“Gender” in/and the Study of Religion

by Stacie Swain

How might one approach “gender” and the study of religion, or “gender” in the study of religion? What follows is a critical engagement with how “gender” can intersect with becoming a “scholar”, drawing upon my own experience thus far and my research on Indigenous and Canadian relations.

Perhaps we might think of gender as a matrix of individuation that shapes modern life – a model or “blueprint” for the discursive practices that determine how we constitute a “thing”.[1] Granting this idea, how we identify and how others identify us through the discourse of “gender” affects all who are in contexts where the concept of “gender” exists or has been exported to. Put differently, subjects and objects are constituted through discourses of gender and gendered discourses, albeit contingently upon context.

Considering “gender” as a matrix of individuation does not entail that we all experience the effects of gender in the same way, nor that we are all conscious of gender to the same extent. How then, as scholars of religion, do gendered matrices intersect with the various aspects of our work? Does an attention to gender affect our methods of research? How might gender consciousness impact our theories, or the ways that we approach or formulate our “data”? Does being conscious of gender influence pedagogy, writing processes, or participation in professional capacities, such as conference panels and collected volumes? Clearly “gender” might be critically engaged in myriad ways.

As an early career scholar in the study of religion, I’ve found it useful to become more active on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter over the past year or so. Given that my Twitter feed is mainly made up of scholars, it has been fascinating (and inspiring) to see the active conversations around women, gender, and the study of religion [2] Particularly after the increase in women’s visibility throughout and following International Women’s Day on March 8th, I began to question how I might critically engage with “gender” as I study the discourse of “religion” in contemporary Indigenous and Canadian politics, particularly as I don’t explicitly center “gender” as a facet of my research.[3]

On International Women’s Day, I performed an experiment in which I pulled out the academic books that were upon my desk and shelf that were written or primarily edited by scholars whom I identified as women. While results may have been skewed by the fact that I store many academic sources on my hard drive, I was somewhat chagrined to find those books vastly outnumbered by those which I identified as written/edited by men.[4] One way to engage gender may be, as “Feminist Killjoy” Sara Ahmed puts it, to “cite each other into existence”. According to Ahmed, there is a “politics of citation,” in which she describes citation as, “a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.” And thereby, as it must be noted, not reproducing the world around other, excluded bodies. One might critique the so-called “canons” of various fields and disciplines in this way, including within one’s own praxis of citation.

I have attempted self-reflexivity within a praxis of citation for a time, but mainly through the matrices of “ethnicity” or “culture” rather than “gender”. At the same, time, I aim to be ever-conscious of the construction and contingency of such abstract concepts as these, not unlike how I approach “religion”. Various critical approaches to these terms (i.e. Rogers Brubaker, Jean-François Bayart, and Monica R. Miller’s collected volume on the work of Russell McCutcheon and “strategies of identification”), entail taking seriously that even the identifications that I articulate my ideas through are incidental to context and use, and subject to change; this stands whether such identifications are of “scholars” whose work I study or those whom I also “study” but identify in alternative ways.

My current research (summarized here) concerns the political interface between “Indigenous” peoples existing within, across, and despite the borders of Canada, and representatives of “the State” and the “Settler” or “non-Indigenous” majority. In writing up my research, I make a point of citing scholars who might identify or be identified as “Indigenous”; I have found incisive critiques of settler-colonialism, governance, and current events within their work. When I do cite them, wherever possible, I provide the national affiliation provided in their academic bio (i.e. Glen Coulthard (Dene) or Vanessa Watts (Mohawk/Anishinaabe)) because relationality means taking both their and my social location seriously. While respecting their work for the knowledge that I gain from it, it is I that is citing them, and it can’t be denied that I cite them in relation to my own social situation, argument, and the theoretical tradition with which I am familiar.

