Interviews with Shiloh Project Collaborators Dr. Rosinah M. Gabaitse & Dr. Mmapula D. Kebaneilwe

The University of Botswana (UB) is definitely a place to watch for anyone interested in the intersections of rape culture and religion. Research and teaching staff cover diverse facets relevant to the work of the Shiloh Project – such as developments in marital relationships (Senzokuhle Doreen Setume), human sexuality (in particular LGBTI sexualities) in the context of pastoral care and counseling (Tshenolo Jennifer Moenga/Madigele) and gender and sexuality with reference to Hindu and Buddhist studies, as well as Philosophy of Religion (Pulane Elizabeth Motswapong).

Biblical studies is especially strong at UB. Best known internationally is Professor Musa W. Dube, whose expertise is centred particularly in postcolonial and feminist, as well as HIV and Aids studies. Also well established is Professor Lovemore Togarasei, who examines biblical texts with particular focus on masculinities and HIV and Aids theology.

Alongside them there are also three more biblical scholars, all of them women and all of them establishing impressive research profiles: Dr. Rosinah M. Gabaitse, Dr. Mmapula D. Kebaneilwe and Malebogo Kgalemang.

Below are interviews with two of them. Both will be involved in a burgeoning research and social justice project on rape culture and religion, which has recently received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Mmapula Kebaneilwe is Project Partner in this project. Rosinah Gabaitse is currently at the Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg (Germany), having received a prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellowship.

 An Interview with Mmapula Kebaneilwe

Q: Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What is your academic background? Where do you work now?

A: My name is Dr. Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe. I am Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Botswana. I completed my PhD in 2012 at the University of Murdoch in Perth, Western Australia. The title of my doctoral thesis is “This Courageous Woman: A Socio-rhetorical Womanist Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31”. I have a keen interest in reading the Hebrew Bible contextually, to explore how the ancient text may interact with contemporary issues affecting especially African women.

 Q: What characterizes your work? What are you working on at the moment?

A: My research centers on topics such as the Hebrew Bible and women; women, the Hebrew Bible and HIV and AIDS; the Hebrew Bible, women and ecological issues, as well as other contemporary issues pertaining to the intersection/interaction between the Bible and present cultures, especially of Botswana with its patriarchal mores and gender inequality, to the detriment of women. At the moment I am working on a paper I am provisionally calling “The Mob-rape of Lot’s Daughters: Misogyny and Gender-Based Violence in Botswana”. Another recent research project involved me in a team of women in our department. Together we completed a project on “Botho*/Ubuntu and Community Building: An Exploration of Baby, Bridal and Naomi/Laban Showers**” under the leadership of Professor Musa W. Dube. The project was funded by the John Templeton Foundation through the Nagel Institute.

*Botho captures the meaning of Ubuntu in Setswana, one of the official languages of Botswana.

**The project examines rituals of transition pertaining to life stages. While bridal and baby showers are quite well known, Naomi/Laban showers have emerged more recently. Named after biblical characters Naomi (Book of Ruth: Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law) and Laban (Book of Genesis: Laban is father-in-law of Jacob) these rituals celebrate transition to the status of mother- or father-in-law. At these rites bride and groom participate. The project, based on extensive fieldwork in and around Gaborone (Botswana), shows that Naomi/Laban showers re-produce and re-construct Setswana traditional rites. Mmapula Kebaneilwe is lead author of a forthcoming paper on this intriguing project.

 Q: How would you say the topic of rape culture pertains to the Botswana context?

 A: I can easily identify with the topic of rape culture in my Botswana context. Rape happens almost every second in my country. Women and girls suffer the most from the scourge of rape, which not infrequently results in the brutal murder of the victims by their heartless perpetrators who are almost invariably men. Contemporary Botswana is infested with what I see as misogyny. This has resulted in such despicable acts of rape and murder, alongside other gendered ills – perhaps in large part because of the patriarchal culture that persists to this day.

