The rise of female-headed churches has been one of the most significant religious-feminist developments in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Historically, it was rare for Zimbabwean female-led churches to attract a huge following. This mainly emanated from African patriarchal chauvinism that limited women’s visibility in religious, social, political, or economic structures. There are few cases in the Zimbabwean context when female-headed churches gained much popularity. One of these few charismatic female church leaders was Mai Chaza, who started a religious healing community in colonial Harare in the mid-1950s.1Timothy Scarnecchia, “Mai Chaza’s Guta raJehova (City of God): Gender, Healing and Urban Identity in an African Independent Church,” Journal of Southern African Studies 23, no. 1 (1997): 87-105, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2637139. Her following was estimated to have reached around 60,000 congregants.
The late 1990s to the early 2000s provide a rich gendered historical background to the operations of the Pentecostal churches in the early post-colonial period using Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa (ZAOGA) and Apostolic Faith Ministries (AFM) case studies.2David Maxwell, “Delivered from the Spirit of Poverty? Pentecostalism, Prosperity, and Modernity in Zimbabwe,” Journal of Religion in Africa 28, no. 3, (1998):350-373, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1581574. The period shows the socio-economic impact of these churches on women who were encouraged to become church members. Due to the economic hardships that were prevalent in the country from the 1990s to the 2000s, there was an increase of female cross-border traders, some of whom imbibed church doctrines on breaking the spirit of poverty by paying tithes to the church.3Ibid. While all this was happening, there are few records of females who emerged as church founders compared with men. Similarities in gender subordination in Pentecostal churches were also prevalent in Apostolic sects. These gender gaps suggest that gender discrimination is better attributed to societal issues, rather than a religious problem. Most African women are raised in societies that consider them inferior to men.
It was not until the mid-2000s that some women began to take up church leadership roles. This was followed by the rise of women who began to challenge patriarchal church doctrines. Lilian Bwanya, a former AFM leader, started a small prayer group in 2004 that grew into an established church in 2018. As recorded in Her Story interviews, Bwanya started a prayer group with other women who were in abusive marriages like hers.4“The Weight She Carries,” Interview with Lilian Bwanya, October 5, 2018, accessed May 23, 2023 https://theweightshecarries.com/how-apostle-lillian-bwanya-pushed-past-personal-rejection-and-founded-a-church/. Her story was similar to that of the famous Christine Phiri, who emerged as a powerful preacher at the Chikurubi maximum security prison.5Veronica Gwaze, “Woman of God who has been there,” Sunday Mail Newspaper, May 19, 2019, https://www.sundaymail.co.zw/woman-of-god-who-has-been-there-done-that.
While these women challenged the entrenched notions of patriarchy within the religious fraternity, some of them faced criticism from society. Madzimai Boltcutter is one example of a female prophet who faced vicious backlash from some male Apostolic church leaders who argued that a woman cannot possess healing powers unless she practices witchcraft.6Tim E. Ndoro, “It’s All in the Bible: Prophetess Bolt Cutter Defends Controversial Practices Associated with Sangomas,” iHarare News, June 11, 2021, https://iharare.com/prophetess-boltcutter-defends-controversial-healing-practises-associated-with-sangomas/. Others including Memory Matimbire and Christine Phiri were accused by one of the famous Zimbabwean male preachers, Talent Chiwenga, who labeled these women prostitutes, accusing them of having political ties and sexual relations with members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) party.7“Chiwenga Attacks Memory Matimbire and Chaplin Phiri” Zimbabwe Social Updates, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKcnRI-GRVs. Chiwenga expressed his anger by arguing that some female preachers take part in government corruption and looting of resources to start businesses which they protect under the guise of acquiring wealth as a blessing from God. Despite these challenges, the opportunity to challenge patriarchy gave most women leverage to break free from oppressive religious communities. Female-led churches seem to have communicated a revolutionary message that women are equally as capable as men to be vanguards in the quest for a morally desirable society.
