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Gender and Theology
in Africa today - Mercy Amba Oduyoye
My experience of gender as it functions in theology on the
African continent is located in my intentional involvement with
African women in theology dating back to the mid seventies and to
the first conference of African Women theologians organized in
1980 by Daisy Obi, then director of the Institute of Church and
Society of the Christian Council of Nigeria, Isabel Johnson, then
secretary for women's department of the All African Conference of
Churches and myself then on the faculty of the Religious studies
department of the University of Ibadan.
Ibadan the circle widened and relationships of trust grew,
flowering into convocation of African women theologians in 1980
held in Accra. The fruit of all this is the Circle of Concerned
African Women Theologians with membership from more than twenty
countries including Egypt, Ethiopia and Madagascar, Angola,
Mozambique and Namibia. The women of the Circle are practitioners
of African Traditional Religion, Christianity, Islam and Judaism
may be others too. We do not ask for religious affiliations in the
Circle, only that one should consciously live by a belief in God.
up the Africa that I speak about until recently theology by
African men was not gender sensitive. It was meant to be objective
and generic and consequently subsumed women into man. This paper
therefore deals mainly with the theological output of women, with
the significant exceptions of a handful of men like John Pobee and
Tinyiko Maluleke and Gerald West who begun to consciously examine
the gender parameters in African theology, I now do hear Christian
preachers saying "and women" where the Bible or a collect omits
them, it will repay study to read the recent writings of the
"fathers" of African Christian Theology with an eye for their
sensitivity to gender. This, I have not done. But I know that in
the academic world, what counts as theology has been defined by
men. This definition - makers we are going to have to acknowledge
that both hermeneutics and ways of accessing knowledge are
constantly changing. The power of definition of what is theology
has to be exercised by the community of women and men in theology.
academic world remains uncertain as to how to assess the
alternative epistemologies and methodologies that women claim
mainstreaming gender in theology demands. But like it or not the
concern for gender has opened up a new academic field, and this
has to be acknowledged and appropriated to make the academy
responsible and responsive to the world out there. The same goes
for the ecclessia. The presumed right of church and bishops to
determine what is to be believed, stands in the ways of
mainstreaming gender in theology as long as leadership in the
ecclesia remains male.
current parlance signifies the power relation between masculine
and feminine. The gender ideology presupposes that the masculine
encompasses the female, or takes priority in relation to the
female and is entitled to expect subordination and submissiveness
and self-abasement of the female. The gender ideology is not
limited to biology. It is also social and appears in relations
among men as among women and among nations. It functions, as a
pecking order colonies were females in relations to the colonizing
nations. Men slaves are females in relations to women in the
master's household. White women are gendered males in relation to
black women, a realization that was among the reasons for a
specific women's theology in the USA named womanist by black women
of the USA. Let me illustrate this with a story.
planned a Pan-African Conference for its members in 1996. When
word got out, several non-Circle members asked if they could come.
The answer was, "no" for the Circle was created to enable African
women to say their own word. We had worked in a process over seven
years and were meeting to decide on what the future should be. We
did not need spectators. A British woman wrote asked whether she
could come and deliver a paper on the conference, which was
"Transforming Power - African Women in Religion and Culture", I,
as the organizer of the conference wrote to say she could not
come, as it was not an open forum. I arrived at Methodist
Guesthouse in Nairobi to find her already installed and with a
chalkboard at the front desk welcoming the Circle members. It is a
nasty story. She imposed herself on the meeting, interviewed the
women, collected their papers, ignored all my protests and out of
the meeting got what she needed to get her PhD thesis completed
and also published. She is gendered masculine, with power to act,
the Circle is gendered female, to be used or ignored.
confronted her with the disrespect she had shown in ignoring the
fact that she was told she was not welcome. She had assumed being
British that a Ghanaian woman is a colonial subject who should
work to raise funds to bring African women together to facilitate
her research. She had the power of money on her side; she could
get to Nairobi without a ticket from conference funds. She could
pay for her stay of the Methodist Guesthouse, there were other
guests there but they did not get crash our conference. She was
white and many were the black people conditioned to give in to the
whims of white people. She had power and I was powerless to
prevent her from doing what she had planned to do. She was
gendered male and I was gendered female in this instance. She is
entitled to my labour and does not have to listen to me or respect
my feelings and views. Such is the phenomenon of gender that we
are looking at. Though gender refers to hierarchy associated with
roles based on biological sex, it transcends it. In this paper
however it is gender as male superiority, patriarchy,
androcentrism and kyriocentrism. This offering is about the
hegemony of men and androcentrism in African theology. Gender
relates to the patriarchal phenomenon that structures
relationships in hierarchies and pyramids.
women's voices were heard on how women experienced life, words
like sexism, sexist, patriarchy, androcentric, misogyny, feminist,
feminism, androcracy on the tongues of women begun to jar men's
ears and to make "the good women nervous". As women began to
narrate and to substantiate how language, tradition, culture,
religion, legal codes, household arrangements stifle their
humanity, the word began to go round "women are their own worst
ENEMIES OF WOMEN
their own worst enemies"
They say so, who want to stay so.
