In this series, the Bulletin asks scholars if and how they critically engage “gender” in the study of religion. Contributors consider how gender intersects with method & theory, pedagogy, professional practices, or matters of race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., and how such intersections are handled within the study of religion. For previous posts in this series, see here.
Critically Engaging Gender: An Ethnographer’s Perspective
by Cameron Montgomery
In the third year of my undergrad, I took a course called méthodes et théories en sciences des religions. We each had to write a research paper on an eminent scholar in Religion and Anthropology, Philosophy or Sociology. We went around the table saying who we would be studying. I picked James Frazer. A student in the class said ‘Mary Douglas’.
“Who is that? That’s not a real scholar,” said the professor. I was surprised because even as an undergrad, I knew who Mary Douglas was.
“Okay then, Mary Daly,” said the student.
“No. Also not a real scholar,” he said.
“Can I choose a woman?” she asked.
“You won’t find one appropriate to study,” he said.
He chose her scholar: Mircea Eliade.
Later I looked up more information on Mary Douglas. Princeton University, Oxford University, studied under E.E. Evans-Pritchard. She looked like a real scholar to me; what was his problem? Later on in the semester I mentioned Helen Keller in class.
“Who is that?” said the professor, and the whole class snickered with surprise. Embarrassed, he snapped at me.
“If she’s some feminist hero of course I don’t know her.”
His words dripped with vitriol. I had no idea what he was on about. At that point I had never in my life heard the word “feminism”. (Naomi Goldenberg remedied that gap in the fourth year of my undergrad.) I thought of Mary Douglas as a pretty stereotypical-of-her-time anthropologist of religion, and Helen Keller as an inspiration to anybody fighting against restrictive limitations, regardless of her gender.
It was not until I watched Owen ‘Alik Shahadah and M. K. Asante Jr.’s documentary 500 Years Later that I was able to put my méthodes et théories experience into context. The film explores the residual effects of slavery on contemporary American society. There is a scene where a white teacher stands in front of a classroom teaching about white history; the white kids are engaged and have their hands raised, and the black kids sit silent. The scene cuts to one where a black teacher adds content about non-white philosophers, inventors and great thinkers, and the whole class is engaged. The voiceover explains that whitewashed education makes all these kids learn that there are no black great thinkers. When I watched this part of the film, I realized that my professor denying that women writers and thinkers even exist was actually worse than presenting and debating their ideas.
Little did I know during my méthodes et théories course that Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father is one of the most important and brilliant texts in the field of Religious Studies. It is a classic that I quote on a regular basis and a necessary part of my academic repertoire. I had lots of ideas about how ethnographic methodology could be enriched to be consciously-woman-inclusive, but to be quite honest, we are still at a point in Religious Studies where women scholars are fighting to be ‘recognized’ in a Birnbaumian sense. (Maria Birnbaum, now at the University of Oslo. She articulates recognition more potently than Habermas, but it still crossed my mind to reference him there instead. Hmm.)
Before I talk about critically engaging gender in method and theory in the study of religion, I think it is important to start with the basics, and state what by now to me is obvious, but is not obvious in the uncritical reaches of the field:
Do you believe that women scholars are as intelligent, interesting, and important as the male ones? Then show it in your references and your syllabi. That is where the critical engagement should start.
My last major project was an ethnographic study of religion and women’s activism in Ukraine and Turkey. Just because I was studying women, does not mean that my methodology was feminist. If I had accepted the conventionally reinscribed significance of the terms my participants were using, terms that this field uses without a gendered analysis, my approach would not have been specifically feminist.
For example, the term ‘worship’ gets used quite often in the field of Religious Studies. If your experience of worship is your brother reciting the kaddish at your father’s funeral, while you, a woman, listen from behind a screen, then the foundation of your perspective on worship is different than that of your brother. In this example, worship can be defined as being heard, or alternately, as being hidden. The meaning of ‘worship’ is contingent on gender, but is a term that in traditionalist frameworks, like Ninian Smart’s, for example, is defined as static, neutral, and ‘obvious’.
‘Faith’ is another example of an essentialized term which is often used without a gendered analysis. I would argue that in most Christianities ‘faith’ for women means ‘faith in patriarchal authority’, while for men it means ‘faith in self’. Simply studying women talking about faith, then, with ‘faith’ in your study defined as it pertains to men (or left undefined at default-maleness: see Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), is failing to critically engage gender.
One of the basic binaries prevalent in the field is the religious/secular binary. (At my doctoral comprehensive examination, one of the examiners argued that this binary exists not only in the field but everywhere in the world, fundamentally. At my thesis defense, one of the examiners argued that it is not used in the field at all anymore. Which is worse? I’m not sure.) This religion-as-depoliticized-space vs. secular-as-politicized-space binary operates from the perspective of a privileged individual with access to mechanisms of self-determination, who is able to define ‘religion’ as a personal belief separate from a public sphere. For women, there can be no religion/secular binary because women’s lives are always politicized.
Whatever women do with their bodies is considered a political statement. You shave your armpits? Political statement. You don’t shave your armpits? Political statement. You wear something on your head? Political statement. You wear nothing on your head? Political statement. What you eat, where you stand, whether or not you are smiling, all of your health choices, everything to do with your sexuality—these things are political statements whether you intend them to be or not. What a man does with his body may be a personal choice, but women do not have that luxury. Adding ‘religion’ to the analysis does not change this basic fact of living as a woman. Women making choices about their bodies within the discursive space of ‘religion’ are not suddenly exempt from politicization.
In my ethnographic work with marginalized women, I saw time and time again that women making choices about ‘religion’ are considered activists and political agents. Women making any statements at all about religion are engaging in politics, even if those statements are identical to men’s statements which are classified as ‘personal’ or ‘faith-based’. Much work in a ‘religion’ space done by women is classified into the ‘political’ category and risks becoming ‘non-data’ in the field of Religious Studies.
Any study meant to include women which does not account for this in their methodological tools is missing an important dimension of analysis. Avoiding or neglecting to critically engage gender will only make research results lack relevance for potentially half of the subjects of study. As Pamela Dickey Young argues, “method determines outcome” (1990: 17). Mary Daly theorized in 1973 that the “tyranny of methodolatry” keeps the perspectives of women unheard as “nondata” and translated through a male lens over and over until the methodology itself is critically interrogated (Beyond God the Father).
At a 2014 ‘Expert Meeting on Religion, Gender, Sexuality and Activism’ in Ghent, organized by the Religion and Gender Network, Sara Borrillo gave a talk on the methodological and ethical dimensions of doing feminist work in Religious Studies. She said that her work is not feminist if it is irrelevant to the women she studies.
Discourses on religion are very often depoliticized. I believe depoliticizing ‘religion’ would make my work irrelevant to the women I study.
Photo Credit: “@dreamshare supporting the feminist society of Turkey <3.” Alyshea Cummins, 2014.
Cameron Montgomery is a part-time professor in the Faculty of Health, Public Safety and Community Studies at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario. She successfully defended her dissertation in January 2017 in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Check her website for updates on the publication of her ethnographic work, Goddess Activism.