 Q: How would you say your own work intersects or could intersect with the topic of rape culture?

A: I would say that my work as an academic and researcher often and easily intersects with the topic of rape culture. I am already working on related issues, such as gendered inequalities in Botswana, and concerted focus on rape culture and its various guises will enrich my work and in turn benefit my context…

 Q: Do you consider yourself and your work activist?

A: Yes indeed I consider myself and my work activist on many fronts.

 Q: Are you happy for researchers and anyone else interested to contact you about your work? If so, how can they best make contact with you?

A: I would love to be contacted about my work at any time and the easiest way to get in touch with me is through email: [email protected] or [email protected]

Thank you, Mmapula Kebaneilwe, we look forward to seeing more of your work on The Shiloh Project blog.


 An Interview with Rosinah Mmannana Gabaitse

Q: Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What is your academic background? Where do you work now? What brings you to Bamberg?

A: I am a Christian, an educator and an activist. I believe in the God of justice, mercy, love and equality; these qualities inform my theology. I obtained a Master of Arts and Religion from Yale University in 2003. I started doctoral studies in 2008 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (in South Africa) and as part of my studies I moved to New Jersey in 2010-11 to take some courses and engage in research at Princeton University. I successfully completed my PhD in 2013. The title of my PhD thesis is Towards an African Pentecostal Feminist Biblical Hermeneutic of Liberation: Interpreting Luke-Acts with Batswana Women. Here I construct the principles of a hermeneutic that is life-giving in a world riddled with problems, including pervasive violence against women. I do this through a contextual reading of selected texts from the New Testament’s Luke–Acts, together with Pentecostal women in Botswana. These Batswana women inhabit patriarchal spaces in all of their Setswana cultures, the Pentecostal church, as well as in the global cultures they encounter daily through television, magazines and social media. Upon completion of my studies I went back to my teaching position at the University of Botswana where I lecture in biblical studies and theology. I teach courses on the introduction to the Bible, on biblical interpretation, and on ecclesiology, among others. In all these courses, I try as much as possible to mainstream the inclusion of such topics as HIV/Aids, gender, race and ethnicity.

Currently, I live in Bamberg (Germany) as a Humboldt postdoctoral fellow for the year 2017-18. I am also the mother of three lovely young boys who are here with me and my work is greatly influenced by the deep desire to create a just world where these boys and other children of the universe can thrive.   

 Q: What characterizes your work? What are you working on at the moment?

 A: My work focuses on the intersection between the Bible/biblical interpretation and problems facing the communities I work with: such as HIV and AIDS, poverty, violence against women, and social constructions of femininities and masculinities. My work is further characterized by how biblical interpretation influences and is influenced by one’s social location. Biblical interpretation impacts people’s daily lives in Botswana, and biblical interpretations also perpetuate erroneous theologies.

Biblical interpretation has lived consequences. It manifests itself, for instance, through the way people handle money and politics and the way they conduct their lives. Unfortunately, erroneous theologies such as those propelling racism, sexism and classism are bred and sustained through biblical interpretation. It is a well known fact that biblical interpretation/the Bible has been used to justify slavery and racial discrimination. Racism can be a result of the ways certain groups of people read and interpret the Bible. A lot of ills in my society are justified using the Bible. My work, therefore, focuses on how to read the Bible in ways that support life and justice for all and to contribute to a world where all human beings – regardless of colour, sexuality, race and religion – can be affirmed. For this world to become a reality there is need to engage, to understand and sometimes to challenge and deconstruct the ways communities of faith read and interpret the Bible. Further, we need to be intentional about reading the Bible in ways that unambiguously support justice and equality for all people.

