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date: 05 March 2021

Women and the History of Religion in Africafree

  • Erin NourseErin NourseDepartment of Religious Studies, Regis University


In the history of religion in Africa, women have contributed richly to the diversity of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic spiritual practices prevalent within their communities. As mediums, healer-diviners, ministers, mystics, prophets, poets, priestesses, theologians, and spiritual advisors, they are integral to the creation and maintenance of possession cults and other indigenous religious societies, Islamic Sufi orders, mainline and African-initiated churches, as well as new and emerging Christian and Islamic movements. Often inhabiting pluralistic worlds, women weave together creative and dynamic spiritual tapestries that give their lives coherence. An investigation into the experiences of women reveals spaces of agency and constraint, portraits of women’s intimate encounters with the divine, accounts of women’s indigenization of Christianity and reform of Islam, stories of discrimination and of healing, struggles to create more liberating theologies, and stories of extraordinary women shaping religious life and practice on the African continent in irrepressible ways.

Women and Africa’s Changing Religious Landscape

In the same way that scholars of Asian religions have chosen to emphasize the many strands that compose the religions often thought of as single and uniform (e.g., “the religions of India” vs. “Hinduism”), there is no one religion, or religious system, in Africa.1 Rather there are hundreds of indigenous belief systems marked as much by their distinctions as their similarities. African intellectuals in the mid-20th century created the phrase “African Traditional Religion,” as a kind of umbrella term for the indigenous religions on the continent, in order to make such diverse and varied practices comprehensible to a Western audience.2 Those who coined the phrase emphasized the common belief in a supreme creator god; the belief in other divinities and spiritual beings who are sometimes considered separate from, and other times manifestations of, the one creator god; the importance of ancestor veneration; the prevalence of communally focused festivals and rituals, especially rites of passage; the central role of religious specialists such as healers, diviners, and spirit mediums; and the primacy of mythology and oral histories.3 Thus, “African Traditional Religion” does not suggest singularity but rather implies common threads and a blurring of the boundaries between one tradition and another.

Within these overlapping indigenous religious cosmologies, feminine images of the divine abound, in the form of creator deities, nature spirits, and ancestors. Sometimes female and male deities exist autonomously within a larger pantheon and at other times they are conceived relationally either as romantic lovers, foils of one another, or complementary forms of the same essence. There are also instances in which deities contain no gender or multiple genders within themselves. Among the Diola of present-day Senegambia, the supreme creator god, Emitai, is understood to be genderless. The same is true of the Igbo great god Chukwu or Chineke. By comparison, Ewe and Fon of West Africa conceptualize their creator deity as bearing both genders.4 This phenomenon also exists among Batammaliba peoples, living in the mountainous savannah region of Togo and the Benin Republic. Their creator god, Kuiye, has a female right side and a male left side.5 There are also parts of Africa where the creator god is imaged exclusively as female, for example among Tamarau, of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, whose name Ayebau means “mother of the world.”6

In addition to female deities, metaphors of the feminine including metaphors of mothering and symbols of birth also prevail. For example, within Vodou, the Haitian form of the African religion of Vodun, as well as among aneneri prophet-healers in Mozambique, initiates and followers of spirit hosts are described as “children” who receive direction from their spiritual “mothers” or in some cases, depending upon the gender of the spirit host, their “fathers.”7 In Malagasy religions, wombs and other symbols of birth are prevalent at mortuary rituals to highlight the transition, or rebirth of the dead into the ancestral realm.8 Some of these images and metaphors empower women by affirming the procreative powers that women possess and by legitimating their roles in positions of leadership within religious institutions. On the flip side, the use of feminine imagery within religious rituals can also reduce women to mere symbols of fertility and procreation or can render women dangerous and polluting, particularly when rituals are an attempt to transcend biological birth in favor of a more transcendent kind of social order.9 Thus, the prevalence of female deities within African religious systems has not always translated into power within its humanly constructed institutions.

African women’s participation in spirit societies and ancestral cults, though widespread throughout history and across cultures, is gendered in interesting ways. For example, among Yoruba religious practitioners of southwestern Nigeria, certain historical gender norms steer women and men into distinctive religious roles where women have predominated as priests and devotees of the orisas (deities within the religion), while men have been more prevalent as diviners or oracle readers in the cult of Ifa.10 On a continent-wide scale, scholars have documented the tendency for women to predominate in spirit possession and for men to prevail in ancestral cults. Though the scholarship on women’s participation in spirit cults does not begin in earnest until the 1970s, a plethora of this research analyzes the power such participation affords them in communities along the Swahili coast; among women living in the lake-bounded and Nyamwezi areas of East Africa; among practitioners of zar in Somalia and Sudan; among Bembe women of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo; among Aluund of the southwestern Democratic Republic of Congo; within zebola female possession rituals practiced by Mongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo; among Zambian Luvale women; among bori adepts of Hausaland in north central Africa; within olokun possession as practiced by Edo in Nigeria; and among Ga of Ghana, to name a few.11

African women throughout history, and across all geographical areas of the continent, have contributed richly to the shaping of politico-religious systems and spirit cults and have wielded a considerable degree of agency, especially within indigenous religious institutions. With the introduction, and subsequent reception, of Islam and later Christianity on the continent, notions of gender shifted in ways that were sometimes more limiting than opportunity-affording. Islam entered Africa by way of the first hijra, or migration, when a group of the prophet Muhammad’s early followers, fleeing persecution from the ruling Quraysh tribe of Mecca, took refuge in the Christian Kingdom of Aksum (21st-century Ethiopia and Eritrea) during the 7th century. This new religion offered a different set of ritual practices, economic incentives, and a trans-local religious identity, but with these innovations new gender norms were also introduced circumscribing women’s social mobility in different ways.

Christianity, brought first to the continent by way of evangelists during the 1st century, when the religion was still in its nascence, took root in north Africa during the reign of the Roman Empire but was then largely replaced by Islam, during the period of Arab conquests beginning in the 7th century. A few Christian strongholds remained in Egypt and Ethiopia, but aside from these exceptional cases, Christians did not successfully reach sub-Saharan Africa for several more centuries, prompted first by the period of Portuguese expansion beginning in the 15th century, and second by the reformation-inspired modern missionary movement, which saw the first wave of Protestant missionaries to Asia, the Americas, and Africa beginning around the 18th century. With this larger introduction of Christianity to the continent came chances for African women and men to attend mission schools, learn new languages, and read new religious texts. Alongside these opportunities also came Victorian-era gender norms and the notion of a masculine creator God that melded with, or in some cases replaced, more feminine or gender-inclusive imaginings of the divine.

Despite these impositions, African women resisted, incorporated, indigenized, and proliferated these new religious traditions in innovative ways. Interestingly, in some areas, historians have noted that women were more resistant to incorporate Christian beliefs and practices than their male counterparts. Those who accepted the new religion tended to be more marginal or did so because participation in indigenous religious practices had failed them.12 Thus, the introduction, reception, and assimilation of Islam and Christianity onto the continent affected women and men differently during the colonial era. Two historical figures of the early modern era, Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita, and Nana Asmau, bear witness to the tremendous influence women had, not only on indigenous religious institutions but also in the rooting of Christianity, and Islam, on the continent.

Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita

Born in 1684, near Mount Kibangu in the Kingdom of Kongo, Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita became a leader of one of the most fascinating Christian movements within the history of religion in Africa. Raised Catholic, as were many Kongolese for six generations back, Kimpa Vita also trained as an nganga, or indigenous religious priest, and thus held commitments within more than one religious worldview.13 Her story begins prominently in 1704 when, during a period of mounting civil wars and widespread disillusionment with the political and religious elite, she fell ill with fever. After lying in bed for several days, she was reportedly resurrected from the dead by the patron saint of Portugal, Anthony of Padua.14 Virtually all of the preserved accounts of Kimpa Vita’s possession by Saint Anthony of Padua come from the second-hand accounts of the Franciscan and Jesuit priests on mission in the region at the time, but what their journals reveal is that she traveled extensively, had thousands of followers, and was taken seriously by ordinary folks and political and religious leaders alike.15 Everyone saw her as a force to be reckoned with, even as their interpretations of her possession varied.16

Her movement had political undertones but at heart was religious. Within her political longings for peace was a desire to purify Christianity, to divest the religion of its increasingly Eurocentric and selfish elements. She had seen too much collusion between Italian and Portuguese priests and the political elite. When Doña Beatriz argued that Jesus was Kongolese, and that there were both blacks and whites in heaven, and that blacks could become saints, she may or may not have understood all of these proclamations to be true in a literal historical sense.17 Regardless, by reclaiming the Christian story in Kongolese terms, she enabled her followers to see themselves in the story of Christianity. Moreover, she empowered them to see God as acting on their behalf, and to see a black body, a black female body at that, as an appropriate vessel for the mission of Saint Anthony.

In 1706, shortly after her movement began, Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita was burned at the stake. After her death, in line with what she had urged, a political party descended the mountain and brought relative stability to the region for a time, but not before thousands of men, women, and children were enslaved and shipped to plantations in the Americas. Kimpa Vita’s story is profound for many reasons. She sought to restore the kingdom of Kongo and end the civil wars that had resulted in widespread famine and in the capture and enslavement of innocents. She gave people hope, and she challenged both the political and religious elite whose infighting over claims to the throne prevented her community from living a life of peace. Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita ultimately lost her life, but her movement lived on in the lives of her followers, many of whom became “Little Anthonys,” a religious order modeled in the likeness of some of the Catholic orders from which they had been historically excluded.18

Africans, men and women, were instrumental in shaping Christianity, in both form and theology, almost since the beginning of the common era. Long before Kimpa Vita, women played prominent roles and even led congregations in gnostic churches in North Africa. Tertullian, a very prolific early Christian author from Carthage, complained about these women who were “bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, may be, even to baptize.”19 Despite opposition, women thrived as teachers, healers, ministers of the sacrament, and even as some of the first monastics. Syncletica of Alexandria is one of the more well-known women among the Desert People, a group of early Christians who fled life in the cities to a life of asceticism in the deserts of North Africa and Asia Minor. She, like her Desert Father counterparts, preached and had followers, and her sayings are recorded alongside the sayings of other prominent Desert People.20 In the history of early Christianity, other known women include Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who lived in Northern African during the period of Roman persecution, and the Queen of Sheba.21

Though historians have not been able to confirm the existence of the Queen of Sheba, or the precise location of her kingdom, her story resounds in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim contexts. According to Ethiopian legend, the Queen of Sheba, also known as Makeda, traveled to Jerusalem to meet with King Solomon. While there, King Solomon seduced her and upon her return to Aksum she bore a son named Menelik. In his adulthood, Menelik traveled to Jerusalem to meet his father. On his journey back to Aksum, he reportedly stole of the Ark of the Covenant from the temple.22 Among Ethiopian Christians, this legend is significant because it positions Ethiopians an integral to the development and preservation of Zion, and later, the early Christian community. Women’s leadership within Christian communities continues into the 21st century, but modern leaders built on the legacies of early modern historic figures who helped to develop, preserve, indigenize, and reform the foundational religious tapestries into which modern movements are woven.

Eighth-century prophetess Kahina Diya of the Maghreb is one such early modern figure, who is remembered for her ability to work herself into a trance seeing into the other realm in order to predict the future. In particular, she is credited with the prediction and subsequent blocking of an invasion of North African Arabs pursuing gold.23 In the Lovedu kingdom of South Africa, a lineage of rain queens dating from the early 19th until the early 21st centuries held both political and religious power as those possessing the power to turn rain clouds into rain and thus guarantee the fertility of the region’s harvest. In Igoboland in the 1850s, the goddess Efuru emerged as a protector deity against the threat of depopulation caused by neighboring slave raiders. Families sent their daughters to be married to the goddess, which resulted in the formation of an Efuru commune of sorts, where women “wives” of the goddess acquired land, hosted markets, and created commercial businesses that not only sustained themselves and their families but also neighboring towns.24 Thus, for much of recorded history, African women have played vital roles in the shaping of politico-religious governments and as intermediaries between the overlapping worlds of the spirit realm and human realm.25

Nana Asmau: Poet, Scholar, Jihadist

Women’s influence in the history of religion in Africa, of course, extends beyond indigenous religions and the traditions of Christianity. Nineteenth-century Fulani scholar and poet Nana Asmau inspired generations of Hausa and Fulani women to take a more active role in the religious education of their communities. As a Sufi Muslim of the Qadiriyya order, born to a family of Muslim scholars dating ten generations back, Asmau saw education and literacy as synonymous with Islam, and it was her firm belief that the education of women, whom she saw as the primary mentors of future generations of Muslims, was the best way to reform Islam.26

Nana Asmau’s life and work takes place inside the context of the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, or what is sometimes referred to as the “Sokoto Jihad,” a 19th-century “struggle” (jihad) to bring reform to Hausaland, a collection of states in modern-day northern Nigeria. As the daughter of the spiritual and political leader of the Sokoto Caliphate (1804–1903), Usman dan Fodiyo, Nana Asmau shared the shehu’s vision of creating a more proper Muslim way of life in the region in which they lived. Although Islam had been introduced and adopted by many in the area as early as the 14th century, the older spirit-possession-based religion flourished.27

As a scholar of Islam, Asmau read and memorized the entire Quran; read law, history, and poetry; was quadralingual in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamachek; and published prolifically including poems, prayers, elegies, and larger manuscripts such as The Way of the Pious, a book about mortality that she produced while caring for two young children.28 However, she is probably best known for the women’s circles she created. Within these educational circles, rural women had the opportunity to learn to read and write, study the Quran, learn the prayers specific to the Qadiriyya order, and read accounts of Sufi women. Through this work, she became known as the Mother of All (Uwar Gari) who trained yan-taru (women disciples) to disseminate education to the rural masses.29

Nana Asmau is celebrated by Muslims throughout the continent, and even globally, as someone who cared deeply for God and the social welfare of those within her community, and some of her traditions have continued into the 21st century. From pharaoh Hatsheput, who ruled Egypt in the 1400s bce; to the Queen of Sheba; to 8th-century Maghrebi prophetess Kahina Diya; to Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita; to 19th-century poet, scholar, and jihadist Nana Asmau; and all the ordinary but no less influential women in between, African women have left an unyielding impression on indigenous politico-religious systems, cosmological understandings of the divine, spirit possession cults, and reform movements within both Christian and Islamic traditions.

Prophets, Healer-Diviners, and Church-Founders of the Colonial Era

The era of colonial rule in Africa altered notions of womanhood in radical ways.30 In the early modern era, women’s spiritual capacities afforded them significant social and political power. However, with the arrival of British and French colonists, women’s power became confined to the domestic sphere as French colonists in particular “separated the household from the state and depoliticized women’s domestic roles.”31 This is not to say that women never served in political office during the colonial era. Among Igbo of southwestern Nigeria, two women, Madam Okwei and Ahebi Ugbabe, were appointed to serve in Native Courts in 1912 and 1918 respectively, and in the colonies of Sierra Leone, Basutoland, and Dahomey, women political leaders of the precolonial era not only maintained positions of power but managed to expand their administrative duties during the colonial period. Such examples, however, are rare and occurred more often in British colonies than French ones largely as a result of the British approach of indirect rule, which often left indigenous political institutions intact. Serving in office, though, did not grant women the same kinds of benefits as men, as British officials often recommended women receive two-thirds of the salary of their male counterparts.32

In terms of education, colonial governments and foreign missionary bodies established a variety of different religious and vocational schools that while theoretically available to people of all genders often steered women toward domestic training in order that they might become “good wives” to their politically engaged husbands or “good mothers” to their newly Christianized children.33 The implications of this kind of educational tracking meant that women had trouble accessing the kind of training necessary to increase their income, which further domesticated and depoliticized women’s participation in society. Teacher training colleges, midwifery schools, and mission-funded seminaries did afford women new vocational prospects, but compared with previous eras these gender-specific programs often narrowed the religious and political spheres in which women were expected to engage.

