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Dr Funmi Para-Mallam was recently in Australia to address the Christian for Biblical Equality conference. JIM REIHER tells of her passion for gender equality

The customs officer was abrupt and rude. He even admitted that he pulled Funmi Para-Mallam out of the line simply because she was Nigerian. “Because some of the Nigerians who travel around the world are drug dealers, do you think we all are? Some Americans and Australians deal drugs too: do you pull all Americans and Australians out and search them and grill them?” Despite the time delays and the rude officials that she dealt with, Funmi could be gracious as well. She commented later, “Of course nations have to be vigilant and fight the drug trade. But it was the worst customs experience I have ever had, and I have visited 16 different nations”.


Dr Funmi Para-Mallam


“What causes a mother of five to fly from Nigeria to Melbourne, to spend a week at a conference on gender equality in the church and society?…Passion for the empowerment of women.”

What causes a mother of five to fly from Nigeria to Melbourne, to spend a week at a conference on gender equality in the church and society, the Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) conference? Why do this to yourself? Endure jet lag at both ends, and have a full schedule during her time here? What makes her endure the indignity of rude customs officers and delays at the airport in the middle of the night? What would make her do it all again if the opportunity arose? Passion for the empowerment of women

Dr Funmi Para-Mallam is a part of a large family, an incredibly busy working mum, and a devout Christian. She is passionately committed to improving women’s lives, especially in her home nation of Nigeria. When she was in high school, she dreamed of being the president of Nigeria. (“My father taught us that I could even be the president of Nigeria, but then my mother had to be at his beck and call.”) After a while she changed her focus and considered becoming a doctor. Then a lawyer. And then a diplomat (she speaks English, French and Portuguese). Eventually she has settled into the role of working for the Nigerian government in policy research and development. This includes gender development policy.  

Funmi and others have formed a society in their home country: Christian Women for Excellence and Empowerment in Nigerian Society (CWEENS). It is a rather unique group: their emphasis is on both prayer and social action. While some Christian groups like to focus on “just” prayer, and other Christian groups spend all their energy on “just” social action, not so with this group. They are deeply committed to both planks. They seek to grow Godly values and integrity in themselves and in those they work with. They aim to see women grow in excellence, and they work towards social transformation coming from that base. (A bit like the saying: “be the change you want to see in the world!”)

Nigeria is a fascinating country. Even though it is not the largest African nation in size, Nigeria has the largest population for any country in Africa with 140 million Nigerians (one in four Africans is Nigerian). The nation has the largest Anglican population of any nation in the world, and the largest church in the world is pastured by a Nigerian pastor in the Ukraine. About half the population of Nigeria is Islam and the other half Christian (even though each group says it is more 60:40 in their favour). You might think such a mix is a recipe for constant trouble. While it is true that there are occasional moments of tension and violence, and sometimes that violence can be significant and tragic, overall such is not the general rule for most of the nation. 

Having said that, Funmi left her home city of Jos after months of tension and some terrible violence in one section of that city earlier this year. It had been a terrible and unexpected explosion of violence. Muslims suddenly attacked a Christian area in the city, and ruthlessly slaughtered many hundreds of men women and children in gruesome and cruel ways. The Christian group targeted did not seek retaliation, but other groups who called themselves Christian did. After three days, the counter attack took place and a Muslim area was savagely attacked. The world news had arrived by then, and showed the Christian attack on Muslims, (without mentioning the former provocation three days earlier): it looked terrible for the so-called Christians. They appeared to be the ones initiating violence against defenceless Muslims. The different cultural groups who have various expressions of the Christian faith were not united in the counter attack. The actual victims of the first wave of violence did not want to resort to revenge and violence, believing Christ would not want that of them. A different group with an alternative view of what it means to be Christian, did not feel the same. It was all very ugly. And the tension has not died down completely even now, some months later. Funmi was concerned about leaving her youngest two children (five-year-old twin girls) while visiting Australia in case more trouble erupted. But things seem not to have. (Thanks God). 

When comparing the lot of Muslim women and Christian women in her nation, Funmi was adamant that both have some advantages and both have needs. The Muslim women for example, have certain rights under Islamic law and practice, that some Christian women are denied (for example, property rights). And while the Muslim writings do not make women fully equal (they get less property than men in the family), the fact is that there are writings and traditions that guarantee them at least something. Muslim women, also, do not have to change their family name when they marry. On the other hand, Christian women are more educated, more Westernised, have less restrictions on their movements, and more choice in marriage. Muslim women tend to be more conservative, Christian women more educated. 

“Religion including Christianity, has been an instrument of great injustice against women simply because of their gender” Fumni said. “Religion appears to be the last bastion of resistance fighting the liberation of women in Nigeria.” One thing both Islam and Christianity in Nigeria agree on: subject women under men. “Both the Koran and the Bible are used to do this”. Funmi herself has a high view of the Bible, but sees different ways of interpreting it as the problem. “There is an unthinking acceptance (in Nigeria) that Biblical culture is indeed the right culture for all time and Nigerian pastors pride themselves on how the Nigerian culture is so similar to Biblical culture.” (I could not help think that they probably do not try to see the slavery passages as relevant to today!) Funmi concluded: “The greatest problem for women in the church in Nigeria is culturally biased interpretation of sacred text”. 

African women are becoming more aware of women’s equality issues and progress made towards it on other more advanced countries. Religion and spirituality is deeply embedded in the daily life of Nigerians (a very different cultural expression to Australia). The Nigerian women are asking good questions of the men who want nothing to change:

• Why do we women till the land, if that was the punishment dished out to Adam for his sin?

• Why is my body fit to sleep with but my mind not fit to engage with?

• Why do women have to work longer hours and do harder physical work than men, if we are suppose to be the weaker sex?

The day must come when men as well as women face texts like Isaiah 58 and see that true religion is promoting justice and removing oppression, and setting captives free. Such teaching has to affect the treatment of women. 

When I asked Funmi what she would like to see five years from now, her reply was: “a country where justice, equity and merit are the order of the day. A country where people fear God and that fear has a direct impact on how they live. A country where all people regardless of ethnicity, sex, or religion, are given equal opportunity and access to contribute whatever they can to the community”.  

A worthy goal for all nations!

Dr. Funmi Para-Mallam came to Melbourne to speak at the international annual conference of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), held in Australia for the first time. The conference “Better Together” ran from 11th to 14th June and other speakers included: Dr. Graham Cole; Mimi Haddad (President of CBE international); Dr. Kevin Giles; and Dr. Cheryl Catford. Find out more about the Australian leg of CBE:

Jim Reiher, of Urban Neighbours of Hope, was a member of the organising committee for the CBE conference 2010.


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