Women and Religion in the West edited by Aune, Sharma and Vincett

Women and Religion in the West: Challenging Secularization
Edited by Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Giselle Vincett
Vermont/England: Ashgate Publishing Company
230 pages

Note: This review was originally published in the first issue of Thorn Magazine, which I reviewed here.

Women and Religion in the West, far from being a feel-good “we are all sisters” text, is an ambitious project that focuses on the female interpretation of religion and religiosity in the West. It is set within the context of a world that is becoming increasingly secularized, and whose discussion of secularization is also often male-dominated. Additionally, it avoids the common practice of approaching Christianity alone; while that religion is explored, Islam and new religious movements are given ample coverage as well. Each religious category receives its own section of the book, with four essays per section.

All twelve essays in this book are solid. While each essayist has a unique interpretation of the theme, there are a few that particularly stand out.

–“Religious Change in the West: Watch the Women” by Penny Long Marler: Are women the longtime “secret weapon” of organized religion? Marler makes a convincing argument that while men may have been the primary figureheads of Christianity, it is the women who have been the cohesive congregation that made the religion possible. She details demographic and social changes since industrialization, as well as the effects of the defection of women from organized religions to more free-form spiritualities. While the roles of women have often been relegated to the background, the “pink-collar” occupations and volunteer stations within Christianity have created the backbone of the religion. Particularly noteworthy is the adept approach to the nuclear family—and the current disintegration thereof—in conjunction with trends in the Christian religion. As the social structures that rely primarily on the nuclear family are replaced by more flexible ones, the roles of women shift as well. Marler points out research showing that in the Western world, while women may take the role of only homemaker, or only career woman, the majority have a foot in each world, able to adapt as necessary. The pink-collar roles within traditional Christianity have relied on the stay-at-home mother who is a staple of the nuclear family; as that particular structure has become less common, so has adherence to traditional religious structures. Beyond the church, though, there are implications in these changes even for industrial-capitalist economies, and male-dominated society, which Marler discusses to some extent.

–“The Soul of Soulless Conditions: Paganism, Goddess Religion and Witchcraft in Canada” by Sian Reid: While there is a modern trend to perceive secularization as the most advanced stage of cultural religious development, Reid counters with the fact that numerous women continue to find meaning through belief—albeit through spirituality rather than organized religion. She particularly focuses on pagan religions in Canada, as well as on the importance of the feminine Divine to many female pagans. I was particularly struck by research that noted that female and male neopagans may approach the Goddess in different manners: “…while women are inclined to speak of Goddess spirituality in terms of larger gender inequalities and as a means of obtaining ‘self-validation by having a female image of the divine with which to identify’…men are less likely to make reference to patriarchal social structures, and tend to discuss the Goddess ‘more as an expressive or nurturing force that aided one’s immediate self’” (127). This and other general statements may lead to some hearty debate among practicing pagans, and make the essay well worth reading. Reid’s ultimate conclusion, though, is that while traditional religions may be losing adherents, Canadian women are still finding outlets for belief—to include a mirror of themselves in Deity, and the structure of modern pagan religious systems that allow for more flexibility and personal expression.

–“Being Seen By Many Eyes: Muslim Immigrant Women in the United States” by Garbi Schmidt: Schmidt opens this essay by emphasizing some of the basic stereotypes and misunderstandings associated with Islam and Muslim women in particular, but this is just the beginning. The meaning and politics behind such things as the hijab, the veil that is so strongly associated with Muslim women; the specific roles and niches occupied by women within Islam; Muslim women as sexual beings; and other controversial topics are discussed in depth. Schmidt offers an excellent balance between exposing the stereotypes that exist, and denying those stereotypes power through counter-arguments and contrary examples from real life. She shows how faith is a source of strength for Muslim women, even with the negative aspects and assumptions, and it’s a truly eye-opening essay. What’s particularly remarkable is the discussion of Muslim women using differences to their benefit, rather than as a source of stress. While this is not a universal practice, Karima, one of Schmidt’s interviewees, turns the role of being Other into an advantage. Schmidt remarks, “Rather than choosing a strategy of retreat, she stresses the very elements that make her different. Difference becomes a powerful way of marking identity in public spaces. The identity and political position she chooses to take within the United States equally compels her to position herself towards and even against other localities, for example the region her parents came from. Within these diverse contexts, Islam becomes a means for protest and reform” (209). This theme of activism continues through the experiences of women in Schmidt’s essay, and counters the stereotype of the Muslim woman as a hidden, trapped figure.

Pagans should not make the mistake of shying away simply because some of the essays involve monotheistic religions. There is much to learn from all of the essayists regardless of their stance. Additionally, those who were curious, incensed, or puzzled about Kristin Aune’s claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is convincing thousands of women to leave church every year may want to get a more solid feel for Aune’s research on women and Christianity. It’s not about pop culture, so much as it is about the state of being a single woman within religious communities, and how this is a state of non-normativity (compared to the state of being married, which according to Aune “continues to hold sway as the normative status in contemporary Britain” (67).

The tone of this book may come across as being fundamentally against traditional religious structures, as the majority of the material concerns women who are defecting from those structures to more free-form spiritualities. One particular exception is Maria Trzebiatowska’s “Vocational Habit(u)s: Catholic Nuns in Contemporary Poland”, a discussion of women entering into a deeper relationship with traditional religious structures despite secularization and criticism by peers. Christianity, however, seems to get the brunt of the theme of anti-religiosity.

Additionally, the relatively limited scope of religions discussed may beg the question of how these themes apply to women in other religions. Judaism is a glaring omission, for example; how might modern Jewish women approach secularization, as well as traditional (particularly orthodox) structures within their religious communities? There is plenty of ground left unexplored, and it almost would have been better to release a series of books, each focusing on a particular religion, to bring more depth to the topic.
Overall, though, this is a much-needed discussion about the state of religion in the world today, with the added benefit of breaking the male-dominated mold too often found in religious studies. Even those not of a particularly sociological bent will find the material to be informative and applicable to everyday religious and spiritual interactions and experiences.

Five pawprints out of five.

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