Religion and gender: what about masculinity?

Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, in their research in Kendal (UK), found that around 80 per cent of the practitioners, members and clients of the holistic milieu were female. Years later, Woodhead observed that this was “one of the most striking findings of the research” and added "This was a finding which we struggled to explain [...] we felt rather like explorers taking slow and tentative steps into relatively uncharted territory” (Woodhead 2007a, 115). Heelas and Woodhead were not the first ones to emphasize the overwhelming presence of women in the holistic movement, nor were they the last. However, they - and especially Woodhead in her later articles (2007a, 2007b) - sharply point at the need to take gender on board when researching the transformations of religion and spirituality in contemporary society. Ursula King notices that in recent years “a remarkable paradigm shift has occurred, especially among younger religion scholars, so that gender-critical analyses have globally spawned an impressive range of new research in a relatively short time” (2008, 120). Two distinct areas have been especially fertile in producing innovative works on religion and gender: research on holistic spiritualities and studies on Pentecostalism. This is not coincidental; both religious/spiritual movements have undergone a process of feminization in quantitative but also in qualitative terms. In both movements, women have played a role as main cultural carriers of the ‘spirit’ in a Weberian sense, and as catalysts for the movement’s expansion. Initially, scholars mainly examined the growing prominence of women in Pentecostal and holistic spiritual circles through the question of the empowering or disempowering capacity of these movements. This dualistic - and highly political - approach strongly influenced initial research on gender and religion and encapsulated the debate in

Is yoga a girl’s thing? 201 such a way that the final assessment of the capacity (or not) of religion to empower women hid other crucial aspects (Cazarin and Griera 2018). However, recent research has provided a more nuanced account of the relationships between gender and religion, especially by showing the complex interplay between religion, gender and power in contemporary societies (Fedele and Knibbe 2013; Burchardt 2017). New research has shown how religion and gender operate in a dense web of power relations and social configurations, which makes it necessary to critically discuss processes of social construction of gender in relation to the contexts in which they develop. In this regard, while holistic spirituality and Pentecostalism may become creative sources from and through which new models of femininity and masculinity emerge, they may also contribute to the appearance of more subtle gender power dynamics. These conclusions become especially relevant when researching spirituality in prison, since they show the importance of taking the singularity of the prison context into account when considering the role of spirituality in transforming dominant conceptions of masculinity. To what extent, can the prison setting become a ‘magnifying glass’ (Beckford and Gilliat-Ray 1998) of wider societal developments in relation to spirituality and masculinity? Or how can one void gender dynamics getting masked when doing research in the hyper-masculinized setting of the prison ‘total institution’? These considerations take especial saliency due to the scarcity of previous research on spirituality and masculinity, which complicates the comparison between the world inside and outside prison.

The religious, the secular and the spiritual in penitentiary institutions

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in research on the role of religion in public institutions (Cadge et al. 2017, and especially in prisons (Beckford and Gilliat-Ray 1999; Béraud et al. 2016; Martinez-Arino et al. 2015). Public institutions have been identified as crucial sites for exploring the transformation of religion in contemporary societies. As Cadge and Konieczny put forward

studying religion in secular organizations allows us to examine closely how the tension between the disestablishment of religion and its free exercise affects social life not only at the level of public institutions but also in the everyday lives of people who practice religion, as well as those whose identities include a negative stance toward religion

(2014, 555)

However, research on public institutions not only offers us interesting insights about the deployment and impact of secularization processes but also about the consequences and challenges brought by processes of religious diversification. The processes of de-establishment of traditional churches, and of religious diversification, are the major trends faced by public institutions in Europenowadays and most research has been devoted to these two topics (Beckford and Gilliat-Ray 1999; Furseth 2003; Furseth and Kiihle 2011; Michalowski 2015). Nevertheless, there are an increasing number of publications that mention the growing relevance of spirituality in public institutions. In this regard, Becci and Knobel (2013) show the emergence of what they call "grey zones” in prisons, which are characterized by the appearance of religious expressions that lie beyond formal religious membership and that are located at the margins of official expressions of religiosity. Most of these ‘liminal’ religious expressions are read, and expressed, in terms of spirituality and not of religion. Wendy Cadge (2012), in her research on US hospitals, also points out the increasing relevance of spiritual practices that resist being considered along traditional religious lines. In a similar fashion, in many countries we are witnessing a process of professionalization of ‘spiritual chaplains’, who do not identify themselves with any official religious tradition and who consider their job as lying beyond these categories (De Groot 2010). To my consideration, two of the most interesting elements that emerge from this still very preliminary research area are the following: first, there seems to be a silent encroachment of spiritual activities in public institutions. A growth that is largely ignored or unnoticed both by scholars and institution managers. This institutional invisibility is related to the fact that usually the penetration of these spiritual activities in public institutions follows a bottom-up route, being diffused through low-profile workers such as nurses in hospitals or social educators in prisons (Griera and Clot-Garrell 2015b; Griera 2017). Second, in terms of regulation these activities usually lie in no-man's-land and are not inserted into the legal-bureaucratic apparatus regulating religion. In this chapter, it becomes especially relevant to ask whether the practice of yoga might be considered as belonging to the ‘spiritual field' in prison, and to understand how it is framed by the different actors. Additionally, and in the light of the whole volume, we might consider to what extent the spiritual domain holds an independent position vis-à-vis religion, and what this tells us about the contemporary configurations of power in the religious-secular dynamics.

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