The day after one of my teachers molested me, I sat through a sermon of forgiveness in church. For lack of a better word, it was difficult, but; after the sermon ended and the pews were almost empty, I went down on my knees to ask God to forgive him. According to the prayer practice that we’d been taught, both at school and in church, every sin was equal before God. We were also taught that; the Almighty only forgave those who forgave others and where forgiveness could not be granted, then sin belonged to the unforgiving person—in this case—me.
Had I known then what I know today, eleven year-old me wouldn’t have forced myself to seek grace for the man that molested me. Even then, I always felt like my prayers were not sincere because I didn’t truly believe he was deserving of grace and a clean slate. Praying to the image of God who did not give room for rage and wishful ill-thinking slowly sparked feelings of resentment, which grew on every other Sunday morning when I’d kneel again before God because Mr. Ochieng would molest me again and again, for the next three years.
Despite the colorful theories surrounding forgiveness, in practice, the concept is deeply flawed particularly with how it is wielded against women.
Forgiveness as female manners
Forgiveness—(emotional subordination)—is part of the traditional gender manners that African women are conditioned to acquire, and one which the patriarchy, including the church, constantly feels the need to merit. In its teachings of forgiveness, Christianity prioritizes a communal orientation that is; pro-marriage and pro (nuclear and traditional)—family values. The burden of maintaining this communal orientation is always imposed on the woman. Forgiveness is also touted as a religious value and since women are expected to be more religious than men, we’re expected to perform or practice forgiveness even in harmful situations. Women who adhere to the arbitrary rules of forgiveness as laid down by Chrisrtianity and African culture are marked as being decent, well-mannered or well-bred. Patriarchy has a problem with women’s anger and it teaches us that anger is a privilege reserved for men. Emotional subordination has been instrumental in maintaining women’s silence in the face of violence. A woman who is readily forgiving to physical, emotional and sexual violence is perceived as one with ethics of care, the motivation to preserve relationships and to consider the needs of others before our own. On the other hand, a woman who is not is painted as irrational and difficult or commonly slurred as “bitter, angry”. Forgiveness in this way becomes a benevolently misogynistic way of policing women to keep the peace so they can be seen as being the bigger person, strong or “virtuous”.
A case in point is the documentary released by KTN—one of Kenya’s 24 hour leading news channel on current affairs – on acquaintance rape of girls in Malaba. In the said documentary, the mothers of the rape survivors recounted how family members, village elders, pastors, policemen and the chief demanded them to forgive and continue living with the rapist husbands and when they refused to, opting instead to pursue legal justice, they were threatened, shamed, insulted and attacked. They were also excommunicated from the churches they went to because they acted in a manner contrary to the religious teachings on forgiveness.
Forgiveness as an obligation
Forgiveness is also taught as an obligation that women owe men. An obligation to protect men’s reputation, jobs and families. An obligation to protect the image of an institution that houses violent men. Obligations like these silence women and enable men to escape accountability. The most common and harmful obligation is one to the family’s reputation. African societies are patrilineal where women are treated as inseparable attachments of men and the family therefore burdened with the obligation to protect the family’s honor. The saying “A man brings shame upon himself but a woman brings shame upon her family” best summarizes this obligation. Family reputation is valued above women’s health, well-being and safety. Law enforcement, religious and cultural leaders like village elders use the concept of forgiveness to silence women, thereby enabling a toxic environment where violent men continue to thrive.
The demand on sexual assault victims to forgive male perpetrators so as to protect their reputations, careers and families only aids in sidestepping male accountability. It’s also misogynistic as it holds women responsible for the outcome of men’s actions i.e. they should ensure that abusive men don’t suffer judgment or other penalties by extending forgiveness to them. Religious and cultural chauvinism marginalizes our voices when it presses us to forgive men who reduce our humanity and deny us a fully lived life when they rape, abuse and harass us; while absolving men, who most of the times go scot-free and sometimes even move to positions of greater power.
Forgiveness as systemic oppression
Forgiveness culture reduces systemic male violence against women to individual relationships where people can easily prescribe relationship tools like forgiveness. Male violence against women doesn’t simply take place in the cocoon of an individual relationship, neither is it a random act of a single individual. It’s structurally enforced by the inequality between men and women and follows a consistent pattern where men abuse the dominant position and power they hold. Conditioning women with this “ethical” demand to forgive is the easiest and fastest way to avoid accountability for the abuse and injustice in societal’s own settings and structures where the injustice towards and dehumanization of women’s lives have comfortably thrived.
Forgiveness as avoiding accountability
And finally, forgiveness is also a gaslighting tactic which leads to secondary victimization of survivors. As a concept, forgiveness is taught as being central to restoring conflicts but it is important to note that avenues for retribution or restitution are very often left out of the narrative. In doing so, forgiveness is a concept that normalizes violence, mislabels and trivializes the transgressions and dictates low thresholds for how the transgressors should be held accountable. What happens then is that forgiveness is emphasized in situations where arrest, imprisonment, termination of employment or divorce would be the appropriate measures.
Sexual assault is not a mistake. It’s a violent crime that traumatizes victims for years.
Encouraging forgiveness as a tactic to force survivors to empathise with perpetrators as people who have simply made a mistake (that anyone is capable of making)is downright misogynistic, toxic and trivializes the crime. Everyone has a choice in how they behave, but our actions affect others and violent men are the only ones responsible for the hurt and pain they cause. We shouldn’t have to put ourselves in their shoes. It distorts our state of mind by pressuring us to prioritize righteousness instead of healing. In addition, punishing victims who choose not to forgive through stigmatization, doubting their innocence and motives by suggesting that she’s after his money, wants to ruin his career or break up his family, and excommunicating or labelling them as morally defective are all forms of secondary victimization.
When forgiveness is placed as the apex of survivor’s progress or conflict resolution, it only serves to obstruct or overlook valid emotions thereby posing a hindrance to women’s health and development. The culture of forgiveness is pervasive, widespread and hard to see for what it is – victim blaming – because of unchecked harmful views such as the assumption that female survivors of sexual assault who forgive lead better lives than those who don’t because choosing not to forgive is seen as un Christ-like or, in the words of Deepak Chopra, “if you perceive an assault on yourself and body as too wrong to forgive, you are being small minded”.
The last thing that women need is a culture that judges them as victim-worthy. Forgiveness culture is rooted in patriarchal beliefs, power and control and allows male violence against women to be normalised and justified. That I harbour anger and loath for the man that molested me does not mean I am morally defective or the weaker person. Neither does it reflect on whether I have adequately “dealt” with the abuse. Forgiveness has never been about the wellbeing of women but the comfort of the society to forget and quickly move on. It has never been about the justice owed to women. Rather, it has been about reminding us that we will be tolerated only as long as we behave in a manner that men find acceptable and non-threatening, and that means that we never get angry, not even at the men who abuse and kill us. To demand that we work to regain the society’s affection by allowing men to emotionally subdue us. To pretend that this world is a fairer place for women than it actually is. And so I ask, why is the comfort of men so valuable than the humanity of women?
I think the choice not to forgive comes from a place of remarkable strength and the expectation that an abuser should be held accountable is neither punitive nor does it reflect a flaw in us women. Forgiveness is also not a prerequisite for healing. Pain, anger, disgust are human and valid. Our emotions can be healing and productive.