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2002-03 WSRP Scholars Begin Spring Presentations
Although Harvard Divinity School's Women's Studies in Religion Program has long welcomed scholars from abroad and scholars with international research interests, this year's WSRP research associates are an especially seasoned group of world travelers whose intellectual and physical journeys have shown incredible scope.
Among this year's scholars are: the first-ever participant from Finland, Elina Vuola, who studies women in Latin America; a professor from Ghana, Brigid Sackey, educated in Germany and the United States, and who studies women's leadership in African religious movements; an American who studied in Paris, Rome, and Delhi and focuses her research on Hindu nationalist women in India and Pakistan, Paola Bacchetta; and an American who did her bachelor's thesis on Haiti but now studies Sufi women in South Asia, Kelly Pemberton. Among them, these four women speak 15 languages, including Hindi, Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, French, German, and Spanish. Only one of the five 2002-03 Research Associates, R. Marie Griffith, both conducts her research in her native country (the United States) and focuses solely on her fellow American women, but even she travels through history to do so.
The director of the WSRP for this year is Clarissa Atkinson, who came out of retirement so that the WSRP's director, Ann Braude, could take a sabbatical. "Having been away from HDS and then to step back into this marvelous diversity has been enlivening and enlightening," Atkinson said. "They are a remarkable group of scholars with great breadth in their backgrounds and interests."
In spite of their disciplinary and geographic diversity, all five of the scholars have remarked on the points of contact they have found with one another. Every two weeks, they meet together to discuss their ongoing research and writing projects and provide each other detailed critiques. Each scholar has stressed that the support and feedback from these sessions has been one of the most important elements of her experience. "The heterogeneity in background in discipline is quite helpful," said Bacchetta, "because we come at each other's work from different angles and different research sites but we intersect on our interest in women and religion. In this sense, we can critique each other's work from the outside but also from inside."
In addition to the intellectual support and stimulation, Bacchetta said, "we are a group that happens to get along really well-I've found everyone is endowed with great kindness, so we have bonded across the board."
The others agree. "I've never had this kind of camaraderie and closeness with people who I've been matched within a group," Pemberton said. "It is an atmosphere where everyone is genuinely supportive of each other's work." Sackey describes their fortnightly meetings as "very mutual."
The Women's Studies in Religion Program was designed to foster just this kind of cross-fertilization of ideas and building of relationships between scholars who share interests in gender and in religion. Created in 1973, the program brings five scholars to HDS each year so that they can work on their primary research, thereby generating scholarship that is crucial not only for the academy but also for religious communities, policy makers, and educational institutions at all levels (the work of this year's scholars is remarkably relevant to other parts of society). So that the HDS community can be enriched by their presence while they are here, each scholar teaches one course and each gives a public lecture in the spring semester.
Following is a brief description of the first 2002-2003 WSRP research associate to present her work in a public lecture this spring, intended as just a taste of the feast of insight that will be available in her presentation and the ones to follow. (Profiles of the other four scholars will appear here in the next few days.)
R. Marie Griffith would appreciate the food analogy. Two bookshelves in her office are full of books from the genre of Christian diet literature with titles like Slim for Him ("him" meaning Jesus) and More of Jesus, Less of Me. And, she says, "this isn't even half of what's out there."
These books are for Griffith's current research project, which focuses on evangelical women's relationship to fasting, dieting, and the body. Her lecture on February 6 is entitled "'Don't Eat That': Gendered Appetites and Erotic Abstinence in American Protestantism." In it, she will describe her latest research, which is already part of a manuscript titled Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, scheduled for publication with the University of California Press in 2004.
She comes to HDS from Princeton University, where she has been a lecturer in the department of religion since 1998 and also serves as associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion. The one historian, and Americanist, among this year's crop of research associates, Griffith taught a course in the fall semester entitled "Gender, Discipline, and the Body in American Religion and Culture," which looked at historical case studies ranging from the Puritans to the rise of muscular Christianity and ended by taking up present phenomena including plastic surgery and Christian fitness movements. The course also looked at racialized discourses around bodily discipline and compared Protestant and Catholic ideas and practices around the body.
