A growing movement of African Christians are making waves at home and abroad with their ultra conservative interpretations of scripture. Far from a naïve embrace of conventional norms or a faithful embrace of scripture, these interpretations are emerging as clear political choices and are undermining women's rights struggles across the African continent
The rapid expansion of Pentecostal and other charismatic Christian churches in post-independence Africa presents a paradox for women’s position in society – women regularly make up between two-thirds and three-quarters of church congregations, and yet the discourse emanating from many of the pulpits, and through faith-based advocates in the media and in political spaces, has become a significant force in undermining women’s rights in policy, and in promoting a submissive model of womanhood.
The Anti-Homosexuality Bill tabled by Ugandan MP David Bahati in October 2009 has sparked an explosion of interest in the political muscle being flexed by African Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, and their complicated web of alliances with the US Christian right. As the web unravels, African women’s rights activists have been voicing a broader concern with the spread and growing normalisation of Christian fundamentalist doctrine, much of which intends to keep women in their unequal ‘place’. The doctrine is evident in everything from policy interventions such as the Indecent Dressing Bill tabled in the Nigerian Senate in 2008 - ostensibly to ‘protect’ women from moral degeneracy - to censorship and banning of the Vagina Monologues in Uganda, to the instigation of mass hysteria against gay people by influential pastors, to radio shows broadcast across rural and urban Africa preaching the virtues of women submitting to their husbands. Far from a naïve embrace of conventional norms or a faithful embrace of scripture, these ultra-conservative interpretations by African Christians are a political choice- and are having political effects.
Campaigning against women’s rights to autonomy, bodily integrity and sexual choice isn’t unique to Pentecostals - fundamentalists across all religious denominations tend to focus on controlling women’s choices. However Pentecostal and charismatic institutions have proved fertile ground for fundamentalist expansion in Africa given two key ingredients - a mass base attracted by a hope and prosperity theology and connected by often extensive communications networks, and a convenient lack of formal orthodoxy to limit or sanction the actions of individual clergy.
When the US-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed the rise of Pentecostalism in ten African countries in 2007, they found that in seven of them – Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Zambia and Uganda – Pentecostals and charismatics made up on average over 20 per cent of the total population. The figures for some individual countries were much higher. In Kenya, they reported, Pentecostals and charismatics made up 56 per cent of the population; in Nigeria, 30 per cent. And they found that 60 per cent of Nigerian Protestants and 30 per cent of Catholics were attending charismatic branches of their mainstream churches. Pew's research also revealed that anti-secularist views are common among African Pentecostals - 48 per cent of Kenyan Pentecostals, 58 percent of Nigerian Pentecostals and 45 percent of South African Pentecostals believe in the need to legally declare their countries Christian nations. Far from being confined to the African region, African Pentecostal churches are exerting their influence across the African migrant diaspora - even in unlikely places such as Ukraine.
What is drawing people – and particularly women – into charismatic churches? Africa has a history of independently led Christian churches; these African Independent Churches (AICs), which emerged in the early twentieth century, often created syncretic forms of worship that incorporated elements of African ritual and were therefore something of a haven amid the turbulence of European colonial land-theft and racial subjugation.
Though Pentecostalism appeared in Africa in the twentieth century, it was really only in the 1970s that membership began to surge. A new wave of American evangelists were expounding a ‘prosperity theology’ that appealed to post-independence Africans wrestling with continuing economic disenfranchisement. By contrast with the mainstream churches – even the AICs – which characterise Christianity as a religion of the poor, these new-wave Pentecostals put forward the idea that God wants believers to get rich. They preach, in essence, a gospel of Christian consumer capitalism. For the common worshipper, the promise of financial prosperity through a direct relationship with Jesus is a major pull factor, while membership of a church opens access to social and business networks within the church community.
