If social scientists are scientists working in the laboratory of life, then life handpicked Professor Sarojini Nadar to be one. Sarojini is the former Head of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Gender and Religion Programme. She is now the Desmond Tutu Research Chair at the University of the Western Cape and holds an Honorary Professorship at UKZN.
Despite having won numerous academic awards including the prestigious Department of Science and Technology’s “Distinguished Young Woman in Human and Social Science” award, Sarojini is clear that her academic passion comes from her embodied experiences not just cerebral analysis. “I have learned that our most authentic academic work emerges when we call deep on our courage, and dare to share our deepest fragility; not as ‘navel gazing’ exhibitionism but because we know that when we share our vulnerabilities it develops solidarities across boundaries of race, religion and class. When we allow our bodies to determine our reflections we produce more profound analysis and this deepens, rather than weakens our theoretical reflections.” Sarojini explains that her path to becoming a professor in the fields of gender and religion was carved through deep personal reflections on how the futures of women and young girls are determined and shaped by religious and cultural norms, which dictate what, how and when she can make choices about herself. This was the story of Sarojini’s mother and Sarojini was determined that it would not be her story.
“I am the last born of seven siblings. My father, who was a construction worker, fell off a scaffold tower and died when I was eight years old. My mother was left totally bereft of being able to support herself, let alone the seven of us. She became totally dependent on state welfare to survive.”
Sarojini’s mom was married to her father in an arranged marriage and by the time she was 17 she had already given birth to her first child. Religious and cultural constructs dictated that her mother stay at home to look after the kids and to cook and clean for the family.
After her father’s passing, many of her siblings left high school to go and work in factories in order to supplement the family income. In the end, none of her brothers and sisters finished their high school career.
“We were really poor, we got running hot water for the first time when I was 17. For many years I was angry about the fact that my mom had not been given the same opportunities that men of her age had been afforded. If she had, perhaps she would not have been left at the mercy of others and would have been able to look after us.Many ‘men of God’ came to our home to help the ‘widow and her fatherless children.’ One of them sexually abused me. My older brother, who was meant to take on the role of father of the house, succumbed to the pressure of this socially constructed masculine role and ended up addicted to drugs and becoming physically abusive.”
Things became so bad that Sarojini had to move out of the house in Grade 10. “I went to stay with an older sister who lived in better circumstances. Her son was only three years younger than me so I essentially became like a daughter in the house.”
Sarojini’s life experiences made her recognize the role of religion and culture in perpetuating patriarchy and the disempowerment of women. She lay her own disempowered circumstances squarely at the door of religious and cultural beliefs regarding women. This was what led her to the study of religion and gender (faith and feminism) at an advanced academic level.
Sarojini’s name means lotus flower and she feels that the meaning of her name holds great symbolism for her life; the physical beauty of the lotus seen on the surface of the water, belies the muddy roots which anchor the flower. As she says “I became an overachiever because of my experiences of the mud. So I feel that my roots are firmly in the mud because those are the experiences that shape me…I hold the commitments that I have to gender justice, social transformation, to economic justice for women in particular…because of, and not in spite of, the muddy experiences.”
When Sarojini finished high school, she enrolled at the University of Natal, with the aim of becoming a teacher. She moved to Cape Town (UCT) in her second year and enrolled for a BA in English Literature and African Literature. During her second year, she took a course in Biblical Hebrew because of a passion to read the Bible in one of its original languages.
However, disaster struck in her third year. African Literature she learned was not regarded as a teaching subject, hence she could not take it as a major towards a postgraduate qualification in teaching. This left Sarojini with the unenviable task of having to choose another major subject in a hurry.
“My lecturer asked me to consider majoring in Religious Studies. When I responded that I needed to work and was looking forward to teaching English literature in school, he offered me a full scholarship and a job as a senior tutor.”
Not knowing what to do with an Honour’s degree qualification and thinking that he in fact did not like her (because of the way she ‘pushed back’ in his class), she was surprised to hear him tell her that she was “going to get a Master’s and become an academic.”
“No! Your mind is exactly the kind of mind that we’re looking for in the academy, and we really would like to develop that,” he said.
She went on to get top marks in all her Religious studies classes, which then led her to get the scholarships she needed for the Honour’s degree and subsequent Master’s.
Sarojini graduated in 1996 with a BA degree with a major in English Literature and an equivalent in Religious Studies. Continuing with her studies she obtained her Bachelor of Social Science (Honours) and her Masters of Arts in 2000 in Biblical Literature, also at UCT. In 2003, at age 27, she obtained her PhD from the then University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)).
Her PhD focused on how sacred texts (such as the bible) function as authoritative in women’s lives, often advocating that they should be silent and submissive, and more frightening sometimes even promoting violence. She describes the book of Esther, which was the subject of her PhD, as a “text of terror” in that it normalizes rape culture. It is not surprising therefore, that it was also in the final year of completing her PhD that she was finally able to deal with her past sexual abuse.
“I confronted the man who had abused me. He denied abusing me, so I took him to court.” It was a gruelling seven year trial, physically and emotionally, with Sarojini often feeling that she was on trial. The white male judge displayed the most racist and sexist beliefs and treated her with disdain. Sarojini believes that judges do not leave their religious and cultural beliefs regarding women at the door to their courtrooms. The numerous judgements given in rape trials by Chief Justice Mogoeng shows this, she says. Her own rape trial was made all the more difficult when the court tried to gain access to her psychologist’s notes. But despite the obstacles, Sarojini persevered.
“I felt like telling my story would assist other women to come forward.” On his deathbed in 2010, with an un-finished trial, he finally confessed about abusing Sarojini as well as others.
By this time, her personal setbacks with the trial strengthened her interdisciplinary work in the field of gender and religion and she continued to research more intensively in the area of gender-based violence, extending her research from physical and sexual violence to include the area of epistemic violence – the violence in academic knowledge production, which does not recognize feminist work as legitimate in the academy. In 2008, she was appointed to a permanent position as the Director of the Gender and Religion programme which she co-founded. She returned to this position in 2014 after a two-year tenure as the Dean of Research in the College of Humanities in 2012 and 2013.
Sarojini faced several practical challenges in the classroom when she lectured. Many of her students were bishops and leaders in the church and many were quite shocked to find this ‘young’ woman in the class challenging their beliefs.
“Once I entered my classroom and the students just carried on chatting, so I cleared my throat but to no avail, so I said, ‘Can we start?’ and they replied ‘Yes, as soon as the Professor arrives.’” Sarojini had to write her name on the board for them to understand who she was. Her students were mostly older men from countries around Africa. Not only did they find it difficult to accept that they were being taught by a woman, but she found that often their preconceived patriarchal mind sets about religion and gender made it more difficult to teach them.
“Her quiet unobtrusive manner, which characterises her supervision style, often results in her students and peers having to revisit and rethink their ideas and ideologies,” said Dr Rubby Dhunpath, Director of Teaching and Learning at UKZN. It is this ability, as well as her capacity for hard work and persistence that has made Sarojini an invaluable asset to the growing pool of African intelligentsia.”
“I wake up at 4am every day; that is my work ethic. There are many things stacked against women in the workplace so we have to work doubly hard to prove ourselves.” Sarojini wants young girls to know that there is no ‘prince charming’ waiting in the wings to save them from a world which tries to take away their self-confidence. “You have to build your own confidence and you need to do what you are passionate about, that job you would still do even if you were not getting paid to do it.”