Gender and Religion

Jamaica is an exceptionally religious society. Religious beliefs permeate every aspect of daily life, and the church is often as important to an individual as work and family. Although the leaders of most churches are men, women are in the majority, in attendance and membership, and are much more involved in church activities. As in other areas of Jamaican life, men perform public roles that are typically expressive, conspicuous, performative, and status bearing, such as preaching, while women are responsible for more inconspicuous, typically domestic, tasks. Women are believed to be more "spiritual" than men, that is, more often ecstatic in services, although statistics collected by Wedenoja do not bear this out.

There are four significant forms of religion in Jamaica today. The orthodox Christian churches, including the Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, were established in the early 19th century and hold the allegiance of 25% of the population, according to the 1991 census. Their membership has declined drastically during the 20th century. Revival, an indigenous, folk, or Creole religion (also known as Zion and Pocomania) that developed in the mid-19th century, is not recorded in the census. The Pentecostal Christian churches, which date from at least 1918, have grown steadily and are now the most popular, at 29%. Finally, the famous messianic millenarian Rastafarian movement, which originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, has had a dramatic impact on Jamaican culture even though it accounts for less than 1% of the population.

Orthodox Christianity brought European morality to Jamaica where it became the bastion of middle-class respectability, centering on the sanctity of marriage, the nuclear family, the patriarchal role of the husband as provider and head of the family, and the wife as home-maker and mother. The working-class was thereby excluded, and developed Revival as an alternative. However, when a working class woman gets married, she often joins an orthodox church as a sign of her new status. The orthodox churches are always led by men, and about 45% of their members are male. About half of all Revival churches, on the other hand, are led by women, and men made up only 37% of a large congregation studied by Wedenoja.

Pentecostalism and Rastafarianism both developed in the early 20th century and are markedly gendered (Austin-Broos, 1987). According to the 1991 census, 57% of Pentecostals are women, although the percentage of women at services is generally much greater. In contrast, 81% of Rastafarians are male.

Pentecostal churches attract young single working-class mothers in particular. Although Pentecostal congregations are led largely by men, women can attain positions of leadership, including that of pastor. The ideology of these churches is essentially a protest against male domination and exploitation of women, particularly male "promiscuity" and "irresponsibility." Women follow strict rules of dress and demeanor associated with modesty. Pentecostalism promises to "cleanse" women from "fornication" and make them "brides of Christ" with the support and protection of the congregation. Jesus is depicted as the faithful dependable husband, apparently lacking in "the world", as well as an alternative role model for male converts who have been "saved" from the "world of sin" on the streets.

The Rastafarian movement seeks to liberate black people from white oppression; ironically, it also promotes male domination and female subordination (Lake, 1994). Men are the designated spiritual leaders of the movement, the heads of households, and the rulers of women. They are to "spread their seed" without regard to their marital status, while their wives must remain faithful. At the same time, however, men should be sensitive to the needs of their wives and develop a close relationship with their children. A woman becomes a Rasta through her man. She should wear a long dress and cover her head. She should not speak in church or talk directly to God, and is subject to menstrual taboos when she is "unclean." One of the main aims of the Rastafari is to reassert the dominance of poor and working-class men, perhaps in response to a matrifocal upbringing. It also offers a new male identity, based on Haile Selassie, the black messiah, possibly as a substitute for the absent father.

Many revivalists practice a popular form of healing known as balm, which is usually performed by an older woman referred to as a "Mother," who offers divinations, baths, herbs, candles, incense, and prayers to cure spiritual afflictions. Therefore healing is associated with women, and the healing relationship is modeled on the mother-child relationship. In contrast, obeah, the practice of sorcery, is always practiced by men, as is Science, the use of magic for good fortune (Wedenoja, 1989).

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