Adapting Gender and Development to Local Religious Contexts: A Decolonial Approach to Domestic Violence in Ethiopia

Dr

Romina Istratii

(She/Her)

Research Fellow

SOAS

Romina is UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the School of History, Religions and Philosophies. She is Honorary Research Associate to the Department of Development Studies and the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS.
Romanian

Overview

A critical/decolonial analysis of gender and development theory and practice in religious societies of Africa through the presentation of an ethnographic study of conjugal violence from Northern Ethiopia.

The book is concerned with the effectiveness of mainstream gender theories and approaches cross-culturally and especially in religious societies of Africa. The author examines closely the gender and development paradigm mainstreamed in the 1990s and the backlash that this has seen in many religious and tradition-oriented societies of Africa. The author draws attention to the fact that gender and development paradigms were historically constructed in reference to western feminist metaphysics of subjectivity and gender as these emanated from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking and the secularisation of the western sciences and are, therefore,  unequipped to provide a complete understanding of gender-related realities and behaviours in non-western contexts and knowledge systems. The author argues that these can also contradict local belief systems, and especially in religious societies of Africa that fall outside of western epistemology. As an alternative, the author argues for a decolonial approach to gender-sensitive research and practice embedded in the insiders’ conceptual repertoires and understandings for theorising gender, assessing the possible gendered underpinnings of local issues and designing alleviation strategies without making assumptions about the nature of gender relations in the local society.

The author advances this argument by focusing on intimate partner violence (IPV), a topic that has received extensive gender and development interest in the recent decades. The author demonstrates how this sub-sector has displayed similar ethnocentric and secular tendencies, with IPV being analysed almost invariably through preconceived gender-based violence (GBV) aetiologies generally neglectful or limited in their understanding of the role of local religious knowledge and spirituality in the manifestation and experience of IPV or attitudes about it. To demonstrate both the theoretical argument and an alternative approach to gender-sensitive research the author presents a long-term participatory study of conjugal abuse in the Eastern Orthodox Täwahәdo community of Ethiopia that employed a gender-sensitive analytical framework integrative of the local religio-cultural cosmology as embodied by the local people.

The study connects the theoretical and the practical, and clearly demonstrates the theoretical argument of the book through research in a real-life context. This research tries to do away with ethnocentric and top down assumptions that have colonial legacies by being inclusive of the local people, engaging with the community in Tigrigna and Amharic directly and capturing diverse perspectives of both laity and clergy of different circumstances in life. The book also employs an intersectional and multidisciplinary approach that integrates feminist, post-colonial/decolonial, sociological and psychological insights.

The book presents multiple points of originality and makes unique contributions to gender, religions and development studies. Due to its context-specific approach it also makes valuable contributions to Ethiopian and domestic violence studies. Most importantly, it:

Makes an unprecedented decolonial critique of gender and development with the prospect of raising reflexivity in this field and changing current paradigmatic thinking that hinders gender and development effectiveness abroad and especially in religious African societies.

This argument has yet to be made in a way that combines theoretical rigour and ethnographic evidence. It also moves beyond the existing argument for simply incorporating anthropological methodologies in gender and development, but makes an epistemological proposition for enlarging the conceptual repertoire through which gender issues are fundamentally conceptualised and understood in the cross-cultural context and the role of local populations in this process. Overall, the work can expand current perspectives in gender and development, providing new directions that can lead the field outside of current theoretical and practical stalemates.

Addresses the domestic violence literature in regards to international/African development that has favoured generic typologies and aetiologies of domestic violence and has neglected religion or assessed this through western epistemological frameworks, ignoring local people’s conceptualisations and experiences.

The study demonstrates why approaching domestic violence through the lens of a single GBV aetiology misses intricacies on the ground. GBV aetiologies, as applied on African societies, have not generally accounted for religious parameters and the interplay of gendered social norms and religious idiom. The study in the book shows that attitudes and realities of conjugal abuse had gendered underpinnings, but these were embedded in more profound local understandings of human individuality, psychological and spiritual parameters, people’s location in a society that constrained individual ability to depart from perceived pernicious folklore norms and practices often couched in religious idiom, and other parameters. The study evidences that remedial interventions have to be informed by local knowledge systems and religious beliefs, if these interventions are to be relevant and speak to people’s own worldviews and rationalisations with the potential of changing pernicious norms and attitudes.

Addresses the current lacuna in Ethiopian domestic violence scholarship and sheds more light on the role of religious parameters studied in a specific cultural context.

