Religion And Gender Research Paper

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According to Social Sciences religions are social and cultural features, resulting of specific historical constructions. Religious beliefs and symbols as well as church organizations are the result of social processes in which social agents are inscribed. Every religious action is limited and directed by the social situation of religious agents, official leaders, or simple believers. Practices, representations, symbols, and discourses of religious field are accomplished by socially placed believers. Even when they express their faith supposed to be absolutely private, social relations take place. Classical approaches of religions deal with the question of how social class influence religious believers and behaviors. Nevertheless, the ways gender and race influence beliefs and religious institutions have rarely been taken in account.

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In the context of feminist critique to the female exclusion of the possibilities of formulating knowledge, the efforts to alter the ways of thinking are an integral part of the historical struggle of women. In the seventeenth century, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican Catholic nun, invoked the right of women to participate in knowledge in the same manner as men. The development of feminist studies, especially from the 1970s on, led to the formulation of sophisticated feminist criticism of the traditional and modern forms of Western thinking. Thus, practically all areas of knowledge have been questioned by feminist theoreticians who developed alternative proposals to hegemonic forms of knowledge.

Women have also brought the field of religious studies into question. Feminist theories and methodologies have been applied to the field of religion especially by using the category of gender or social relations with respect to sex, showing how a significant part of traditional studies in this area treat religious agents without distinction of gender and race. This generalization can be found in the use of homogenizing categories of a complex reality. Observe the categories entitled ‘clergy,’ ‘laity,’ ‘hierarchy,’ etc.; they are employed without any reference to the sex or race of their components. The consequences for analysis have been shown by empirical research attesting to the manner in which the field of religion is molded not only by class, but also by gender and race. The approach in terms of gender, therefore, questions the pretentious neutrality of the social sciences in their aim to examine religions.

Among the main critical concerns of these issues is the uncertainty that the sexism inherent in historical religions can be overcome. In the opinion of a few of those who study the issue, these religious are inevitably androcentric. These scholars propose the creation of alternative religious spaces where women can produce new forms of relating with the sacred, which is also thought of in an innovative way. Other scholars believe that the problem of historical religions is that men appropriated them. It is necessary to recuperate the original traditions and foundations for women to find their place in these religions.

Another area of criticism is religious organizations, churches, and others in which women as a whole are excluded. From Judaism to Taoism (Sharma 1987, Gross 1996), religious organizational forms are analyzed as social institutions that guide and control women’s lives and bodies. Special reference is made to three aspects that exclude the female population in these institutions: the sphere of decision-making and power, symbology and the predominance of a monotheism in which the divinity is male, and the formulation of theological and moral discourse.

1. Feminist Criticism Of The Classics Of The Sociology Of Religion

The specific field of sociology of religion has also been submitted to the scrutiny of feminist critique. Scholars point to sexism in the analysis of religion found in the work of classical authors in this area, such as Durkheim and Weber (Erickson 1995, Bologh 1990). The first author places a rigid division between the sacred and the profane to explain social life and religion. The power generated by rites and beliefs establishes this separation. Men, holy beings par excellence and having been gifted with a soul, are the protagonists of beliefs and rites whereby new relationships and society itself are created. Women, lacking a soul, are relegated to the sphere of the profane, repetitive day-to-day life and the absence of creative capacity. Only power and violence are able to keep these two spheres separate. In modern, secularized societies, rites and beliefs are meant to help keep the ideal world of men separate from the world of women by force.

Weber’s sociology of religion also bases itself on dichotomy: religions founded on both rational and ascetic ethics combat magical and ecstatic religions that incorporate eroticism. The first religions are aimed at action in the world and allow one to attain the greatness of a hero, a charismatic leader or a prophet. The second religions lead to love and only serve to ‘comfort the warrior,’ and are negative in relation to action in the world. Men are associated with the religions of active asceticism and rationality and are responsible for progress since they have been equipped with heroism. Social order is founded on the empire of reason and greatness, at the cost of the repression of the sentiment, eroticism and magic attributed to women.

The two classical authors defend the dominant social order in relation to the subordinated positioning of women, thus legitimizing the dominance of the male elite both in society and in religion sustained by the female population and the masses. After them, other sociologists addressing the religions institutionalized in churches rarely realize that the nature and functions of religious power are based on the sexual division of the work. The separation of the cleric from the layperson is, at once, a separation of men and women in which the power is attributed exclusively to men. One of the problems with the sociology of social and religious organizations is, as feminist sociologists demonstrate, the abstract treatment of the categories used as supposedly neuter in terms of gender, which prevents the perception of fundamental elements of reality. Even if certain studies include considerations on women, they are generally descriptive and exclude any analysis or explanation of male dominance.

2. Feminist Contributions To An Understanding Of Religion

Feminist critics envision creative, new directions for classical and current studies of the social studies of religion, challenging their pretentious neutrality and objectivity. For example, Gross (1996) proposes the necessity of academic objectivity and, at the same time, empathy with respect to the subject matter. Empathy would be the most appropriate methodology to deal with polemic themes arousing intense emotions. It allows one to understand the believer’s point of view and creates an important point of contact between academic religious studies and religious practices from a perspective of personal faith. The effect of religious studies therefore is that which radically refutes absolutism.

