Nun on a mission

'Abolish the taboo on sex'

As a child in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Mudzimu saw how women were abused. As a nun, she encounters women who are too ashamed to talk about sex. As a researcher at the RUG, she wants to bring emancipation to her homeland. ‘A woman has the same potential that men have. They need to learn that.’
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo by Reyer Boxem

Elizabeth Mudzimu is a nun from Zimbabwe who is doing a PhD at the RUG.

She researches religion and women’s rights in her country.

There, women are often stuck between African customs and the Catholic faith.

She hopes to find out how people regard women and sexuality, to improve the position of women in Zimbabwe.

Her choice to use scientific research as a weapon to combat oppression was a conscious one. ‘I want to take action.’

The first thing she wants to do is to abolish the taboo on sex, to allow girls to receive proper education.

Reading time: 9 minutes (1,100 words)

Elizabeth Mudzimu will never forget the first time she saw a nun. Her parents did not attend church, but her Catholic friends did. Driven by curiosity, Mudzimu would sometimes join them. She must have been about eleven, she thinks, when she noticed a nun during one of those visits to church. ‘I thought she was an angel.’ She has a rapt look on her face as she recounts the memory. ‘That was the moment I decided to become a nun myself.’

Since 1997, Mudzimu has been a sister in the order Little Children of Our Blessed Lady (LCBL). Recently, one of her other big dreams came true: in early May, she started a PhD. Mudzimu researches religion and women’s sexual and reproductive health rights in Zimbabwe at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the RUG.

‘My focus is on the Korekore (a tribe located in the north of Zimbabwe, ed.) women’, Mudzimu explains. ‘African culture demands many things from them: how to be, how to act. And then there is the Catholic faith, which also tells women what to do.’


One example Mudzimu names is the way pregnancy is treated. ‘In traditional Korekore religion, the use of herbs is very important – to facilitate the birthing process, for instance. But the Catholic Church says it’s magic, and therefore heathen.’

This means that Zimbabwean women are stuck between two institutions, both telling them how to live their lives. ‘I want to study how they handle that, how it influences their lives and their sexuality.’

To aid her research, Mudzimu will spend some time in a Korekore village, interviewing its inhabitants. She hopes to find out how people there regard women and sexuality. She wants to use the results to improve the position of women in Zimbabwe.

Mudzimu is the first sister of her order to study at a Western European university. It has taken some getting used to, for several reasons. ‘The weather is just so harsh. Where I’m from, the average temperature is forty degrees.’ She points to her layered, cream-coloured habit: ‘It’s extra warm. I never wear this one at home.’

Habit and cross

She wears her habit every day, paired with the white veil covering her hair and the cross around her neck. This means that people sometimes stare at her on the street, and not because they think she is an angel. ‘People always ask me where I’m going, or if I’m lost’, she says, laughing heartily. ‘Everyone here is really friendly and helpful.’

And so different than at home. ‘I was talking to a female student during one of my first days here. I asked her where she lived. And she said, “With my boyfriend.” And I was like…’ Her eyes go big and her mouth drops open. She was astonished. In the very religious Zimbabwe, it is absolutely forbidden to live together when you are not married.

‘So I asked her how long she’d been married’, Mudzimu continues. ‘“No, no, no!” she immediately said.’ Again, she laughs heartily, be it briefly this time. She does admit that Europeans seem particularly liberal to her in certain things. ‘Relationships are so informal here, it seems to me. As soon as one person is done, they just leave.’

But Mudzimu likes the freedom and openness with which Western women talk about sexuality, and would like to see that in Zimbabwe as well. ‘Sex is taboo there. African women are not particularly aware of the rights they have. Often, from a young age, they learn they have to be soft and submissive, just because they’re women.’


Mudzimu has witnessed the consequences of this her entire life. ‘My father was a rather authoritative man. I regularly saw him beating my mother. So I thought that’s just what happened when you were married.’

In her work as a nun she often comes across women who suffer violence at the hands of their husbands. ‘If I asked them why, they’d say that they’d screwed up dinner or something like that.’ She shakes her head. ‘But it’s not about cooking. One way or another, it’s almost always about sexuality. But they’re hesitant to talk about that.’

Did she enter the convent in an effort to escape a possibly unhappy marriage? Mudzimu hesitates before answering. ‘You know, I don’t think people are always aware of the reasons why they do things’, she finally says. ‘In hindsight, I do think the experiences from my past played a role.’

Before coming to the RUG, Mudzimu worked as a vocation director at the convent: she was the first point of contact for girls who were considering becoming a nun. She would always ask them about their situation at home. She often recognised echoes of her own past in their answers. Emancipation never really came to Zimbabwe. With the help of policy makers and NGOs, Mudzimu wants to contribute to these processes.

Taboo on sex

The first thing she wants to do is to encourage openly talking about sex, to allow girls to receive proper education. She also wants better opportunities for women to help them become independent. ‘A woman has the same potential that men have. That’s what they should learn, instead of being submissive. We’re building on what is happening already, because it’s not as simple as saying that women are oppressed. They are very much held as important in society.’

Her choice to use scientific research as a strategy to facilitate empowerment is a conscious one. ‘I want to contribute, but I want that contribution to be founded on empirical data as well as scientific reflection’, she explains. ‘Not on a hypothesis or a feeling. It will give me a stronger position. I’ll be more than “just” a woman with an opinion: I’ll be a scientist.’

The men in Zimbabwe will probably not be too happy with a nun telling their wives they should stand up for themselves, Mudzimu knows. But she is not afraid. ‘I’m sure there will be some name calling’, she says. ‘But that won’t stop me. I am convinced of what I’m doing.’


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