Hope of wealth and of positive change is what the Pentecostal and charismatic churches offer their followers. The appeal is palpable in contexts where people are wrestling with economic marginalisation, the human catastrophe of HIV and AIDS, armed conflict and repressive political regimes. The churches’ methods of worship, which include all-night prayer meetings, healing sessions and speaking in tongues, provide catharsis and a welcome release from the significant burdens facing worshipers. They also promote a sense of community and fun through activities like youth camps and celebrations, and through incorporating music and dance into worship ceremonies. In contexts where the state is failing to provide basic public services, Pentecostal churches step in - many of the mega-churches organise outreach services for marginalised women and children.
And the millenarian promise of these churches – that Jesus is about to return to earth and dispense universal justice – offers the consolation that, whatever one’s travails in the present, one will live to witness the downfall of one’s enemies. Women’s rights activist Hope Chigudu was running a workshop on HIV and AIDS in a Zimbabwean mining town when a woman raised her hand to speak about the "women who dress in a provocative manner…to attract our husbands...these women, they will all burn in the eternal furnace…we are living in the end time, when the Son of God will return…the righteous will enter heaven; the sinners such as the prostitutes in our midst will be condemned to eternal hellfire".
Being ‘righteous’ means dressing appropriately. Hope Chigudu says, "many churches allow only loose-fitting dresses with high necklines cut no shorter than the knee" - and, of course, knowing your place as a woman. Pastor Jessica Kayanja tells adherents to her Girl Power Ministries in Uganda through her website, "the first ministry ever given to women was marriage. The greatest spiritual help that you can ever give your husband is unconditional agreement…quit nagging and complaining and resort to prayer in times of disagreement". When that ‘direction’ becomes violent, Swazi women’s rights activist Nonhlanhla Dlamini says pastors often excuse it by telling women, "if your husband is abusive, it means that you have not prayed enough". Hope Chigudu says pastors in many churches in Zimbabwe are telling women who have been raped that it is a sign that God is calling them to him, and to the imperative to be ‘born again’.
Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world, yet many Pentecostal pastors frown on condom use in the context of marriage, says Nonhlanhla Dlamini, telling women, "if you are sick, i.e. HIV-positive, you must pray to God to heal you so you can satisfy your husband sexually, because that is one of your main responsibilities". And, says Dlamini, there have been cases of pastors intervening to prevent their congregants taking anti-retroviral drugs, arguing that ‘if you are taking treatment, it means that you don’t trust the power of God. You have got to stop taking the treatment and then see the word of God working in you’.
Progressive African activists and commentators, such as those involved in the African Feminist Forum, are clear that these conservative interpretations of religion are overtly political. This is demonstrated by the fact that while pernicious attitudes permeate churches with millions of women congregants, they have also entered the realm of government policy. During parliamentary debates on the introduction of domestic violence legislation in Zimbabwe in 2006 (in 1998, domestic violence reportedly accounted for 60 per cent of the murder cases heard in the Harare high court), opposition Movement for Democratic Chance MP Timothy Mubhawu stood up and said, "I stand here representing God the Almighty. Women are not equal to men. This is a dangerous bill". Women demonstrated the next day, and the MDC almost immediately suspended Mubhawu from its national council for what it called his "seriously feudalistic and primitively patriarchal remarks". The Domestic Violence Act became law in Zimbabwe in August 2007 – though in a situation of widespread human rights abuses and chronic impunity, challenging the impunity of a ‘God Almighty’ husband remains very difficult for women.
In Uganda, where human rights activists argued domestic violence and spousal rape were contributing to the spread of HIV and AIDS, a Domestic Relations Bill was finally tabled in December 2003, after years of pressure from activists (it was first mooted in the 1950s). Christian groups joined Muslim groups in mobilising and lobbying against it. That Bill stalled, but in November 2009 parliament finally passed a Domestic Violence Act. How vigorously will it be implemented in a country where the Christian Right appear to be egging each other on? In October 2009, the state minister for gender and culture, Rukia Isanga Nakadama, scolded participants in a workshop organised by the Islamic University, "why don’t you talk about those who do not dress properly? Why are you quiet about the nakedness of women, and decide to only talk about the Domestic Relations Bill?"
