Religion, Study of

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Religion, Study of

It is commonplace to view gender as a social construction, created and perpetuated by social institutions and structures where male and female roles and behaviors are assigned and performed according to a set of assumptions about a "natural" order, biological exigencies, or divine ordination. Religion, in its broadest sense understood as systematized and communal belief and practice, has been one of the main means historically through which gender construction has been both undertaken and maintained. In many ways, religion constitutes a discursive practice, which, in Foucauldian terms, is a rule-governed set of statements in which a community creates and articulates what it agrees to be knowledge or truth and which are regulated through a variety of procedures such as prohibitions and taboos, forms of authorization, specialization, exclusory classification, and so on (see Foucault 1981). To view religion as a discursive practice, therefore, and to examine the ways in which it participates in the construction of gender, is to investigate those religious procedures and practices that determine, regulate, and sanction the meanings and values of gender categories.

There are a variety of means that religious traditions use to construct gender, and these are discussed briefly here with regard to the broad categories of religious authority, religion and corporeality, and religious identity, before an examination of how the academic field of religion and gender has sought to investigate the ways in which religious traditions as well as the field of religious studies have understood gender.


Religious authority is established and wielded through a variety of means—sacred texts deemed to be the direct revelation of a deity in theistic traditions, the teachings of a tradition's founder, or the ancient writings of ancestors, a priestly hierarchy or charismatic leader, communal tradition, and personal experience. Each form of authority has implications for gender roles and identities both with regard to the ways in which various gender constructions are sanctioned and the extent to which the different sexes have access to that authority. Very generally speaking, women are usually excluded from holding positions of authority within most religious traditions that fall under the category of "established religion," for example Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and so on. "New" religious movements (NRMs), however, often place fewer restrictions on women's access to religious authority and indeed regularly encourage women to take a central role—for example Wicca, which explicitly resists conventional forms of religious authority and promotes women's full participation and leadership. Pagan traditions such as Wicca often either play down the importance of gender for the spiritual path or suggest that the sexes are complementary and reflective of the balance of the cosmos (see Palmer 1994).

Sacred texts and religious leadership have tended to be the paradigmatic means of gender construction in established religions. Within the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, a number of gender idealizations are offered through their central texts and reinforced through their leadership structures. However, their orthodox forms each sanction basic scriptural accounts of gender differences on either a sex-complementarity or gender-polarized model. As such, the basis of the difference between males and females is viewed to be a form of divinely ordained (and indeed created) biological essentialism that is then extended to mandate gendered roles, abilities, and forms of religious participation. Moreover, although the presence of women in religious texts is often marginal, they are often portrayed in negative ways—as a source of temptation, sexually loose, cunning, weak-willed. Nontheistic traditions such as Buddhism (in its various forms) present gender in a variety of ways—ranging from the irrelevancy of gender to the idea that biological sex is crucially important—all of which, however, are concerned with the extent to which the adherent's gender enables or hinders the achievement of enlightenment.


Gender and biological sex are often conflated in many religious traditions, an aspect that becomes especially clear when considering different religious attitudes toward corporeality. Men are often exempted from an association with the body; they are usually deemed more spiritual than women, and consequently their religious identities are rarely categorized—as women's are—in terms of their sexual function. Women's bodies, in contrast, are with striking regularity in many traditions viewed as problematic—either dangerous, a source of pollution, or indicative of a lower order of being—and this seems to be because of the association made between femininity, fertility, and sexuality. The sexually controlled (married or chaste) or asexual woman is often portrayed as a spiritual ideal—the Virgin Mary, for example—and is contrasted with the sexually active woman—Mary Magdalene. Within Brahmanical (orthodox) Hinduism, women are considered inherently wicked and polluting, and their spiritual practice must be directed toward the redemptive path of submissive wifehood. They must treat their husbands as akin to gods and undertake religious rituals solely for their benefit and that of their male kin.

The fear of female bodies is expressed and managed in numerous ways. In Confucianism, orthodox Judaism, Shinto, and Brahmanical Hinduism, taboos are placed on sexual activity during menstruation and seclusion is advocated in the period shortly after childbirth. Women's sexuality is viewed as especially dangerous (or in the context of Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism, as singularly powerful) by most established religious traditions and is often used as an excuse for preventing women from participating in religious leadership and for insisting on their modest dress and even confinement in the home. Moreover, women's sexuality is frequently equated with an inherent immorality and evil. As Sara Maitland argues with regard to some forms of Christianity, "female sexuality is always dangerous and usually wicked. It is not just self-destructive; it is dangerous to men" (1987, p. 132). Women's sexuality and their bodies are not only considered to be potentially polluting or dangerous, but also to be a source of shame and wickedness. In the Digambara sect of the Jain tradition, whose practice includes wandering nude in public for spiritual merit, women are considered to be unable to overcome their sense of shame and are by implication unable to embark on the ascetic life that is the prerequisite for spiritual liberation.

