Feminist Challenge Collaboration: Religion and Gender

This post is in collaboration with the 2017 Feminist Challenge.

Go to this link to learn more!

Does your religion address gender in a specific way?

What is a time you felt your gender and your religion being highlighted as important parts of your identity at the same time? What is a time you noticed that the intersection of your gender and your religion was more complex than you had originally thought?

My immediate answer to the first question is, “well, obviously.”

I speak both as an academic in the field of religious studies (with specific focuses on gender and sexuality) and as a Jewish person who was assigned female at birth. I will make an attempt to limit this post strictly to my personal experiences, but these will likely be influenced to some extent by my academic background.

Religion is a social phenomenon. This could potentially be in the Durkheimian sense of being an expression of the cohesion of society, but more broadly it is something humans are involved in (whether or not we created it or if it is something that exists on its own…I’ll leave the quest for origins to others).

Gender is social in the same ambiguous way: perhaps it is something humans created and perhaps it is something innate to humans- we can’t know this. All we can really know in terms of where gender ‘began’ is that at some point humans noticed the fact that most of us are both with one of two potential sets of genitalia. At some point this resulted in distinctions being made between characteristics, roles, and identities. But this is neither here nor there.

What I mean to say here is that I would be hard-pressed to find a modern religious group or tradition that did not deal with gender in one way or another.

So far, this probably seems like an evasion. After all, the question was about my religion and my gender. All of this academic waffling hardly seems entirely relevant. This is likely in part because religious studies scholars don’t like to make broad generalizations, and this question is pretty broad, even if “religion” is narrowed down to “Judaism” and “gender” is narrowed down to “assigned female at birth.”

The most important thing that I would like to emphasize here is that culture, ethnicity, and religion influence concepts of gender. For example, it has been my experience that gender and gender roles in Judaism are not the same as those of non-Jews in the US. It’s true, there are a few things that look similar on the surface: If I think specifically of more Orthodox learning communities, there is definitely an emphasis placed upon women’s place being in the home. What is different here is that the home is traditionally one of the most important parts of Jewish life and culture. Women are not assumed to be relegated to the home because they are inferior; rather, their roles relating to children, the home, and the family are seen as being of utmost importance.

That being said, as most feminist studies scholars know placing women upon a pedestal still does harm. Even though I have witnessed places in which women, womanhood, and femininity are celebrated, there is still often an element of essentialism in female identities. I don’t want to erase or dismiss places in which this has caused people pain. After all, I recall my panic and discomfort my first time walking into a synagogue in which a mechitza separated the men’s side from the women’s. But it is also important to note that it is not just men advocating for women’s modesty or the separation of the sexes. Many Jewish women find comfort and relief in escaping the male gaze while they pray on the women’s side of a synagogue. Many women choose to wear clothing that covers their elbows and knees- not because men tell them they have to, but because they feel that they are fighting against a larger societal force that tells them they only have value if they are sexy and show off their bodies.     

What is distinctly masculine or feminine for Jews is often extremely different from that of wider American culture, and has often historically resulted in negative stereotypes. I’m sure many have heard about Jewish women are loud and aggressive while Jewish men are meek, feminine, and submissive.

So why is gender in Judaism so different? I am not going to give you the full answer (nor do I think I could, even if I had more than just a blog post to do so). I will, however, take you back briefly to Late Antiquities – the time in which Christianity (and as a result, Judaism) was being solidified as a major state religion. What would become Christianity and Judaism both make use of Hebrew Bible texts, but each approaches them in a radically different way. The Early Jesus Movement broke off from the Judean ethnos and expanded its scope to include Greek and Roman gentiles.

For anyone familiar with Hebrew Bible texts (and I mean really personally familiar – not just through what other authority figures may have said about these texts), it is clear that women and men often have different roles. Yes, women are often treated as a unique kind of property, as closely tied to their biology, and men clearly form the focus of most of the biblical narratives. However, it is also true that women are not portrayed as innately inferior in these texts. There are no essential character or personality traits that separate men from women. This is extremely different from conceptions of women that were expressed in Greek and Roman philosophy: Plato and Aristotle both describe the innate inferiority of the female gender. In fact, Aristotle goes so far as to describe women as “deformed men” – they are so naturally deficient that there is no possibility that women will ever be able to escape their doomed biology. 

