Studying Religion and Gender with (and against) Bourdieu

Gender and sexuality are two of the most obvious social divisions and social markers of division. Gender is omnipresent and dictates the rule of identity and engagement in all social situations to a large extent. The difficulty of studying gender lies in its simultaneous rigidity and fluidity, which are both contextual. In the manner of a chemical substance that changes when coming into contact with other substances, gender manifests itself differently depending on the social situation but, unlike many social roles, it never entirely disappears from view, or loses its relevance. Therefore, the act of 'doing gender' can be best described as 'extending an analogy', not as acting out a gender rule as an isolated individual (Barnes 1995: 55). Gender order is a self-fulfilling prophecy on a large scale: ordered and yet open to a wide variety of interpretations within the constraints of 'regulated liberties' (Bourdieu 1991: 102). Religion is a social structure which both affects and is affected by gender. The relationship is this of mutual susceptibility, which makes it particularly difficult to analyse because we are dealing with two social properties that are both relatively stable and yet in the state of constant flux.

There are several possibilities for the interaction between gender and religion: religions remain overwhelmingly male-dominated, with women leaving at a fast pace; women gain access to positions of power and authority but religious institutions become feminised at all levels; new forms of spirituality are set up by women and for women (for example, the overwhelming majority of women in holistic spiritualities as shown by Heelas and Woodhead (2005)). The potential for wide structural changes comes from the internal inconsistencies and contradictions in the individuals' own biographies and in the system they inhabit. Mere awareness of gender divisions and inequalities in religion will not suffice to effect transformation, however. Collective efforts, not individual action, lead to gradual transformation of seemingly monolithic structures. The women who engage in subversive practices in private make a difference to their personal lives but their actions only count if they have tangible social consequences.

Paradoxically, the sociological critique of heteronormativity means that sexual identities and experiences that fall into the realm of the socially normative are presented as relatively unproblematic and thus remain unexplored (Smart 1996; Jackson 1999; van Hooff 2011). Sonya Sharma's work fills this gap to a certain extent. Her elegantly written and data-rich book Good Girls, Good Sex (2011) explores the constant negotiation between oppression and liberation which young Protestant women engage in on a daily basis. Her study is notable for its focus on (predominantly) heterosexual Christian women and shows the struggle between religious values and personal lives. Sharma's research participants highlighted the power of accountability to their religious tradition, as well as to their fellow Christians, that can provide a comfortable buffer against the over-sexualised and secular mainstream society. At the same time this accountability restricts their individual sexual freedom and choices. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this study is the evident difficulty of separating religious and sexual identities - the two are locked together and mutually susceptible against the wider background of the church community. This is where Bourdieu's concept of 'split habitus' (habitus clive) becomes a useful tool of analysis. As social identities are fashioned out of a whole range of, often contradictory, experiences, so the habitus is made up of conflicting elements (Bennett 2007). The young Christian women described in Sharma's study are acutely aware of the inequalities and injustices of some religious structures and institutions, and yet constituted by them at the same time. All the ingredients necessary for the persistence of the androcentric order are in place: the idea of being a good Christian girl is deeply internalised in the bodily hexis and safeguarded by feelings of shame and guilt; symbolic violence is exercised by the women themselves as they monitor their thoughts during sexual encounters and punish their bodies afterwards (one of Sharma's interviewees self-harmed after sexual encounters as a means of purification); and masculine domination is preserved and reinforced by the women in the church community (Sharma 2011: 52-67). A particularly poignant example of the power of communal accountability is the way in which young women police their own behaviour in anticipation of being scrutinised by others. 'A Christian leader said that she could tell if a girl had had sex, just by the way she carried herself. Whether or not this was true, it caused me to monitor my behaviour lest it be questioned otherwise', confessed one of Sharma's young participants (2011: 53). Others recall feelings of guilt accompanying sexual encounters, even those within marriage, and having to 'unlearn the shame' associated with sex (Sharma 2011: 69). It is clear from Sharma's study that the interaction between religion and gender in this case is not driven by an overarching social structure but by collective norms that are drawn upon and enacted by real individuals in everyday life scenarios. In particular, the concepts of shame and 'good versus bad Christian girl' operate in exactly the same way as honour games among the Kabyles. Shame is not something the individual woman experiences independently of the community she is part of. But neither is this shame unchallenged in light of changing circumstances. Sharma cites an amusing and revealing anecdote of an attempt to combine Christianity and female expression of sexuality in a religiously acceptable manner where a husband buys his wife a Bible and a vibrator for her birthday (2011: 86). The combination of these two seemingly incompatible items created consternation for the 'good Christian girl' but also demonstrates how the rules dictated by her habitus can be manipulated and interpreted to accommodate the social changes in women's view of their own sexuality. If masculine domination was as rigid as the concept of the habitus implies and women 'imbibed androcentric values' unreflexively (Grenfell 2004: 181), this scenario would be impossible. In a way, Bourdieu understates the role of reflexivity in the structuring of the habitus, except for allowing it in rare instances of crisis when the synchronicity between the habitus and the field is disturbed (1977: 83, 1990: 108). However, if we see the constraint not in habitus as a structure but rather in the shared communal agreement that is necessarily open to renegotiation and subtle alteration, change in the religious shaping of the gender order becomes a possibility.

Shereen El Feki's exploration of sexual lives in Egypt provides even more instructive examples of the centrality of social relations to the study of religion and gender (2013). El Feki offers a complex and multi-faceted account of the negotiations and changing values in a society that continues to be governed by strict, in comparison to western standards, religious rules and regulations. While premarital sex is strictly forbidden by the Qur'an, Egyptian men and women find ingenious ways of circumventing the obstacles by, amongst other things, using the Internet for 'virtual cruising' (El Feki 2013: 101), or entering pleasure marriages (zawaj muta) which have a time-limit and serve the purpose of legitimising sexual practices outside of official marriage (El Feki 2013:

43). However, the power of masculine domination exercised through strong communal understandings of female honour and respectability produces different consequences of such negotiations for men and women. Unsurprisingly, it is the women who pay the heaviest price for departing from the gender order because their honour is 'like a match; it only lights once' (El Feki 2013: 93). Thus, while for men such deviations from the rule remain acceptable on the whole and rarely influence their life in the long run, women have to resort to behind-the-scenes practices that re-light the match of honour in public. Hymen repair is considered shameful and costly in Egypt but at the same time gynaecologists who perform the surgeries are sympathetic towards young women looking for help because they are aware of the social consequences for 'unrepaired' brides (El Feki 2013: 117). The point I am trying to make here is that the sheer complexity of the relationship between religion and the gender order in a place like modern-day Egypt clearly demonstrates that it is the virtuoso agency of those involved in shaping the social order that is the key to understanding the nature of social reality. If we wished to explain the manipulations of these rules by referring to the habitus as mechanically imposing itself on individuals, no such manipulation would be possible in the first place because habitus 'insists on a complete fit between the individual's practices and his objective circumstances' (King 2000: 430). The case of sexual negotiation in Egypt shows that we are dealing with skilful social actors who have at their disposal a wide array of courses of action but they are guided by their sense of what is appropriate in light of their group membership. For example, the decision of whether to perform hymen repair on a young female patient is not determined by the religious, or even cultural, habitus. The practitioner improvises on the spot because her knowledge of her own social context is so profound that she can easily accommodate unforeseen contingencies.

 
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