#ChurchToo: Confronting The Last Bastion of Patriarchy

Nigeria is one of the most religious countries in the world where more than 90 percent of people identify as religious. Both old and new religious players and faith you will find but the Pentecostal churches are a trend and most successful, depending on how you want to define that.  

The first thing a Nigerian asks when they meet you, past the pleasantries, is what church you go to.  The question is often not to determine whether you go to church or not, but as a way of marketing their church to you.  “Oh so you go to St. Bartholomew’s – is that a ‘Bible believing church”?  

We might lack a lot of things in Nigeria, but creativity is not one of them – who knew there are non-Bible believing churches. Why don’t you try my church, ‘the ‘Son of the Living God’ Church, your life will be changed forever’.  There’s this ‘belief’ that we really cannot be content living in Nigeria and that we must be in constant need of ‘miracles’. Whether it is to pass exams, get that ‘exclusive visa’ to go to Europe or America (and if not that lucky, at least to Turkey, Malaysia or China), get paid after working or simply live without losing one’s mind or life. 

The things that other people in other lands take for granted, we need to achieve through our ‘Bible-believing churches’, lest we all perish.  If there is something that brings us all together in Nigeria, it is our common suffering caused by our ineffective government no matter who the president is. And in this bizarre unity, a legislator whose salary earns them pompous life of a kingpin sees themselves in the suffering of those who can barely eat a meal a day or have a place to place their sides at night.

These are the people that you will shock if you ever admit to not going to church. You will be summed up after they have determined you not worthy of their trouble or you will be unfortunate and find the “save humanity from hell persistence.” With all these missionaries and evangelists on the loose, we are surprisingly not that deeply religious.

For all the hate we heap on our presidents, we heap all the love on our ‘men of God’.  Oh how great to be a ‘man of God’ in Nigeria!  This is the ultimate acclaim – you do not need an education, although having one and with a fantastic fake American accent, will bring you better dividends from more lucrative ‘faithful’. You do not need any government registration or scrutiny, not even government will dare question ‘men of God’ in Nigeria. You can choose not to subscribe to any law in Nigeria except the ‘laws of your almighty God’. All you need is to wake up, start a church based on a revelation only you got from God. It is not surprising how the work of God in Nigeria is the work of men.

The few women who have tried to muscle in have been muscled out. Women are generally expected to be humble followers.This patriarchal, no accountability armageddon, divine beyond challenge is what we call church.

So this power above humans in all spheres is what women in the church have had to contend with. The rumors of sexual abuse of female churchgoers by the ‘men of God’ have often quickly been shut down and rejected. Any brave female daring to come forward is mocked, ridiculed by a whole national army of believers, in person and on social media, called the jezebel out to bring down ‘men of God’.  

Then the usual victim blaming comes through. Why was she in the office with the ‘man of God’?  Who she slept with before this allegation? How come she is not married at (insert your age)? How can the pastor who can have any girl and has a very beautiful girl go for her?  And then the advice to the pastors follows. ‘You should never minister to women’, ‘women and girls are out to trick men of faith into wickedness please do not employ them in your church’s’, and so on and so forth.

Protest Poster.

I and fellow feminists had resigned ourselves to private seething and worthy but often ineffective social media ‘name and shame’ campaigns until July when the previously silenced rose up. A much loved celebrity and his beautiful celebrity wife (yes, it is important to mention beauty here because a woman not deemed ‘beautiful’ would not have had a chance) came out to accuse emerging celebrity pastor- ‘Pastor Gucci’ of raping his wife when she was 16 as an early convert to his church before it became a megachurch. 

Biodun Fatoyinbo runs the Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (Coza) and  it was not the first time he was being accused of rape, sexual exploitation by former female staff members and churchgoers. However  this was the first time a well-known public figure will come out and speak about rape that occurred when she was a minor and happened several years before. The usual army supporters of alleged rapist were out in full force but so were the supporters of the celebrities. 

https://twitter.com/DrOlufunmilayo/status/1145240332482830338

Suddenly, there were hashtags in support of the celebrities by their fellow celebrities who had a bigger platform than the usual social media warriors (“nonentities”). And for the first time in Nigeria, lawyers were falling over themselves to defend the accusers, all media outlets wanted to discuss rape, sexual abuse and statutory time someone could be taken to court for rape. 

For weeks, Nigeria had a debate about the abuse of women, the misogyny that had become a cankerworm in our society and most importantly, the sexual abuse that is so prevalent in the church and the cover up.  Everyone seemed to have a story – sexual abuse, exploitation, abuse of power, the relentless attack on women that had become almost norm.

The unaccountable source of salvation was in fact turning out to be the last bastion of patriarchy, the last place women and girls can have voices heard or be protected. Brave feminists and men staged demonstrations in front of the church/in the church at great personal risk, and forcing the pastor into taking a break and his ‘spiritual advisers’ stepping down from their roles. The Nigerian police invited those who had accused the pastor of the rape to come and ‘make a statement’. 

A Nigerian woman protests sexual abuse by a pastor. Courtesy Photo

While these were small gains, the bigger advance has been that women and men organized for the first time to confront the church on sexual abuse. That we are forced to confront men in authority about their behavior and treatment of women and girls. More importantly that the power of the church in Nigeria and Africa should be questioned. And  when ‘big men’, who already live above the law, commit offences against women’s bodies, no matter when it was committed, will hold accountable. It is important that we continue to organise to not only hold this one man accountable but the church institution, not just on cases of sexual violence but to push for transparency in how they treat those most vulnerable.

While in Europe, America and Latin America, there have been successful attempts at holding the church accountable especially the Catholic Church, the Church in Africa, traditional or Pentecostal remains untouched. This was a great step in addressing violence aided by an unchecked power of the church. This is just a scratch on the surface and given that the movements to hold powers accountable on the continent are not dying, the church must prepare itself for more scrutiny or better yet clean their house and give victims recourse before the curtains fall.

Funmi Balogun
Funmi Balogun

Funmi Balogun is a Nigerian feminist writer.