Feminism & Religion


Feminism and Religion

There is a story in the Biblical gospels concerning the anointing of Jesus by a woman with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment.[1] The woman breaks the jar and pours its value on the head of Jesus.  Some of his disciples observing this act disapproved and argued that its value could have been given to the poor.  In this moment Jesus does something seemingly at odds with his message and his disciples – he honors the woman and her act.

Much like the beginning of Laurie Patton’s chapter, “The Prostitutes Gold”, this story can be re-read in a way that highlights the intersections of tension between feminism and religion.  In Patton’s story a traveling teacher of Sanskrit finds his life failing and awakes to discover his recovery is owed to women running a brothel.  The tensions emerge as he commits to teaching women Sanskrit – a linguistic tradition which represents a hegemonic and elitist privilege afforded only to men.

In both stories the women are nameless and subaltern; these women shape history and give context to the postcolonial condition of Hindu and Christian religiosity.[2] In both stories there is open space to re-read the role of women in the history of religious formation.  These women offer themselves outside of the male-centric convention that would have them sidelined, unheard, and marginalized.  They enter the discourse of religion as a call to mark the histories of oppression which governed their bodies, voices, and influence.

In her book, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Musa Dube makes one point very clear.  For her and for other Two-Thirds World women the legacy of Biblical influence is both patriarchal and imperialistic. [3] To be in alliance with a feminist and subaltern struggle is to take seriously the role of the Bible as a central ideological text of Western Imperialism and masculine domination.  As an ally with feminist and postcolonial theory and action, the Bible (and Jesus) must be understood to both limit feminine perspectives and contribute to systemic and internalized violence.

The tension between feminism and Christian religiosity is marked by the history of colonialism.  Postcolonial theory seeks to expose this history and its multiple exploitive powers as extensions of the ideological frameworks that flowed out of Christian domination, its missions, its salvific narratives, its superiority complex, and its culturally specific engendered violence.[4]

For religion and feminism to intersect and live with each other, letting-be and being-with, a great deal of work must be done to revitalize attempts at Biblical interpretation that resist both patriarchal and imperial oppression.

In the Biblical passage above, Jesus can be re-read as one who identifies with a feminist struggle – to act, to bless, to express power despite convention and ridicule from men.  I refrain from the problematics that arise by labeling Jesus a feminist – both feminism and Jesus skillfully/historically refuse essentializing identity.  What is clear is that his alliance with this woman in her anointing act stands against dominant male authority.  Jesus not only reproaches his disciples, he is in strategic relation to his own identity as he rejects one of the major tenants of his own teaching – care for the poor.  Jesus renders non-essential even his own lessons.  Jesus manifests what Gayatri Spivak describes as ‘strategic essentialism,’ a move that commits to a deconstructive relationship that interrogates essentialist discourses of oppression, especially patriarchy.  The anointing is an extremely radical and powerful act that only this woman could perform.  It was a symbol of her power over convention, over patriarchy, over Jesus’ disciples, even over Jesus’ own teaching.

In this re-reading, feminism encounters a religious discourse needing her presence.  It is a re-reading that resists multiple oppressions and seeks alliance with postcolonial feminist critique.

Thinking through these intersections makes space for feminism and religion to meet, dialogue, intermingle, and re-formulate singular space into its hybrid – a space where feminism and religion are both present but neither one is clearly/distinctly located. Re-reading the intersections of religion and feminism reconstitutes the subject and representation of both.

The leveling critique of women located in the hybrid field between “post-” and (fill-in-the-blank), calls forth the dilemma between writing and action.  Even in an effort at re-reading Jesus into feminist discourse the problem remains one of a ‘textual struggle’ and not ‘other’-wise.[5] In Obioma’s Nnaemeka’s chapter “Bringing African Women into the Classroom,” she brilliantly articulates the tension: “Here lie the difficulties and the risk.  Feminist theorizing and praxis must be rooted in genuine feminist ethics.  The troubling contradictions between what we preach and write and what we do fuel the frustrations felt by many who continue to value and practice feminist scholarship.”[6]

One can re-read Jesus as feminist, but can one enter a space where Jesus is contested (let’s say a church…) and bring forth that hybrid space that is neither ‘feminism’ nor ‘Christianity’ but something else – something other?


[1] Bible NRSV.  This story is found in three of the four Gospels: Mt 26: 6-13; Mk 14: 3-9; Jn 12: 1-8.

[2] Patton, “The Prostitute’s Gold”. 124.  In Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse.  Ed. Donaldson & Pui-lan.

[3] Dube.  Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible.  199.

[4] Musa Dube.  “Postcoloniality, Feminist Spaces, and Religion”.  102.  In Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse.  Ed. Donaldson & Pui-lan.


[5] Musa Dube.  “Postcoloniality, Feminist Spaces, and Religion”.  107.  In Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse.  Ed. Donaldson & Pui-lan.

[6] Nnaemeka, Obioma.  “Bringing African Women into the Classroom: Rethinking Pedagogy and Epistemology”.  53.  In African Gender Studies: A Reader.  Oyeronke Oyewumi. Ed.


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