Taking Research into the Community: Empowering Bradford’s Muslim Women through Hadith

In this blog post, our PhD student Sofia Rehman writes about her recent experience of public engagement and impact work with the Muslim Women’s Council in Bradford.

By Sofia Rehman

Shortly after starting my PhD programme, I was invited by the School of Philosophy, Religion, and History of Science, to submit an application for the Postgraduate Impact Fellowship scheme. The award provides successful applicants with a bursary of up to £200 to engage in work that takes their research directly into communities outside of academia, and which could potentially allow for new partnerships to form between non-academic groups and PRHS. I swiftly responded and before long received the great news that my application had been selected. Previously I had been in touch with the Muslim Women’s Council, a Bradford based grass-roots women’s organisation. I was involved in the Council’s year-long research project probing the issue of head-coverings, from Muslim, Jewish and Christian perspectives. The project pulled together 5 women from each of the faith traditions to participate in group discussions as well as one-to-one interviews. The project culminated in the publication of the book, Shared Heritage of Daughters of Eve. Headcoverings – Reflections from Women of Faith (2016) The book launch took place in front of a full house at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Having been involved in such a successful project, and seen firsthand the enthusiasm of the MWC to bring new perspectives and empowering narratives of faith to the local community of Muslim women, I was encouraged, and gladly agreed, to setting up a critical reading group for the MWC base in Bradford.  Following a discussion on practical aspects involved with a reading group with MWC Director, Bana Gora, and other Council members, we eventually settled on the idea of running a three-part seminar series on A’isha, which would draw directly from my research and therefore focus on her intellectual contribution to Islam, and also sessions on the lives of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima, and his grand-daughter, Sakeenah. A’isha is well known as the most beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and is a central figure in Sunni Islam, honoured with the title Mother of the Believers, and accepted as a paragon of female Muslim piety, and a source for Islamic knowledge.

webbookThe three sessions were a huge success, with a great deal of positive feedback from those in attendance. There was an impressive turnout of about 50 women per session. The standout session was undoubtedly the one on A’isha, in which I introduced the audience to the work of Imam Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi, whose 12th Century text on A’isha I am busy translating for my PhD and framing as part of a feminist critique of Hadith science. The highlight of the sessions was without doubt the small group discussions where I presented Prophetic traditions that are each problematic for their ostensible misogyny. I asked each group to discuss whether or not they had come across these traditions previously, and if they had, how had they understood them and how had they incorporated them into their own belief system. It was both fascinating and inspiring to see how the women responded. After a tentative start in which some women expressed concerns about being overly critical of statements which were clearly problematic, the group soon found their confidence and voices, especially after I presented them with A’isha’s own views on the same traditions in which she outright rejected that they could have be uttered by the Prophet Muhammad. Using A’isha’s voice, I was able to empower the women to engage confidently and critically with the traditions, and to think about how they may have been mis-transmitted. The whole experience was not only fulfilling and engaging for all involved, it served as a bridge building opportunity between the academy and a grassroots organisation working in the heart of Bradford’s Muslim community; this was in many ways an early fulfilment of what I have always wanted my work to be.

The three sessions led to a full day seminar on Islam and Feminism, run again by the MWC. I was subsequently invited to join their Board of Advisors, and the MWC is now also in touch with staff members in the CRPL. Thus, this has not only been a rewarding experience for me personally and for my research, but has also greatly contributed to the Centre and its impact and engagement activities.

Sofia Rehman is a second year PhD candidate with joint supervision in Theology and Religious Studies (Rachel Muers) and Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (Tajul Islam). She is also currently involved in an upcoming anthology with Unbound entitled, Cut from the Same Cloth.


Report on Same-Sex Marriage and Places of Worship in England and Wales

CRPL member Professor Robert Vanderbeck was involved in a research project on the solemnization of same-sex marriage in places of worship in England and Wales. The report with the research findings was recently released.

The report highlights the disadvantage faced by same-sex couples seeking a religious marriage ceremony. It shows that same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying in approximately 40,000 places of worship that permit different-sex couples to marry, and there are only 182 places of worship registered for same-sex marriage. The majority of places of worship that permit same-sex marriage only carry out a small number of ceremonies, with roughly half having actually married a gay couple.

During debates over the enactment of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, considerable attention was given to the need for protections for individuals who do not want to participate in same-sex weddings — as ministers, or choristers, for example. However, the report shows that very few people refuse to participate and therefore require these legal protections.