Griffith never really intended to write about Christian dieting. "When I was doing the research for my first book, which was a contemporary study of neo-Pentecostal women (God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission), it became very clear that these women were very obsessed with their weight," she explained. She quickly discovered that there was a whole culture around dieting for religious reasons that preaches "if you overeat, it's a sin against God, and that the way out is to focus on your devotional life and your relationship with Jesus."
What especially interested her was the double message inherent in this literature. "On the one hand, writers say you should take the focus off the body and put it elsewhere," Griffith said. "At the same time, their view is that if a woman is a true Christian, her body will be beautiful because it will be a witness, a perfect reflection of inner holiness. So there turns out to be an obsessive focus on beauty and thinness." And because it has to do with God, she said, "the potential for guilt and shame is even greater if a person fails at dieting, which people invariably do."
At first, Griffith's intention was to write just one article on the topic, but her well-honed historical curiosity got the best of her. "As soon as I delved deeper, I discovered that a wide culture of these kind of practices went back to the 50s. I found myself asking, 'Where does this come from? How does it relate to the 19th century health reform movements, which very much came out of the Protestant churches?'" Griffith discovered some interesting historical roots for the Christian diet movement, including the New Thought movement developed by disgruntled former students of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.
That one article turned into several more in both academic journals and more popular religious and food publications such as Christian Century, Tikkun, and Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.
Griffith ventured beyond the texts in order to do her research, even joining some of these Christian diet groups as an ethnographer and interviewing participants in them. She is well aware that describing her research often elicits giggles from audiences, but, she said, "the fact is that this fixation on health and diet touches all of us." She speaks at churches and other popular gatherings as well as academic conferences because she cares about the way her research might be valuable to people outside as well as inside academia.
For Griffith, this year has afforded her not only time to work on her research project but also a welcome chance to reconnect with a place and people who are familiar. Griffith received her PhD from Harvard and studied with professors—like David Hall, Harvey Cox, and Clarissa Atkinson—who are now her colleagues; others on the faculty were friends during her student years. Although she is no stranger to the area, she said, "I have two kids now, so I'm seeing a different side of Cambridge and Boston this time around. I'm going to the Children's Museum and playgrounds more than hanging out in the coffee shops and watering holes."
Although she was born and brought up in the United States, when Paola Bacchetta teaches the first part of her spring course on the post-9/11 situation in this country, she will bring to the topic a variety of perspectives from abroad as well. "At this point, I have lived more of my life outside the U.S. than I have inside," she explained, "and I am able to read the news in other languages, all of which grants me different perspectives."
"I try to bring this into my research and my classes as much as possible, approaching the material both from inside and outside, recognizing our 'situated perspectives' and encouraging the students to think critically about what they see, hear and read."
Bacchetta, an associate professor in the department of women's studies at the University of California-Berkeley, is well positioned to make her students aware of points of view to which they might not otherwise be exposed. She has studied and traveled widely, receiving multiple degrees in Paris (including a BA, Diplome and license in law-related fields, MA, and PhD, the last in sociology from the Sorbonne). She also has studied in Rome and Delhi, and has traveled in so many countries that a complete list is virtually impossible (among them, Greece, Guatemala, Kenya, Morocco, Switzerland, and Tunisia).
Her writing and professional and community service experience are equally diverse. She has published a co-edited book, is finishing a sole-authored book here as well as two additional co-edited books, and has had essays appear in a wide range of journals (a sampling of her titles: Right-Wing Women across the Globe, "All Our Goddesses Are Armed: Religion, Resistance, and Revenge in the Life of a Militant Hindu Nationalist Woman" and "When the (Hindu) Nation Exiles Its Queers"). She has also translated and served as an interviewer and consultant for documentary films, and has consulted with various feminist and social justice NGOs, including Maison des Femmes and Jagori. She holds membership in professional organizations in the United States, India, and France, spanning several disciplines (geography, women's studies, Asian studies and sociology).
