Teaching Gender and Religion: Some Reflections from Experience

by Judith Bachmann, University of Heidelberg

Last semester, I finally dared to teach “gender and religion” in a course introducing students to the study of religion and intercultural theology. While not the lowest I had ever seen, attendance was quite low, but I was okay with that. I had just overcome a semester teaching a controversial topic and attendance had been on the higher end in that course. So, I felt relieved that only a small number of students dared (just like I did) to go with the course and learn about the dangerous (it may be contagious) GENDER topic. From the start, I noticed that the students were highly engaged in the course and held a more personal interest than in any other course I had taught. For many students, most of them female, what we discussed in the sessions, was not only a matter of theory but an issue of daily life as well.

But why exactly is “gender” such a daring topic still? Why have I refrained from teaching it until recently? Thinking back, it was never a conscious decision not to teach it. It just never came up. My academic environment is not exactly “political”. And in this kind of “normal” setting, bringing up gender is mostly considered a political statement. This also has to do with the effect which it had on the kind of attendance my course attracted: almost all female, remarkably so as I usually had a balance of male and female students in other courses before. Gender is considered a female topic. In the past, I found that very disturbing. With my teaching (and research), I just did not want to address an all-female audience. I wanted to have a wider reach. So why is gender considered a “female” topic? My theory is that any attempt to make gender relations and the demarcations they often imply visible is considered a nuisance (“That is not really the core issue here!”) at best and a deviation from what is considered important at worst in the study of religion. And I am not only speaking about the researchers and teachers. Many students seem to implicitly share the idea that you do not need to know about gender to understand religion. It seems to me that some fear that they may be “turned” during the course. Into what, you may ask? I will argue that gender makes the study of religion more critical towards what is considered “normal”, “general” and “universal”. The study of religion, on the other hand, may also make gender studies more critical towards what is considered “subaltern” or “victims of patriarchy”.

Whilst teaching gender in small doses before, I decided to teach a whole course on gender and religion now because I was fed up with treating gender like an add-on. I always had one session in my courses that focused on women, gender, or queer but I started to find it insulting. This approach that I, a woman, (!) took implied effectively that women, gender perspectives and queer persons were only worth one or two sessions in a whole course. Compared to my colleagues these sessions were a lot, but they also gave a counter-productive signal: that there was a “normal” way and then there was gender. I myself added to the dynamic I have described above. Looking at religion in the regional contexts in West Africa that I teach about, I could not help but laugh at my foolishness. What was treated as an add-on, women for example, formed a considerable part of all the practices I made my students study. The add-on was rather a must-have in real life. Churches could close their doors without female attendance. Even Islamist politics at one time relied heavily on female support. Yet, female and queer people were often denied certain positions, could often not be church leaders for example.

The question was: Could I have academic texts read focusing on gender and queer perspectives and still give my students a regular introduction to the study of religion and intercultural theology as well as the regional contexts? I also had to bear in mind that human beings of all genders and sexual orientations in those contexts would know all the “normal” stuff, too – theologies, definitions of religion, and re-iterations about their particular culture – and would probably be impacted by it and/ or would react to it. So how does one navigate this situation? How can one study religion and theology from the margins considering the margins also know what is considered “normal”?

I think the margins is in fact the normal, that it is the most life-like way to start in the study of religion. Let me illustrate this point. The research literature in the study of religion and in the regional studies it necessarily corresponds with, most of the time looks at women and queer persons as already different. The difference it would seem is obvious in their sex and/ or sexual orientation. However, focusing on this demarcation means to take it and its associated status as “margins” for granted. In the process, researchers, like myself by teaching gender as “add-on”, make it “the margins” without having any understanding of how this came to be. Teaching gender as full course, I came to understand that it really needs to be a two-fold perspective to tackle this dilemma. For me, it is a perspective that is also inherently a post-colonial one, inspired by thinkers like Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gayatri Spivak. It entails to first, look for the “abnormal”, the “subaltern”, the “margins” and second, reflect and analyse why it is known as such and why other viewpoints are thought of as “general”, “universal” and “basic”. This perspective, as I like to think, also means to provincialize the heterosexual (white) man, among others.

