Religious Privilege and Intolerance: Unveiling the Rainbow Nation

Lee-Shae Salma Scharnick Udemans is a senior researcher in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape.

This article is adapted from the original chapter in the book, Ecumenical Encounters with Desmond Mpilo Tutu: Visions for Justice, Dignity, and PeaceThe book honors the life and work of Desmond Tutu and was published as part of his 90th birthday celebration

The rainbow nation moniker as a symbol of peaceful and inclusive religious co-existence, lovingly coined by Tutu, during a time of great socio-political upheaval and hope obscures the uneven ways that religious freedom as the constitutional commitment to promote and protect religions and religious diversity, is experienced by individuals and communities [1]. While the latest French legislation that further augments already ignominious restrictions on the hijab for Muslim women has left feminists and human rights activists reeling, this essay illustrates that in South African where religious freedom is protected constitutionally and promoted discursively, there is a record of Muslim women’s sartorial choices being surveilled and scrutinized. Through exploring the notion of religious privilege and by drawing on two examples of institutional and individual attempted unveiling, this essay highlights the limited utility of rainbowism and constitutional religious freedom at the rock face of intolerance and exclusion.

I have previously argued that despite the deeply theological origins of the rainbow nation sobriquet and the religious status of its principal articulator Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931–2021), the discourse of rainbowism that it generates, has historically been deployed primarily about issues of race, racism, and racialization [2]. As a result, religion as both a source site of privilege and discrimination, especially in the context of the multi-religious semi-secular democratic state of South Africa is often overlooked and neglected. Despite its congenial overtone, the rainbow nation narrative has played a role in the universalizing of Christianity as the unofficial public religious character of the new and democratic South Africa. However, even this unsanctioned status is powerful and has generated a culture of Christian political and public preeminence that disadvantages non-Christian religious groups.

Clearly, this condition is not only the result of rainbowism, which hardly has the political clout of a slogan. The enduring influence of colonialist and apartheid rule on the contemporary politics, policies, and practices that regulate and police religious expression in public should not be underestimated nor should the impact of global trends including migration, secularisation, religionization, and the rise of transnational religious circulations. It may seem counterintuitive to launch a strong critique in the context of a celebratory text, however, I think Tutu’s profoundly expansive theology, political erudition, and overall sassiness  demonstrated during years of his service and human rights activism makes space for my claims as not merely contrarian intellectual articulations, but more significantly, as grounded in a yearning for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding and experience of justice and freedom for all of humanity.

The 1996 Constitution guarantees religious freedom with very few but specific limitations and while we cannot compare the current measure of religious freedom to the brutalities of both the imperialist venture of Christianity and the Christian Nationalism that produced and sustained the colonial and apartheid states respectively, we cannot be misled by the idea that the democratic and constitutional reform of the relationship between religion and the state, which took place after 1994, has offered a firm resolution. Despite constitutional promises and legal precepts, religious freedom in its broadest sense is not guaranteed to everyone in equal measure. Like gender, race, and socio-economic status, religion is a category of power and privilege, and religious freedom is perpetually both contextual and intersectional.

Religious privilege

Like any form of privilege, religious privilege, especially in multi-religious contexts where religious freedom is constitutionalized, is a slippery concept. The notion of religious privilege is always situated; it is produced and experienced in context, individually and institutionally [3]. Religious privilege is not synonymous with state-sanctioned theocracy since the latter is usually formalized through policy, whereas the former is a result of the production and circulation of both formal and informal discourses and practices, from politics to popular culture, that uphold and preserve the hegemony of the historical or numerical religious majority. Therefore, in theocracies religious privilege, while still problematic for liberal democrats, is declared and solemnized as such. As a result what may be considered infringements on democratic freedoms are easier to identify than in contexts that claim all-encompassing freedom and equality [4].

