Book: Explorations in Women, Rights, and Religions
Chapter: Women, Rights Talk, and African Pentecostalism
In this essay, I seek to bring a rights perspective to women’s religious leadership and agency in Africa, notably in the case of the newer forms of Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity that now predominate in many parts of the continent. Rather than adopting a legal approach, I focus on the concept of “rights talk” (cf., Glendon 1991) which provides a more productive and inclusive way to approach ideas about women’s leadership in locally grounded (and often transnationally connected) African Christian communities. Such a line of inquiry shifts the emphasis from analyzing the impact of the newer generation churches (as the Pentecostal-charismatic churches are sometimes termed) on women’s rights—however narrowly or broadly conceived. It focuses on the women church founders and leaders who have publicly addressed the emancipation of women in the varying contexts of gender inequality. Sources for their discourses of freedom may be traditional, biblical, or theological, as well as government policy, and international human rights instruments. The discourses are increasingly tinged with neoliberal conceptions of individual freedom. I contend that the way modern Pentecostal-charismatic women leaders argue for equality, justice, and dignity in their religious communities can also be traced back to their forbears in the African-initiated or independent churches that date from the seventeenth century onwards. There are interesting parallels, as well as some differences, in the ways that they frame, explicitly or implicitly, their understandings of equality and freedom from oppression, and balance compliance and resistance to perduring patriarchal limitations on their religious agency.