International Women's Day - Faith, Fundamentalisms, and Feminisms

This past Wednesday, March 8th was International Women’s Day, and I was very glad to attend an event put on by African Women Development Fund (AWDF). They hosted an event on the topic of: Faith, Fundamentalisms, and Feminisms. The four women on the panel represented the ideas of Islam, Humanism, and Christianity, which brought a great mix of ideas and perspectives to the discussion. And to start out the evening we enjoyed a spoken work piece by artist Famia Nkansa.

Ghana, like many countries in Africa, is very religious. It is approximately 71.2% Christian, 17.6% Muslim, 5.2% Traditional Ghanaian Religions, 5.2% Non Religious, and 0.8% Other (source). With over 85% of the population being either Christian or Muslim, these religions do have a strong influence on feminism in Ghana. It was great to learn about how these religious identities can not only coexist with feminism, but also how they can enhance and inform someone’s feminism. As Professor Mercy Oduyoye’s shirt said “Jesus <3 Feminism”. At the same time, it was important to discuss the issues around fundamentalism and how radical religion can affect women’s rights.  

The panel discussed everything from how their religion (or nonreligion) informed their feminism, to how they see the rights of the LGBTQ+ community as part of their feminism.   

A discussion that was particularly interesting to me was around the gender of God itself. Was God a man, a woman, or a genderless being. For all three of the religious women on the panel, it was clear to them that God was a genderless being, and that humans had simply imposed male language onto God. Ms. Kauthar Khamis cited a passage in the Quran where she felt it was clear that Allah was being described as beyond human, and therefore beyond gender. However, for Roslyn Mould (the only non-religious person on the panel, and previously a Christian) it was clear that God was in fact a man, referencing the passage “Our Father, who art in Heaven”. From one perspective, it was important that God be genderless, as this could be a pathway to greater gender equality in religious institutions. However, from the non-religious perspective, God being a man explains some of the deeply rooted misogyny found in religious institutions. In the end, Professor Mercy Oduyoye offered an insightful thought, stating that it doesn’t really matter if God is a man or not, because “even if God is male, it doesn't make every male a god!”. That was definitely something every panelist could agree on.

The panel also discussed the issues around fundamentalism within religions. It was an interesting discussion first focusing on what fundamentalism really means, and who gets to define what it is. Professor Angela Dwamena Aboagye mentioned that she has worked for women’s rights for over 20 years, and was instrumental in opening the first women’s shelter in Ghana, however, she does not support abortion rights. Because she will not work for abortion rights, she said many people have called her a fundamentalist, even though her work with the Ark Foundation has had such a positive impact on women’s lives in Ghana. It was interesting to think about how even within feminism there can be fundamentalism, and to discuss what ideologies are truly fundamental to feminism, and what areas have room for a difference in opinion.

The panel then went on to discuss the harms of fundamentalism within religion. Professor Mercy defined fundamentalists as people “who believe that yesterday, today, and tomorrow should remain the same”. Professor Angela agreed, adding that “fundamentalism divides”. All of the panelists discussed the importance of the language used in the title of the event, noting that there are many kinds of fundamentalists and feminisms, and it is important to recognize that neither are singular ideas.

Near the end of the discussion, the moderator, Nana Akosua Hanson, opened up the discussion to questions from the audience. One of the questions that was most interesting to me was “how, as religious feminists, do we navigate the issue of LGBTQ+ people?”. Professor Angela said that she was going to leave that question for the other panelists. However, Professor Mercy offered what I thought was great insight into this issue. She said it was important for us to ask “who benefits from their exclusion?”. She said she "truly feels bad for the bigots who exclude LGBTQ+ people from religious and feminist spaces. When they [the 'bigots'] get to the gates of heaven, I wonder what they will say when God asks them ‘why were you so cruel to LGBTQ+ people? Did I not create them? Were they not made in my image?’”. Roslyn also spoke, noting that all evening we had been discussing strictly men and women, and she reminded us “as feminists we need to remember that there are also transgender people, and we need to fight for them too”.

It was difficult to wrap up the conversation, as I think everyone in the room wanted to hear more from the panelists. I’m very grateful to AWDF for making space for this discussion. These topics can be difficult, messy, and definitely not black and white, but I believe it’s important to keep discussing them so we can all learn and grow.

Happy International Women’s Day!