Bronwyn Winter. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.
This chapter looks at religion as a sociocultural, political, economic, and historical phenomenon, rather than as a personal question of faith or notions of transcendence, the sacred, the taboo, or the divine. In other words, it looks at religion as constitutive of social organization and power relations and the codification thereof, and as such, as central to the collective and individual internalization of cultural identity. It gives a broad overview of the late twentieth-century development of Western and non-Western feminist study and critiques of religion, then looks at some contemporary debates that cut across different religions—the question of interpretation and authenticity, secularism and atheism, the search for spirituality, and lesbians and religion—as well as at the particular case of the Islamic headscarf as a marker of gender, ethnic, and religious identity in a post-9/11 context.
While I do not take it as a given that a need for spirituality or a concept of the divine are a necessary part of the human condition, it is apparent that at this point in time and to the best of my knowledge, there exists no society -and thus no culture—without some form of religious belief that underpins its dominant value system. These religious beliefs can be examined from the perspective of their sacred components or the personal faith of their adherents. This chapter, in contrast, looks at religion as a sociocultural, political, economic, and historical phenomenon and examines the ways that religions reflect the codification of social organization and power relations. From this sociocultural perspective, religion can be seen as often central to collective and individual internalization of cultural identity.
Following an initial development of this analytical framework, I will give a broad overview of the late twentieth-century development of Western and non-Western feminist study and critiques of religion. Next, I will look at the particular case of the Islamic headscarf as a marker of gender, ethnic, and religious identity in a post-9/11 context, as it exemplifies the polarization and heatedness of debates in which religion becomes imbricated with questions of racism and political hegemony and resistance, and in which women become the emblems of ‘cultural identity.’ Finally, I will discuss some of the contemporary feminist debates that cut across Western and non-Western religions: interpretation and ‘authenticity,’ secularism and atheism, the search for spirituality, and lesbians and religion.
Religion as Constitutive of Culture and Political Power
The postulate that religion has to do with power and hierarchy incorporates two apparently contradictory, but, in fact, complementary ideas: religion is part of the masculinist power structure within which social relations become gendered (and class-stratified, racialized, and so on), and religion is a vehicle through which power and hierarchy can be challenged, subverted, overthrown, or modified. The co-existence of these two functions of religion has formed a central premise of a number of feminist writings on the subject. This body of work argues that religions are not fixed entities existing in some eternally abstract space untouched by humans but are dynamic, adapting to socio-historical and geo-political contexts and, indeed, play a decisive role in shaping them. Feminists look at the development of different schools of thought within religions to bolster their claim that religion, whatever its uses for individuals, has evolved through processes of struggles for political power, whether the religion is the agent of assertion of power, direct resistance to it, or a means of finding a transformative space for disempowered groups during a period of socioeconomic upheaval. Unsurprisingly, periods of upheaval or resistance have tended to favour women’s manœuvring within religions, as within other social institutions, although this is not universally the case. At the same time, even those religions that may have started as a form of dissent against a dominant order or questioning its values (Christianity and Buddhism come immediately to mind) have over time become part of the dominant social, political, and economic order through their clergy’s association with societies’ elites.
Religions, however strongly proselytizing they may be, have adapted to local cultural, political, and economic contexts to produce different variants and hybridities. In many parts of West Africa, for example, Islamic leaders are also tribal spiritual elders. In the French Caribbean, Louisiana, and Brazil, elements of Christianity were incorporated by slaves into African religions to produce the new religion of voudou, which has been historically, and continues to be, symbolic of popular culture and resistance to oppression both from White colonizers and the so-called mulâtres, the minority of ‘mixed race’ who benefited from greater privileges under colonial rule.
