In her doctoral dissertation, “A Quest for a Liberatory Ethos: A Case Study of the Women’s Associations in the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa,” Cheryl Dibeela3 analyzes the women’s activities in the period between 1967 and 2007, and concludes that while the women’s associations played a crucial role in the life of the church, they also were a site for women’s oppression. She lays the blame for a lack of a “liberatory character” of these movements at the door of the missionaries and inherited Western education. While this may be partly true, we would suggest that women’s associations are also a space for the cultivation of esprit de corps4 by which a group identity and social cohesion is created. This esprit de corps is equally responsible for Xirilo – the Women’s Fellowship of the Mozambique Synod of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) – becoming a space where women can be seen to oppress other women. This group identity and means of social cohesion is based within and finds meaning from typically patriarchal theologies and worldviews. While feminist theologians have researched the ways in which men oppress women in church and society, this essay seeks to build on the research that has begun to identify
1 Salvador Armando Macule is a Masters student in the Gender and Religion programme, School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is an ordained minister in the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa in Mozambique.
2 Sarojini Nadar (PhD) is Associate Professor in the programme of Gender and Religion, School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is also the Dean of Research in the College of Humanities in the same institution.
3 Cheryl Natalie Dibeela, “A Quest For A Liberatory Learning Ethos: A Case study of the Women’s Associations in the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa,” unpub. PhD thesis, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 2001.
4 Esprit de corps is a term often used in industrial and organizational psychology to describe the dedication and devotion felt by an individual toward a cause or goal to which a group is jointly committed. This commitment defines the unity and social cohesion of the group and deviations from the group identity are rare. For more, see Thomas Boyt, Robert Lusch, Michael Mejza, “Theoretical Models of the Antecedents and Consequences of Organizational,Workgroup, and Professional Esprit De Corps,” European Management Journal 23, no. 6 (December 2005): 682–701.
the role of women in other women’s oppression. We investigate the ways in which Xirilo as a women’s organization is formed on a foundation of patriarchal values. These patriarchal values form the “glue” of social cohesion that separates this group from other groups and cultivates the observable esprit de corps which emerges. These values are propagated through oral theologies, hymns and rules by which women must abide when they take the vow (become “bloused”) to become members of this group. Samples of oral theologies, hymns and rules are examined below as a means to demonstrate how patriarchal values form the glue of social cohesion in this group. Thereafter, we make some proposals for how the space of Xirilo can be transformed to empower women.
According to John Mbiti, “oral theology is the theology of the masses; it is produced in the open field, in the home and family, in the factories, in the bus, in the school compound, at committee meetings, in church buildings, or under the tree where Christians may hold services or meetings.”5We would suggest that oral theology is one means of enhancing esprit de corps in a group such as Xirilo. Oral theology is that theology which is passed orally from senior Xirilo members to the new members in the group, enshrined as part of their spirituality and preserved in oral form from generation to generation.
Unga ambali a wziklhamnwana hambu a ku ti penda (“No jewelry, no make-up”)
According to Xirilo’s oral theology a member of Xirilo should know that jewelry, make-up, and pants are not allowed. The only form of jewelry that is allowed is a wedding ring. Xirilo regard these as objects with which women seduce men. Xirilo has interiorized the belief which claims that women’s bodies are seductive and therefore women’s beauty and behaviour should be monitored.6 Members of Xirilo are instructed to be different and live differently from those who do not belong to the group, separation and difference from society again being a key indicator of the cultivation of esprit de corps. The elders who are in charge of this organization are often older women, who are financially challenged and can neither afford nor see the need for make-up or jewelry. Thus younger members of Xirilo are forced to deny their right to and need for make-up and jewelry. Xirilo are made to believe that women’s bodies are a source of sin and guilt, and are denied the right to decide for their own bodies and sexuality.
Respeitara a uniform. Hayeka Massango hi wusiko ga wawunharo! (“Respect the uniform. No sex on Wednesdays!”)
The members of Xirilo are instructed to respect the uniform that marks their membership. Brigalia Bam argues that the uniform portrays uniqueness and solidarity, which gives them power and inspiration to act in a courageous way.7 Nevertheless, it is easy to see how the uniform can also become a symbol of oppression. Xirilo are told that the uniform is to be worn every Thursday in their gatherings and that it symbolizes purity of heart and mind. They are warned not to have sex on Wednesday nights in preparation for their prayer meetings and other business of the groups every Thursday. They are told to hayeka massango (literally, “hang up the mattress”), meaning that they should not have sex that evening.