I am currently working on the relationship between biblical interpretation and social injustice.  My research assistant Maria Mpuse and I have conducted fieldwork among Pentecostal communities in Botswana. The research has yielded a lot of data and although violence against women was not the primary focus of our study, it was a worryingly prominent part of many women participants’ narrative. The way some biblical texts have been read and interpreted for these women has made some of them complicit in and complacent to injustice. For example, some women do not complain when their husband decides to tell them, rather than discuss with them, that he is going to sell property.  For those women who were uncomfortable with their husbands’ decisions, they would console themselves with “what the Bible says” – namely, that the man is the head of the household. But what does this mean, “to be the head of the household”? Is it a licence to domineer? Therefore, I aim to facilitate a conversation about the Bible and its interpretations among those in my community who appeal to the Bible. This way we can explore together the choices that men and women make in relationships, for example, and better understand the role of the Bible in arriving at those choices.

 Q: How would you say the topic of rape culture pertains to the Botswana context?

A:  Rape is sexual violence and violence occurs in EVERY society. There is no society that could claim that certain groups within the population –  such as, women, children, and persons who do not subscribe to heterosexuality  – do not experience a share of violence. It would be a lie. Further, women and children who inhabit patriarchal societies (that is, societies that give primary authority to older males) are often more likely to experience violence. Studies demonstrate clearly that patriarchy provides a breeding-ground for violence against women and children.

Botswana, like the majority of societies, is patriarchal. In Botswana females tend to be subordinate to males and women are under-represented in positions of status and authority and disproportionately vulnerable to the detrimental effects of poverty and gender-based violence.  Studies from within Botswana by academics such as Tapologo Maundeni, Musa Dube, as well as my own studies, demonstrate that violence against women is on the rise. I published an article in 2012, entitled “Passion Killings in Botswana: Masculinity at Crossroads” (in Ezra Chitando and Sophie Chirongoma (eds), Redemptive Masculinities: Men, HIV and Religion, Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 2012, pp.305–12), which contains police statistics showing that in Botswana the number of cases of intimate femicide is truly alarming. Incidents of reported violence, including rape and threats of rape, are also escalating. We have chilling stories of women and girls being raped by their relatives, of young girls being sexually molested at school, in their homes, sometimes by people they trust, such as their step-fathers, uncles, or teachers.

Another story shocked the nation last year (in 2016) when two well-known politicians’ conversation about how one of them impregnated a minor was leaked to social media. The man, who is in his fifties, had sex with a school-going girl who was under sixteen at the time. According to the constitution of Botswana the girl was below the age of consent and the act was classified as statutory rape. When the conversation went viral, a movement called #Ishallnotforget which was driven through social media, especially Facebook, was born. In the leaked conversation the rapist had indicated that although it was scandalous that he had impregnated a minor, the ‘incident’ or ‘phase’ would pass because Batswana forget easily. The movement’s name, #Ishallnotforget, resists this assertion.

Botswana’s civil society – teachers, nurses and lawyers – joined the movement and encouraged communities to expose incidents of violence against girl-children in Botswana. Men and women joined a large demonstration, which began in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. But soon marches spread to other towns and villages in Botswana and the purpose of these demonstrations was to expose perpetrators and give space to survivors of sexual violence to speak out. Chilling and heart-wrenching stories of children and of grown women who were raped as children by their fathers, uncles, or teachers came to light. These stories demonstrate that “rape culture” applies to Botswana but also, that there is much silence around rape and other forms of sexual violence.

A second ugly incident occurred more recently, in June 2017. A young woman was sexually violated by a group of men at a taxi rank because, according to these men, she was wearing a short dress. This incident happened in broad daylight with the men telling the woman that they will rape her. They undressed her publically, taunted her, abused her with sexually loaded words to the effect that all they needed was for her to open her legs and they would teach her to behave “like a real woman”. They said, too, that she wanted to be raped: that’s why she was dressing skimpily and going through a taxi rank full of men. In this way they justified their sexual abuse and placed the blame on the woman: “it was her fault”, “she did not behave like a proper Motswana woman”, etc. The penis and the threat of forced penetration in this situation become a form of chastisement: the penis “teaches a lesson”, much like the rod in corporal punishment.