In the field of theology, scholars bring traditional representations of divinities into question, in an attempt to overthrow the monotheistic, male conception of the Christian God, for example. According to a significant group of feminists, Christian women theologians reject the traditional understanding of ‘human nature,’ which quarters women into the specific area of maternity by destiny and not by choice. This rejection of the biological resource to explain social and religious order of the sexes leads women to radically criticize the current hierarchical organization of ecclesial institutions, especially the Catholic Church. An affirmation of an individual autonomy that is not opposed to the construction of collective ideas but rather supports them further leads women to claim recognition as moral agents capable of making ethical choices in all fields of life, including those related to the control of sexuality and the capacity to conceive new human beings.

An analysis of the consequences of exclusions that fall on women in the area of religion shows that they are not limited to the fact that women are prevented from being included in the decision-making process in churches and the formulation of authorized knowledge. These consequences also extend to the symbolic field, since they keep women within a closed circle of impurity. The impossibility of presiding over rituals considered fundamental to the development of faith and the delimitation of distinct physical spaces according to sex, with secondary importance being attributed to women, among other examples, add to the religious image of the female population as sinners and polluters of the sacred. In the case of Catholicism, this happens in a radical way. In order for a man to reestablish the relationship of a community of believers with its God, it is not only necessary that he be a man, but also that he be celibate, i.e., that he not touch any women.

Another area in which there are significant feminist contributions is the history of religion. By interrogating existing historiography and the silence with regard to female proaction, and by confronting the difficulty of sources, women scholars have been seeking to write a different history in which facts, figures, and processes are shaped by the social relations established between the sexes. Catholic religious nuns rigorously trained not to have a ‘personal or collective history’ have been the subject matter of historical and sociological study.

In all fields of religious study, feminist scholars affirm that the fundamental issue is to understand the way in which symbolic activities—beliefs, rites, and religious discourse—that seem to escape sexual differentiation, similar to the ordering of the internal power structure of religious institutions, truly conform to such differentiation. Feminists are therefore concerned with showing how religions are presented in social and historical reality to be molded and interwoven with gender relations.

3. Womens’ Investment In Religion

Feminists commonly affirm that religions historically have been spaces for guidance and control of the behavior, thoughts, practices, and representations of women. Nevertheless, many scholars believe that religious space is contradictory and ambiguous for allowing women to have certain gains in concrete historical situations. For this reason, women invest in religion to find possibilities for development and autonomy to counteract the institutional investment in control. Religions can function as mobilizing forces, allowing women to resist disciplining religious and social power.

Feminist scholars of religious history asked historiographical sources demonstrating religious women’s protagonism in different religions and diverse societies and historical periods. For instance, some Buddhist traditions became attractive for women because of the large number of famous female practitioners and teachers found in their ranks. In Taoism we can find important women alchemists, monks with their own monasteries and accomplishing high roles as shamanistic mediums. In Christianity, women monks were the chiefs of mixed monasteries, with male and female monks, in medieval Europe. They managed high levels of ecclesiastical power.

Research on nineteenth century Europe and Latin America shows that under certain circumstances religions historically have become unique social spaces for the female population. These spaces further act as a refuge and create conditions for women to escape male control, including by opening up the possibility of not marrying in order to dedicate themselves to spiritual life in convents and similar places. Recent studies have reported alterations in the religious field that are partially favorable to women. This is the case of Christian Ecclesiastical Base Communities, which offered many women from poorer communities the possibility of removing themselves from the domestic environment and unbalancing sex relations as well as an important learning in exercizing leadership (Drogus 1997) These communitarian spaces enabled the assimilation of feminist concepts allowing women to criticize the Catholic ecclesiastical institution as maledominated and patriarchal. It is interesting that apparently opposite fields of discourse—feminism and Christianity—were blended to empower women. New religions were also dealt with in this manner, with research showing their ambiguities in relation to the gains they offered the female population.

Another strategy women use in their favor is the reinterpretation of sacred texts. Like many Christian theologians who developed new readings of the Bible, Islamic female scholars reinterpreted the Koran, showing that male domination of the female population, as well as the idea that women were created for men have no basis on the sacred books. Equally they deny women of being guilty, based on the proposition of the guilty figure of Eve. Buddhist scholars affirm the equalitarian original character of Buddhism, They argue that Buddha taught women as well as men and had both as his followers.

Hence, womens’ investment in religion can be explained not only by the social control exerted over them through religion, but also by their taking advantage of their religious participation.

4. Future Directions Of Research

The affirmation of religious experience as a gendered experience has led specialists in religious studies and theologians of various religions to reflect with everincreasing depth on the different ways in which men and women deal with their religious beliefs and practices. In this vein, many fields have lent themselves to feminist research in order to understand and explain womens’ relationship with religion and their place in historical religions. One of the most useful fields seems to be that which analyzes the effects of the contemporary re-arrangements occurring in religion both in the West and the East on the lives of women and, as a consequence, men. Another area of research, in terms of claiming sexual and reproductive rights, is that which aims to discover the ways in which different religions appropriate the female body and seek to control its sexuality and reproductive capacity. One area open to empirical research still remains: the conditions for women to produce new religious practices, discourse, and symbols and the effects on religions and the entirety of believers, whether men or women.

In sum, the growth of empirical data prepared taking gender as theoretical tool should offer new clues for understanding and explaining the reality of religions in societies of the third millennium.


  1. Bologh R W 1990 Love or Greatness. Max Weber and Masculine Thinking. A Feminist Inquiry. Unwin Hyman, London
  2. Drogus C A 1997 Women, Religion, and Social Change in Brazil’s Popular Church. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN
  3. Erickson V L 1995 Feminism, Social Theory, and Religion. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN
  4. Gross R M 1996 Feminism and Religion. An Introduction. Beacon Press, Boston
  5. Sharma A (ed.) 1987 Women in World Religions. State University of New York Press, New York
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