Today’s activist is Jo Sadgrove!

 Tell us about yourself.  Who are you and what do you do?

I am Jo and over the past 20 years I have developed a hybrid portfolio of work incorporating both practitioner and scholarly aspects. I seek to facilitate dialogue and transliteration across what are often very distinct ways of thinking, feeling and knowing. I am a Research Fellow in the Centre for Religion and Public Life at Leeds University and I have a job as Research and Policy Advisor at USPG, a 300-year-old Anglican Mission agency working in partnership with local churches around the world. With colleagues, we connect our overseas partners to global policy makers to ensure that their voices are represented in conversations about faith and community development.

My interest in questions of gender, faith and power emerged out of my upbringing as the daughter of an Anglican priest in a church which did not ordain women until 1994. My parents were passionate advocates for women’s ordination, and I was always aware that this was an important issue, but that didn’t alter the fact that I grew up in a church in which only men possessed ritual power. Looking back, it was probably exposure to the Church of England inhabiting itstheological colleges, churches, cathedrals and the strange semi-public spaces of vicarages and deaneries – that fostered my ethnographic interests. You live on the boundary between public and private when you grow up in a vicarage and there is a very permeable membrane between the family and the wider community.

When I was 18 I went to Uganda and spent time living amongst different communities of women. The contexts were diverse, ranging from the staff quarters of a large urban hotel to remote rural Roman Catholic convents. These intimate domestic experiences brought me face-to-face with starkly gendered issues of power, labour, economics, mobility, pregnancy and child-rearing, violence, embodiment and HIV. They also shot through any emergent assumptions I was developing about the ways that women can and do have agency within different patriarchal power structures. I learned more about western patriarchies and the ways that they constitute women’s bodies and imaginations refracted through the teachings of Ugandan women than I ever did in the context of my British education. These experiences radicalised my thinking, and I remain focussed on the ways that different worldviews be they ‘cultural’, ‘religious’, biomedical, rights-based both operate as entirely coherent epistemic totalities that need to be understood on their own terms,and intersect with and antagonise each other. It is in such antagonisms that the underpinning assumptions of different worldviews reveal themselves.

Living in Ugandan communities in the 1990s when many were dying of HIV exposed to me the high costs of the misunderstandings between (western) biomedical approaches and the ethos of Ganda community life. The former is premised, amongst other things, on economically independent atomised individuals who perform particular types of health-seeking behaviour. The ethos of Ganda community life is underpinned by social interconnections and respectability, which position men and women differently and can heavily disadvantage women in the negotiation of their own protection from HIV.

My doctorate analysed sexual and religious youth identities in a Pentecostal community in Kampala in the context of the HIV pandemic. I then went on to work on debates about homosexuality in different parts of the Anglican Communion. This project incorporated a period of time working with Gerald West at the Ujamaa Centre which afforded me my first experience of Contextual Bible Study work, something of which I am only now beginning to understand the importance and value. Eventually I left full-time academia in a desire to work more closely with local communities, the context in which I find myself doing my best learning and thinking, and I got a job undertakingresearch with USPG.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

My work with USPG bridges the worlds of research and policy. With colleagues in the UK and South Africa I have recently engaged in a piece of research to map and analyze the Anglican Church in Southern Africa’s (ACSA) responses to sexual and gender-based violence, in particular following the death of Anene Booysen in 2013. The next year will see us disseminating this work alongside our international partners to a variety of different audiences, beginning with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March.

