Beating the Masculinity Game: Evidence from African Traditional Religion

By Ebere, Charles | Cross Currents, December 2011 | Go to article overview
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Beating the Masculinity Game: Evidence from African Traditional Religion


Ebere, Charles, Cross Currents


Religious observance in major religions and indigenous spiritual traditions is a resolutely male affair in both symbolism and hierarchy. In the words of David Kinsley: "What is claimed to be the religions or religious expressions of humankind were often (indeed usually) the religion and religious expressions of males" (3). In this sense, a religious world that is fundamentally masculine has been taken for granted and accepted as the natural order of things. In traditional Africa, religious beliefs and institutions matter most in shaping public and private understandings of masculinity. It is common knowledge that in African systems of thought, men have to a great extent constructed a religious language that describes a God of patriarchal family and ancestry. Although much scholarship has been devoted to male-centered religious imagery, there is evidence of a female focus of the divine in the African pantheon.

It is important to emphasize that while the aura of written sacred texts helps to strengthen and sustain the cause of masculine symbolism in Western religions, the same cannot be said about African Traditional Religion (ATR). To this extent, African people are free to hold different views and beliefs without the risk of heretical accusations. Perhaps this could help explain why female symbolism secured a religious space without controversies and perturbation.

But there was a need to claw back the advantage women had, which expressed itself in such phenomena as the suppression and distortion of feminine symbolism, the use of patriarchal patterns and social norms to construct a religious boundary that projects the male ways of being into the supernatural world, and the manipulation of the sexual identity of spiritual beings. Female deities, like their human counterparts, have a domestic rather than communal orientation.

Yet, despite such patriarchal power ATR still enjoys a flourishing female imagery on all levels of the supernatural. In this article I will argue that a multiplicity of vestiges of women's religious power and authority is entrenched in African systems of thought. I will demonstrate how the deep structures of and rocentric thinking and biases have been utilized to maintain a view that men matter more in the sacred spheres. Ninian Smart's (1988) seven-dimensional model of religion may be helpful here, dividing the phenomenon of religion into its practical and ritual, experiential and emotional, narrative and mythic, doctrinal and philosophical, ethical and legal, social and institutional, and material aspects. While these divisions may be artificial, Smart emphasizes that there are religious manifestations in which one or some of these dimensions might be either weak or totally absent. As regards ATR, the mythic, practical, and ritual dimensions are most important, and they will form the basis of my analysis.

Alolo (2007) acknowledges these aspects as fundamental to ATR as a whole and central to understanding and explaining the concept of gender. In this article, I draw comparatively from geographic areas of sub-Saharan Africa to appreciate and salvage the female dimension of ATR in a world that has become sensitized to women's concerns.

Inside African Traditional Religion

When we speak of ATR, we mean the indigenous beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, customs, and practices of Africans born out of the expression and deep reflection of their forebears. These traditions evolved over many centuries as the people of Africa responded to the situations of their life and reflected upon their experiences. Conner captures the scope of this religion when he associated its world with "natural elements (including earth, air, fire, and water, as well as particular plants, animals, and stones), life experiences (such as birth, loving union, and death), occupations (spiritual leader, artist and so on) and other matters including gender and sexuality" (2003, 6). This religion has served from the dawn of history as the ultimate source for men and women in Africa to understand their origin, position, and relationship among themselves and within the universe.

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