Women and Spirituality

Panellists: Mona Eltahawy, Marta Celestino

Moderator: Olaokun Soyinka

“Yoruba is well connected to brazil”

These are the opening words of moderator Olaokun Soyinka in a panel with Ms. Marta Celestina, an Iyalorisha from Brazil and Mona Eltahawy, a feminist. The panel titled women and spirituality explores how different religions interfere with and affect women’s lives positively or negatively. The discussions centre about Abrahamic religions and the Candomble religion. Marta Celestina is a Candomble which is the Brazilian branch of the Yoruba traditional religion. She has been intitated for Ogun since 2001 and has been a Candomble devotee for most of her life. Mona Eltahawy, who introduces all her panels with the three words: fuck the patriarchy, is a freelance Egyptian-American journalist and Muslim feminist.


In introducing herself and her religion, Marta points out what Orishas do. She says “Orishas independent of religion are the way to connect with ancestors. Through Orishas we can put part of us inside of us.”

Historically and even in this day, religions are used as instruments of patriarchy and to control women. For Mona who is a Muslim and who writes extensively on feminism and on how she manages these apparently “conflicting” identities, anything that will hold women captive, whether it is a mandate from God or man, should be done away with. She says “I straddle various disciplines and identities. My move to Saudi traumatized me into feminism and I learned there are different ways to be muslim. I am constantly questioning the concept of choice, with reference to Abrahamic religions. I question what choice we really have. There is a burden that is particular on girls and women – the modesty culture. We must dismantle patriarchy by the dissection of misogyny – the state, the street and the home (bedroom)”

Marta tries to juxtapose this conundrum of oppression in other faiths with what operates in Candomble and finds that though existing, it is not the same as what women in other faiths experience. She says: “In terms of oppression, Candomble is different from Abrahamic religions. Though there is patriarchy in Brazil, there isn’t so much of this in Candomble. Three women slaves from Africa formed the religion when they were brought to Brazil during the slave trade. There are brotherhood problems as well, but this is little as compared to Muslims.”

Women are very important in the Candomble faith. Services are usually led by women, called 'mothers of the holy one', and it is the women who are responsible for ensuring the training of future priestesses. The Candomble religion is a very inclusive religion with women holding several influential positions and not discriminating against members of the LGBTQ community in Brazil. It is the first religion to embrace them. She however mentions that men do try to take away this power from women.

Mona insists that it is important to challenge the religion. “If anything is used to harm women or girls, it must go. Whether it is from God, prophet, or man.” She says. She shows off her fair arms covered in tattoos and her uncovered red hair. She defies the rules men make. Men have an obsession with the bodies of women. Once when she prayed on her period, a man told her that he had found this appalling and she wondered how her period had anything to do with him. “Women need to stop waiting for permission. Do not ask for permission to be free,” She says. 

She ends the conversation by answering a question from the audience about the part women play in promoting patriarchy. She says that some women are told they would be protected from patriarchy so they act as foot soldiers of patriarchy. “We have to tell them patriarchy will not protect them. Men too will be liberated when patriarchy is dismantled.”



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