Women and Christianity: representations and practices


Gender anthropology is based on the idea that biological sex does not determine psychological nor intellectual characteristics of men and women (and consequently their social position) or, to put it in another way, the male/female gender division is not only a fact of nature but also culturally produced. This theoretical position leads us to investigate the male/female representations which have been created in the different cultures and the specific way in which gender is made. Religion is without a doubt one of the cultural fields where the production of gender takes place.

As Emile Durkheim pointed out in his introduction to The Elementary forms of religious life, a religion is more than a mere “speculation on the Divine”. Also found in these religious traditions are “the first systems of representation that Man made of himself and of the world around him”. These representations have some practical implications. To describe how men and women appeared on earth or how they came to be different, as in the myths on the origins of the sexes, is also to define, explicitly or not, the norms which must rule their social behaviour and their position in the social field. These remarks can also be applied to the European religions and the first part of the course will look at the image of men and women which are passed on by the founding texts.

Ethnologists have shown that in most societies gender identities are institutionalized by religious rituals, with the religious side of the rituals embracing gender differentiation. Thus, in the Dogon of Mali, a boy can become socially a man only if he has been circumcised, a girl is a woman only after female circumcision. Moreover, for the Dogons, these ritual acts are only a way to repeat the operation by which God the Creator differentiated, since the beginning of time, man from woman: he took from the man the feminine part of his anatomy (the foreskin) and from the woman her masculine side (the clitoris). In the second part of our discussion we will be looking at how religion contributes to the making of sexual identities in our societies. 

The ethnology of exotic societies shows that the rituals of initiation which take place at puberty serve several purposes. They lead the way to manhood or womanhood, to initiate the individual to the fundamental religious knowledge of their society, and to give them the power to “manipulate  the sacra [of their people] without risking supernatural dangers” (A. Van Geennep, 1981: 114): masks symbolising ancestors, flutes enabling communication with them, etc. In most societies, this initiation to knowledge and religious power is most of the time reserved - at least in law - to men. What is the situation in the rest of Europe?