Bjork-James, “Gender and Religion”

Bjork-James, Sophie. “Gender and Religion.” Oxford Bibliographies

Abstract: Gender is central to most religious orders. In turn, religions have a significant impact on gendered relations. The study of gender and religion stems from a broader interest in feminist anthropology, and multiple approaches to the study of gender and religion have been developed. An early approach explores the ways that religious practice influences male and female behavior. Studies in this vein explore changing gender norms attending conversion to new religions, or the ways that women’s and men’s roles are constrained and shaped by religious practice. More-recent work analyzes the ways that gender itself structures religious and spiritual ethics and practice. While patriarchal relations are central to many global religions, this is not a universal principle. Some religious orders emphasize cooperation and respect for women over hierarchy. Others may prioritize male leadership but indirectly provide women with types of ethical identities and spiritual positions that create spaces for women to practice their own agency and forms of power. The ethnographic record also demonstrates that there is often a significant difference between how patriarchal gender relations are prioritized in formal religious spaces and how they are practiced. Gender often shapes the religious meanings of space and materiality. Scholars studying women’s participation in nonliberal religious movements have shown that often women participate in patriarchal religions in the pursuit of their own interest. Even through submission, women can cultivate particular ethical selves or develop relationships that are understood as desirable. A broad literature exists exploring female submission and agency within patriarchal religious spaces, much of which challenges liberal assumptions that what individuals need is freedom. Through ethnographic explorations of female participants in patriarchal religions, scholars have exposed the multiple reasons women participate in religious gender hierarchies. Many religions have also recognized nonbinary gender roles. Within numerous cultures, including indigenous, Asian, and others, individuals occupying either transgendered or nonbinary gendered roles are granted special spiritual status. Thus, diverse religions display a variety of gendered systems. Some recognize gender identities as fluid rather than fixed during a person’s life course. Finally, a number of feminist scholars provide important critiques about the ways that religious women—specifically through wearing the veil or burqa or participating in female genital cutting—can become symbols of oppression that unite feminist and colonial logics, creating discourses of saving and inequality over solidarity.

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