An important motivation for this study has been the tendency in Ethiopian domestic violence scholarship to blame culture or religion for conjugal abuse and its societal tolerance. However, this scholarship has not been supported by substantive ethnographic evidence from local societies of Ethiopia that could demonstrate convincingly linkages between folklore practices, theology and gender standards and conjugal abuse in the local society. This study provides a unique window into people’s vernacular realities and contributes an unprecedented look into the mechanisms that have perpetuated social norms, gender ideals and attitudes contributing to conjugal abuse, adding considerable complexity to the analysis of the problem not currently captured in population and other qualitative studies on/from Ethiopia.

Enhances current knowledge of ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Churches and provides a decolonial approach to engaging with non-western faiths resourcefully within development praxis.

This study is important for understanding the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahәdo faith (one of the five Churches known as ‘Oriental Orthodox’) from an insiders’ perspective that incorporates both a theological and an ethnographic analysis. This is a departure from current paradigms in religious studies that have generally neglected theology or have tended to appraise non-western Christian traditions in reference to western experience with Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. The book provides an unprecedented look into Church articulations/teachings of gender and conjugal violence as these evolved historically, as well as ethnographic insights into the clergy’s discourses, marriage practices and their interplay with folklore norms. By integrating theology and juxtaposing theological understandings to the fluid discourses of the laity, the study not only evidences the need to account for the theological premises of non-western Christian traditions, but also demonstrates that this theology could become resourceful in the alleviation of local gender-related issues.

Evidences the importance of integrating religious traditions and spirituality in current discussions of sustainable development in Africa.

This is especially relevant in current times, with scholars of development and religions increasingly interrogating how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), introduced by the predominantly secular development industry as global development objectives, have engaged with faith-based actors and organisations (FBOs). It is also relevant since the SDGs agenda has provided one of the main platforms through which gender-based aetiologies of IPV have been transposed cross-culturally. This project evidences the importance of integrating religious parameters and spirituality in current understandings of sustainable development and ensuring that the language of the SDGs on gender-based violence is reconsidered in view of the intricate intersections between gender and religious parameters in the local knowledge system.

Skip to...

Key Findings

Different types of abusive behaviour and situations that were identified locally were associated with different attitudes and were rationalised differently. The majority of local people were prepared to condemn gender asymmetries, emotional disappointments and physical violence as abusiveness in intimate relationships, but they were less likely to think of sexual coercion in marriage as abusive.
The study pointed to normative arrangements and expectations around the conjugal relationship that contributed to the problem, such as the norm for the husband to act as breadwinner and for the wife to respond to her husband’s sexual needs at all reasonable times and the expectation that the wife should always be ‘timid’/non-confrontational. An institutionalised ‘tolerance’ (for lack of a better word) of the problem and women’s widespread endurance and secretiveness when they dealt with an abusive partner.
Simultaneously, the study also found a plurality of norms and attitudes that contradicted visible gender asymmetries and pernicious attitudes toward women, such as religious values emphasising mutual help, respect and righteousness, neighbourly interference to stop violence, and societal sanctions in the form of general criticisms of immorality.
Many people in the local society differentiated between folklore culture and religious tradition to criticise or counter what they considered more harmful mentalities, norms or situations; however the communal nature of the local society in combination with a suspicion toward any departure from what the laity perceived as religious heritage seemed to maintain socio-cultural norms.
The clergy typically served as mediators of conjugal problems and acted as the main point of reference for religious matters among the laity. The clergy generally participated in marriage ceremonies, other life-cycle events and the religious gatherings. Many used these opportunities to teach and ask on the progress of their spiritual children, including conjugal cohabitation.
Faith for women translated mostly as a coping mechanism and not as a source for justifying intimate partner abuse, which the faith teaches against. However, many women stayed because they loved the husbands or believed he could be reformed or to avoid divorce (which could expose them to poverty and the village gossip of being a ‘bad’ wife).
Men were considered generally less spiritual, but male testimonies suggested that some men’s faith-based conscience could serve as a buffer against pernicious behaviour, such as committing adultery or abandoning their wives. Such men seemed to act under the influence of widely upheld standards of morality enforced through the clergy’s public discourse condemning ‘sin’ and praising ‘righteousness.’
Tendency among local people to rationalise abusiveness by invoking the individual personality (bahri) and other personal parameters, and not indicting wider socio-cultural norms or standards. This could suggest a more implicit kind of ‘tolerance’ despite everyone affirming that abuse of any kind is condemned within both their ‘faith’ and ‘culture.’
Some broad parallels may be drawn with other Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahәdo communities on the rationale that these share the religious tradition and are likely to display some similarities in their religio-cultural and gender configurations. Ethiopia’s historical proximity to the Christianised Roman East and Patristic borrowings offer reasons to draw also some parallelisms with tradition-oriented Orthodox communities in Eastern Europe. Like Northern Ethiopia, many Eastern Orthodox societies experienced historical and political events that curtailed theological literacy among the laity and the rural clergy. This phenomenon has historically combined with the perpetuation of pernicious mentalities regarding women or marriage, which Church theology has sought to reverse. Moreover, across these societies emphasis has been invariably placed on authentic tradition and on preserving the correct faith, affecting local people’s receptivity to change. On the basis of such similarities, the study’s main insights could have relevance to these societies as well, pointing to the necessity for interventions that are attuned to the local religious life and that attempt to reverse pernicious social norms, attitudes or practices in reference to Orthodox theology and the local ecclesiastical tradition. Other parallels could be drawn with societies in the African continent. For example, the importance of the religion/culture dyad in the justification or criticism of gender norms and attitudes emerged also in my previous research with a Muslim Sufi population in Northern Senegal. Despite the very different religious tradition that prevailed in that context, my research participants also invariably held that their vernacular lifestyle and cultural ways were influenced by their Islamic faith, invoking again the religion/culture dyad to criticise or to justify widely accepted vernacular practices and norms. As it was the case with my interlocutors in Aksum, local people’s understandings and attitudes changed according to their knowledge of Islamic teaching, their location in local political and social hierarchies, exposure to westernised standards of gender equality, education, age and temperament. The re-appearance of this religion/culture debate in Aksum enforces the urgency for contextualising any gender-sensitive study in local religious hermeneutics as these are understood and embodied contextually. Understanding how differently positioned individuals invoke the religion/culture binary in their rationalisations could help to reverse continuing attitudes that justify pernicious norms and practices by leveraging on existing mechanisms of attitudinal change.