As previously laid out, the arrival of Christianity to sub-Saharan Africa by way of the modern missionary movement, which both preceded and coincided with the colonization of the continent, came packaged with a masculinization of the divine, Victorian-era gender norms, and a patriarchal understanding of religious leadership. African women and men were sometimes drawn to these mission churches, but widespread growth of Christianity did not occur until later when African Christians began to break away from mission churches and indigenize the message of Christianity. The emergence of “African Churches,” sometimes called African Indigenous Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs), represents one of the more exciting, and notable, moments in the history of religions in Africa. Many of these churches were founded from the early decades of the 20th century through the first few decades of independence from colonial rule. Although many of the famous founders of Africa’s AICs are men—Simon Kimbangu, Josiah Ositelu, and Isaiah Shembe, to name a few—women were also highly instrumental in the establishment and expansion of these new religious institutions across the continent.

In the Aladura Churches or “praying churches,” which arose in Nigeria as part of the larger emergence of independent churches across Africa, women served as founding members, preachers, visionaries, and administrators.34 Sophie Odunlami, a visionary within the Christ Apostolic Church movement, is one such renowned figure. Her visions during a time of economic crisis and epidemic plague informed her conviction that people needed spiritual healing, rather than medicine, in order to experience wholeness, a stance that was adopted by many of the Aladura churches as well as some of the Zionist churches across southern Africa.35

Within the Church of the Lord, another Aladura church, women not only contributed to the founding and expansion of the church, they also served as evangelists, missionaries, and ordained clergy both locally, internationally, and globally. For example, Mother Olive Adejobi worked hand in hand with her husband Primate Adejobi as an evangelist who helped establish the CLA (Church of the Lord Aladura) in Sierra Leone, and a woman by the name of “Mama Saro” is almost exclusively credited with expanding the CLA into nearby Ghana. Although not all Aladura churches ordained women, most Aladura churches allowed women to testify freely, to serve as itinerant preachers, and to serve as pastor-wives, essential to the establishment and growth of their churches.36 Examples of instrumental female leaders within AICs proliferate, not only in Nigeria but also in churches across Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and Madagascar, to name a few.37 In Kenya, for example, women were instrumental in both the establishment and proliferation of the AICs that emerged from the Roho (spirit) movement in Western Kenya. Within the Ruwe Holy Ghost Churches, women were a prominate part of the early band of followers of the charismatic preacher and founder of the Roho movement, Alfayo Odongo Mango. Women such as Anna Inondi, Mariam Abonyo, Sarah Agot, Nora Nyadero, Leah Nyalwal, and others were critical to the emergence of the movement. They hosted and attended prayer gatherings in people’s homes; received divine revelations, including hymns; acted as askeche (soldiers) that defended the group against persecution; undertook missionary journeys; founded congregations; and even took vows of celibacy in order to dedicate themselves more fully to the task of evangelization.38

Women’s influential roles as devotees, priestesses, spirits hosts, mediums, and diviners within indigenous religions paved the way for their active participation in AICs, which likely further laid the groundwork for women’s later involvement in the creation of neo-Pentecostal and charismatic Christian churches, as well as in the piety-oriented and fundamentalist movements of the 21st century. In line with historiographic trends, scholarship on the religious lives of women during the colonial era largely frames them in terms of agency, resistance, and protest. Since the 1970s, scholars have softened their protest-oriented tone. Nevertheless, it is probably true that the colonial period did inspire a particular kind of politically informed religious responsiveness, as is evidenced in the life and movement of a west African Diola prophet by the name of Alinesitoué Diatta.

Alinesitoué Diatta: Prophet of the Divine

In the early decades of the 20th century, during a period of intense drought and a time of increasing French control of West Africa, a young Diola woman by the name of Alinesitoué Diatta received a direct revelation from the supreme god Emitai. Emitai instructed Diatta to perform a new set of rituals that would bring rain and restore social and spiritual order to her community. Through the implementation of these rituals, Diatta created a kind of “spiritual renaissance” so effective that by the end of her life she was receiving a constant stream of pilgrims from neighboring Diola communities, Muslim Diola from the north, and even from non-Diola of Senegal.39

In 1942, at the height of her spiritual renaissance, and after the drought had ended, Diatta was arrested by French authorities. Although she insisted her renaissance was religious rather than politically motivated, she instituted practices that were clearly subversive to colonial authorities such as her ban on the growing of peanuts, a cash crop of the colonial government, because it required slashing forests, which took men away from rice cultivation and left women alone to tend to rice cultivation and the homestead.40 Two years after being arrested, Diatta died of starvation in prison, though her death was kept secret until the late 1980s. By that time, she had been declared a martyr and had initiated a lineage of prophet successors who continue to carry her mission forward.41

Alinesitoué Diatta’s spiritual renaissance is significant for many reasons. She received revelation not from a lesser god but from the creator god, Emitai, a phenomenon rare within the history of indigenous religions in Africa.42 Additionally, Diatta allowed women and children to lead ritual celebrations; insisted that priests of particular shrines be selected through a divinatory process rather than by election; allowed people to participate in shrine rituals before receiving initiation; and rose to prominence at a particularly early age, before having married or having had children, defying many of the hierarchical rules around women’s religious leadership.43

Diatta’s movement, unique in many ways, is also an unremarkable demonstration of the ways in which women throughout history have worked to uphold the traditions of their communities. Diatta’s story mirrors that of another, much earlier prophetess, a young Xhosa woman by the name of Nongqawuse (1841–1898), whose spiritual visions prompted her to call for the destruction of all cattle and crops (see figure 1). Disturbed by interferences and diseases brought by the British, such as bovine lung disease, Nongqawuse and her followers (amathamba) hoped that the cleansing they enacted would usher in a new utopian era of plentitude. Though the “cattle-killing” movement failed to solve the problem of British encroachment, and instead initiated famine that enabled the British stronghold, her courage and prophetic visions are remembered well.44

Though not always as politically oriented as Diatta and Nongqawuse, African Christians, Muslims, and indigenous practitioners of the colonial period drew on rich reserves from their respective traditions to create meaning and community during a politically and economically turbulent time.

Figure 1. Nongqawuse.

Source: Public domain.

Women and Religion during Africa’s Postcolonial Period

Since the late 19th century, Africa has experienced rapid change in its religious landscape. In the early 1900s, for example, a majority of Africans identified as adherents of an indigenous religion and a minority professed Islam or Christianity. Toward the beginning of the 21st century, those numbers nearly reversed.45 However, what much of the data on religious affiliation fails to consider is that people on the continent often claim more than one religious identity simultaneously. In fact, for most of the 20th century, Africans combined indigenous practices with Islam and Christianity quite sinuously. With the more recent growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic varieties of Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, religious exclusivism is on the rise. That said, older trends toward religious hybridity continue to persist. In the 21st century, the coterminous trends toward pluralism, exclusivism, and fundamentalism heavily inform the religious life and activities of African women across the continent, whether in the realm of spirit possession, public religious festivals, new Christian theologies, Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms, and so forth.

