Women's Studies in Religion

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WOMEN'S STUDIES IN RELIGION

WOMEN'S STUDIES IN RELIGION . Women's studies in religion comprise the many and varied scholarly approaches to the study of religion that arise from commitment to the equal dignity of the sexes, that employ the category of gender as a necessary and key variable in the inquiry, and that focus explicitly on the dynamic and reciprocal interplay between religion and women's lives. Taken together these diverse approaches constitute a major body of research that has irreversibly altered the landscape of religious studies.

Women's studies emerged as a new field of inquiry across a number of academic disciplines in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the entry of greater numbers of women into higher education coincided with the second wave of feminism. The largely Western phenomenon of the women's liberation movement politicized women (and men) as they became aware of the historical legacy and cultural pervasiveness of sex discrimination and gender stereotyping. Recognizing these damaging features within their own disciplines, female students and teachers began to explore these and the many other ways that gender matters shape their subjects and the manner in which they are taught and on this basis to develop critiques of and alternative approaches to the subject matter and the methods of its study. As a result women are the focus of study as never before, and in most fields of academic research gender is considered an indispensable analytical category.

The initial impetus for women's studies in religion was (and to some extent remains) the need to counter what Rosemary Radford Ruether described as "the buried continent of unconscious androcentrism" that has shaped religion and its study (Ruether, 1985, p. 706). Feminist conscientization rendered this latent male bias visible, and women's scholarship began to expose its full extent. It became clear, for example, that there was a dearth of research into women's religious experience and participation, leading to gaps in knowledge and understanding. In part this was due to the paucity of available source material relating to women's religious lives, but it was also the result of scholarly neglect. Where such material had been the subject of scholarly attention, there was a tendency to impose false assumptions about innate sex differences and gender roles onto the interpretation of data, based on Western constructions of femininity and masculinity.

A disproportionate amount of research was devoted to men's religion and to the elite males who had shaped religions. Those aspects of religion that were singled out as characteristic, significant, and worthy of study were often male-dominated, with females less prominent and portrayed as occupying inferior or supporting roles. As Rita Gross, one of the founders of the field of women's studies in religion and a graduate student of Mircea Eliade during the late 1960s, stated, "One did not receive a coherent, connected account of women's religious lives and activities, but only glimpses, as they entered or left the stage of men's lives" (Gross, 2002a, p. 45). This (often inadvertent) male focus created a skewed picture of the religions of the world. Human religiosity was described (unwittingly) in terms of male religious experience. For instance, the state of knowledge about religious initiation was based largely on research into male initiation. To a significant degree, it was the religious experience of males and not humankind that was being recorded for posterity, thereby distorting the historical record. Furthermore religious texts and traditions, themselves largely the products of male authorship and systematization, are often framed in predominantly androcentric terms and are often carriers of patriarchal, sexist, and even misogynistic material. Women scholars of religion were faced with the dual problem that androcentrism was a feature of both the shapers of religion and the shapers of its study. One of the continuing tasks therefore of women's studies in religion is to seek out and correct androcentric bias in primary and scholarly sources.

The academic community of scholars of religion was made aware of its own partiality and blindness to gender injustice thanks to the pioneering research of scholars such as Carol P. Christ, Rita Gross, Judith Plaskow, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Valerie Saiving, who pointed to the suspect nature of previous generalizations, theories, and models that were based on incomplete or erroneous pictures of religion. In light of this critique, women's studies began to reconfigure approaches to studying religion by introducing new data, methodologies, and alternative organizing principles to those that had traditionally constituted the theoretical framework of religious studies.

In 1972 the first Working Group on Women and Religion was held at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR)the largest professional body for scholars of religion; the first signs of the anticipated integration of women's studies into the mainstream of the discipline. A year later, in 1973, the Women's Studies in Religion Program was founded at Harvard Divinity School, the foremost research center for the study of gender and religion in the early twenty-first century.

The Contemporary Purview of Women's Studies in Religion

From these beginnings, women's studies in religion have proliferated and diversified. The heterogeneity of the field extends far beyond the differences that exist as a result of religious diversity. Neither can women's studies scholars be characterized as a homogeneous group. While the majority of scholars in the field are women, there are growing numbers of men whose research concentrates on the study of women's religion, such as David Kinsley and Arvind Sharma. As with all subject disciplines, there are ideological divisions that give rise to internal debate and disagreement on theoretical, methodological, and programmatic issues. In order to discuss the contemporary diversified nature of women's studies in religion and examine the questions that enliven scholarly debate, it will be necessary to classify the field into four chief areas of study, though it is well to note that many women's studies scholars are engaged in research that spans these categories.

