As a normative frame, religion shapes the construction of gender, gender relations and womanhood in various ways. This is evident in the layered connection between fantasies of national wellbeing, religion and womanhood. Their interplay materialises on the woman’s body as a site of articulating those fantasies.
My interest in this intersection led me to look into a religious movement known as the Faith of Unity (henceforth FoU) active mainly in rural Uganda since its founding in 1987, and now expanding to parts of Congo, Kenya and South Sudan. FoU is a religious movement founded and led by Dosteo Bisaka, also known as Owobusobozi (meaning almighty God in Runyoro, one of the languages spoken in Uganda). The movement was officially inaugurated on February 22, 1987, a day celebrated by the religious community as one of the major holidays. FoU’s headquarter is located in Kapyemi village in Kagadi district in Western Uganda with about forty-five branches spread in different parts of the country including the capital Kampala. One of the major missions of the FoU is bringing about unity through the practice of healing.
Uganda HIV/AIDS Country Progress Report July 2017-June 2018, shows the Most at Risk Populations (MARPs) continue to experience a higher HIV prevalence, particularly, sex workers, men who have sex with men and fishing communities. According to the 2018 UNAIDS report, women were disproportionately affected by HIV in Uganda. Of the 1.3 million adults living with HIV, 770,000 (59.23%) are women and HIV infections among young women aged 15–24 years are more than double those among young men.
Inequalities and gender-based violence, are listed as among reasons for these disparities and higher prevalence among women and other at-risk groups. Contrary to these facts, however, FoU presents itself as a staunch critic of commercial sex work and depicts it as a source of this national problem in Uganda. Members of the movement refuse to accept sex work as a choice one might make but rather assert that it is the main reason for the spread of HIV/Aids Uganda has once suffered from.
By way of dismissing commercial sex work as a source of income in its own right, the FoU uses the word prostitution to describe sex work as a morally reprehensible indulgence that needs to be stopped. As far as the movement is concerned, the national breakthrough comes by destroying prostitution and the manifold threats it poses on the country because, for FoU, its ‘rampancy’ is symptomatic of degeneracy and the resulting moral panic. Thus, beyond dealing with individual physical as well as spiritual ailments, FoU’s commitment to healing is extended to ending this problem.
On page 60 0f “The Book of the Age of Oneness”, FoU’s book of spiritual guidance which every member carries, it is stated that if men do not take many wives, women will “roam about looking for support. As a result of this promiscuity, many of them contract diseases some of which are difficult to cure. They may even transmit such diseases to the married ones if anyone of them contacts them [the prostitutes]”.
What is surprising is that the male-headed movement alleges that women are responsible for Uganda’s problems and all female members I spoke to believe that FoU’s assertions are true. This is a position that presupposes that women accept their guilt, that they become docile and submissive to a nation’s heteropatriarchal expectations. From FoU’s allegations, we gather that the movement believes that a healthy nation is compromised and weakened by women’s behaviour. Hence, there is an urgent need to discipline women if diseases like HIV/Aids are to stop wreaking havoc on Uganda and if the associated national shame to be mitigated.
For FoU there is a simple solution: dismantle what they call “female prostitution” and deploy polygyny instead. A man has to take as many wives as he can support in order to halt prostitution and decrease infection by HIV/Aids and increase a healthy population. Thus, national healing relies on men’s capacity to manage women which in turn means that the nation regains its unity, health and pride. This bestows upon men the duty of restoring women to their naturally assigned role-procreation within the confines of heterosexuality.
This logic posits that as citizens who diligently discharge their responsibilities, men are believed to groom women as a constructive part of building and sustaining a healthy nation. This way, women become (re)productive forces whose presence is no more detrimental to national wellbeing. This simply means that womanhood for FoU is defined by the duties assigned to them and whether they perform their duties or not-a utilitarian framing which negates everything else that constitutes their subjectivity.
Making women accountable for what goes wrong in a society is not peculiar to FoU’s imaginations of how Uganda should be as a nation. What FoU promotes in the name of controlling prostitution is a manifestation of how sex workers are targeted worldwide as scapegoats for what religious institutions consider a social problem. By perpetuating the representation of sex work as a symbol of social degeneracy, women are depicted as outlaws. This means that their inclusion to society is contingent upon how much patriarchy controls their means of production and reproduction.
If national wellbeing is to be inclusive and aware of its pitfalls, it has to come to terms with a critique of asymmetrical power relations embedded in its masculine configurations. With this in mind, we need to think about FoU’s remedy for national wellbeing in a way that enables us to name the violence embedded in gender relations it foregrounds. Given that religious movements like FoU have power and often set a national agenda on issues like gender relations, an uncritical endorsement of their ideologies reinforces already existing tendencies to justify violence (even if it is not always recognised as one) against women.
Now, the language of violence as we know it conventionally might not be enough to understand gender relations FoU pushes forward. As far as the movement is concerned, what it promotes is not violence but an attempt to do the right thing for the nation. However, we have to question such movements and their regressive ways of articulating gender relations precisely because they perpetuate women’s continued oppression by justifying the need to discipline their bodies for the sake of a ‘more noble’ agenda like national wellbeing.
Needless to say, this ‘noble agenda’ makes women its sacrificial lamb as it depicts them as perpetrators of national humiliation, ill-health and disunity. In this case, any form of injustice against women is justifiable so long as it is framed in relation to their guilt and their responsibility to undo it. The discourses on prostitution as a national problem and the need to control it by disciplining (marrying) women seem to effectively conceal layers of undercurrent violence.
It is also important to note that this religious movement echoes a political position the state takes by criminalizing sex work as stipulated in the Penal Code CAP 120 (Art 139). There is an open alliance between the state and FoU when it comes to condemning sex work and presenting it as a social, religious and cultural ill. That is why there is a need for closer scrutiny of what constitutes national wellbeing, health, sustainability, population increase/decrease which bodies it marginalises and which ones it (re)centres. Such scrutiny cannot and should not neglect the place and role of religions.
Serawit B. Debele (PhD) is a researcher based at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. She is the author of “Locating Politics in Ethiopia’s Irreecha Ritual”. Her current research focuses on religion and sexuality in Ethiopia out of which she has published a few journal articles. This piece emerged out of fieldwork she conducted in Uganda.