Moreover, African women religious practitioners of the 21st century have tended to be more globally oriented than their predecessors. Spirit mediums, for example, travel across borders to serve an international clientele; African religious festivals are now attended by African pilgrims not only from across the continent but also by African Americans reclaiming their African heritage; African women theologians are reading, publishing, and attending conferences in international academic circles; and fundamentalist Christians and Muslims frequently create alliances with other conservative religious leaders in the United States and in countries throughout the Middle East while also promoting their messages via international television and Internet circuits. Of course, globalism is not new to the continent, but the technologies of the 21st century have enabled African women to disseminate their religious messages in innovative ways.

Agency and Pluralism in Modern Spirit Mediumship

Within indigenous African religions, prophetic visions, dream revelations, and possession by spiritual forces are commonplace religious experiences. And though not unique to the experience of women, in some African societies, women, especially those who have given birth, are thought to be especially prone to possession. Thus, any exploration into the religious lives of women in Africa is not sufficient without delving into the phenomena of spirit possession and mediumship. Through this somatic religious practice, living communities maintain connection with the dead in ways that enable them to remember the past, preserve and transmit religious knowledge from one generation to the next, access spiritual powers, deal with conflict and redress wrongs, and build social cohesion.

Emic understandings of possession suggest possession to be an involuntary experience rather than an experience that people seek out. In line with Victor Turner’s notion of the “cult of the afflicted,” in her ethnographic study of bori adepts in northern Nigeria Susan O’Brien describes possession as a “spirit-caused illness which only initiation can relieve.”46 Spirit hosts can certainly capitalize from spirit illnesses, but it takes effort and is not without some initial cost. For example, in Madagascar, royal ancestral spirits called tromba offer migrant women in Madagascar entrance into fictive kinship networks.47 Migrant women are afforded this entrance not just by simple virtue of being possessed but by virtue of becoming healers who offer their clients access to an autochthonous class of spirits. Thus, while there is purportedly little agency in the spirits’ selection of human vessels, there does seem to be a degree of agency in how one responds to the call. Once adepts have some degree of control over how and when these spirits work through them, they move into a realm of mediumship that can come with elevated status, power, financial resources, and increased social mobility.

The fact that in certain parts of Africa possession is experienced more frequently by women led scholars of the 1970s and 1980s to believe that possession was a “deprivation cult,” which operated in the peripheral domain and served as a means by which the powerless expressed their social, economic, or political discontent.48 Theories that privileged issues of gender, power, and marginality proved illuminating. Nonetheless, scholars of the late 1990s and early 2000s pointed out that possession as a form of religious practice is not always about pathology, distress, or marginality.49 In certain parts of Africa including but not limited to Sakalava of Madagascar, Mawri and Songhay of Niger, and Kamba of Kenya, possession cults are central both culturally and religiously speaking, a domain of religious practice in which people of all genders and socio-economic classes participate. In instances where possession does occur on the margins, these so-called marginal spaces also happen to be the spaces in which women are assigned primary responsibility—health and healing and the maintaining of familial and social relationships.50 Thus, marginality is a matter of perspective. Consequently, while it is not accurate to frame possession as primarily about resistance, gender and subordination are still relevant categories of analysis.51

The study of women’s participation in possession cults provides readers a window not only into the spaces of agency that mediumship provides but also into the porous spiritual worlds women mediums often inhabit. In Hausa society in northern Nigeria, as is true in a variety of other places throughout the continent, bori spirit mediums work with spirits and healing therapies across a range of Islamic and indigenous traditions often thought of as discrete.52 That is not to say that there is no policing of the boundaries between what is and is not Islamic orthodoxy, but healers in African religions nevertheless broker access to spiritual realms and healing therapies that blur the boundaries between traditional and modern, and between one tradition, or one spiritual pantheon, and another.53

For example, bori adepts, who travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, participate in a ritual that deepens their commitments to, and status within, Islam. At the same time, while on pilgrimage, they offer non-Islamic healing practices to Saudi Muslims who seek out their “exotic” spiritual therapies, which earns them significant social capital. This “elicit” exchange of spiritual goods, which is prohibited by the Saudi government, belies “dominant interpretations of the hajj as a globalizing force which serves to unify Islamic beliefs and practices and ensure progressive conformity to a ‘modern’ center by a less developed and less Islamically orthodox periphery.”54 Instead, the hajj offers space for the exchange of ideas and practices between Saudi and Hausa Muslims, both of whom appropriate healing therapies from more than one tradition.

Mediumship often leads to a vocational career in healing and affords spirit hosts many financial and social opportunities. However, it is also true that one’s work with spirits can create a kind of vulnerably vis-à-vis accusations of sorcery and witchcraft.55 According to many African religious worldviews, power, particularly the use of supernatural power, is neutral until used for selfish or nefarious ends. Historically and cross-culturally, women and other marginalized individuals are more likely to be accused of witchcraft. Increasingly, in 21st-century contexts, males, especially male political figures, are being accused of using sorcery to wield power in their favor.56 That said, male witches are less likely to suffer social ostracization than female witches, whose work threatens the domain of the home.57 Thus, when charged with the task of brokering access to a spiritual world that can be wielded for good or harm, women must tread carefully as they manage the perceptions of others regarding their spiritual work.

Local Water Deities and Their Global Devotees

In addition to working with spirits within the context of local spirit societies, and as healers offering expertise within one-on-one relationships, women’s work with spirits can also entail the planning and orchestrating of public festivals of veneration. For example, every year thousands of tourists, artists, priests and priestesses, and devotees of Yoruba and Yoruba-derived religions from both inside and outside the continent flock to the sacred forests along the banks of the Osun river outside the town of Osogbo in Nigeria to venerate and ask for the blessings of the Yoruba orisha Osun, goddess of water, fertility, riches, love, and destiny. Although this festival is widely attended by both women and men, women figure prominently in this pilgrimage both as devotees and as ritual orchestrators. The procession to the Osun grove is led by the chief priestess of Osun, her associates, and a woman called the Arugba, who carries the king’s offerings to the river. Women from all over West Africa and even from all corners of the world attend this event. Sometimes this pilgrimage to Osun Osogbo is part of a once-in-a-lifetime initiatory ritual that marks a person’s final entrance into an African, or African-derived, religious community. Other times the pilgrimage functions as an annual rite of spiritual renewal for participants.58 In either case, devotees understand deities like Osun to be sources of immense spiritual capacities, around which women and men gather as devotees or as mediums. At other times, these goddesses serve more as mirrors to help women make sense of the powerful forces that govern their lives.

Multivalent West African water goddess Mami Wata (sometimes spelled Mommi Watta or Mammy Wata) is an illustrative example of this kind of spiritual mirroring (see figure 2).59 She is at once an African deity whose name is synonymous with local water deities throughout West Africa, deities who offer healing, assist women in issues of fertility, and promise general prosperity to her devotees. At the same time, she has also been depicted as a light-skinned Euro-American-looking mermaid, who represents the exotic overseas other and a Westernized standard of wealth and beauty that serves both as an unattainable model and as a warning signal to her devotees. Illustrated with long flowing hair and ornate jewelry, she is known as a seductress who tempts fishermen and businessmen dealing in ocean trade, offering worldly fortune in exchange for exclusive devotion.60 Though venerated, she like other African deities including Vodou spirits operates more as a kind of foretelling symbol than as an exemplar.61 Within festivals such as Osun Osogba, ritual orchestrators create space for a global audience to find community and renewal and to reflect on the dialogic interaction between indigenous religious worldviews and the global realities that influence people’s experience of these worldviews.

Figure 2. Mami Wata Poster.

Source: Public domain.