In the case of South Africa, the character of religious privilege is Christian. For some, it may be difficult to accept this assertion especially since recent memory reminds us of the particular sensibilities and sensitivities related to the role that religion played both during apartheid and in the liberation of this country. As protest actions from various sectors of society including the mining industry, education, environmental conservation, public safety, and activism against gender-based violence continue to highlight issues of inequality, marginalization, and exclusion, demanding the justice that democracy promises to bring but fails to uphold, we are reminded that liberation is never complete [5].

The nature of privilege is convoluted and complex. Anti-racist educator Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, is iconic for its cogent discussion of white privilege for which she offers an enchanting definition. According to McIntosh “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks” [6]. McIntosh posits that we all carry many knapsacks of privilege associated with the various identity categories that we simultaneously hold. Social Justice comedian Sam Killermann has adapted McIntosh’s list of everyday privileges that white people enjoy, to produce a list of over thirty examples of Christian privilege in the United States. In tribute to and commemoration of the engaged and energetic, priestly, and pedagogical performativity of Tutu, I would like to invite you, dear reader, to check your own religious privilege by considering the following prompts adapted from Killermann and expanded upon by a few South African vignettes.

Are you allowed time off to celebrate religious holidays, without asking for the permission of any authority figure? Moreover, is there widespread support of your religious holidays in public and commercial spaces?

Labour law in South Africa does not regulate leave for religious holidays. Therefore, unless the religious holiday falls on an official public holiday, an employee would need to take annual or unpaid leave to observe their religious holidays. The official South African public holiday calendar supports the major Christian holidays and while it sometimes mentions non-Christian religious holidays it does not make allowance for these days as national public holidays.

Can you worship freely, without fear of violence or threats?

While South Africa is not generally considered a hotspot for religiously sanctioned violence or violence directed at religious groups, in recent years there has been an increase in reports of threats against religious communities, particularly minority groups. These acts of tension, aggression and violence occur on a spectrum that ranges from covert microaggressions with no prospect for physical violence or lasting harm, to acts of terrorism aimed at intimidating, maiming, or killing. In one case of aggression directed at Muslims, a 120-year-old mosque was vandalized with anti-Islamic slurs. The Imam of the mosque explains,

I initially thought nothing of it. But after speaking to my wife and sister I realized the incident made parts of our congregation feel uncomfortable and not safe at the masjid. Then I realized that this act of vandalism was planned with the purpose of creating fear within us. It was intended to make us think twice before bringing our children and wives to a sacred space.

Are the politicians and lawmakers responsible for governance and the administration of justice most likely members of your faith?

There is no shortage of openly Christian politicians and lawmakers in South Africa. While I am by no means implying that politicians or public figures should hide their religious affiliation, the displays of religiosity that have been made by powerful office bearers have blurred the lines between personal conviction and proselytization. Despite being found guilty of breaching the code of conduct by becoming involved in political controversy or activity, by the Judicial Conduct Committee for his religiously inspired, pro-Israel comments Mogoeng Mogoeng, chief justice of the Constitutional Court refused to apologize. He declared, “I stand by my refusal to retract or apologize for any part of what I said during the webinar. Even if 50 million people were to march every day for 10 years for me to do so, I would not apologize. If I perish, I perish”. In the initial comments, Mogoeng had cited scripture and declared his love for Jerusalem and by extension Israel.

Is it easy for you to find your faith accurately depicted in television, movies, books, and other media?

A complaint submitted to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa alleged religious offense based on several observations made by the complainant when viewing the Indian lifestyle program on national television. The complaint was extensive but the first issue under discussion in the complaint was that a presenter in the program said that Hindus worship cows, bulls, and other animals.” Together with a disdain for the above comment, the complainant took particular issue with the fact that the presenter was allegedly non-Hindu. The complainant expressed the following opinion in that regard:

However such a comment is unacceptable even if it had been made by some hillbilly Hindu ignorant of his or her religion. The onus is on the public broadcaster to uphold the South African constitution, the Bill of Rights, and its own code of ethics by ensuring that only bona fide Hindu scholars are allowed to make comments on the religion and cultural practices of the Hindu’s (sic) in South Africa, and not disrespectful Muslim and Christian Indians who masquerade as our keepers.

