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Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele)

Navigating a Gender-Unconscious Biblical Studies Academic Context: One African Woman’s Reflection

In order to situate the concept of gender within my African-South African context, I start with a narrative that will hopefully give a reader a glimpse about being female in the preceding context.

O feleseditše ba bangwe, “she has accompanied others”, could be one of the remarks of ushering a new baby girl onto Mother Earth in the Northern Sotho/Pedi [1] African-South African context. Right from the moment of her birth, the sex of a baby girl would have determined the value that a patriarchal culture would place on her. In the Zulu culture, argues Krige (1956: 62), marriage is regarded as complete only after the birth of a child. The first child, especially a boy, is very important to this group. The naming of a new bride in my Northern Sotho/Pedi culture for example, points in the same direction. My bridal name, MmaNape, was already pointing to the expectation that my firstborn child had to be Nape, a male person after whom the expected baby boy would be named.

It can be argued that the male has thus basically been the norm since the beginning (read: pre-colonial Africa), through the two eras which though were marked by their foreignness to Africa, have left a permanent foreign mark on African-descended people in South Africa, that is the colonial and the apartheid eras. Ngungi wa Thiongo cites as one of the examples of this persistent Europhone memory, the naming of Africans by foreign names: “As a result, European names, like the iron brands of Sembene’s film, cling to the bodies of many African peoples, and whatever they achieve that ‘name’ is always around to claim its ownership of that achievement. A name given and accepted is a memory planted on the body of its grateful or unquestioning recipient. The body becomes a book, a parchment, where ownership and identity are forever inscribed.” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 2005: 158)
The male still pretty much remains the norm even up to today, not only 22 years into a democracy, but sixty years after the 1956 march of South African women to the Union Buildings. It could thus be safely concluded that when colonial and apartheid patriarchies saw it limping, they let it climb a mountain anyway[2]. In a nutshell, even in communal, family-oriented pre-colonial Africa, the male has been the norm, colonial and apartheid patriarchies thus only helped to exacerbate the situation of African women. Mercy Amba Oduyoye is thus on target that, “…it is too easy to lay the blame solely at the feet of westernization. We know that in the African religio-cultural heritage is to be found the seeds of objectification and marginalization of women. Colonial policies simply helped the process along, and it succeeded to the extent that it was advantageous for African men.” (Oduyoye 1994: 173)
Right from the moment of her birth, a baby girl’s sex would determine her value in a patriarchal culture. In varying African contexts, cattle used to be (and still is) one of the significant markers of a male’s possessions. Hence a bigger kraal could also determine whether a man would be polygynous or not. More girls born to a family thus meant a bigger kraal as more cattle would be given in exchange of their hand in marriage. So, in these supposedly communal, family and botho-oriented settings, one’s gender determined not only the extent of one’s foreignness within predominantly male households, but also, one’s objectification as a part of male possessions. Female sexuality was/is possessed and thus contained by men.
The vocabulary of individual human’s rights, or rather women’s rights as are now enshrined in the South African constitution, seems to have been unknown then. What about today when South Africa is boasting about a wonderful constitution especially in terms of its affirmation of human rights?[3] Is the community of the powerful, those occupying the top rung of the kyriarchal [4] ladder, the male, the white and the rich among others, albeit aware of these rights, ignoring them?

Pertinent questions must be asked though: In light of the scenario painted in the preceding paragraphs, would it be precise to argue that African women were/are powerless, helpless and pitiable human beings without any influence in their own settings? Could they have been segregated within their own ethnic groupings just because they were Northern Sotho/Pedi women for example?

Although African women were marginalised basically on account of their gender, basically subordinated by members of the male folk, women had power[5], albeit their power was not legitimated by patriarchy. What could African communities do without mothers, these important carriers of male lineages? How could African families have survived without wives and paternal sisters for example? What could have held African families together amid the cruel monsters of apartheid male deaths, exile and migrant labour? African women could and still can thus, like women in the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible, either make or break a man (cf. Bird 1974).[6]

