Notes on Bonvillain CH.9

Notes on Bonvillain CH.9 – Gender and Religion

• Religion is a kind of symbolic practice and it can have a profound effect on how people see reality. Anthropology studies religion so that we can understand a people’s symbolism, how they see themselves, and how they see the world.

Creation and Creators
• Throughout this section Bonvillain is referencing Peggy Sanday (1981) Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality
• All religions have some sacred story about who created the world and how. Sanday claims egalitarian societies tend to have female creators, or a female-male pair; male dominated societies tend to have male creators, or animal creators.
o Examples: Bali – male and female is in balance, Mundurucu – males are active, females are not mentioned, Iroquois – male and female are distinct but complementary
• One creation myth common to many different cultures is men usurping power from women because the women did something wrong or are weaker somehow.

Menstrual Taboos
• “Although menstrual taboos clearly affirm a difference between the genders, their existence per se may not be correlated with gender inequality.” (304)
• Sanday’s five types of menstrual taboos:
o Ban on intercourse
o Restrictions on coming into contact with others
o Restrictions on touching men’s weapons, tools, or ritual gear
o Restrictions on cooking for others
o Being spatially separated and secluded from all others
• It is not unusually for menstrual blood to be viewed as dangerous or contaminating. Anthropologists refer to such beliefs as “pollution” meaning that the presence of menstrual blood “pollutes” everything that is around it.
• “Although most people in Western cultures do not practice menstrual taboos, some do feel that menstruation is in some way ‘unclean’. Western observers may then interpret other peoples’ behavior, and even their words, in accordance with their own prejudices.” (305)
o Historically this bias has been a problem. Early anthropologists were mostly men and it colors the data they collected and the interpretations they made about other cultures.
o Examples: Yurok – men and women have different explanations for menstrual taboos.
• In most cultures blood has some symbolic meaning, menstrual blood as a kind of blood fits in to thus suite of meanings.

“Purity and Danger”
• The purity/ pollution dichotomy (or “purity and danger”) is by no means limited to just menstrual taboos.
• Bonvillain discusses purity/ pollution in terms of Hindu castes, with the Brahmans (the highest caste) always in danger of being degraded by contact by lower classes which are deemed impure.
• People in each caste are believed to fulfill certain functions in society and by performing these caste related duties one fulfills their dharma or “whatever it is right to do.” A woman’s dharma is to serve her husband.
• “Religious concepts of dharma, of doing what is right, support constructs of gender inequality. Through religion, social constructs are rendered timeless and unalterable.” (308)
• Some aspects of the Hindu religion make women into symbols of danger, particularly because it is believed that women cannot control their sexuality. At the same time the presence of female deities present positive, protective images of women as goddesses. Whether female religious figures appear as benevolent or malicious may hinge on whether those characters are married.
• “when women’s sexuality is controlled by men, as in marriage, [they are] benevolent. When they are independent and control their own sexual behavior, they are dangerous.” (310) These changes in personality are not present in male Hindu deities.
• Bonvillain picks up the same theme in the writings of early Jewish philosopher Flavius Josephus, “Men therefore must exert control over women, not only to save women from destruction but to save society as well.” (310)
• The Islamic practice of secluding women in the home and requiring that they be veiled in public is termed purdah. A common theme in Islamic teachings is that only chaste women are pure, otherwise they place men in danger by virtue of their impurity.
• Christian sacred narratives feature women who are inherently evil, lustful, and destructive. Bonvillain writes, “Images of witches were, in a sense, exaggerations of the sexuality, destructiveness, and disobedience symbolized by Eve.” (312)
• Bonvillain quotes a number of Biblical passages that directly state that women should be subordinate to their husbands.

“Purity and Danger” and Sexuality
• On the subject of religion and homosexuality, Bonvillain writes, “It should not be surprising that some of the religions that express fears of women’s sexual desire also preach against homosexuality. The two prejudices are connected in their contradiction of the accepted model of sexuality as a coupling of a dominant male and a passive female.”
• In particular this demonstrates that religious objections to homosexual behavior hinge upon the threat they pose to cultural definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. It also confounds definitions of sexual activity as appropriate only in the context of procreation. Any sexual behavior, not just homosexual behavior, that is for pleasure rather than conception is suspect.
• Meanwhile Hindu deities sometimes have different male and female forms, depending on what sacred narrative they appear in. This connects to the community of hijras discussed by Nanda.
• Example of the Etoro, of New Guinea: practice of compulsory male homosexuality. It is believed that boys of a certain age must ingest adult male semen in order to become physically and spiritual strong.
• In conclusion, Bonvillain writes, “Religious reasoning is everywhere logical given acceptance of a starting premise… religious beliefs mold people’s attitudes and behaviors by transmitting notions that are said (and believed) to be of divine origin.” (315)

The Identity of God
• In this section Bonvillain presents the reader with an anthropological perspective on the history of religion. Organized religions are not static things, but have, over the course of centuries and millennia, changed with time. In particular they’ve changed as persons in positions of power move to consolidate their authority to the exclusions of others.
• Specifically her example is Christ’s teachings which were viewed as more egalitarian in the early church, but are seen as more patriarchal in the modern church.
• This means that religious beliefs that we see as fixed today were actually open to interpretation in the past and the reason why some of these things are no longer considered up for debate is the result of history being written by the victors.

Spirit Possession
• Spirit possession is a well documented phenomenon in anthropology and it usually coincides with oppressed classes seeking to use religious beliefs as a way to resist domination by their superiors. Bonvillain defines this anthropological usage of the term, “People possessed by spirits are, by definition, under the control of supernatural beings and therefore not responsible for their own actions or words.” (318)
• Examples include the Daya of northern India and the Zar of Egypt. The targets of these spirit possessions is usually a woman who uses, “local belief systems to carve out some respite for herself from household demands.” (318)
• Women who are possessed, “manage to escape their isolation and become the center of attention.” (318) Their special spirit possession cults, mostly composed of women, function as “a form of group therapy” for those who suffer under a strict patriarchal system.
• In the Tonga of Zaire example, Bonvillain claims that belief in spirit possession and participation in such cults corresponds to the economic roles of women. Those women who have the greatest economic dependency on their husbands and the fewest alternative approaches are more likely to be possessed by spirits.
• In the Malaysia example, anthropologist Aihwa Ong documented an outbreak of spirit possession at an electronics factory where employees refused to go to work until their plant was cleansed of spirits.
• Spirit possession is often interpreted by anthropologists as a sign of protest or resistance.

Ritual Specialists
• In Asiatic shaman traditions people who are possessed by spirits are thought to be candidates for learning to become shamans. The first step towards being called to study the role of shaman is being possessed.
• In Japan, “women are considered more easily possessed or influenced by the supernatural than are men” and in Korea female shamans, “are able to alter their individual roles and positions in their households with full supernatural sanction.” (320)
• So being a shaman or one who is frequently possessed by spirits gives a woman legitimate reason to act differently than how society expects a normal woman to act particularly when that expectation is to be in a subservient position.
• In the Inuit example, men are the shamans and do battle with evil spirits while women are the healers which is a service performed in a domestic context.
• Bonvillain writes, “In complex, stratified societies, especially where official religions support the power of elites, men tend to monopolize roles within religious organizations.” (322)
• Included with this is an interesting chart about the changing roles of women as ministers in different mainstream US churches and quotes from women about their first experiences of being in a church with a female minster.
• US Bureau of Labor (2004) reports 15% of clergy are female.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
This entry was posted in Reading Notes. Bookmark the permalink.