Historically, attempts at implementing gender reform in West Africa have been met with suspicion. Beyond the perception that such reforms subvert traditional structures of authority and community, many worry that these efforts are inextricably connected to Western imperialism and colonialism. Ludovic Lado’s The Politics of Gender Reform in West Africa: Family, Religion, and the State examines the politics of a legislative process entirely driven by the state and meant to narrow the gender gap in Ivorian society.
Saskia Van Hoyweghen (1996) has argued that to see postcolonial African societies as becoming increasingly and necessarily secular overlooks and oversimplifies key aspects of religious practice and meaning on the continent. Although the colonial legacy of the secular state is conducive to religious pluralism in Africa, it has not resulted in separation between religion and politics, partly because religion is still largely considered the ultimate source of power (Abbink 2014; Ellis and Ter Haar 1998; Hinfelaar 2012). Church-State relationships vary depending on the political history and religious demographics of a country (Akoko and Oben 2006; Boyle 1992; Hinfelaar 2012; Van Hoyweghen 1996). Recent history has seen conflict between the religious and the secular in a number of African countries, for example in event of the nationalization of mission schools and health services or of the exclusion of religion from academic curricula in public schools. But religion as a cultural force continues to shape both public debate and private engagement with politics in Africa. It follows that in the study of contemporary Africa, “to ignore religion, as a matter of obvious political and even economic importance, threatens the credibility of academic investigations” (Bompani and Frahm-Arp 2010, 7; see also Ellis and Ter Haar 1998).
Notwithstanding secularization processes and debates, “[r]eligion in Africa was never relegated, even superficially, to a space outside politics and current events, or to benign places of private worship.” On the contrary, “religion has always been perceived, by Africans, as having the power to radically change social life and history” (Smith 2012, 2). Performing alongside civil society organizations, religions in Africa, especially Christianity and Islam, are very active in the provision of social services, in public debates related to human rights, in social justice, and in the promotion of democratic culture (Gifford 1998, 2015; see also Chikwendu 2004; Gary 2002; Trinitapoli 2006). The public manifestation of religion in Africa takes many forms, including calls to prayer, posters advertising religious events, religious performances in the media, religious buildings mushrooming in city suburbs, etc.
Afrobarometer data from 2012 found that religious leaders are generally held in higher regard than any other type of leader or public official in Africa (Manglos and Weinreb 2013, 193). Political leaders therefore try to be perceived as religious, and often candidates appeal to religious communities to mobilize voters, create clientele, or organize constituencies (Ellis and Ter Haar 2007, 188). Yet political elites are not simply manipulating religion as a means to increase support; many of them do believe that access to the spiritual world provides essential and real power. A study using data from thirteen African nations found that active religious membership positively shapes political interest in most countries (Manglos and Weinreb 2013, 193). Widespread disappointment in the political system, moreover, has made religious spheres the preferred spaces for social protest and fight for change, as religion is understood as an instrumental tool to enrich the public sphere and motivate people. Religion and politics both regulate power in society, but these forces relate to people in different ways. The inclusive potential of religion, as opposed to the divisiveness of politics, provides a space for effective dialogue and connects individuals to larger power spheres (Manglos and Weinreb 2013, 199).
Today, however, the active presence of religion in the public sphere is becoming a challenge for public authorities. Missionary Christianity used to be the only major religious actor in the public space in sub-Saharan Africa, partly because Christian schools provided the first generations of civil servants who took over from the colonial administration. But things are rapidly changing, with competing religious groups vying for some share of the public space directly through politics, social action, and social debates (Gomez-Perez 2005; Miran-Guyon 2006). In recent decades, for example, Pentecostal Christianity has expanded rapidly in most of sub-Saharan Africa, leading to competition and obvious tensions with missionary Christianity in many areas, including a battle for membership and a share of the public space. In West Africa, some groups within the Muslim elite have also become very vocal in public debates, especially on issues pertaining to public morality and gender reforms. Some Muslim clerics complain about what they perceive as subtle attempts to impose a Western secular agenda incompatible with Islamic values (Soares 2005). Some of the issues that have sparked heated debates in the aftermath of the 1990s liberalization trend include the opening of bars during Ramadan, the spread of brothels, gambling, the distribution of pornographic material, gender equality, female circumcision, beauty pageants, homosexuality, the use of condoms, and family code reforms.
In the history of West Africa, religion has played a key role in shaping gender norms which govern social order and control. Amadiume (1997) argues that in many parts of precolonial Africa, gender distinctions functioned less to establish male domination over women and more to direct the division of labor, meaning that political and economic systems were cooperatively managed. Particularly in matrilineal societies, the importance of the mother figure made women more prominent, and women could engage in the public sphere, in economic transactions, and in religious ceremonies. In many African traditional settings, women were key religious players (Hackett 2000). However, this more flexible system seems to have eroded over time, in favor of a more rigid and polarized gendered politics attributed by critics to the influence of new religions and colonization (Camara 2007; Mikell 1997a). The traditional roles of men and women within society and religion were reshaped fundamentally. The male became the sole sphere for power, subordinating the female and undoing a history of powerful African women (Amadiume 1997, 146).