Study co-author, Robert Vanderbeck, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Leeds and a member of the CRPL, carried out the project together with researchers at the University of York. According to Vanderbeck, “Although many claims have been made about how the introduction of same-sex marriage would affect religious groups that offer it, this study provides the first systematic glimpse of what is actually happening on the ground in churches and other places of worship.”

The report found that many places of worship say that registering for same-sex marriage has produced positive benefits within a congregation. These include strengthening the solidarity of existing members, supporting existing LGBT members, and attracting new members. The research report further shows that among places of worship that have performed a same-sex marriage, three-quarters have provided a religious marriage ceremony to a same-sex couple that has not previously worshipped there, indicating that they welcome couples who are excluded from marrying in their own place of worship.

The report Religious marriage of same-sex couples : A report on places of worship in England and Wales registered for the solemnization of same-sex marriage is available on the White Rose Repository.

Sikh Radicalisation in Britain

CRPL researcher Dr Jasjit Singh writes about the findings of his recently completed research project on Sikh radicalisation in Britain, the report of which was published last week. He found very little evidence of religious radicalisation but did find that Sikh activism in Britain actually contributes positively to integration and social cohesion.

Sikh Radicalisation in Britain

By Dr Jasjit Singh 

In November 2015 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UK. According to media reports during this visit he presented a dossier on ‘Sikh radicalisation in Britain’ to his counterpart David Cameron, which included information on Sikh groups in the UK trying to revive the movement for a separate Sikh state (Khalistan), providing training on how to make explosive devices (IEDs) and funding hate-propaganda against India. Despite these Indian media reports, the British government publicly denied ever receiving this dossier when formally asked in Parliament.

Recent years have also seen a number of incidents involving Sikhs in Britain, including mobilisations around mixed faith weddings in gurdwaras (literally ‘house of the Guru’, refers to a Sikh institution where the Guru Granth Sahib Ji is present) campaigns against the serving of alcohol and meat in halls linked to gurdwaras and reports about Sikh/Muslim tensions and links between Sikhs and the far right. To explore these various incidents and reports, I led a CREST funded research project to examine the idea, context, framing and realities of ‘Sikh radicalisation in Britain’. I gathered evidence from historic and contemporary media sources, academic literature, social media, internet discussion forums, ethnographic fieldwork and a series of semi-structured interviews. The report from this project is available to download for free.

Image credits: CREST

I found that two events in 1984 fundamentally changed Sikh activism in Britain: The storming of Harmandir Sahib (often referred to as the Golden Temple) during Operation Bluestar in June 1984 and the violence that took place against Sikhs across India in November 1984, following the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister by her Sikh bodyguards. Before these events, Sikhs in Britain generally supported India and were mainly focused on campaigning for the right to maintain Sikh symbols in Britain. However, anger about Operation Bluestar remains an issue which continues to move Sikhs in Britain to protest. Although 1984 remains the main political driver to activism, there are also a number of religious and cultural narratives which also lead to Sikh activism, including instances of beadbi (disrespect) being shown to the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (regarded by Sikhs as the eternal living Guru, in the form of a book), the need to maintain the izzat (honour) of the Sikh community and the wish to uphold edicts issued from the seat of Sikh temporal authority (the Akal Takht).

Another prevalent narrative is that of Muslim grooming gangs targeting Sikh girls for grooming / conversion and these cases not being sufficiently dealt with by the authorities. This narrative often feeds on existing historical narratives and more contemporary Sikh/Muslim tensions and has led some Sikhs to engage with far right representatives and organisations. Narratives are transmitted in different ways, through families, organised events, lectures, camps, music and Sikh media (newspaper, broadcast, online and social media). As there are few places and spaces within the British education system for Sikhs in Britain to examine their heritage and history, many undertake such engagement and learning on an ad hoc basis, primarily online.

I categorise the different types of publicly visible Sikh activism in Britain as focusing on a) social justice and humanitarian relief (e.g., seeking justice for 1984, providing aid/food relief), b) diasporic nationalism around Khalistan, c) ‘enforcing’ Sikh practices so they are carried out according to established codes of conduct and/or Akal Takht decrees, d) ‘defending/policing’ the Sikh community against a variety of perceived ‘external threats’ and e) personal/factional disputes. I also found that although Sikh women regularly participate in Sikh activist rallies and protests, they are underrepresented in Sikh organisations. A number of female Sikh activists in particular are highlighting the fact that issues including gender inequality, sexual abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse (drugs, alcohol) have not been sufficiently addressed by Sikh organisations and institutions.