Pictures of the young woman, stripped naked in public, circulated on Facebook. Again, because of this incident a huge demonstration, took place in Gaborone, hashtagged #iwearwhatiwant.

These two incidents, taking place within a short space of time, together with the chilling statistics of rape cases in Botswana, reveal that rape culture is very much part of Botswana. There is, however, more heartening evidence, too, of active and widespread resistance to rape and sexual violence – such as the large demonstrations I mentioned.

To add to the latter incident, blamed by the abusers on the woman’s allegedly provocative dress, it was during this time, too, that harrowing stories of rape of elderly women (in their seventies and eighties) were reported by the national broadcaster, Botswana Television. Elderly women narrated stories about how they were sexually violated in their homes by men young enough to be their grandchildren. What these stories demonstrate is what we already know well: that rape has nothing to do with how attractive the rape victim is, or with how she is dressed. Rape is about power and exerting (violent) control. It emanates from a sense of entitlement and some of that male entitlement (yes, most perpetrators are male), derives from Botswana’s patriarchal system, as part of which women and their bodies are constantly under surveillance and policed: i.e. what was she wearing? Who else was looking at “my” woman? Why was she at his house? Why did she allow him to buy her a drink? Is she challenging my authority and flaunting to other men what is “rightfully mine”? Botswana is not a society that polices men and their bodies in equivalent ways. Men have rights and entitlements that women do not have.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence are a manifestation of men’s perceived entitlement to women’s bodies. In the Botswana context such entitlement manifests in different ways by different men, and some of these ways are routinely trivialized. The Marriage Act and the Domestic Violence Bill do not recognize marital rape and, therefore, there is a general presumption that marital rape cannot and does not exist. Again, this bespeaks of an attitude that a married woman’s body belongs to her husband, to do with as he wishes.

There was a live debate on Radio Botswana in a show called Massaasele on whether marital rape exists and if it should be criminalized. During the programme, callers, Christian and non Christian, men and women, vehemently denied that marital rape exists especially in Botswana. They argued that a married woman must submit to her husband and that sex is a form of submission. Further, they argued that a legally married woman cannot be raped by her husband: she is his and when sex takes place, it is always legal. This shows me how internalized male entitlement to female bodies is – and also, how the Bible is coopted into legitimations of rape.

There is only one case I am aware of where a woman in Botswana reported her husband for marital rape. She lodged a case with the Magistrate Court and while awaiting trial, the woman sought protection at a women’s shelter in Gaborone. The husband found out where she was, he abducted her and raped her several times. The case was dismissed because it is not legally possible in Botswana for a husband to rape his wife.

The denial of marital rape obviously contributes to rape culture in Botswana. Studies abound that demonstrate that marital rape happens in Christian homes. Isabel Apawo Phiri conducted a study among Pentecostals in South Africa, for example, and she found out that Pentecostal married women experience physical, psychological and emotional violence at the hands of their husbands. It was chilling that these women also reported marital rape.*

*Please see Phiri’s article for details: I. A. Phiri, “Why does God allow our husbands to hurt us? Overcoming violence against women”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 114 (2002): 10–30.

Another way in which rape culture is perpetuated in Botswana is through language. For example, some men call random women (that is, women they are not in a sexual relationship with) mogatsaka. The word has a range of meanings, including “lover”, “the one I sleep with”, “sex partner”, “wife”, etc. The word is appropriately used by couples, or people engaged in a sexual relationship. Sometimes when men call women mogatsaka, both men and women laugh about it, as if it is nothing, because society has normalized the use of the word by men, as if it is not a term of intimacy but something that is, allegedly, “playful”, or expressive of sexual desire or appreciation of a woman’s attractiveness. Men tend not to be called to order when they call women they are not involved with mogatsaka.  Instead, when a woman takes offense for being called mogatsaka she is often said to be “uptight”, to be “overreacting” or to have “issues with men”. Again, this shows how objectification of women is very routine and casual.

