Monday 29 May 2023

The right to religious broadcasting vs the rights of women

This article first appeared on Malta Today

When I first watched the clip of an Evangelist ministry’s TV programme Overcomers’ Voice doing the rounds on social media, I dismissed it as not being important enough to make a fuss over. The programme is transmitted on a little-known TV station called FLiving, so I thought that by drawing attention to the presenter’s admittedly outrageous comments, it would simply give it more promotion. Like a lot of television programming, if one didn’t like it, one could simply not watch it, I reasoned.

But I was not anticipating the furious, outraged reaction of hundreds of women on the ‘Women for Women’ group on FB to the message being relayed, who rightly pointed out how potentially damaging that message could be to a hapless, vulnerable viewer. And what was the message? Well, the presenter was basically promoting the idea that a wife should never refuse her husband’s sexual advances, because he might go off with someone else. It was described as the woman’s “duty” to see to his “needs” even after they may have had an argument and that a woman should never refuse to have sex because that is “the word of God”.

It was the mounting anger which made me realise just how much this kind of talk had struck a chord and that it was important to lodge an official complaint with the Broadcasting Authority. Over 1000 women put their names to the complaint in which they objected to this message that women should be sexually submissive to their husbands. It occurred to me that at the root of the anger was an underlying knee-jerk reaction by those who may have experienced this very attitude from ex-husbands or ex-boyfriends who had demanded sex from them as some kind of ‘right’. Seen in that light, I could understand and empathize, but more significantly I began to wonder how a woman who is still being subjected to a controlling husband might feel on hearing this attitude being encouraged on a religious programme, no less. If she was thinking of getting away from him, was this programme actually telling her that he was right and she was wrong?

These implications were clearly spelled out in the complaint lodged with the BA, especially due to the disturbing increase of marital rape, domestic violence and sexual assault.

The letter also stated that:

“While we obviously uphold the right for anyone to produce a religious programme and believe in the freedom of expression of one’s religious worship, when it comes to transmitting such messages, this goes diametrically opposite to the laws on gender equality and woman’s rights which are stipulated in Malta.”

At the time of writing the BA has not yet given its ruling on the complaint, but in the meantime the producers of the programme were interviewed by Malta Today where the Pastor of the Evangelist Church and his co-host Pauline Attard Abela, defended their programme while stating that the excerpt was taken “out of context”. Yet within this interview they once again reiterated their views on the woman’s obligations towards her husband, and that while men have their needs, for many women, “sex is the last thing on their minds” especially when they have children. While sex is obviously an important factor in a relationship, there did not seem to be any mention of the sexual act as being the demonstration of mutual love and affection and that both husband and wife have to consent for it to take place.

While they have every right to hold these beliefs and to preach them to their flock if they wish, going on TV changes everything. Broadcasting carries a certain amount of responsibility, and a TV presenter speaking to a wider audience in a daily programme has to be held accountable for what he is saying.

This all reminded me of how the Catholic Church used to lecture women on their duties and obligations while not really putting that much onus on the husband at all, except to be a good provider. There was a time when the Church preached that the only reason to have sex is to have children, and that one must always be ‘open to life’ (for which read, no contraception). There was a time when priests would listen to a heartbroken woman pouring her heart out about her husband’s infidelity, or violence, or gambling or drinking habits and she would be told to “be patient” as this was the cross she had to bear in accordance to her vows, “for better or worse”. It may have made for longer-lasting marriages, but it also made for many miserable, depressed women as well.

These days, such advice is no longer tolerated and the Church no longer advocates the need for women to put up with all sorts of unacceptable behaviour either. I was trying to picture a religious programme by the Catholic church promoting the same things as the above programme and I could just imagine the reaction. I also tried to imagine an Islamic programme doing the same, and what kind of anti-Muslim backlash that would have unleashed as far-right ‘patriots’ took to their keyboards to complain about how Arab men treat their women.

But most of all I tried to imagine what would happen if we had to switch the genders around. What if there was a TV programme telling men that it is their duty (“God says”) to keep their woman sexually satisifed (whether they feel like it or not) otherwise she is justified in going off with someone else? Wouldn’t men feel humiliated at being treated like some kind of sex machine which has to perform on command? Some claimed that the complaints to the BA were a call for censorship, but this is certainly not the case.

What it is, is a reminder that people cannot suddenly decide to become TV presenters and say whatever they like, to the possible detriment of half of the population.

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