Image credit: Ayesha Kajee.

August is Women’s Month in South Africa, recalling the 20,000 women who marched to parliament in 1956 resisting apartheid pass laws. This year, in commemoration, an independent group of feminist activists called for a “#TotalShutdown,” marked among other things by nationally coordinated marches in various cities to present the President with a series of demands addressing the high rates of domestic violence in the country. I attended the Cape Town march, where people gathered beginning at 9 a.m. and finally began walking around 11 a.m., in a march that itself, many remarked, felt like a relatively safe space; men had been asked to stay away from the march and only women and gender nonconforming people were invited. The result was a space where I walked easily, unencumbered by the attendant discomfort of bumping into or making contact with male bodies and unafraid to smile freely wherever my eyes moved across the crowd. As a friend explained, the male-free space provided a sense of security.

Image credit: Ayesha Kajee.

By 1 p.m. we had finally reached the gates of the Parliament of South Africa, where the formalities began, to our surprise, with a call to a Christian cleric to begin the proceedings. I will leave it to you to imagine the outrage when the first words from the female officiant were, “In the name of God the Father.” Regardless of the booing and heckling she continued her prayer almost unaffected. Later, as she passed near me through the crowd, I listened in as another marcher asked her why she could not speak of God the mother. In the officiant’s failure to respond adequately, my sister-marcher shared her view that clerics are “brainwashed” such that the possibilities of a feminine God evade them.

This situation will not be news to many of us, but what I find interesting is that even as feminists, it appears the organizers made no effort to manage the masculine representation of the Divine at a march designed for women and gender nonconforming individuals. Despite the increasing feminist readings of religion, the broader women’s movement frequently overlooks religion, and the result is often an uncritical or unwitting inclusion and acceptance of a male-gendered divinity. While we had asked men to stay away, we had not found a way to exclude a male God.

In Mary Daly’s iconic work she invites us to make an “essential leap“beyond God the Father” and its associatedpatriarchal fixations” by replacing divinity as a noun, which renders God as Supreme Being, with divinity as an “intransitive verb that does not require an object,” where divinity is God as Being. But in doing so, she also cautions against a feminist movement that adopts “a mere semantic shift,” changing vocabulary without “a profound alteration of consciousness or behavior” and context. In this profound change, divinity as Being is possible not only for the Supreme Being but for all individuals. It is this process by which women come to see themselves present in the Divine and challenge God the Father, “an idealized projection of masculine identity.” Evident in both Daly and the female officiant’s opening statement, the challenge of the divine father lies in how women become present in the face of a male God. How do women come into Being divine? What demands were made by the organizer who asked marchers to become present in the God that had entered the march as a Father even as men were asked to stay away?

For many, gender violence is a direct result of the correlation of masculinity with divine authority, and so the rejection of male authority leads, in an almost natural progression, to the dismissal of the masculine God. It is a response to the constraints of a masculine God for women’s spiritual subjectivity. Relapsed Muslim academic Qabila, the protagonist of Kharnita Mohamed’s debut novel, Called to Song, illustrates the difficulties presented by the masculinity of the Divine: Qabila can regain her relationship with Allah once Allah becomes feminine. In becoming female, God returns to women’s ways of being.

As egregious as the male presence of God at the march was the lack of invitation to other faith leaders; the second largest faith group in Cape Town’s black population is Muslim. Instead of formally inviting other faith leaders to pray, organizers asked for a volunteer on the spot to lead another prayer. There was no reference to God the Father in the prayer of a lay Muslim woman volunteer from the crowd, though, there was also no special attention to the gendered possibilities of the Divine in a march against gender-based violence. While women’s voices articulated the two prayers, women’s ways of being were not reflected in the divinity that was brought to the march.

