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.
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.
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.
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.