Although post-1994 South Africa has had its gains regarding the empowerment of the female folk, thus also entailing that some of the preceding marginalizing tendencies could be on the decline, the lot for African women, especially in academic biblical studies is far from over. The academic department, to which I presently belong, can serve as a case in point. The erstwhile Department of Old Testament, now the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies which has existed for more than five decades now to my knowledge produced less than 5 doctoral theses which focused on gender criticism. Since 1996, when I was named not only the first black female to get a PhD in biblical studies in South Africa, but also the first PhD candidate to approach the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible from a womanhood perspective at UNISA, I cannot recall any other black South African PhD which the department has produced in that regard except the Congolese Rev. Dr. Marthe Maleke Kondemo whom I have produced last year, almost two decades down the line! Another female Congolese PhD was produced in September 2016, when the IOSOT conference was on. I do not think though, that the situation is the same in other theology disciplines like Missiology, Church History, Systematic theology and Practical Theology for example.


The preceding scenario has hopefully shed light on the very long journey still ahead, a journey hopefully to be walked by the upcoming Hebrew Bible scholars. To my knowledge, within the new merged Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies at UNISA, only two undergraduate modules focus on the Bible, gender and sexuality. At Honors level, there is a paper on Bible interpretation, one that can, depending on the discretion of a specific academic, integrate the gender category. At Masters and Doctoral (M and D) levels, students have the option of approaching their individual topics from a gender perspective if they so wish, the challenge though lurks in the latter option.

The first question we were requested to address was on the greatest gain for using gender as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Hebrew Bible. To the preceding question I now turn:

Given the history of scholarly deprivation on contextual approaches to the study of biblical texts, especially studies which would have enabled me to make more sense of the South African context with its racial history among others, the integration of the category of gender in my doctoral research, writings and teaching enabled me to have a more nuanced understanding of my context and the contexts which produced biblical texts. The critical skills gained in my studies of gender criticism in biblical studies also came in handy not only within my inter/multi/trans-disciplinary interactions, but also in one’s daily life. Such skills though, are not always taken kindly by those close to one’s life. On the church front, one can cite an incident where, after I was given an opportunity to address a women’s session during the District conference, the following morning, women pastors/elders were allowed to serve at the communion table! The District Secretary, an elderly man, explained to the audience that the District Office was prompted to include the women by the message in which I had revealed that in Christ there was neither male nor female. At the moment, there is one female member within the District Office of the presbytery to which I belong, something that is herstoric for that specific office. Although one may not with confidence argue that one’s contributions in terms of one’s participation in the church, both locally and nationally might have directly contributed to such a bold step, it would also not be an exaggeration to argue that my voice, one that was/is not always popular, made a contribution in that regard. I must say though, that one of the greatest gains, that I hope to forever cherish, is that of producing PhD candidates whose work would have included a contextual slant in general, and an African-conscious gender slant in particular.

The second question which we were asked to address was: What would you say is the greatest challenge faced by scholars interested in gender and the Bible, especially with regard to a discourse across contexts and continents?

The main challenge is that the category of gender, especially as it affects the lives of African women on the African continent still struggles to have its way into mainstream biblical studies, both in South Africa, and dare one say, also on the African continent as such. Also, research has shown that while African scholarship uses the canons of Western biblical scholarship perhaps even in a routinized way, the opposite state of affairs occurs with regard to the use of African female scholarship by Western scholars. African canons hardly make it to the West. The case of the use of Renita Weems as a source within the commentaries on the prophetic metaphor of Yahweh as Husband and Israel as wife might be cited here (cf. my response to the Twentieth Edition of Women’s Bible Commentary at the 2012 Annual SBL Meeting). In that case, the notion of a global village gets problematized. It is however affirming to see and engage with the works of Circle women within the Organization called the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians. According of Isabel Phiri, one of the former general coordinators of the Circle, the main objective behind its establishment was “to build the capacity of African women to contribute their critical thinking and analysis to advance current knowledge using a theoretical framework based on theology, religion and culture” (Phiri 2008: 67). At the local levels, depending on the functionality of the various Circle chapters, the mentor-mentee relationships take place. Noteworthy also is the fact that the College of Human Sciences at UNISA has made strides of success in its mentorship program.

For activist scholars who also choose to plough back into their faith communities, especially within conservative ecclesiastical circles, foregrounding the gender category within one’s sermons and teachings may in extreme cases lead to ostracism (cf. Masenya[ngwan’a Mphahlele] 2016).