"It is women who vote for men"
Why so? No one asks.
Never were people taught that women could lead.
Often were women taught that they were not capable.
When the eye of the mind saw that only men led,
The brain dictated "Vote for men only"
To walk the way of the past
Is it not self-hatred?
Open the eye of the mind.
Self-preservation so dictates
The worst enemies of women are those who say
"Women are their own worst enemies"
They say so who want to stay so.
women who put pepper into other women's eyes".
Why so? No one asks.
Never were people taught that
Women are also simply human.
When the eye of the mind sees that 'human' reads 'men'.
The brain dictates, "Creativity belongs to men only".
To walk the way of the past is not self-hatred,
To walk the way of past is to
Keep up a false sense of security for all.
To hold on to the past.
Is to imprison imagination.
"Women are their own worst enemies".
They say so who want to stay so.
Stop the say Sos
Stop the enemies of women.
The New is in the AIR.
was named an American white middle class phenomenon but is showed
is itself as broader than that and feminist were described as all
who honour the humanity of women and include women's agency in
analysis of phenomenon of women's quest for liberation developed,
it became clear that religion was one of the main sources of the
denigration and marginalization of women from the exercise of
power and of autonomy. Stanton's women's Bible resurfaced and the
cry went up among churches that women are rewriting the Bible.
Women from other faith communities re-read their scriptures and
commented in writing. On the Christian theological scene. Mary
Daly's, The Church and the Second Sex shook the ramparts of church
and theology. She followed it with Beyond God the Father in which
she argued that if God is made then the male must be God and since
this has to be resisted, the male language about God has to go. My
response was, God is male does not make the human male God. Maybe
it comes out of my orientation toward non-gender specific pronouns
and the Creator God as a woman in some parts of Africa.
women wrote, Caucasian, Christian, Jewish and Moslem. Soon there
was the generic name Feminist Theology, later to be diversified
with the rise of Womanist and Mujerista Theologies. Asian women
produced their theologies and so did African women and Latin
American women. First this was done in the mode of a general
theology of liberation within the Ecumenical Association of
Theologians until the Association too proved to be non-gender
sensitive. Women realized that if they do not say, "we are here"
the men will continue to act if women were absent.
gender became a theological issue when the Circle asserted that
the gender parameter in African culture and African religions have
crucial effects on women's lives and on how womanhood is viewed by
Africans. They researched the names given to baby boys and baby
girls, rites related to the birth of boys and that of girls and
all other rites of passage. They examined everyday language and
especially proverbs, myths and legends and found them seeped in a
gender ideology. They examined daily relationships in marriage,
inheritance laws and women's leadership and roles in the wider
society as in the church. Gender as the power, priority and
preference of biological male over the biological female was
evident everywhere. The women pointed out that it is not only
biblical hermeneutics that needed attention but most immediately
cultural hermeneutics as Africans are in crisis about their
relationships to the inherent ways of doing and thinking.
Especially when it is in conflict with modernization and against
the notion that culture is dynamic and an open circuit. Gender in
biblical studies took the form of re-reading, and the hermeneutics
of suspicion and resistance prevailed.
ISSUES OF GENDER
feminist highlighting of the maleness of God took back seat but
African women still saw through the power that men derived by
associating masculinity with God. It was necessary to exhibit the
feminine face of God and to distance God from the violence against
women that has become endemic in man-woman relations in Africa.
God had to be placed beyond gender. Contrary to what Daly says,
Oduyoye insists "God is male does not make the male God" no human
being has a right to play God in another's life except as agent of
love, compassion justice and empowerment as demanded by God.
Gender is a human, social construct and should not be made to
apply to God. Men must not continue to co-opt God into this
hierarchy of being by reading into the scripture an order of male
over female as ordained by God. African women took refuge in the
existence in versions of African Traditional Religion in which the
creator is imaged as a woman.
gendered nature of theology is exhibited not only in the male
image of God but in the doctrine concerning the nature of the
human being traditionally designated as "the doctrine of man" in
English. Women have to sing "Stand up O men of God". Here too
African languages assuaged the fears of women that they have
become invisible as most African languages have words that mean
humanity and no-gender specific pronouns. This however did not
prevent the church from being operated as a gendered Institution
with men as owners and women as the clients.
Church's order and liturgy came under scrutiny and the issue of
participation as in the Pauline theology of koinonia was lifted up
by women. In the Bible study that convoked African women
theologians in 1989 Teresa Okure comments on the healing of Jairus
daughter as follows "Today, we are not to be satisfied simply with
being healed. We are to join the discipled in being healers,
proclaiming, the reign of God has come, that we have touched that
reign, become part of it, and have been empowered by God to become
its heralds (Oduyoye & Kanyoro 1990).
