Nelson Mandela Foundation

Why are Black, religious women so heavily persecuted?

For most of my life, I did not find the need to hide my religion. I was raised in a Christian household, and at the age of 16, attending Zion Christian Church (ZCC), Mabopane branch, I decided to get baptized. This came with a long list of expectations from the church and my family, but I knew what I was signing up for. Since then, I have shown up as a Christian religious woman, headwrap, badge and all. This was until I saw how this part of who I am could be a reason for people to discriminate against me, and I began to hide this part of who I am to be able to navigate through a world that often imposes stereotypes and barriers against religious people.

Religion, for me, is a way of life, it is a guiding light, what I refer to as “my True North,” a force that has determined the trajectory of my life. It is a safety net, it is a community that breathes life into me, it is structure, an anchor, a constant unwavering force in my life, fertile grounds that have fostered nothing but growth, a space that has nourished and guided me through the good and the bad. A space that has provided me with spiritual nourishment, and emotional and physical protection. A compass that has offered me direction, while allowing me to make mistakes along the way.

For some people, religion is a tool used to oppress and perpetuate different systems of oppression. It is used to isolate groups of people in the same way as race, class, and gender. Religion has become an additional factor that separates us, and it has become a reason to judge someone, a social construct that divides us.

Showing up as my Christian self meant that I would have to navigate negative, stereotypical beliefs that showed themselves in intense microaggressions, discrimination and bias from people within and outside of my religion. In some spaces, I felt too Christian, and, within the church structures, I was not Christian enough, always missing the bar set, wherever it was being set. It became more and more psychologically and emotionally taxing for me. I was in constant fear of people’s biased reactions to a young woman wearing a headwrap, a ZCC badge and a long skirt. The looks, the comments, the isolation.

I was perceived as conventional, conservative, traditional, strict, unapproachable and even stuck in my ways. I was also perceived as one of the few good ones left, someone you could marry, which, between you and me, is honestly never a good sign. There was a lot of pressure that came with embodying someone else’s ideas about my religion and my faith.

I felt religiously mandated to be someone else. I was not allowed to be flawed. I wasn’t free to express my radical feminist views on equality and women's empowerment because I was seen as passive, oppressed and old-fashioned. It was more intense when I got to university, and people I considered my peers saw me as older, and I was excluded from so many experiences. The identity that I wore proudly became the one thing that made me lose my individuality. It made people hold me to a higher standard, I couldn’t make mistakes, and I could not express myself freely without getting comments like o mosione. I was forced to meet standards and expectations that were beyond me.

Even at my current job, when I interviewed, I did not wear my headwrap and badge, and I got the job. Having conversations with my manager, I shared how I’ve had to hide that part of who I am to be able to move through society with some sense of freedom and individuality. This was the first time they had heard that I was a religious woman, and their biases and stereotypes were laid bare when they said, “Oh, I didn’t know that. Sjo, I actually don’t know if you would have gotten this job if you were wearing a headwrap and badge. I didn’t know I held these stereotypes and biases, I’ve clearly got work to do.”

It was disheartening to see how people were quick to box me in, limit the complexities and elements that makeup who I am and reduce it to just a long skirt, a headwrap and a badge. And when one looks deeper, it is mainly religious women that are persecuted and discriminated against in this way, women wearing burkas and hijabs, wearing headwraps or blue and white beaded necklaces. It is a kind of oppression that targets religious women who are often women of colour.

As I continue to be a Christian woman, I want to dismantle the idea that my religion is reason to believe that I am timid, unambitious, or lacking passion. Rather, it is about me being able to express and exercise my own agency and autonomy, being able to choose to wear what I want to wear, when I want to wear it. My headwrap and badge are a personal choice that should not be seen as a pair of handcuffs that limit me from being me. It should rather be an extension of who I am.

As I continue this journey, I understand that my religion was never centred on the idea of bowing down to cultural and religious expectations, and not being allowed to question anything - expected to simply, robotically walk through life doing as I am told. Rather, it is a space and an opportunity to grow, to question, and to refine my True North. Religion has played a massive role in defining who I am today, and I should be able to live those values however, and whenever I show up at work, at school, or anywhere else in society.