Gender Perspectives and African Scholarship: Blind spots in the field of religion, media, and culture

  • Lee Scharnick-Udemans University of the Western Cape


The cases of Prophet Paseka Motsoeneng, also known as Pastor Mboro, and Prophet Lesego Daniel – two controversial religious leaders in South Africa – caught media headlines between 2016 and 2017 when the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) released its report after an investigation into the commercialisation of religion and the abuse of people’s belief systems. A survey of reporting on the matter on popular news sites (following the release of the report) show that while Daniel and Mboro’s reaction to the report, and the findings of the report received widespread media coverage, their abuse of women and young girls received significantly less coverage, by both the media and Commission. Despite the complaints lodged by gender justice NGOS in June 2011 on the sexual abuse of women and girls in Mboro’s congregation; it was only when the matter became an economic one – i.e. the abuse of people’s belief systems in “profiting the prophets†– that the media and the state became interested. The lack of “gender interest†in the media is widely attested to in scholarship, at the intersections of religious studies, media studies, and cultural studies, which prides itself on well-established track records of interdisciplinary work. Hence, the “media turn†in the study of religion has played a crucial role in reconfiguring understandings of pertinent contemporary geo-political and social issues. Despite the identification of gender as a blind spot, in both media reporting and scholarship in the field, by leading scholars such as Mia Lovheim and Joyce Smith, further “blind spots†in the field and in the vision of those who have been at the helm of its development and advancement is evident, as I will show in this article. In identifying gender as a missing variable in the discussions, what is absent is a theorisation of this absence. When dealing with cases in Africa, it seems that an intersectional feminist approach requires at least two considerations – the first is that feminist scholars of religion and media may want to avoid the propagation of the perpetually oppressed, pious African woman being exploited at the hands of a powerful charismatic leader. The second consideration is the very real Afro-pessimism that accompanies such reporting – the spectacle of apparently backward African religious practices attracts the attention of the world, while child marriage in right-wing Christian conservative America, for example, goes under the radar. How should feminist scholars working at the intersections of religion, media and cultural and religious studies negotiate the sexualisation and racialisation of African bodies within parallel constructions of sexual violence and Afro-pessimism? Using the case study of CRL in South Africa, this article makes a case for theorising the study of gender, religion, and media outside of the epistemological and contextual frame of western sensibilities and motivates instead for a feminist intersectional lens to avoid the double bind of sexism and racism in the analyses offered.