    How to apply research

    Local people’s justifications of folklore practices and norms were couched in an authoritative religious discourse, but many of these deviated from the complete theology of the Church/were innovations introduced over-time. More awareness around this and an improved theological acumen among the clergy/laity could create the space for re-considering pernicious or unhelpful practices.
    An Orthodox Apostolic theology of marriage (e.g. informed by John Chrysostom’s homilies) articulated with sensitivity to culture-specific gender expectations could counteract ‘traditional’ mentalities associated with the continuation of a gender-based division of labour and expectations facilitating sexual coerciveness.
    More critical embodiments of religious norms seemed to align with a better understanding of New Testament theology. Such individuals, who included learned clergy and members of the laity, could act as examples to others.
    Fundamental conceptualisations of the abusive personality informed by the people’s religio-cultural worldview suggest that employing religious discourses to cultivate counter-discourses about the possibility of improving oneself/overcoming sin might be resourceful and appropriate.
    Such approaches would need to be combined with more systematic efforts by the Church to improve New Testament literacy among the clergy and the laity and to help the clergy understand the effects of their discourses on the laity.
    It is important to consider that the clergy might hesitate to innovate in ways that could appear ‘heretical’, providing them with the appropriate incentives and tools to encourage their integration in alleviation efforts.
    More concrete but concise and easily comprehensible guidance written in the local languages could offer much-needed resource for priests to use routinely (currently priests limited to Mäşhaf Täklil and Fәtha Nägäśt). A participatory format might offer a more effective approach to encourage reflective learning.
    Given that people related to the faith in different ways, the clergy will need to be more prepared to counsel individuals who might not exactly fit the religious ideals, such as couples in irregular unions who were also affected by conjugal abuse but were oftentimes without a spiritual father.

      What findings means

      The study showed that attitudes and realities of conjugal abuse presented gendered underpinnings, but these were embedded in more profound local understandings of human individuality, psychological and spiritual parameters, their location in a society that was imbricated in religious idiom and that constrained people’s ability to depart from pernicious folklore norms and practices, and other parameters. The implication is that remedial interventions have to be informed by local knowledge systems and religious beliefs, if these interventions are to be relevant and speak to the insiders’ worldviews and rationalisations with the potential of changing pernicious norms and attitudes. Overall, the work can expand current perspectives in gender and development, provides new directions that can lead the field of gender and development outside of current theoretical and practical stalemates, demonstrating an approach that is gender-sensitive but does not perpetuate epistemological hierarchies and ethnocentric conceptualisations of gender and cognate terms.

