chapter  4
26 Pages

GENDER

A dissident in Cold War Poland once wrote that ‘under capitalism you have the oppression of man by man, whilst under communism it is the other way around’. I have shown in the previous chapter that what we think of as religion is often integral to such power relations, as an ideology or discourse on truth and difference. What the cynical and ironic observation I have quoted is silent about, however, is the significance of gender as a basic element of such difference. If man is oppressing man, what is happening with (and to) women? In what ways do religious traditions and ideologies create gender relations, and exert forces of power? Despite decades of debate about feminist (and post-feminist) theory

and practice, the study of religion, culture, and gender is still relatively ‘new’ and ‘innovative’. As Darlene Juschka (2001: 1) has argued, ‘whatever the reasons, it is evident that some fields of study are less receptive to feminist perspectives . . . The study of religion has been one of those disciplines . . . .’ There has, however, been much good feminist research – some of which I will be discussing in this chapter – but unfortunately many feminist writers on religion ‘have tended to be ignored or superficially acknowledged; never seriously engaged by androcentric scholars’ (Juschka 2001: 1). A fundamental problem here, which the study of religion shares

with a number of other humanities subjects, is the pervasiveness

of androcentricism (see, for example, Gross 1977). Androcentricism is the assumption that maleness, the male perspective, and men’s experiences are the central and most important point of reference. Such androcentricism can work in all aspects of life: from having buildings with more toilets for men than women, to education and career systems that favour men’s working patterns, to the writings and ideas of male academics on their view of what religion is and how it should be understood. Challenging such androcentricism does not necessarily mean that men are wrong or unimportant; rather the point is that there are other perspectives too, which might not be the same as what is considered to be the normative male-centred one. Decent scholarship, in trying to understand the world as it really

is, therefore needs to be nuanced and sensitive to the politics of gender differences. The ways in which religions and cultures are practised and thought about are very profoundly affected, in many ways, by gender differences. Indeed, we can follow the historian Joan Scott by assuming that ‘gender is a primary field within which or by which means of power are articulated’, and whilst it is not the only such field, gender ‘seems to have been a persistent and recurring way of enabling the signification of power in the West, in JudaeoChristian as well as Islamic traditions’ (Scott 1986: 1,069).