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Religious Women, Agency and GBV

How do we understand religious women's agency in the African context? Read about Dr. Elisabet Le Roux's discussion of this question to learn more.
Two Zimbabwean women playing a drum.
© Fietzfotos via Pixabay

What do we actually mean when we talk about “agency” and women’s “right to choose?” In this article, Elisabet Le Roux argues for complicating the ways that we think about the agency of religious women, to accommodate different forms and presentations of agency.

Those advocating for gender equality often understand agency along the lines of either resistance or compliance. In this framework, a woman has only two options: to resist patriarchal rules and structures or to comply. She has agency if she resists, and lacks agency if she complies. This framework is applied especially when it comes to the religious woman, whose devotion to religion is often understood as implicating her in structures of subjugation and docility, and denying or diminishing her agency over her own body.

As Le Roux writes:

Women’s agency – which includes their choice to support systems and structures that perpetuate gender inequality and violence – is constantly dismissed when faced with the reality of women opposing empowerment programming or equal rights. I feel this knee-jerk reaction within myself, too. The narrative of women as only victims is a strong one (p.2).
To remedy this, Le Roux calls for researchers and practitioners to take religious practice seriously and to begin to recognise how women’s actions (even when embedded within allegedly patriarchal religious belief systems) can ‘be… profound act[s] of agency’ (p.15). One might wonder how such profound acts of agency could be “missed” but Le Roux points out that particular dimensions of religions women’s lives can be ‘missed and misinterpreted’ if they are analyzed only ‘from the perspective of patriarchal resistance or compliance’ (p.15).
Woman in Catholic Church Woman sitting in a church. rquevenco via Pixabay.
In order to develop a more nuanced approach that takes diverse forms of agency into account, Le Roux suggests that it would be helpful to distinguish the “feminist analytical project” from the “feminist political project”. In the “feminist analytical project”, the emphasis is placed on analyzing what drives women’s actions, and reflecting on the complex realities of their lived experiences, within a particular cultural context. By contrast, the “feminist political project” is focused on creating interventions that speak to women’s lived experiences and bring positive change. While the two are, at times related, for Le Roux, ‘Both research and intervention practices can benefit greatly from a more careful distinction between these two tasks’ (p. 16).
Once such a distinction has been established, more space emerges in which to recognize the scope of possible meanings and appearances women’s agency can take. This is not only a conceptual shift, but can also have important implications in practice. As Le Roux puts it, changing how we think and speak about agency can:
help those that seek to understand and transform women’s lives for the better to enter into an encounter that is respectful and valuing of the worldviews and perspectives of both parties… [which] is urgently needed in order to better respond to a world where many women are subjugated and remain victims of violence (p.3).

In sum, this article argues that religious women’s actions should not automatically be interpreted only in terms of patriarchal resistance or compliance. Instead, religious meaning-making acts should be taken into consideration, alongside the particular cultural contexts in which these acts occur, where agency can have different meanings. The previous steps have focused on analysis, this activity shows how NGO’s and FBO’s are working to transform gender relations for the better based on a deep understanding of the ways religion and culture shape notions of being man or woman.

If you are interested in reading the original article, you can access it through this link.


© University of Groningen
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