Gender and Religion: Gender and African Religious Traditions

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Gender has been variously defined in diverse contexts. For this entry, however, gender may be understood to refer to defined capacities and attributes assigned to persons based on their alleged sexual characteristics. Gender, then, is a construct within a people's living experience, embedded in the base of their philosophy and manifested at theoretical and pragmatic levels of their polity. Because gender is never independent of other social systems, it would be futile to consider it as a fixed and immutable construct; rather, it is a process. Further, gender classifications permeate a culture's cosmic perception and may be discernible in its language, storehouse of wisdom, rituals, and philosophy. Gender thus presents itself in every sector of a culture's experience of everyday life and philosophy of life. Gender classifications may be evident in perceptions of the ecosystem and supernatural forces.

Historical Gender Studies in African Religious Traditions

History as a reference to past centuries will be misplaced if applied to the study of gender in African religious traditions, which include African indigenous religions, Christianity, and Islam. The latter two religions are classified as African religious traditions because of their influence on African culture. No longer can Islam and Christianity be described as foreign religions to Africa, as the people, through the prism of culture, have produced unique brands of Christianity and Islam (Olajubu, 2003). This misplacement of history may occur because basic assumptions concerning gender are conceptualized in Africa, rather than because of a deliberate attempt to ignore them (King, 1995) or as an indication of ignorance about gender studies in religion. African concepts of gender are integral to the people's religious experience and by implication their social life as well. Consequently, to perceive and pursue as a separate field the study of gender in African religious traditions would be misguided.

Possible reasons for granting cognizance to the study of gender in religion in Africa since the 1970s are multifarious. First, the global attention accorded to "women's issues" or the "female question" has influenced the need for scholars to delineate African gender construction within and outside of religion. Second, there arose the need to differentiate African conceptions and construction of gender from gender construction in other cultures. Third, interpretations given to gender construction in African ritual practice by some non-African scholars may be described as controversial, especially when compared to interpretations given by Africans participating in such rituals. Fourth, a good understanding of gender construction is essential to an understanding of African religious traditions. Religion is a belief system permeating all sectors of lived experiences. It exerts a profound influence on people's conception of gender. Indeed, in Africa religion is the basic principle from which gender construction is derived.

Works by scholars on gender in African religious traditions give a prime importance to ritual and the fluidity of African gender construction. Issues of cross-dressing, female cultic functionaries, and spirit possession are critically analyzed to substantiate the multidimensional complexities of gender construction in African religious traditions.

Mythic Contexts in Constructing Gender

The underlying basis of African gender issues could be located in the people's mythology, especially in cosmological myths. Myth, as a conveyor of meaning for that which history offers no explanation, provides a paradigm for gender construction and power relations. Myth supplies explanations for values and meanings in people's lives. As a model for human activity, myth elucidates the connections between the supernatural and the natural. Consequently, the roles played by the female and male personae in mythical narratives have profound implications for the expected roles of females and males in society. Some prominent attitudes on gender are signified in African mythological narratives, including, fertility, motherhood, cleansing, healing, deviance, and interdependent gender relations, as well as ambiguous perceptions of the body and of blood. These attitudes are reflected in narratives on traditions of the goddesses, sacred power, rituals, and cosmology.

African cosmological accounts often submit that God, the supreme being, created the world, nature, animals, and humans. Also, the consensus is that God created the first humans as male and female, "even if the exact methods of creating man differ according to the myths of different peoples" (Mbiti, 1969, p. 93). The Boshingo of Luanda's cosmological myth, for example, states that Bumba (God) was in terrible pain at the beginning of time, and retched and strained and vomited up the sun. After that, light spread over everything. Later, Bumba vomited the moon, stars, animals, and last of all, humans (Eliade, 1967). Moreover, some African creation myths record tension in gender relations and the sanction of God for mutual respect between male and female (Badejo, 1996; Olajubu, 2003). The Yoruba cosmological myth states that Olodumare (God) sent seventeen primordial divinities to earth at the beginning of time, Osun being the only female among them. The sixteen male divinities ignored Osun and excluded her from all decisions. In reaction to this, Osun gathered all women together and formed the Iya Mi group, which disrupted the smooth running of the universe with their powers, and the earth became ungovernable for the sixteen other primordial divinities. Olodumare advised them to make peace with Osun so that all might be well again. This they did, and everything returned to normal (Badejo, 1996, Olajubu, 2003). References to God's distribution of power to the female and the male in different areas may also be discerned from some of these accounts (Adediran, 1994).