Bacchetta's current research project also reflects her international and interdisciplinary interests. Her forthcoming book, Gendered Nationalisms: The RSS, the Samiti and their Different Projects for a Hindu Nation, focuses on Hindu nationalist women in India; it will be the topic of her lecture on February 20 and is the subject matter of the second portion of her spring course. Bacchetta said she is especially interested in the ways gender and sexuality are used to "produce" Hindu nationalists. She explains this means that "Hindu nationalists are not born" but are made as subjects "through material practices and discourses (ideologies) with a gendered and sexual component."
She had already identified some ways this production occurs, but, she said, her time at HDS is allowing her to comb through her research and identify "12 different ways that sexuality is deployed in Hindu nationalism," including as "a provocative tactic; as an emancipatory, but not liberating, tool; as a recruiting device; and as a symbolic referent of major components of the Hindu nation," among others.
Bacchetta has also identified some interesting ways that Hindu nationalist women reinterpret the Hindu nationalist male ideology. For instance, she said, "Hindu nationalist men think the ideal woman's role is to be a good mother to Hindu nationalist sons, but women think they can be not only mothers of sons, but also of daughters, and in addition, that women should be whatever they feel like being." What's more, "if women are the pillar of the family and the family is the pillar of the nation," then "women go on to conclude that since they run the family so well, then they would be better than men at running the nation."
She hopes her research will have possible uses "by many different constituents in Indian society that are concerned about Hindu nationalism," including the Indian feminist movement. Gender and sexuality "are big points of Hindu nationalism vulnerability," she said, "and the men will not budge on these issues." Although there is some resistance, Bacchetta believes "it is possible to have dialogue between feminists and some Hindu nationalist women" and that her research can provide the kind of evidence to help Hindu nationalist women to "think critically about Hindu nationalist men and the project they control."
Her fieldwork may be situated in India, but Bacchetta's research topic "has wider implications for the study of gender and sexuality in ethnic and political conflicts worldwide," she said. As a "side project" to her book, she is co-editing a book on this broader subject, called Bodies On the Line: Rethinking Ethnic and Political Conflict Through Gender and Sexuality.
Bacchetta said she has enjoyed her interaction with HDS faculty and has found the students here to possess "openness and intelligence."
"I've found many students are alive and already engaged in the world, which is my favorite kind of student," she added. "I hope to help them find new concerns and challenge them even more. I know I liked it when I was challenged as a student."
Like Paola Bacchetta, Kelly Pemberton has a background that spans a wide range of academic fields and geographic areas. A French literature major at Vassar College, she wrote an undergraduate thesis (in French) on Haitian independence, but ended up doing PhD work in religion at Columbia University, where she wrote a dissertation called "Women, Ritual Life, and Sufi Shrines in North India."
Pemberton has a difficult time tracing the beginning of her interest in the South Asian Sufi milieu. "It really wasn't anything I planned," she said. She remembers a course on the Algerian War she took at the University of Paris during a junior year abroad. "I hadn't been aware of much opportunity until then to study French in terms of North African or Middle Eastern culture at Vassar," she explained, "but after that, I started taking Arabic and began studying that region."
Her primary area of interest was Algeria, until armed conflict there forced Pemberton to seek another place to which she could travel as a researcher. "I found that there hadn't been much research done on Islam in India and Pakistan at the time, so I started exploring that," she said. Because she was a comparative religion student, she began by focusing on communal violence among Hindus and Muslims, but she found herself being drawn toward the devotional side of Hinduism and Islam.
"Now I've kind of come full circle, as it were, to the interest I had at the beginning of my graduate career in the Middle East," Pemberton said. "I've been traveling in Turkey since the summer before last and also trying to find out more about the political situation and the growth of Islamist movements in Iran, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt and Algeria."
Pemberton said she is especially intrigued "by the ideals that come to be associated with mystics, not just Sufi mystics but Muslim mystics, such as the qualities of a 'holy man,' and how these play out in terms of some of these very politically active figures." She said that although this is something the American media doesn't focus on very much, "it is definitely a big part of why some individuals and groups are able to appeal to such a large section of people."