Esther Mombo and the Circle of Concerned Women Theologians

As has already been established, African women have been instrumental not only in indigenous religious societies and festivals but also in the forming of Christian theologies. Since the 2000s, African women theologians have been especially active in creating more relevant ways of interpreting scripture in light of their particular experiences. During the colonial period, through their participation in groups such as The Women’s Union (Anglican), the Women’s Guild (Presbyterian), and the United Society of Friend’s Women (Quaker), women found spaces to gather and address issues of communal concern including issues of social justice. And later, through various continental and ecumenical councils including the All African Conference of Churches (AACC) established in 1958 in Ghana, the “African Women in Church and Theology” conference held Ibadan, Nigeria in 1980, and at the launching of the 1989 ecumenical-movement Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, women began calling for greater inclusion and greater opportunities for theological training for women.62 Consequently, it is no surprise that African Christian women of the postmodern era have found ways to contribute to global conversations on issues of gender, social justice, and Biblical interpretation.

The pioneering work of women in the early decades of the 20th century onward paved the way for some of Africa’s most famous female theologians including women like Esther Mombo, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Musimbi Kanyoro, Chipo Mtombeni, Grace Ndyabahika, Florence Wuaku, and of course many others.63 These theologians bring new understandings to their reading of Biblical texts by affirming cultural hermeneutics and postcolonial criticism and by initiating reading groups and dramatization of Biblical stories that invite women of all educational backgrounds into the Christian practice of reading the Bible.64

Among these, Esther Mombo’s work on theology, church history, and Muslim-Christian relations is particularly noteworthy.65

Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, and Religious Extremists

In addition to what might be described as the more liberal theological circles of the 21st century, African women of the postmodern era also find themselves inhabiting spaces that are increasingly fundamentalist in nature. Although not unique to the African continent, the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism took root in Africa in response to both particular and universal political circumstances. The corresponding rise of fundamentalist “salvation theologies” across the continent occurred alongside, and in response to, the weakening of state power that befell the end of the 20th century. Thus, many religious fundamentalist movements, which are both state-operated and state-responsive, are a by-product of neoliberal interventions that began in the 1980s and benefited corporate interests to the detriment of citizens’ abilities to access affordable healthcare, education, and employment opportunities.66

In northern Nigeria, nine states have made shari’a official state law, thereby creating a fundamentalist theocracy in an attempt to regain power following a preceding loss of power as a result of neoliberal policies.67 By contrast, members of the fundamentalist Muslim movement Boko Haram see their efforts as oppositional to the governing policies of the state. In a similar vein, Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army also frame their Christian-based militarized religious work as a challenge to Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM).68 Alternatively, in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, state politicians have propagated fundamentalist theologies in an attempt to reap support from members of fundamentalist Pentecostal churches.69

As both leaders and laity within these evolving theological frameworks, women have helped to create social contexts where women paradoxically experience greater agency in terms of educational opportunities and religious influence but also greater restrictions on modes of dress, gender norms, and social mobility, especially given that fundamentalist movements often emphasize subservience to male authority.70 Integral to the mission of many 21st-century Christian- and Muslim-based fundamentalist organizations is education for both men and women alike. Compared with the earlier colonial period, where women were educated to become good domestic housewives, theological training in the reading of both the Bible and the Quran and Hadith has been a welcome change. In Kenya, women have built on these educational emphases to establish their own educationally based religious networks such as An-Nisaa (The Women) and Akhwati-Hudaa (The Guided Sister). Beyond religious societies, women have also enrolled in religiously based universities and, as a result of global connections, have even had the chance to study abroad.71

Prestige and influence are additional appeals of these newer religious organizations. For example, within some Pentecostal denominations, the ordination of women is common practice. And some of the ordained have left their original church bodies to become founders of new religious organizations.72 Thus, within some of these movements, women have found prestige as ministers, founders, presidents, bishops, evangelists, healers, and prophetesses, which squares with the kinds of religious opportunities available to African women historically. Bishop Margaret Wanjiru of Jesus is Alive Ministry and evangelist Teresia Wairimu of Faith Evangelical Ministry (FEM), both of whom have a large media presence, are internationally well-known examples of fundamentalist Christian leaders in Kenya. In the case of Bishop Wanjiru, her religious prestige also won her a seat in the Kenyan parliament.73 Thus even though fundamentalist-oriented women adopt piety measures that might seem repressive from a Western feminist viewpoint, as founders and leaders of these movements, women both craftily comply with certain forms of subservience while also offering a challenge to forms of submission they deem overly oppressive. Take for example the exhortations of Reverend Tettah of Ghana:

You have looked down on yourself for too long. You know that you have been caged. You have to come out of the cage before you can break your barriers. We are afraid of so many things: the barrier of religion, the barrier of tradition, the barrier of family and the barrier of class. We are breaking it! Anything that made you afraid, I have come to tell you go for gold!”74

Within denominations that do not ordain women, of which there are many, women can still experience prestige as wives of founders of fundamentalist organizations and as active laity.

Similarly, in the case of Islam, women of Islamic piety movements and followers of patriarchal clerics both adhere to patriarchal structures and challenge them. For example, a group of senior Mawri Hausa women boycotted a Sufi cleric when his sermons become overly misogynistic.75 Thus piety movements within Christian and Muslim circles can appear restrictive, but the degree to which such religious efforts feel empowering to women should also be noted. This is especially true for women who “face austerity conditions” as piety movements can add religious value to the kinds of challenges women face as a result of neoliberal economic policies. Moreover, a focus on piety also enables women a kind of religious imperative, or religious authority, to reign in husbands who spend too much time and money drinking and running around with friends and lovers.76 Additionally, women within fundamentalist organizations can gain a kind of spiritual uplift and hope for greater prosperity, either in material form by virtue of observing austerity measures or in social and spiritual form.77

As a result of the uptick in religious fundamentalist organizations, women have also suffered disproportionately. Familiar to many are the kidnapping of schoolgirls by the Muslim fundamentalist organization Boko Haram and by the northern Uganda Christian-based Lord’s Resistance Army. Additionally, in some northern Nigeria states, women have experienced greater restrictions on their dress and mobility as a result of the adoption of shari’a law.78 Furthermore, Middle Eastern styles of veiling, previously less common across the African continent, became more widespread in the 1990s as part of the emergence of Muslim piety movements, which although empowering to some can also feel restrictive to others.79 Additionally, with the rise in exclusivist salvation theologies, the practice of labeling women as witches, particularly the elderly but also children, has increased. Where indigenous religions are often themselves demonized by Muslim and Christian fundamentalists, in the area of heightened witchcraft accusations, Christian, Muslim, and indigenous fundamentalist organizations often intersect to the detriment of those accused.80

Lastly, the queer community has suffered greatly in areas where fundamentalist religious discourses proliferate. South Africa is unique in its adoption of a constitution that upholds the rights of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) people. However, elsewhere throughout the continent, especially among fundamentalists, homosexuality is considered a “Western import.”81 Though painful, these restrictions on the religious and sexual comportment of both women and men have spawned a new generation of Nigerian women novelists such as Razinat T. Mohamed and Chimamanda Adichie, whose writing on the experiences of women draws important issues to the attention of readers and document an unfolding time in the life of 21st-century African women (see figure 3).82

Figure 3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Gender Segregation Within Muslim and Christian Communities

Within certain Muslim communities across Africa, gender segregation is common practice. A small minority of the emerging Pentecostal and charismatic churches of the 21st century have adopted similar traditions around gender. In particular, some churches have adopted the practice of seating women and men in separate spaces during worship. Predictably, women’s experiences of both gender segregation, and seclusion, vary widely. For example, Senegalese religious leader Sokna Magat Diop (1917–2003), widely acknowledged within Mouride leadership circles, used seclusion practices to her advantage. Though her leadership style differed greatly from her male Muslim peers, from the privacy of her home she helped to arrange marriages and funerals and observed strict fasting and prayer rituals that inspired many. In lieu of making public appearances, she would often send her son, describing him as “her arm.”83 As Roberta Dunbar describes, “Her disciples believe her reclusive, severe lifestyle only enhances the power of her baraka and her holiness.”84 Ironically, however, her model of fasting and prayer led to the creation of a subsection within her order, led by her daughter, where men and women pray together and also advocate for the equality for the sexes.”85 Thus while some appreciated her observance of seclusion, others were inspired by her to create mixed-gender religious experiences.