How’s that for a digression? Obviously, I am simplifying a very, very complicated and nuanced topic, but I hope that in doing so I am giving at least some idea that neither religion nor gender is monolithic (like most things in life!).

As I am sure many of the other participants of this collaboration have also found, my own experiences of how my religion addresses gender are neither wholly positive nor wholly negative. I can pinpoint a variety of specific instances in which I felt the pain of exclusion or the joy of empowerment.

There have even been times when I have experienced both at the same time, the two seemingly incompatible feelings warring inside of me. 

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I doubt that any of us could really find a way to express the intersection of our gender and our religion in a concise, coherent manner. Yet it is precisely this impossibility, precisely this desire to negotiate the complex places where there are no easy answers, that make us profoundly aware of our own humanity.


my students live in an alternate universe

So, it’s the time in the semester when everyone’s mental state begins to crumble, at least a little bit.

I, for one, am certainly no exception to this rule.

The students in the class for which I am a T.A. also do not seem immune.

Recently, we have been talking about medieval European conceptions of Jewishness and sorcery. The professor and I decided that having them read a novel that does a decent historical portrayal of that time (while still being an entertaining read) would be a nice way for them to get a solid grasp on the time period, while not having to struggle through depressing primary source texts.

The novel follows several residents of early 17th century Prague, utilizing many of the examples we have been discussing in class (such as the blood libel, the myth of host desecration, and legends surrounding the creation of golems).

I don’t know about everyone else, but generally speaking I assume novels are fictional. Maybe they don’t teach you this kind of thing in elementary schools anymore, so perhaps I need to stop taking this for granted as common knowledge.

Twice in the past week students have asked me if people can actually make golems. A few weeks ago, a different student asked if rabbis could still make calves (referring to a part of a Talmud passage (b. Sanh. 65b, to be exact, which describes two rabbis studying the Sefer Yetzirah and creating a “thrice grown calf”).

In each of these instances I have been at a slight loss for words, and only barely managed to make a reasonable recovery and save face.

Do they think that we, as Jews, can create living beings out of nothing? Do the very medieval conceptions we are trying to teach them about really still run so deep in our thinking that they assume my professor and I could do these impossible acts?

Do they have so little a grasp on what is physically and humanly possible that they really think it is possible to create life?

I am trying to think of this in a positive light. Maybe they have such a sense of wonder that they want to believe these things are possible.

Or, maybe they have such reverence for us as instructors that anything we say must be unarguably true. Maybe they think we have access to powers they can only dream about.

Because this happened multiple times, and I am also a bit at the end of my ropes as it is, I am starting to doubt myself. What do they know that I don’t know? Maybe it is possible to create a calf, or even a human. After all, I’ve never tried, so I couldn’t say for sure that I can’t do it.

Any maybe I’ve got them all wrong. Maybe they feel a little bit like the Jews from Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries. Maybe they are feeling the effects of a toxic political climate. Maybe they are worried for their friends and family. It might be tempting to give into the idea of being able to create some larger-than-life being who will be able to defend them and the ones they care about. Seeing this as a possibility might make them feel as though they have some semblance of control over their futures and over the world around them.


Abusing the Past

A few weeks ago, biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers came to UNCC for the 20th annual Tate lecture. Her talk was entitled “Holy Land Archaeology: Where the Past Meets the Present.”

I have some familiarity with Meyers’ scholarly work, and I expected her to speak about the religious culture of ancient Israelite women, as she does in a number of her books.

Instead, she spoke about a variety of archaeological sites in Israel/Palestine, and how the push to excavate some of these is greatly influenced by politics in the region- a topic I found no less fascinating.

For example, the site at Beit Alpha, a secular kibbutz founded in the 1920’s, included an ancient, elaborate mosaic floor depicting a menorah. The group who had founded the kibbutz wanted to cover it right back up- to them it smelled way too much like religion. Other groups, however, saw something that would lend support to zionist goals: if there was proof of an ancient Jewish presence in the land, it would theoretically support a modern Jewish return.

To someone with little experience with archaeology, I was somewhat surprised at how much certain political agendas influence what is considered academically important. I suppose this shouldn’t have been news to me, given how much of academia is political no matter the field.

Still, the scholar in me was sickened when Meyers spoke about the site at Sepphoris. Known as the “city of peace” for refusing to go to war against the Romans in 67-68 C.E., the remains of the area demonstrate multiple cultures cohabiting in relative harmony.

