Confronting fundamental sexism in Africa

Political use of fundamentalist religious ideas is threatening women’s rights across Africa.

In mid-April Boko Haram kidnapped some 200 school girls in Nigeria [AFP/Getty Images]

It’s been a month since over 200 school girls were abducted by the armed group Boko Haram in Borno state in northerneastern Nigeria. As the crisis in Borno sparks fresh debate about religious fundamentalism on the African continent, it is important that we don’t just focus on armed groups performing horrendous acts in the supposed name of God. The gender dynamics of the Chibok crisis signals a worrying trend across the African continent, as religious fundamentalist views and take hold and find their place not just in fringe extremists, but in capturing policies and actions of the state and, perhaps more worryingly, the popular imagination.

In the past decade religious fundamentalists have used women’s rights as a “soft target” in their moves to capture social and political power across the African region. Take the invasion of northern Mali in early 2012 – women were the first focus of fundamentalist policy with edicts policing women’s dress codes and labour in public. In Tunisia as fundamentalisms grow in the wake of the revolution and shifting political power, women’s rights activists note growing restrictions on women’s dress and freedom of movement.

These trends act as warning signs, demonstrating that we need to keep interrogating the continuum of political thinking that can lead to the violent enforcement of very narrow, exclusionary and deeply sexist ways of ordering society. And here, fundamentalist Christianity needs to remain in our analytical frame. Legislation controlling women’s dress under the Anti-Pornography Act in Uganda and the failed Indecent Dressing Bill in Nigeria were both developed in the name of highly conservative expressions of Christian morality, and alongside the much critiqued legislation in both countries expanding anti-gay laws and the criminalisation of same-gender sexual acts and advocacy for equality.

All of this legislation has emerged in the context of rising popular fundamentalism – with a range of religious actors advancing sexist and homophobic ideas among their followers, and in making strategic linkages with the state.

South2North – Africa’s women of power

We seem less comfortable about debating the potentially harmful effects of Christian fundamentalism on African societies, perhaps because they have tended to not use strategies of mass physical violence. However as Ugandan feminist and human rights activist Solome Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe argued, in the heat of national debates around the policing of sexuality and individual expression: “with the War on Terror, America has tried to label Muslims as more backward, etc., but for me in the work that we do about liberating women, about choice and autonomy, the most dangerous ones are the Pentecostals.”

The fundamentalist control of women is specific and targeted, focusing squarely on women’s bodies and sexual and reproductive autonomy. As Ayesha Imam, a Nigerian feminist academic and activist clarifies, When we talk about religious fundamentalists being anti-women, we need to break this down a bit: they are not anti-women as such; they are anti women’s autonomy and control of their own sexuality and in favour of patriarchal heterosexuality”. These dynamics are not unique to religious fundamentalisms in the African region. Global research shows that fundamentalisms across religions and cultural contexts share a patriarchal politics and a disregard for human rights, alongside their hallmark of absolutist, intolerant ideology.

The choice to discriminate is a political one. The use of religion to justify discrimination on a continent where a majority see religion as a very important part of their life is simply tactical. The same applies to arguments that religious fundamentalists also use, claiming that women and girls’ rights or lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender equality is not part of African culture, or is the product of Western imperialism.

The argument that homosexuality is “un-African”and “against our culture” falls flat in light of the historical and contemporary reality that there are, and will always be, lesbian, gay and bisexual Africans. Policy makers and legislators advancing the “not in our culture” argument also seem to have conveniently forgotten that South Africa made international legal history by passing a constitution in 1994 that specifically named sexual orientation in its clause on equality, a legal win that was built out of the lessons of a struggle against racial and gender-based oppression.

This position also erases the many, varied, individual and African collective voices that have mobilised to support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as part of creating inclusive, democratic societies. African religious fundamentalists’ claim that women’s rights is both immoral and imported from the West is similarly ahistorical, and denies the legacy of women’s bold and imaginative activism and contributions to progressive transformation in all African societies.

The Chibok crisis shows in depressing extremity that religious fundamentalism is a dead end for work on equality and non-discrimination, and puts a full stop to social justice. As we consider the economic, political and social future of the African region, we have to consider what actions we can take to reverse the rise of close-minded, discriminatory, anti-democratic thinking dressed in the language of religion.

As Nigerian writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka put it in a recent interview, our generation of Africans needs to start taking greater action to “respond to those who think they have a divine right to mess up our lives”. Stopping the spread of religious fundamentalisms does not require military action. It requires the persistent public reaffirmation of critical thinking and debate, a separation of religion from state policy and law-making, strengthening progressive social movements, and the bravery to stand upin defence of the marginalised in our societies. It also requires us to be more assertive in our defence of women’s rights.

Jessica Horn will speak at the Africa Together conference on May 23 at Cambridge University.

Jessica Horn is a women’s rights consultant and writer whose work focuses on women’s health, human rights and freedom from violence. She is an active member of the African Feminist Forum.