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PhD graduate addresses gender-based violence
Author: Corporate Communication
Published: 07/12/2022

​S’lindile Thabede studied somatology after high school and worked as a therapist in skin and body care for several years. This month, just over a decade after she left that profession, she graduated with a doctorate in theology at Stellenbosch University.

And even though the two fields are completed unrelated, it was in fact her work in somatology that indirectly led to her embarking on a career in theology. “When I worked as a therapist, many women came in with painful personal stories while receiving treatment,” she recalls.  

“There was clearly something in women that was not being addressed and I did not know what. I did not know about gender studies at the time. There was just a longing, a need in me me to fill that gap. Eventually I lost my passion for somatology.”

At the advice of a friend, Thabede turned to theology – first at Cornerstone Institute in 2009 and 2010, then at Stellenbosch University from 2011. During the third year of her BTh degree, she was introduced to gender studies and the proverbial light bulb went on in her head. “When I discovered gender studies, I was already fascinated by the Old Testament stories,” she says. “I then wanted to use these stories to disrupt the gender dynamics of our country.” 

After completing her Bachelor’s degree in 2014, Thabede decided to pursue her interest in this area and registered for a MTh degree in 2015. “I used biblical stories – the terrible stories of the Old Testament – to write about the gender discrepancies in our country. I used those stories to make the issue come alive and tried to find ethical angles to tackle the problems we are facing in South Africa.”

Thabede registered for a doctorate in theology in 2019 and credits her supervisor, Prof Louis Jonker, for originally sparking her interest in the Old Testament. “He introduced many different dimensions that made you see it in a totally different light.

“In theology, you learn about the society, the cultures, the traditions behind the words of the Bible.  Prof Jonker was able to let those sociologies and cultures and traditions make more sense through the way he taught.  

“Initially, it felt like a foreign world that was not relevant to our time, but he was able to make us see how relevant it remains and how we are connected to the same stories. It became evident that ancient communities also struggled with certain things that we are grappling with.”

“We should therefore not make similar mistakes – we need to find ways of disrupting these elements that cause gender-based violence in our country and discover methods to affirm our women and make them feel that they are part of a community,” she points out.

The result of this line of research was the topic of her PhD, ‘Navigating the Threshold: An African Feminist Reading of Hagar’s Story from Jewish, Islam and Christian Perspectives’. “The whole point was to create an interreligious dialogue, where the Hagar stories could be told in such a way that it questions each other about the atrocities and injustices they have enabled in the various contexts from which they emerged,” she explains.

“My PhD was also trying to tell the story of black women in South Africa and the different systems that oppress them in a context like South Africa, that of apartheid and of being postcolonial. So my doctorate performed a dual role,” she adds.

Throughout her studies at Stellenbosch University, Thabede still made time to support her mother, Nomsa Thabede, after her parents divorced. In 2012, she encouraged her mother to join her at the University. Nomsa went on to obtain a BTh and an MTh in Practical Theology (Pastoral Care), and enrolled for a PhD at the beginning of this year.

“We are both passionate, but about totally different things in theology,” says Thabede. “She is calm – listening to people’s stories and counselling them. I am more of an agent, a warrior, a fighter.”

She is clearly determined to continue on this path with her research and writing. “I come from a culture that is very patriarchal and very oppressive, favouring men over women,” Thabede says. “That is why I am a disruptor. Our country needs that. Our women need that.”