The end of my Evangelical Christian journey was marked by a series of discomforts at the things I had heard from the pulpit. I felt so guilty questioning these things until I read the book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. Reading the book gave me unexplainable courage and normalised the practice of questioning widely accepted but harmful statements. Questioning without guilt and malice was the beginning of my freedom.
It was this courage that led me to question why choosing to have sex on your own terms was unacceptable because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit that need protection. Where was the Holy Spirit when the temple was a child being raped by a priest, a rape survivor, a victim of police brutality, a woman trapped in an abusive marriage? Does the Holy Spirit also protect temples that aren’t straight or cisgender? I questioned why the church was more comfortable organising women’s meetings that focused on male-inflicted problems like violence, abuse and rape, as opposed to holding men accountable for the harm women are forced to survive. Patriarchy was never going to protect me and others more vulnerable, regardless of how much we abided by its standards. Love cannot be called love in the absence of safety.Love must be deliberate about eliminating abuse, discrimination and oppression. Loving myself fiercely began when I left the church, and it was that fierce love that led me to feminism.
In this article, I will talk about the patriarchal nature of Christianity, the role Christianity has played as a hindrance to the African feminist movement, and highlight instances where imagination has been attempted. I will also argue that, even though religion has presented itself as an institution capable of change and evolution, the opportunities within religion to imagine freedom and safety for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community have been obscured by its deeply patriarchal nature.
When writing this article, I wrestled with the question, “Can one be a Christian feminist, or do we need to imagine spirituality outside of religion?“. Leaving feels like a personal solution to an institutional problem because it doesn‘t stop being harmful because we left. It then led me to ask, “What is the scope of our responsibility as feminists who have left the church towards holding it accountable for the harms against women and the LGBTQ+ community still in church?” Even though I make the argument that patriarchy within religion manifests itself in dizzying proportions, I cannot demand that, to be feminist, you must leave the church.
Historical Intersection of Religion, Culture and Patriarchy
The study of African indigenous religion reveals that African communities were not culturally androcentric or single-sex based. Most African societies had dual and flexible gender constructions that empowered both sexes.1 Among the Igbo, for example, both genders are recognised and given social, economic, political and spiritual powers.2 Even though most African societies had a matriarchal gender system, there was a sustained gender struggle between the sexes, with patriarchy trying to subordinate women to its rule through ritual, economics and law.3
Africa’s pre-colonial religion had no distinction between the sacred and the secular.4 The religion reflected the culture of the people who practised it, and so the misogyny in the culture was projected onto the religion. For example, among the Ibibio of Nigeria, the women’s cult kept the secrets of the divinities, who were avenging spirits, and the Great Mother, who was the supreme creator. The men accidentally stumbled into and captured the shrine of the Great Mother. The young women, in a bid to protect themselves, voted to teach the men the secrets of the cult. When the men gained this knowledge, they beheaded the priestesses in charge of the shrine and took it over. Since women were the custodians of farming secrets that were associated with the cult of the Great Mother, the men learnt how to farm yam. The Yam Festival, which was held to honour the earth goddess, then became a men’s festival and the goddess a deity of men‘s secrets and secret societies.5
Among many African communities, such as the Igbo of Nigeria, the matriarchal societies of Malawi, the Herero of Botswana and the Agikukyu of Kenya, the subordination of women was finally sealed through colonialism and Christianity. Christian schools insisted on religious conversion as part of admission and provided a very masculine-centred gender education.6
How African Women Experienced the Patriarchal Nature of Christianity
In its pioneering missionary stage, Christianity masqueraded as an advocate for equality between the sexes. Given the encroachment of patriarchy into traditional faith practices before the coming of missionaries, African women experienced Christianity as empowering. It offered relief from the male-dominated sacred world and traditions like female circumcision, polygamy and the pursuit of alleged witches. The missionaries‘ interest in vulnerable women appealed to those who felt victimised by these traditional practices. The attraction of African women to Christianity is something we continue to see today, with women being dominant members of mainstream, Pentecostal, African religion and charismatic movements. Even though women form the majority in these churches, they are not represented in the leadership, history and power structures. Despite this invisibility, and regardless of their social, financial or academic standing, women have been fully devoted to the church. In my opinion, it is this devotion that has contributed immensely to the growth, stability and continued relevance of the church.7
Patriarchy has defined women as inferior, thus perpetuating their marginalisation and oppression. The resulting unequal gender relations have translated into male dominance and female subservience in church and society. Christian women’s aspirations have been heavily influenced by the desire to live up to the examples in the Bible, like the woman in Proverbs 31 who is hardworking and brings repute to her husband through her industrious ways. The story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, emphasises virginity or sexual purity and obedience without question. The story of Queen Vashti is used to warn women against publicly disagreeing with and embarrassing their husbands, while Queen Esther is hailed as a heroine for using her beauty and charm to save her people, the Jews, from being killed by Haman, the king’s vizier. These stories have the effect of decentring the woman from her own life and emphasise the need for her to cater to the male gaze and be a helper to a husband who is the unquestioned head of the home to whom a woman must submit.
