Revolutions in marriage and the performance of wedding rites seem to be popping up all over the globe at present, not only with the legalization of same-sex marriage in countries such as Portugal as well as the current lawsuit challenging Proposition 8 in the United States, but also in traditional bastions of sexual conservatism such as Malawi. The bold moves on the part of marriage pioneers remain dangerous, however, as they are met with legal backlashes by governments banning homosexuality and demographic majorities fearful of a “dilution” of the definition of marriage.
The controversy surrounding Steven Monjeza and his partner, Tiwonge Chimbalanga, both of Malawi, exemplifies this precarious interplay between government and constitutional law on one hand, and recalcitrant grassroots activism on the other. Not that these two men are activists; indeed, all they wanted to do was solemnize their love for one another. This is precisely what they did when they held a symbolic wedding ceremony late last year to show their love and commitment to one another, the first such action in the history of this poor southeast African nation. The effect of their public ceremony, however, had an effect similar to that of a protest—on December 28th, local authorities arrested the couple for homosexuality.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the case for prejudiced Western readers is the velocity with which Monjeza and Chimbalanga’s lawyers mounted a challenge to Malawi’s ban on homosexuality. The two men’s legal team has asked for the case to be reviewed before the Constitutional Court, citing Malawi’s Republican Constitution banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation—itself only a recent legal achievement in the United States—and while the presiding judge, Judge Nyakwawa Usiwausiwa, stated that a constitutional review at a higher judicial level was possible, he has said he will continue with the case for the time being. The rapid leap in Malawi from bans on “indecent behavior” to constitutional challenges against such bans is a striking development, undoubtedly due in part to pressure from humanitarian organizations with wedding law reform as an ultimate agenda: Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen condemned the “criminalization” of homosexuality in Malawi as well as the “appalling” treatment of Monjeza and Chimbalanga in prison, where authorities placed them allegedly to protect them from “mob attack”.
Admittedly, it was the ban on homosexuality that Monjeza and Chimbalanga’s legal team challenged, and not the legality of gay marriage there. However, the men’s imprisonment for homosexuality did stem from their matrimony. Monjeza and Chimbalanga themselves took a significant step forward in challenging attitudes about marriage in Malawi by having a public wedding ceremony, suggesting the emergence of outright social defiance of the taboo against unions such as theirs.
As nations increasingly reach parity with one another over the right of couples such as Monjeza and Chimbalanga to wed, as well as the right of their loved ones to solemnize their vows as qualified and ordained ministers, very real humanitarian problems arise in the ensuing struggle. In order to avoid disaster, a balance must somehow be struck between pioneering efforts at change on one hand, and sensitivity to the delicate humanitarian implications on the other. Sometimes this may require working within the system to change it; other times, this approach simply constitutes a form of co-optation. Online churches such as Universal Life Church Monastery can play an instrumental role in the transition from exclusivist and discriminatory marriage laws to a fairer, more just system by opening up a forum for debate and continuing to challenge beliefs.
Source: Pink News