Recording and analyzing the diversity of women's religious lives

First and foremost, what unites all scholarly approaches to women's studies in religion is that such studies seek to contribute to human knowledge and understanding of the rich global diversity and complexity of women's religious lives cross-culturally and historically and, where necessary, to correct any absence from or distortion in the historical record. The extraordinary diversity of women's religious lives, in the present and in the past, is one of the chief findings of women's studies in religion (see Durre Ahmed, 2002; King, 1987; Plaskow and Christ, 1989). There is burgeoning scholarship on contemporary women's participation in the religions of the world (e.g., Holm, 1994; Sharma, 1987, 1994a, 1994b), in women's involvement in new religious movements (e.g., Palmer, 1994; Puttick, 1997), and in the recovery of women's religious history from all periodsincluding prehistory (e.g., Bynum, 1992; Kraemer, 1992; Newman, 1995). After centuries of neglect, women's religious livesbe they those of extraordinary mold breakers or those of the conventional majorityare being indelibly written into human history, allowing for the first time comparative study of materials and practices that have yielded, across cultures and historical periods, patterns of commonality in female religious experience and expression (e.g., Falk and Gross, 2001). Prompted by the feminist critique of androcentrism in religion, much of the initial focus in women's studies was on the negative influence of religion on women's lives. Subsequent primary research has disclosed more fully the positive motivations for women belonging to religions, including the role played by religions in conferring value to women's lives, in legitimating everyday female activities, in nurturing identity, in providing sanctuary from life's frustrations, and in empowering resistance to oppression in all its forms.

Although most religions are male-dominated in terms of power structures, female adherents are the majority participants in many religions, and a small number of religious movements and sectssuch as Afro-Brazilian healing cults, Japanese Ryūkyū religion, Christian Science, and Black Carib religioncan be described as women's religions to the extent that the leaders and most of the adherents are female (see Sered, 1994). Women's sacral power is honored cross-culturally through specialist roles as ascetics, diviners, healers, mystics, prophets, shamans, and witches. Frequently women are leading organizers and participants in purification, fertility, birth, and funerary rites and carry the burden of preserving oral traditions. Within many religions women prepare ritual food and observe low-profile and often private rites within the household (e.g., praying, fasting, chanting) as a means of protecting their families and their livelihoods from harm.

Although leadership positions are more associated with male religious roles, women share with men authority and leadership positions in many religions, whether as bishops, priests, and preachers in certain Christian denominations, as priestesses in traditional African religion and Haitian vodou, as Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish rabbis, as Buddhist teachers, and in the rare but not unheard of cases of Hindu gurūs and Daoist priests. Some religions offer females certain roles and communities that allow them to be independent from the conventional domestic arrangements of marriage and childbearing, as in women's religious orders in Buddhism and Christianity. Stories of powerful female heroes, teachers, and saints are preserved in many traditions. Women have been active as founders of new religious movements, including Mother Ann Lee, the eighteenth-century founder of the Shakers in North America, and Nakayama Miki, the nineteenth-century founder of Japanese Tenrikyō. In the late twentieth century women-dominated goddess-based feminist spiritualities became popular. Amid this colorful diversity it is clear that the reasons women become involved with and remain in religions are many and complex and are subject to the influence of various social, political, and economic factors that inform women's needs and desires (see Woodhead, 2001, 2002).

If women's studies, particularly ethnographic and sociological research, have uncovered the diverse nature of women's participation in religion, they have also demonstrated the shadow side of the role that gender ideology plays in patterning and stratifying religious participation. Religions can be sites of discrimination against women, who frequently find themselves subject to male domination, excluded from certain (prestigious) roles and sacred spaces, and recipients of fewer legal privileges and their putative nature, bodies, and sexuality devalued and subject to ritual proscriptions. Even in religions such as Bahā'ī, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism that introduced improvements in women's rights over the prevailing culture, male dominance persists. As a result women may be positioned in ambiguous and complicated relationships with their religions that require them to adopt creative strategies in negotiating fitting places for themselves within their traditions.

The application of gender analysis to religious traditions

A second major strand of women's studies in religion is the application of gender analysis to religious traditions. This entails analysis of the ways in which religions in the past and in the present have developed and deployed gendered systems of thought, symbolism, and religious practices and how these (and other forces) have shaped women's religious lives for good or ill. This in turn leads to evaluation of humanity's pluriform religious heritage and the envisaging of its future forms in light of this gender-based inquiry.

Much (though not all) of this analysis arises from women's dissatisfaction with the gendered organization of their religions and initially was carried out predominantly by feminist scholars in North America and Europe examining the negative impact of religion on women's lives. Faced with the realization that androcentric and patriarchal values were as deeply embedded within religions as within the rest of human culture, these feminists sought to delineate and critique their malign omnipresence in religious scriptures, texts, teachings, rituals, forms of worship, institutional hierarchies, the construction of religious language and symbolism, and so on. An influential early feminist critique of religion was Mary Daly's The Church and the Second Sex (1968), which built on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) to argue for an end to what Daly described as "Catholic antifeminism." Five years later Daly's position was firmly post-Christian. Her landmark Beyond God the Father (1973) advocated a radical feminist spirituality disconnected from patriarchal religion. Daly's contribution catalyzed feminist reactions to religion; numerous scholars set to work unpicking the fabric of religions and pointing to their distorted patterns of thought. No historical religion has since escaped feminist scrutiny.