In keeping with the theme of strict dress code to avoid “temptation” and “seduction,” here the teaching is that sexuality taints spirituality and therefore the two are to be kept separate.8 The continuous separation of sexuality and spirituality, as well as the negative association of women with sexuality (à la Eve the temptress) since time immemorial, is also a pillar of the Xirilo’s teachings. What is needed is an understanding in line with that proposed by James Nelson and Sandra Longfellow in their introduction to the book Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection: “Sexuality is intended by God to be neither incidental to nor detrimental to our spirituality, but rather a fully integrated and basic dimension of our spirituality.”9 Harold Ellens’s argument is also instructive: “If we worry too much with spirituality at the expense of the expression of sexuality, our spirituality becomes sick, exaggerated and inauthentic.”10 Sexuality is an integral part of who we are as human beings. The fact that women encourage other women to deny this aspect of their humanity shows the ways in which women have been indoctrinated by patriarchy.
Teachings on Submission and Endurance
On the day members of Xirilo get “bloused” they have to publically take vows that are related to seven teachings. These teachings are extracted from the Buku ga ti Khozo
7 See Brigalia Bam, “Women and the Church in (South) Africa: Women are the Church in (South) Africa,” in On Being Church: African Women’s Voices and Visions, ed. Isabel Apawo Phiri and Sarojini Nadar (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005), 13.
8 Interestingly, when these women experience spousal violence as a result of the teachings of Xirilo they are advised to endure, because that is what God has chosen for them. Often abused women are advised to remain in their marriages and yet submit to their husbands.
9 James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow, eds., Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), xix. 10 J. Harold Ellens, Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration (London: Westport, 2006), 8.
(prayer book) by Rev A. T. Litsuri.11 Reverend Litsuri, a male minister, was the founder of Xirilo in the mid-1950s.
A minister’s wife is often in charge of the “blousing” ceremonies. Pastor’s wives have much power in the women’s fellowship despite the fact that there are ordained female ministers who are also members of Xirilo. Perhaps Jonathan Draper is right when he claims that “religious women are probably the most outspoken supporters of an-all male ministry, because often they make sure that male domination is felt and experienced at all church levels.”12
Xirilo are socialized in the ways of being proper Christian women. According to this teaching, members of Xirilo should by all means try to be submissive and sacrifice themselves for their husbands. Members of Xirilo are to regard their husbands as the authoritative head of the household, even in the face of infidelity, as this is what Christ expects from them. Fulata Moyo describes a similar teaching in the Presbyterian Church in Malawi.13 In cases of infidelity women are held responsible for not having been patient enough. There are no corresponding rules of conduct about how a Xirilo’s husband should behave within one’s family. Xirilo are made to believe that it is only through observing this teaching that they can get to their “master” and saviour, Jesus Christ. This belief is anticipated in the fifth stanza of the hymn (which will be examined more fully in the next section) that they sing when they take their vows of sacrifice and commitment. In fact, the song prepares them and makes it plain that as members of Xirilo they are not expected to enjoy life in an earthly plan:
The suffering of this world
Draws me near;
All the hardships
Will end in heaven.
Nancy Nason-Clark has observed that religious women can sacrifice their lives for the sake of marriage. She clearly explains:
11 A. T. Litsuri, A Buko ga ti khozo, Igreja Congregacional de Moçambique, unpublished book (1967).
12 Jonathan A. Draper, “Oppressive and Subversive Moral Instruction in the New Testament,” in Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Women in the Church in Southern Africa (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster, 1991), 39.
13 F. L. Moyo, “Sex, Gender, Power and HIV/AIDS in Malawi: Threats and Challenges to Women Being Church,” in Isabel Apawo Phiri and Sarojini Nadar, eds., On Being Church: African Women’s Voices and Visions (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2005), 127–45.
Religious women tend to think that marriage vows are forever, that they promised God as well as their partner that they would work at loving their husbands . . . that the biblical admonition to forgive 70 times seven means a perpetual cycle of hope and humiliation, or that women’s cross to bear may be abuse in the family.
This belief has prevented women who fall victim to spousal violence, sexual and physical, from denouncing it and it also prevents them from resisting gender-based violence at home, church and society. Xirilo are made to believe that injustices and suffering is part of a “better” woman’s spirituality. Some scholars argue that this has been the case in most cultures. For instance, Rakoczy reminds us that:
As Irene Gebara has observed, it is women in leadership positions who are authoritative and thus limit choices for other women by often ruling their organizations with cruelty and jealousy, which sustains the laws of the patriarchal system and helps them to continue.16 They have internalized patriarchal theologies and worldviews and, instead of resisting them, actively promote them. That has prompted Nyambura Njoroge to argue that “women are not just victims but also, more than not, perpetrators, of evil cultural practices, because really if we reflect on these teachings we will realise that it is women themselves who advocate them.”17
Esprit de Corps through Hymn Singing
In addition to oral theologies, another way in which esprit de corps is enhanced is through the singing of hymns.Ashort time before the blousing ceremonies take place, the following hymn extracted from Rinzelani18 is loudly sung as Xirilo members take their vows:
14 Nancy Nason-Clark, “Making the Sacred Safe: Women Abuse and Communities of Faith,” University of Brunswick presidential paper, 2000, 364.