Despite perceptions, the emphasis on gender segregation within Islam is not universal. Within Sufism, the inward-looking mystical dimension of Islam, which is popular throughout Africa, men and women often share ritual space. When women and men do observe practices of segregation, the types of segregation can vary according to the form of marriage women enter into, whether or not they live in rural versus urban areas, and economic status.86 Thus, it is too simplistic to see forms of segregation as either wholly oppressive or wholly liberating. In Hausa society, segregation has often meant that women live in female quarters within their husbands’ households and are only permitted to leave with permission from their husbands. However, within these quarters, women can experience a great degree of autonomy. According to Dunbar “The segregated world has its own dynamic, ranging from the busy and complex management of a royal household in Kano to the autonomous economic world women generate with the help of children and servants from within their quarters.”87

Gendered worlds do restrict women’s mobility in important ways, but they also afford women room to manage themselves economically and socially in manners that would not be possible if they were to share domestic quarters with men. Moreover, the emphasis on remaining in the private sphere has enabled women to pursue unique educational opportunities and create new kinds of religious practices that affirm, rather than denigrate, a reclusive lifestyle. Lastly, it would be erroneous to see the domestically oriented religious activities of African women as mundane and ordinary and thus unimportant. Rather, by observing daily prayers, raising their children according to Muslim principles, and by preparing food for marriages, funerals, and ritual celebrations of birth such as an aqiqah, Muslim women are creating the very activities that give glue to the sacred tapestries women and men weave together in the practice of their faith.88

It is hard to make sweeping statements about the lives of Muslim women in Africa. In different regions, and in different eras, Muslim women have worn all kinds of garments, some more modest than others; married other Muslims and also married with people of other faiths; attended university and also been restricted from going to school; organized large gatherings within their religious communities and kept quiet within small domestic communities; and entered the political sphere and have been kept out of politics.89 The experiences of Muslim women in Africa are as varied as they are uniform, and as pluralistic as they are homogenous. Since the emergence of Islam on the continent beginning in the 8th century stretching into the 21st century, Muslims in most African countries have found themselves neighbors, relatives, and even marriage partners of people of other religious traditions. Thus, the experience of Muslim women in Africa cannot be understood without taking into account the pluralistic contexts in which they live. In certain parts of Nigeria and Sudan, to the extent that Christians and Muslims encounter one another, it is usually under combative circumstances due to a contentious political and colonial history. That said, there are many untold stories of amicable Christian-Muslim relations in Morocco, Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, and Madagascar.90

With the relatively recent growth of Salafism and Wahhabism, a literalistic form of fundamentalist Islam exported into Africa from Saudi Arabia, women have fared less well in terms of their social mobility and their ability to express themselves freely.91 More prevalent, however, is Sufism across the continent, in which women are afforded many opportunities to practice their faith publicly, in gendered contexts, and in multi-gendered contexts. Rituals, dances, and pilgrimages to the graves of saints are all public gathering opportunities in which women participate. One of the more festive contributions of African women are the dance associations women have created all over East Africa through which women have established mutual aid, promoted changes in style and dress, and expressed social criticism.92 And of course, there is also a festive quality to the spirit-possession performances Muslim women engage in as well.93 Although some Muslims see these practices as extra-Islamic, for others the practices fit fluidly into, and even help to enrich, their lives as Muslims. As spirit mediums, orchestrators of indigenous religious ceremonies, theologians, leaders of Pentecostal and fundamentalist movements, and Muslim mystics, women across Africa are working to build relevant religious worlds responsive to the pluralistic 21st-century worlds in which they live.

Conclusion: The Irrepressible Contributions of African Women

It is difficult to write about women and the history of religion in Africa without writing against the externally imposed and ever-persistent metanarrative that suggests that women in African societies are oppressed and in need of liberation. This article is full of stories about women that one could argue are responsive to that narrative—stories of power and influence where, and when, one might not have expected it. This article in and of itself in some ways implies that one must actively work to lift out the stories of women—their contributions and experiences—lest they remain lost among the sea of stories about men. Such an effort is worthy. Ironically, however, singling out women also serves to reify the very gender categories that allow for metanarratives suggesting Africans’ subordinate status.

According to Nigerian sociologist Oyèróké Oyewùmi, gender binaries were largely foreign to Yoruba society, and absent from Yoruba language, prior to the arrival of British missionaries. Age, and not gender, was the more significant vector of difference. And in the religious realm, the supreme God Olodumare was entirely genderless and likely unanthropic prior to Yoruba peoples’ encounters with the imported religions of Islam and Christianity.94 Women accessed sacred power either as representatives of the deity or as gender benders, who showed their status by taking on wives. The status of being a man was marked more by economic success and financial autonomy, in the form of one’s ability to take on wives, than it was determined by biological sex.95 All of that of course has since changed. “Woman” emerged as a category in Yorùbáland at the same time that it was coded as inferior to “man.”96 With the arrival of Christian missionaries came the arrival of a male, patriarchal deity and Victorian-era gender norms that conceived of women as wives, no longer priestesses, goddess worshipers, or as people who themselves could become men by taking on extra wives.

Histories such as this do much to deconstruct the metanarrative of African women’s subordination. That said, one should not presume that ana-females throughout history all experienced gender fluidity, flexibility, and access to wealth as easily in every society. Nor should one assume that with the introduction of Christianity and Islam all women experienced less freedom than they had in indigenous religious spaces. Patriarchy is not the exclusive invention of the modern religions of Islam and Christianity.97 And though one might critique the singling out of women as a category, it is also true that the category of women has salience for many in Africa, in the 21st century and in earlier centuries as well.

This article has focused heavily on stories of power and influence. That said, hardship is also embedded in accounts of figures like Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita and Alinesitoué Diatta, both of whom were murdered as a result of their subversive and revolutionary movements. Moreover, in times of instability and violence, women have also been the perpetrators of violence and extremism as evidenced by the founder of the Ugandan rebel group, Alice Lakwena.98 In an article of this length, there are many omissions. Hopefully some of the highlighted stories can serve as a counterpoint to the more familiar accounts of women’s suffering by offering instead stories of women’s wisdom, acquired from intimate encounters with the divine; narratives of women’s indigenization of Christianity; illustrations of women’s efforts to reform Islam; biographies of healers navigating worlds of religious pluralism; accounts of women’s efforts to create more liberating theologies; and descriptions of extraordinary women shaping religious life and practice on the African continent in irrepressible ways.

Discussion of the Literature

Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, a significant portion of African history is written about Africans rather than by Africans. What non-Africans know about Africans in general, and of African women in particular, derives largely from the emergence of Euro-American fields of inquiry—the development of anthropology, sociology, and the history of religions in the 18th and 19th centuries, and also the accounts of settlers, explorers, colonists, and missionaries in the 17th through 20th centuries, many of whom were talented both linguistically and intellectually and had a genuine interest in the cultures they encountered, but most of whom also worked for colonial governments. Intentionally and otherwise, most produced literature that was apologetic to the imperialistic agendas of the nations to which these explorers and intellectuals belonged. The history of Africa in general, and certainly of African women in particular, was framed in light of “Enlightenment persuasions of civilizing the non-European world.”99

Fortunately, more recent historiographic trends have done much to correct these earlier paucities. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, scholars of Africa sought to recover Africa’s golden past and a sense of Africans as agents rather than victims of their own history. In the 1970s, Marxist-era scholars brought newfound attention to issues of race, class development, gender, and the importance of oral histories followed by an unparalleled focus on women and class relations in the 1980s and 1990s. Twenty-first century historiographic developments, furthered by an increasingly female and indigenous authorship, have concentrated on individual histories rather than exclusively on collective histories, on issues of gender and sexuality beyond issues of women, and on intersectional identities, all of which has extended the efforts of 21st-century historians to highlight a diversity of local and subaltern narratives. In response to these theoretical trends, scholars who study Africa have shifted their topical foci as well. Studies of the diverse experiences of urban Africans, encountering one another in pluralistic contexts, have largely supplanted studies that focus exclusively on village life, single ethnic groups, or isolated religious communities. Studies of youth as both consumers and producers of local and global religious culture abound; as does research on religion and media; and the internationally minded strategies of African women (theologians, missionaries, and mediums), the local and global realities they face, and the creative ways in which they shape, and are shaped by, global religious realities.