Alongside the feminist critique and deconstruction of religious traditions, men and women sensitive to questions of gender (not all of whom identify as feminist) are engaged in the study of the positive elements in their tradition that offer resources for a renewed, nonoppressive contemporary religious expression. For example, there is considerable interest in the study of divine females such as Buddhist bodhisattvas, Hindu goddesses, and Daoist celestials. Mostly this research involves the recovery and restoration of previously overlooked or neglected elements of religion and includes, for instance, the retrieval of women's histories (including the documentary recording of the legacy of the women's movement itself), the rehabilitation of suppressed or marginal female characters (e.g., mythical female figures such as Lilith), the reappropriation and, where necessary, reinterpretation of scriptures and teachings, and the preservation of endangered but valuable religious traditions and practices that are meaningful for and often performed by women but threatened by forces such as urbanization and industrialization.

As a result of this work of critique and recovery, women are actively engaged in reconstructing and transforming religions so that they are in line with gender justice and better nurture female identities. This is occurring in an enormous variety of ways: through the rethinking and reformulation of the philosophical and theological aspects of religionincreasingly achieved by bringing other academic disciplines into creative conversation with the theoretical elements of religion (e.g., reinterpreting the meaning of and employing new images for the divine); through the creation of new religious practices (e.g., the use of new forms of prayer, ritual, and worship); and through the establishment of new social organizations (e.g., women's support, networking, and campaign groups). Correspondingly the aim is to replace all institutional practices and thought patterns that deny or undermine women's full participation and flourishing. As such this constructive and corrective task is praxis-based and politico-ethical in character, involving advocacy for women's rights (e.g., campaigning for the greater presence of females in leadership positions) as women worldwide seek to make their religions more conducive to women's authentic agency and development.

This threefold project of critique, recovery, and reconstruction has been carried out most extensively within Christianity and Judaism, where it has often (though not unproblematically) gone by the name of feminist theology. However, the same process is occurring to some degree in all religions and constitutes the greater bulk of writing in women's studies in religion (e.g., Gross, 1993; Mernissi, 1991; Plaskow, 1991; Robinson, 1999; Ruether, 1983; el Saʾdāwī, 1980).

Some women, like Daly, have found the feminist critique of religion to be decisive. They argue that the historical religions cannot be reformed in line with gender justice and identify as postreligious and secular (e.g., Taslima Nasrin) or prefer to express their religious experience and spirituality through means other than traditional religion (e.g., Carol P. Christ; Daphne Hampson).

The development and study of new religious movements that express women's spiritualities

This brings us to a third area of activity in women's studies in religion: the development and study of new religious movements that draw on the articulation of women's spiritualities. Within the Western world, the demise of organized religion has been accompanied by a growth in unofficial spiritualities, many of which largely attract female adherents. For example, one of the fastest growing is the mind-body-spirit movement that offers holistic means to self-improve one's bodily and spiritual well-being using techniques such as yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, and reflexology.

The most studied strand of new women's spiritualities is often termed feminist spirituality. Feminist spirituality, while of importance in its own right as a religious phenomenon, offers women's studies an important example of a form of religious expression that has been created explicitly by (mainly Western) women for women who have chosen to jettison the negative patriarchal inheritance of historical religions and create anew an inclusive worshipping community based on feminist principles. Some of the chief exponents of spiritual feminism are Zsuzsanna Budapest, Carol P. Christ, Naomi Goldenberg, Asphodel Long, Melissa Raphael, and Starhawk. The way spiritual feminists choose to express their religious sense varies. Thus while the label spiritual feminism unites adherents under a common identity, it is more accurate to speak of feminist spirituality movements in the plural since there are differences in approach and focus. Feminist spirituality movements reject institutional structures, organizational hierarchies, creeds, and fixed forms of worship. The form of spirituality these movements espouse is gynocentric and ecological. The focus is on the celebration of female sacral power, which is accompanied by a positive evaluation of the female body, sexuality (including the erotic), and fecundity. Nature is revered for its powers of birth and regeneration, and humanity is understood to be intimately connected to and responsible for the natural world.

As a response to and reaction against patriarchal religion and, more specifically, as a result of the rejection of the use of male imagery and language for the divine, spiritual feminists often draw instead on the symbolic power of the Goddess. For instance, female gods such as Ishtar, Diana, or the Great Mother may be invoked in feminist rituals, and appeal may be made to various ancient Goddess traditions (e.g., Gimbutas, 1974; Spretnak, 1981). The way the Goddess is conceptualized in these movements varies. She may be worshipped as supreme being, personification of the earth, or alternatively, function as a nonrealist symbol of female perfection. In any case the Goddess is visualized through immanent or other means than traditional, transcendent categories. The term thealogy (in contradistinction to theology), coined by Naomi Goldenberg (1979, p. 96), is now widely employed to signal the importance of Goddess worship and symbolism to the movements and to refer to the growing body of literature that offers scholarly reflection on spiritual feminism (e.g., Christ 1979, 1997; Eller, 1993; Goldenberg, 1979; Long, 1994; Raphael, 1999). However, some spiritual feminists prefer not to be defined in relation to the enterprise of theology to the degree that it is viewed as an inherently patriarchal discipline that entails a retreat from praxis into systematic theorizing about doctrine. Other elements that have proved attractive to spiritual feminists include pagan and Wiccan traditions. Participatory rituals, occasionally with magical overtones, are often held to coincide with pagan feasts such as the spring equinox and summer solstice. Some of the key figures in feminist spirituality identify as witches (e.g., Zsuzsanna Budapest; Starhawk). This both reclaims the witch as a positive female role and at the same time honors those women who were historically persecuted for witchcraft because of their refusal to succumb to (often religious) authority.

