A Discussion with Fulata L. Moyo, World Council of Churches

With: Fulata L. Moyo Berkley Center Profile

May 20, 2016

Background: Fulata Moyo was, she says, fearless as a girl and she remains so to this day, challenging religious communities to address a host of issues around gender justice as intersectional with sexuality and other marginalization. Currently at Harvard Divinity School, she is developing an ethic of care as religious resources that guide the response to trafficked and sexually violated women and girls. This includes developing a course on theology of gender issues, as well as speaking engagements on such issues. She has spent almost a decade at the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva and is part of a movement of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, challenging accepted norms of patriarchy through research and dialogue. She carries a sack of buttons for a movement she drives—Thursdays in Black, aimed at combatting rape and violence. Katherine Marshall and Fulata Moyo spoke in Oslo, Norway on May 20, 2016 on the margins of a conference addressing sensitive issues around women’s rights and religion.

What are you focusing on as a fellow at the Harvard Divinity School?

Let me start by stepping back to an incident in Thailand that marked me profoundly.

I trace what I am doing now to an encounter, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with a 14-year-old girl who I met at a center for victims of trafficking. I was in Thailand for a World Council of Churches (WCC) consultation on men, focused on transformative masculinities. This was part of the WCC’s decade to overcome violence (2001-2010) that in part was inspired by the UN decade to overcome violence, as well as being an outcome of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998). We were working to make sure that gendered aspects came out, and one initiative was to explore how men can be part of solutions to violence against women—at least 70 percent of which is directly caused by men. We had a consultation for the Asian region, and we were working with the Christian Conference of Asia’s gender program, then led by Moumita Biswas (who is now with the All India Council of Christian Women).

When we went to the trafficking rescue center that day, we were joined by another big group also having a conference at the same time, from the World Student Christian Federation; when they heard that we were going to the rescue center, they proposed to come along. So we were an impressive group.

As we were entering, she was the first girl that I really saw. At that moment, with that simple encounter, my own memory of abuse came, without warning. I was flooded with memory. I went to the director emotionally drained, in tears, and asked what they were doing to help this girl. They confirmed that she was only 14, eight months pregnant; she had been trafficked from Myanmar, and raped by three men. How are you accompanying her, I asked? The response? We are teaching her the biblical principles of forgiveness, encouraging her to see her baby as a gift from God. Fired by the pain that I had experienced, I asked whether anyone had listened to her story? Encouraged her to express her fears? Asked questions about her experience? I was stunned that they could treat her pain simply with biblical principles, as if that was an aspirin tablet that could cure anything.

How did you react to this approach? How did it impact your work?

From that point I could not rest. I wanted to find out how we are addressing this kind of problem. How can we do it in a meaningful, compassionate way?

As I pursued these questions, I began to explore how they (at the center but also more broadly) came up with the biblical principles they were using. I realized that they were reading the Bible in a certain way, and that way became the embodiment of biblical teachings. But there was an alternative reading that could make God’s love visible, that could create a movement towards healing—where her story and that of others can be allowed to embody the biblical narrative and therefore become therapeutic.

So what I am doing at Harvard is to work on developing ideas about what in feminist ethics can be called an “ethic of care” that responds to sexually trafficked girls and women, that guides us as to how to accompany them.

What does this “ethic of care” look like? How has it developed during your fellowship?

What I am looking at has several components. The first is to create a theoretical framework, because this work needs contextualization. Each context has something specific, but it is from the general environment that contextualization can start to take place. And a second is to explore how we can read sacred texts so that they bring liberation, healing, and wholeness. I work with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on the feminist hermeneutics of deconstruction, reconstruction, and liberation.

I am also trying to look into what is involved in listening. When I met the girl in Chiang Mai, I could not talk to her because of the language barrier. She knew, though, that she affected me. She hugged me, and I held her hand. I realized, though, that at 14, most girls, especially in rural areas, have very little knowledge of their bodies, and they are only just beginning to understand their own sexuality.

The question is how you can build on the little knowledge they have, even across language barriers, to make it more empowering. How can you conceive of and make sure that apart from having knowledge about their sexuality, they also have access to care (that a 14-year-old would feel comfortable with)? Even in Thailand, talking to the well-intentioned providers at the center, I recognized a culture of bias. There is the attitude that if you are unmarried, you should not have access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) knowledge nor access to real support in this area. As long as you are unmarried, if you are raped and or you are pregnant it is somehow your fault. So information is very inaccessible, and that is unhealthy. There are judgmental attitudes that surround the whole approach. So, how can a component with ethical care take this into account? Providers have to create a safe space for girls like her.