Primary Sources

Primary sources on women in the history of religions in Africa can be found in various places. The African collections at Stanford University and the Cooperative African Microform Project both house an impressive collection of newspapers, maps, audio-visual materials, and recordings from missionary societies. For more in-depth records of missionary accounts, The London Missionary Society collection at SOAS in London; the Church Missionary Society collection in Birmingham, England; records of the Board of Foreign Missions (BFM) of the Presbyterian Church through Archives Unbound; and the Church International Mission Photography Archive at USC (University of Southern California) libraries offer robust data. For region-specific collections, the Yoruba Ritual Archive at UCLA, the Ancient Manuscripts from Desert Libraries of Timbuktu collection at the Library of Congress, the Swahili Manuscripts Database at SOAS in London, the Winterton Collection of East African Photographs at Northwestern University Library, and the digital sites Diversity and Tolerance in the Islam of West Africa and Struggles for Freedom: Southern Africa are good places to start. Primary sources can also be found in various national archives throughout the African continent. Lastly, though certainly not insignificantly, ethnographic research with key informants can provide researchers with access to oral histories.

Further Reading

  • Achebe, Nwando, and Claire Robertson, eds. Holding the World Together: African Women in Changing Perspective. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019.
  • Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughter, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. London: Zed Books, 2015.
  • Baum, Robert M. West Africa’s Women of God: Alinesitoué and the Diola Prophetic Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.
  • Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1989.
  • Drewal, Henry John, ed. Sacred Waters: Arts for Mami Wata and Other Divinities in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • Hoehler-Fatton, Cynthia. Women of Fire and Spirit: History, Faith, and Gender in Roho Religion in Western Kenya. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Mack, Beverly, and Jean Boyd. One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
  • Masquelier, Adeline. Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Power and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
  • McCarthy Brown, Karen. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Mombo, Esther. “The Ordination of Women in Africa: An Historical Perspective.” In Women and Ordination in the Christian Churches: International Perspectives. Edited by Ian Jones, Kirsty Thorpe, and Janet Wootton, 123–143. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
  • O’Brien, Susan. “Pilgrimage, Power, and Identity: The Role of the Hajj in the Lives of Nigerian Hausa Bori Adepts.” Africa Today 46, no. 3–4 (Summer–Autumn 1999): 11–33.
  • Oduyoye, Mercy. Introducing African Women’s Theology. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.
  • Oyewumi, Oyeronke. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  • Sharp, Lesley. The Possessed and Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Thornton, John. K. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


  • 1. Donald S. Lopez Jr., ed., Religions of India in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); and Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, eds., Religions of India: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2018).

  • 2. Ben Ray, African Religions (New Jersey: Prentice Hall), 26.

  • 3. Ray, African Religions, 26.

  • 4. Nwando Achebe, “Politico-Religious Systems and African Women’s Power,” in Holding the World Together, ed. Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019), 71.

  • 5. Ray, African Religions, 1–4.

  • 6. Achebe, “Politico-Religious Systems,” 71.

  • 7. Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 37; and Tracy Luedke, “Presidents, Bishops and Mothers: The Construction of Authority in Mozambican Healing,” in Borders and Healers: Brokering Therapeutic Resources in Southeast Africa, ed. Tracy J. Luedke and Harry West (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 47.

  • 8. Maurice Bloch, “Death, Women and Power,” in Death and the Regeneration of Life, ed. Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 211–230; and David Graeber, “Dancing with Corpses Reconsidered: An Interpretation of Famadihana in Arivonimamo Madagascar,” American Ethnologist 22, no. 4 (1985): 258–278.

  • 9. Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations and Forever: Sacrifice, Religion and Paternity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Bloch, Death, Women and Power,” 211–230.

  • 10. John David Yeadon Peel, “Gender in Yoruba Religious Change,” Journal of Religion in Africa 32, no. 2 (May 2002): 136.

  • 11. Edward A. Alpers, “‘Ordinary Household Chores’: Ritual and Power in a 19th-Century Swahili Women’s Spirit Possession Cult,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 17, no. 4 (1984): 677–702; Iris Berger, “Rebels or Status-Seekers? Women as Spirit Mediums in East-Africa,” in Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, ed. Nancy J. Hafkin and Edna G. Bay (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976), 157–181; Janice Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men, and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Filip De Boeck, “From Knots to Web: Fertility, Life-Transmission, Health and Well-Being among the Aluund of Southwest Zaire” (PhD diss., Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 1991); Ioan Myrddin Lewis, Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1971); Marie-Claude Dupré, “Histoire et Rituels: L’observation du Siku en Pays Beembé (République Populaire du Congo),” Cahiers des Sciences Humaines 18, no. 2 (1981–1982): 171–194; Ellen Corin, “Refiguring the Person: The Dynamics of Affects and Symbols in an African Spirit Possession Cult,” in Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, ed. Michael Lambek and Andrew Strathern (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80–102; Paula Girschick Ben-Amos, “The Promise of Greatness: Women and Power in an Edo Spirit Possession Cult,” in Religion in Africa: Experience and Expression, ed. Thomas D. Blakely, Walter E. A. van Beek, and Dennis L. Thompson (London: James Currey, 1994), 118–134; Marion Kilson, “Ambivalence and Power: Mediums in Ga Traditional Religion,” Journal of Religion in Africa 4, no. 3 (1972): 171–177; and Susan O’Brien, “Pilgrimage, Power and Identity: The Role of the Hajj in the Lives of Nigerian Hausa Bori Adepts,” Africa Today 46, no. 3–4 (Summer–Autumn 1999): 26.

  • 12. Peel, “Gender in Yoruba Religious Change.”

  • 13. John K. Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement 1684–1706 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 34.

  • 14. Thornton, Kongolese Saint Anthony, 10.

  • 15. Thornton, Kongolese Saint Anthony, 2–5.

  • 16. Thornton, Kongolese Saint Anthony, 124.

  • 17. Thornton, Kongolese Saint Anthony, 113–114.

  • 18. Thornton, Kongolese Saint Anthony, 142.

  • 19. Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995), 20.

  • 20. Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (New York: Random House, 1998), 90.

  • 21. Isichei, A History of Christianity, 34.

  • 22. Steven Kaplan, “Dominance and Diversity: Kingship, Ethnicity, and Christianity in Orthodox Ethiopia,” Church History and Religious Culture 89, no. 1–3 (2009): 296.

  • 23. Achebe, “Politico-Religious Systems,” 71.

  • 24. Achebe, “Politico-Religious Systems,” 71–75.

  • 25. For more on women’s shaping of politico-religious systems, see Achebe, “Politico-Religious Systems.”

  • 26. Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 6.

  • 27. Mack and Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad, 3–4.

  • 28. Mack and Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad, 11.

  • 29. Mack and Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad, 13.

  • 30. Gloria Chuku, “Colonialism and African Womanhood,” in The Palgrave Handbook of African Colonial and Postcolonial History, ed. Martin S. Shanguhiya and Toyin Falola (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 171–211.

  • 31. Chuku, “Colonialism and African Womanhood,” 173.