In conclusion, I found no threat to the British state or to the wider British public from Sikh activism as there is no conflict with ‘the West’ or with Britain. Indeed, the main threat to community relations in Britain is from individual or group vigilantism resulting from internal Sikh issues/disputes or from the exploitation of local intra- and inter-community tensions. Much Sikh activism in Britain actually contributes positively to the integration agenda, particularly in the form of humanitarian relief provided during natural disasters (e.g., the floods in Somerset and Hebden Bridge) and incidents (e.g., Grenfell) where members of the public require support.

Dr Jasjit Singh is a Research Fellow in Religious and Cultural Transmission at the University of Leeds. This project, Ethno-National, Religio-Cultural or Anti-Muslim? Investigating Sikh Radicalisation in Britain was funded by CREST. The full report and executive summary are available to download for free.

Also read his recent contribution to The Conversation, “Alarm spreads in Sikh diaspora at arrest of British man Jagtar Singh Johal in India“.

Clamour: Pentecostal Contestations over Women in Ministry

Jamys Carter – a PhD student associated with the Centre for Religion and Public Life –  writes about the picture he submitted to the University of Leeds’ “Postgraduate Research Image of the Year” competition, which captures his research about the question of women in ministry in a British Pentecostal church.

By Jamys Carter

Sometimes people wonder why I started researching a feminist subject, and why after fifteen years of pastoral ministry I would take a break from that to undertake a full time postgraduate research degree for three years. The answer to these questions is varied, but some of it lies captured in this recent image I took in response to the University of Leeds’ “Postgraduate Research Image of the Year” competition. As a ‘hobbying’ photographer I thought this competition would be a good challenge, and a reason to try out my three flashes and remote controls! The first problem was that I needed an appropriate venue, some thing identifiable as a church building. A year ago I could have used my own, but now I am involved in a church-plant in a sports hall (not the image I was after for this shot). A fellow minister gave me the keys to his venue, which overcame my first hurdle. The second hurdle was more technical, and I won’t bore you with the details, but I needed to remind myself how to use my equipment. Trial and error, and a light-meter, and I was good to go. The shoot itself took more than an hour, although my willing female preacher only needed to pose for about five minutes. The rest was all me, resulting in a slightly surreal image (but saved on consent forms and lots of waiting around). Lighting-rigs repositioned, slogans altered, clothes changed, and a while later I had many photos to work with. The longest part of the process was to come. This is the zoomed-in pixel by pixel editing required to layer one image over another. There may have been a better way, but with no green-screen big enough I was left with this painstaking process. However, I was pleased with the outcome, and the photo has been sent to the competition (please vote for it at the Leeds Doctoral College Showcase on the 4th December at the Great Hall and U.G 09 before 13.30 – only if you like it though).Jamys Carter Thesis photo - SMALL


The image caricatures the mix of opinions about women in ministry that I have experienced and heard about when the surface is scratched in Pentecostal churches. I am sure this is not limited to Pentecostals, but that is my area of research and experience. My MA by Research found that women ministers had all experienced some negative views about their ministry simply because of their gender. The opposition generally took a few arguments, based on their interpretation of the Bible, as captured in this photograph (“Leadership is male” or “Women should be silent”). The women ministers I talked to had been robust enough to find a way to minister, which for some meant moving to another church, or for others became a protracted disagreement at the local church leadership level. These oppositional voices almost clipped the wings of these women before they could obey the perceived call of God on their lives. Only God knows how many women have had their wings clipped and have not been able to find a way to minister because of such voices.

The oppositional voices are represented in the image ‘robustly’ shouting down the sound of the woman preacher. As I said earlier, this is a caricature and I have never actually heard of that kind of behaviour in a church service. But I know of people who have walked out, won’t turn up, or sit with a stony expression and folded arms if a woman takes the platform. It may just be one person in a congregation, it may be more, but that kind of response can spread. There is an uncomfortable atmosphere when someone expresses their disapproval, and those around them can feel the vibe and be discouraged. It is worse for the woman preacher. She has to face the disapproval,  she sees the expression and body language; as a preacher I know that one person who looks at you like that can seriously outweigh all the positive expressions in the rest of the congregation, it takes courage to carry on.

