Women and Religion

The attitude of women towards religion as well as women's role in various religious teachings and institutions has been the focus of scholarly studies since the 1960s and the 1970s and arose with the development of gender studies and the emergence of concepts like androcentrism and gynocentrism - the privileging of the human male, or female, respectively.

As the body of literature dedicated to women and religion grows, several main approaches to exploring the matter have been distinguished. The first is studying of women's religious lives and their role in religious movements. Scholars exploring these problems have argued against androcentrism that has dominated theological accounts of the lives of important religious figures. Women's studies, instead, sought to draw attention to the role of women in religion. A seminal publication in this field is the collection of essays Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives (1980).

This approach stresses that there are religious movements and sects, such as Afro-Brazilian healing cults, Japan's Ryukyu religion, and Black Carib religion, which can be defined as women's religions since their leaders and most of the adherents are female. In many cultures women are cherished for their sacral power through roles as ascetics, healers, shamans or witches. Women are often organizers and participants in rites of purification and fertility and birth. Although leadership in religion is most often associated with men, women can also take leading roles, whether as preachers in certain Christian denominations, priestesses in traditional African religion and Haitian vodou, or as Buddhist teachers or Liberal or Reform Rabbis in Judaism. There are many women gurus in modern Hinduism, such as Ananda Mayi Ma (1896-1982). Women assume special roles in some religions, like Buddhism and Christianity, which exempt them from certain conventional arrangements like childbirth or marriage.

Apart from sharing the leadership with men, women have also sought to establish new religious movements (NRMs), which aim to differentiate themselves from all traditional religions. The birth of the NRMs was in the 18th century, with the movement of the Shakers, founded by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784). Another example is Japanese NRM Tenrikyo, founded by Nakayama Miki (1798-1887) in the 19th century. The late 20th century saw a great variety of feminist spiritualities, non-official religious movements that defied institutional structures, hierarchies and rigid forms of worship.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) once said: "By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus." At the age of 18 she recalls wishing to become a missionary and joining the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1946, Mother Teresa established a religious community in Calcutta where she helped poor families. She received numerous awards for her work, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. In 2003, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa in recognition of her spiritual and charitable work.

Another main approach to studying women and religion focuses on the reconstruction of female symbols from religious texts, their analysis and interpretation. The proponents of this approach have shown considerable interest in the study of divine female figures like bodhisattvas in Buddhism, goddesses in Hinduism goddesses and celestials in Daoism. An example is the concept of heterosexuality, defended by major religions but challenged by theories developed by gay, lesbian and feminist theologists. LGBT studies have explored the relation between religion and sexuality. These studies, influenced by the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), deal primarily with race and gender.

A third approach in studying the place of women in religion has sought to offer a more various and contextualized perspective on every problem. Thus, the wearing of hijab (veil) in Islam can be interpreted in different ways by non-Muslims, who see this as a sign of religious oppression, and as a traditional custom by Muslim women who prefer to wear the veil. This approach has emerged to a large extent as critique of the dominating tradition of religious studies, led by scholars like Mircea Eliade (1907-1986). Women's studies in religion have criticized the traditional approach for being too rigid and abstract. An example is the mujerista theology of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz (b.1943), who coined the term to express the combination of religious beliefs and suffering from poverty and racism of Latin American women in the United States.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past
Catherine A. Brekus.
University of North Carolina Press, 2007
The Religious Imagination of American Women
Mary Farrell Bednarowski.
Indiana University Press, 1999
Teaching Other Voices: Women and Religion in Early Modern Europe
Margaret L. King; Albert Rabil Jr.
University of Chicago Press, 2007
Christianity and Womanhood: Evolving Roles and Responsibilities
Wyatt M. Rogers Jr.
Praeger, 2002
Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries
Deborah F. Sawyer.
Routledge, 1996
On Women & Judaism: A View from Tradition
Blu Greenberg.
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1998
The JPS Guide to Jewish Women: 600 B.C.E.To 1900 C.E.
Emily Taitz; Sondra Henry; Cheryl Tallan.
Jewish Publication Society, 2003
Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion
Matthew Dillon.
Routledge, 2002
Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion
Sarolta A. TakÁcs.
University of Texas Press, 2008
Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today
Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad; Jane I. Smith; Kathleen M. Moore.
Oxford University Press, 2006
Women Embracing Islam: Gender and Conversion in the West
Karin Van Nieuwkerk.
University of Texas Press, 2006
Women's Lives, Women's Rituals in the Hindu Tradition
Tracy Pintchman.
Oxford University Press, 2007
Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming against the Stream
Karma Lekshe Tsomo.
Curzon Press Limited, 2000
Goddesses and Women in the Indic Religious Tradition
Arvind Sharma.
Brill, 2005
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