A final important point to make with regard to religion and power is that prior to the rise of the modern nation-state, religious institutions had control over education (and still do to a great extent). As a consequence, religious values have informed the type of education that people receive, and religious institutions have provided the primary means of access to education, which in many parts of the world and for many centuries was largely denied to girls outside religious orders. Three comments need to be made here. First, the role of religions in education not only had class and gender dimensions but also colonial dimensions through the missionary movement, for example (Donaldson and Kwok, 2002). Second, religious institutions have not always been instruments of exclusion; they have sometimes been the means of access to literacy for the poor. Third, the education of girls within religion-based states is unlikely to be ultimately liberating for women. Women in Khomeinist Iran, for example, were among the most highly educated in the Muslim world at the time, but they were not more liberated than their sisters in many other Muslim countries (Chafiq, 1991).
Feminist Critiques of Religion
Like feminist questionings of other institutions and values within and outside the academy, feminist studies in religion began by seeking to render visible the invisible: (a) women, and (b) androcentric or masculinist methodologies and values. Just as feminists questioned other areas considered off-limits for political debate, such as marriage, housewifery, childrearing, and compulsory heterosexuality, feminists interrogating religion and studies of religion asked: ‘Why this taboo? What is its social context? Who benefits from it? Why is venturing into this discursive terrain made so difficult for us? What might we discover/uncover that may be of use to women if we do venture there?’
Western Feminist Critiques
The field of feminist studies of and in religion developed within the West, and like other areas of women’s studies, found and continues to find its major impetus in the United States, as might be expected, given the preponderant role of the United States in the development of women’s studies for reasons of political, economic, and cultural power. Notwithstanding important developments elsewhere (for example, writings published by Kali for Women in India or ASR in Pakistan), feminist studies on and in religion continue to be driven, to a large extent, by US preoccupations, even when the critiques are ‘non-Western.’
This observation, however, warrants some commentary. First, as concerns the development of the area of women’s critique, historical study, and exegesis within studies of religion, or the very possibility for women of undertaking study in religion, there is some evidence of later development in the United States. A famous case in point is that of Mary Daly, who, unable to enrol in a PhD programme in theology in the United States, went to Switzerland to do it instead; her book The Church and the Second Sex was a result (Daly, 1965). Rita Gross has also written of the difficulties she encountered at the University of Chicago when she first undertook a feminist critique of conventional (masculinist) methodology in the study of religion (Gross, 1994a). Second, the fact that feminist studies in religion may have initially developed as a modern university discipline within the West does not mean that there was no presence of women engaging critically with religious traditions prior to this, within or outside the West.
Feminist study of and in religion as it developed from the late 1960s/early 1970s in the United States focused initially on women in relation to Christianity. Another area that developed fairly early was work on women and Judaism. The 1982 anthology Nice Jewish Girls (Beck, 1982) was among the first, and rare, works to deal explicitly with lesbians within ‘malestream’ religious/cultural traditions. Feminist studies of and in religion also very quickly picked up on the feminist spirituality movement and rediscoverings and revalidations of historically marginalized or vilified religious traditions (Christ and Plaskow, 1979; Spretnak, 1982).
Like other feminist scholars at that time, however, early feminist theologians were lonely pioneers in their field, particularly in the comparative study of religion. A turning point in putting feminist theology and intercultural study of religion on the map was the founding in 1985 of the US journal Feminist Studies in Religion (the founding editors were Judith Plaskow and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza).
More recently, an increasing volume of work on non-Western religions by feminists of non-Western backgrounds has been made available to an international readership through the interest in the West for ‘postcolonial’ studies. This work has centred on four main areas. First, it has involved a re-evaluation of women’s personal and political engagement with religion, even in its more conservative expressions, as a vehicle for popular expression of resistance against an oppressive state or against an imperial power (Donaldson and Kwok, 2002; Eck and Jain, 1986; Haddad and Findly, 1985). Second, it has provided a space for feminist exegesis within non-Western religious traditions, as well as comparative/intercultural theological study (Becher, 1990; Parsons, 2002; Women Living Under Muslim Laws, 1997). Third, it has questioned what has been seen as a hegemonic Western feminist standpoint, according to which all religion is patriarchal and necessarily disempowering for women (Afshar, 1998; Donaldson and Kwok, 2002; Jeffery and Basu, 1998). Fourth, as with other areas of postcolonial studies, it has challenged the ‘ways that the study of religion has participated in and contributed to the epistemic violence maintained by western studies and narrations of the Other’ (Donaldson and Kwok, 2002: 15).