Considering the politics that go into the construction of a theoretical tradition or disciplinary “canon” brings up complex ethical and methodological concerns, ones that I am still working through. For example, am I “appropriating” Indigenous thought? [5] Or, as put by Bruce Lincoln in his “Theses on Method” am I allowing those whom I study to define the terms of my analysis?[6] Even though Lincoln was writing on “history of religions” and I work on contemporary topics, this still raises the question of whether those Indigenous scholars whom I cite are also those whom I study, or whether my attention to the “temporal and contingent” justifies this approach.[7] In a related sense, it’s problematic to assume that a scholar who belongs to an identifiable and potentially marginalized community is somehow less objective than any other scholar, particularly one who is identified with a majoritarian collective.[8] In simpler terms, within a praxis of citation and as in other contexts, “white” does not equal “right”, and how might taking that into consideration influence which knowledge(s) I draw upon?

To relate these reflections back to “gender”, one might ask if citational considerations shift when one is not explicitly analyzing gender, but when the politics of both “gender” and “ethnicity” are the conditions of possibility of the knowledge available for citation in the first place. How might one engage in an “intersectional” praxis of citation? With respect to my own work, I might consider how, as many scholars have pointed out, the imposition of (patriarchal) European socio-political structures and norms upon Indigenous populations led to the erasure of various perspectives, voices, and positions from which to access power; generally speaking, quite often, those previously utilized by Indigenous women (or alternative “genders”) were ignored, prohibited, and/or disestablished. Put in the terms of this post, one gendered matrix of individuation supplanted or assimilated the former matrices that shaped Indigenous social life.

As a brief example, the recently published book Living on the Land: Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place, “seeks to reveal the systems of domination that shape women’s interactions with the land, the environment, the community, and the knowledge production process…. far from being irrelevant, such systems have rendered Indigenous women’s knowledge invisible and politically marginal.”[9] As the book goes on to show, colonial regulations and policies that reconstituted Indigenous lives, livelihoods, and senses of place through European then Euro-American gendered discourses had the effect of circumscribing what has been considered “knowledge” and the processes of knowledge production. Such a book reconstitutes Indigenous women as knowledge-keepers and knowledge-givers, specifically in relation to place.

Much as a discourse of gender, therefore, might be studied for how gendered discursive practices structure experiences, social lives, and knowledge production and dissemination in a specific context, one might also engage with how “gender” intersects with abstract concepts such as “ethnicity” and “culture” – and of course, even “religion” within the context of scholarship. These abstract concepts provide the matrices through which we constitute ourselves and others, including how our discursive practices cite, enable, disable, suppress, reproduce, situate, and relate to other scholars and those whom we study.[10] The points above, therefore, reveal how critically engaging “gender” in/and the study of religion – my method(s) of study – constitute me as a “scholar” amongst others, including those whom I encounter upon Twitter, Facebook, and through forms of academic engagement. And on that note, as you’ve now encountered my scholarship through this post and I’ve constituted “gender” as a “thing” to think about – how do you critically engage “gender” as a scholar of religion?


Photo: “Progress” by Rupi Kaur


[1] This conceptualization of discourse and the “blueprint” terminology is from Craig Martin’s forthcoming work on discourse analysis and ideology critique, which I hope that I have done justice to and the publication of which I very much look forward to.

[2] For example, three recent examples from the study of religion on Twitter that I’m grateful for and inspired by include Megan Goodwin’s gender critique of Reza Aslan’s show “Believer” (in conversation with Mike Altman), Kecia Ali on all-male panels (and preventing them) at the AAR/SBL, and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst’s review of the book After World Religions.

[3] I’d like to note that I am appreciative of those who have been critically engaging “gender” for much longer than I, including without a doubt many whose work I haven’t yet encountered.

[4] It’s important to note that I’m operating through a binary matrix of gender in this description; granting that gender is a social construct, another topic of discussion might regard the identification of scholars as non-binary and the use of pronouns within citation praxis.

[5] Métis anthropologist Zoe S. Todd provides a thought-provoking critique of western canons and the elision of Indigenous knowledge(s) in: Todd, Zoe. 2016. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism.” Journal of Historical Sociology 29 (1): 4–22. doi:10.1111/johs.12124.

[6] Thesis #“13. When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths”, “truth-claims”, and “regimes of truth”, one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.”

