The Muslim Youth Movement has called for changes in the Islamic religion to address gender inequality in its structures and teachings.

The movement said a new approach was needed to make Islam more relevant and accountable to all its constituencies.

The movement's secretary-general, Ebrahim Bofelo, said there was an underlying problem of gender bias in the religion, and leaders still practised a superior, elitist attitude towards their followers.

"The problem is that most religious leaders in churches and madressas are not gender-sensitive in terms of orientation and have a continued sexist and patriarchal understanding of scripture," said Bofelo.

The movement's groundbreaking call for change comes in the wake of the ongoing appearance of a senior Muslim cleric in the Port Elizabeth regional court on 14 counts of indecent assault, allegedly committed between December 1997 and June 1999.

The state says that Sheik Ebrahim Essop, the chairperson of the SA National Halaal Authority (SANHA), indecently assaulted four girls, aged between nine and 13, telling them that he was God and had powers to do anything in the world.

A 16-year-old girl last week told the court that Essop, 54, ordered her to undress and perform inappropriate acts when she was nine years old. She said he also masturbated in front of her.

Another victim said that Essop bombarded her with invitations to the movies and asked her to sit on his lap and take walks with him on the beach.

The girls were all students at a religious school founded by Essop, who has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

A clinical psychologist, Gillian van der Riet, testified that Essop made the girls believe he was well informed on the subject of child psychology and that what was occurring between them was not wrong.

Van der Riet said Essop pretended to be intrigued by their personal lives and spent a lot of time with them.

In a dramatic turn this week, one of the girls told the court that she was pressured into implicating Essop falsely.

The girl, now 19, said she was forced by one of the girls' fathers to accuse Essop of indecently assaulting her.

The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) refused to comment on the case or the youth movement's call for change.

SANHA's Ebi Lockhat said the authority was awaiting the outcome of the case.

"In terms of our country's constitution, SANHA'S code of conduct and the advice of our ulama (theologians), we have adopted the principle that all persons are equal before the law and presumed innocent until proven guilty," said Lockhat.

But Bofelo said Islam as a religion needed to transform and adopt a culture based on gender equality.

Bofelo said the youth movement was already working on policies and awareness programmes to address the imbalance and lobbying for the opening up of facilities to ensure that men and women enjoyed equal status in their structures.

"Women need to be treated equally, because currently women are not allowed to enter mosques," said Bofelo.

"The way that mosques are run creates a conducive environment for this kind of behaviour to take place."

Essop's trial continues. - Inet-Bridge