I have realized that if you read sacred texts this way, and connect them to girls who have been sexually trafficked, you can help them create their own theologies of hope. We are surrounded by theologies of moral right that do not present a God they can access. I remember the posters that were in most of the Christian homes I visited in Malawi; they said that Christ is the head of every home, the silent listener, who knows your sorrows. The message of these posters accompanied me when I could not talk to anyone about my experience of sexual abuse. God was a listener. How can you create such information for women, a theology of the God who does not judge them, the God of justice? It is that kind of God who will prompt people like you and me to work for justice. It is that kind of God who can motivate the creation of theologies of hope.

Thus liturgical language and choice of symbols and rituals are another component. I was in Norway, probably in 2009/10. The Church of Norway together with other churches has a center for those who have been sexually violated. A Church of Norway colleague, Rev. Jan Bjarne Sødal, was leading the center at that time and gave an example. He explained a change in liturgy around the way they talked about bread during Eucharist. “We don't talk about the ‘bread of life,’ the bread as the body of Christ. Whenever we mentioned the body in this way, we had negative responses especially by some who had been sexually abused who do not want to think about the body as life because they are still detached from their violated bodies.” So they removed that biblical text and took another.

In 1 Kings 19: 7-8, after the prophets were murdered, Elijah was running away from Jezebel and hiding at Horeb. An angel brought bread for strength on the road ahead. The center uses this text as a way to create a liturgy of healing. “We want to help women and girls to be in touch with bodies, to help them bring wholeness of soul and body and mind, in a wholeness of healing.” (1 Kings 19 reads, “The angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.' So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.”)

What will come from this fellowship time at Harvard? What’s next for you?

For this assignment, I will be at Harvard until the end of May. But then I will return at the end of August, to be part of the women’s studies in religion program, as a research associate. I will be a creating a course that I will teach. And I will work on publishing the work I have been doing at Harvard Divinity School! The theme is partly on beading, something that is richly rooted in my Ngoni ethnic roots as an offshoot of the Zulu kingdom of the nineteenth century. It is a common African women motif of expressing their narrative. During the summer, I will spend at least a week with women in South Africa. I see it as a way of expressing what the women feel. And as they bead they tell stories and talk of their experiences. I would like to build a theory about creation of safe space on this beading motif.

Are you willing to speak about the experience that triggered such powerful emotions in Chiang Mai?

Yes, I am now in a space where I can articulate it with confidence despite the still lingering doses of pain. What is remarkable is that it was only in Chiang Mai that, for the first time, I came to terms with it. The memories came flooding back, and I was overwhelmed.

I was 9 years old and was sexually abused by a cousin who must have been 9 or so years older than I.

I was in an atmosphere where my mother trusted this guy. I was growing up in our village, in a big house that had no electricity. The kitchen was outside. I was going to school in the mornings, so had to go to bed earlier than other members of the extended family. Some evenings my mother and relatives were in the kitchen or in the living room of this huge house, chatting. Since I had to go to school the next day I needed to go to sleep, but I was scared of the darkness. There was light in the sitting room but not in my bedroom. The boy was about twice my age, and I have even forgotten his name as a way of moving on; I did not want to think about him. My mother said to him, “Go and watch over your sister until she falls asleep.” What my mother did not know was that he was using me sexually, and he said to me that if I told anyone no one would believe me. I don’t remember how many times it happened.

I felt at the time I simply could not talk about what had happened, to anyone. I grew up as a tom boy, and a naughty one at that. I thought that everyone would be suspicious if I spoke, and would blame me. I could not imagine taking blame on top of the pain of being violated into the inner privacy of my body!

You have focused on the real dramas of women who are trafficked and abused. What about the broader plight of young girls and their treatment by society, and by churches?

Our ecumenical approaches to gender justice need to be seen as holistic. We need to focus on the whole as a way of preventing those who are against such a focus from using certain ‘difficult issues’ so as to disenable the whole gender approach. In a gender justice approach, men and boys are seen as equal to girls. But there are major components of the issue. WCC’s A Just Community of Women and Men has been working with Lutheran World Federation’s Women in Church and Society and other ecumenical and faith based organizations, for example, to bring to Geneva gender justice activists in our different member churches to go through a training to focus on CEDAW and on UN Resolution 1325 from a theological ethical approach as a part of a process of changing mindsets within the religious communities as well as holding their governments accountable to the UN instruments they have ratified.

The issue of knowledge of the body is also an issue and component of human security, that is broader than gender violence and sexual identity.

But I have a personal commitment to the issues of violence and trafficking and abuse, because this is my story as well.

Can you tell me more about your story? From the beginning!