Despite the spotlight on the oppositional voices, the encouragers also have a spotlight. They can lift the preacher, they can keep them going, they provide a balance to the ‘other side’. Of course, this is hugely significant for the woman preacher who needs to know that people are with her and for her. My research demonstrated that the women ministers would reflect back on one or more voices that brought the encouragement for them to find a way to minister.

But then there is the congregation. The message is for them, as Jesus said “he who has ears, let him hear”. The problem, as depicted in the image, is that the congregation is rather in the shadows. Whether they look disengaged, or straining to hear, the spotlight remains on those who are either denouncing or encouraging the woman preacher. The clamour of voices can drown out the good news of Jesus. The woman preacher wants to preach the good news, but is faced with an issue that first has to be dealt with: is it God’s will for a woman to minister? Until the grassroots of the local church has answered that, then the women in that church may not fulfil their God-given potential.

Why did I start this line of research? I had the audacity to address this issue in my local church. Some people walked, some people crossed their arms and stared at me, but I carried on. Of course I hope and pray that the church in question will continue in the liberty I fought for; but my calling from God expanded beyond that one congregation. So here I am, with God’s grace, wanting to quiet the storm, wanting to quell the clamour.

About the author

Jamys Carter is a PhD student in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds and an ordained minister in the Elim Pentecostal Church.

Hook Lecture by Prof Linda Woodhead

The 2017 hook lecture will be given on 14 November by Prof. Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. She is best known for her work on religious change since the 1980s, and for initiating public debates about faith. She has been described by Matthew Taylor, head of the Royal Society of Arts, as “one of the world’s leading experts on religion”.

The lecture will be themed around ‘Remembering The Dead: Changing Public and Private Practices‘, and will explore how those who say they are ‘no religion’ on surveys make sense of life and death, how we are reinventing rituals, how ‘no religion’ is being institutionalized, and how all this relates to our Christian past.

The Hook Lecture is an annual event, which aims to stimulate debate around an issue of faith in the context of the city, shaping discussion and dialogue throughout the coming year. High profile speakers launch the conversation, drawing different communities together in Leeds Minster. The event is organised jointly by Leeds Church Institute, Leeds Minster and Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Click here to register for the event.


Research workshop on studying religion in Africa

Theory from the South: Africa as a Site for Understanding Contemporary Religion


Research workshop with

Professor Birgit Meyer, Utrecht University

Dr Marloes Janson, SOAS University of London

Dr Adriaan van Klinken, University of Leeds

hosted by

Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS)

and the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life (CRPL)

25-26 January 2018


Western theories and methods have often been uncritically applied in African contexts in order to make sense of African social, cultural and religious ideas and practices. The problematic history of European imperialism in the academic study of religion in Africa has been well-documented and critiqued (Chidester 1996, 2014), and the adequacy of theoretical and methodological tools originating from the West to understand contemporary religion in Africa has been interrogated in a quest for acknowledging ‘African traditions in the study of religion in Africa’ (Adogame, Chitando & Bateye 2012, 2013). Building on these bodies of scholarship, and engaging with more general calls for the decolonisation of knowledge produced about Africa, this research workshop takes up in particular the challenge posed by Jean and John Comaroff (2012) to think about Africa as a site where new knowledge, theories and methods are generated (rather than merely applied). It specifically aims to explore the question how the study of contemporary religion in Africa both requires and enables us to develop innovative theoretical and methodological perspectives that provide critical insight into the nature, manifestations, and effects of “religion” in our contemporary world.

The workshop starts with a public seminar by Professor Birgit Meyer on Thursday 25 January (5-7pm) with the title “Studying Religion in and from Africa”. On Friday 26 January, the programme continues with presentations by other participants. The workshop will be small-scale, informal and interactive, with sufficient time for discussion and feedback. Limited places are available. Participation in the workshop is free, but participants will need to cover their own travelling and accommodation costs.

We invite proposals, especially from PhD students and early-career researchers, who are keen to participate and present their research in relation to the above questions. Please submit a title, a 200 words abstract, and a short bio statement before 22 November by email to Dr Adriaan van KlinkenA.vanKlinken@leeds.ac.uk.