Provincializing the heterosexual man does not mean to study all religion – apart from the involvement of women and queer persons – as “male”. Though academia and the contexts we study may still often be dominantly male, or let me re-phrase, dominated by men, it is actuallyfar from being all male. My students are a case in point; also, church attendance is prominently female in my regional focus which is West Africa. All of them, my students as well as Christian women in West Africa, listen to, read, receive and adopt ideas and theories that may have been developed by men but they often do not take these to be “male”; they regard them as “academic” or “Christian”. I think most of these ideas, in academia and in the field, would probably be a lot less successful or pervasive if women and queer persons did not take them as a kind of universal and thus make them their own.

Here the theory of hegemonic masculinity of Raewyn Connell comes in (Connell, 1995). Hegemonic masculinity does not mean that men are powerful in and by themselves, by an innate quality of the heterosexual male. No, hegemonic masculinity feeds into and profits of a “patriarchal dividend”. This means that patriarchy is only as successful as long as it is participated in and that participation is perceived as meaningful and profitable by its participants.[i]Patriarchy, thus, is not an abstract concept but a very concrete practice. No, let me re-phrase: very concrete practices. The point here is that it is not just heterosexual men, or those perceived as “male”, but also women and queer persons that contribute to and sometimes profit from a patriarchal dividend. Raewyn Connell thus has given us as a possible path to provincialize the heterosexual male: realizing that what is “dominant-male” or “patriarchy” is an unintended alliance of social practices. What do I mean by “unintended alliance”? Well, not all the people “doing” patriarchy, are actually “doing patriarchy”. That is because they often have other goals, other contexts, other interests in their minds. These interests may include not drawing attention to themselves, making a living, being considered a successful (often heavily gendered) being, having a peaceful home, following their religious practices, worshipping, devoting themselves, leading “godly” lives. This list is obviously just a fragment of what people do when they “do” patriarchy. These practices make patriarchy successful because they are done – but also inherently fragile because they need to be done and most of all, done in accordance with each other (remember: the “unintended alliance”!) so that patriarchy may still succeed. These practices thus also open gender relations to the possibility of their transformation. They show that the existing gender relations are contingent and have become what they are by not staying the way they supposedly always have been. They are historical. That means that gender relations are real and experienced in the lives of many in the form of particular consequences but also that they are contingent.

Let me give two illuminating examples here from contexts that have informed my teaching of religion and gender: one from Pentecostal women in Ghana and the other from Christian gay men in Zambia. Both contexts are considered highly patriarchal, but this has different consequences for the concerned people, though both – women and gay men – are considered subaltern from the vantage point of feminist critique of “the heterosexual male”.

Women make up a vast majority in many Pentecostal churches in West Africa as I can affirm from my field research in Nigeria. In many of these churches, they are not allowed to preach or to lead congregations, except in prayer or in worship or in capacity to speak to their fellow women. A European woman like myself may ask: Why would women want this? Why would they flock in large numbers to places where they are told e. g. that the epitome of womanhood is a happy husband and many children and that they have to behave and dress a certain way to attract these ‘good’ things? Why would they ask for practices that limit their agency, their capacity to do anything they like to do? Jane Soothill who did her research in Ghana gave a very compelling answer (Soothill, 2007). She writes: “I take issue with the portrayal … of charismatic Christian women as the unsuspecting ‘victims’ of a damaging religious discourse, because it denies the agency of African women as acting subjects.” (Soothill, 2007, p. 28)So her point is that what we think of as a “feminist” position puts these Ghanaian Pentecostal women actually in position without agency. Spivak has described this problem as well where the concern of well-meaning feminists renders the Indian woman speechless. According to Soothill, the situation of Pentecostal women in Ghana is different: 

Women in Ghana’s charismatic churches mediate and interpret gender politics through a spiritual idiom, and they assert influence on their gendered relationships ‘by indirect means’ through their access to the power of the spirit world. This is women doing politics ‘from below’. For some women, the use of spiritual power to negotiate gender relations may be a lower risk strategy than an appeal to the structures of state feminism. (Soothill, 2007, pp. 224–225)

This means that Pentecostal women use the practices that are at their disposal because of their own position within Ghanaian society and religious discourse to negotiate their position. She sees that as “politics ‘from below’”.