In reading the popular literature being sold at Sufi shrines, Pemberton discovered that much of it concerns "what constitutes a good Muslim woman," and has been written by men who have worked or been educated in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian states. Pemberton has heard from a number of people in the regions she visits that they are worried about the way these extremely conservative, rigid ideas about gender and sexuality are being brought back to the Subcontinent and used to override local cultures and customs.
Pemberton also explores the complex terrain of women sheikhs and holy women in Sufism because, she said, "I immediately discovered there was such a huge discrepancy between what I'd been told and what I began to see among practicing Muslims," most notably, that women in the past and even the present can play leadership roles in Sufi orders. These interesting "differences between rhetoric and reality" surrounding women in Sufism relate, she says, to an "oscillation between admiration of the feminine and for holy women of centuries past and the need to control and limit female sexual and religious expression."
Although this is a particularly difficult research topic, because "people don't want to talk about it, including women," Pemberton can still see the way her role as researcher is directly relevant to the depiction of Islam in the West. "The questions I get asked most often are 'Why do Americans hate Muslims so much' and 'Why is our government so keen to wipe out Muslims?'" She said going outside of the United States makes her realize how the information we receive through our media is selective while elsewhere in the world, even ordinary people and children are "very much more aware internationally about government policies and their effects."
Pemberton will take up these issues in her lecture on March 13, entitled "Reading Gender in Mystical Islam: Women, Piety and Sainthood Contexualized" and in her spring course, "Gender, Piety and Sainthood in Mystical Islam."
Pemberton just finished a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California-Berkeley, and is currently on the job market (she jokes she's the only WSRP RA "without a real job"). Especially because she is at this critical juncture in her career, Pemberton said the supportive atmosphere at the WSRP has been conducive to her feeling more confident as she goes about her job search. "There are so many resources here not only to participate but to do my research," she said. "Most important is the support and suggestions of the other research associates which helps me to get through those anxious moments when I wonder if anyone is going to offer me a job."
"The WSRP program," she added, "very much does live up to the high praise that it received from people I asked about it before I came here.
As the first Finnish woman to be a WSRP scholar, Elina Vuola finds herself in all-too-familiar territory. In all she chooses to do, she seems to be someone destined to be the first or only of her kind. She was the first person to publish a book about feminist theology in Finland after finding herself to be the only one interested in feminism and liberation theologies in her graduate program in Helsinki. On the other end of the spectrum, in the development-related organizations and feminist groups in which she has long been involved, she invariably finds herself to be the only theologian, meaning, she says, "I often have to defend not only myself but also my whole field."
Her outsider status even holds in the academic settings she now inhabits given that social scientists often tend to ignore religion. "The research I'm doing right now at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Helsinki and here at Harvard is looking mainly at social scientific feminist research done on Latin American women, trying to analyze how religion is interpreted as a factor in women's lives," she explained. "Because I am the only theologian at the IDS in Helsinki, I pay attention to religion in a way that my colleagues often don't. Whatever I see its role to be, however I interpret it, I just can't omit religion."
"I find that when it comes to issues of sexuality and family, which are so central in our views of entire cultures, it becomes crucial to include religion," Vuola continued, "because even scholars will sometimes buy into a very superficial view of religion." She notices this is especially true in the case of Islam, where people will say, "It's because of Islam that women are oppressed," or in the case of Latin America, where "the Catholic Church is seen as a horrible monolithic institution on top of women, as if people aren't agents."
