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The Paradox of African Pentecostal Femininity: Q&A with Tumi Mampane

Books and major publications

The South African scholar, Tumi Mampane, recently published a new book on gender in South African Pentecostalism. Titled Pentecostal Charismatic Women: Constructions of Femininity in Alexandra Township, this study analyses the experience of black Pentecostal women through the lens of Black/African feminist and womanist theory. For Religion in Public, Megan Robertson asked Tumi Mampane - who is a PhD candidate at the Department of Communication and Media, University of Johannesburg - a couple of questions about her book.

How has this book come about?

The book began as an autoethnographic project that I undertook about South African Pentecostal churches and their gendered discourse. I had previously been using critical discourse analysis to understand sermons and what they say about the gendered identities of God, and how these inform women about their place in the church and in wider society. When I began this book project, I knew that in order to gain a fuller understanding of the gender identities of Pentecostal women I would have to speak to the women themselves.

Pentecostal Charismatic Women: Constructions of Femininity in Alexandra Township – The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

I am a woman from Alexandra township in Johannesburg who also grew up and attended church in the Pentecostal space for most of my life; I am a Black feminist as well, so I sought out women who much like me have held and still hold to the Pentecostal experience. This is important because the very process of “becoming” Pentecostal women is not one constructed by church leaders and their sermons alone, but by society and the very women these discourses are aimed at. Thus, the book uncovers the daily lives of women in Alexandra's Pentecostal community while relating them to Black/African feminist and womanist theory.

I utilise my “outsider within” status as a Black woman (auto)ethnographer to reveal the ways in which the charismatic Christian women of Alexandra build strong bonds with one another in spite of their differences and contest controlling images of femininity even as they sometimes traffic in problematic heteronormative constructions of social life.

What is the key argument that the book develops?

The book reveals the multiplicity of Pentecostal discourses by male and female pastors in Alexandra township. My focus on smaller churches based in Alexandra Township presents an alternative image of African Pentecostalism. I show that these churches add layers to Pentecostal practice that are overlooked by most scholarship on African Pentecostalism that tends to focus on mega-churches. Therefore, my study intervenes in debates on African Pentecostalism by providing case studies that revise the prevalent views on Pentecostal movements in Africa.

More importantly, the book, by centring the responses of Black Pentecostal women to the discourses aimed at them and how they generally live out their daily lives, shows how these women’s experiences uncover an interplay between submission and wilfulness that points to the paradox of African Pentecostal femininity. The book argues that the constructions of femininity and gendered identity in these churches produce an unresolved tension between traditional views of womanhood and challenges to them from a broadly modern feminist standpoint. I show that this unresolved tension plays itself out in terms of different and conflicting understandings of spirituality and its feminine embodiments.

What insight does the book provide into the relationship between religion and public life?

The book is about the relationship between Christianity in general, and Pentecostalism more specifically, and the legitimating of social constructs and ideologies, while taking into account the means and strategies through which women in these religious settings negotiate, resist, or embody these constructs. This book gives insights into Alexandra Pentecostal women’s personal perceptions, embodiments and performances of the self within the church and in the wider societal spaces that women churchgoers occupy. I investigate and reveal the relations between religion, discourse, power and the law in order to historicise and map the creation of African women’s gendered identities and how they are justified. These links also bring us to an understanding of how African women may have a hand in the embrace of oppressive power systems as they try to gain status and recognition.

It can be looked at as a presentation of how religious spaces, together with the women in these spaces and general publics are always in a process of co-constructing public life and identity.

Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it?

Finally, the Charismatic women of Alexandra township build strong bonds with each other. When they tell their stories to me in groups, I catch glimpses of familiarity in the other women, which suggests that they have heard the accounts before. They believe that God has placed them together to be sisters – in prayer, advice, general life choices, celebrations, parenthood and happiness. In each other, they find what they search for – a God who loves, validates, listens, sees and wants their happiness and success.