As early as the mid-1970s, non-Western feminist critical writing on non-Western religions was being published in the West (for example, Mernissi, 1975). More recently, a considerable body of feminist scholarship has explored the relationship between women, religious conservatism, and the state, both within and outside the West (Bacchetta and Power, 2002; Sarkar and Butalia, 1995). That relationship is generally seen as detrimental to women, although not universally so (Brink and Mencher, 1997). Much of that writing has also examined ways in which women have been complicit with religious conservatism, for reasons that range from the need for unity in anticolonial liberation struggles or identification with an ethnic minority, to the right-wing/antifeminist politics of the women in question (Jeffery and Basu, 1998; Moghadam, 1994; Bacchetta and Power, 2002). Over a similar period, scholarship on women’s human rights and feminist critiques of cultural relativism have increasingly brought religion and religious identity under scrutiny in investigations of whether and in what ways women’s human rights and religion and/or cultural particularism may be ‘competing claims’ (Cohen, Howard, and Nussbaum, 1999; Gustafson and Juviler, 1999; Mayer, 1995; Rao, 1995).
The Case of the Hijab
The points I wish to raise here may not be limited to discussions of Islam, but in a so-called post-9/11 global context, it is Islam that has become the focus of much highly charged debate around religion, politics, cultural ‘difference,’ and women.
Feminist scholars have long observed that women’s bodies, appearance, and behaviour are one of the major contested sites in debates over nation, culture, ethnicity, and religion (Enloe,  1990). In debates over the hijab (Islamic headscarf), or ‘veiling,’ what are at issue are sexualizing ‘orientalist’ overtones, twentieth-century histories of colonization and ensuing Muslim anticolonial nationalism and identity politics, and the rise of twentieth-century Muslim fundamentalist movements (Lazreg, 1994; Shirazi, 2001; Winter, 2001; Yegenoglu, 1998). Debates over the hijab have perhaps been waged most exhaustively and emotively in France, where the so-called ‘headscarves affair’ of 1989 triggered what has been called a ‘national psychodrama’ and was much spoken of internationally (Bloul, 1994; Winter, 1996), although, at that time, feminists were largely marginalized from the public debate. More recently, the French law on banning religious dress or adornment in public schools has been widely criticized, although significant numbers of French citizens of Muslim background have come out strongly in support of France’s so-called ‘intransigent’ secularism. The debate has spawned a plethora of articles and books, including, this time, many that are explicitly feminist (for instance, Djavann, 2003; Prochoix 25, 2003). The ‘headscarf debate’ is also being waged in a number of other countries, such as the UK, where Shabina Begum, a 15-year-old secondary school student, was expelled in 2002 for wearing the jilbab (a form of Islamic dress that covers all but the face and hands) and lost her appeal to the British High Court in 2004. In Turkey, there was a furore in October 2003 during the celebration of the eightieth anniversary of the Turkish Republic over the outlawing of the hijab at official functions. In Singapore, an appeal against the secular dress code in schools (which outlaws the hijab) was lodged in 2002 with the High Court.
In a post-9/11 context, the hijab has increasingly become the symbol of a demonized Islam and of the victims (both material and symbolic) of that demonization. A polarization has occurred between right-wing and/or neo-colonial and neo-orientalist Western views of all Islam as fundamentalist and/or terrorist and an identity politics (defended by the Western left wing) that sweeps under the carpet the very real existence of fundamentalism (including fundamentalist lobbies behind defences of the hijab in the name of multiculturalism and antiracism). More importantly for feminist debate, the deployment of the hijabas a marker of cultural or religious identity has tended to make it difficult to find a discursive space in which to speak critically, from a feminist perspective, of the hijab as—first and foremost—a gender marker. This is not to say that one should not be cognisant of the choices made by young women to don the hijab as a marker of identity or protest, or as part of a quest for cultural roots from which they feel their parents may have become disconnected (Gaspard and Khosrokhavar, 1995). There is also, as in any so-called postcolonial context, the problem of appropriation and the search for authenticity: Whose identity is authentic? Can a Western woman criticize fundamentalist manipulation of the hijab in the same way that a woman of Muslim background might be able to? But then, is the latter really able to? How much space is given to secular voices among Muslim-background women?
