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Pioneer of African feminist says Church must give greater roles to women

Lucie Sarr |- La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Nov 2nd 2023

In the run-up to International Women's Day on March 8, "La Croix Africa" asks Catholic women on the African continent how they see their place in the Church

Marie Angélique Sagna Savané, Senegalese sociologist and politician is the former director of the United Nations Population Fund's office for Africa. She is also a feminist and Catholic activist. (Photo by Charles Senghor/LCA)

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"Many priests think that I am too critical or too hard because I dare to say what I think, having always held positions of responsibility," says Marie Angélique Sagna Savané, a Senegalese sociologist and former politician. 

The 75-year-old Catholic, a former director of the UN Population Fund's office for Africa, is known as one of the pioneers of feminism on the continent. And she's not afraid to speak out for more inclusion of women in her Church's decision-making structure. 

"Jesus Christ, during his time, brought women into his entourage, asking for them to be respected. It is the religious practices in the institutions that have relegated or even erased the presence of women," she says. Savané, who says she favors the ordination of woman priests, shared her views on women and the Catholic Church in this exclusive interview with La Croix Africa's Lucie Sarr. 

La Croix Africa: Can one be a feminist and a Catholic?

Marie Angélique Savané: I am often asked this question. I do not think feminism and the Catholic faith are irreconcilable. It all depends on how you look at it. For me, it was easier because at the time of my hardcore feminist involvement, I was away from the Church. As a result, I did not have to suffer the wrath of the Church authorities in relation to my positions.

When I came back to the Church (what I call my conversion), my feminism and my political commitment helped me to deepen my spirituality. For me, the Church is an institution, but I place more importance on the interpersonal relationship with God, that is, spirituality. I start from the principle that Jesus' teaching is addressed to all, women and men.

We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus lived in a patriarchal era and yet he did some very powerful things for and through women. Many miracles were performed by Jesus thanks to the faith of a woman. We also too often neglect the guiding figure of Mary Magdalene, and yet she is the one to whom Jesus chose to announce his resurrection.

We can also go back to the book of Genesis, in the account of the Creation, where it is said that "God created them male and female". But the patriarchy, which is an ideological system of power, has rewritten the history of relations between men and women to suit itself and to justify the domination over and subordination of women, mainly through religion.

Saint Paul, in the Letter to the Galatians, will come back to the equality of men and women before God. So for me, in principle, there is no justification for the inferiority of women in the divine plan. And Jesus Christ, during his time, brought women into his entourage, asking for them to be respected. It is the religious practices in the institutions that have relegated or even erased the presence of women, making them auxiliaries. Today we must reflect on the place of women in the Church.

When you observe the place and role of women in the Church in Africa, what are your thoughts? Is there an equilibrium between their commitment and their place in the decision-making process?

Many priests think that I am too critical or too hard because I dare to say what I think, having always held positions of responsibility. The fact that a woman speaks with confidence sometimes disturbs parishes.

I am impressed by the quality of the women religious we have, but unfortunately they are not valued enough in the Church. Yet, in Senegal, the best schools are run by nuns. The health structures they manage have an excellent reputation. But we do not feel their influence in the decision-making spheres of the Church. Pope Francis is breaking new ground in this regard.

In our parishes, when it comes to organizing celebrations and buying or selling fabrics, the women are always the ones who are turned to. But in the parish councils, how many women are there? And those who are there, are they chosen for their competence or just because they are in Catholic movements? It is time for women who are aware of the realities of today's society to be able to intervene in parishes and contribute to decision making. Parishes can also develop income-generating activities for women and youth.

Are you in favor of the priestly ordination of women?

Yes, of course I am for the ordination of women to the priesthood! I am also for married priests! I also disagree with the institutional Church regarding the total rejection by African priests, led by Cardinal Robert Sarah, of the Maputo Protocol (1). The main reason is because this document calls for the legalization of medical abortion in cases of rape, incest or in cases where the woman's life is in danger. I find their attitude unjust and sexist because it is men who speak, regardless of the physical and mental health of women victims!

Regarding contraception and family planning, I do not agree with the Church's view because natural birth control methods are not reliable. They present too many risks for women. If we want to avoid or reduce the number of abortions, the best way is to promote modern means of contraception.

(1) The Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights was adopted in July 2003 by the African Union. Signatory states committed to ensuring women's rights to participate in the political process, to benefit from social and political equality with men, and to greater autonomy in their health decisions. It also puts an end to female genital mutilation.

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