Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

PART TWO Gender and Sexuality

IT WAS BARELY A QUARTER-CENTURY AGO that Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere wrote: "The anthropological literature tells us relatively little about women, and provides almost no theoretical apparatus for understanding or describing culture from a woman's point of view" ( 1974: vi). This, mind you, despite the unending fascination with the mythologically informed but poorly documented concept of "matriarchy." Furthermore, the anthropology of religion resonates with the lives of extraordinary women who are woven into the histories and myths of all the world's religious systems.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, inspired by feminist studies in other areas, scholars of the anthropology of religion documented the female voice in religious practice. Much of this literature focused on the unique ritual practices of women and their household-centered expression of religious identity, often reflecting a domestic ethnographic realm. Forms of menstrual taboos and female restrictions in the public practice of religion dominated the ethnographic discussion until very recently; much of this discussion of female seclusion and exclusion analyzed these phenomenena as reflecting male-dominated religious institutions imposing restrictions on females.

The anthropological scholarship on religion and gender in this decade has taken a quantum leap forward to encompass multiple forms of gender identity, eroticism, gay and lesbian lifestyles, as well as transgendered activities. But even more significant, the gendered nature of religious experience is now fully grounded in the discussion of the political, economic, and social manifestations of gendered religious experience. Women in religious systems are no longer portrayed as passive recipients of male restrictions but rather as active participants in the conceptualizing and fashioning of their socioreligious identities. And the concept of gender, with its constructed forms of identity, applies to all members of a society.

Therefore, a number of seemingly disparate topics are discussed in the chapters included in this part--the title of which barely encompasses all the complexities and issues. In popular discourse, for example, gender and sex tend to be used interchangeably, which confuses already complicated discussions. Biologically speaking, the human species exhibits two sexes, but that is usually not what

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