It has been argued that Jesus was feminist because he spoke out against blaming women for men’s lustful behaviour, preached that women should be treated with dignity, and said nothing about LGBTQ+ people. However, to be a feminist is to not only point out the unequal distribution of power in a society, but also to work towards dismantling patriarchal and oppressive structures. Demanding that women be treated with dignity is not feminism: it is the bare minimum for any member of society. Being silent about the LGBTQ+ community isn’t feminism either, because silence does not and never will make one an ally.
The church opened up new opportunities for women through education for girls.8 This has been called empowerment, but it operated through discriminating practices like locking women out of leadership structures. The Bible also expressly prohibits women from speaking in church: “Women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34, English Standard Version).
African women who did become leaders and spiritual authorities did so at great personal cost and as resistance, whether deliberately or not. Kimpa Vita, who was later baptised Dona Beatriz, founded the Antonian movement in the Kingdom of Kongo in 1704. During a tumultuous socio-political time, she challenged the ideology of white supremacy and called for the removal of white portraits, for cultural nationalism, political unity and self-determination. This threatened the Portuguese Roman Catholic Church’s relevance and authority. Her message appealed to the people because of her re-interpretation and re-imagination of Kongo and of Catholic beliefs and practices. She was accused of propagating heresy because of her attack against Portuguese hegemony and was burnt at the stake in 1706.9
Alice Lenshina Mulenga founded the Lumpa Church in Zambia in 1954, also during politically turbulent times. Her church drew many women because she was pro-monogamy and denounced widow inheritance and other practices that harmed women. She faced hostility from local traditional chiefs who felt that her overwhelming authority threatened their positions. Her church was known for reforming both indigenous and exogenous traditions and establishing a community that provided security in the midst of political and social upheavals. She was imprisoned by the Kaunda government in 1964 for being the leader of a religious cult and died in 1978.10
Not only did these leaders’ spiritual movements manage to break barriers in patriarchal culture, they have also contributed to the evolution of a new concept of church that is inclusive and recognises the different talents and contributions of both men and women.
Patriarchal Christianity and African Feminism
As a feminist, I recognise the Bible as a patriarchal document. I have experienced the ways that churches read and interpret it to support and perpetuate patriarchy. The Bible was produced within patriarchal structures and continues to be interpreted by church leaders who are also situated in such structures.11 The most troubling aspect is how uncritically the Bible is taken as the word of God. There is no critical and contextual engagement with the text, which leads to discrimination against women on various issues. Furthermore, church leaders can use the text selectively to perpetuate patriarchy and the unquestioned submission of women to men in their homes.12
Churches classify issues as either spiritual or physical and teach that the spiritual is more important than the physical. This distinction becomes dangerous when cases of abuse, gender-based violence and poverty are seen by the church as physical problems. Thus, these are personal responsibilities, and the church can absolve itself from its institutional responsibility for the care and protection of survivors of abuse.13 Many women are encouraged to persevere, to stay with, and pray for, their abusive husbands. Suffering is also preached as a Christian virtue that produces endurance, especially for Christian women. The Gospel requires women to forgive and reconcile, and this contributes to a situation in which Christian men can be perpetrators of violence without remorse or consequence, and where women continue to stay in these marriages.14
There has been some improvement in the leadership of many churches around the continent with the ordaining of female bishops, pastors, deacons and elders – with the exception of the Catholic Church. Women have founded and headed churches in Pentecostal, Evangelical, Charismatic and African Independent churches. Even though this kind of representation matters, it does not protect women and the LGBTQ+ community from the violence of patriarchy. Until religious leaders are committed to addressing and dismantling patriarchy, representation will always be cosmetic.
The patriarchal interpretation of scripture has prevented churches from engaging with violence and harm comprehensively, and from addressing beliefs and practices surrounding gender equality. To do this would mean naming patriarchy and calling it out for the harm it perpetuates. Naming patriarchy as a system that harms women would mean displacing men as beneficiaries and leaders of a system the Bible itself upholds. It would also mean teaching women to decentre men, which would contradict a lot of the teachings, like how the Bible names women as helpers for their husbands, how single women are encouraged to serve the Lord diligently and maintain sexual purity for the reward of a spouse, and how weddings are celebrated as the best day of a woman’s life.
