Contested Gender Regimes: Negotiations of Femininities and Masculinities during the Swiss Bethlehem Mission Society’s Encounter with Late Colonial Zimbabwe

Non-European mission territories formed spaces in which gender norms – in their intersectional entanglements with ‹race›, class, sexuality and religion – were subject to constant processes of negotiation. This paper focuses on Switzerland's largest Catholic mission, the Bethlehem Mission Society, and its extensive activities in colonial Zimbabwe between 1940 and the early 1960s. It explores how female and male Swiss church dignitaries utilized the conditions of the colonial situation to overemphasize, but also to question and transcend, supposedly ‹God-given› gender roles. The asymmetrical power structures of the settler colony informed gender (dis)orders, as did discourses on the nature of sub-Saharan Africa and on the racially ascribed «nature» and «naturalness» of its autochthonous population. Moreover, in their daily encounter, the latter challenged the increasingly fragile Catholic gender ideals. By examining these dimensions of missionary entanglements, the paper sheds light on how notions of femininity and masculinity, of whiteness and blackness, of Christianity and «paganism», and of nature and culture mutually shaped each other in tense colonial situations - which in turn reverberated in Switzerland.

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