The artistic depictions of Jewish, Pagan, and Christian images blended together could serve as proof that there have been places and times in our history when we not solely focused on converting or killing one another. However, it seems as though those responsible for the preservation of the site have a different agenda.

According to Meyers, there has been a massive disregard of a 12th century crusader church that stands on the edge of the site. There were attempts by Meyers and some others to have this area included as part of the preserved historical site, but these attempts were not successful.

This does not seem like a move to preserve history so that we and our descendants can learn and explore these beautiful and ancient buildings. It seems to depend on “whose history” a certain building or artifact is associated with in order to be deemed worthy of protection.

On some level, I can understand a bit of hesitation, especially with regard to this church. There has been so much violence done by Christians against Jews in the past that I suppose it could feel wrong to give this church the same protection, especially if the goal is to establish the land as unquestionably Jewish.

This is where the problem is. A nationalist agenda is masquerading in the guise of preserving important historical sites and artifacts. I think that this is an abuse. The past is not passive or static, and we all choose how we want to interpret (or alter) the past. As Carol Meyers said, archaeology does things. Unfortunately, archaeology often does not get any input into what these things are. Far too often scholars either decide what it is they want to do with given research, or are forced to emphasize certain facets over others based on who is giving them funding.

What is the most depressing is I don’t see this stopping any time soon. Our research (and our livelihood) is too reliant upon the support and funding we receive from our institutions and grants. Academic freedom can only go so far when your work is only partially your own.  


New Semester, Old Complaints

A new semester is upon us. Classes have begun, and I’m getting back into the swing of things. So, naturally, it’s time for me to gripe about the state of the academy.

A few days ago I ran into a friend’s boyfriend who is starting his undergraduate degree as an adult student. As we chatted, he lamented that he had ordered a book too late for a class, and would not have it in time for the first reading assignment. “Have you checked the library?” I asked. He looked flabbergasted. The idea, which seemed so second nature to me at this point, had simply not occurred to him- that the textbook for a class would be in the school library was completely outside of his frame of reference.

This got me thinking. I remember how lost I felt when I started grad school. I am lucky enough to be part of a department that is incredibly supportive and helpful, and it still took me at least two semesters to feel like I had the slightest inkling of what was going on.

I recall similarly feeling pretty overwhelmed when I started my undergraduate education. However, I was one of those privileged students who begins college right out of high school, so I at least wasn’t out of practice when it came to doing my homework, etc. My first year was still pretty rough (especially when you add “struggles with mental illness” to the standard adjusting to college life). I imagine it must be so much tougher to go to college as an adult.

The professor I T.A. for at UNCC spends an entire class period during the first week of her LBST (Liberal Studies) classes going over “the freshman myth” (or, the idea most incoming first year students have that college will be no different from high school, and therefore they will not have to change their study habits). She additionally teaches them how to take notes, how to listen to lectures, and how to write an argumentative essay. I have never encountered another professor who does this for any class.

To be fair, incoming freshman at UNCC have, as a whole, distinctly different backgrounds from those at UNC, where I did my undergrad. While there it could be assumed that most of them had already gone through the rite-of-passage of writing five paragraph essays, the same cannot be assumed for UNCC- which is one reason why I love this school, while at the same time am profoundly frustrated as a T.A. Many students are the first in their family to attempt higher education, and most are working and taking classes simultaneously. Plenty are coming back to school as adults.

Clearly the adjustment to college is hard. And clearly many don’t know how to ask for help, or even that they can ask. So why don’t more professors these basic introductions to academic expectations when teaching classes filled with first year college students?  

I think part of the reason is that they- we- forget what it was like when we were first starting. I know that I have to make myself remember how disoriented and lost I was when I started grad school, and that was only two years ago. Imagine how hard it must be to recall these feelings of anxiety and confusion when it has been more like fifteen, twenty, or even thirty years.

I think that I need to make more of a conscious effort to remember these feelings. Instead of getting frustrated with students for now automatically knowing how the academy works, I should try to be compassionate and patient. After all, I only barely know what I’m doing- and it wasn’t so long ago I was in their shoes.


Revisiting the AAR

As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to revisit the inaugural post of my blog, in which I discussed some of my thoughts and impressions of the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta last fall.