But religious belief and practice across African countries are dynamic and diverse, and at least one form of violence against women is specifically opposed by Pentecostal churches. Researcher Dora King points out that in Sierra Leone, where female genital mutilation (FGM) is practised by the majority of ethnic groups as part of initiation rites into women’s secret societies, Pentecostal churches speak against it – not, however, on the basis of women’s rights, but because they see cutting girls’ genitalia as a form of blood sacrifice that permits satanic forces to enter and possess the girl. The Pentecostals argue that all Africa’s current problems stem from what they call demonic practices; anyone who has participated in traditional rituals, they say, has been contaminated by demons and needs deliverance - which usually involves physical purging. But their vocal opposition to FGM creates inroads for feminist activists to make broader arguments to Pentecostals about gender based violence and gender equality.
Pentecostalism need not be an oppressive doctrine for women. In fact, Dora King argues that in the context of Sierra Leone, some Pentecostal churches are providing a space for women to articulate agency, however circumscribed. Unlike in many mainstream churches, she says, women are ‘empowered’ to have a direct relationship with God and can receive significant gifts from the Holy Spirit, like the powers of healing and prophecy. Women can also be ordained, and can start their own churches. She argues that if there is to be a pro-feminist movement in African Christianity, it is most likely to come from among Pentecostals.
Across Africa, what was once a very secular culture of mobilising around gender equality, rights and development is increasingly becoming framed by religion. It is now common practice for meetings on women’s issues to be prefaced by a prayer, usually Christian, despite the presence of people with varying belief systems. This, and the selective use of Christianity to block discussion of sexual and reproductive rights, can in part be explained by the lack of commitment to feminist principles that has come with the professionalisation of gender activism via non-governmental organisations. Platforms such as the African Feminist Forum, established in 2006, tackle this head-on by articulating framing principles that include respect for sexual diversity and sexual and reproductive choice, and for secularism. The concern is not to silence religious belief, but rather to shed light on the political use of religion to undermine basic principles of equality, rights and freedom of conscience.
It is clear that religious belief has become an unavoidable issue for social justice activists and policy makers in Africa – not least for the fact that Africans are overwhelmingly believers. A new study by the Pew Research Center reveals that religion is considered ‘very important’ to nine in ten Africans. African women’s rights activists are starting to actively engage personal beliefs and religious institutions as a means of opening up dialogue and critical thinking on fundamentalist religious doctrine. The Ugandan Feminist Forum has facilitated discussions amongst its members on aligning personal Christian beliefs and feminist principles. The Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, a women’s organisation, works with Pentecostal and charismatic clergy to educate them about violence against women and HIV /AIDS.
But the sheer number of fundamentalist Pentecostal and charismatic churches across Africa makes tackling them and their discourses tremendously complicated. Ugandan activist Solome Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe says,"as a women’s movement, we are not doing enough to reach out to young women who have already been “groomed” by these churches. We aren't enough to nurture them, effectively respond, provide them alternatives to their ever changing needs in the contemporary world; to build their understanding and appreciation of their body politics, women's rights and leadership. We have also not engaged consistently enough on governance especially in the context of how hitherto secular nation states have used Pentecostal right wing fundamentalism to define and redefine women's rights and spaces in the name of morality, tradition, and culture".
The responsibility for defending women’s rights goes wider than this. Governments could, and should, sanction pastors who tell their members to stop taking ARVs, for instance, and prosecute church leaders who practise or condone sexual abuse against their women members. African human rights activists have yet to call for direct government regulation of church activities given the complex terrain of freedom of expression. Governments in Christian-dominated African countries have largely shied away from challenging Christian fundamentalist doctrine given that government officials are often members of these churches themselves, or fear voter’s wrath in taking action against popular pastors. Still, as African Pentecostalism grows in popularity and mass-based ideological power, a critical engagement with its social and political consequences is unavoidable.
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