Indoctrination: A False Hope
Following their ascendency to prominence, most women-led churches became popular for attracting female congregants in need of marital stability. Most of their teachings focus on preparing women for marriage and instructing them to be submissive to their husbands. These teachings were delivered in the form of sermons posted on YouTube channels and various social media platforms. Examples of the sermon titles include Yangu Maitadza Here Mwari? (Lord, have you failed my case?) and Chiuraye Chisati Chakuuraya (Kill it before it kills you).8“Daughters of Virtue YouTube Channel,” https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0szmvzrdVHNTSpgTZ2Jfkg. Despite an astonishing rise of the feminist-religious movement in Zimbabwe, most of the teachings contributed to intellectual conformity which widen inequality gaps between men and women. Some of these teachings encourage women to endure abusive marriages. This contributes to the patriarchal cultural ethos that oppresses women, brainwashing them based on misconstrued interpretations of miracles and the submission-to-husband clause in the Bible.
Some female pastors took advantage of the desperate congregants making them believe that financial stability and overcoming marital problems can be achieved by giving monetary offerings to the church and buying church products such as wristbands, holy water, and anointed oils. Desperation for marriages and wealth has made the church business flourish. While many Zimbabwean women constitute a larger part of most Christian congregants, their absenteeism in the economic sector continues to limit their contribution to the country’s economic development. As reported by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the lack of women empowerment and the feminization of poverty in Zimbabwe has been worsened by the desire for marriages, including child marriages.9John Mokwetsi, UNICEF Zimbabwe, June 14, 2022, https://www.unicef.org/zimbabwe/press-releases/end-child-marriage-we-need-empower-women. In addition, the unemployment rate reflects how most Zimbabweans are easily misled because of poverty. These point to the nexus of religious doctrine, gender inequality, and poverty in Zimbabwe. Indirectly, the situation resembles Zimbabwean politics where the victims of poor governance, political dysfunction, and economic deterioration end up being the target group of the ZANU-PF party, which uses churches as a tool for political campaigning.
There has been a remarkable confluence of economic deterioration and a dramatic increase in sects purporting to be Christian churches in post-colonial Zimbabwe. The rise of women-led churches has been one such successful religious movement challenging patriarchy in the church, but these churches have not been of much help in moving women out of poverty due to the prevalence of patriarchal norms, corrupt church leaders, and how religion has been politicized. Much of the teachings have reshaped imaginations of poverty, successful marriages, and the agency of pursuing miracles, resulting in mutant religious snares that have mushroomed across Africa. This has developed alongside the prosperity gospel doctrine, a doctrine that gives hope for riches and good marriages to believers through faith and monetary offerings to God, but primarily through the church leaders. However, because of poverty levels in Zimbabwe and how it struggles with gender inequality, the expansion of female-led churches is likely to continue as the economy continues to decline.
- 1Timothy Scarnecchia, “Mai Chaza’s Guta raJehova (City of God): Gender, Healing and Urban Identity in an African Independent Church,” Journal of Southern African Studies 23, no. 1 (1997): 87-105, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2637139.
- 2David Maxwell, “Delivered from the Spirit of Poverty? Pentecostalism, Prosperity, and Modernity in Zimbabwe,” Journal of Religion in Africa 28, no. 3, (1998):350-373, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1581574.
- 4“The Weight She Carries,” Interview with Lilian Bwanya, October 5, 2018, accessed May 23, 2023 https://theweightshecarries.com/how-apostle-lillian-bwanya-pushed-past-personal-rejection-and-founded-a-church/.
- 5Veronica Gwaze, “Woman of God who has been there,” Sunday Mail Newspaper, May 19, 2019, https://www.sundaymail.co.zw/woman-of-god-who-has-been-there-done-that.
- 6Tim E. Ndoro, “It’s All in the Bible: Prophetess Bolt Cutter Defends Controversial Practices Associated with Sangomas,” iHarare News, June 11, 2021, https://iharare.com/prophetess-boltcutter-defends-controversial-healing-practises-associated-with-sangomas/.
- 7“Chiwenga Attacks Memory Matimbire and Chaplin Phiri” Zimbabwe Social Updates, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKcnRI-GRVs.
- 8“Daughters of Virtue YouTube Channel,” https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0szmvzrdVHNTSpgTZ2Jfkg.
- 9John Mokwetsi, UNICEF Zimbabwe, June 14, 2022, https://www.unicef.org/zimbabwe/press-releases/end-child-marriage-we-need-empower-women.