15 Rakoczy, In Her Name, 57.
16 See Irene Gebara, Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 99.
17 Nyambura J. Njoroge, Kiama-kia-Ngo: An African Christian Feminist Ethics of Resistance and Transformation. (Ghana: Legon Theological Studies, 2000), 126.
18 Rinzelani is a Chitswa hymn book originally printed under the permission of the Free Methodist Church In Mozambique. However, it has been widely used by other denominations like the United Congregational and the United Methodist Churches in Mozambique.
Feminist scholars have long recognized that the understanding of suffering as redemptive is one of the most significant contributors to women remaining in abusive situations. Indeed, some Christian teachings force women to punish themselves and deny their rights for self-determination as human beings. Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn have observed that “The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive; if the best person who ever lived gave his life for others, then, to be of value we should likewise sacrifice ourselves . . . our suffering for others will save the world.”19
The model of Christ that most Christian teachings portray has significant implications for the spirituality of women, because it postulates that any attempt to care for one’s needs is regarded as unfaithfulness to Jesus Christ. Because of the promises of the resurrection, women are forced to embrace the cross, which literally implies having to bear every kind of humiliation and renounce their basic human rights.20 The same can be said of the fourth stanza, which introduces and encourages women to a transcendent eschatology. They are made to believe there is nothing one can expect from this world. Here lies the reason behind their name “Xirilo,” which means “weeping.” Xirilo weep as a protest that in this world there is no better life. They weep to their “Lord” and “master” Jesus Christ, the only one who can come and rescue them from the power of evil on earth.
Membership Fees as a Means of Establishing Esprit de Corps
In addition to the oral theologies and hymns that cement their social cohesion, Xirilo also have rules that serve as yet another means of establishing and entrenching women’s oppression. One of these rules pertains to the payment of membership fees. Xirilo in the Synod of Mozambique, as elsewhere where there are women’s associations, is an organization formed by women from all walks of life in terms of education and economic background.
Most of the members of Xirilo are poor and therefore vulnerable to cultural and economic prejudices. The economic hardship resulting from the patriarchy and illiteracy that informs the daily lives of Xirilo does not pardon them from owing the group membership fees. In fact, the financially struggling woman who pays her fees is lauded like the widow in the gospel who gave her last coin. In paying their fees, therefore, the theme of sacrifice, particularly self-sacrifice established through the blousing ceremony, the hymns and the teachings, is reaffirmed. While women are praised for being the “financial backbone” of the church, it is often not recognized that they sacrifice their lives in order to bring something into the church, to enhance the esprit de corps created and to not risk losing their status in their group by having their names removed from the organization. Again, it is not men, but women in the leadership positions of Xirilo who exercise power and rigid control and exclude other women who have not paid their fees.
How Can the Space of Xirilo Be Used to Empower Women in Church and Society?
In Making the Sacred Safe: Women Abuse and Communities of Faith, Nancy Nason-Clark argues that religious women are well known for their tradition of working together and helping each other in church and society.21 Women’s organizations can help ease the suffering and abuse of their sisters within the church and society, and yet Xirilo has not proven to be one of these organizations. We believe this is because the esprit de corps of the Xirilo is based on a foundation of patriarchal values. Cultivating an esprit de corps is important for a group like Xirilo, but it has to be cultivated on something different from the traditional patriarchal theologies and worldviews on which the church is largely formed. An organization like Xirilo can be a space whereby women have the opportunity to see the suffering of other women and try to do something about it.
Since Xirilo forms a powerful presence in the church it can be a space for women to nurture other women. Until now, Xirilo has been the only space women have to interact with each other and share their experiences of happiness and sadness; hence the urgency of transforming this space to become a space of empowerment. Most women join Xirilo in the hope that they will acquire skills with which they can manage the injustices they experience in their homes and in society at large. They regard the organization as a place where they can have security and comfort and learn from each other. The women’s organization within the church provides security and comfort.
It is therefore unfortunate that most of the Xirilo members who are abused in their homes dread disclosing what they are going through in their lives because they know that nothing will be done to protect or assist them within the organization. Moreover, they know that the organization may very well lay the blame for their abuse with the women themselves. Clark is right when she claims that “Women who inhabit very closed religious communities are especially very vulnerable when abused, because they do not disclose their abuse since they know the church will not do anything about it.”22 The social-capital potential of the Xirilo and other such women’s associations of the church has unfortunately been hijacked by a patriarchal agenda that puts women on a pedestal by praising the ways in which they contribute to the church, and yet obscuring the fact that their activities belie the patriarchal values which undergird them and are in effect oppressive to women. These spaces need to be reclaimed by women. Like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, we propose a critical feminist theology of liberation for women within groups like Xirilo, which can help them to “reclaim religious visions and memories that can sustain resistance to oppressive doctrines and inspire them for self-affirmation, energy, and hope for their transformation.