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Religious and Socio-Cultural Boundary Work in the Swiss Handshake Affair

by Kerstin Duemmler, PhD

The Therwil affair leaves us wondering how refusing to shake hands can become such a symbolic act that it attracts the interest of politicians, lawyers, and media on local and global levels. It is evident that the excitement around this affair reflects social problems that lay behind the question of how pupils and teachers should greet each other.

One aspect of this social problem is the fear of Islamism, which is omnipresent in Europe. The Swiss handshake affair only provides a further incidence that nurtures it – notwithstanding if fundamentalist Islamic ideas have really motivated the Muslim boys to refuse shaking hands with their female teacher. While this fear is not completely unjustified in view of the Islamist terror attacks during the last decade in Europe, it has turned into a suspicion towards all Muslims. In public debates, Muslims are suspected of allowing religious fundamentalism to override respect for civic duties like gender equality or religious freedom. These worries are pervasive within public discussions, not only around the handshake affair, making deeper social divisions visible within society that are also (re-)produced in the everyday life.

Financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Janine Dahinden, Joëlle Moret and I (while being affiliated to the Center for Understanding Social Processes (MAPS) at the University of Neuchâtel) conducted a large qualitative study project with young people of different religious and ethnic origin in Switzerland to understand the way they deal with this diversity in schools. Our results show that Muslims are perceived as religious Others and they are set in contrast to the two mainstream Christian religions – the Catholic and Protestant church – and the high number of Nonbelievers (Dahinden, Duemmler, & Moret, 2014). Based on a clear-cut dichotomy, over-simplified images are sketched: Muslims would live their religiosity extremely, not only in private but also in the public sphere, and would not be free to choose how they live religion. The Christian and Nonreligious defined mainstream We-group is, in contrast, perceived as moderate, respecting religious freedom and considering religion a private matter. This clear-cut religious boundary work between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become prominent because it pretends to defend religious and secular values as well as gender equality, making the ‘oppressed Muslim women wearing a headscarf’ the prototype of the religious Other.

This religious boundary is historically new in Switzerland – as the social cleavages during the 19th century were among Protestants, Catholics, and liberal-secular political forces – but the ‘cultural stuff’ legitimizing the Othering of Muslims today seems to be somewhat similar. As Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin also argue in their podcast, civic duties are again privileged over religious duties, at least in the public space like the school, what makes them even speak about a ‘contemporary Swiss culture war’. I would bring other arguments forward helping to better understand the Othering of Muslims within the Swiss context of immigration.

In fact, the Muslim population (around 5%) is primarily an immigrant population who has become more visible since the 1990s with immigration and asylum seeking from the former Yugoslavian states, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Arab or Asian countries[1]. Thus, the discussion on handshakes is overlaid with the discourse on immigration and integration. But how are ‘Muslims’ constructed as cultural Others?

During the whole 20th century, the fear of ‘over-foreignization’ marked most political debates and anti-immigration initiatives in Switzerland (Dahinden et al., 2014). This fear relates to the number of immigrants and their potential ‘danger for Swiss culture’. After World War II, Italian and Spanish labor migrants were perceived as cultural Others; during the 1980 and 1990, the fear concentrated on labor migrants and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey; and since at least 9/11, Muslims are the prototype of the ‘foreigner’ – so are called ‘immigrants’ in everyday terms – leading to a ‘Muslimisation’ of immigrants (Allenbach & Sökefeld 2010).

Above, Simonetta Sommaruga, Justice Minister, argued that shaking hands is part of Swiss culture. Critics say that Switzerland is a multicultural society, where the practices of religious minorities should be respected. 

Historically, cultural assimilation of immigrants was seen as a measure to circumvent ‘over-foreignization’, and although Switzerland officially follows nowadays an integration policy, assimilationist ideas have remained omnipresent until today (in particular in the Swiss German part of Switzerland) alongside multiculturalist ideas. This means that immigrants are in general expected to ‘culturally and socially integrate’, while ethno-cultural differences are, at the same time, perceived as enriching and ethno-cultural identities and thus not totally expected to be abandoned (Duemmler, 2015a). In this context, where assimilationist ideas are ever-present, the public dispute emerged whether shaking hands with teachers are a cultural habit to which everybody, including Muslim immigrants, is expected to adapt or not. And it is in this precise context where teachers (in the canton of Basel where Therwill is located) are nowadays encouraged to denounce ‘integration failures’ to immigration authorities.