Inaugural Lecture Professor Emma Tomalin

Religion, Poverty Reduction and Global Development Institutions

Inaugural Lecture by Emma Tomalin, Professor of Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds

Thursday 30 November at 16:15h in the Nathan Bodington Chamber (Parkinson Building level 1)

There will be a drinks reception afterwards in the Ante Chamber, 17:30-18:30h

If you plan to attend the drinks reception, please notify Adriaan van Klinken by Friday 17 November.

Emma Tomalin

Dr Emma Tomalin has been Professor of Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds since 2015. She first came to the University of Leeds in 2000, after completing her PhD at the University of Lancaster.

Until recently Tomalin was the Director of the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life, and she is currently deputy head of the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science. She is co-convenor of the study group in the UK Development Studies Association (DSA) on “Religions and Development”. Her profile as an internationally leading scholar is evidenced by her membership of the American Academy of Religion’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion, and of the steering committee of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture.

She was recently awarded an AHRC network grant for the project “Keeping Faith in 2030: Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals”, and is co-investigator on an ESRC-funded project about “Understanding the Role of Faith Based Organisations in Anti-Trafficking”. She has also carried out commissioned research for Leeds City Council, Historic England, and UK Government’s Department for International Development (DfID), among other societal partners.

Tomalin has widely published in the fields of her interests, specifically religion and global development, and religion and environmentalism. Among many publications, she is the author of Religions and Development (Routledge 2013) and of Biodivinity and Biodiversity: The Limits to Religious Environmentalism (Ashgate 2009), and the editor of The Routledge Handbook of Religions and Global Development (Routledge 2015).

Beyond African religious homophobia: How Christianity is a source of African LGBT activism

(This post was originally published on the Religion and the Public Sphere blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science.)

The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Although religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle but have also been appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause. Adriaan van Klinken says we need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia as religion plays multiple and complex roles in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.

In recent years Africa has become widely associated with homophobia. It is even considered ‘the most homophobic continent’ in the world. This image is the result of the anti-gay rhetoric of political leaders such as President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the introduction of new anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda and Nigeria, and the arrest of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists in countries such as Cameroon and Zambia.

In this piece I’m not concerned with “African homophobia” as such – although I’d like to pose the question whether homophobia is the most useful term to understand the politics around homosexuality and LGBT rights in contemporary African societies. Neither am I concerned with the reasons why  Western media tend to depict “African homophobia” in rather sensationalist ways – although I do wonder whether it has something to do with the deep-rooted perception of Africa as “backward” that allows the West to see itself as “progressive” and “modern”.

My interest here is in the role of religion in African dynamics around homosexuality and LGBT rights. The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Given the dominance of Christianity in many of the countries in which homophobia seems on the rise, churches in particular are seen as fuelling the repression of African LGBT people. It is easy to find evidence in support of this idea: African Anglican bishops are at the forefront of the crisis over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion; Ugandan evangelical pastors actively campaigned for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill; Nigerian Catholic and Pentecostal leaders enthusiastically welcomed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill. Moreover, political leaders in many countries often use explicitly religious arguments against homosexuality, denouncing it not only as “un-African” but also “un-biblical” and “un-Christian”. In the media and among the general public religious beliefs often frame debates about homosexuality – such as in Zambia, where United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was even seen as an agent of the devil after he called upon the country to recognise the human rights of sexual minorities.

There’s enough evidence to argue that religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, and is a key obstacle to moving towards a future in which African LGBT people will be accepted in their communities and societies. Indeed, in my research over the past six years I have critically examined the role of religious leaders, organisations and beliefs in mobilisations against homosexuality and LGBT rights. However, more recently I have become interested in another question: is religion only and inherently an obstacle, or can it also be a source for African LGBT identity, community, and activism? Can religion play a role in (re)building Africa as a continent of diversity including in matters of sexuality?

I don’t buy into the notion, popular among some African theologians, that Africans are “notoriously religious”, as John Mbiti famously put it. Yet it is true that religion in all its varieties is an important aspect of identity and social practice for many Africans, and that it permeates African cultures and societies. If Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar are right when they state that “it is largely through religious ideas that Africans think about the world today, and that religious ideas provide them with a means of becoming social and political actors”, the question can be asked how this applies to LGBT people and their forms of community activism. In my current research project I explore this question in the context of Kenya, specifically in relation to Christianity, through a variety of case studies.

