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Gender struggles in contemporary South Africa: examining african women’s traditional spiritual roles in isiXhosa culture.

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Debates on how societies organise in contemporary ought to be inclusive of gender. As much as these debates are not new, the gender discourse is escalating to levels never imagined. Discourses on gender tackle and confront inequalities between males and females; and are manifested in diverse traditional, cultural and religious practices across South Africa and the continent of Africa. It is in such institutions and spaces that, in South Africa, most women continue to be marginalised despite the attempts by the 1996 democratic government constitution, aimed at protecting human rights and dignity, including that of women. Such embedded gender inequalities affect the way of life of the African people because most women are no longer considered as the backbone of society as it was prior colonisation. Thus, gender relations not only affect women’s dignity but also undermine traditional spiritual protocols of amaXhosa, which often put women on the same pedestal as men. It is within such context that thesis adopted African feminism, social constructionist and intersectionality perspectives to examine roles that amaXhosa women in the Eastern Cape play in traditional spirituality that guides their cultural practices, which are highly patriarchal. The key objective of this research study was to examine traditional spiritual roles played by African women in isiXhosa society, in South Africa. The study asked the key question: What traditional spiritual roles are played by women in isiXhosa culture? The study used qualitative research methods to discover traditional spiritual roles that women have in isiXhosa society. Using one on one individual interviews, data was collected on traditional leadership roles, traditional healing roles of diviners and faith healers, similarities in tasks performed by men and women, and the impact of the roles women have in their communities. From qualitative data analysis, the study found that some women have traditional spiritual roles, which make them at the same equal footing as men. They play these roles as oodadobawo (senior sister with a status higher than that of a male) Queen mothers, faith healers and prophets and sometimes wearing all these “hats” depending on how gifted one is. However, the entrenchment of male-dominated western systems in most African societies, including South Africa, play a huge role in extending patriarchy, which contributed to pushing most African women to the margins and stripping them of their traditional roles. That was done by making males leading figures in society, at home, in the church, in state institutions etc. The study thus recommends that decolonised curricula focused on traditional systems of organizing society is need and that gender policies should look at traditional spirituality in its purest form to eradicate the evils of patriarchy.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.