Thus, the Therwill affair is also an affair that mobilizes a socio-cultural boundary besides religious Othering. In our study, young people were equally convinced that immigrants had to ‘socially and culturally integrate’, as well as learn to speak the local language, if they really want to be accepted – or, in other terms, cross the boundary. These ideas sometimes turned into a general suspicion that immigrants, in particular Muslims, would not integrate. And although pupils and teachers in the school defended multiculturalist ideas, the integration paradigm was omnipresent (Duemmler, 2015b). In view of our fieldwork, I am thus more reserved than Hetmancyzk and Bürgin about whether teachers will always resist the pressure to report integration failures to immigration authorities.

Finally, the Therwill affair makes me wonder whether there might be even more teachers and schools who strain to find pragmatic, local solutions to questions of religious and socio-cultural diversity. If schools want to prepare young people to deal with socio-cultural and religious diversity in a tolerant and respectful manner, they have to put a strong emphasize on the living of these values in the everyday school life and remain vigilant not to give up the territory to any kind of populism or extremism.

 

References:

Allenbach, B. and Sökefeld, M. eds., 2010. Muslime in der Schweiz [Muslims in Switzerland]. Zürich: Seismo.

Dahinden, J., Duemmler, K., & Moret, J. (2014). Disentangling religious, ethnic and gendered contents in boundary work: How young adults create the figure of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 35(4), 329-438.

Duemmler, K. (2015a). The exclusionary side-effects of the civic-integration paradigm: boundary processes among youth in Swiss schools. Identities. Global studies in Culture and Power, 22(4), 378-396.

Duemmler, K. (2015b). Symbolische Grenzen – Zur Reproduktion sozialer Ungleichheit durch ethnische und religiöse Zuschreibungen. Bielefeld: transcript.

Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!

 

Lived Religion: Part 2

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 1 was published on Monday (actually, it was Sunday, because Chris got confused). You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

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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References

Boyarin, D. (1997) Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boyd, S. B., Longwood, W. M. and Muesse, M. W. (eds) (1996) Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brooks, A. (1997) Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Forms. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Daly, M. (1973) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Fiorenza, E. S. (1984) Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Foucault, M. (1987) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Fuss, D. (1989) Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge.

Gross, R. M. (1996) Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gunnarsson, L. (2011) ‘A Defence of the Category “Women”’, Feminist Theory 12, no. 1, 23-37.

Haraway, D. (1991) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 183-201.

Johnston, J. (Forthcoming 2013) ‘A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism’, in E. Asprem and K. Granholm (eds) Contemporary Esotericism. Equinox, 576-597.

Juschka, D. M. (ed.) (2001) Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader. London: Continuum.

King, U. (ed.) (1995) Religion and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell.

Korte, A.-M. (2011) ‘Openings: A Genealogical Introduction to Religion and Gender’, Religion and Gender 1, no. 1, 1-17.

Krondorfer, B. (ed.) Men’s Bodies, Men’s Gods: Male Identities in a (Post)Christian Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Kugle, S. S. (2010) Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld.

Looy, H. and Bouma, H. (2005) ‘The Nature of Gender: Gender Identity in Persons who are Intersexed or Transgendered’, Journal of Psychology and Theology 33, no. 3, 166-178.

Lykke, N. (2010) ‘The Timeliness of Post-Constructionism’, NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 18, no. 2, 131-136.

Mollenkott, V. R. (2007) Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Moore, H. L. (1999) ‘Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and Other Crises in Anthropology’, in H. L. Moore (ed.) Anthropology Theory Today. Malden: Polity Press, 151-171.

 

Oakley, A. (1972) Sex, Gender and Society. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

Ruether, R. R. (1975) New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation. New York: Seabury Press.

Scott, J. W. (1999) Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stone, A. (2004) ‘On the Genealogy of Women: A Defence of Anti-Essentialism’, in S. Gillis, G. Howie, and R. Munford (eds) Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 85-96.

Warne, R. R. (2000) ‘Making the Gender-Critical Turn’, in T. Jensen and M. Rothstein (eds) Secular Theories on Religion: Current Perspectives. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 249-260.

Weeks, J. (1991) Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram.

Wittig, M. (1981) ‘One is Not Born a Woman’, Feminist Issues 1, no. 2, 47-54.

Wittig, M. (1992) The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Yip, A. K.-T. and Keenan, M. (2009) ‘Transgendering Christianity: Gender-Variant Christians as Visionaries’, in S. Hunt (ed.) Contemporary Christianities and LGBT Sexualities. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 87-101.