At this point, it appears easier for Western women who have converted to Islam and donned the hijab to have a voice in certain academic and political circles than it is for women of Muslim backgrounds who argue against the hijab. This may be related to the difficulty more generally of arguing for secularism or atheism in relation to some non-Western religions or cultural traditions, as such arguments are criticized as Western and even imperialist. Such arguments against Westernness, however, do not appear to be put as vehemently in relation to other Western practices as they are in relation to women’s rights (Chanda, 2003).
Feminist Religious Debates
In addition to critiques of particular religions and religious practices, feminists have engaged in debates that cut across different religions—the question of interpretation and authenticity of religious texts, the challenge of secularism and atheism, the search for a spirituality meaningful to women, and the place of lesbians in religious traditions that condemn homosexuality.
The Question of Interpretation and the Search for Authenticity
Foundational religious texts can be polyvocal, ambiguous, or fragmentary, with ensuing difficulties for interpretation, which will thus tend to depend on what other values one associates with the exercise of one’s religion. As concerns religions without written traditions, ‘foundational texts’ are transmitted through oral traditions, which can be even more open to dispute, as there is no recorded source to refer to.
For example, a cause célèbre in Australia in the 1990s involved opposition by Indigenous women in South Australia to the construction of a bridge to connect the mainland to Hindmarsh Island. A group of wo men elders maintained that the island was a sacred site for secret women’s business. Construction was therefore stalled. Subsequently, men—and some other women—from the same tribe claimed that the first group of women had been lying for the purposes of saving the island from increased tourism. A Royal Commission was formed in 1996, and the transcript of its findings fills 6,670 pages. The final result was that the proposed bridge and marina ended up being built. In this case, authenticity was disputed, and it is indicative of the scant weight given within Australia to women’s voices in general and Indigenous women’s voices in particular that the women protesting were discredited as liars (Bell, 1999; Hindmarsh Island Bridge Royal Commission, 1996).
Others have argued that texts referring to roles of women within religions cannot be properly understood without understanding the contexts in which they were produced. In relation to ancient Rome, for example, vestal virgins were for a long time considered to have a role comparable to that of nuns in Catholicism, but more recent scholarship, including a retraction by one of the main scholars who argued for the comparison with nuns, has indicated that vestal virgins had considerably more power and were indeed priests in their own right (Beard, 1995). In other words, attempts to apply modern understandings and modern experiences of discrimination against women to totally different historical, geographical, or cultural frameworks can easily lead to gross misinterpretations. Even attempts at historical contextualization are tricky, for the versions of history that filter through to us are not only those that have been preserved but also those that we are explicitly seeking. For example, many Muslim women have sought to demonstrate the positive values of Islam in relation to advances in women’s rights. Others, however, have argued that Mohammed’s first wife, Khadidja, an independent businesswoman who was fifteen years older than he was, was very much a product of Jahilia (pre-Islamic) society. Mohammed remained monogamously married to her until her death, after which he took a child-wife, Aïsha, and became polygamous. What had changed in the interim? He had written the bulk of the Koran and institutionalized polygyny and men’s control of women (Ahmed, 1992: 42-43).
