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Marina V. Vorobjova,
E-mail: info@upelsinka.com

Gender Approach in Religious Studies:
An Attempt of Interdisciplinary Discussion

If we try to compare two spheres of scholarly research – religious studies and gender studies – we will at first glance not find anything in common. These disciplines have their own subjects of research, different goals and methods of research. However, if we look closer we will find “black holes” – particular moments that cannot be explained from the point of view of only one discipline and require specialists from other areas of knowledge. There are such well-known examples of cooperation as sociology and religious studies (sociology of religion), psychology and religious studies (psychology of religion), history and religious studies (history of religion), or philosophy and religious studies (philosophy of religion). We also know about interrelations between such disciplines as theology, ethnography, linguistics etc. with religious studies, which testifies of marginal character of this discipline and of its openness to other spheres of knowledge. However, religious studies scholars have not been paying due attention to gender researches that, as we think, could assist in solving many “problematic areas”.

Many researchers of religion have noted that the masculine and the feminine may show themselves differently in different religions. Shy steps in the direction of gender research have been taken (and are still being taken) by contemporary Russian and Western religious studies scholars but they are not structured and are founded more on an intuitive approach rather then a firmly based position.

If we take gender studies, we will see that the area of religion has been covered in them by both those who were the roots of the “feminist movement” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton ) to contemporary scholars .

There are also attempts of cooperation between gender and religious researchers in the Internet. There is plentitude of sites devoted to female religiousness in the English language Internet . Unfortunately, the Russian language Internet does not reproduce even a tenth of this variety. One of the attempts to cover female religiousness is an informational-analytical portal “Woman in Religions” , which is still the only “borderline” project in the sphere.

We are sure that religious and gender researchers are interested in each other, but this interest has not fully shown itself yet. We are also sure that there are common problems affecting interests of two areas of knowledge and, therefore, dialog between these areas is not only possible, but also necessary.

Therefore, we can speak of an inter-intrestedness of religious and gender areas of study.
This, in turn, means that there are some common problems which touch on interests of both of these areas. This is what we are led by when we turn to three “bordering” problems for Religious and Women's Studies:

1. Masculine and feminine gods: their images, functions and basic differences.
2. Perception of gender and the role of women in various religions.
3. Woman and power: key to the problem

We will try to cover try to open all of them below.

1. Masculine and feminine gods: their images, functions and basic differences.

All of mythology is one way or another based on the opposition between masculine and feminine. This opposition first showed itself in so called divine pairs. God Geb and goddess Nut (Ancient Egypt), god Kosaana and his goddess Uichaana (Mexico), god Zeus and his wife, the top Olympian goddess Gera (Ancient Greece), hero-forefather Huandi and his wife Lei-Zu (Ancient China) – these are but few examples of such pairs. But we already see a strict difference here. Thus, masculine and feminine gods are given different attributes; masculine and feminine gods have different functions.

1.1. Appearance of feminine gods.

A feminine god may occupy the looks of a beautiful young woman and then she will give people prosperity (Lakshmi in India, Demetra in Greece etc.). In other cases she may look as a repulsive old woman who brings death (Rangda in Bali, Zhalmauiz Kempir in Kazakhstan and Kirgizia etc.). However, it is not rare that a feminine god combines within herself the beautiful and the ugly, youth and old age; in this case two natures live in the feminine god – one that gives life and one that takes it away. The brightest example of this is a goddess from Hindu mythology, Shiba’s wife Devi, who comes forth dually – as a meek and merciful one on one hand (known as Paravaty, Gauri etc.) and as a savage and threatening one on the other (in the shape of goddesses Kali, Durgi etc.).

The appearance of a feminine goddess is closely related to her functions. We can clearly see this if we look, for example, at the famous Paleolithic “venuses”. The appearance of the ancient statuettes emphasize their the function of fertility and motherhood. These feminine functions are also reflected in some depictions of Malaysian goddess Kibela, Hindu goddess Kali, anciant Greek Demetra and many other mother-goddesses.

2.1. Feminine gods’ functions.

As a rule all gods – muscular or feminine – have their own functions and in many cases these functions are clearly separated. As we have already noted a fruitful and life-giving nature is attributed to women (ancient Italic fertility goddess Dea Dia, Yakut Nelbey Ayisit) alongside with a life-taking quality (in Hebrew tradition Lilit is viewed as one who spoils child-birth). A male god comes forth rather as a warrior, a hunter, a cultural hero etc.

Myths of different peoples depict goddesses weaving (giving or taking life – the thread is in her hands), combing their hair (water goddesses need to be propitiated, because they have the power to send a drought or drown a person) etc. These are only a few examples of goddesses’ activities, that testify a similarity in their basic functions.