I was born and grew up in Malawi. I am an Ngoni, a people who came originally from South Africa, I believe, between 1815-1840, when there was an exodus referred to as mfacane in isiZulu. The Ngoni were part of this great migration. They settled in different parts of southern Africa including East Africa in Tanzania, especially in Songea, which is named after my great grandfather Songea Mbano, who was the paramount chief.

I grew up in Engcongolweni Lazaro Jere village, in northern Malawi. Ekwendeni was the nearest town, with a large Presbyterian mission center. I went to primary school there, the full cycle, and later to Marymount Girls Secondary School, a very good Roman Catholic high school which had a national school status that chose the cream of society! From there I went to the University of Malawi, Chancellor College.

What did you dream of doing or being when you were a young girl?

I really cannot answer that question, and, when someone asks a girl that today, I discourage the question. Apart from recovering from the sexual abuse and trying to make sense of my mother’s advice about the importance of school, I really had no dream. If anything I was a case of someone who had capacity, but did not so much as think about what that capacity could achieve. As I said earlier, I was a tom boy, and spent time doing what my father did. I would go to feed the cattle, learn how to raise bees, and how to harvest the honey. I learned how to care for cattle in the bush, to steal groundnuts and mangos, and was bitten by wasps. And I was in some ways a bad girl.

My name comes from fulatera, which means feet first. I was premature and very small. My mother was beaten by my father and almost miscarried. When I was born feet first, the midwife said I would not live beyond two weeks. I must have been a miserably looking little thing. My mother, for many years when she saw me would clap her hands together as a way of thanking God that I was alive. I was a living miracle. In earlier times, I would have been thrown in the river for defying the natural order. But I survived, and some people saw that as a sign that I could oppose even the order of the gods, that I had special powers.

From a young age, I grew up with this sense and with these beliefs. I would dream and see things that others would not. I remember my father carrying me on his shoulders to a hill during a downpour and spreading out my little hands to stop the rain. They thought I had powers beyond human powers. When I would dream and see things, there was an element of belief that if I continued along those lines I would become a spirit medium. And at a certain age, I was game for that! But now looking back, I think that I would not have been encouraged to become a spirit medium because my mother believed the Western missionaries’ imposition of the African conversion to Christianity as being a matter of discontinuity of everything African because of their bias against the African ways of being and knowing, including the African Religion and culture.

How did you experience this Christianity?

My father actually started his own church, because he was not accepted in mainline churches. That was because he was polygamous. When I was still growing up, before I was 10, my mother became his official first wife, and was thus fully enhanced as a Christian in the Presbyterian church. She became very suspicious of spirit mediums. In fact at one point she was falsely accused of using evil charms against her co-wife by one spirit medium who had come to cleanse the village.

And my mother did not encourage the idea that I would become a spirit medium, even though she would ask me about my dreams.

I was, though, always rebellious. And I would go to the traditional mediums, sneaking out at night, even joining in their spirit possession, dancing with them when allowed. And I loved it.

When did you decide what you would study? How did you come to higher studies?

I was a good student in high (secondary) school and was even offered a place in a new school that Kamuza Banda was creating, his Kamuzu Academy, the “Eton of Africa.” But I was savvy politically by then, at least to a degree, and I did not agree to go there because I suspected it would involve me in an uncomfortable political situation, because I came from the northern region, which was suspect at the time. Instead, through my brother’s intervention I transferred to the central region, and from there I was able to go to a very good Catholic boarding school, Marymount Girls’ Secondary School, which now is a private school.

When I went to the University of Malawi, I studied education. Not having high ambitions, I thought I might teach at high school. But I ended up doing religious education including studying phenomenology, sociology, psychology of religion, as well as psychology, sociology, and philosophy of education. At one point, one of my professors was Jewish, teaching biblical theology. He taught me all the concepts in the New Testament but always ended by challenging each aspect he taught and even questioning the core Christian belief that Jesus is the Christ. I was intrigued by his deep knowledge.

His approach troubled me, however, and because of that I chose to study with him because I had illusions that these studies would deepen my newly found faith. In my fourth year of high school I had a passionate conversion experience. I thought my theology studies would allow me to know God better. So this guy frustrated me. And that frustration is what motivated me to go ahead and to do theology. And that is what I went into.

I went to study theology at the University of Zimbabwe, for a master's in development of Christian thought, systematic and feminist theology. After that I went to Bossey for ecumenical studies. I was a Ph.D. registered student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and was awarded a research fellowship at Yale University’s CIRA (Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS); Yale Divinity School gave me access to background studies as grounding for my Ph.D. research. I could apply to a program through the Yale Divinity School, but also follow courses at the school of medicine and school of social sciences, especially focusing on epidemiology and ethnographic research methodologies, which I used for my research. At Yale Divinity School, I focused on sexual ethics and feminist liberation theologies.

