Anthropology Gender and Religion
Sophie Bjork-James
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0202


Gender is central to most religious orders. In turn, religions have a significant impact on gendered relations. The study of gender and religion stems from a broader interest in feminist anthropology, and multiple approaches to the study of gender and religion have been developed. An early approach explores the ways that religious practice influences male and female behavior. Studies in this vein explore changing gender norms attending conversion to new religions, or the ways that women’s and men’s roles are constrained and shaped by religious practice. More-recent work analyzes the ways that gender itself structures religious and spiritual ethics and practice. While patriarchal relations are central to many global religions, this is not a universal principle. Some religious orders emphasize cooperation and respect for women over hierarchy. Others may prioritize male leadership but indirectly provide women with types of ethical identities and spiritual positions that create spaces for women to practice their own agency and forms of power. The ethnographic record also demonstrates that there is often a significant difference between how patriarchal gender relations are prioritized in formal religious spaces and how they are practiced. Gender often shapes the religious meanings of space and materiality. Scholars studying women’s participation in nonliberal religious movements have shown that often women participate in patriarchal religions in the pursuit of their own interest. Even through submission, women can cultivate particular ethical selves or develop relationships that are understood as desirable. A broad literature exists exploring female submission and agency within patriarchal religious spaces, much of which challenges liberal assumptions that what individuals need is freedom. Through ethnographic explorations of female participants in patriarchal religions, scholars have exposed the multiple reasons women participate in religious gender hierarchies. Many religions have also recognized nonbinary gender roles. Within numerous cultures, including indigenous, Asian, and others, individuals occupying either transgendered or nonbinary gendered roles are granted special spiritual status. Thus, diverse religions display a variety of gendered systems. Some recognize gender identities as fluid rather than fixed during a person’s life course. Finally, a number of feminist scholars provide important critiques about the ways that religious women—specifically through wearing the veil or burqa or participating in female genital cutting—can become symbols of oppression that unite feminist and colonial logics, creating discourses of saving and inequality over solidarity.

General Overviews

There are several interdisciplinary readers that introduce the feminist study of religion (Juschka 2001) and the study of gender and religion in general (compare Boisvert and Daniel-Hughes 2017, Castelli 2001, Franzmann 2000). Ortner and Whitehead 1981 provides an introduction to the study of gender within cultural systems, including religion. There are also several texts introducing readers to specific topics within the study of gender and religion. For instance, Ramet 1996 is an edited volume of cultures that allow for gender reversals or changes in individual gender identities. Armour and St. Ville 2006 is an edited volume accounting for the influence of Judith Butler on religious studies.

  • Armour, Ellen T., and Susan M. St. Ville, eds. 2006. Bodily citations: Religion and Judith Butler. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    A cross-disciplinary exploration of the impact of Butler’s work on the study of religion, particularly on feminist religious studies.

  • Boisvert, Donald L., and Carly Daniel-Hughes, eds. 2017. The Bloomsbury reader in religion, sexuality, and gender. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

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    A reader combining key texts in the study of sexuality, gender, and religion.

  • Castelli, Elizabeth A., ed. 2001. Women, gender, religion: A reader. New York: Palgrave.

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    An interdisciplinary collection of essays exploring the contribution of feminist and gender-studies approaches to the study of religious traditions.

  • Ellingson, Stephen, and Christian Green, eds. 2002. Religion and sexuality in cross-cultural perspective. New York: Routledge.

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    An interdisciplinary edited volume on the relationship between religion and sexual norms in multiple cultures.

  • Franzmann, Majella. 2000. Women and religion. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A textbook exploring women’s roles in various world religions.

  • Gold, Ann. 2008. Gender. In Studying Hinduism: Key concepts and methods. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 178–193. New York: Routledge.

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    An overview of research on Hinduism informed by gender.

  • Herdt, Gilbert, ed. 1996. Third sex, third gender: Beyond sexual dimorphism in culture and history. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    An edited volume on various instances of cultural and religious gender systems containing more than two genders.

  • Juschka, Darlene M., ed. 2001. Feminism in the study of religion: A reader. London: Continuum.

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    A collection of essays spanning thirty years of feminist scholars on the study of religion.

  • Ortner, Sherry, and Harriet Whitehead, eds. 1981. Sexual meanings: The cultural construction of gender and sexuality. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Edited volume exploring gender and sexuality in various cultural arenas, including religion and indigenous spiritual practice.

  • Ramet, Sabrina Petra, ed. 1996. Gender reversals and gender cultures: Anthropological and historical perspectives. New York and London: Routledge.

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    A collection of essays exploring instances of “gender reversals,” or changes in one’s gender. Provides anthropological and historical accounts of the role of culture and religion in shaping these processes.

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