      Through this approach, the study makes evident the nuanced relationship between religio-cultural beliefs, social norms and gender configurations, demonstrating how religious language can be used as a vehicle to perpetuate traditional practices and social norms that can be associated with gender inequality and certain types of conjugal abuse, despite this Church tradition espousing a theology of ontological equality. By integrating theology and juxtaposing theological understandings to the fluid discourses of the laity, the study not only evidences the need to account for the theological premises of non-western Christian traditions, but also demonstrates that this theology could become resourceful in the alleviation of local gender-related issues.

      The study’s most valuable insight is that reflective and transparent communication with communities and a multi-dimensional approach integrated in local indigenous worldviews to analyse and to respond to conjugal abuse is urgent and appropriate. The author demonstrates that epistemological situatedness and personal positionality are crucial in the linguistic and ‘cosmological’ translation process and need to be acknowledged more openly in the development field. This recognition raises the need to render more transparent the subjectivity-grounded nature of research, data analysis and theorisation and to reflect on the limitations consistently throughout the research process.

      Findings in practice

      As a departure from historical approaches, the author investigated conjugal abuse in the Eastern Orthodox Täwahәdo community of Ethiopia through a gender-sensitive analytical framework integrative of the local religio-cultural cosmology as embodied by the local people. The author selected Aksum in Tigray region of Ethiopia because the area has combined an ancient and doctrinally non-violent faith that falls outside of western epistemology with high levels of wife-hitting and a nominal tolerance of it at the societal level, an unaddressed relationship in the Ethiopian domestic violence scholarship. Methodologically, the author conducted a theology-informed analysis of the local religious tradition and paired this with participatory ethnographic methods of their own design, engaging with theologians, clergy and laity (men and women). Through the presentation of various ethnographic realities in two village communities and the city of Aksum the book analyses conjugal abuse realities and attitudes in view of the local religio-cultural belief system and context, resulting in insights into how religious knowledge could be engaged in the design and implementation of remedial interventions. The analysis reinforces the argument of the book for a better integration of religious knowledge in African development and uses the emerging insights to contribute to current theorisations of gender and analytical frameworks of IPV.

      Methodology

      Year-long desk research was followed by approximately 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Ethiopia. Six months were spent residing in the countryside and a short period in the city of Aksum. Research participants included domestic violence experts, scholars and theologians at traditional Church schools and in the modern theological colleges, monks and nuns at nearby monasteries, clergy in the city of Aksum and the surrounding villages, members of the Maḫәbärä Qәdusan, the ‘Association of Saints’ under the Sunday School Department of the Church (which has been especially influential with the younger generations in recent decades) and lay men and women in the rural and urban settings. In addition, six gender-segregated participatory workshops were held, four with rural male and female residents and two with members of the Maḫәbärä Qәdusan  in the city of Aksum. In total, the study engaged 244 informants.

      It is important to recognise this study’s inherent limitations, such as those related to positionality and the process of ‘cosmological translation.’ Considering that the researcher grew up in a predominantly Eastern European context, the inevitable biases and limitations that they brought to the research topic, as deeply ingrained in their worldview, had to be reflexively and constantly grappled with and challenged throughout the research, which was not an easy task that required coming up with innovative research methods and a cultivation of self-awareness and humility throughout the research stages.

      Moreover, the study engaged only a small portion of the total population in Tigray and the administrative unit to which the city of Aksum belonged, so it should not be considered representative of the region or the wider countryside surrounding Aksum. Distance from the city and exposure to urbanisation and migration, access to education and jobs were some of the parameters that influenced village life and local conjugal abuse realities and attitudes towards it. The research conducted in Aksum raises important insights that could have relevance to similar communities, in Ethiopia and outside, but these should be taken as suggestive and their relevance demonstrated ethnographically.

      Glossary

      Gender metaphysics
      The use of ‘metaphysics’ in this book is etymological and pertains to fundamental conceptualisations and aetiologies of gender, agency and other aspects of humanity that remain partially speculative to the human mind and cannot be conclusively known by mere observation.
      A decolonial gender and development approach
      The use of ‘metaphysics’ in this book is etymological and pertains to fundamental conceptualisations and aetiologies of gender, agency and other aspects of humanity that remain partially speculative to the human mind and cannot be conclusively known by mere observation.

      Related resources

      Istratii, Romina (2021) ‘An ethnographic look into conjugal abuse in Ethiopia: a study from the Orthodox Täwahedo community of Aksum through the local religio-cultural framework.’ የኢትዮጵያ ዓመታዊ መጽሔት = Annales d’Ethiopie, 33. pp. 253-300.

      Share these insights

      Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

      Istratii, Romina (2020) Adapting Gender and Development to Local Religious Contexts: A Decolonial Approach to Domestic Violence in Ethiopia. London: Routledge.