visited South Africa for a lecture tour, I reported on the facts, and provided an analysis of the case. Readers can decide for themselves if this was an open defence of Khan, or a fair and balanced treatment of the matter.
There are two key differences between the case of Khan and that of Moulana Sampson. First, Khan disputed the allegations against him and there were several unanswered questions regarding the process followed in the findings made by the panel that adjudicated the matter. In the case of Moulana Sampson there is no dispute and the facts are patently evident in the video he produced.
The other key difference is Khan never apologised for his alleged misconduct. Moulana Sampson apologised, twice.
Some also question my position as signatory and journalist because my impartiality in this matter is allegedly compromised. I do not make a case for any impartiality or objectivity on misogyny. My signature on the open letter endorses the principles espoused therein. My signature also asserts my censure of a patent instance of misogyny, admitted by the offender and for which he publicly sought forgiveness.
However, my signature does not necessarily endorse a subsequent, possibly flawed, unilateral or arbitrary process. The decision of the authors of the letter to disengage with the MJC is a case in point. Even as signatory to the letter I have asserted, in communication with one of the open letter authors, my independence as journalist. It is as journalist that I reserve my right and recognise my obligation to remain critical and independent where appropriate. Similarly, I reserve my right and recognise my obligation to remain fair and balanced where appropriate.