Saturday, March 26, 2016

Women’s Religious Authority in a Sub-Saharan Setting: Dialectics of Empowerment & Dependency

Western scholarship on religion and gender has devoted considerable attention to women’s entry into leadership roles across various religious traditions and denominations. However, very little is known about the dynamics of women’s religious authority and leadership in developing settings, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a region of powerful and diverse religious expressions. This study employs a combination of uniquely rich and diverse data to examine women’s formal religious authority in a predominantly Christian setting in Mozambique. I first use survey data to test hypotheses regarding the prevalence and patterns of women’s formal leadership across different denominational groups. I then support and extend the quantitative results with insights on pathways and consequences of women’s ascent to formal congregation authority drawn from qualitative data. The analysis illustrates how women’s religious authority both defies and reasserts the gendered constraints of the religious marketplace and the broader gender ideology in this developing context....

 As this analysis suggests, similarly to Western settings, sub-Saharan women’s rise to religious leadership roles, as well as the limitations of this rise, reflects the broader societal realities and expectations of (in)equality between women and men (, 6). As elsewhere, this process is shaped through “loose coupling” between these broader forces and church internal ideological and organizational priorities (). And, as in the Western world (), this process unfolds gradually in sub-Saharan Africa. 

In this study, women still tended to lead smaller congregations than did men, and women congregation leaders were significantly less likely than men leaders to occupy higher-ranking church offices, even after controlling for theological training. Yet, with almost a third of the district’s religious congregations being headed by women, the process of women’s entry into leadership roles in Chibuto has been more advanced than many outsiders might imagine. 

Women’s ascent through the church leadership ranks increasingly defines the face, identity, and expression of religious organizations in sub-Saharan Africa. However, women leaders must confront and often conform to the gendered world around them. Rarely does their rise to positions of authority explicitly clash with deeply entrenched and omnipresent gender inequalities, and with the pervasive stereotypes about women’s subalternity—the stereotypes to which, incidentally, most women church leaders still readily subscribe. Hence, the expansion of women’s religious leadership roles both challenges and reasserts the patriarchal gender ideology and the social hierarchies and relationships that this ideology cements. 

As observed in Chibuto, formal church leadership does empower women, yet, at the same time, the power that women leaders gain remains mainly limited to “women’s matters” and is exercised largely within the gendered constraints of religious ideologies. This dialectical reality parallels, with appropriate caveats, the findings of a growing number of studies that show how women’s “doing” of religion () promotes their empowerment by creatively engaging their faith without fundamentally challenging the ideological and symbolic boundaries of the religious doctrine (e.g., ; ; ; ; ; ).

Full article at:

By:  Victor Agadjanian, 
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Victor Agadjanian, Foundation Distinguished Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 60045, USA;

No comments:

Post a Comment