Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 6, No. 12, December 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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Gender and Theology in Africa Today

Mercy Amba Oduyoye
Institute of Women in Religion & Culture
Accra, Ghana

Originally published by
The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians
December 2006

Editor's Note

This article by Mercy Amba Oduyoye, of the Institute of Women in Religion & Culture in Accra, Ghana, is a very instructive reflection on the intersection between religion, culture, gender inequality, and human development.
It is written in the context of the African experience, but would seem to be applicable worldwide.


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.

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 in theology.

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 or ignored.

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".


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 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.
Catch it!

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 the 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 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
As the analysis of the 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 autonomy.
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 male 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.


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 kum (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 kum! 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 kum!, "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.


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 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.

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 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 kum: 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 kum! Theologies of African Women. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publication.

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 Publications.

Stanton, E.C. and the Revising Committee, (eds.) 1995/1974. The Woman's Bible Seattle: Coalition Task Force on Women and Religion.

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