Equipped thus, I did my ethnographic research in Malawi building on what I had already started in 2000 as part of my gender and religion research and teaching in the Department of Theology and Religion at University of Malawi, Chancellor College. I focused on two ethnic groups that were matrilineal, aYao and aMang’anja of southern Malawi. I wanted to learn how they got their sexual information and knowledge, especially through their rites of passage. What kind of information was passed on? Did such knowledge empower these women to make sexual decisions that protected their lives—especially in the face of HIV and violence against women?

And what did you learn from these matrilineal groups?

I was disappointed. I was hoping that a matrilineal system would translate into something of a matriarchy, but it did not, especially since apart from other factors, with Christian conversion, patriarchy became the Christian way of governing the home, church, and society. Of course, access to land was still through the woman, and progeny was still traced through the mother and in rural areas (Malawi is still 72 percent rural), in heterosexual marriage, it is still the man who leaves his village to join his wife in her village (matrifocality).

I did also discover that through rites of passage called chinamwali (literally the making of a woman or man), the older women were instructing girls in liminality to adulthood focusing mainly in how to give sexual pleasure to men. To do the research, I had to be initiated into the rites of passage by special arrangement since I come from a patrilineal ethnic group. I had to do that to be accepted and to be able to decode the rich euphemism and coded language used during the rights of passage so that I could understand. I participatory observed the rite of passage meant to help a transitioning young woman into motherhood, called litiwo. During this ritual, the women would capture the whole village and send out all the men, boys, and young girls. During the two days this ritual takes place, the women would make a big fire in the middle of the village and dance naked, to show the power of their nakedness as life-givers. The fire symbolizes the presence of the divine, but it also represents their sexual energy. The message they conveyed and spoke was that the penis just vomits liquid, while the vagina keeps it in, and transforms it into life.

You must publish your book on this! How did the HIV/AIDS epidemic influence what you experienced during those years?

I was doing my research from 1999 to 2005. Those were the peak years. The people, though, called it kanyera and did not openly acknowledge HIV and AIDS. Kanyera was associated with a man having sex with a menstruating woman, and they believed that it could be cured if you realized that that was what was happening. Through my research, together with a colleague with whom we worked together, I was able to convince people at one point at least to be tested, and we negotiated with an organization that was available to test people so that they could start testing, but it did not go far until, with others, we were able to also make sure that there was available treatment for those who tested positive. Through my colleague’s organization, the Lydia Project, the treatment became available later on in the years and this also helped to deal with stigma because then we could convince people that HIV was just like any other chronic disease. The latter argument still remains unconvincing where through inequality, access to quality HIV and AIDS treatment is not as readily available especially when the public government funded hospitals lack medication and it costs extra resources to access such in private hospitals.

How did you come to the WCC?

I was at Bossey Ecumenical Institute for graduate ecumenical studies after the WCC funded my master’s work. There, I was always someone who was outrageous about how I talked about the intersection of gender and sexual justice. I was in a sense always a misfit who did not follow decent language but rather was passionately believing in the search for justice as being core to the search for unity. So because of my passion and courage to name injustice, I was the one the ecumenical movement for gender justice always needed. In most programs on gender WCC would invite me to talk about such difficult issues like being part of the Bossey seminars of human sexuality, being a member of the gender justice working group for the World Communion of Reformed Churches (then known as World Alliance of Reformed Churches). And I did so without apology, even though it often put me in trouble.

For example?

I was willing to speak against the Phoebe tradition, a misquote of Romans 16:1. It was misinterpreted that Phoebe was recommended by Paul because she had been giving sexual hospitality to Paul. The group of some rural pastors used this as a justification for doing something similar. These pastors in southern Malawi would go for the Easter conference, each bringing a woman from the church, not their wives. The wives knew what was happening but feared that opposing it would cost their marriages, in a conspiracy of silence. The women were brought along with the pretense that they would be offering hospitality to the pastors, including cooking for them, but meanwhile they would also be required to provide sexual hospitality.

I found out about this during my research, and talked about it in a paper, which was titled, “When the Telling Itself is Taboo: The Phoebe Tradition.” When I published the paper, Norwegian Church Aid in Malawi invited me to talk about it at the HIV and AIDS conference they organized. I also presented my research findings about the double standard of church discipline when it came to issues of sexuality. Using my own experience of being a survivor of my husband’s infidelity then and how I was encouraged to forgive and forget while in the case of another women who had been unfaithful to her marriage vows, her husband was encouraged to divorce her on biblical grounds by the same Presbyterian Church. I had applied for ordination in the Presbyterian Church but was silently refused. When I presented this in Ghana at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ Assembly, one of the pastors present was angry and refuted my connecting the findings of both research to my being refused ordination.

