School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

College of Humanities hosts first Gender, Religion & Sexuality Conference

From left: Prof David Spurrett, Prof Kwok Pui Lan; Prof Charlene van der Walt; Prof Lilian Siwila and Dr Federico Settler.
From left: Prof David Spurrett, Prof Kwok Pui Lan; Prof Charlene van der Walt; Prof Lilian Siwila and Dr Federico Settler.

The School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics (SRPC) in the College of Humanities recently hosted the first Religion, Gender and Sexuality in Africa conference.

The conference, held at the Pietermaritzburg campus, brought together more than 65 religion, gender and sexuality scholars and activists from around the global South who presented papers and performances.

UKZN academic and Programme Leader of the postgraduate programme gender, religion and sexuality Professor Charlene van der Walt said, ‘This conference not only asserted and showcased UKZN, as a leading school in the field of gender and sexuality studies, but also the multidisciplinary approach that we take to it, in the College of  Humanities.’

‘The conference organizing committee has already contracted agreements to publish a selection of the conference papers in themed or special editions of three South African peer-reviewed journals, and one edited volume, following the review process,’

Professor Kwok Pui Lan (Emory University) delivered the opening keynote address in which she explored the intersections of theology, gender, and sexuality, focusing on the concerns of African and African-American women.

‘Today, in the age of globalization in which time and space are compressed, feminist theologians need to pay attention to how the global has impacted the local. As the cultural contexts have changed, feminist theologians from the Global South must constantly renew their hermeneutical tools and borrow insights from interdisciplinary studies of gender and sexuality.

‘Africans and Africans in diaspora have unique contributions to make because of their experience of cultural negotiation and social adaptation in many continents. They can offer a subversive story of globalization and global impact, placing race at the centre to counteract white stories and myths,’ she said.

In addition to negotiating with changing cultures and shifting gender and sexual norms, Pui Lan also said people need to deepen their postcolonial engagement with Biblical texts.

She offered her approaches of postcolonial feminist biblical criticism such as investigating the symbolization of women and the deployment of gender in the text in relation to class, modes of production, status, power, and colonial domination.

‘We need to pay attention to the depiction of women in the contact zone, such as Rahab, and offer reconstructive readings as counter-narratives. Postcolonial feminist critics should scrutinize metropolitan interpretations, including those offered by both male and feminist scholars, to see if their readings support colonizing ideology.’

Pui Lan suggests subverting Eurocentric readings, postcolonial feminist critics, especially those from Africa, to emphasize the roles and contributions of ordinary and nonacademic female readers. She stated that she has also learned much from colleagues such as Professors Gerald West from UKZN, Mercy Oduyoye (Ghana) and Musa Dube (Botswana) in their reading of the Bible with grassroots communities.

‘Postcolonial feminist interpreters need to pay attention to the politics of the social location of the critic and the poetics of location. The pioneering generation of African and African American women theologians— Musimbi Kanyoro, Esther Mombo, Jacqueline Grant, Delores Williams, Katie Geneva Cannon, and others—have spoken truth to power in their own ways.

‘They have broadened our visions, to imagine other ways of thinking about God and the world, as possible. We are grateful to their work and witness, she said.  Pui Lan urged attendees, to continue to build on their legacy.

UKZN was also showcased through paper presentations by 11 academic staff, 13 students, and 3 postdoctoral fellows who come from a range of disciplines including religion and theology, drama, law, social work, public health and education.

One of the highlights for the conference was a variety of performances hosted in the evenings after the paper session including a drama performance by Pumelela Nqelenga and Nomcebisi Moyikwa, story-telling by the renowned African storyteller Dr Gcina Mhlophe titled Sitting in the Story Circle and a final evening of Jazz with Salim Washington and Sankofa.

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