At the time, I was highly distressed by the amount of “masculinity” that I encountered during the conference: there were substantially more men than women in attendance, and the women for the most part seemed to be performing more muted femininity.

Though not surprising for academia (especially for the Religious Studies field), I now wonder if my initial comments were a bit harsh.

I wonder if I could have seen my surroundings in a more nuanced light, rather than taking a solely condemnatory stance. Could I, for example, instead take into account concepts like disidentification, as discussed by José Esteban Muñoz?

In his book Muñoz discusses the ways in which individuals and groups who fall outside of normativity (specifically with regard to race and sexuality) must often form their identities through a failure to interpellate within the dominant public sphere. For Muñoz, for many there is no complete assimilation into the dominant culture, just as there cannot always be complete rejection.

The fiction of identity is one that is accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects. Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own senses of self.*

I don’t think that (mostly white) women in the academy were quite what Muñoz had in mind when formulating this concept, but I think that it can still apply.

At the time when these women were entering into the academy (and even today, to a large extent) there were not models within the academy with whom they could identify- i.e. other women. In order to “fit in” and continue their work, they had (and still have) to find a way to negotiate the awkward space of the double bind: you can’t be too feminine if you want to be taken seriously, but you have to be feminine enough so you don’t come off as cold or b*tchy (Think about all the buzz about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits over the years).

Identifying in complete opposition to their male counterparts isn’t really an option, especially if they want to succeed within the academy. And of course they can’t completely identify with these male counterparts and be taken seriously.

I want to rethink my initial reactions to the gendered expressions as I interpreted them at the AAR. After all, who wants to wear lots of glittery make-up after a long flight? And who wants to wear six inch heels to walk around a conference for four days? 

* José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 5.

Film Review: Naz & Maalik


Naz: “You think the world’s getting better?”

Maalik: “Yeah.”

Naz: “Mmm. I don’t think so. Change gets too much credit. They confuse it with progress. They don’t even realize the truth”

“Naz & Maalik” is a film that was released January 26th featuring two black, gay, Muslim teenage boys living in Brooklyn. The film, written and directed by Jay Dockendorf, is based upon interviews Dockendorf conducted with actual youth living at the intersections of these identities.

The film is groundbreaking in that it portrays a group of people that is never visible within popular media. Sure, there has been an increase in shows and movies featuring lesbian and gay characters. But the vast majority of these are white. Occasionally there will be a nod towards someone who happens to be gay and a person of color. Or gay and living a religious lifestyle (such as “Trembling Before G-d”). But gay, POC, and Muslim? Forget it.

Which is part of what makes this film so unique. “Naz & Maalik” explores and makes visible the experiences of a group who most Americans probably have little to no idea even existed. So to see them making a splash is refreshing.

The main issue that seems to arise, is in the subplot involving a government agent who suspects the boys of terrorist activities. The Huffington Post referred to this addition as “ridiculous” and “poorly-scripted”.

I agree that the writing of the scenes involving law enforcement left much to be desired. The involvement of the FBI agent and her NYCPD associate and their focus on the two boys did not make a lot of sense. Her interest in their love story seemed very out of place. But one aspect of their involvement very much hit home. The cop meets up with the agent after attempting to sell the boys a gun, claiming that they almost bought it from him. She says that it doesn’t sound like a lead- until she sees the boys, and decides to trail them for the vast majority of the film. The implication here is that she sees that they are black and decides that they are dangerous.

The writing and acting in the scenes is awkward, but the inclusion of the relationship between (white) law enforcement and black youth like Naz and Maalik is unfortunately all too real.

The same can be said for the rich white man who invites Naz into his expensive loft, obviously hoping to hook up. His interest in Naz is less than genuine; he is clearly painted as someone who fetishizes cultural difference. “New York City, it’s like a Mecca for meeting new people, hmm?”. A funny choice of words, given the Kufi on Naz’s head.

The Huffington Post reviewers have noted that the film would have made more of an impact if it had stuck to the love story between the two main boys and the issue that they face within their (homophobic) families, and scrapped the FBI subplot. Hollywoodreporter.com calls it a “shaky attempt at dramatic incident”. Variety.com claims that the film has potential, which it squanders on an “innocuously blase hangout narrative”.