Homophobia in Africa seems rampant and surely, there are homophobic sentiments. Unfortunately, the international development discourse does not really help the situation as conflicts that may often be of a local character are ramped up to take the national and trans-national stage. Politicians use what they perceive as an anti-homosexuality stance in the society to their advantage, often with dire anti-homosexuality laws as consequences. But Africa is far from being unified by its homophobia and the actual discussions on the ground vary to a great extent (Awondo, Geschiere, & Reid, 2012). So again, we are looking at a situation of unintended alliance where people on the ground are thrown into international debates. With Adriaan van Klinken and Lilly Phiri, we can take a look at the position of gay men in Zambia (van Klinken & Phiri, 2016). As they argue, gay man in Urban Zambia have developed a “grassroots African Queer theology”, mostly based on arguments around the idea of humans being created in the image of God (imago Dei) and the idea that how human beings are and what they love is how they were created. Thus, men loving men is just as natural and God-intended as heterosexuality. Calling it a Queer theology is Klinken and Phiri’s agenda to declare these men in need of and in accordance with global Queer solidarity. In this line, they are quick to denounce the thought that they are silencing the actual interests of these men. They themselves hint at the fact that these men do not call themselves “queer” and often hold rather conservative ideas e.g. of sexual identity as naturally given. However, taking them into the global Queer solidarity is a must to Klinken and Phiri: “Excluding them from the queer theological discourse because they are not transgressive enough would indeed expose the normativity at work within the queer discourse itself.” (van Klinken & Phiri, 2016, p. 10)Apart from the activism that is clear in these words, I want to point out another perspective that Klinken and Phiri give us. The quoted gay men have to deal with public, often Pentecostal and Evangelical voices in Zambia that see them as inhuman and animalistic, even Satanist (van Klinken & Phiri, 2016, p. 11). The argument of these homophobic utterances is that it is unnatural for a man to love a man. And it seems that this is exactly the kind of logic these gay men necessarily buy into, necessarily since it is their historical context. Buying into the logic of God-given naturality for them means taking the theological figure of imago Dei the way it is used in Zambia and extending it to themselves. They engage with the “normal” and try to normalize themselves.

Studying Pentecostal women in Ghana and gay men in Zambia is therefore a brilliant way to study African Christianity and African religion, nay even religion in general. Only on the first look, it turns how we usually study religion on its head: from the specific and the subaltern to the “normal” and the context. However, this is actually how we always study religion – there is no other way. We always start with a specific perspective and work ourselves through its context to understand it better. Some perspectives on religion simply succeed in concealing how specific they really are (and far from “the normal” or “the basic”) and that they also have to buy into an unintended alliance. They may give the impression that “that’s the way it is”. Studying gender and religion together will ultimately sharpen our critical senses not to take this at face value but to ask: how has it become this way? Which unintended alliance is this part of? And which aspects (like other goals, other interests) make it clear that it is unintended and maybe fragile? I think, teaching gender and religion has ultimately made me a better researcher in the study of religion. I can most certainly recommend it.

References

Awondo, P., Geschiere, P., & Reid, G. (2012). Homophobic Africa? Toward a More Nuanced View. African Studies Review55(3), 145–168.

Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Soothill, J. E. (2007). Gender, Social Change and Spiritual Power: Charismatic Christianity in GhanaStudies of religion in Africa: Vol. 30. Leiden, Boston: Brill.

Van Klinken, A., & Phiri, L. (2016). “In the Image of God”: Reconstructing and Developing a Grassroots African Queer Theology from Urban Zambia. Theology & Sexuality21(1), 36–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/13558358.2015.1115598 


[i]I am extending Connell’s initial idea here. The “patriarchal dividend” initially was only applied to “complicit masculinity”, meaning men that did not fulfil the ideals of hegemonic masculinity (like violence, aggression, emotional restrain, physical strength, competitiveness) but aspired to it or profited from its existence. I am extending the idea of the patriarchal dividend beyond just perceived “males” because I think more than just men “profit” from patriarchy in the sense that it is the context they live in.

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