Gender Identity, Religious Identity and Performance.

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oWhen I cover my head in respect for the Holy One, it feels right. This act touches on a religious truth of who I am. To me, it not only matches who I am, it also expresses something about who I strive to be and the relationship I want to have with G-d.

Seeing Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, I think she’d say something similar about herself. Her outward appearance touches to the very core of who she is and who she has had the strength and courage to become.   Not only that, it feels right.

Sure, there is a wide gulf between the public nature of Jenner’s cover photo and my public head covering, yet, in these two examples, I see a number of connections. First, there is the real possibility of harm and danger. Second, there is a link between outside actions that express something true about the person on the inside. Third, value is placed on the agency and autonomy of the individual carrying out those actions. Finally, there is a performativity connection between religiosity and gender. It is the last point that I find particularly compelling.

I don’t cover my head anymore on a daily basis although I used to before I moved to Europe. Even though it doesn’t feel right, with the rise of anti-Semitism, it seems like the safe and unfortunately prudent thing to do. I also don’t wear any signifying my religion except for a small star of David earring. In 2014, by the Jewish community’s own account, anti-Semitism grew 200% in the Czech Republic alone.  Statistics seems to support my actions.

Jenner too, like so many members of the trans community, now has the real threat of violence against her person. While her public persona may make her somewhat safer, too many trans men and women have been harmed and even murdered just for being themselves. In fact, many trans people live closeted lives because of this danger and the fear of rejection from family, friends and the larger society.

While not minimizing the fear and danger, I want to return to the more theoretical link between gender expression, gender identity and religious identity. In 1990, Judith Butler wrote Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. For Butler, what we think of sex and its connections to gender as masculinity and femininity often come down to a person performing gender in a way that is socially recognizable. People wear clothing, do actions, speak words and use body language that marks them as woman or man and therefore individual agents adhere to societal constructions of gender at the same time they reinforce societal expectations for men and women. Butler’s suggestion is that gender performances, that subvert “normal” discourses on gender expression, show the ways in which gender is culturally constructed. They also disrupt what has been seen as somehow inherently natural. In other words, biologically-sexed females acting, dressing, speaking and behaving in ways typically associated with masculinity disrupts what it means to be both a woman and to be masculine. This would be impossible if things were as natural as society thinks they are.

One of Butler’s goal, in my opinion, is not only to expose the culturally constructed nature of sex/gender, but also to open up individual agency to perform gender in ways that would disrupt the power these “natural notions” have over peoples’ lives. Subversive gender performances, for Butler, creates more freedom in society and would hopefully undermine blanket misogyny and disrupt patriarchal power.

Yes, Butler has often been criticized in many ways, including the attempt to erase any notion of substance behind personhood and its gendered expression especially as it relates to transgendered individuals. Butler has spoken to this specific criticism saying on that, “…others have a strong sense of self bound up with their genders, so to get rid of gender would be to shatter their self-hood. I think we have to accept a wide variety of positions on gender. Some want to be gender-free, but others want to be free really to be a gender that is crucial to who they are.”20150128_132833

In the end, what is essential for Butler is individual autonomy and freedom to be. Performing sex/gender is one possible way to get there. Let me suggest another that builds off Butler’s ideas of performativity. Religiosity is a type of culturally-laden performance. After all, what are kippot, hijabi, nuns’ habits, ministers’ robes, etc.? They are religious markers tied up in gender identity.

Just as masculine women subvert and disrupt social constructions, couldn’t a Jewish lesbian perform gender in a way that she passes for an orthodox man (or woman)? Doesn’t this disrupt what it means to be both lesbian and orthodox? I think so. This passing person also destabilizes the power of orthodox men to define womanhood and women’s sexuality. She defines for herself who she is. She may very well consider herself to be orthodox and masculine, just as masculine women consider their masculinity as part of who they are.  She may connect deeply with Jewish orthodox feminine styles of dress.  Nonetheless, her outward performance expresses something about her commitment to G-d and who she is as a Jew at the same time it subverts received religious notions of gender and sexuality.  Another example is a woman minister who wears priestly attire including the black shirt and white collar.   She too disrupts power relations, gender assumptions and, for some people, the very notion of women and ordination.  Religious performance is powerful stuff.

To go back to the point I made at the beginning. I think expressions of religiosity are similar to expressions of gender. In addition, claiming for one’s self a religious identity subverts patriarchal notions of gender. Yet, most importantly, performing a religious identity often expresses an inner truth. In both of these ways, religious identity performances could create freedom, disrupt power-over and destabilize patriarchy just as Butler hopes gender performativity does.  I would modify Butler’s approach somewhat to say, “I think we have to accept a wide variety of positions on gender [and/or religious identity]. Some want to be gender-free [and/or religion-free], but others want to be free really to be a gender [and/or religious indentity] that is crucial to who they are.”

Is it a Feminist Act to Stay in a Patriarchal Tradition? by Gina Messina-Dysert

Should women (or men) maintain a religious identity within a patriarchal tradition?  Is it a feminist act to stay? Or is it only a feminist act to leave?  These are questions that regularly surface in conversations related to religion and are often the center of dialogue here on Feminism and Religion.

I have often thought that change can only take place from within.  Certainly we can see the progress made by foresisters who have struggled within their traditions for change; Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary Hunt, Amina Wadud, Judith Plaskow, and the list goes on.  These women have greatly impacted our understanding of misogynistic practices within their respective traditions and have educated us on how religions need to live out their teachings. Continue reading “Is it a Feminist Act to Stay in a Patriarchal Tradition? by Gina Messina-Dysert”

Assimilation into American Evangelical Theology: They Had Me at We’re Equal! by Andreea Nica

Andreea Nica, pentecostalismCultural and social disparities exist within religious immigrant assimilation processes. Growing up in a tricultural home, I learned how to disentangle and integrate differing cultural norms and expectations. My biological parents are first-generation Romanian-Americans who identified with the Pentecostal faith. I was raised by my father and stepmother; my stepmother was raised in the U.S. by Italian-American parents. In my household, we spoke English as the main entrée with Romanian and Italian for dessert. Discovering my cultural identity in categorical terms proved difficult, but when paired with religious identification, it became easier and less important.

Given that my father wanted my brother and me to assimilate into the American culture as comfortably as possible, we regularly attended an American Pentecostal church. The Romanian Pentecostal churches we infrequently visited appeared vastly different; the social and cultural expectations seemed astonishingly dissident to that of the American church. Continue reading “Assimilation into American Evangelical Theology: They Had Me at We’re Equal! by Andreea Nica”

In Search of My Religious Identity By Gina Messina-Dysert

I try to avoid watching too much television – it feels like there are so many other things I should be focused on; but I was quite engrossed in the show Big Love during its run on HBO.  Its concluding season was by far my favorite because of its focus on women and faith.  In one of the final episodes the character Barbara Hendrickson struggled with whether or not to be baptized into a new church and it was a struggle I identified with greatly.  Although her faith had changed and she no longer felt connected to the doctrine of her previous church, moving on to a new community that fit her beliefs meant abandoning her family.

I was raised in a very traditional Italian/Sicilian Roman Catholic household, attended Catholic schools, and was married in the Catholic Church.  As a child, being Catholic offered me a sense of pride; however growing up I began to question the Church as I recognized the many ways it is abusive to women.  Becoming a graduate student of religion led me on a roller coaster journey that allowed me to further explore my religious identity. Continue reading “In Search of My Religious Identity By Gina Messina-Dysert”

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