  • 32. Chuku, “Colonialism and African Womanhood,” 174.

  • 33. Chuku, “Colonialism and African Womanhood,” 178–190.

  • 34. Deidre Helen Crumbley, Spirit, Structure and Flesh: Gendered Experiences in African Instituted Churches among the Yoruba of Nigeria (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 28.

  • 35. Crumbley, Spirit, Structure and Flesh, 30–31.

  • 36. Crumbley, Spirit, Structure and Flesh, 45–49.

  • 37. See Cynthia Hoehler-Fatton, Women of Fire and Spirit: History, Faith, and Gender in Roho Religion in Western Kenya (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Brigid M. Sackey, New Directions in Gender and Religion: The Changing Status of Women in African Independent Churches (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006); Mookgo Solomon Kgatle, “A Remarkable Woman in African Independent Churches: Examining Christina Nku’s Leadership in St. John’s Apostolic Faith Mission,” Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae 455, no. 1 (2019): 1–14; and Cynthia Holder Rich, “Women’s Power and Authority in Madagascar,” in The Fifohazana: Madagascar’s Indigenous Christian Movement, ed. Cynthia Holder Rich (New York: Cambria Press, 2008), 135–158.

  • 38. Hoehler-Fatton, Women of Fire and Spirit, 8, 89–90, 104, 202–204.

  • 39. Robert M. Baum, “Alinesitoué: A Diola Woman Prophet in West Africa,” in Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 182, 190.

  • 40. Baum, “Alinesitoué,” 182–185.

  • 41. Baum, “Alinesitoué,” 192.

  • 42. Baum, “Alinesitoué,” 192.

  • 43. Baum, “Alinesitoué,” 180.

  • 44. See Jeff B. Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856–1857 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989); Adam Ashforth, “The Xhosa Cattle Killing and the Politics of Memory,” Sociological Forum 6, no. 3 (1991): 581–592; and Sheila Boniface Davies, “Raising the Dead: The Xhosa Cattle-Killing and the Mhlakaza-Goliat Delusion,” Journal of Southern African Studies 33, no. 1 (2007): 19–41.

  • 45. Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Pew Research Center, modified April 15, 2010.

  • 46. Victor Turner, Drums of Affliction (London: Oxford University Press, 1968); and O’Brien, “Pilgrimage, Power and Identity,” 26.

  • 47. Lesley A. Sharp, The Possessed and the Dispossessed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

  • 48. Janice Boddy, “Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 23 (1994): 407–434, 415; and Lewis, Ecstatic Religion.

  • 49. See Linda L. Giles, “Possession Cults of the Swahili Coast: A Re-Examination of Theories of Marginality,” Africa 57, no. 2 (1987): 234–258; Boddy, “Spirit Possession Revisited”; Sharp, The Possessed and the Dispossessed; O’Brien, “Pilgrimage, Power and Identity”; and Michael Lambek, The Weight of the Past: Living with History in Mahajanga, Madagascar (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

  • 50. Boddy, “Spirit Possession Revisited,” 416.

  • 51. Boddy, “Spirit Possession Revisited,” 414; and Katherine Luongo, “Prophecy, Possession, and Politics: Negotiating the Supernatural in 20th Century Machakos, Kenya,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 45, no. 2 (2012): 191–216.

  • 52. See O’Brien, “Pilgrimage, Power and Identity”; Tracy J. Luedke and Harry West, Borders and Healers: Brokering Therapeutic Resources in Southeast Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); and S. von Sicard, “Malagasy Islam: Tracing the History and Cultural Influence of Islam in Madagascar,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 31, no. 1 (2011): 105.

  • 53. West and Leudke, Borders and Healers.

  • 54. O’Brien, “Pilgrimage, Power and Identity,” 11.

  • 55. Jacob K. Olupona, African Religions: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 51.

  • 56. See Adam Ashforth, Madumo: A Man Bewitched (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

  • 57. Olupona, African Religions, 51.

  • 58. Leo Eaton, dir., Sacred Journeys (PBS), 2014.

  • 59. Ray, African Religions, 34.

  • 60. Ray, African Religions, 39.

  • 61. Brown, Mama Lola, 6; and Judith Gleason, Orisha: The Gods of Yorubaland (New York: Atheneum, 1971), 112–113.

  • 62. Esther Mombo, “The Ordination of Women in Africa: An Historical Perspective,” in Women and Ordination in the Christian Churches: International Perspectives, ed. Ian Jones, Kirsty Thorpe, and Janet Wootton (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 127–128.

  • 63. Mercy Oduyoye, “Do You Understand What You Are Reading? African Women’s Reading of the Bible and the Ethos of Contemporary Christianity in Africa,” in Faith and Feminism: Ecumenical Essays, ed. B. Diane Lipsett and Phyllis Trible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 217–232.

  • 64. Oduyoye, “Do You Understand,” 228.

  • 65. See Mombo, “The Ordination of Women in Africa”; Esther Mombo,Robert Sammy Wafula, and Joseph Wandera, The Postcolonial Church: Bible, Theology and Mission (Alameda, CA: Borderless Press, 2016); and Esther Mombo and Samson M. Mwaluda, “Relationship and Challenge in Kenya and East Africa,”Transformation 17, no. 1 (2000): 36–41.

  • 66. Ousseina Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms and Women in Contemporary Africa,” in Holding the World Together: African Women in Changing Perspective, ed. Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019), 104.

  • 67. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 106.

  • 68. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 110.

  • 69. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 107.

  • 70. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 104.

  • 71. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 111–112.

  • 72. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 116–117.

  • 73. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 116.

  • 74. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 115.

  • 75. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 116.

  • 76. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 116.

  • 77. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 117.

  • 78. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 106.

  • 79. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 105.

  • 80. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 113.

  • 81. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 114.

  • 82. Alidou, “Religious Fundamentalisms,” 109.

  • 83. Roberta Ann Dunbar, “Muslim Women in African History,” in The History of Islam in Africa, ed. Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000), 403.

  • 84. Dunbar, “Muslim Women,” 403.

  • 85. Dunbar, “Muslim Women,” 403; and Christian Coulon, “Women, Islam and Baraka,” in Charisma and Brotherhood in African Islam, ed. Donal Cruise O’Brien and Christian Coulon (Oxford: Clarendon), 130–131.

  • 86. Dunbar, “Muslim Women,” 398.

  • 87. Dunbar, “Muslim Women,” 398.

  • 88. See Erin Nourse, “Hosting a First Haircutting in Diégo Suarez, Madagascar,” in Africa Every Day: Fun, Leisure, and Expressive Culture on the Continent, ed. Kemi Balogun, et al. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2019), 21–30.

  • 89. For a discussion of Muslim women serving in politics see Dunbar, “Muslim Women,” 408–409.

  • 90. Tolerance and Tension.”

  • 91. Olupona, African Religions, 104.

  • 92. Dunbar, “Muslim Women,” 410.

  • 93. Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits; O’Brien, “Pilgrimage, Power and Identity”; and Adeline Masquelier, Prayer Has Spoiled Everything: Possession, Power, and Identity in an Islamic Town of Niger (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

  • 94. See Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

  • 95. Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: Zed Books, 1987).

  • 96. Mary-Jane Rubenstein, “An Anglican Crisis of Comparison: Intersections of Race, Gender, and Religious Authority, with Particular Reference to the Church of Nigeria,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72, no. 2 (June 2004): 354.

  • 97. See Olupona, African Religions, 89.

  • 98. See Tim Allen, “Understanding Alice: Uganda’s Holy Spirit Movement in Context,” Africa 61, no. 3 (1991): 370–399.

  • 99. Martin Shanguhyia and Toyin Falola, “Introduction,” in The Palgrave Handbook of African Colonial and Postcolonial History, ed. Martin Shanguhyia and Toyin Falola (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 3.