Perhaps the director was attempting to show that kids like Naz and Maalik face accusations of terrorism from the federal government because of their religious affiliation, and potential discrimination from police based on their race. An honorable goal, but not one achieved gracefully in the film.
While I am in agreement with The Huffington Post that this FBI/NYCPD subplot was heavy-handed and could have been incorporated more smoothly into the film, it illustrated the fact that groups affected by multiple sites of oppression don’t often have the luxury of focusing solely on issues of coming out. As Sheri Linden with Hollywood Reporter notes, the references to government spying definitely convey the atmosphere of “intrusive monitoring”. People like Naz and Maalik do have to worry about what their families might think of their sexuality, it’s true, but they also have to constantly watch their backs for mistreatment at the hands of police. Issues of group cohesion are much more critical for tight-knit minority communities; being disowned from one’s family can mean being rejected from the entire community that one has grown up in. And if you are constantly suspected of criminal or terrorist activity from those outside the community, you might have nowhere to go.

Focusing solely on the struggles with homophobia within the boys’ families, as other reviewers have suggested, would be be problematic for another reason as well. This would run the risk of creating further tension between an imagined progressive (white) majority, and a regressive, homophobic (Muslim and/or black) minority. Only looking at this aspect of the boys’ lives would erase a large portion of their identities, and ignore the massive amount of discrimination that they face from outside of their community.

As Naz notes, change is not the same thing as progress.

The situation has changed for lesbians and gays in the US, but that does not mean that progress has been achieved for all. Especially if this notion of “progress for gays” is being used as a rallying point against people of color and religious minorities.


Feminism and Alcoholism

I recently heard a paper at the SEWSA entitled that purported to focus on the intersectionality of feminism and alcoholism. I was intrigued, and had high hopes. The beginning of the presentation shed light on the true nature of alcoholism, emphasizing that it is a medical condition rather than merely a lack of will-power. The presenter then discussed similarities between rape culture and substance abuse, victim blaming, and the stigma attached to the labels “feminist” and “alcoholic”.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I felt as though the paper did not meet its full potential. The presenter stated that she had attended a few AA (alcoholics anonymous) meetings with her newly sober partner, and had had her “feminist alarms” go off. Essentially, she was struck by the use of the term “him” in the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA to refer to God or a higher power.

For her, this meant that AA was patriarchal.

Additionally, she saw the emphasis on anonymity as encouraging a continuation of the stigma and preventing individuals from self identifying.

In the AA literature (such as in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,  the supplemental text to the basic AA book) there is a great deal of discussion surrounding this foundational principle. The original intention is to prevent power imbalances (based on identity or occupation outside of the AA rooms) and give individuals who attend the meetings an opportunity to de-center the self. It is my opinion that many AA’s would see this encouragement of anonymity not as increasing stigma that perpetuates the patriarchal and ableist status quo, but instead as an opportunity to attempt to disrupt and provide an alternative to the power imbalances that exist outside of the AA rooms.

The principle of anonymity refers not simply to keeping one’s status as a recovering alcoholic quiet in the “real world”, but additionally to the attempt to keep recovery the sole purpose of AA.

Sure, power imbalances from the outside world are going to sneak in. After all, if you are a white man who is used to speaking over others, that is not going to change just because you walk into an AA meeting. AA is a microcosm of the wider society, so problematic relations between individuals are guaranteed to occur. I am not trying to argue that AA is a perfect utopian society.

I was astounded by the lack of critical inquiry that seemed to go into this paper. The presenter advocated for self-disclosure and the telling of one’s own story (which is one of the critiques she had about anonymity), yet it appeared as though she had not actually talked to any members of AA outside of her husband. She claimed that it was an oppressive structure because the founders had been two men, and the text referred to God as a male. I think that if she had spent more time interviewing and talking with individuals (especially minorities) who had been members of AA for a wider range of time periods her research findings would have been drastically different.

She’s not wrong that the original founders were men, and the earliest forms of AA catered mostly to men. It is also true that the 12 steps refer to “God as we understand him”. But I don’t think that this makes Alcoholics Anonymous unequivocally sexist. I think that an approach that incorporates concepts like José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification, in which minority groups engage with dominant discourses (such as misogyny, racism, etc.) in complex and nuanced ways. I think it would be extremely interesting to see what the presenter could find in examining how marginalized people use some of the concepts in AA that could be seen as sexist in ways that to them feel positive.

That is a paper I want to see.