Summary:

Gender matters to our understanding of culture and religion. How we understand gender, gender differences, and the understandings and practices of gender has a profound impact on how we talk about (and understand) religion.

Gender is a means of understanding the concept of culture.

All aspects of culture are gendered — both in terms of how differences between genders are perceived, but also how they are lived out. Gender is a place for power relations (remember that power is everywhere) — not only clear cut male control of women (such as patriarchy), but also the means by why power relations are put into practice.

Episode notes

How does Gender matter in the study of religion?

Gender matters to our understanding of culture and religion. How we understand gender, gender differences, and the understandings and practices of gender has a profound impact on how we talk about (and understand) religion.

Gender is a means of understanding the concept of culture.

All aspects of culture are gendered — both in terms of how differences between genders are perceived, but also how they are lived out. Gender is a place for power relations (remember that power is everywhere) — not only clear cut male control of women (such as patriarchy), but also the means by why power relations are put into practice.

To be a person is to have a gender. Usually this gender is ascribed, it is given to us at birth, most usually as male or female. In some cultural contexts there may be ambiguity or pluralism, that it is possible to move between genders, or perhaps to have a gender that is not specifically male or female. Whilst in other cultural contexts, the dominant (and dominating) ideas are of fixed genders: men are men, women are women, that’s it. But even so, there are often variations — a boy is different from a man, a young adult woman is different from an old woman, and perceptions of cultural, ethnic, or class differences may also impact on perceptions of gender.

Let’s sort out some basic terms to help us find our way through. These terms seem simple, but the more we explore the issues of gender, the more difficult they become:

Sex — often seen as a biological category, a simple matter of saying (based on anatomy) what a person is

Gender — this is the ascribed status based on the (biological) sex. Often perceived as binary (men-women), on basis that most people have either a male or female sex

Sexuality — not the same as (biological) ‘sex’, refers to the orientation of practice (and identity). Quite simply often described (in English speaking cultures) in terms of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. Whilst sex and gender, as we have defined them, tend to be relatively neutral terms (i.e. usually without any particular social or cultural stigma), sexuality is often heavily normative. That is, the common idea (often expressed in religious terms) that heterosexuality is normative and is the ‘default’ human requirement, and other forms of sexuality are marginalised (and often stigmatised to the point of punishment). In a number of religious contexts (and religious traditions) this emphasis on heterosexuality, and the stigmatisation of other forms of sexuality, is given strong emphasis (humans made by god to be heterosexual)

Identity — this can be given to us (we are told we are a woman or a man) and also something that we try to live with. Sex, gender, and sexual identities can be complex, working at both the personal and the social level. E.g., Bruce Jenner, born anatomically as a heterosexual man, has identity now as a woman, Caitlyn Jenner, i.e., female gender. Often such identity can be ambiguous, such as the Austrian singer Conchita Wurst, a person with an ‘obvious’ male physiology (a beard) but who identifies, dresses, and ‘acts’ (and sings) as a woman. An important issue is how much can an identity be chosen rather than ascribed or prescribed, and in particular what are the social and cultural forces (and power relations) that influence such identities, and the way they are practised?

Practice — which brings me to the lived element of all of the above. A person who is born as a man is expected to live as a man. If we stay with the example of Bruce Jenner, it was not until he was 65 (in June 2015) that s/he publicly put into practice his — now her — female identity as Caitlyn, by taking part in a photoshoot for Vogue magazine (and ‘coming out’ by participating in the Kardashians’ TV series). The image she presented as Caitlyn in Vogue, the way she now acts, and the ways in which people talk about and represent Caitlyn (and every other male, female, transexual and transgender people) are all part of the practice of sex and gender — in specific to Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) and in general.

In short, the practice of gender identities, the roles and expectations that people have and bring to their relations, is everywhere in human interactions (like power). Gender forms a major part of how we relate to each other. It begins at birth (when we speak out gender identities, in ways such as: ’is it a boy or girl?’, do they wear pink or blue, how do we name the child, etc.) and continues in an embedded way through a person’s life.

The practice of gender is the sea in which humans swim.

Power and gender map out in every religious context, and very often in ways that are clearly (or not so clearly) ideological. Gender plays out strongly in traditional (and liberal) American contexts of Christianity, ranging from debates about abortion and women’s (and men’s) roles to the recent large culture-war debates about marriage and sexuality. On a lower level religion also has a very significant role in the values that are expressed (and debated) about families and family life, and various gender based expectations of women and men. One could also argue that religion often has an impact on the frequent ‘blind spots’ (and wilful denial) on rape culture.

As we will explore in later episodes, religious groups, ideas, and practises may also be part of the challenge of and resistance to power. Religion is not always about a dominating ideology, not always, although it often is.

In conclusion, the study of gender and religion is also about ideas of what it means to be male and female — partly about roles and identities, and also practises — this has come to be called masculinities and femininities. How the person is expected to be, through the practice of gender, through the practice of their religion.

This takes us a long way from the base line of what are often thought of as the ‘natural’ or biological elements of sex — the differences between men and women that we often taken as ‘given’. Some writers, such as Judith Butler, have suggested that all aspects of gender, including the biological ‘givens’ of sexual anatomy are ascribed by culture and power. That is, our bodies, whether we are women, men, or any other gender, are written up by our culture. We know the world so much through culture that we cannot know anything about our bodies from outside of that lens.

This means that at the very least we have to recognise that to understand gender differences we need recognise our own understandings — perhaps we could call them prejudices — about such differences, and start again by asking how cultures (and the religions that make up those cultures) construct genders and put them into practice.

Useful links
About the Religion Bites Podcast

 

Religion Bites is a podcast by Malory Nye, an academic and writer based in Perth, Scotland.

The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.

ALSO BY MALORY NYE