PhD graduate’s study probes patriarchy perpetuation

Dr Devaksha Moodley graduating with a PhD in drama and performance studies from the Univeristy of KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Sethu Dlamini

Dr Devaksha Moodley graduating with a PhD in drama and performance studies from the Univeristy of KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Sethu Dlamini

Published Sep 24, 2023


A PHD graduate is grateful that her latest academic qualification provided a platform to continue chipping away at a long-standing societal issue: the traditional patriarchal roles that remain entrenched in all walks of life.

Dr Devaksha Moodley, 34, of Durban, received her PhD during the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Spring Graduation ceremony held at their Westville campus this week.

Dr Devaksha Moodley graduating with a PhD in drama and performance studies from the Univeristy of KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: Sethu Dlamini

Moodley’s PhD discipline was in drama and performance studies, and her research began in 2016.

Her doctoral dissertation interrogated gender constructions and representations that were typical to South African women of Indian descent.

However, Moodley believes that while it may not be duplicated down to the last detail, gender pecking orders were evident in other race groups in society.

Dr Devaksha Moodley with her parents Drs Pragnya Desai and Sundran Moodley. Picture: Supplied

Moodley appreciated her parents' role in achieving her academic goals, and having graduated, she said: “ I'm relieved to have made it through this long and hard journey. I’m most happy that my research results are out there.”

She began with a BA degree from UKZN, with majors in media and cultural studies and drama and performance studies, and she followed that with an honours degree at the same institute, majoring in drama and performance studies.

Next was her Master’s in dramatic arts at Wits University before the PhD pursuit.

Moodley, a former Sunday Tribune intern reporter, was always an arts lover.

“I enjoy theatre. It is difficult to hold a career in this field in South Africa. I do it on the side, among other things,” said Moodley, who is also a playwright.

Scenes from Devaksha Moodley’s play Devi , which was staged at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2019. Picture: Vivek Mehta

The productions of SA Indian women playwrights were always of great interest for her.

She noticed how some patriarchy themes were laid bare in the productions she analysed, but the lack of recognition for their creative works weighed on her.

Moodley’s musings became the basis of her PhD work titled: “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Wife? Interrogating Constructions of South African Indian Women's Identity - A Study of South African Indian Women Playwrights and Our Plays.”

During the course of her research, which included analysis of one or her written works, Moodley interviewed three playwrights on the roles they had to play in their daily lives.

“The first question I asked was how they identified themselves.”

From the responses she got, Moodley noticed, like the other creative women she interacted with previously, all the subjects of her study embraced their “South African-ness”.

One of her findings was that their productions made it onto stages during their student years through university support. Once they graduate from that arena, backing was non-existent.

“Their work gets rarely documented. Male playwrights’ work gets published more often, comparatively, but it is also hard for them.”

She probed the patriarchal themes and trends associated with women characters depicted in the plays that were scrutinised and noticed that ideological institutions like culture and religion had strong hands in shaping SA Indian women’s experiences and the construction of their identities.

“The plays explored issues like marriage, motherhood, culture, and religion. I looked at how they were tackled in the plays.

“It is not like they were man-hating plays. They showed how things are in a patriarchal society.”

Moodley said different playwrights explored different things, with some plays being scripted as far back as the 1980’s and 90s.

“The theatre and the stage are powerful and emancipating platforms to make statements about various issues and defy norms that exist in society.”

Some of Moodley’s other observations were that women were the ones, at times, perpetuating patriarchy, and while some people watch the plays and are able to identify and laugh at some themes that emerged, still, they remained set in their ways afterwards.

Moodley said her study and experiences had left her believing that patriarchy existed everywhere and change was happening, but “very slowly”.

Rakhi Beekrum, a Durban North-based counselling psychologist, said patriarchy was deeply entrenched in society, and many advocates of it didn’t realise their beliefs and actions were the results of patriarchal conditioning.

Beekrum agreed that many laughed at themselves in stage productions, but such humour was often a defence mechanism.

“It allows us to momentarily distance ourselves from our own biases without taking it to heart or feeling attacked.

“The reality is that this ability to laugh at oneself in such settings does not translate to immediate changed behaviour. Change, by its very nature, is difficult.”

Regardless of who perpetuated patriarchy, Beekrum said it ultimately affected women and had been “deeply ingrained for centuries”.

“We must recognise that even though it’s 2023, women are still largely caregivers in the home. Therefore, they play a significant role in helping to change these stereotypes in the way they raise their children,” she said.