Among Muslims, the common response to associations of fatherhood and divinity are that the God of Islamic thought is not a father in the Christian sense of God the Father and God the Son. And so, while divinity in Muslim thought sits easily and necessarily with the universal Creator, fatherhood in the familial sense does not sit as well. Notwithstanding the absence of a notion of divine fatherhood in Islamic thought, the masculinity of the Divine does not dissipate through an ungendered God.

On the contrary, even with an ungendered God, Muslim tradition speaks of God in the grammatical masculine. And as the linguistic grammar translates into an existential one, the grammar of God brings masculinity to godliness and aligns divine authority with masculinity, from which is produced a template for the structure of human gender relations. Feminist readings of Islamic thought either challenge the associations of masculinity with authority or reframe the traditional grammar of divinity. Omaima AbouBakr and Amina Wadud examine the twin concepts of qiwamah (maintenance) and wilayah (guardianship) as the primary means through which male-female relationships have come to be conceptualized, highlighting how the construct “deliver(s) subservience of the female to the male in every kind of relationship.” Wadud proposes an alternative in the form of the tawhidic paradigm which consists of a triangular relationship where men and women associate in a horizontal relationship characterized by equality and reciprocity, and are each connected by a separate line which converges in a transcendent God. In Wadud’s triangle of tawhid, the Divine is located outside of masculinity and femininity, and neither precedes the other in their relationship with the Divine.

AbouBakr explores the conflation of the language of masculinity and divinity with male authority over women through Verse 4:34 of the Qur’an, which becomes central to the formulation of male authority structured as male guardianship (qiwamah). Once the verse is separated from its revelatory context and isolated as a self-contained principle, it is generalized into the pervasive criterion of marriage, and finally transformed into “a cause for privilege, hierarchy and authority,” rendering all men fundamentally in authority over all women.

Other feminist readings have offered new possibilities for understanding gender in the Divine. YaSiin Rahmaan uses the gendered frames of Arabic grammar to reconceptualize the traditional grammar of divinity for gender nonconforming individuals. For Rahmaan, in language “gender identity is a provisional linguistic assignment” and its provisional nature indicates fluidity rather than definitive gender assignment. Where others have read Qur’anic Arabic references to the Divine and human subjects in terms that are either neutral, masculine, or feminine, Rahmaan’s reads them as “gender fluid” and argues that the linguistic fluidity of Arabic allows subjects to be simultaneously “grammatically masculine or feminine when addressed” or referred to by others. This fluid grammatical assignment celebrates, reforms, and destabilizes gender. Pointing beyond gender binaries and heteronormative assumptions, Rahmaan finds possibilities here for “radically gender equitable and queer readings of the Qur’an.”

In contrast to God the Father, the possibilities for privileging the feminine in the Divine have also been surfaced. Sa’diyya Shaikh’s investigation of ibn Arabi’s gender cosmology brings this possibility to the fore, namely in three aspects of gender subversion: in the possibilities for women to occupy the position of spiritual epitome, for femininity to function as plenitude, and when the feminine is located in a narrative of activity and receptivity. In parallels between women and God’s essence as the “source of all things,” femininity offers “a realm of being that is creative precisely because it encompasses both active and receptive qualities.” The result is an “ungendered human universality,” a subjectivity that embraces “both the male and the female in distinctive ways,”

The women hecklers at the South African march were not offered opportunities for Being present in the God that had entered the march as a Father, neither could the female officiants sufficiently dislocate the masculinity of God from divinity. God as father, son, or otherwise masculine delimits the divine possibilities available for women. God produced by a masculine imaginary is not available to women’s ways of becoming.1 Even when we are deliberate to create male-free spaces, we are still challenged in creating male-God-free spaces. It is easy to ask men to stay away and we did; should we also ask God to do the same, at least until we are able to find ourselves within our Gods?


  1. See Luce Irigaray’s critique of masculine language and “male imaginary” in the emergence of the female imaginary, which I draw on here through Nancy Frankenberry’s analysis in “Feminist Philosophy of Religion,” The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta.