African feminist theologians have asked what Miss Jairus would say. In Mark 5, Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead with the words “Talitha koum”, “Little girl, arise!” Their question is whether the women of Africa, like Miss Jairus, without a name, often associated with illness and without a profession, will also arise and speak.
This was the challenge given in 1989 at the first meeting of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and African feminist theology has been characterised by the use of story and narrative and the focus on relationships. A key difference in hermeneutic has been the move away from inculturation (the Bible’s story in culturally appropriate terms) to liberation (the Bible’s story taken out of its patriarchal context and co-opted for the cause of justice). African feminist theologians differ on the extent to which they adopt this. Some see that the liberative elements in the Bible stem from the divine perspective but the oppressive ones from a human perspective. Others see that because the whole Bible was written by men it is irretrievably biased against women and cannot serve as a source of inspiration.
However, TS Maluleke asks whether all this talk of hermeneutics misses the point. In which sense are these academic discussions relevant for the vast majority of African women who are rural and semiliterate or illiterate? Are they so focused on self-actualisation that they fail to deal with the structural and societal oppression of poverty, lack of healthcare and education, famine and war that marginalises so many women?
The assessment may be a little unfair – the Circle has had significant concern for women with HIV, for example. But the matriarch of African feminist theology, Mercy Amba Oduyoye pointed to the missionary movement as one of the greatest sources of liberation for women – partly because missionaries who came were women and partly because they set up schools for girls and made education a priority. Not everyone agrees with her – Isabel Phiri has an interesting case study of the matrilineal structures of a people group in Malawi which deteriorated with the establishment of a patriarchal Presbyterian church. But early missionaries contributed at least in some cases to the liberation of women. This is an interesting observation because such missionaries pre-dated these new hermeneutics. They had a conservative view of the Bible. The supposed patriarchy of the Bible didn’t hinder their desire to see women educated and flourishing. Rather, this same Bible served as inspiration for some of the most significant practical steps towards the liberation of women.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.