A Kenyan art collective, named The Nest, recently conducted an LGBT life stories project, for which they collected over 250 life stories of LGBT Kenyans in different parts of the country and from different ages and backgrounds. The result was published in an anthology, Stories of Our Lives, which gives a fascinating insight in the lives of LGBT people in an African country today and in their navigation of cultural, social and political complexities. Many of the stories refer to religion, with people telling about their religious upbringing at home, at school and in church. Furthermore, several stories testify of an ongoing religious commitment, an active participation in faith communities, and/or a relentless faith in God. Doing so, they provide insight in the way LGBT Kenyans do negotiate their sexuality and faith, and often find ways of reconciling the two, for instance through narratively claiming the love of God, the idea of being created in the image of God, or the inclusive and welcoming ministry of Jesus Christ.

The Stories of Our Lives project was not inspired by any explicit religious aims. However, the resulting stories demonstrate that for many LGBT Kenyans, Christian faith remains an important source of identity and practice, despite the negative experiences they often have in church. Where these stories reveal how this works on an individual basis, another case study demonstrates how faith becomes the basis for a new Kenyan LGBT Christian community. The case in point is an LGBT church in Nairobi, launched in 2013 by a group of Kenyan activists who wanted to create an affirmative space for LGBT people of faith where they could be nourished spiritually.

These activists received moral, pastoral and financial support from the US-based organisation, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. This is an African-American organisation that seeks to promote “a theology of radical inclusivity” in the “black church” in the US, and more recently also on the African continent by building a United Coalition of Affirming Africans. What is particularly interesting is not only the pan-African ideology underlying this initiative, but also the way in which it is framed explicitly as a progressive black Christian attempt to combat the influence of American white evangelical Christianity. This puts both race and sexuality at the heart of a contest for the future of Christianity in Africa.

Obviously much is at stake here, which is reflected in some sermons I overheard in the Nairobi church about the theme of “rewriting the Book of Acts”. This trope suggests that just like the early Christian church two thousand years ago, this small LGBT affirming church community is currently figuring out its identity and mission which will be decisive for nothing less than the nature and future of Christianity in Kenya and in Africa at large. Whilst this framing might seem pretentious, or at least ambitious, the church in Nairobi does play a crucial role for community members, including a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees who had to leave their home country due to ostracism but who continue to experience marginalisation and harassment in Kenya.

Through prayer and preaching, worship and pastoral support, but also through sport and recreation activities as well as advocacy and community activism, the church provides an important social and spiritual home for its congregants. In the words of their mission statement, the church “proclaims the unconditional love of God, which embraces all humanity”. Similar initiatives have mushroomed in other African countries in recent years, representing a nascent African Christian LGBT movement.

Beyond the confines of explicitly Christian LGBT activism, it is interesting to see that also other LGBT activist expressions engage Christianity. A case in point is the Same Love music video, released by Kenyan musicians and activists in February 2016 (and soon thereafter banned by the Kenyan authorities). Presented as “a Kenyan song about same sex rights”, the video makes several references to religion. On the one hand, it critically denounces the role of religious beliefs and actors in the demonisation of LGBT people and the hate they experience “in the name of piety”. On the other hand, and perhaps more significant, the video appeals to religion in positive ways.

The line “Uganda … Nigeria Africa … we come from the same God, cut from the same cord, share the same pain and share the same skin” reflects a sense of pan-Africanism where African unity-in-diversity is rooted in a shared sense of being created by God. The song also refers to “the spirit of Martin Luther King”, claiming the Christian-inspired legacy of this famous leader of the African-American civil rights movement to support the struggle for LGBT rights in Africa. Most prominently, the song ends with a long quotation from the Bible – the classic text about love in 1 Corinthians 13 – with the closing statement being “Love is God and God is Love”. This clearly demonstrates that the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle where the debate on homosexuality is being fought by homophobic African religious and political leaders, but that the same sites are appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause.

The longer term impact of these various ways in which Christianity is reclaimed to support LGBT identity, community and activism in Africa is still to be seen. Yet these examples do illustrate the need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia, and to attend to the multiple and complex roles that religion plays in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.

About the author

Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life; he serves as co-chair of the African Religions unit in the American Academy of Religion, and as editor of the journal Religion and Gender. His research focuses on issues of religion, gender and sexuality in Africa. Together with Ezra Chitando he recently edited two books: Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa and Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa (Routledge 2016).