Cosmological accounts in Africa thus prescribe and entrench complementary gender relations that find expression in the religious interactions of men and women, as well as in their relations in the polity. Consequently, female leadership roles and access to power in religion are anchored on divine provisions that are validated by these cosmological narratives. Again, these narratives confirm the African preference for areas of specialization for the female and the male. Whereas the obvious area of authority in the polity is in the custody of men, women control the base of men's public authority through mystical powers. An example of such power is demonstrated by the Iya Mi group of the Yoruba, where the women wield tremendous influence in an informal and often invisible but effectual way. Men are seen on the thrones and in official settings as rulers, yet perceived as unable to stand without the help of the invisible base. In general, interdependency and mutual sustenance mark African gender relations.

In African indigenous religions, deities who serve as lieutenants to the supreme being are both female and male. These gods and goddesses derive their authority and function from God. The conduct and interaction of goddesses in African religious narratives provide models for female roles at the religious and social levels. For instance, goddesses are usually represented as "givers" of children, as being in charge of bodies of water, and as possessing healing abilities for effecting physical and psychological well-being. Consequently, a study of goddesses would provide tools for evaluating and analyzing the status of women in African indigenous religions, as well as for assisting in analysis of the inherent gender dynamics in the traditions. For example, just as goddesses assume maternal roles to ensure fertility, motherhood and fertility are important features assumed for African women. Mystical dimensions of feminine empowerment reinforce roles that are linked to female procreative attributes.

Female religious alliances, such as the Iya Mi association among the Yoruba, wield tremendous cultural influence, and often link their powers to the women's access to fertility and motherhood (Olajubu, 2003, p. 17). Similarly, African indigenous religions often ascribe to women the ability to heal. This healing aptitude may be exhibited by women as individuals in their capacities as priestesses and healers, or in a collective as a religious group, such as the zaar cults of Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt, and Eritrea. As wives to gods, goddesses are said to possess independent mystical powers, which they display independently or in conjunction with their husbands. Goddesses are sometimes perceived as wives in polygamous settings, just as polygamy often prevailed as a widespread social practice in Africa.

In addition, goddesses are presented as industrious beings who are often well off financially. In the same vein, African women are hardworking and prosperous, sometimes more so than their husbands. Similarly, African indigenous religions conceive of women as possessing mystical powers, which they are at liberty to use in the service of a personal agenda. Some refer to this mysticism as "witchcraft." Often, allegations of witchcraft indicate some level of fear or awe concerning women's lives and physiology, although these indications do not obliterate cases of witchcraft.

Goddesses are closely connected to the governance of some African communities. Osun, the goddesses of cool waters in Osogbo, Nigeria, is closely connected with the sovereignty of the town and the king. Osun is recognized as the owner of the land on which Osogbo stands. She is reported to have defended the people during wars, and provides for the people as well, including the provision of money, health, and peace. Appreciation for her care is demonstrated yearly in an elaborate festival that attracts devotees from within and outside Nigeria (Olupona, 2000). The king of Osogbo (Ataoja) rules in behalf of Osun; her support is crucial to the success of every endeavor in the land. Indeed, the state in which Osogbo is located is named after her. The relationship between Osun and the king and the indigenes of Osun State is that of mother and children.

Symbolic Construction of Gender Studies in African Religious Traditions

As a social category, gender appears to influence the work of many scholars; this influence is reflected by their research in African religious traditions, as well as in African economics, government, and the media. Many scholars offer tangential evidence of their interest in gender studies in their writings on subjects other than religion. Some of these scholars are Kemene Okonjo (1978), Filomena Steady (1987), Karin Barber (1991), Bolanle Awe (1992), Molara Ogundipe-Leslie (1994), Ifi Amadiume (1998), Mary Kolawole (1998), Anne Wynchank (1998), and Oyeronke Oyewumi (1999). Many other scholars focus their analysis of gender on African Christian, Islamic, and traditional religions: Judith Gleason (1987), Niara Sudarkasa (1987, 1996), Teresa Okure (1989), Rabiatu Ammah (1992), Deidre Crumbley (1992), Teresa Hinga (1992), Musimbi Kanyoro (1992), Anne Nasimiyu-Wasike (1992), Mercy Amba Oduyoye (1992, 1995), Sophie Oluwole (1993), J. Lorand Matory (1994), Amina Mama (1995), Diedre Badejo (1996), Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan (1997), Dorcas Akintunde (2001), Mei-Mei Sanford and Joseph Murphy (2001), and Oyeronke Olajubu (2003).