Podcasts

handshake

Religious and Socio-Cultural Boundary Work in the Swiss Handshake Affair

by Kerstin Duemmler, PhD

The Therwil affair leaves us wondering how refusing to shake hands can become such a symbolic act that it attracts the interest of politicians, lawyers, and media on local and global levels. It is evident that the excitement around this affair reflects social problems that lay behind the question of how pupils and teachers should greet each other.

One aspect of this social problem is the fear of Islamism, which is omnipresent in Europe. The Swiss handshake affair only provides a further incidence that nurtures it – notwithstanding if fundamentalist Islamic ideas have really motivated the Muslim boys to refuse shaking hands with their female teacher. While this fear is not completely unjustified in view of the Islamist terror attacks during the last decade in Europe, it has turned into a suspicion towards all Muslims. In public debates, Muslims are suspected of allowing religious fundamentalism to override respect for civic duties like gender equality or religious freedom. These worries are pervasive within public discussions, not only around the handshake affair, making deeper social divisions visible within society that are also (re-)produced in the everyday life.

Financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Janine Dahinden, Joëlle Moret and I (while being affiliated to the Center for Understanding Social Processes (MAPS) at the University of Neuchâtel) conducted a large qualitative study project with young people of different religious and ethnic origin in Switzerland to understand the way they deal with this diversity in schools. Our results show that Muslims are perceived as religious Others and they are set in contrast to the two mainstream Christian religions – the Catholic and Protestant church – and the high number of Nonbelievers (Dahinden, Duemmler, & Moret, 2014). Based on a clear-cut dichotomy, over-simplified images are sketched: Muslims would live their religiosity extremely, not only in private but also in the public sphere, and would not be free to choose how they live religion. The Christian and Nonreligious defined mainstream We-group is, in contrast, perceived as moderate, respecting religious freedom and considering religion a private matter. This clear-cut religious boundary work between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become prominent because it pretends to defend religious and secular values as well as gender equality, making the ‘oppressed Muslim women wearing a headscarf’ the prototype of the religious Other.

This religious boundary is historically new in Switzerland – as the social cleavages during the 19th century were among Protestants, Catholics, and liberal-secular political forces – but the ‘cultural stuff’ legitimizing the Othering of Muslims today seems to be somewhat similar. As Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin also argue in their podcast, civic duties are again privileged over religious duties, at least in the public space like the school, what makes them even speak about a ‘contemporary Swiss culture war’. I would bring other arguments forward helping to better understand the Othering of Muslims within the Swiss context of immigration.

In fact, the Muslim population (around 5%) is primarily an immigrant population who has become more visible since the 1990s with immigration and asylum seeking from the former Yugoslavian states, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Arab or Asian countries[1]. Thus, the discussion on handshakes is overlaid with the discourse on immigration and integration. But how are ‘Muslims’ constructed as cultural Others?

During the whole 20th century, the fear of ‘over-foreignization’ marked most political debates and anti-immigration initiatives in Switzerland (Dahinden et al., 2014). This fear relates to the number of immigrants and their potential ‘danger for Swiss culture’. After World War II, Italian and Spanish labor migrants were perceived as cultural Others; during the 1980 and 1990, the fear concentrated on labor migrants and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey; and since at least 9/11, Muslims are the prototype of the ‘foreigner’ – so are called ‘immigrants’ in everyday terms – leading to a ‘Muslimisation’ of immigrants (Allenbach & Sökefeld 2010).

Above, Simonetta Sommaruga, Justice Minister, argued that shaking hands is part of Swiss culture. Critics say that Switzerland is a multicultural society, where the practices of religious minorities should be respected. 

Historically, cultural assimilation of immigrants was seen as a measure to circumvent ‘over-foreignization’, and although Switzerland officially follows nowadays an integration policy, assimilationist ideas have remained omnipresent until today (in particular in the Swiss German part of Switzerland) alongside multiculturalist ideas. This means that immigrants are in general expected to ‘culturally and socially integrate’, while ethno-cultural differences are, at the same time, perceived as enriching and ethno-cultural identities and thus not totally expected to be abandoned (Duemmler, 2015a). In this context, where assimilationist ideas are ever-present, the public dispute emerged whether shaking hands with teachers are a cultural habit to which everybody, including Muslim immigrants, is expected to adapt or not. And it is in this precise context where teachers (in the canton of Basel where Therwill is located) are nowadays encouraged to denounce ‘integration failures’ to immigration authorities.