Kanyoro the first co-ordinator of the Circle writing on "God calls
to Ministry: An Inclusive Hospitably" used the Theological
constructs of Koinonia, our common baptism and the Pentecost
experience. (Kanyoro & Njoroge 1996). The two articles (Okure &
Musimbi) were selected by Sr. Mary John Mananzan as presenting
what African women theologians say on the subject of "To be fully
human". The Circle followed Accra with studies on the reign of God
and out of efforts in West Africa. Elizabeth Amoah edited the
Circle book Where God Reigns.
qumi (1990) one finds the gender constraint evident and critiqued
in all the contributions. The introductory article "The search for
a two-winged theology" sets the agenda and the tone of
participated. Power is to be jointly utilized according to
charisma and not directed by biological determinism. The Bible
studies in this book demonstrate the need to pay attention to
context and to culture as well as the need to become sensitive to
gender when dealing with religion and culture and by extension to
theological construction. The papers and the poems all highlight
the role of gender in theology as traditionally curbing women's
initiative. The women give indicators of how to find scriptural
resources to resist this dehumanization of women.
years later the Circle met in Nairobi as mentioned above. One of
the books that came out of the papers delivered is Talitha Cum!
Theologies of African Women edited by Naymbura J. Njoroge and Musa
W. Dube (Cluster 2001), Again "Little Girl, Get Up" was used as
introduction and Njoroge in the Preface writes "Together we will
soil our hands in our efforts to achieve the goal of dignity,
liberation and fullness of life in Africa". Nyambura highlights in
addition to Talitha Cum! "Eph'phatha" "Be opened (Mark 7:31-35).
Silence is no longer an option where women theologians are
concerned. Women's 'silence' was not voiceless their lives spoke
volumes but now their voices are heard and as Nyambura says "they
are calling churches to listen and engage in conversation with
African women. (It is interesting to note that neither Nyambura
nor Dube were at Accra. Though the former was at Ibadan, they
represent the widening of the Circle and study increase of women
with doctorates in the theological field in its membership).
Theology in Africa calls for acknowledging the role of gender in
theology and for eliminating its debilitating effects so that the
church might be the church. Between Talitha (1990) and Talitha
(2001) several researches have highlighted issues of gendered
theological reflections have been written on them, hospitality,
violence, HIV/AIDS, spirituality of resistance and transformation
and a deepening of the hermeneutics of culture as well as biblical
hermeneutics. That women are absent from the pages of our tunes on
the history of Christianity is evident. This denial of women's
agency has to be corrected and a beginning has been made in Her
Unravelling the gender component of Christian theology began with
studies of life situations and of 'story' telling it was, if you
like a phenomenological approach. Lately the analyzing and
theolozing from the stories have led to tentative steps towards
theorizing an example is what Musimbi describe as "engendered
communal theology". The dilemma posed by culture and religion,
structures that are both positive and negative in their
utilization of gender is an open field for study. Discussing
"Gender as a concept in theological analysis" Musimbi has this to
say, "Theological engagement with gender issues seeks to expose
harm and injustices that are in society and are extended to
scripture and the teachings and practices of church culture".
theology faces the web of oppression as noted above and is not
limited to power relations between women and men. She highlights
women's emphasis on anthropology with special reference to the
establishment of the full humanity of women. Gender in theology
critiques the dualistic thinking that opposes body to soul
material to spiritual and assigns whatever in the pair is deemed
inferior to be feminine. In African women's theology, theological
analysis is linked to cultural hermeneutics. A concept that has
come from the identification by African women of gender as
operating in both culture and theology.
LIVING THE FAITH
is admitted the question for women has been "what does it mean for
the community of women and men in church and society?" First it
calls for watching our language not only about God but before God.
The demeaning, marginalizing and dismissive language about women
or any "other" becomes unacceptable before the God who created us
human as women and men in the same divine image.
for what Musimbi designates as "prophetic engagement". This is
what the WCC was seeking when it launched the Ecumenical Decade,
Churches in solidarity with women. The operations of gender in the
churches is illustrated in Oduyoye's "Who will Roll the Stone
Away?" Recognizing gender in theology will help us deal with
violence against women, which has some of its roots in biblical
language and Christian culture.