The complainant felt that the offending broadcast perpetuated a historical pattern of misrepresentation of Hindus by non-Hindus. According to the complainant, “The nuances and subtleties of concepts, symbols, and metaphors elude those who report from an alien perspective, especially from the prejudiced perspective of the colonizing, conquering religions and cultures of the world.” The complainant then goes on to explain the significance of the cow and the animal world in the Hindu tradition and continues to lament the ill-informed and callous way in which Hinduism is presented in the media in general.

The examples above do not violate constitutional religious freedom nor are they presented as the decisive picture of the experiences of all non-Christians. These examples may contest the hundred daily expressions of inter-religious solidarity, interfaith engagement, celebration, and accommodation that constitute non-events. However, these stories can also be seen as social barometers that record ongoing shifts in how religious freedom and diversity are understood and experienced in contemporary South Africa.

In the following section, I offer a deeper reflection on religious privilege by exploring two cases of religious regulation which highlight the intersectional nature of religious privilege and bring into focus the multi-layered nature thereof.

Unveiling the Rainbow Nation

Globally Muslim women are inordinately affected by laws that regulate the sartorial expression of religious devotion and identity. Intersectional feminist scholars have agreed that when it comes to the hijab, Muslim women are predominantly faced with two choices [7]. The first is forced unveiling, as is the case in secularist states and the second is forced veiling as is the case of Islamist states. Certainly, veiling and unveiling are not only or always enforced by the state and are subjected to the powerful effects of familial, community, and other contextual conditions that play a role in determining the extent to which women can express their agency and are supported in their choices. Psychotherapists Noorjehan Joosub and Summaya Ebrahim assert that

the inclusion of the voices of Muslim women, whether they wear the hijab or not, is necessary to redress the constraints on the agency of Muslim women that has emanated both from those in the West and from within the Muslim community itself [8].

As a multi-religious democratic context, South Africa’s politics around the hijab are different. The binary between religion and state for understanding the relationship between state authority and religious influence collapses under the auspices of the constitutionally underwritten co-operative relationship between religion and state which can be described as “inclusive secularism” [9]. According to Amien, “The Constitutional Court also advocates the view that protecting religious freedom is intricately linked to appreciating religious diversity and that religious freedom should therefore be afforded maximum protection” [10]. The South African constitution does not measure social realities and despite this liberal approach to religious freedom, there are still reports of Muslim women experiencing discrimination in public institutions for wearing the hijab.

For example, in 2017 a 13-year-old girl was forbidden from wearing a headscarf during Ramadan by her school principal. Despite constitutional reforms, schools maintain independent uniform policies and are encouraged by authorities to change these to reflect national policy; however, a transformation has been slow. In this case, it was further delayed by the ignorance and arrogance of one school principal who took it upon himself to offer a detailed exposition on why the hijab was not a compulsory practice and would not be allowed to be worn. The mother of the learner reports that the student would generally wear the headscarf on her shoulders and hide it under her jacket but that during the fasting period she wanted to wear it on her head.  Ramadan is generally considered a time of introspection and increased devotional and charitable activities. For some women, this includes wearing what can be considered more modest clothing including the headscarf, especially in public.

The mother reports that she wrote the principal a letter where she requested permission for her daughter to wear the scarf during Ramadan. A day later the principal replied and in a wanton display of hubris not only declined to allow Zaakiyah permission to wear the scarf but also included a poorly worded explanation. The letter was  based on internet research derived from the website of a Canadian Islamic legal body and the principal declared that since he could find no evidence to suggest that the hijab was compulsory for the fasting person to wear, he would not allow for it to be worn at school.  The education departmental authorities immediately responded that the uniform policy should be changed and that the learner is allowed to wear a headscarf to school. Cases of hijabophobia in South Africa are not only limited to schools and take place in various other public institutions.