Vuola has actively sought out work, research, and living situations that place her on the boundaries of fields and cultures. Before deciding to do doctoral studies, Vuola worked as a translator, freelance journalist, and writer, and in various positions with Finnish NGOs, traveling to Latin America and having to learn a language, religion, and culture not her own (Vuola knows six languages). Even her first experience in the United States immersed her in a very different place - the "skid row of Los Angeles, "as she puts it, during six months she spent working and living with the Catholic Workers organization in 1985-1986. After these varied work experiences, this Lutheran woman from a progressive Scandinavian country decided to focus her doctoral studies on women, religion, and reproductive rights in the Latin American context (she received a doctor of theology degree from the University of Helsinki in 1999). Her exploration of the complex interplay of religion and politics as it plays out in women's lives in the region will be the topic of her lecture on April 3 and of her spring course. She jokes that she is most definitely "the only Finnish woman studying Latin America in the United States."
Although being an outsider in a culture different from one's own "is not an easy place to be," Vuola admits it is not always an entirely disadvantageous position. "I've come to understand over the years that it's sometimes easier for other people if you are an outsider voice, especially around tricky issues (like reproductive rights and sexuality), because a space is opened for them to agree or disagree with you without risking too much," she explained.
For instance, last May Vuola was invited by feminists in Nicaragua to visit there for two weeks and speak at a public meeting advertised to talk about the religious implications and underpinnings of abortion. "This is a hot topic there," Vuola said, "because the previous government was able to put into the constitution that life begins at conception, which means abortion is not only against the law, but is against the constitution." What Vuola ended up providing is something that is direly lacking in both the Latin American and United States contexts, that is, "a voice in the whole public debate about abortion that understands and knows the whole religious logic around the opposition of abortion but who is at the same time sympathetic to the suffering of women."
In this way, she hopes to serve not only as a translator of the different sides of the debate, but also as a bridge-builder between them. Vuola is critical of the "policies that the right-wing here in the U.S. and the conservatives in Latin America are striving for" around abortion, because they clearly lead to "more death and more death, which can be shown statistically." She notes that in Nicaragua illegal abortions are the second leading cause of death for women in a certain age group.
Vuola is especially equipped to observe this reality coming from Scandinavia, where reproductive rights are respected. "We are not perfect, but we are probably closest to the feminist ideal," she said. "There is good sexual education in public schools, very few abortions done compared to many other regions of the world and practically no maternal mortality." Though she acknowledges that there are cultural differences between Scandinavia and other regions, she says, "the basic feminist agenda for women's reproductive health is pretty much the same all over. " Therefore, she says, "I think it is important to look at countries like Finland and to learn from what has been achieved there. If the situation in Scandinavia is seen as the result of concrete political decisions, then it could be achieved elsewhere, even if not in exactly the same way."
At the same time, she recognizes problems on the other side of the debate. "Nowadays, I'm somewhat critical of the rights language, though it's a tricky thing," she said. "My point is that is you interview women who have had abortions, of if you know people personally or have had an abortion yourself, you know the amount of pain that is felt, so why do we deny that? If we want to build a feminist ethics around abortion, we have to take seriously that women might feel guilt or regret or feel for years that they did something wrong." After all, Vuola said, "Abortion is not something you do every day and then forget about it." She sees the way the construction of the public debate "makes it hard for women to speak about their real experiences, which is almost always a combination of relief and loss."
Her interest in women's life experiences, and the very real policies that affect women, means that Vuola plans to continue sharing her work with a wide range of audiences. Her first book (before her doctoral studies) was expressly written for a general audience, and she hopes her work will continue to be read by women, and by policymakers. Meanwhile, she continues to speak to news media people who call on her regularly for comment on feminist theology and Latin America, and to consult with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and development aid people on various projects (she was active in Finland's participation in the UN Cairo and Beijing conferences).
There is nothing Vuola would rather be doing, and she says the WSRP program fits with her goals. "I enjoy being in multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural settings, and I always wanted to do something that was of use," she explained. "If you can write, publish, and speak on public-policy issues and still have the legitimacy of the scholar, it's a good combination. People trust you because they know you are not only saying what you think as an individual, you are expected to give an argument for what you say. It's a role that I cherish."
"I have enjoyed my time here immensely," Vuola added. "Even when my timetable is tight, since I am also a single mother of two young children, it has been great to see how they have found their place in the multicultural setting of Cambridge public schools." Vuola said it has been amazing to see how fast her children picked up English, so much so that now "they are starting to correct their Mom's pronunciation!"
