PhD student in the Gender and Religion Programme at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics (SRPC), Ms Lilly Phiri, has won the prestigious UKZN Doctoral Research Scholarship.
The UKZN-funded scholarship is the most prestigious award at senior postgraduate level with a maximum of four being annually awarded.
Phiri’s research focuses on how gay Christians “self-construct” their identities and sexualities and the role of religions and cultures in this process. The study, framed by social constructionism and self-verification theories, uses the concepts of incipient theologies and borderland gender and sexualities as analytical frameworks.
Her research demonstrates the argument that the gender binary model is inadequate for the conceptualisation of sexual identity construction, as study participants who identify as gay Christians express their sexual and gender identities in fluid ways.
Phiri graduated with a Master’s degree cum laude in the Gender, Religion and Health Programme led by Professor Gerald West.
Her PhD supervisor, Professor Sarojini Nadar, says the distinguishing contribution of Phiri’s master’s work was to shift the public health discourse from “men who have sex with men” to “men who love other men” by discursively subverting the dominant discourse and replacing it with how the men theologically understand themselves and their sexualities.
This work has been developed in her PhD into a focus on how gay men self-construct their identities at the intersections of religion and culture.
The scholarship will assist Zambian-born Phiri with living costs at campus, her data analysis process and travelling to conferences to present research findings. It will also enable her to focus on completing her thesis.
‘To me this scholarship is inspiration to work extra hard in my doctoral studies. It has also taught me that in some instances individuals may be too busy to celebrate their successes but institutions like UKZN do take time to remind us of how hard we work. My family is excited about this scholarship - to them it is a sign of excellent academic performance and a source of pride,’ she said.
As an emerging scholar, Phiri boasts an impressive academic career. She matriculated in 1999 as one of the top four students at Caritas Convent Secondary School in Kabwe, Zambia progressing to the stage where she now co-publishes book chapters and journal articles with renowned academics in the field of Religion and Philosophy.
She has also published academic work on her own and has worked on several journal articles.
For three consecutive years (2012-2014), Phiri received the Excellent Academic Achievement Award from the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics and was also awarded a book prize for one of her modules in 2012.
She graduated cum laude in her honours and master’s degrees.
Phiri, who plans to become a lecturer and publish widely, hopes to be the first African woman theologian with expertise in African alternative identities and sexualities. ‘Ten years down the line, I foresee myself being part of global organisations representing Africa in academia. I plan on being an academic who will have influence at grassroots level and carry out my civic duties responsibly.’
Giving advice to other students, she said: ‘Your academic efforts are never in vain. Being a scholar is not about competing against anyone but with yourself to be the best you can be and find joy in what you do.’