Feminist spirituality movements are deliberately eclectic and syncretistic, and this, combined with the rejection of institutional organization, accounts for their variety. To a certain extent these feminist strategies of connection and appropriation are similar to those employed by women who seek to rebuild the traditional religions. Both entail the recovery of suppressed or forgotten symbolism and traditions and the construction of new religious expressions on this basis. However, the borrowing of religious symbolssuch as the incorporation of goddess traditions into feminist spiritualityrisks offending those from the indigenous cultures of Africa, America, Australia, China, and India whose symbols have been reappropriated for use by Western women if it is done without due sensitivity to their proper context. There is also debate about whether spiritual feminists are engaged in the recovery or imaginative re-creation of religious history. Controversially the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas postulated the existence of peaceful goddess-worshipping matrifocal cultures in Neolithic Europe that were superseded by warfaring patriarchal tribes that worshipped male gods. That a prepatriarchal golden age of female-affirming religious culture ever existed has been disputedeven by feminists sympathetic to Goddess spirituality (e.g., Eller, 2000; Hewitt, 1993). Irrespective of whether conjecture plays a part in such hypotheses, innovation in ritual celebration is of more importance to feminist spirituality movements than appeal to historically verifiable traditions.

The critique and transformation of the academic study of religion

A fundamental task of women's studies scholarship has been to interrogate and overhaul the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the academic study of religion. As has been indicated, women's studies in religion arose from the realization that the academic study of religion was an androcentric enterprise. A central goal of women's studies has therefore been to dismantle the epistemological and methodological architecture of the discipline constructed from within the parameters of androcentrism and to rebuild religious studies so as to incorporate into its framework critical awareness of the role gender plays both in shaping religion and in shaping its study in order to offer a fuller and truer account of the religious experiences of humankind.

As women's studies entered the scholarly arena, the academic study of religion was dominated by the Religionswissenschaft school, led by scholars such as Mircea Eliade, Joseph Kitagawa, and Charles Long. The laudable ambition of this influential movement was to study any and all human religious phenomena dispassionately, impartially, and nonjudgmentally, free from religious and all other bias that might interfere with the goal of the objective and scientific study of religion. Religion was understood to be a universal human phenomenon that, despite its cross-cultural and historical variety, has distinctive transcultural features in common (such as initiation rites) that are shared by the timeless, supposedly genderless, and otherwise decontextualized homo religiosus, "religious man." This ahistorical, undifferentiated generic subject was soon subjected to critical scrutiny by women's studies scholars and homo religiosus exposed as the false universal it was.

The androcentrism of the Religionswissenschaft school was diagnosed by Gross: "Homo religiosus as constructed by the history of religions does not include women as religious subjects, as constructors of religious symbol systems and as participants in a religious universe of discourse" (Gross, 1977, p. 10). While it was claimed that women were included under the generic man, examination of scholarship by historians of religion demonstrated that this was not the case. For instance, Saiving found that Eliade's Rites and Symbols of Initiation (1958) devotes just 9 of its 175 pages to female initiations (Saiving, 1976, p. 184). While this is attributable to the lack of reliable ethnographic data on women's rites, Saiving takes issue with Eliade's extrapolation from the more extensive data on male initiation rites to his conclusions about initiation as a human phenomenon: "What he says about the human meaning of initiation corresponds almost exactly to what he says about male initiation" (Saiving, 1976, p.189). Similarly, though Eliade's magisterial three-volume work A History of Religious Ideas (19781985) seeks to relate "the spiritual history of humanity" (Eliade, 1978, p. xvi), Christ finds: "The history of religion which Eliade tells is distorted by dualism, Idealism, and false universalization of male experience" (Christ, 1991, p. 94). If women's religious data is omitted from the construction of models and theories about religion, it comes as no surprise when women are treated as curious exceptions to the (male) norm. Thus Gross notes: "Most of the time, Eliade writes about women as symbols to homo religiosus, rather than as real people. When he does, infrequently, write about women as real people, it is because their behavior represents a special case that does not fit his general descriptions or theories" (Gross, 2002a, p. 46).

While the Religionswissenschaft school had been sensitive to the dangers of allowing Christian models of religion to function as a key to the interpretation of other religious traditions, the movement had been blind to the way gender affects scholarship. The quest for a universal account of religion as such was conducted using inadequate data, erroneous inferences and dubious hypotheses. Women's studies scholarship demolished the assertion that the discipline of religious studies was scientific and impartial and demonstrated the illusory nature of the claim to objectivity. As Kinsley indicates: "The effect [of women's studies] has been to show, often in shocking and dramatic ways, the extent to which history of religions has not been true to its own mandate. It has been neither all-inclusive nor objective in its study of human religiousness" (Kinsley, 2002, p. 2).

