Last week I met a lot of polygamists. In fact, the majority of villagers my parents, sister, and I met in western Kenya were part of polygamist families. The shock came when many of the polygamist patriarchs that we met expressed strong support for their wives and daughters to be educated and become political, church, and business leaders. One particularly unique old man told us that he had three wives, but after he became a Christian, he decided that this was not God’s plan for a family. He held a family meeting and apologized to his second and third wives for marrying them. He told them that he would still support and provide for them, but if they found another man to marry, they were free to leave. This old man is currently the chair of Ekklesia Community for Advocacy, a group working to empower women through the Anglican Church.
This old man’s thought process and actions surrounding women highlight African culture’s deeply religious nature. In the West we easily compartmentalize our thinking around religion. For example, I know many American Christians who believe that women can lead in business and politics but not in the church or home. On the other hand, for many Africans that I know, religion impacts how they think and act in all spheres of life. This means that purely secular arguments for women’s equality and empowerment will always fall short of a mentality that says, “Yes, but that’s not what the Bible/Quran/religious leader/etc teaches.” Moreover, until African women achieve religious equality, their empowerment in other sectors will be limited.
Let me speak from the Christian perspective since the majority of Africans I come in contact with are Christian. Many times I have heard Africans of all ages and genders say that the reason that men are “superior” to women is because according to the Bible, God created man first. The secular Western response to this would most probably be to use logic and reason – to cite statistics on how many girls die each year in Africa due to lack of healthcare and education and how empowering women actually benefits the entire community. These arguments are definitely persuasive to some Africans. They have seen how girls in their communities carry a much heavier burden than boys and how often their educational potential is tragically cut short by early marriages, household work, and pregnancy.
I would argue that ultimately, these arguments for women’s equality will not convince many deeply religious Africans. After all, these Africans view religious texts and teachers as the ultimate authority on all issues – including gender. To the religious argument that women are inferior, a religious counter-argument must be presented to truly change minds and inspire action. For example, Christians for Biblical Equality, the NGO that my sister works for, notes that although Genesis states that animals were created before Adam, this does not mean that animals are superior to humans. Furthermore, God created Eve from Adam’s rib as a sign of equality between the genders. (Read the full explanation here.)
The bottom line is that religious institutions are imperative to empowering African women. Additionally, individuals working for gender equality in Africa should come prepared with religious responses, whether or not they are personally religious.
In closing, the group mentioned above, Ekklesia, is an excellent example of an African religious response to gender inequality. The group is led by the passionate young Rev. Domnic Misolo, my family’s host for 4 days in Kenya. In his own powerful words, this is why Domnic formed Ekklesia (see part of the video here):
We are convinced that if we can implement Biblicial patterns in Africa then we are going to address the issue of women’s empowerment and also bring up what they (women) expect to achieve as human beings… We want to make everybody know that we are equal before God. We are saying this because, we have learned that many problems in Africa are caused by our patriarchal culture that devalues women in every aspect of life. We don’t find them (women) in politics, we don’t find them in church leadership, and many other things. We are concerned because every problem we have is because we have not done the will of God concerning the creation of men and women as equal.