Finally, women are sometimes encouraged to abuse their own bodies, submitting themselves to often extreme forms of mortification. This was a particular feature of medieval Christianity in Europe, serving to enforce the conflation of femininity with sinful corporeality and the particular need of women to overcome their inherent natures in order to pursue a spiritual path.


Despite the negative aspects of religious attitudes toward the female body, many women find much fulfillment and opportunity within all religious traditions. Moreover, despite the overwhelming tendency of religions to be dominated by men, many women have contributed much to their development and vibrancy, and indeed cooperate with and support many of the gender idealizations they promote. There are a variety of religious roles and functions open to women within the world's religions—as lay women (by far the most common form of religious participation in most religions), as adepts or religious professionals, as wives or daughters of religious leaders, or as religious leaders in their own right. Female religious adepts are a feature of most religious traditions, whether as Jewish rabbis, Anglican priests, shamans, Buddhist nuns, Zen masters, or Hindu renunciates, but these possibilities have usually been achieved only after a long period of struggle and at considerable cost to those who pursue this path. Because of the tendency of most religious traditions to promote fairly conservative and restrictive models of gender, many women who have been influenced by the women's liberation movement have chosen to leave their religious traditions and to develop female-centered forms of religiosity, which has resulted in the Goddess Spirituality Movement. This movement celebrates the Great Goddess, who is manifest in her myriad forms, as the source of a positive and holistic female identity and seeks to ameliorate the effects of patriarchy in the world. Other women have chosen to remain within their traditions and to seek to reform them by searching for models of gender within their sacred texts that promote a more equitable balance between the sexes.


The invisibility of religious studies within women's and gender studies curricula and anthologies has been long remarked upon (see King 1995, p. 219-220), and this marginalization can be attributed to the prevalent assumption among feminists and gender-critical theorists that religion has little to offer women and indeed is one of the paradigmatic sources of women's oppression. As the scholarly literature that has emerged from the areas of gender studies and religion and feminist theology attests, however, women can be, probably should be, and certainly have been involved in an intense and creative dialogue with a variety of religious traditions in order to challenge and transform them in such a way that their life-affirming potential is made available for women and men equally.

Four main preoccupations characterized early work in the field: First, scholars exposed the androcentrism and misogyny of many religious traditions historically; second, women as active agents of religious practice and study, and gendered identities more broadly, were identified as a legitimate category of analysis, with women's experiences being promoted as a credible and corrective hermeneutical tool; third, new forms of female-centered religiosity were explored; and finally, epistemological and methodological tools derived from feminist theory were developed in order to challenge the androcentric bias of mainstream scholarship in the areas of theology and religious studies.

The field of religion and gender has shifted from a women-centered approach to one that considers gender to be a central category for critical reflection. Studies exploring the connections between gender and religion have multiplied since the 1990s, the most influential being Ursula King's volume Religion and Gender (1995), which critiqued the gender-blindness of the field of religious studies, offered gender-critical perspectives on the empirical study of women in a variety of religious traditions, and assessed new directions in feminist spirituality.

Studies of masculinity and religion have begun to appear, offering a comprehensive and provocative insight into male experiences within specific and varying religious formations. Issues regarding sexuality and religion have also received increasing attention, building on the earlier work of gay and lesbian theologians, with explorations extended to issues of embodiment and corporeality, theoretical reflections drawing on the insights of gay/lesbian and queer theory, discussions of the place of GLBT identity within religious traditions, queer perspectives on the academic study of religions, and studies plotting the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Gender-theoretical reflections aiming to transform the conceptual foundations of Religious Studies have also been a predominant theme, and have demonstrated a refined and impressive grasp of a broad range of epistemological theories brought to bear on the analysis of the discursive ideologies operating in field.

However, the most important contributions have been initiated by postcolonialist scholars who are critical of the ethnocentrism of scholarship in the field of gender and religion. Their interventions have paralleled broader debates regarding the colonialist legacy of religious studies (see McCutcheon 1997, King 1999, and Fitzgerald 2000) and have charged gender-critical scholars with complicity in the social, political, and epistemic violence that has been exercised by the West toward non-Western cultures. Research challenging Western gender-critical scholars to investigate fully and reflect upon the relationship between scholarship and the ethics of representation from the perspective of non-Western "others" proliferated around the turn of the twenty-first century, and Western scholars are beginning to respond to these critiques. Ursula King and Tina Beattie's volume Gender, Religion, and Diversity (2004) is testament to a new willingness to engage in dialogue and to learn from the perspectives of non-Western gender-critical scholars. It is clear, however, that much work remains to be done, and it is likely that this area will see a considerable expansion in the years to come.

see also Buddhism; Catholicism; Christianity, Early and Medieval; Christianity, Reformation to Modern; Confucianism; Hinduism; Islam; Shamanism; Zoroastrianism.


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                                           Sîan Hawthorne

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