When Clarissa Atkinson introduced WSRP research associate Brigid Sackey recently, she commented that although Sackey traveled the greatest distance and had to endure the most radical climate change of any of the research associates by coming from Ghana, West Africa, to Boston, she had done so "with less complaining than those of us who live here all the time."
Sackey has adapted well and taken full advantage of all the resources available to her here, especially the libraries "which are so well-equipped that they can sometimes be overwhelming," she said. "My time has been academically productive-I've been able to finish a book-length manuscript and I am in the process of preparing three Journal articles for publication," she added. The research that went into her book, entitled New Directions in Gender and Religion: The Changing Status of Women in African Religious Movements in Ghana, will provide the subject matter for her lecture on April 17.
Sackey is also teaching a seminar this spring entitled, "Women's Involvement in African Religious Movements." This course will focus on the challenges women experience in leadership roles and how they circumvent them. Although women serve as "founders, leaders, bishops, pastors, priestesses, prophetesses and healers" in these churches, she says that women religious leaders are seen as problematic figures. "Often, their leadership is challenged by men, but they point to their religious experiences as a basis for their role," she explained. "Sometimes they end up losing their position, but often they are able to remain in power."
She also brings to the fore the many implications of women's religious leadership in West Africa, including how they have "given new meaning, empowerment and reawakening to the lives of a wide range of people, including women in Protestant churches in Ghana who have struggled successfully for women's ordination in their own churches" and how this spills over into the political sphere since "women assembly members are directly involved in political decision-making."
The churches Sackey studies "have various names, sometimes they are called charismatic churches, or African independent churches, but in Ghana we use the term spiritual churches," she explained. "These religious movements are new expressions of Christianity that emerged as a result of the encounter between African and Christian cultures and are the fastest growing religions in Ghana and Africa generally." No one knows the statistics because they are locally based and decentralized, but Sackey said these churches are located "everywhere," in rural areas and cities, and are well known, especially because a person doesn't have to be a member to receive the benefit of their free services.
Ironically enough, Sackey's interest in this topic was born not in Ghana, but when she was studying in Germany in the 1970s. (Sackey did coursework in law, obtained a certificate in German language, and an MA in religion in Germany). "My encounter with only male leaders in these churches growing up gave me the impression they were male-led institutions," she explained, "until I discovered at the University of Marburg that the first spiritual church in Ghana, the Church of the Twelve Apostles, was founded by a woman called Grace Tani in 1914." She started researching the topic, and carried this interest through her PhD work in cultural anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia to her positions at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana where she is a senior research fellow. (Prior to that she served as a curator for the Ghana Museums).
Sackey investigates the many functions of spiritual churches and women's place in them. "They have many social functions such as attending to the physical, spiritual and financial health of people, helping them to become economically self-sufficient," she said. "However, their main activity is centered on healing -- healing people from all sorts of diseases from headaches and backaches to infertility problems, especially diseases concerning the reproductive health of women, and cancer."
"Women are both health providers and health seekers in these churches," Sackey noted. For this reason, Sackey's study is important not only to the fields of women's studies and religion, but also to medicine, because, she said, "these churches have become a viable alternative to the health delivery system in the country." She explains that hospitals do not exist in the villages, are prohibitively expensive where they are available, and they lack the "human touch."
Sackey has published articles in a wide range of fields, including anthropology, mythology, development studies, church history, theology, and African studies. In addition to her work on women and women's leadership in African religious movements, she is also researching how the churches are responding to HIV/AIDS.
In addition to being able to complete her own work, Sackey said the mutual support and dispassionate discussion of her research associates has been incredibly helpful. She also praises the way "the university incorporates us into everything, and I think that is very positive."
And last but not least, Sackey is grateful for the "two woolen pullovers" that Atkinson gave her, a symbol of the warmth Sackey has found in the WSRP program to counter the frigid Massachusetts weather.