This powerful feminist critique of the scientific study of religion crystallized a thoroughgoing reconceptualization of the subject, initiating a change in the discipline that has been characterized by several scholars as no less than a conceptual paradigm shift (see Christ, 1987, 1991; Gross, 1983; King, 1995; Warne, 1989). Within religious studies as a whole there is an increased sensitivity to the influence of gender in shaping religious and research perspectives and greater caution in the formulation of generalizations about religious beliefs, symbolism, and practices. The methods of studying religion have been expanded as women's studies scholarship has penetrated the specialist academic disciplines in the study of religion. While the study of religious texts remains an important element in religious studies, it has been recognized that, to the extent that it exists, sacred literature is of limited use for ascertaining the reality of ordinary women's (and men's) religious lives on the ground. Women are often absent from holy writings, and when women are mentioned in texts and teachings, there is the danger of distorted or idealized portrayals of their lives.

Women's studies have helped to dislodge the discipline's overemphasis on and priority given to text-based research by shifting the focus to other sources and methods of obtaining information about women and their religions. Within the specialisms of anthropology and sociology of religion, more extensive use of fieldwork has improved data gathering through the increased use of interview techniques and the collection of oral testimonies. With greater numbers of female researchers engaged in fieldwork, there is wider access to women's spaces, allowing more detailed study of female-dominated religious subcultures. Scholarly interest in popular and folk religion, where women are often more prominent, has also aided the documentation of women's religious participation.

One important methodological question that arises with respect to the conduct of fieldwork concerns the relationship between the researcher and the subject of researchthe observer and the observed. Women's studies scholarship exposed the false claims to objectivity made by scholars within the so-called scientific study of religion, and this has given rise to a wider hermeneutical suspicion of the ethos of objectivity, including a questioning of whether the methodological values of impassive detachment and scholarly neutrality are genuinely attainable (and desirable) in the field and whether fieldwork observations can supply an accurate account of religion uninfluenced by the observer's presuppositions, values, and evaluative and interpretive faculties (see Franzmann, 2000; Knott, 1995). The issues at stake can be ethically perplexing, involving, for example, matters of whether fieldwork necessarily objectifies women who are studied; whether the establishment of trust and friendship have a place in ethnographic research; whether scholarly noninvolvement implies tacit approval of unjust power relations between those who are studied; and how far a researcher should stand back from cultural practices that she or he judges to be harmful, degrading, or otherwise questionable (see Jacobs, 1991).

Feminist and other researchers committed to social justice for women may find the research values of noninterference and neutrality conflict with a perceived duty to engage in the consciousness-raising of research subjects and to speak out against the discrimination and oppression of women. Some female scholars suggest the values of engagement and empathyas important feminist commitmentsshould replace the ethos of objectivity as the appropriate feminist and morally responsible means of conducting research in religion (e.g., Christ, 1987, 1997). In order to take proper cognizance of the inherent presence of scholarly subjectivity and the perspectival nature of human knowing, it has become common for women's studies scholars (and other scholars of religion) as creators of knowledge, in an act of self-reflexivity, to disclose to their readership as prolegomenon to their research, their authorial standpoint, social position, interests, background, and any other relevant features in order to make explicit those factors that may shape and color the research questions, objectives, methods of study, and conclusions. The theoretical aspects of feminist epistemology and standpoint theory find an important place in feminist philosophy of religion (see Anderson, 1998; Jantzen, 1998).

Experience, Identity, and Difference

The process of articulating one's standpoint as a situated subject has become a critically important exercise in women's studies, not least as a means of shedding light on three dominant but problematic analytical themes: experience, identity, and difference. To be a person in the world necessarily entails location in a particular place and time, and humans are further shaped (though not determined) by social identities and roles that contribute to self-understanding and form identities, that make one subject to different life experiences, that give one particular outlooks or perspectives on the world, and that enable differences to be discerned between oneself and other differently situated subjects. A greater appreciation of the role of social location in creating and shaping human diversity has allowed women's studies in religion to offer more sophisticated analyses of the factors that affect women's religious lives and to dispel some of the generalizations about "women's experience" that characterized certain less-critical early feminist critiques of religion (see Davaney, 1987). If previously more sweeping assertions were made about women's lives on the basis of a monolithic understanding of womanhood, there is now recognition of the analytical inadequacy of "woman" as a unified category. Women have diverse needs, desires, ideals, and so on and are embodied subject to differentials such as sexuality, religion, nationality, ethnicity, "race," class, caste, and age. As such women's religious lives are shaped by a complex interaction of forces, and they cannot be understood adequately using the category of gender alone. For example, the plight of dalit women in India is as much concerned with issues of economics and caste as it is with gender (see Jogdand, 1995).