[7] Greg Johnson’s article “Off the Stage, On the Page: on the relationship between advocacy  and scholarship” has been very helpful regarding positioning within the study of religion with respect to Indigenous topics.

[8] Historian Andrea Eidinger recently wrote on bias towards female professors and academics in student evaluations, also addressing the assumption that scholars from minority communities are more biased than others.

[9] Edited by Nathalie Kermoal and Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, Living on the Land: Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place. (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2016), 5.

[10] For this phrasing, I am indebted to continental philosopher Geraldine Finn considering abstract terms:“Categories, on the other hand, are the products of systematic and collective reflection. They are abstractions from experience (and often abstractions from abstractions), authorized by a scriptural and heretofore exclusively male élite, returned to experience to provide the order, stability, continuity and right-thinking necessary to secure their own interests… [Categories] order selected experiences in selected ways enabling some things to happen and appear and ruling out (disabling, suppressing, repressing) others.” (295).

Stacie Swain is an MA student in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa and an Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Her work examines the incorporation of Indigenous ceremony into Canadian political, legal, and legislative contexts from a critical religion and socio-rhetorical perspective. She is also, relevant to this post, a cisgendered woman and settler Canadian of Ukrainian-Irish descent writing from within unceded Algonquin territory.

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7 Responses to “Gender” in/and the Study of Religion

  1. Randi R Warne says:

    Darlene Juschka’s edited volume Feminism in the Study of Religion is an excellent resource. You may also find my chapter “Gender” in Guide to the Study of Religion (Braun and McCutcheon, eds.) useful. I was once president of the CSSR, and wrote an institutional history of the society, if you want to know something of how gendering in Religious Studies in Canada struggled into existence. My “(En)Gendering Religious Studies,” a more recent assessment, can be found in Darlene Juschka’s volume. If you ever want to “talk gender”, do be in touch!

    • Stacie Swain says:

      Hi Randi, thank you for the comment and sources. Footnote [3] is definitely a nod of my head to the fact that such work as yours exists, and I look forward to catching up on it!

  2. Karen Zoppa says:

    Thank you for this concise and deep reflection on “gender” and the construction of identity. This is demanding meta-theoretical thinking. The curve ball I need to throw however, is my persistent question regarding such theoretical insights: engaging in Critical Theory produces diagnostic insights, but what then? When we have exhausted the inspection of the matrices engaged in the constructions we call thought, how do these insights bear on our projects which necessarily issue forth from particular humans who are socially and auto-constructed in and by particular contexts with particular interests?

    • Randi R Warne says:

      Karen Zoppa is abolutely correct, in my view. I took my first course in Women and Religion in 1973-74. Forty-plus years later, the language and analyses have undergone several changes, but the practical realities and implications of the analyses have been only partially dislodged, and even then only when there are enough amenable dominant power-holders to make that possible.

    • Stacie Swain says:

      Karen and Randi both, points well taken. I don’t really think that it’s a “curve-ball” to consider the practical implications of these thoughts, but I do hold the opinion that creating a public dialogue IS something practical in itself. A venue such as this allows me to explore these thoughts outside the boundaries of my thesis and engage in conversations such as this one, which I will carry forth as I keep on doing the academic thing. In a more tangible sense, I am hoping that my leading question at the end generates some thoughts and responses, which I think (hope) can create a network of people thinking about and discussing these matters. Perhaps these are relatively “soft” measures, but they’re what I can offer here and now. I appreciate the comments!

  3. Andrea Eidinger says:

    This is fantastic! Not to toot my own horn, but you may be interested to know that my research looks at the intersections of gender and ethnicity in the lives of Jewish women in postwar Montreal. Unfortunately, religious history is often assumed to be Christan, while Canadian history is assumed to be white. It’s also worth check out Nadia Jones-Gailani, who does similar work on Muslim women. And thanks for the citation!

    • Stacie Swain says:

      Andrea, your work sounds fascinating and I’m a big fan of your blog in general, by the way. I love how the posts tend to disrupt taken-for-granted narratives, much as you’re describing above in reference to history. I have very much appreciated the ones re:Canadian history and nationalism, as this intersects with my own interests. Thanks for reading and for the comment!

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