It would also mean rethinking the stand on the LGBTQ+ community. In 2014, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Ugandan evangelical pastors had actively campaigned for this, claiming that homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture.15 The law, which criminalises the existence of the LGBTQ+ community, has created homelessness and joblessness, restricted lifesaving HIV work and enabled extortion by police officers.16 In Nigeria, Catholic and Pentecostal leaders happily welcomed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which was signed into law in 2014 by President Goodluck Jonathan. This law has drawn a target on the backs of LGBTQ+ people: they are tortured, arrested and even attacked by local vigilante groups.17
Feminist theology has emerged to address the patriarchal nature of churches. Its goal is to reinterpret male-dominated imagery and language about God and to increase the role of women in the clergy and in religious authority, as well as to reconsider the stories of women in religious texts through a feminist lens. Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Ghanaian theologian and one of the founding members of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Countries in 1974, was concerned about the gender imbalance and so the Circle of Concerned African Women theologians was formally established in 1989. Women who have led this organisation include theologians Musumbi Kanyoro of Kenya and Isabel Phiri of Malawi. The Circle aims to create a feminist theological space, produce feminist theological literature, and support activism towards gender justice.18
Religion is one of the most important aspects of social practice for many Africans and it permeates African cultures and societies, including LGBTQ+ people and their forms of community activism.19 Stories of Our Lives, an anthology and film by LGBT Kenyans, provides insight into how sexuality and faith are negotiated and reconciled through claiming the love of God, the idea of being created in the image of God, and the inclusive ministry of Jesus Christ. Despite the negative and harmful experiences in church, the Christian faith has become a basis for a new Kenyan LGBT Christian community, complete with a church which was founded in 2013 by a group of Kenyan activists to create an affirmative space for LGBTQ+ people of faith.
To conclude, churches have been a place of unspeakable pain, abuse, manipulation and neglect that the churches have not acknowledged, corrected, or taken accountability for. It has not been a safe refuge for the LGBTQ+ community, for women claiming their sexual and reproductive rights, or for congregants abused by their own religious leaders. Imagining a feminist future within religion means imagining a religion without patriarchy, and a religion without patriarchy does not exist. Without dismantling patriarchy, our attempts to reimagine religion are like building a bigger house to accommodate the elephant instead of just taking it out. The elephant will always take up space, even if the space is somewhat safer. In the presence of patriarchy, imagining within religion looks more like negotiation than actual imagination.
As African feminists, we will continue to hold the church to a higher standard of inclusion and accountability, hold space for those harmed by the church, and engage with the work being done by African feminist theologians with the care and honesty it deserves. This article is an admission that I have not imagined the possibility of a feminist future within religion as it is, but I allow myself to ask those who can imagine this future, “How can I help?”
- Musa W. Dube, “Post-Colonial Feminist Perspectives on African Religions,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, edited by Elias K. Bongmba (Chichester: Blackwell, 2012), 127–139, 128, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319233829_Postcolonial_Feminist_Perspectives_on_African_Religions.
- Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd, 1987/2015), 17.
- Amadiume, Male Daughters, 28–38.
- Dube, “Post-Colonial Feminist Perspectives,” 129.
- Dube, “Post-Colonial Feminist Perspectives,” 131.
- Dube, “Post-Colonial Feminist Perspectives,” 131.
- Philomena Njeri Mwaura, “Gender and Power in African Christianity: African Instituted Churches and Pentecostal Churches,” in African Christianity: An African Story, edited by Ogbu Kalu (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007), 410–445, 411.
- Mwaura, “Gender and Power,” 412.
- Mwaura, “Gender and Power,” 424.
- Mwaura, “Gender and Power,” 426.
- Sakenfeld, Katharine Doos, “Feminist Perspectives on Bible and Theology: An Introduction to Selected Issues and Literature,” Interpretation 42, no. 1 (1988): 5–18, 6; Sarojini Nadar, “On Being the Pentecostal Church: Pentecostal Women’s Voices and Visions,” The Ecumenical Review 56, no. 3 (2004): 354–367, 366.
- Nadar, “On Being,” 359
- Elisabet le Roux, “The Role of African Churches in Dealing with Sexual Violence Against Women: The Case of the DRC, Rwanda and Liberia (PhD diss, Stellenbosch University, 2014), https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37436621.pdf, 88.
- Le Roux, “Role of African Churches”, 71.
- Al Jazeera, “Uganda Church Rejects Anti-gay Criticism,” Al Jazeera, 2 February 2014, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2014/2/2/uganda-church-rejects-anti-gay-criticism.
- Human Rights Watch, “Uganda: Anti-Homosexuality Act’s Heavy Toll,” 14 May 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/14/uganda-anti-homosexuality-acts-heavy-toll.
- Human Rights Watch, “‘Tell Me Where I Can Be Safe’: The Impact of Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act,” 20 October 2016, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/10/20/tell-me-where-i-can-be-safe/impact-nigerias-same-sex-marriage-prohibition-act.
- Peter White, “A Cry for Freedom: The African Women’s Quest in the Light of the Bible,” Research Gate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233919703_A_cry_for_freedom_The_African_women%27s_quest_in_the_light_of_the_Bible, 3.
- Adriaan van Klinken, “Beyond African Religious Homophobia: How Christianity is a Source of African LGBT Activism,” The LSE Religion and Global Society Interdisciplinary Blog, 20 July 2018, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2018/07/beyond-african-religious-homophobia-how-christianity-is-a-source-of-african-lgbt-activism.