It is clear that women who belong to religions in the advanced industrialized countries of the Northern Hemisphere are affected differently by political, economic, and environmental forces than those within the more rural economies of eastern Europe and the Southern Hemisphere. Traditional forms of religion and ritual practices and the family units that preserved them are subject to transformation through the impetus for economic development and the demise of rural communities. While many women are affected by these changes transculturally, the effects are often most acute in developing countries since it is women in traditional societies who tend to safeguard and preserve religious customs and values from the modernizing and Westernizing tendencies that globalization brings. In this context, in countries such as India and Pakistan, women have found themselves pedestalized by religious nationalisms eager to promote them as antisecular symbols of national pride, identity, and purity. When it comes to ecological activism, religious women have campaigned more vigorously for sustainable development and global resource management in countries that are directly affected by the destruction of habitat through deforestation, the industrial pollution of rivers, and the stripping of natural resources compared to those in more affluent nations, where a sense of connection to and responsibility for the environment has to a large extent been compromised by mass consumption and consumerism (see Ruether, 1996).

Crucially the way geopolitical economic forces affect contemporary religions cannot be understood without recognition of the influence of the shameful history of Western imperialism, colonial expansion and exploitation, racism, slavery, and the imposition of Christianity onto indigenous peoples. These wrongdoings were perpetrated under the guise of promoting civilization and religious salvation, and their enduring legacy has been Third World debt, apartheid, racial discrimination, religious unrest, the emergence of fundamentalisms, tribal warfare, genocide, displaced peoples, and an obscene discrepancy between the economies of the rich North and poor South. The historical legacy of Western imperialism and its contemporary afterlives cast a long shadow over international relations and religious identities.

This historical background has had a profound influence on women's studies and continues to act as an obstacle to the global solidarity of women. While women are united in fighting sexism, they are divided by injustice with regard to "race," religion, class, nationality, economics, sexual orientation, and so on. In these respects women can be the perpetrators as well as the victims of discrimination and injusticeas were white Western women during the colonial era. For those women still experiencing the aftermath of colonial empire building, the Western message of women's liberation is an ambivalent one. Feminism is a suspect category for a significant number of nonwhite and non-Western women who associate the term with the bourgeois liberal individualistic claims of white, educationally privileged, and economically elite middle-class women whose gender analyses do nothing to address the racism, classism, and economic injustice suffered by most of the world's women. For some, feminism also stands for sexual licence and family breakdown. For these reasons, many nonwhite and non-Western womenincluding some who campaign for women's liberationeschew the feminist label (see Isasi-Díaz, 1993, p. 4).

In the early days of the women's movement many Western women were unaware of these sensitivities. Western feminists would often write as though gender were the only lens through which women's lives could be understood, whereas for some women the discriminating factors were as much associated with economic injustice, racial prejudice, and imperialistic domination. The idealism of the women's movement tended to neglect these conflictual elements, and those involved in women's studies failed to see the monopoly of power that Western women possessed as shapers of the new discourse (see Williams, 1985). Feminist theory, it was thought, included all women and could address their universal concerns.

In the same way that the Religionswissenschaft school had initiated a flawed attempt to distill the essential nature of pure religion, uncontaminated by social, political, or any other context that gives religion its variety and complexity, so too Western feminists constructed anemic accounts of women's nature and experience that had the blood of real lives drained out of them. Women's studies scholars were falling into the same homogenizing traps and reproducing the same errors as their male predecessors. The social, political, and other contextual elements that form women's lives and create distinct identities were submerged under the rhetoric of a nebulous undifferentiated "women's experience." In a repeat performance of the mistakes of androcentric scholarship, the formulations of feminism that were articulated represented the interests and perspectives of the white Western women who had created them, and the dominant feminist critiques of religion were based on the predominant religion of the West, Christianity. These analyses lacked the standpoints of other women from different contexts whose life experiences could provide additional perspectives that previously had been omitted.

Contextuality as a Characteristic of Women's Studies in Religion

The scope of women's studies broadened as new writings emerged from women keen to assert their distinct identities and name their particular experiences (see Kwok, 2002). These built on the feminist critique of religion but also reacted against it. For example, African American women (avoiding feminist nomenclature) adopted Alice Walker's term womanist to describe their theological and ethical projects, located in the experiences of not only sexism by males but also racial and economic oppression by the white majority in the United States (e.g., Cannon, 1988; Grant, 1989; Williams, 1993). Initially united by their Christian heritage, womanists have since shed their exclusively Christian focus. Similarly Ada María Isasi-Díaz and colleagues coined the term mujerista theology to express the religious reflection and liberative praxis that arises from the ethnically diverse Latina women living in the United States who are united by their common experience of sexism, poverty, and racism (Isasi-Díaz et al., 1992). Numerous other local and contextualized women's theologies also emerged differentiated on geographical, ethnic, and other grounds that reflect the pluralism of Christianity (humanity's most populous and geographically dispersed religion) and that express the shared perspectives of women united by marginalization, communal struggle, and religious empowerment (e.g., Brock et al., 1987; Katoppo, 1979; King, 1994; Oduyoye, 2001; Kwok, 2000).

