07 October 2008

Pentecostal Feminism in PNG

From Village on the Edge: Changing Times in Papua New Guinea, by Michael French Smith (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), p. 133:
Age aside, women tended to find charismatic worship more appealing than men. They liked the "freedom" said Kauref, using the English word. Although the principal charismatic leaders in Kragur were men, there seemed to be no barriers to anyone plunging enthusiastically into the praying and singing or stepping forward to offer an individual prayer or testimony. Women as well as men, I was told, could speak in tongues, and some could interpret such speech.

Pentecostal worship has made new space in religious life for both women and the young in other parts of the world as well. Pentecostal theology, writes Joel Robbins, "tends to downplay the importance of all identities except that of believer." And the worship itself, as Harvey Cox points out, focuses on "breaking out of the constraints and limitations of everyday life," including the social constraints, and communion with the Holy Spirit is typically open to all. In many parts of the world, women in particular have seized the opportunities this affords, and they are often found in the forefront of the Pentecostal movement.

Kauref approved of this equality in worship, but it did not please everyone. The pacing, gesticulating woman I saw at the first prayer meeting had looked every inch a leader of the proceedings. She turned out to be someone I knew, but, many years older now, I did not immediately recognize her. When, the next day, I asked Paypai who the female "leader" was, he practically spat out the words "She's no leader!" Kragur people take offense at any pretensions to leadership they see as unjustified, but my guess is that Paypai found the idea of a woman as a prominent public leader especially galling.

According to Brother Pawil, some Kragur women's enthusiasm for charismatic worship had angered their husbands. In addition to weekly evening services, there were also occasional prayer gatherings that brought together worshippers from several villages. These were church-sanctioned events in which women participated equally with men. They also took women away from home and their endless chores for entire days at a time. Pawil's sympathies were clearly with the women. "Women have been controlled by men for a long time." he told me (in English). "This offers anew freedom from male-dominated society. The long hours of prayer [and the women's absences from home] are a way of indirectly telling men they can go wash clothes and so on."

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