Liberations of Immigrant Women in Western Religious Conversion by Andreea Nica


Andreea Nica, pentecostalismThe prolonged debate around feminist subjectivity and religious participation continues to evoke much compelling discussion in academia, political arenas, and public space. There have been a number of academic studies around the intersection of gender, religion, and migration, specifically on how gender and immigration assimilation is constructed and managed within western religious systems.

I am currently researching the trajectories of immigrant assimilation and conversion, and how gender relations and religious identities are managed within these processes to further develop my proposal for doctoral study. I find this area of research fascinating as it’s so diverse and pertinent to the progression of gender equity amongst religious participants.

As a second generation Romanian-American immigrant, I subjectively understand the complexities involved in disentangling the construction of gender and ethnicity within culturally variant faith systems. A concept I found more foreign to my own migratory experiences, born to first-generation Romanian-American parents, was one that involved spiritual conversion through transnational migration.

The U.S. has allowed immigrants to maintain their religious freedom through active engagement and participation in their designated belief system. As seen in International Migration and Religious Participation: The Mediating Impact of Individual and Contextual Effects, in many cases a migratory process is theologized given religion serves as a prominent vehicle for the migrant’s incorporation into U.S. society. Minimal research has been conducted, however, in regards to immigrant women’s experiences to the U.S., particularly how women find liberation and self-empowerment through religious conversion.

emigrationIn my own experiences, my father (a patriarch) not only remarried an American but had us attend an American Pentecostal church, rather than a Romanian church. There wasn’t much flexibility for converting to other religions or Christian denominations. Through adopting a western theology, I comparatively realized that our familial ethnic and cultural values were compromised. In terms of egalitarian views, western theology did, in some ways, empower women to lead more autonomous, liberating lives. On the other hand, once I transitioned from Christianity, I was irrefutably aware of the restrictive patriarchal standards both the U.S. and Romanian Pentecostal churches shared.

For some immigrant women, the contrary is true. According to one particular study, A Self of One’s Own: Taiwanese Immigrant Women and Religious Conversion, the spiritual-migration narratives of two Taiwanese immigrant women “describe their religious conversions similarly as freedom from the restrictions of traditional Taiwanese womanhood – a womanhood that they see as hemmed in by familial obligations – and freedom to follow their individual spiritual callings independent of their families’ demands” (Chen, 2005).

In the study, one woman converts to Christianity and the other is a converted Buddhist. These women navigate through new religious spaces in order to form independence from their culturally traditional womanhood. I found this study interesting because as a former Christian Pentecostalist, traditional laws around family and womanhood were enthusiastically promoted by both my family and the church. However, after reading the study, I realized that I did have free reign to maneuver when compared to women in the Romanian Pentecostal church.

For example, many of the devout Romanian-American Pentecostal women who attend the Romanian church lack motivation to leave their families and obtain a college degree, let alone possess career aspirations. Most conform to a confining gender role of finding a religious man to marry and discovering sole autonomy in motherhood.

I, on the other hand, was encouraged to find purpose outside of family obligations and opportunities (if godly) were at my fingertips. That didn’t mean family wasn’t significant to my role as a Christian woman, but it wasn’t everything. In the study, new religious commitments exercised by Taiwanese women are suggested to originate from the women’s “growing sense of independence” in the U.S. One critique the author offers is that scholars tend to focus on the patriarchal influences of religious participation, rather than how women practice and enact religious experience in their everyday lives.

In other words, scholars should direct their analysis on women’s religious interpretations, rather than focusing on institutional patriarchal influences. For example, “Judith Stacey (1990, 1991) described evangelical women’s reconstruction of gender and family roles as a form of ‘postfeminism.’ Outside of the Christian tradition, Bartkowski and Ghazal Read (2003) have found that Muslim women can use teachings on veiling in emancipatory ways (Chen, 2005).

By adopting this logic, immigrant women can re-create new selves within what has been identified as traditionally patriarchal religious spaces. I consider this a moving and hopeful sentiment, but I find it difficult to believe that even through the religious restructuring and negotiations that immigrant women establish in their lives, the foundation – the solidarity of the infrastructure – has not changed. Because institutional spaces allow for gender mobility, it doesn’t necessarily mean the restructuring of cultural and spiritual narratives are abidingly liberating.

I don’t, however, negate the fact that immigrant women find a more fulfilling sense of independence through their religious-migratory conversion, but should the pursuit for feminist philosophy and egalitarianism cease there? Patriarchy does not plunge to its demise by women’s reinterpretation of religious discourse alone. In my next post, I will provide a perspective on how secular immigrant assimilation may awaken a new spiritual egalitarianism.

Andreea Nica is a freelance writer, scholar, egalitarian, and yogi. She holds a M.S. from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Gender, Media, and Culture Studies. Andreea also holds a B.A. in Psychology from Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is writing her memoir on transitioning from Pentecostalism, focusing on institutional power, subjectivities, and socialization. She is the Founder of OrganiCommunications, empowering startups and social enterprises in strategic and digital communication ventures. Andreea plans on pursuing doctoral study within Sociology, focusing on Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of 2 blogs: OrganiCommunications and Progressive Thinking. You can find her in Seattle, WA. with her partner and kitty, probably doing yoga.@convergingearth  @integratedcom



Categories: Abuse of Power, Academy, Asian American, Belief, Buddhism, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Community, Evangelicalism, Family, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Gender, Gender and Power, God, Identity Construction, parenting, Patriarchy, Power relations, Spiritual Journey, Taiwanese American, Theology, Women and Community, Women in the Church

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4 replies

  1. I can’t wait for the second half of this, because I agree completely that reconfiguring religious experience within a patriarchal religion is not the be-all and end-all of feminist change.

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  2. Bartkowski and Ghazal Read (2003) have found that Muslim women can use teachings on veiling in emancipatory ways (Chen, 2005).

    Can and do – look at my blog. The first hurdle for Secular Feminists to realise that their own frameworks of freedom are far from liberating. That globalised western consumer culture is oppressing to women, children, men and basically all people trying to live outside what the corporate stereotype of humanity wants to sell us.

    The hijab is far more liberating and shows far more dignity to a woman than a social system that commodifies and sexualizes the female body from 4 yrs to 39 years ( women over 40 are meant to disappear). That the modern feminism thinks that nudity is liberty and female empowerment is reflected in these ‘Lara Croft’ type fighting pornstar characters is beyond understanding.

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    • The other point is the issue of Equality (sameness) and Equity (fairness) – what is equal is NOT inherently fair – Islam is based on a framework of Gender Equity – not Gender Equality and as such is a more effective framework for individuals and society – I am not a man and don’t wish to be a man – not biologically or in regards to roles and responsibilities.

      There is nothing FAIR about in a Gender Equity agenda where now both men and women are wages slaves to the corporate machine or both equally sent to fight and die for corporate profit. Surely an equitable framework would challenge and dismantle an inherently pathological system using the complimentary and differential talents and roles of both men and women, rather than try and make women equal shareholders as men of said pathological system?

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