As a result of this proliferation of contextualized approaches, women's studies in religion are more diverse, complex, and internally divided but also more inclusive as the many social allegiances and religious loyalties of women are given expression. Further diversification seems inevitable as increasing numbers of women from traditions other than Christianity organize themselves into distinct local constituencies.

The ideological diversity that exists leads to dissonant responses to religious issues that concern women. For example, there is no consensus on the use of the ijāb (veil) in Islam, which has become a particularly contested and polysemic religious symbol. The requirement that Islamic women dress modestly in public is interpreted differently in different social and historical locations. The practice of veiling is frequently characterized by non-Muslims as nothing other than an illustration of the religion's oppression of women. While some Muslim feminists may agree with this assessment and applaud the influential action of Egyptian feminists who first cast off the veil in the 1920s, other Muslim women, where veiling is not compulsory, have reclaimed the practice both as a symbolic act asserting Islamic identity over against Western liberalism and in order to enter public life free of the male gaze (see Leila Ahmed, 1992; Hoodfar, 2001).

The veiling issue illustrates the complexity and multiple layers of meaning that religious symbols can have for women and also demonstrates the need for women's studies scholars to actively foster intercultural and interreligious sensitivity and dialogue as a means of overcoming prejudicial intolerance and supremacist tendencies and of learning from encounters with those who are other. This has been theorized by writers such as Rita Gross, Ursula King, and Maura O'Neill and put into practice by initiatives such as the Asian Women's Consultations on Interfaith Dialogue (AWRC) (AWRC, 1990, 1995; Gross, 2002b; King, 1999; O'Neill, 1990). Nevertheless further critical reflection and practical measures by women are required in this areaespecially given the continuing augmentation and exploitation of religious suspicions and hostilities for political, terror, and militaristic purposes.

To the extent that religions have sought to control and circumscribe female sexuality, women who have chosen to live outside the framework of heterosexuality and straight conventions have found themselves doubly oppressed by religious teachings, ideals, and practices that concern sex and gender. Yet lesbians and other queer women have found homes in religions and have drawn on their marginal experience to theorize about religion and sexuality and to campaign for societal acceptance and civil rights. Women who have identified as lesbians, such as Rebecca Alpert, Mary Daly, Beverley Harrison, Carter Heyward, Mary Hunt, Audre Lorde, and Elizabeth Stuart, have made important contributions to what has become a subject discipline in its own right: in 1986 the American Academy of Religion Lesbian-Feminist Issues and Religion Group was established (see Alpert, 1997; Daly, 1978; Harrison, 1985; Heyward, 1984; Hunt, 1983; Lorde, 1984; Stuart, 2003). In addition to exploring the intersection of religious and sexual identity, these writers have expanded the understanding of terms such as eros, embodiment, desire, and friendship.

Interdisciplinarity as a Characteristic of Women's Studies in Religion

As women's studies in religion have embraced these new identities and contingencies, the purview of the field has grown and diversified by the welcome introduction of new intellectual resources and interdisciplinary approaches that have preserved women's studies from becoming stagnant and irrelevant. For example, the insights of postcolonial theory are commonly employed by female scholars from non-Western contexts (e.g., Donaldson and Kwok, 2002). The Argentinean liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid has combined the class analysis of liberation theology with feminism, postcolonial theory, and queer theory to offer new insights into the oppression of the economically and sexually disenfranchised (Althaus-Reid, 2000, 2004). Sharon Welch and Mary McClintock Fulkerson have both incorporated poststructuralist theory into their influential feminist liberation theologies, and Fulkerson has also drawn on the empirical social sciences (Fulkerson, 1994; Welch, 1985). Terms such as woman, experience, identity, subjectivity, and difference are critically examined using the tools of postmodern feminist theory (see Chopp and Davaney, 1997). Religious feminists are examining issues of sexual difference, the symbolic order, and the divine through the psychoanalysis and philosophy of French feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva (e.g., Joy et al., 2002, 2003; Kim, et al., 1993). Perhaps most significantly for women's studies, the intellectual vibrancy of gender studieswhich continues to anchor theoretical work in women's studiesis leading to increased interdisciplinary collaboration between male and female scholars of religion (e.g., Peskowitz and Levitt, 1997).

From Women's Studies to Gender Studies in Religion

The evolution of gender studies as an academic discipline in its own right has had a considerable impact on women's studies in religion. If women's studies scholars have learned that factors other than gender must also be taken into account when seeking to understand women's religious lives, gender studies have shown that gender itself is not a straightforward category: sexed identities are more diverse, fluid, and performative attributes than previous scholarship and religious or cultural prescriptions had appreciated (e.g., Butler, 1990). These insights, which gave birth to queer theory, have resourced lesbians and other women who point to the inadequacies of religious attitudes to sexual orientation. Feminist theory has benefited from the more nuanced accounts of gender that now exist, which have challenged the feminist fundamentalisms that stress either secure and normative sex differences or that appeal to aspirations of androgynous sameness. The advent of gender studies has also created a much-needed intellectual space for men's studies in religion to flourish (e.g., Boyd et al., 1996). This, along with the synergistic collaboration of male and female scholars of religion who employ gender theory in their work, has raised important foundational questions about the future of women's studies in religion.