However, functions characteristic only for masculine or feminine gods may be passed on to gods of the other gender in some cultural traditions. Zeus gives birth to Athena from his head (a female fertility function goes to a male god), and Athena herself (her main characteristic feature – matriarchal independence – is deliberately underlined) comes to life fully armed (a hint at a purely masculine function).

In relation to this it is interesting to remember one particular moment when a goddess could change her gender and become a man. Some goddesses, for example Akhsonnutli in the Navaho mythology (North America), originally come forth having dual gender and this androgynous nature left its mark on goddesses’ functions.

Now we believe is time to turn to the concept of matriarchy.

3.1. Matriarchy or patriarchy?

The idea of matriarchy has not been viewed by many researchers as a historical reality. “Myths about woman power that exist in many versions should be viewed as a reproduction of consecutive stages in real life of men” says Joan Bamberger in her book called “The Myth about Patriarchy: Why Does Power in Primitive Societies Belong to Men” (1974) . In spite of the fact that many researchers believe that the cult of a mother-goddess and some examples of exceptional status of women in history (the Amazon, for example) may evidence in favor of matriarchy, many are still sure that the idea of matriarchy never reflected itself in historical reality, it has been and still is a myth, and it could only exist in real life during times when myths were reproduced, i. e. in ritual processes.

2. Perception of gender and the role of women in various religions.

As a rule, women in the social life have a role different from that which men have. In ancient societies functions of men and women were different and this differentiation and we can still see this difference today. In fact, we see the very same strict order that exists in the sphere of gods. Women come forth as a keeper of the hearth, her motherly nature is underlined by all cultural traditions; she brings up, teaches, feeds, performs household duties etc. Attempts to “equalize” women in their rights with men usually have a grotesque character, because manlikeness in then replaced by femininity .

The same difference may be seen in religious life too. Functions of men and women in various religious traditions are stated not only in sacred texts. They are directed at examples of life of the gods and are often earthly copies of their divine actions.
There may, however, be exceptions. J. Frazer described an example that he observed in the gallas society:

"When a gallas woman gets tired of caring for the house she starts to talk nonsense and behave in absurdly. This is a sign that the holy spirit of Kallo has descended on her. The husband falls in front of her. She is not named “wife” any more, she now has the “sovereign” title. She does not do household chores any more and her will becomes divine law " .

A woman could go back to her normal activities in just the same way.

3. Woman and power: key to the problem

We have singled out this, say, culturological component in order to emphasize that the subject of woman and power is a separate one and that it lies in the foundation of everything. Different functions that gods play is nothing else but “competition” for power; the role women play in religion only proves that the struggle is still taking place. And this struggle goes on in order for the scale on which men and women are on the opposite ends to shift one way or another. The idea of “the golden middle” looks as an unreachable ideal. Is it possible to talk about its realization? Perhaps, if we are talking about a harmonic divine couple in which both halves strive for complementing each other and in doing so to strengthen the unified whole. It is also possible to reach harmony in an androgen. But all this is gods’ domain.

As a rule, the ideal becomes unreachable in the world: masculine and feminine struggle inside us, running into various stereotypes all the time.


Preliminary conclusions that we make can be as follows. Thus, female religiousness is different from masculine religiousness and the very problem of gender must be taken in account when one or another religion or a religious belief is approached. Thus, accentuation of attention on gender differences may help us to cover the picture of religious life more fully.

Theoretically, unification of efforts of gender and religious researchers could provide a key to a classification which would make problems of gender and the level of closeness of one or another culture to masculinity its “corner stone”. Something very different could be of practical interest to us. The author of this article is convinced that it is interdisciplinary dialogue that could provide noticeable results in the sphere of researching new religious movements where muscular and feminine are not static things but a way of life built on specific paradigms or on the contrary denying them.

New religious movements are much polarized (and this is something they have in common with traditional religions), but this polarization is more grotesque. Religious movements of the “new age” cannot ignore such an issue as gender. They emphasize it (The Great White Brotherhood Yusmalos), they play with it ("The Adamite Church") , they use it ("Family" ) or they ignore it because within themselves they are strictly oriented at a positive (Sahaja Yoga , Brahma Kumaris ) or a negative (Mother of God’s Center ) attitude towards female religiousness.

Thus, we can be sure that cooperation of various researchers including gender and religion researchers will significantly enrich the scholarly sphere and will provoke solutions of a number of relevant problems and useful discoveries. It is because of study of religion that we may be able to find the roots of female violence, of female susceptibility and also the reasons of psychic influence, which sometimes leads to extreme outcomes (terrorism).

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