Previously, gender studies in African indigenous religions have focused on rituals and symbols. Emanating from these studies are notions of fluidity in gender construction and the complexity attending gender as a social tool for religious analysis. This focus is especially true in light of other competing categories, such as seniority and lineage affiliation. African indigenous religions exhibit ritual features of transvestitism and interchangeable gender characteristics. Another feature is that women traditionally assume roles of leadership as priestesses, diviners, and healers. Furthermore, African religions view women as predominant participants in spirit possession. Scholars have propounded theories from different perspectives to explicate spirit possession and its implication for gender studies. Spirit possession in African indigenous religions bestows temporary respect and authority on women in some contexts, while in others it extends permanent benefits to the social status of women.

Symbols persistently reinforce the complexity of gender construction in African indigenous religions as conveyors of meaning in diverse contexts. Such symbols can occur as works of art, such as the sculpted birds that appear on elements of authority (e.g., crowns, staffs of office) among the Yoruba (Nigeria), or they can be hidden, such as the dance steps that are performed during the Nandi (Kenya) female initiation rites. An overriding principle for symbolism is interdependency in terms of gender relations. Symbols reinforce the authority of women who engage in their sphere of specializations (e.g., fertility), just as symbols reinforce the authority of men (master of the herd); neither could subsist without the other. Again, from these symbols, we may infer that the assumption of a total exclusion of females or males from any particular sphere in these indigenous religions is erroneous.

The introduction of Christianity to Africa began in the early centuries of the Christian era with the establishment of the Ethiopian and Coptic churches, though European missionary activities spanned (intermittently) the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. Missionaries who introduced Christianity to Africa relegated women to the domestic domain, a division entrenched in biblical interpretations. However, with the emergence of the African independent, charismatic, and Zionist churches, the need to renegotiate gender relations became a relevant issue. Contributing to this need was the mass movement of worshipers from orthodox churches to the African independent, charismatic, and Zionist churches because African culture influenced the prevailing rituals in these churches. As examples of such influence, women assumed roles of leadership and symmetry of form in leadership cadres. Nearly all gender studies of African Christianity began because of these developments. Examples of such works include publications by J. Renita Weems (1991), Amba Mercy Oduyoye and Musimbi Kanyoro (1992), Musimbi Kanyoro and Nyambura Njoroge (1996), W. Musa Dube (2001), and M. Teresa Hinga (2002).

The history of gender studies in Islamic Africa is recent. On the one hand, there is the attempt to tease out feminist passages from the Qurʾān and strip away patriarchal interpretations that hindered previous appreciation. Such passages include the prophet Muammad's statements enjoining respect and appreciation for women and equity between the male and female. Emphasis in this regard has been on taqwa (piety), which is required of all adherents irrespective of sex by Allah (Mernissi, 1995 and Wadud, 1999).

There is the perspective that prioritizes the influence of African culture in paradigms concerning women, and this influences the women's understanding and practicing of Islam. A model is the leadership role of women in African culture, now manifested in various Islamic forms. This trend has manifested in two main ways. Some women following Islam in Nigeria claim divine calling to devote all their time to prayers and healing practices for clients who come to them. This has consequently elevated the status of such women in Islam. Second, because of the identified need to take the African culture seriously for the propagation of Islam, women are now installed as chiefs in the mosque's structures. Titles among the Yoruba of Nigeria include the Iya Addini (woman leader) and Otun Addini (assistant to the woman leader).

It may be surmised then that an understanding of gender constructions in Africa is significant to any meaningful analysis and evaluation of African religious traditions.

Rigidity and Flexibility in Gender Construction: The Ritual Sphere

The realm of ritual has proven versatile for displaying gender construction and deconstruction. Central to these attempts is the perception in African cultures of blood, especially menstrual blood. The presence or absence of menstrual blood contributes significantly to the construction of gender in religion. In its absence, the patriarchy views the female to be as pure as a virgin and fit for the habitation of the deity in the form of, for example, votary maids, adolescent girls dedicated to certain deities until the age of marriage. These girls are forbidden to engage in sexual relations and their upbringing is closely monitored. Votary maids bring messages to the adherent at worship or festival periods during spirit possession sessions, and observe diverse types of taboos to reinforce their separation unto the deity concerned. River goddesses are often known to have votary maids. In the presence of menstrual blood, the patriarchy views the female, usually a wife, as suspect, even though she is extolled as a mother. This ambiguous status of the female accommodates serious compromises for power relations between the genders. In addition, access to power and authority are consequences of these classifications. In African indigenous religions, then, menstrual blood evokes joy and yet instills limitation. However, among some Africans, limitations are not a consequence of contamination but a means of avoiding a clash of powers. The sacred domain is perceived as the abode of power, just as menstrual blood, which contains potential life, is considered a conveyor of power. Thus, there is a need to separate these two realms of power to avert a clash; this is particularly true of the Yoruba belief system.