Historical contextualization has also been used to ‘let men off the hook.’ Rita Gross, for example, has written of the Buddha’s sexism that:
though enlightened regarding certain deep spiritual truths, [he] was not entirely free of the social conditioning of his times. I do not believe that enlightenment entails a timelessly perfect social conscience or universal scientific and historical knowledge. Therefore, it did not occur to the Buddha to encourage women to be equal to men in their unconventionality and counter-cultural activities. (Gross, 1994b: 5-6)
Although the way Gross frames the concept of enlightenment may be internally coherent (that is, plausible or valid within the context of the Buddhist belief system), one could plausibly ask why the Buddha’s enlightenment was so limited with regard to women. Why should we accord a leniency to the Buddha or Mohammed that we do not grant, for example, to Marx, Rousseau, and other thinkers whose limited social vision has been criticized by feminists? Moreover, ‘authenticity’ and ‘tradition’ can be invented (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). For example, in the debates over the hijab discussed above, it is often overlooked that in many places where wearing it is claimed in the name of ‘cultural identity,’ the hijab is not, in fact, a garment indigenous to the country or ethnic group in question.
It is ironic that those seeking authenticity and original meanings often appear to be doing one of two somewhat contradictory things. Either they are using a recontextualization in a past time and, often, different place, to argue for interpretations that may somehow transcend time and place, or they are seeking to purify the text of any temporal or spatial contextualization in order to interpret it appropriately for a very specifically located audience. Religions, however, are not simply accretions of foundational texts or images of the (largely mythified) history or collective memory of the origins of that religion’s conception of the divine, but institutions and practices that are necessarily imbricated with social relations, and which evolve through time and place (Winter, 2001). The quest for authenticity is not necessarily useless, but claims of authenticity must take into account the context in which those making the claim are situated, including the very here-and-now politics of searches for original meanings.
Secularism and Atheism
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the feminist debate on religion seemed to centre on two questions: Why bother? And if we do bother, how might we bother? In more recent times, the debate, at least as it is constituted within the Western English-speaking world and in particular the United States, appears to centre more on finding demarcation lines between expressions of religion that are demonstrably ‘bad’ for women and those that are ‘good.’ The underlying assumption in this debate is that there is something inherently and indisputably positive about religion which feminists can, should, and will uncover. This shift is arguably due to increased volume and sophistication of feminist debate on religion, including discussions concerning both the polyvocality of religious traditions and the contexts within which women operate. In some of these contexts, as I noted earlier, engaging with religion as an emancipatory oppositional force can carry demonstrable benefits for women. It may also be due to the assumption of secularization and the separation of church and state in the West as a given, although such separation is clearly tenuous. Religion exercises a far greater influence in the West than is often assumed, from the organization of public holidays and mass cultural celebrations around Christian festivals to continued government funding of private Christian schools and Christian underpinnings of legislation, in particular that governing family relations and financial arrangements. Nationally and internationally established religions and politically influential religious lobbies also oppose the exercise of women’s reproductive rights and lesbian and gay rights.
Outside the West, or even within ethnic minorities within the West, the question ‘Why bother?’ is usually not even on the agenda, as secularism is simply not perceived as an option. Much focus has consequently been given to the question of how women might best engage positively with religion and use its more progressive elements strategically—notably, although not exclusively, with relation to Islam. Since secularism is not a given in these contexts, it is perhaps all the more important to argue for it, as it has been, for example, by Muslim-background feminists in France who support the outlawing of religious insignia in schools (for example, Djavann, 2003). Indeed, even though women engage with religious traditions for varied reasons, working solely within religion and particularly within a religion-based state will ultimately limit the outcomes that feminists will be able to achieve (Moghadam, 2001: 44-45).
The Search for Spirituality
Given the close imbrication of religion and culture, it is perhaps understandable that after quite strident feminist critiques of religion and lack of intercultural awareness by Western feminists, there should be a wave of literature that revalidates religion and the cultural traditions of which religions are part. Feminists do work in many ways and in many areas, and that great diversity and polyvocality are also among feminism’s great strengths, for they enable us to deal with a complex and changing world while still finding some sort of common language, however imperfect, through which we can communicate with each other across the globe and recognize each other’s values and struggles as feminist. Another of feminism’s great strengths is that everything is open to question—nothing is taboo, including women’s engagement with religion and claims for positive spiritual outcomes. It is only by continuing to open up debate that feminism’s great transformative potential can be realized.