On 2nd February 2013, 17-year-old Anene Booysen was gang raped and disemboweled in the small town of Bredasdorp, Western Cape, South Africa. Anene was found by a security guard at a construction site near to her home and she later died in hospital from her injuries. This brutal rape and murder horrified the country and re-focused the attention of leaders as to the catastrophic consequences of violence for women and girls in South Africa. At the time of the murder, ACSA’s development arm Hope Africa and staff in False Bay Diocese (in which Bredasdorp is situated)were engaging in community-based work around gender justice. Hope Africa was also part of theinternational We Will Speak Out coalition of Christian-based NGOs, churches and organizations against gender-based violence. The murder of Anene generated a number of responses on the part of the Anglican Church engaging different constituent groups.  Survivors of rape and sexual violence were brought together for counselling, peer support and to speak out about their experiences to raise national and international awareness. A number of Christian students at Cape Town’s universities have been involved in Contextual Bible Studies engaging questions of gender using the Tamar Campaign resource. A series of masculinity workshops have engaged men in the Western Cape to think about their own experiences of violence in childhood and reflect on the ways that patterns of violence have been replicated in their own lives, in the lives of their communities and in the churches.

The experiences of those engaged in this work, have revealed a number of things to me about where and how the church both facilitates and mitigates gender parity and abuses of power. When we (and development practitioners) talk about working with ‘the church’ and its leaders we need to think critically about where we locate and identify them. We need to incorporate into our understandings the many different spaces in which groups experience themselves as members of the church and through which ‘the church’ looks and feels very different. The space of Sunday worship, we heard,is a context in which it is very rare to hear anyone talking about gender-based violence, despite the fact that congregations are dealing with it daily. Due to contextual social pressures, parish priests are frequently unwilling to open up conversations that might alienate them from congregants and in turn jeopardize their stipends. On the other hand those who have experienced the masculinities workshops perceive the church to be offering unique homosocial spaces in which men can think and talk about their experiences in ways that are inconceivable in any of the other socialenvironments in which they find themselves. The church here has offered something unique and valuable – a reflective space in which to talk about the violence of apartheid, the violence of childhood and how that violence had, for some, been carried into adult relationships and parenting. Wellness groups for women offer a space of psychosocial support in which women can share the troubles and threats that they face daily, not just in relation to themselves, but also those of the children within their communities. Contextual Bible Study groups using the story of Tamar have opened up discussions between male and female students at local universities as to the complexities of negotiating the differing gender norms of ‘culture’, the Bible and the rights-based constitution. These Bible studies have enabled male and female students to critique the church as lagging behind society, to evaluate the challenges and opportunities of western rights based frameworks and to question the nature of ‘cultural’ authority as embodied by the elders ‘back home’.

There are no easy analyses here and no coherent narratives. The intersections of ‘Biblical’, ‘cultural’ and rightsbased norms for gender in South Africa, as everywhere else, are highly complex and varied – mutually reinforcing in certain spaces and highly antagonistic in others. I see the same contests in related work that I am doing within the Church of England around institutional power and sexuality. Across the generations people are struggling with shifting patterns of authority, processes of individuation and the implications for gender norms and the socialization of men and women. I see my own challenge and role in this work as dual and somewhat contradictory; to listen to and amplify the voices that are working hard to redeem the church as irredeemably patriarchal at the same time as broadcasting ever more loudly the critique of all institutions that use their power to marginalize and stratify. We need to remain vigilant and recognize the violent patriarchal biases in the cultural, social and institutional worlds which we inhabit, whilst exploring how norms can be challenged and faith groups can open up distinct spaces of solidarity in which hegemonic gendered worldviews can be resisted.

All this work aside, I actually feel that the most important thing I will continue to do is engage conversations with men and women about gender and power in the home, at the school gate, in the pub, in interactions with colleagues and students and in all of the social contexts in which I find myself. I have benefitted immeasurably from a powerhouse of older female mentors who have gently challenged and steered me through and around my own blind spots. They have helped me to recognize what I might be negotiating as a woman and as a mother and offered me different ways of thinking about what it is to be a feminist in such a challenging set of institutional structures – the church, the university, motherhood. I am supremely grateful to the women whom I meet from around the world who have spent their lives challenging unjust structures and taught me much about how to use my privilege to do my part.

Tags : Jo SadgroveUniversity of Leeds

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