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Coping Strategies for Missionary Women

Donna Downes has worked in both Kenya and Romania and her chapter in Frontline Women: Negotiating Crosscultural Issues in Ministry addresses the issue of how to negotiate one’s place as a woman in a culture where women have fewer freedoms.

This is not just an issue for women who want to be in leadership. Downes gives one example of a woman in Romania who expected to work alongside her husband in doing marriage counselling with couples, only to discover that the men wouldn’t come to the session because they didn’t want to learn alongside their wives, and if they did, they expected both women to be silent the whole time.

This is a big question for me heading to Tanzania. It’s a pretty patriarchal culture so I’ll need to work out how I interact with that. Being a white woman, I’ll probably have more freedom than my Tanzanian sisters but I imagine I’ll still feel angry on their behalf at times, and personally demeaned at other times. I’ll probably want to change things. And in the end, to be part of the transformation of Tanzania is part of why we’re keen to be involved in student ministry there. And yet, on this issue it’s easy to dress up western imperialism as liberation.

Downes argues that something has to change, either the culture or the missionary woman.  She outlines three ways that missionary women have sought to do that and I thought they were helpful categories with which to frame the discussion.

Coping Option 1: Role Insistence

One missionary said, “I ignore male chauvinism here and just get on with what the Lord has called me to do.” This method means refusing to cater to local cultural norms.

Pros: this is often quite productive in the short-term in terms of starting projects.

Cons: this is often read negatively by the receiving culture as a ‘western’ values rather than Christian. Long-term, it doesn’t change much for the local women.

Coping Option 2: Role Abdication

One missionary said, “I don’t play any role here except that of wife and mother.” Also known as withdrawal, this method means giving up the role she thought she would have and immersing herself in what is culturally acceptable. This method is normally only possible for married women with children.

Pros: meets the expectations of the nationals around her and so is more culturally acceptable.

Cons: Isolation from the team she came to work with; anger and resentment at having this forced upon her; difficulty in language learning or being involved with locals; feeling like she’s not contributing anything significant.

Coping Option 3: Role Adaptation and Integration

Unlike Role Abdication, this method sees women negotiating their roles from the margins of society in order to influence the centre power structure. For example, one woman who worked in Africa had ‘informal chats’ with her African male supervisor. She suggested helpful improvements for programs and weeks later would find her ideas written up as his or as ‘recommendations from the department’. Another way to do this is to work with women. In Muslim cultures, this is closed to men but women are tremendously influential over their sons.

Pros: works with cultural norms but with transformation as the goal

Cons: means giving up recognition, status and position that is rightly hers; can feel like ‘playing a role’.


Option 3 seems the best to me and is the one advocated by Downes. I think it best balances the health of the missionary with respect for the culture and goals of transformation.

I still have questions about it though. In the end, I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of coming in to change another culture, however nicely you do it. Working for transformation might make the missionary feel better but the question still has to be asked of how it serves the people. Otherwise, aren’t you still pushing a western agenda?

I’m thinking of this particularly in terms of discipling other women. In the end I take it my own coping strategies will shape how I encourage them to think and act in their own culture. I think I’d be more comfortable with this as a collaborative discussion, chatting with women about how they see their role, what they want to see change, etc. That’s not a static process: I’d expect to influence them and likewise be influenced by them, with each of our views dynamically changing over time. I think from there I could see myself working from the margins to influence the power centre and encouraging Tanzanian women to do the same.

Which approach is most appealing to you? What are the potential benefits or pitfalls?

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. – transformation: we get changed through living in another culture: and the people around us are also affected/ changed in interaction with us. At its best, I think that’s how God planned it – as individuals and as cultures, none of us are complete, we need each other.

    – there were strong women in the cultures I interacted with: and you’ll find the same also. It took me a long while to realise that I didn’t have to become as weak woman – but I needed to learn how to be strong in ways that fitted another culture, not the one I came from. Sometimes that was through direct input – very often it was more indirect, as in the example above. Some people could call it manipulative – but it’s more about learning how to interact, influence – just as we needed to learn the skill of indirect speech in communicating.

    – in Egypt I encountered a generation of strong women, well-educated – sometimes I wondered if they came from the influence of the American Presbyterians who shaped the Protestant church there so strongly.

  2. Thanks Isabel, that’s all really helpful!

    I think your second point is what I was circling around with the idea of collaboration. It could be easy to assume that because women are not ‘strong’ in the way I conceive of it, that needs to change. But it might just be that I can’t see what’s actually going on without their help (possibly over time, in indirect ways, as you say).

  3. “Working for transformation might make the missionary feel better but the question still has to be asked of how it serves the people. Otherwise, aren’t you still pushing a western agenda?”

    I think that it depends what ‘working for transformation’ is based on – your western culture, or a Biblical worldview. There is a place for critiquing and changing the culture in a way that does serve the people of that culture – because it is the Bible, rather than Western culture, that is critiquing it.

    It’s such a helpful question. Someone sat down with me yesterday and expressed strong views on what women’s positions should be in the church – but the argument was based strongly on what Western culture allows elsewhere, rather than the Bible.

    I think we can and should work to transform culture, but need to be so careful about what is driving us. I appreciated your thoughts on how Genesis and ATRs differ with regard to women – allowing the Bible to uncover and speak to the perspectives that underlying our attitudes.

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