Thus, the Therwill affair is also an affair that mobilizes a socio-cultural boundary besides religious Othering. In our study, young people were equally convinced that immigrants had to ‘socially and culturally integrate’, as well as learn to speak the local language, if they really want to be accepted – or, in other terms, cross the boundary. These ideas sometimes turned into a general suspicion that immigrants, in particular Muslims, would not integrate. And although pupils and teachers in the school defended multiculturalist ideas, the integration paradigm was omnipresent (Duemmler, 2015b). In view of our fieldwork, I am thus more reserved than Hetmancyzk and Bürgin about whether teachers will always resist the pressure to report integration failures to immigration authorities.

Finally, the Therwill affair makes me wonder whether there might be even more teachers and schools who strain to find pragmatic, local solutions to questions of religious and socio-cultural diversity. If schools want to prepare young people to deal with socio-cultural and religious diversity in a tolerant and respectful manner, they have to put a strong emphasize on the living of these values in the everyday school life and remain vigilant not to give up the territory to any kind of populism or extremism.

 

References:

Allenbach, B. and Sökefeld, M. eds., 2010. Muslime in der Schweiz [Muslims in Switzerland]. Zürich: Seismo.

Dahinden, J., Duemmler, K., & Moret, J. (2014). Disentangling religious, ethnic and gendered contents in boundary work: How young adults create the figure of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 35(4), 329-438.

Duemmler, K. (2015a). The exclusionary side-effects of the civic-integration paradigm: boundary processes among youth in Swiss schools. Identities. Global studies in Culture and Power, 22(4), 378-396.

Duemmler, K. (2015b). Symbolische Grenzen – Zur Reproduktion sozialer Ungleichheit durch ethnische und religiöse Zuschreibungen. Bielefeld: transcript.

Religion, gender and corporeality

gender and religion, what are the major factors which can help understand how people embody the relationship between identity and religiosity? What is gender, exactly, and how does it manifest in religious traditions? How do we access it without assuming people’s identities on the basis of their “sex”?

In this interview, Dr. Anna Fedele talks about her research about religion, gender and corporeality. When it comes to intersecting the study of religion and the study of gender, it is crucial to be aware of the categories used by the informants in order to leave the power they have gained in their experience of womanhood, motherhood and procreation in their own hands. If religion has often been perceived as something that regulates gender and sexuality, it is also a great locus of power for those who interact with it through bodily experiences and embodied practices. Fedele goes on to say that, in order to fully grasp the complexity of her informants, certain changes need to happen in the study of religion, with the use of methodologies surrounding life stories, and also in the opposing categories of insider and outsider.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 ISSR Conference, Université catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, sudoku puzzles, very small rocks, and more!

 

Lived Religion: Part 2

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 1 was published on Monday (actually, it was Sunday, because Chris got confused). You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

On the Outside Looking In: Western Appropriations of Eastern “Subtle Body” Discourse

I find Jay Johnston’s endeavor to integrate what she acknowledges as Eastern concepts of the “subtle body” into Western conversations on subjectivity, ethics, perception, interpersonal relations, and healing to be both valid and interesting. While her on-line interview left many questions unanswered for me, her contributions to the 2013 volume she co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, entitled Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West (hereafter RSB) addressed many of those issues. My response, which is based on both my own expertise in Indic religious traditions and my own work on comparison, is to both the interview and the 2013 volume.

To begin, the term “subtle body” is a problematic one. This is noted in the introduction to RSB (2-3), in which it is noted that this term, a translation of the Sanskrit suksma sarira, was first popularized in the West by the Theosophists, and that as such, its Western usage has been, since its inception, freighted with a number of Western scientistic presuppositions. However, the introduction and Johnston’s interview neglect to address the specific use of “subtle body” in the Hindu tradition in which it originated. In fact, the original and perennial meaning of the Sanskrit term suksma sarira is “transmigrational body.” That is, when a person dies, his or her soul inhabits a transmigrational body during the liminal period (which endures for six generations) between death and rebirth in another body. To my knowledge, prior to the nineteenth century, suksma sarira was never applied to the body of a living human being. In India’s yogic and tantric literature, this has simply been called “the body,” although it is the case that an early Hindu tantric description of that body, found in the circa 825 CE Netra Tantra, calls meditation on that body “subtle meditation” (suksma dhyana). This notwithstanding, I and several other scholars of Hindu yoga and Tantra have preferred to use the term “yogic body” to denote what others, including Johnston, have referred to as the “subtle body.”

