Review of E. Castelli (ed.) “Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader”

Castelli, Elizabeth C. (Ed.) Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader. With assistance from Rosamond C. Rodman. New York: Palgrave, 2001. pp 550. ISBN: 0-312-24030-9 (pbk).


Although in print for well over a decade now, Elizabeth Castelli and Rosamond Rodman’s volume, Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader is still an excellent collection of essays to introduce a reader to the study of gender and religion. It is a credit to the authors and editors that the selected essays do not feel dated. In fact, those addressing women and gender in relation to Islam, and women in the Global South, are still quite relevant today.

Castelli and Rodman set out to collect essays which might reflect the multiple interactions between the concepts of ‘women,’ ‘gender,’ and ‘religion.’ These are terms which Castelli acknowledges at the outset are “inherently unstable” (4). Castelli writes that the intention of the volume is not to reproduce work already done regarding ‘religion’ and ‘women’ or ‘gender’; rather,

this book is organized around a series of pressing theoretical problematics and highlights the contributions that different disciplinary approaches can make to an understanding of these concerns (6).

Castelli and Rodman are successful in their endeavor. The volume collects twenty-six essays, spanning the decade and a half between 1985 and 2001. The book is divided into five parts, reflecting the “pressing theoretical problematics” Castelli references in the above quotation.

Part I, titled “Categories of Analysis and Critique: ‘Gender,’ ‘Religion,’ ‘Feminism’,” includes essays by Miriam Peskowitz, Carol P. Christ, Donna Haraway, Oyèrónké Oyĕwùmí, Robert Orsi, and Minoo Moallem. The first four chapters are an exchange between Peskowitz and Christ over the Goddess movement’s use of the metaphor of “weaving” as one that resonates with, or applies especially well to, women. The differences in style and approach of Peskowitz and Christ are as instructive as the essays’ contents. Particularly striking is the analytical nature of Peskowitz’s contributions, while Christ’s are less formal and more personal. Haraway’s article examines the literal difficulties of translating terms such as ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ into languages other than English – in Haraway’s case, German, French, and Spanish – where the concepts may not exist, or have different connotations. Haraway writes,

in all their versions, feminist gender theories attempt to articulate the specificity of the oppressions of women in the context of cultures which make distinctions between sex and gender salient. That salience depends on a related system of meanings clustered around a family of binary pairs: nature/culture, nature/history, natural/human, resource/product (52).

Oyĕwùmí continues this theme in a fascinating discussion of the Yorùbá, a culture which did not have linguistic gender distinction until the appearance of European colonizers. Moallem’s essay takes up the question of racist and sexist perceptions of Muslims in the West – themes also explored by Homa Hodfar later in the volume, in her essay regarding Muslim women and the veil.

The essays in Part II, “Origins, Identities, and Appropriations,” are a diverse set which range from a look at the characterization of male and female in the Adam and Eve narrative (Mieke Bal); an examination of “gender relations of blood sacrificial ritual” (174) through a variety of religious traditions ancient and modern (Nancy Jay); the interaction of state/secular law and personal/religious law in the case of “Shahbano” in India, and the repercussions of both for women’s health and well-being (Zakia Pathak and Pragna Patel); an analysis of contemporary Goddess cults and the “claims of spiritual feminism from a classicist’s perspective,” (216) by Helene P. Foley, which provides a fascinating counterpoint to the opening debate between Peskowitz and Christ; and finally, Laura E. Donaldson’s critique of white feminists who appropriate the spiritual and cultural items from Native Americans, often for their own profit.

Carolyn Dinshaw’s essay on Margery Kempe and Margery’s ‘queer’ life (263) opens Part III, “Gender and Religious Experience: Interdisciplinary Approaches.” Next is Joy Dixon’s fascinating essay on sexology, homosexuality, and Theosophy, followed by Katherine Clay Bassard’s consideration of sexuality and a desire for community in the life of Rebecca Cox Jackson. Essay by Yoram Bilu and Aihwa Ong provide complementary – yet quite distinct – discussions of the social (un)acceptability of women who become possessed by spirits. Bilu considers the case of dybbuk-possessioni in a 19th C European Jewish community whereas Ong examines the varying reactions to, and explanations for, spirit visitations in modern factories in Malaysia.

Part IV, “Gender, Religion, and Body Politics,” is organized around the idea of religion and the regulation of women’s bodies. Jonah Steinberg’s discussion of the changing attitudes towards, and teachings about, menstruation in Orthodox Judaism is one of the best essays in a volume full of excellent writing. Mary Rose D’Angelo’s examination of veiling practices in early Christian communities and Homa Hodfar’s perspective on the racism and sexism Muslim women encounter in Canada are equally illuminating and insightful. Clara Connolly and Pragna Patel introduce the reader to the interracial, interethnic, and interreligious women’s coalition in Britain, Women Against Fundamentalism, which addresses the effects of religious fundamentalist agendas regarding women’s reproductive options, financial independence, and violence against women (447). Patricia Jeffery’s essay discusses the various forms of agency and feminism present among women in South Asia. Linda Kuntz’s essay offers an insightful discussion of the Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s movement. Kintz’s discussion demonstrates the power of gender-based religious rhetoric in general, as well as how a group like the Promise Keepers can reinforce traditional gender binaries and heteronormativity, yet express it in language that appeals to a contemporary male (and often female) audience. Part IV closes with a meditative essay by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini on the idea of “getting religion” while also considering two U.S. Supreme Court cases involving Christianity, the law, and homosexuality.

Part V, “Gender and Religion in the Politics of the Academy,” consists of one chapter, an address given by Judith Plaskow at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion regarding the growth of gender and diversity in the AAR during her time as a member. She also reflects on some of the problems that continue to face the AAR at the time of her speech, including the tenuous economic position of adjuncts who are disproportionally women.

There is much to praise and next to nothing to fault in this volume. Castelli and Rodman have collected a brilliant set of essays analyzing an impressive range of topics. I particularly appreciate how the essays often seem to be in conversation with one another, even when on the surface they discuss dissimilar topics. That is one of the strengths of scholarship which engages issues of gender and/or feminism and religion – the ability to convey both similarity and distinctiveness. These essays certainly demonstrate that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to feminism and the study of religion is misguided. However, they also show that women in diverse geographical, economic, and religious locations are often confronted with challenges relating to their biological sex and/or socially assigned gender.

The editors should also be commended for selecting essays that are clearly written and, except in one or two cases, do not require the reader to have extensive pre-existing knowledge of the subject. I can easily see this volume being useful in a classroom setting (advanced undergraduate or graduate) or for interested non-academic readers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *