Muslim religious leaders are commonly accused of adopting a conservative interpretation of Islam that guides the way in which they counsel married women on their rights to divorce and how they should address violence in the marital context. They have also been viewed as favouring male-dominant positions, protecting abusive husbands and adopting a reconciliation-at-all-cost approach. Scholars generally argue that women lack representation because the religious bodies which deal with domestic violence are made up predominantly of men. Despite this, and various accusations levelled at religious leaders, their voices are largely absent in academic studies. This thesis sought to interrogate Muslim religious leaders’ views of why domestic violence occurs in the Muslim South African community, why Muslim married women might experience it, what the drivers are, and how the problem could be addressed. The integration of both feminist and family theories was relevant for this study because while patriarchy is important to assess, experience of structural issues as raised by some family theorists is equally crucial. Beyond these frameworks, the use of Bourdieu became important, particularly insofar as habitus and various intersecting fields could be illuminated. The intersecting fields in this study are Islam, family, patriarchy and the economy. These fields influence the amount of resources or capital women have at their disposal. When families place their status ahead of society and command women to respect their husbands unconditionally, they are undermining women’s rights to recourse and emancipation, thus promoting cultural dominance of one group over another.
Methodologically, a qualitative research paradigm was chosen as it places emphasis on context and nuanced meanings. This paradigm allowed me to carefully explore the way in which religious leaders think about domestic violence and the rationale behind their approaches. In May 2017, I set out to conduct in-depth semistructured interviews within the Gauteng region, using purposive and snowball sampling. The insider-outsider phenomena which I was alerted to at the proposal stage of my doctorate, debilitated the fieldwork for a while as religious leaders showed a level of distrust towards me. Despite these difficulties, I managed to conduct in-depth interviews with 13 participants, which were analysed utilising thematic analyses. The findings show that religious leaders represent a complex grouping – there is tension in their narratives between ‘conservative thinking’ and ‘more progressive approaches’. While they do provide emotional and economic support and show a favourable attitude towards counselling, some of them are against the implementation of Muslim Personal Law which is ironic, given that they favour women using the protective structures of the state, such as the police. They revealed that they struggle with patriarchal practices, because while they were in favour of women religious leaders becoming involved, they were against them having a say in awarding women a divorce via the judicial process. In certain senses, while they suggest that they want to eradicate structural, cultural and direct violence, their refusal to transcend their conservative pro-patriarchal thinking results in their engendering a problematic environment that might persist in fostering cultural and structural violence