May 23, 2012

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion


Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

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