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  • Changing the WorldThe Task of Feminist Biblical Scholars
  • Sarojini Nadar (bio)

A few years back I taught a course on Gender, Religion, and Ethics to a first-year class at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In explaining the term gender, I employed an oft-used anecdote that exposes the ways in which gender stereotyping nurtures our biases. The story goes like this. A father and son are traveling in a car. They have an accident and, unfortunately, the father is killed immediately in the crash, while the son is rushed to a hospital where it is deemed that he needs emergency surgery. The surgeon who has to operate on the boy walks into the operating room, sees the boy, and exclaims, "Goodness, this is my son!" My question to the class of almost four hundred students is how is this possible? Only about twenty students know the answer—the surgeon is, of course, the mother. This revelation creates quite a flurry of conversation in class, but then I lead the students into a discussion of why the students couldn't imagine the possibility of the surgeon being the mother. Most then agree that it was because we are socialized to think of certain jobs or careers being associated [End Page 137] with women or men. The class even gives examples of careers they thought were for men only—engineers, priests, truck drivers, and so on.

While we were going through the exercise, I realized that there were three male students sitting at the front of the class who were clearly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking. Eventually, one put his hand up and announced that notwithstanding all the things we were talking about regarding gender construction, the question that remained for him was that if there were statistically more male doctors than female doctors, then did that not prove that men have a higher intellectual capacity to be medical doctors than women? I replied that I was not sure if his statistics were true to begin with, but I decided to share with him some statistics of my own. At the time, in our university, almost 90 percent of full professors were white and male. My question to him and the class was is this because white people have a higher intellectual capacity than black people and black women in particular to be professors? A hush came over the class and the three students who happened to be black quickly changed tack and began to explain how apartheid had actively prevented black people from gaining access to equal education and other opportunities in South Africa. We then engaged in a discussion about how women also were actively prevented from pursuing their own interests through systemized and even naturalized patriarchy.

Teaching Feminist Biblical Studies Remains an Advocacy Task

Why do I begin with this story? Because it highlights for me what it means to teach feminist studies or to write feminist scholarship. It is no ordinary pedagogical or scholarly exercise. Feminist studies is, of necessity, an advocacy task first and foremost. The class I refer to in my opening illustration was a class of students drawn from either a general bachelor of arts or a bachelor of social science degree. However, when one is teaching students who are not doing a regular social science degree, but a degree in theology, the task of feminist engagement becomes even more difficult. Most students who come to study theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, for example, come from conservative Christian backgrounds, as Dora mentioned is the case in most places in Africa. The task of advocacy then becomes all the greater, when one holds mutually affirming views on the role of women in religion and the domestic sphere. My experience has taught me that I have to begin with the social sciences—not with the Bible. Therefore, a general introduction to gender as a social construction comes first.

One cannot assume that students are aware of the ways in which gender is constructed socially and culturally. Relating sexism to racism as I did in the opening story is one strategy, but the strategy has to be adapted when...