The women’s spirituality movement in the United States has been important in opening up avenues for greater gender equality and feminist and lesbian voices within more mainstream religions. Feminists have variously defined spirituality as a form of transcendence or striving for perfection or peace at an individual level, and for connection with other living beings, with the earth and/or with the various elements that make up our cosmos. Spirituality may involve deity figures, but most often, in feminist terms, corresponds to a search for the spiritual power within. Carol Christ explained the need for the feminist spirituality movement in the following terms: ‘because religion has such a compelling hold on the deep psyches of so many people, feminists cannot afford to leave it in the hands of the fathers… Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected, they must be replaced’ (Christ, 1979: 274-275). Christ further wrote that ‘the strength and independence of female power can be intuited by contemplating ancient and modern images of the Goddess’ (p. 277). Revalorizing female figures that have been demonized within masculinist ideology is a feminist strategy that has been used in many areas (for example, lesbian revalorizing of the butch dyke), and it is thus unsurprising that such strategies have also been used within religions—Kali and Lilith are oft-cited examples (King, 1989).
The search for a feminist spirituality has questioned Western monotheism and its misogyny and sparked a notable interest by Western feminists in what are seen as more positive values of non-Western religions (Buddhism in particular, but also mysticism within other traditions, such as Sufi Islam; North American, Australasian, and Pacific Indigenous spirituality; and Jewish kabbalah). This interest was in part a product of a more general late 1960s/early 1970s Western protest-movement fascination with ‘Eastern’ spirituality, and has produced writings by Western feminist converts to those religions (for example, as concerns Buddhism, Farrer-Halls, 2002; Klein, 1995).
Such interest by Western feminists in non-Western religions and spirituality may address some concerns about the ethnocentrism of Western feminist work on religion. Others, however, have cautioned against superficial Western cultural appropriation of non-Western cultures and traditions, and in particular against the Western assumption that somehow non-Western religions are less misogynist or more positive for women. For example, the worship of the feminine and of goddesses within Hinduism has been critiqued as being inscribed within masculinist logic and serving male-supremacist power structures (Hiltebeitel and Erndl, 2000).
Lesbians and Religion
A growing body of work that sits as much within the field of lesbian and gay or queer studies as it does within feminist, women’s, or gender studies has looked at religion and homosexuality. This work has accompanied developments and areas of activism within the wider lesbian and gay community, such as the formation of houses of worship for gay and lesbian congregations, the Rainbow Sash movement within the Catholic Church, the increasingly high profile given to the ordination of lesbian and gay pastors and rabbis, and more generally, lesbian and gay activism against religious conservatism, notably in the West. These activities have been accompanied by studies developed quite early in relation to Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism; the majority of work done continues to concern those traditions.
One of the major gaps in feminist scholarship on religion concerns critical engagement by lesbians with religious traditions outside Judaism, Christianity, or women’s spirituality. It is perhaps less the case concerning those religions’ attitudes to lesbianism and lesbians, including literary representations (see, for example, Machacek and Wilcox, 2003; Vanita and Kidwai, 2000), although even here, most of the work on lesbians is subsumed under studies of homosexuality and religion, which mainly discuss male homosexuality with often only scant or no references to lesbians (for example, Leyland, 1998; 2000; Swidler, 1993). Concerning the history of lesbianism and religion and critical engagement of lesbians with non-Western religion in modern times, the corpus of scholarship is much smaller, for several reasons (see, for example, on India, Bacchetta, 2002; Thadani, 1996; Vanita, 2001).