Another issue that Johnston and her collaborators do not address is also worth noting for its value in comparative, cross-disciplinary conversation. Here I am speaking of the relationship between the flesh-and-blood body (often referred to as the “gross body”) to the subtle/yogic body and the soul. In the mainstream theology of Hindu devotion (bhakti), the relationship of God’s subtle/yogic body to

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle (Bhagavad Gita 11.5-24)

Krishna reveals his universal “true form” to Arjuna on the field of battle

His (or Her) “gross body” is the opposite of that experienced by humans. That is, while the subtle/yogic bodies of humans are enclosed, for the most part, by their gross bodies, God’s “gross body” is enclosed by His/Her subtle body. This has been described by Dennis Hudson in the following way:

In the case of humans, the mapping places the gross body on the outside with the subtle body and soul enclosed by it and [God] controlling from the center as the Self of all selves . . . In the case of God, however, the organization of the three bodies is reversed . . . A difference between God and humans, then, is this: As a microcosm, the human is a conscious soul looking outward through its encompassing subtle body and, by means of that subtle body, through its encompassing gross human body. [God], by contrast as the macrocosm, is pure being and consciousness looking “inward” to the subtle body that he encloses and by means of that subtle body, “into” the gross body enclosed within his subtle body. God, one might say, gazes inward at his own center.[i]

In a theological tradition in which God is the sole true subject in the universe, such an insight will have implications for any discussion of intersubjectivity, which was one of the areas in which Johnston saw possibilities for an East-West subtle body-based conversation.

One area, not addressed by Johnston in her interview but which is the topic of one of the chapters in RSB (149-67), is the notion of something like the “subtle body” as found in Neoplatonism. While it is possible that Plotinus, the first-century CE founder of Neoplatonism, may have been influenced by Indian “subtle body” concepts carried west along the Silk Road, Neoplatonism’s foundations lie, as its name indicates, in Platonic philosophy. The ancient Greeks conceived of visual perception as occurring when a ray of light, projected by the eye, fell upon an object. This notion of “projective perception” is also found in early Hindu philosophy, which defines perception as the contact between a ray and an object. When perception is projective, the contours of the human subject extend as far as he or she can see. One can do a great deal with such an idea, as the theologian Tertullian did in his account of the immaculate conception, an idea appropriated by many a Renaissance artist:

 God made this universe by his word and reason and power . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced (prolatum) from God and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from the unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole son; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . This ray of God . . . glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.[ii]

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440

This common conceptualization, a fruitful basis for cross-cultural conversation, is also intriguing to any historian of philosophy who would seek to find its source. Was this an idea that traveled down the Silk Road in the Hellenistic period? If so, in which direction did it travel? Or is it an artifact of an Indo-European tradition reaching back several millennia? Or was this simply the case of independent innovation?

In sum, while I agree with Johnston that the “subtle body” of Eastern religions may be used as a heuristic in a broader East-West conversation about philosophy, ethics and so forth, I have certain reservations about how that heuristic may be applied, given the amount of unaddressed Eastern baggage that the term has carried in India. In other words, we have to know what we are agreeing about before we begin building bridges based on that agreement.

[i]Dennis Hudson, “Vasudeva Krsna in Theology and Architecture: A Background to Srivaisnavism.” Journal of Vaisnava Studies 2:1 (Winter 1993), pp. 139-70.

[ii]Tertullian, “Incarnation of the Logos,” (Apologia xxi), translated in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 34.

The Subtle Body

Jay Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Department of Studies of Religion at the University of Sydney. A distinguished interdisciplinary researcher, Johnston is known for her scholarly explorations and elucidations in areas of research concerning subtle bodies; embodiment and intersubjectivity; feminist studies; religion and material culture. In her fascinating books Angels of Desire: Esoteric Bodies, Aesthetics and Ethics (Equinox Publishing, 2008) and Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body (Routledge, 2013) co-edited with Geoffrey Samuel, she establishes innovative theoretical and methodological examinations of notions of subtle embodiment as a shared narrative negotiating the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and how subtle intersubjectivity is a unique experience of the lived human body within both Western and Eastern religious discourses. Other current projects include the ARC Discovery Project: The production and function of art and design elements in ancient texts and artefacts of ritual power from Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean region with Iain Gardner, Julia Kindt (Sydney); Erica Hunter (SOAS) and Helen Whitehouse (Oxford), and Wellbeing Spirituality and Alternative Therapies with Dr Ruth Barcan.

During the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, Damon Lycourinos had the pleasure of interviewing Jay regarding her work on the subtle body and alternative notions of intersubjectivity, addressing both the theoretical and methodological implications for the academic study of subtle embodiment, and what the future might hold for this in the academy and beyond.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

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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