Another expression that indicates the insidiousness of rape culture is setlogolo ntsha ditlhogo … ditlhogo ke sengwe le sengwe. This phrase is tricky to translate directly into English. The closest interpretation of the phrase is that a niece has to give her uncle a gift and this gift may be anything. This “anything” is understood to pertain at the very least to some level of flirtation between uncle and niece. Hence, if an uncle slaps his young niece on the buttocks in a sexual manner, the expression implies that this is still within the bounds of “sexual playfulness”. The ambiguity of the “anything” in the expression, however, has potentially very disturbing implications in a rape culture. Of course, communities in Botswana are heterogeneous and in some communities the phrase might be totally harmless. However, in others the expression potentially trivializes, even legitimates, the sexual attentions of uncles for their nieces.

I can also confirm that in Botswana men publicly slapping girls and women’s buttocks is far from uncommon. It is often dismissed as “a joke” – irrespective of whether the female is known to the man, or a stranger. If a woman were to do the same to a man her action would be considered highly inappropriate. It is these kinds of double standards that propel rape culture in Botswana (and elsewhere, too). The slapping of women’s buttocks normalizes sexual violence and it goes deeper, to demonstrate the entitlement that men have towards women’s bodies. Some men take this entitlement further and apportion to themselves the right to rape women as a form of exerting power and control.

 Q: How would you say your own work intersects or could intersect with the topic of rape culture?

A: My work intersects with rape culture in several ways. My research focuses on violence in general and, more specifically, on how religion, especially Christianity, often does not destabilize violence. This is because of the forcefulness of the narrative that elevates the male over the female, without interrogating or questioning this gendered hierarchy. Studies demonstrate that inequality and hierarchy provide a breeding-ground for violence. For example, white supremacy thrives on hierarchy, placing the white male at the top of the power structure and non-whites, especially black people, at the bottom of the power structure, with black females lowest of all. The top of the power pyramid is a place of power, control and privilege and one consequence is that black people are demeaned, disempowered and violated, with the power structure facilitating, perpetuating and justifying systemic abuse.

For instance, in the USA, long after the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement, black men are considerably more likely to be incarcerated and to be killed by the police than white men (see #blacklivesmatter). Once an ideology of superiority takes root, the ground for violence is fully cultivated, fertilized and, in time, normalized. The same principle applies to male supremacy as an ideology. Heterosexual men occupy the high position in the gender ladder and hold most power and privilege, laying the ground for the rape and violation of women and girls. I unreservedly believe that hierarchies and inequality legitimize violence: be it hierarchies of race (e.g. white versus black), gender, sexuality… you name it. Therefore, my work seeks to probe the links between biblical interpretation and hierarchies and dynamics of patriarchy, gender, race privilege, and sense of entitlement and how these marginalize and oppress certain populations. A full understanding of such dynamics is the first step to challenging, defusing and reprogramming injustices.

In my role as lecturer in New Testament I teach my students, to give one example, to ask themselves what Paul is communicating about women, such as when he gives the injunction that woman is subordinate, or a weaker vessel, and the man is the head of the household. Pauline injunctions can also be understood in the light of the God of equality, love, mercy and justice – and I try to point this out and create room for discussion and close interpretation. Why? Because if you teach people that men are created superior to women, that women epitomize sin and weakness, without unpacking and probing such claims, you are liable to create male monsters who are more likely to feel themselves entitled to violate women and females who internalize the idea that they are deserving victims.

Hierarchy breeds violence. The way Pauline injunctions are sometimes interpreted has far-reaching consequences, because men and women, married or single, live out these interpretations in their everyday conduct. It is true that some men who violate women do so because they are mentally ill, or because they themselves have been profoundly harmed and damaged. Some of these men are broken. Addressing such damage is difficult and requires professionals. However, I do believe that interrogating Pauline injunctions that appear to give men power over women can go some way towards reducing incidents of marital rape and violence against women among those men who do not have mental illness, who are on the spectrum we might label as more ordinary.