The second case deals with wearing headscarf at the working place. In 2018, Major Fatima Isaacs, a clinical forensic pathologist working for the South African National Defense Force was criminally charged with “willful defiance and failing to obey lawful instruction.” Her crime was her refusal to remove her headscarf, at the request of a senior officer, while in uniform and on duty. According to Isaacs and the multiple visual entries submitted to the court, the headscarf worn underneath her beret did not occlude any of the military insignia on her uniform. In the ten years before the charges and subsequent trial of Isaacs, she had been granted verbal permission provided that the headscarf be made of black net material, fitted to the head and that it not cover the ranks of her uniform or shoulders. Between 2009 and 2017, there were periods where the permission was rescinded, and Isaacs was compelled to remove her uniform and wear civilian clothing. After years of back and forth in 2018 when the military hospital where she was employed came under new management and the case was taken to court. Her counsel argued that the dress code was unconstitutional. She was granted permission to wear the headscarf but Isaacs and her council were unsatisfied with this outcome since it only made an exception for Isaacs. Her lawyers then prepared a case arguing for a change in uniform policy that would apply to all Muslim women in the army to take before the Equality Court. The military amended the policy before it could be taken to court. While Isaacs was not allowed to speak to the media during the legal proceedings she is reported to have told a newspaper that this was an important victory, not only for her but for all those who were silently victimized because of their religion.


It is easier to map how religious rights and personal choices are infringed upon when we only explore the far ends of the spectrum. Between violent religious persecution and harmonious peaceful co-existence, there is an in-between space that is far more opaque.  When we discern this in-between space more closely we can bring to light the microaggressions that are experienced regularly by those who enjoy less substantial religious privilege than others. We are also able to discern the micro-histories of religious oppression that do not constitute violent persecution but erode the meaning and fulfillment of the democratic promises of freedom and equality. The notion that religious privilege and the social inequality that it generates is an ongoing issue in the context of a multi-religious democratic state is difficult to comprehend, especially when comparing places and times where religious privilege generates overt and violent religious persecution. However, given South Africa’s relatively peaceful status, we cannot be falsely secure in our reliance on religious freedom as a constitutional right, lest these seemingly innocuous violations are left unchecked and flourish into more sinister contraventions. I am sure the Arch will agree that between the storm and the rainbow, there is still much work to be done in the pursuit of justice and freedom and that this is indeed the kind of work that is worth doing!

[1] Lee-Shae Salma Scharnick-Udemans, “Religion: The Final Frontier of the Rainbow Nation,” Religion & Theology 27, no. 3 / 4 (2020): 250-274.

[2] Scharnick-Udemans, “Religion: The Final Frontier,” 251.

[3] See Abby Ferber, “The Culture of Privilege: Color-blindness, Postfeminism, and Christonormativity,” Journal of Social Issues 68, no. 1 (2011): 63-77; See also Khyati Joshi, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religion Equality in America (New York: NYU Press, 2021).

[4] Armin Langer, “Christonormativity As Religious Neutrality: A Critique of the Concept of State Religious Neutrality in Germany” in Religious Freedom and the Law: Emerging Contexts for Freedom for and from Religion, eds. Brett G. Scharffs, Asher Maoz and Ashley Isaacson Woolley (London: Routledge, 2018).

[5] Tom Lodge and Shuana Mottiar, “Protests in South Africa; motives and meanings,” Democratization 23, no. 5 (2016): 819-837.

[6] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August 1989, 10.

[7] Nina Hoel and Sa’diyya Shaikh, “Veiling, Secularism and Islamism: Gender Constructions in France and Iran,” Journal for the Study of Religion 20, no. 1 (2017).

[8] Noorjehan Joosub and Sumaya Ebrahim, “Decolonizing the hijab: An interpretive exploration by two Muslim psychotherapists,” Feminism & Psychology 30, no. 3 (2020): 363.

[9] Waheeda Amien, “Postapartheid Treatment of Religious Freedom in South Africa,” in Politics of Religious Freedom, ed. Winnifred Faller Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter G. Danchin (London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 182.

[10] Amien, “Postapartheid Treatment of Religious Freedom,” 182.

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