First, there is generally less scholarship widely available about women and religion outside Christianity and Judaism—although there is much on women and Islam from a postcolonial perspective or within a context of writings on women, religion, and the state or women and fundamentalism, some of which has been referred to here. Second, it is more difficult for lesbians to be ‘out’ in countries outside the Western world, and there is therefore less writing on lesbians and anything at all, let alone lesbians and religion. Third, many cultural and religious traditions either do not conceive of homosexuality in the same terms as in the West (Vanita, 2001), or have ignored homosexuality or obliterated written documentation of it. Finally, within some traditions that may at this point be less accommodating of lesbianism than some areas of modern Christianity and Judaism, lesbians may be less likely to engage with those traditions than to reject them outright. Until there is more lesbian writing from some of the countries in question, however, this last hypothesis remains to be proven. The feminist world perhaps needs a second, lesbian-focused version of a groundbreaking US feminist anthology on feminism and racism (Hull, Scott, and Smith, 1982): ‘All the lesbians are white, all the Muslim/Hindu/Zoroastran/Voudou/etc women are straight: but some of us are brave.’
Conclusion: Whither Feminist Study of Religion?
Critiques of religion as bound up with power and hierarchy, and even as a patriarchal institution, certainly did not start with the contemporary feminist movement, but feminist study of and in religion has, like feminist involvement in other areas of society and intellectual endeavour, uncovered women’s presence in the history of religions, both as actors within religion and as rebels against it. It also has provided new critique of the relationship between religious institutions and masculinism, and reinterpreted religions from a feminist perspective. In doing so, feminists have deepened understandings of the relationships between religion, culture, and politics, opened up new debates in theology and exegesis, and created spaces for women not only to articulate their refusal of religion and have some measure of safety and support in doing so, but also to move to positions of influence within religions and, hopefully, change the institutions from within. Postcolonial feminist readings of racialized women’s identification or strategic alliances with religion have brought us more sophisticated understandings of the plurivocality of the world’s religions and the ways in which they are mobilized as vehicles not only of women’s oppression but also of women’s resistance and empowerment.
Some notes of caution must, however, be sounded, especially within the global context in which we find ourselves in the early years of the third millennium, where fundamentalisms of all creeds and colours are on the rise, and the slender and fragile gains that women have made are seriously threatened the world over. It is true that in moving into prominent roles in religions or cultural traditions, women gain a social status and personal empowerment that they might not otherwise have had. It is also true, however, that access to high status within a masculinist framework is not in itself feminist. Moreover, women who move to prominence within religions may already have socioeconomic advantages that assist their progress. For example, women who are prominent within the main Algerian fundamentalist movement and political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), have testified to their feelings of empowerment as women through their activism (Taarji, 1991), but that does not render the politics of the FIS somehow acceptable in feminist terms. The women who take leadership roles within the FIS are for the most part young university students or graduates. In a country with a significant rural population where illiteracy, particularly for women, remains a problem, these women are hardly grappling with social disadvantage to start with.
As concerns feminist campaigns for accession of women to positions of leadership within religions (through ordination or otherwise) and the growing visible presence of lesbians among the ranks of women who are ordained, the jury probably remains out on whether the religions in question are fundamentally changed, just as it does on the question of, for example, the changes brought to political parties, parliaments, the police force, corporations, trade unions, and the military by the increased presence of women in their senior ranks. If one is to agree with Carol Christ that religions, as such pervasive and deeply internalized sociocultural phenomena, should not be left solely in the hands of the men, then theoretical and practical strategies for the ordination and advancement of women religious leaders can be seen as a good thing. But it does not necessarily mean that their religious institutions will be feminist in promoting gender equality, women’s perspectives, and so on, especially if the deities and liturgies remain male-dominated.
It is difficult to make forecasts on where feminist studies of religion may go next, but it would seem that there is a need for further research into the areas of masculinity and religion, lesbianism and religion, the history of women and what may be called feminist activity in today’s world religions (especially outside Christianity) as well as in religions of the ancient world, and the interaction of religion and culture. I would also like to see comparative feminist studies of religion as a polyvocal sociopolitical force both within and between different religions and critical studies of both the history and contemporary politics of secularism, atheism, and the resurgence of religious fundamentalist political movements in new or reinvented guises. I thus look forward to continued and lively debate on feminism and religion: whether we should bother, and if so, why we should, how we might, and what we may stand to gain or lose from doing so.