One question involves whether gender theory as a discourse might subsume feminist theory and how such a scenario would affect women's studies. It has already been noted that some female scholars of religion do not identify themselves or their work as feminist. It is for this reason that the phrase feminist studies in religion was considered an inadequate title for this encyclopedia entry. The question of appropriate nomenclature for the discipline is more than an exercise in terminology. The term gender studies in religion better reflects the fact that both females and males are affected (albeit diversely) by the many ways gender matters shape religions. It also addresses the concerns of the significant numbers of female and male students who (rightly or wrongly) find feminism threatening and women's studies courses exclusionary. Increasingly academic work in women's studies is based in gender studies departments. In these respects gender studies in religion is a more inclusive subject discipline and offers a more adequate terminological label than either feminist or women's studies in religion. However, while the trend toward gender studies may attract more students into the field, it may also call into question the continued need for separate women's studies courses on educational curricula, leading to closures or mergers of academic programs. The danger is that absorption into gender studies may further dilute the status and visibility of scholarship that concentrates on women's religion or lead to a loss of provision altogether.

The Academy and Women's Studies in Religion

As a cross-disciplinary subject, work in women's studies in religion is often carried out as a subsidiary aspect of established cognate disciplines within religious studies, theology, or (less frequently) women's and gender studies departments. As a result the subject has struggled for acceptance in the academy, and it remains marginalized and underfunded. Nevertheless women's scholarship is supported and shared through numerous international and faith-based organizations, networks, and conferences. The World Wide Web has proved particularly effective in making widely available religious and other online resources to large numbers of interested women inside and outside of academia.

Of the enormous body of literature devoted to women and religion, Serinity Young's Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion (1999) deserves mention as the first comprehensive reference work in the subject. And if women's studies in religion have often been forgotten within the wider women's studies discourse, this oversight has been corrected in the Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women, in which "Religion and Spirituality" comprises one of its thirteen major sections (Kramarae and Spender, 2000). Established periodicals that publish on women and religion include Arvind Sharma and Katherine Young's Annual Review of Women in World Religions, the American Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and in the British Isles Feminist Theology, which has a broader compass than its name suggests. From Australia come the biannual Women-Church: An Australian Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and the annual online journal Seachanges: The Journal of Women Scholars of Religion and Theology. Christian journals include the Yearbook of the European Society of Women in Theological Research; In God's Image, the Asian women's theological journal; Revista Con-spirando: Latin American Review of Ecofeminism, Spirituality, and Theology. Hawwa: Journal of Women of the Middle East and the Islamic World and Al-Raida, published by the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, are English-language journals. Within Judaism there exists Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends; Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues; and Women in Judaism, a multidisciplinary electronic journal. While such journals facilitate scholarly exchange, it is still mainly Western women who have access to these and other resources.

While few doubt that the entry of women's studies in religion into the academic arena constituted a major event in the history of the study of religion, the extent to which women's studies have transformed the discipline of religious studies is a moot point (see Plaskow, 1999; Warne, 1998). The pattern across specialisms is uneven. Whereas anthropological, psychological, and historical studies of religion have integrated feminist insights into mainstream scholarship, feminist writings remain on the fringes of sociology and philosophy of religion (see Sharma, 2002). There is more work to be done before the marginalization of women's scholarship finally comes to an end. However, much has been achieved. One need only compare the revised edition of this encyclopedia with its first edition (1987) to see the abundant growth and reconceptualization of the subject on the grounds of gender. Ursula King's trenchant criticisms of the neglect of women's scholarship in the first edition did not go unheeded (King, 1990). This second edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion gives eloquent testimony to the manifest influence of women's scholarship in engendering religious studies.

See Also

Androcentrism; Ecology and Religion, overview article; Eliade, Mircea; Feminine Sacrality; Feminism, article on Feminism, Gender Studies, and Religion; Feminist Theology, overview article; Gender and Religion, overview article, article on History of Study; Gender Roles; Goddess Worship, overview article; Gynocentrism; Lesbianism; Men's Studies in Religion; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements and Women; Patriarchy and Matriarchy; Spirituality; Thealogy; Wicca.

Bibliography

The literature on women's studies in religion is vast and varied. The most comprehensive treatment of the subject is in the Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion. For an indication of how the field has changed since its inception, compare this entry with its forerunner "Women's Studies" by Constance H. Buchanan in the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion. Gross's Feminism and Religion offers a detailed overview of the impact women's (and especially feminist) studies have had on religion; and their direct influence on the subject specialisms and methods of religious studies are discussed by Sharma (2002). The edited collections listed here typically offer a combination of essays on theoretical questions in gender and religion and on the contemporary and historical impact of religions on women's lives. All the works below are referred to in the Women's Studies in Religion entry.

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Althaus-Reid, Marcella. From Feminist Theology to Indecent Theology. London, 2004.

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Asian Women's Resource Centre for Culture and Theology (AWRC), ed. Faith Renewed II: A Report on the Second Asian Women's Consultation on Interfaith Dialogue, November 17, 1991, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1995.

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Julie Clague (2005)