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.

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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.

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fail me!

In academia we are not often given the opportunity to fail.

We are definitely not encouraged to.

I am taking a class on teaching religious studies and the humanities this semester, and the professor brought up an interesting point on the first day of classes.

Would it be possible to see failure as a good thing?

In our writing, we are always supposed to form a thesis and support and develop it in a well-thought out paper, which ends with a neat conclusion that summarizes how we have successfully proved our claim.

These papers are seen as problems to be solved, and the solution should never contradict the analysis- you’re not allowed to spend 10, 15, 20 pages playing with ideas and analysis and application and come to the conclusion that none of what you have been doing works or matters.

There has to be a purpose, and it has to solve some problem in order to be considered productive.

This very much echoes Robin James’ analysis of resilience discourse in her book “Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism”. In the book she describes the use and subsumation of narratives of overcoming within the economy of neoliberalism. The energy of dealing with a hardship and coming out on top is now being used as a kind of feedback loop- the amount of resilience you produce supports and reaffirms the racist, sexist, ableist, etc., system. In brief, James’ criticism of resilience proposes the solution of melancholy, which she describes as “going into death”. This doesn’t necessarily literally mean dying, but it can mean dying in the incorrect way or at the incorrect time.

“Resilience is the contemporary update of mourning; instead of conquering damage we recycle it. Damage isn’t a bug to eliminate, but a feature to exploit. In this context, melancholia is not the failure to resolve  a lack but a misfired resilience, the failure to bounce back enough and/or in the right direction” (19)

I would like to argue that what we view as “failure” in academia can instead be seen as a form of counter-resilience, an act of resistance. If I spend 20 pages of a paper working with an analysis that ultimately doesn’t make sense, I have failed only in the sense that I have not produced some easily summarizable conclusion that can be recycled and used in the next person’s analysis, the next student’s paper.

If we are, as bell hooks would advocate, to view the teaching and learning process as revolutionary and as an act of resistance, then we should be viewing failure as a good thing, as a positive force.

We should try to fail. We might end up succeeding.

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i hate my body

A few weeks ago in my class on Theorizations of Sexuality we watched the music video for the song “My Body” by bottoms, a self described “gender-problematizing goth dance band”. This music video.

To briefly summarize, the song is electro, layering the phrases “I hate my body” and “I’m serious”.

The video itself features a conventionally attractive feminine presenting person, alone in a high-end apartment. She is cutting and juicing oranges and playing with a knife while staring seductively into the camera. At varying points the video cuts to her staring off into space for an extended time, touching herself in a bathtub and in front of a fireplace, cutting her leg with a straight razor, and finally cutting off one of her breasts, squeezing it into the home-made orange juice, and drinking it.  

I was struck mostly by the varying reactions from my classmates and have been thinking a lot about the video and its implications since.

The first person to speak up after we had finished watching stated that she was saddened by the video. What she had noticed, based upon her experience as a straight cis woman who often provided pastoral counseling to LGBTQ youth was that so many of them engaged in self-harm behavior. A valid observation, but not what I thought was most important about the video.

Another person in the class saw oppressive femininity. He, a gay cis man, experienced the lethargy and self-inflicted violence as markers of how women are coerced to behave in our society. Also valid, but something was still missing for me.

The juxtaposition of the lyrics “I hate my body” and the obvious (sexual) pleasure of the person in the video stood out to me. It was a reclamation of pleasure and of pain. It seemed to be moving away and criticizing the form of liberal feminism that is prevalent today in which women are encouraged to love their bodies regardless of size or shape. This is not the experience for many women, especially women who are trans or disabled, and the distancing from physical and psychological pain can be alienating. It tells these women that they are “doing womanhood wrong” if they experience dysphoria or discomfort with their bodies.

I imagine that part of my reaction was different because I immediately saw that the individual featured in the video was wearing prosthetic breasts. This probably made the scene with the cutting/juicing of the breast less shocking to me.

It also conjured up questions of realness. I was less shocked because I realized that the breasts weren’t “real”. But what if they were? How did the “realness” of the body in question change how I reacted? How does what we perceive as “real” in terms of body parts or identity change how we react to gender non-conforming individuals in the “real” world?

Perhaps this is related to the construction of a “third space” outside of the agency/oppressed dichotomy that is discussed by Alexander Weheliye in Habeas Viscus. Those in minority positions, especially women and especially black trans women, are criticized as complicit within racist and sexist socialization (see critiques of Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, etc).

The criticism here is that these women are playing into or catering to the male gaze. However, given the intersectional nature of the oppressions that they face, it might not be feasible for these women to be in spaces in which they do not face objectification of some kind. Cis white women might be able to enter spaces in which they are taken seriously as individuals, as academics, as subjects, but is this really and truly possible for women of color or trans women? Perhaps it is not possible for these groups to have unambiguous relationships to their own bodies. White (cis) liberal feminism advocates loving one’s body, but maybe this is not a feasible goal for everyone. Maybe it is not even a goal at all. By queering this binary understanding of pleasure and pain “the bottoms” are sending a message to liberal feminism. The woman in the music video made eye contact for a large part of the video, silently telling us that she knew we were watching. She was performing for us, demonstrating sexual pleasure from the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Even when she wasn’t looking at the camera she was performing, acknowledging that individuals such as herself were never really free from outside gaze.

The message was that she did not care. There was a freedom in her relationship to the audience and to her own body. Her pleasure (and pain) was both her own and performed for our benefit, but we could read it however we wanted. It wasn’t for us, but it wasn’t only for her either.
It was in between, in this third space of not quite object, not quite subject.

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