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Gender, Religiosity, and Proscription in The Will to Arise Mar 18, 2003
This paper will review Oduyoye and Kanyoro's The Will to Arise ( __), and more specifically, its tenth chapter, "Human Sexuality, Marriage, and Prostitution," by Bernadette Mbuy Beya. The overall text provides a general survey of specific issues relevant to African women. Before criticizing various qualities of Beya's work, I introduce the chapter as part of the larger work by Oduyoye and Kanyoro, which serves as an informative gateway text into more specific, scholarly study in women's status, traditions, and religiosity in Africa. Beya's chapter provides a site where specific dynamics of female sexuality might be explored and may incite further study. Beya's essay treats human sexuality, marriage and prostitution, though "human" must here be read as "Zaire native female." This same synecdochic lens helps Beya mobilize an us/our discourse that positions the author as authority, within a monolithic continental African identity. Postured as such, Beya speaks as the voice for, as one of, and prescriptively to, continental African females. The opening lines of the essay are heavily stocked with material for building this relative position: "our African culture;" "anything but comfortable for us;" "some of us African women" (155). Conversely, Beya's discursive distance from the assumed foreign reader performs a significant play of alterity, significant when a major thrust of the essay acts to define what African females should be, or allegedly are. Her position acts to gatekeep liminal views of female Africanity in a juggle between description, proscription, and evaluation. Though Beya attempts to avoid theoretical considerations in her summary chapter, her consistent reference to continental Africa as a whole, "African culture," and "African women," in generalizations derived from research in a single nation (Zaire), raises significant questions about the validity, and proscriptivity, of her summations. While Beya does admit that "the practices and initiations to which we shall be referring are not identical in every aspect throughout the continent," her specificity within Zaire as a singular source-text of research ostensibly applicable to Africa in total raises concerns over motives for the perpetuation of a monolithic African identity, the use of Africa as cultural capital in trade; the erasure of specificities of Other in intra-racial culture, geography, or history for the purposes of a generalized discourse in gender or class; and proscriptivity engendered by the author's determination of what may or may not be appropriated as African from within various practices or customs. Through the course of her description of the African female subject, Beya develops a certain description of appropriate behavior and customs informed by her position as Mother Superior of the Ursuline Sisters and Director of the Institut Superieur des Sciences Religieuses in Lumbumbashi, Zaire. This position squares her as president of the research team, which collected the information for this chapter, and therefore informs the reader of her personal bias in the study. While her venture into sexuality as a taboo subject may provide important information and impetus for further study, the chapter is riddled with referential and inferential proscriptions for the subjects of her study. The language of her description performs proscription, constructing parameters of what an appropriate African female subject is, in the very act of presenting research findings. This bias utilizes her position as Mother Superior for an authoritative interpretation of data, and since the reader is never privileged to any substantial statistics derived from the data set, one wonders whose narrative is being written. She states, "an African woman makes no effort to exhibit her sexual qualities or tendencies. She prefers to have these merely surmised" (157). Other frequencies of this same didactic proscription include un-sourced cultural mythos, as in here: "A girl, it is said, should come to her marriage a `perfect woman'" (157). We may, perhaps, read "it is said by [Beya]," as no specific sourcing negates this possibility nor removes Beya from the conspicuous bias of her narrative position.