African dual perspectives on blood restrict women's access to sacred space during menstruation. Often this restriction is temporary, but it could explain the prevalence of postmenstrual women in leadership cadres. However, current research shows increasing numbers of women of childbearing age in positions of leadership in African indigenous religions, and priestesses may be of any age. In addition, there are females who occupy important positions in male religious groups. Such women play symbolic roles, ranging from keepers of secrets, to the "mothers" of males, including the iya magba ("Magba's mother" of the Egúngún Yoruba religious group). These female roles exemplify the African notion of interdependency, mutuality, and compassion of gender relations. Furthermore, the ambivalence marking African expectations and assumptions for female status become evident. Whereas some myths may describe women as unable to keep secrets, women in certain domains are indeed the keepers of secrets.

Gender relations often manifest themselves as a cultural fluidity corresponding to a ritual domain of indigenous religions. This fluidity tends to reinforce complex gender constructions. For instance, legendary goddesses are known to possess "wives" (devotees, votary maids, and mediums), just as certain gods do. Some community rulers are considered to be "wives" of their affiliate deities, who may be perceived as male or female (Matory, 1994). Moreover, certain Yoruba priests of ango are transvestites who take on the role of the male "wives" of the deities by wearing female costumes and plaiting their hair in a feminine style. Alternatively, when under the influence of certain deities, some female mediums of various religious groups exhibit characteristics generally associated with males. For example, while possessed by ango (Elegun ango), female mediums become "aggressive" under ango's masculine authority.

African cultures often correlate group solidarity with gender construction. Group formations are expected of females in many sectors of the African polity, including economics, religion and social settings. While females practice group solidarity in many African religious traditions, males cannot be said to do the same. To explain this widespread practice of female solidarity, scholars of religion have propounded various theories. Whereas some perceive such solidarity as resistance against patriarchal suppression, others see it as an attempt to create an alternative space to empower women. In any case, clearly the motif of female group formation forms a salient feature of African religious traditions.

Contemporary Feminist Scholarship and African Religious Traditions

Available research and publications on gender and religions in Africa are few. Nonetheless, publications by African female scholars on gender are increasing, which explains the significant impact such works have had on the study of African religious traditions. Although their focuses vary, these works generally pursue the following set of goals (sometimes a single work may fulfill two or more of these conditions): (1) to offer analysis of gender constructions in African religious traditions from the feminine perspective by allowing women to tell their stories rather than imposing constructed meanings on data; (2) to seek paradigms and models from past African religious experiences, spanning history and mythology for the construction of gender relations in contemporary African religious life; (3) to offer new feminist interpretations and meanings for familiar but patriarchal narratives in African religious tradition and to utilize this for balanced gender relations; and (4) to correct assumed meanings for certain aspects of African rituals by taking serious cognizance of meanings ascribed to such rituals by the participants.

African scholars of religion are beginning to restructure the academic constructions of gender by exposing the biased implications proffered by colonial constructions of gender. The colonial experience in Africa instituted a disruption of gender structures by separating the integrated African domains of public and private space. This divisiveness, however, was attenuated in African religious traditions by an entrenched cultural recognition accorded female leadership prescribed in oral narratives. Viewed from a different perspective, the exposure of African religious traditions to the African diaspora since the 1970s has been tremendous. This exposure is particularly true of Yoruba religion, which can boast of adherents in every continent of the world. The movement of practitioners of Yoruba religion travels both ways between the continent and the diaspora. Priests and priestesses of Yoruba religion travel to the Americas and Europe to train and educate adherents, just as some adherents visit Africa regularly for training and renewal of energies. Consequently, this exposure has produced reliable research that compares and contrasts indigenous African religions with their variations in the Americas, especially Brazil, Cuba, and other parts of the Caribbean (Benard and Moon, 2000; Sanford and Murphy, 2001).

Such innovative research contributes to African scholarship by advocating cooperation among practitioners of diasporic and continental African religions. This cooperation has informed conferences, workshops, and symposia on the continent, as well as in the United States and Europe. The exchange of gender studies and religious traditions between the diaspora and Africa is producing fresh perspectives in understanding religious rituals.

Academic materials for investigating African religious traditions from a female perspective are now available in print and on the internet. Consequently, feminist scholars on gender and African religious traditions are establishing women's studies departments and gender institutes in African universities. Examples of such centers include the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and the Institute of Women and Gender studies at the Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

See Also

Gender Roles; Menstruation; Spirit Possession, article on Women and Possession.


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Oyeronke Olajubu (2005)

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