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
From 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.
This make 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
The 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.
Gender in 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.
The Circle 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
I 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.
When 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".
ENEMIES OF WOMEN
"Women are 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.
It is 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
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.
Feminism 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 human endeavours.
As the 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.
Many more 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.
In Africa 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
The 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.
The 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.
The 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).
Musimbi 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.
In Talitha 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.
Seven 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
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 Stories.
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".
Gender in 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
Once this 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.
It calls 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
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.
Gender in 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 women.
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.
The gender 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.
It takes 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.
The Bible 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.
Amba 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 Press.
Amoah, Elizabeth, 1997. Where God Reigns: Reflections
on Women in God's World. Accra: Sam Woode Publishers.
Daly M. 1973. Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy
of Women's Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Kanyoro R. A. Musimbi and Njoroge J. Nyambura (ed.)
1996. Groaning in Faith. Action Publishers.
Letty Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson (ed.) 1996. Dictionary
of Feminist Theologies.
Louisville, Kentuchyz: Westminster John Knox Press.
Mary John Mananzan. 1998. To be Fully Human: Eatwot
Women's Theology, EATWOT: MANILA.
Njoroge, Nyambura & Dube, Musa W. 2000. Talitha
cum! Theologies of African Women. Pietermaritzburg:
Oduyoye 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.
Oduyoye, Mercy Amba 1990. Who Will Roll the Stone
Away. Geneva: WCC, Risk Books.
Phiri Isabel et al. 2002. Her-Stories. Hidden Histories
of Women of Faith in Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster
Stanton, E.C. and the Revising Committee, (eds.) 1995/1974.
The Woman's Bible Seattle: Coalition Task Force on
Women and Religion.