A Genderless Faith by Nokuzula Mndende

I have not written in a long time, been spending more time reading than writing so expect a few posts on the interesting books I have read to be posted up soon.

I came across this very interesting article by Nokuzula Mndende from 2006 and wanted to share it, it is timeless and still as relevant now.

A Genderless Faith

African traditional religion (ATR) does not discriminate against women. But you’d never know this because current study perpetuates the biases implicit in Judaeo-Christian analysis, and many scholars — including African feminist scholars — do not study ATR from direct experience. Their starting point is always the arrival of missionaries in South Africa.

In much of the literature, the word “woman” is narrowly defined to mean a married female. As a result, some scholars say women are tabooed from entering the cattle kraal. But women who are born within the clan irrespective of age participate in ritual performances inside their own clan’s kraal, and they have no boundaries. Even the continuing criticism of the typical image of a “rural woman”, with one child on her back, another at her side and a load on her head, is an image taken out of context. She carried the burdens so that the man was free to hold weapons to protect the family.

Other feminists regard African languages as oppressive to women, which is again an imposed ideology. Some have written one-sided papers on the hlonipha (respect) custom as if it is only practised by women, but hlonipha is also practised by men. Though I am not a linguist, I know that African languages are gender neutral. No gender pronouns are found in African languages, and pronouns are derived from noun classes. It is English that brought gender discrimination with its “she” and “he”, its “nephews” and its “nieces”.
Some males today are very selective in their role clarifications, taking what suits them and becoming untrue to the tradition they claim to follow. When they want to justify their imported “superior” status over the “inferior” status of women they have imposed, they quote from the creation myth of the Bible, with its stories of Adam and Eve. When asked what their justification for chauvinism would be without the Bible they give no straight answer. In ATR, the Creator is a genderless spirit.

Other male chauvinists claim that it is unAfrican for women to wear pants. One wonders if the African culture they are talking about started after white people came. The Xhosa word for pants is ibhlukhwe, from the Afrikaans broek — linguistic evidence that clearly indicates that during the precolonial times there were no pants. In fact, males used to wear izidla, which were neither skirts nor pants.
Another misconception concerns lobola, which is always attacked by feminists because they understand it as the sale of women. In their research they never mention that the bride brings possessions from her homestead to her new home, such as the beasts of impothulo, inqakhwe and ubulunga, as well as other presents, umombeso. Lobola is aimed at building relationships between the two families, especially to protect the children who will be the product of these two families.

In pre-colonial Africa there was clear and distinct gender differentiation in terms of roles. As a strategy for enforcing stability, peace and harmony, Africans had evolved a system of defining what a man was and could do, and what a woman was and could do. Both patriarchal and matriarchal societies had — and some still have — clearly defined gender roles. Needless to say, each society, in order to justify its customs, invoked the sanction of ancestors.

This role differentiation is evident in the performance of, for instance, rites of passage rituals. Inkulu (the first-born male) and umafungwashe (the first-born female) perform very important roles in ritual performances and have to work together and must exemplify by their conduct the unity of the family. This is one of the areas that amaXhosa males have now suppressed and women need to fight for it to be brought back to its original status. Udadobawo (the paternal aunt) plays a crucial role in ritual performances as she is the one who, among other things, makes intambo (the sacred necklace) for both males and females.
The circumstances around the birth of a child in amaXhosa religio-cultural practices are the exclusive preserve of women, whether the child is a girl or a boy. During ifuku (the time of seclusion after the birth of a child) the religious rites of the burial of the placenta and inkaba (the umbilical cord) are the secrets of elderly women. The place of burial of an inkaba determines the attachment of the child with its family and ancestral land. Thus it is that women play an important role in determining the future of the children of the community.

Some African males today claim that only males become ancestors, hence they perform the bringing-back rituals only for males, and they claim that this is the ritual that makes one an ancestor.

On the other hand, some males claim that they have been called by their grandmothers, or paternal aunts to become diviners, as divination is believed to be a call by ancestors. But if a woman’s bringing-back ritual was never performed, why is it accepted when she calls a male to be a diviner? If she is not an ancestor, in which capacity is she acting if she is different from a male whose bringing-back ritual was performed? Who makes one an ancestor? Is it the Creator or a cow that is slaughtered for the deceased? Ancestors are in the spirit form, they have no gender.

Divination is an area where gender is not an issue at all, although in practice it is, in fact, dominated by women. Women amagqirha (diviners) do not have any restrictions from any sacred place where male amagqirha can be. During a séance one cannot differentiate male from female as both wear imibhaco skirts.
There is therefore no gender discrimination in the practise of ATR. The sexism that one finds today is not underpinned by ATR and is despised by our ancestors.

Dr Nokuzola Mndende is director of the Icamagu Institute and a researcher at the Institute for a Comparative Religion in South Africa at the University of Cape Town

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