So this kind of involvement meant that I was working with the WCC in many ways.

In preparing for the 2006 WCC Assembly at Porto Alegre (Brazil), they consulted me on issues of violence against women. In 2007 when a position opened at WCC, I was in fact the Anne Duncain Gray visiting scholar at Emanuel College of University of Toronto in Canada and knew nothing about it. Midway through the process, a friend phoned to suggest that I apply, as the interview process had not found a candidate. I applied, was interviewed, and got the position, just as I was submitting my Ph.D. thesis.

So I have been at WCC since then, and it will soon be 10 years.

What has been your focus at WCC?

I have focused on programs against violence, at one level, and on building the women’s network, so that church women are more effectively networked. I also have engaged in advocacy at the United Nations, on the CSW [Commission on the Status of Women] and CEDAW; for example I will do a training program in July focused on gender advocates who will hold states that have ratified the conventions accountable. We work to present the instruments in language that is familiar.

At another level, I work with the gender advisory group, on gender justice policy. I have 14 people working with me towards the process of a gender justice policy.

Do you deal with LGBT issues?

No, for political reasons that is not under gender justice, but under the Public Witness and Diakonia section working with the Human Sexuality Reference Group. I am however part of the staff group on human sexuality. Human sexuality is still a very difficult issue for the WCC although as part of the Faith and Order Moral Discernment process, we are charting ways of how to best talk about it in a more holistic, life-affirming ways that does not threaten the unity sought.

My work focuses on gender justice and therefore has implication on reproductive rights and women’s health, which is sometimes quieter. Four primary issues identified by the Gender Advisory Group are 1) theological education and theological language, 2) assuring the centrality of women in the life of the WCC, including in its perspectives and in decision making, 3) sexual and gender based violence, and 4) the connection between policy and religious teachings, including the implication of freedom of religion and belief on women and gender justice in general.

Are you still involved with the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians?

Yes, I am. We are just now (with two Circle members) calling for papers for a book that will especially deal with child marriage and the Sustainable Development Goal Five. We continue to focus on religion, culture, and women’s health.

How are you approaching child marriage?

The issue of is very big and not easy. But it is easier to approach it from the angle of challenging religious leaders not to bless such unions on the basis of reinterpretation of religion for liberation. The great chief in Malawi, Chief Kachindamoto, is doing great work, but many oppose her. I have realized that the cultural dimension and economics, also lack of education, make it very complicated. Even when women have power they can sometimes resist change in the name of wrong interpretations of religion and culture. If religion does not liberate a follower to be wholly the human self that their creator intended for them, then why espouse such a religion? It ceases to be a vehicle to knowing and relating with the Ultimate Reality, some call God, but rather it would have become a cult defending human hegemony.

What was your focus at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen this week?

I moderated a session on gender justice and women leadership for mentoring girls, and we talked about violence against women (which is the language I prefer, rather than domestic violence). I was rather horrified first that there was so little discussion on religion and its impact (in all the plenary sessions (over 20) plus the parallel sessions, ours was the only one where religion featured particularly). I was also impatient at all the talk about the great things people are doing. We are talking about gender justice for girls, but people are still giving girls books about Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty where life is not complete until a prince charming comes along. We are raising boys differently; they are not told to postpone their lives until Miss Right arrives. I challenged people that unless they throw away those kind of books I am not convinced they are for real change.

I have a plenary presentation on Thursday while wearing black, explaining the Thursday in Black campaign that the World Council of Churches started during the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998), which was a church's response to the UN decade for women (1976-1985). While CEDAW was adopted by the UN General Council in 1979, the Thursdays in Black, as an ethical human rights campaign against violence against women, was adopted in the 1990s. It was inspired by the movement of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who were protesting on Thursdays against the disappearance of their sons in Argentina under a violent dictatorship, and the Women in Black in Israel and Bosnia and the Black Sash movement in South Africa, who then were protesting against the use of rape as a weapon of war. The combination of Thursdays and of Black made the campaign for a world without rape and violence (black is used as a color of resistance rather than using it so as to affirm racism and racial biases). With the reality of escalating incidents of sexual and gender based violence, at its tenth assembly in Busan, Korea, WCC re-launched this campaign with a new focus to mobilize all its member churches and partners to adopt it as a global movement of gender justice and for peace with no sexual and gender based violence thus building a global culture of justice and peace.

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