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

By Morton Klass; Maxine Weisgrau | Go to book overview

pologist's culture upon the one being studied. An example of particular importance for this section is that of the term taboo (particularly as in "menstrual taboo")--implying an imposition upon women of forced separation because of "impurity" or "danger" or "inferiority" or all three together. Marla Powers, in her examination of Oglala menstrual rituals, suggests that Western biases obscure the full meanings of these practices, which reflect complex Oglala perceptions of reproduction and female life stages. In addition, as many of the chapters in this book suggest, such behavior on the part of women reflects women's interpretations and negotiations of belief systems, as well as (or even instead of) male- dominated institutionalization of restrictive practices.

We began this introductory essay by observing that most ethnographic accounts traditionally derived "religion" from the reported beliefs and observed practices of men. (Indeed, many accounts still do.) Nevertheless, in societies (again, most) in which there is substantial gender separation in the practice of religion, there are ritual, belief, and practice systems for women significantly different from those of men. In a classic paper, David G. Mandelbaum ( 1966) proposed that many societies approached religion from two quite distinctive perspectives: the "transcendental "--concerned with such large issues as "maintenance of the universe"--and the "pragmatic"--concerned with day-to-day problems such as illness in the family. Mandelbaum argued that the cultural assignment of these two realms in the practice of religion was often a reflection of social hierarchy, specifically as in the case of caste-based restrictions in India. It may well be, however, that a similar distinction of realm emerges where there is substantial gender restriction. Sered explores additional aspects of "the domestication of religion" in her study of elderly Jewish women in Jerusalem.

Although the foregoing questions and suggestions may be useful starting points for discussion and perhaps research, the construction of gendered and religiously informed identities, as the chapters in this part demonstrate, is far more complex and fluid than any simple model can encompass. Different life stages bring with them different rights, duties, and ritual statuses. Equally important, we observe, is the observation that cultural values and attitudes concerning these statuses change over time. In contemporary cultures these changes are often informed by globally situated forces, such as colonialism, postcolonial religious fundamentalism, and transnational religious phenomena.


Notes
1.
Almost all contemporary anthropologists dismiss as imaginary--as not supported by any scientific evidence--the outdated notion of "race" as an actual biological category.

References

Mandelbaum David G. 1966 "Transcendental and Pragmatic Aspects of Religion." American Anthropologist 68: 1174-1191.

Rosaldo Michelle Zimbalist, and Louise Lamphere, eds. 1974 Woman, Culture, and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

-83-

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