We have to ask ourselves why women don’t violate men to the same extent as men violate women, and truthfully engage with ways in which biblical interpretation has been used to allow rape to occur and to minimize its harmful impact on, above all, girls and women. If we don’t deconstruct Pauline injunctions, we will have women who are hurting and men who do not know God, because to know God is to know that God exists in love, in justice, peace and equality. Given my Christian-dominated context in Botswana and the authority and respect ascribed to the Bible as sacred word of God, biblical interpretation is potentially a very powerful instrument of social betterment.

My work also focuses on reading and engaging with difficult stories of violence found in the Bible: stories like Judges 19, the rape of the Levite’s concubine, or Genesis 34, the rape of Dinah. In Judges 19 the woman is gang raped and later her husband/master dismembers her body and disperses its pieces throughout Israel. I ask my students, or the communities in which I conduct fieldwork, to engage with this awful story. What are we supposed to learn from this incident, where a woman’s body is violated beyond imagination? How do and can we read this text in today’s world, where women are still raped and killed? By engaging with such a difficult text we can create opportunities for destabilizing violence, as well as opportunities for critiquing our ways of reading and interpreting the Bible that might encourage or suppress violence such as rape. Further, as we engage with such difficult stories of violence against women, we break the silence surrounding rape. In this way women, men and children are helped to speak out against violence, are helped to report rape, and are helped to accept that they, as victims and survivors of sexual violence, are not at fault.

Violence takes place both outside and inside the church. You may be surprised that not only those who consider the Bible canonical but also non-believers have used violent texts of the Bible to advance the subordination of women. This, in turn, has sometimes legitimized violence against women. Let’s instead teach men and women that they are both created in the image of God and that both are worthy of love, mercy and justice.

Q: Do you consider yourself and your work activist?

A:  Yes I am. I speak out against injustice at every opportunity I get. The work of an activist is to destabilize the status quo when it is harmful, and that is what I do in my work in the classroom, in schools and when I address audiences in other settings, like the church, or academics at conferences. I ask churches to engage with, to destabilize and critique systems such as patriarchy, which thrive on creating difference and inequality. You can imagine how challenging this can be for me, because for a long time patriarchy was the only form of governance endorsed by the church. Still, because I know that any system that constructs inequality encourages violence, I speak out against it.

I raise awareness about rape culture, too. I like raising awareness among young people, in particular. Before coming to Bamberg, I was engaged in conversations with boys and young men in two churches and in schools. These conversations explored what it means to be a boy, or man in Botswana. The main objective of these conversations was to identify and deconstruct notions of manhood that encourage men to rape. I engaged with them at length on the matter of consent and on the prevalent notion that a girl’s “yes” is really a “no” and her “no” is really a “yes”. You see, if we don’t teach our boys that when a girl says no to his sexual advances, she really means it, the boys may grow up with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies. Trivializing a woman’s resistance to “romantic” advances is one of the drivers of rape culture in Botswana. That is why I focused on teaching young boys to learn life-affirming ways of being a man and on unlearning notions of entitlement. Deconstructing violent masculinities must start early, by teaching young boys to respect women’s autonomy and choices. Further, it is important to socialize both boys and girls in the values of love, gentleness, kindness, respect, justice, and equality.

 Q: Are you happy for researchers and anyone else interested to contact you about your work? If so, how can they best make contact with you?

A: Of course! Fighting violence against women and rape culture is a collaborative effort. We can do well by learning from others. For example, I am fascinated at the low incidents of reported rape in Bamberg, where women also wear revealing trousers and skirts. Why is it that men here are less likely to commit sexual violence? How are boys socialized differently here in Bamberg? So, I am open to meaningful discussions and collaborations.

 Here is my email: [email protected]

Thank you, Rosinah Gabaitse! We look forward to seeing more about you and your work on The Shiloh Project blog.

Leave a Response

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.