In conclusion, it may be argued that while the struggle for the integration of the category of gender, including other categories such as social class, culture, empire, race, and ethnicity within mainstream biblical studies is far from over within the South African academy, there are positive pointers that if what has been started could continue to be cultivated and nurtured, it could prove to be fruitful and rewarding for especially future biblical scholars.



Bird, Phyllis. 1974. “Images of Woman in the Book of Proverbs.” Pages 41–60 in Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. Edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Krige, Eileen Jensen. 1956. Social System of the Zulus. Cape Town: Via Africa.

Masenya(ngwan’a Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2012. Response to Women’s Bible Commentary (edited by Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe and Jacqueline Lapsley. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), presented at the 2012 SBL Annual Meetings, Chicago, IL, USA.

Masenya(ngwan’a Mphahlele), Madipoane. 2016. “Foreign on Own Home Front? Ruminations from an African-South African Pentecostal Biblical Scholar,” in Global Renewal Christianity: Spirit-Empowered Movements: Past, Present and Future. Edited by Vinson Synana, Amos Yong et al. Siloam: CharismaHouse.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. 2005. “Europhone or African Memory: The Challenge of the Pan-Africa­nist Intellectual in the Era of Globalization.” Pages 155–164 in African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development. Edited by T. Mkandawire. London/New York: Zed Books.

Rakoma, Jospeh Ramathea Debele. 1971. Marema-ka-Dika tša Sesotho sa Leboa. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Oduyoye, Mercy A. 1994. “Feminist Theology in African Perspective.” Pages 166–181 in Paths in African Theology. Edited by Rosino Gebellini. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Phiri, Isabel. 2008. “Major Challenges for African Women Theologians in Theological Education (1989–2008),” Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae 34/2, 63–81.

Schüssler-Fiorenza, Elisabeth. 1992. ‘But She Said’: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon.

The 1956 Women’s March, Pretoria, 9 August “History of Women’s struggle in South Africa.” Accessed 2016/10/08; produced on 30 March 2011, by the South African History Online.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, No. 108 of 1996. Date of Promulgation: 18 Dec 1996; Date of Commencement: 4 Feb 1997 (Unless otherwise indicated).

Ziervogel, Dirk, and Mokgokong, Pothinus C. 1975. Comprehensive Northern Sotho Dictionary. Pretoria: Van Schaik.


[1] Northern Sotho/Pedi is one of the indigenous languages in South Africa; with other African languages, it has also received the status of an official language post-1994.

[2] The Northern Sotho/Pedi proverb, Wa re o e bona e hlotša, wa e nametša thaba (while you saw it limping, you still let it climb a mountain anyway). The tenor of the proverb reveals that a specific situation is being exacerbated.

[3] In Chapter 2, Section 3, p. 1247 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa we read, “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against any one on one or more grounds, including race, gender, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

[4] In the tradition of patriarchal Greek democracy, Western society and family are not just male, but they are patriarchal (rule of the father) or, more accurately, kyriarchal (rule of the master or lord), because elite propertied men have power over those subordinate to and dependent on them (Schüssler Fiorenza 1992: 117).

[5] The Northern Sotho/Pedi proverb says: Naswa ya mošate e fenya e sa rage, ‘a black royal cow prevails even if it does not kick.’

[6] Phyllis Bird reasons, “Women are not chattel in Proverbs, nor are they simply sexual ob­jects; they are persons of intelligence and will, who, from the male’s point of view expressed here, either make (cf. Woman Wisdom, good wife and Woman of Worth) or break (cf. loose woman and other/strange woman) a man” (Bird 1974: 60; brackets mine).

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Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele),

is Professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in Pretoria. She is a widely known womanist theologian and associate editor of The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Scriptures and the African Diaspora (Fortress Press Minneapolis 2010). She has more than 30 years of teaching experience in higher education. Her research interests are the Hebrew Bible and gender issues as well as wisdom (both in Africa and in Israel). She authored numerous books and articles, among them How Worthy is the Woman of Worth? Rereading Prov 31:10-31 in African-South Africa (2004); African Women, HIV/AIDS and Faith Communities (co-edited with Isabel Phiri and Beverly Haddad, 2004).

© Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele), 2016,, ISSN 1661-3317