Recognizing and becoming sensitive to gender in theology leads one
to a theology that is liberative, one that does not remain
theoretical but demands ethical choices that will empower the
transformation of relationships that have been damaged by sexism
and mysogynist attitudes. Bernadette Mbuyi Beya of DRC exemplifies
this ethical imperative in her own life of making a home for
orphans. The Circle in Ghana has done this in getting Trinity
Theological Seminary to establish an Institute to undertake public
education on Religion and Culture that will bring gender
sensitivity into daily life and relationship.
theology forces our faith communities to face the issue of human
sexuality and to move from the demonisation of women to a sober
recognition of how presumed male entitlement to women's bodies
make men irresponsible sexually and promotes the spread HIV/AIDS
not to talk of all the marital violence on women. Recognizing
gender in theology will enable men to acknowledge the need to set
limits to their presumed right to exercise power over women and
help them stop their inclination to play God in the lives of
Mainstreaming gender in theological reflection requires that we
find resources to conscientise women and men alike on the
sacredness of their bodies, their sexuality and their humanity. A
theology that brings to the fore that fact that humanity has been
endowed with free will that makes it incumbent on us to exercise
choices, should be part of our repertoire. Women are human and
have to make choices including what happens when it comes to their
bodies. No man should call himself the owner of the body of a
woman. Pauline household and marital ethics points to mutual
ownership of bodies when it comes to married couples. Mutual
submission of Ephesians 5 should result in mutual respect and
dialogue rather than commands and demands.
Mainstreaming gender in theology requires that we transform the
patriarchal reading of biblical texts that have become the pretext
for violating the humanity of women. Culture as a pre-text has to
be challenged if we are to mainstream gender in theology, for much
of African culture like church culture bears the mark of the
hegemony of male text. This has been dismantled and mainstreaming
gender will help us do this.
parameter in theology evokes the naming of evil. Gender sensitive
theology is one that names concrete human right violations and
avoids the generalized notion of oppression, repression,
subordination and the like. It risks naming the agents of evil and
is audacious enough to call people to become free enough to think
critically about their heritage whether religious or social,
traditional or cultural, western or Christian, Arabic or Islamic.
seriously the religious slogans that people inscribe on their
business premises and on their vehicles, the words of the songs
they dance to, all other signs and symbols of religiosity can be
gender coded and need to be examined. Where women are absent or
invisible we have to ask why. Where women are present but totally
ignored, we have to discover the message being communicated.
is now an open text in Africa because of its many local language
translations, the increase of literacy and even more so the
telling and retelling of biblical narratives, commandments and
injunctions. The unwritten cultural text is being written into the
Bible and thereby achieving validation of its sexism. This open
Bible with its entrenched gender stereotype has to be appropriated
with great sensitivity and wisdom (Sophia), she who is a companion
of God, and we need to be guided by her when appropriating the
word of God.
Male-stream thinking has fashioned woman in such a way that her
existence depends on man. Theology cannot remain on that route.
The Male-stream theology in Africa struggles to be African,
liberative, constructive and relevant but it does not seem to
affect the church which remains a gendered hierarchical and
patriarchal institution. So both theology and church need to
mainstream gender sensitivity and gender justice. It means getting
rid of entrenched gender biases like speaking of doctrine of man
"instead of a Christian anthropology". Gender is a social
construct and therefore can be de-constructed and transformed. The
Akan say w woo Tafonibo na onkura ta. We are born with the
physical equipment for procreation but becoming masculine on
feminine comes with the context in which we are socialized. Gender
has no origin in nature neither is it divine image in which we are
created. The man-made construct should not be imposed with this.
Peter and John asked whether their interlocutors would have them
obey God or man. (Acts 4:16-19). All who would like to see African
Theology cured of sexism so that it might fly, risk the
consequences of taking a stance against the male steam. The women
of the Circle have made a choice "we would rather obey God than
man" So here we stand; we can do no other.
Oduyoye and Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro. (eds). 2001. Talitha Qumi:
The Proceedings of the Convocation of African Women Theologians.
Daystar Press Ibadan. Nigeria. 1990, 2nd edition. Accra: Sam Woode
Elizabeth, 1997. Where God Reigns: Reflections on Women in
God's World. Accra: Sam Woode Publishers.
1973. Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women's
Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.
A. Musimbi and Njoroge J. Nyambura (ed.) 1996. Groaning in
Faith. Action Publishers.
Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson (ed.) 1996. Dictionary of
Louisville, Kentuchyz: Westminster John Knox Press.
Mananzan. 1998. To be Fully Human: Eatwot Women's Theology,
Nyambura & Dube, Musa W. 2000. Talitha cum! Theologies of
African Women. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publication.
Mercy Amba and Kanyoro R.A. Musimbi (eds.) 1992. The Will to
Arise: Women, Tradition, and the Church in Africa. Orbis
Books, Maryknoll: New York.
Mercy Amba 1990. Who Will Roll the Stone Away. Geneva: WCC,
Isabel et al. 2002. Her-Stories. Hidden Histories of Women of
Faith in Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications.
Stanton, E.C. and the Revising Committee,
(eds.) 1995/1974. The Woman's Bible Seattle: Coalition Task Force
on Women and Religion.