Women Combat Religious Intolerance
by Iya Melissa
In 2014, Marcos Rezende premiered his documentary, “Mulheres de Axé,” (Women of Axé) during New York City’s Brazil Week. I had the pleasure of attending the presentation of his work on this project – the documentary and a photo book capturing important images of women in Candomblé. The documentary is subtitled in English.
We’re then taken to an interview with Mãe Stella de Oxossi where she praises the ancestors and elders by saying*:
So, to begin our conversation, it’s good, before anything further, that we salute the elders. They served as an example for us when things were worse and Blacks couldn’t even walk freely in the streets. … So let’s honor those elders, the eldest, three elderly women known in Bahia who brought Candomblé – three elderly African women, Iya Deta, Iya Kala & Iya Nasso, so we salute them!
To impress upon viewers the importance of women in Candomblé, Mãe Jaciara d’Oxum recounts a tale of the male Orixás leaving Oxum out of their dealings. Because she was banned from participating in their meetings, everything on earth went topsy turvey – rivers dried, women couldn’t get pregnant, and people didn’t have food to eat. The male Orixás went to Olorum to complain, and he asked whether they involved Oxum in their plans. It then became clear to them that the absence of Oxum and feminine power kept all of their work from being realized. Only when they went to appease Oxum and ask for her participation, did things on earth become right again.
Mãe Jaciara’s telling of this story, coupled with Mãe Stella’s saluting the founding mothers of Candomblé Ketu, is a perfect place to begin a documentary about mulheres de axé.
Makota Valdina offers an interesting criticism of modern feminism. She states that in looking to move forward and find better opportunities for women in the present day, modern feminism denies the importance of roles that Black women held in the past. Tailors, maids, cooks, and babysitters, claims Makota, all paved the way for the opportunities that women, Black women specifically, are able to occupy today.
She also criticizes women who prefer to be called priestess instead of Iyalorixá (mother of the Orixá), because she feels that priestess minimizes the importance of women’s work within the religion. I’m a huge fan of Makota Valdina, and I don’t think I’ve heard her say anything that resonates with me more than when she said,
The issue about religion, the meaning of the mother…of a religious family, I think it’s wrong when the women who are religious leaders want to be called priestesses. This minimizes a lot, because one of the things that existed, so that Black families could exist today, was that women assumed the role of religious leadership when we didn’t have the right to have a family. And who was it that took on this role to gather everyone through religion and be a mother in a religious family? This is really important, and no one is keeping track of that. …It’s very important, this word mother. … It’s much more important than priestess. Because a mother has children, she has a family.
The idea being that religion is not just something that one does on a particular day of the week with a group of people you may or may not know, but rather that terreiros of Candomblé are religious families. Parents, in this case women, are extremely important to families. Mothers take care of their children. Mothers put their children’s needs before their own. Being an Iyalorixá, in many ways, is exactly that – being a (spiritual) mother to children that you may not have given birth to. It means putting the needs of your godchildren often before your own. It means feeling empowered so you can move forward and both teach and empower others.
The documentary goes on to address religious intolerance of the past and present day, and analyzes the roles women have played in combating discrimination. What I wished the film did more of, though, was continue to highlight the importance of women within the religion; that Casabranca doesn’t initiate men, that Babalorixás don’t become the religious heads at Opo Afonja or Gantois, or the role that Mãe Aninha played in decriminalizing Candomblé among other things.
*All excerpts from the documentary were translated by me, not copied from the subtitles.