RS 2SS3/ WOMEN AND RELIGION
                               McMaster University, Fall Term, 2007
                                Tues/Thurs 2:30 – 3:20 CNH B/107

Prof. A. M. Pearson                                     TAs:
University Hall 124, x 24239                                     Tutorials:T1) Wed 10:30 MDCL/1016
Office hours: Mon. 3:30 - 4:45                                 T2) Wed. 8:30 MDCL/1115
              Tues. 1:00 - 2:00                                T3) Fri. 2:30 KTH/B101
                                                               T4) Fri 10:30 UH/102
Course Description:

While women may “hold up half the sky,” and half the population of those who are affiliated
with a religion are women, yet the story of religion has largely been told from the perspective of
men addressing other men. What is the story from the perspective of women? This course
provides an introduction to gender and religion through a study of women’s religious lives,
practices and self-understanding, using historical and contemporary sources from a variety of
religious traditions. In a subject as potentially vast as this one is, clearly only selected topics can
be addressed. Accordingly, the course will focus on three areas. We begin by examining the
images of and prescribed roles for women in the textual traditions of the major religions. Next,
we examine women’s own religious practices and rituals, such as vows, fasts, pilgrimage,
birthing rituals, and other life-cycle rituals. Finally, we address selected issues faced by women
today or debated within the context of women and religions, such as views of the body, women
in liturgical or public leadership roles, impacts of language in scripture and god-talk.

Course Objectives and Learning Outcomes -- Students will:

    x   Gain a basic understanding of the issues affecting the status, activity and self-
        understanding of women in religious traditions from ancient times to the present
    x   Become familiar with women’s roles according to normative prescriptive religious
    x   Be able to identify significant women whose religious convictions, lives and/or writings
        have influenced their societies and religious traditions
    x   Learn about a variety of women’s ritual practices in different religious traditions
    x   Assess historically and critically women’s experience of organized and alternative
        religion and the issues they have confronted around leadership

•      Mary Pat Fisher, ed. Women in Religion. 2007. [required]
•      Course pack of selected readings [required; available in the Tank bookstore]

Course Requirements and Evaluation:
   x Two essays @ 25% each (Oct. 9; Nov. 22)                    50%
   x Tutorial attendance and presentation:                      20% [5+15]
   x Exam (take-home, due in Dec.):                             30%

Note: Tutorial sectioning is done automatically for this class. If you want to switch, try: If you have any questions about electronic sectioning, please call
the Religious Studies undergraduate administrator at ext. 23109. Tutorials start the week of
Sept. 10 (introductions), and the first tutorial presentations (if feasible) the week of Sept. 17.

Each tutorial will normally have two student presentations of about 20-25 minutes, and each
presentation will be conducted either alone or in pairs (for longer readings). When tutorials first
meet you will need to choose (alone or with a partner) one of the “T” readings indicated in the
course outline, below, and date for a presentation to your tutorial group. The presentation will
consist of a 10-12 min. summary of the main points of the “T” reading, together with an
evaluative commentary, and followed by one to two detailed discussion questions (if one
presenter; two to three if two presenters) posed to the group. The purpose of the summary is to
remind your fellow students about what they have already read – you are simply highlighting the
major points or arguments of the article. Your evaluative comments then give your own reaction
and assessment of the reading (e.g., what particularly struck you as interesting? Controversial or
questionable?). This sets the stage for the discussion questions. These questions can begin by
perhaps quoting a line or two of the article, then framing a question whose purpose is to
stimulate discussion. It may refer to Canada and contemporary issues too.

The students will then facilitate a discussion based on these questions for an additional 10 to 15
minutes. A copy of the summary/evaluation (no more than 2 pages if a single presenter, 3-4
pages if presenting as a pair) and discussion questions are handed in to the TA at the end of the
The written summary/evaluation plus the oral presentation is to be marked out of 10, questions
out of 5 (so do give some thought to your questions!).

There are two 1500 word essays (7-8 pgs) to be composed for this course. Topic areas are listed
below. Once a general topic is decided on, then you must narrow down its scope. For material
you may use course texts along with any other sources (scriptures, secondary sources – books
and articles, life-histories/biographies, newspaper or magazine articles).

Re. Internet sources: please use judiciously; do not rely on the Internet. A good place to start,
apart from the readings in this course outline and the bibliographic information at the end of the
articles, is: Serenity Young, ed. Encyclopedia of Women and World Religions (in Mills
reference section, BL 458 .E53 1999).

Essay outlines: For each essay please provide an outline prior to submission of the essays (for
#1 by the week of Sept. 24 in tutorial, and for #2 by the week of Nov. 12 in tutorial). These
outlines should be no more than one page and should give the topic, thesis or guiding questions
(what do you wish to investigate in your paper?), some subtopics and initial bibliography. The
purpose is for you to get a head start on your essays, and for the tutor to be able to provide initial
feedback (perhaps your topic is too vague, too general or ambitious, not directly relevant) and to
offer bibliographic assistance, if needed. While the outlines will not be graded, if they are not
handed in prior to the essay, you will receive a 5% deduction from your essay grade.

Essay #1. Choose from either theme A or theme B         Due Tues. Oct. 9, in class.

Theme A: Images and prescriptive roles of women in sacred /authoritative religious literature
[emphasis on literary and historical analysis]
Choose a religious tradition and examine the images of women and the feminine, or the roles
prescribed for women, as presented in its authoritative sources. Focus on one or two images (e.g.,
woman as temptress; as lazy or stupid; as dishonest or untrustworthy; or as innocent; or ever-
loving), and/or focus on one or two specific roles (daughter, wife, mother, witch/soothsayer,
prophet). First carefully describe (summarize) the information that you have uncovered. Are
there particular role models in the texts exemplifying these images? (describe) Next, assess the
implications for the development of and/or justification for normative attitudes towards women
(impacting policies and practices) in that particular religious tradition. Last, offer your own
reflections on what you have learned. Include your own experience if you wish.

Theme B: Women’s religious practices [emphasis on cultural/anthropological analysis]
Choose a particular type of religious practice which only women observe (e.g., certain kinds of
vows and pilgrimages, initiation ceremonies, fertility rites, menstrual or childbirth rituals). For
this essay, you may compare such a practice across two or more religious/cultural traditions (but
do not merely repeat a tutorial presentation or rehash what is in one of the required reading
articles -- use new material as well or instead). Consider: How may the practice described have
developed despite or because of the kind of normative attitudes depicted in scriptures/religious

Essay #2. Choose from themes C, D or E        Due Thurs. Nov. 22, in class.

Theme C: Women, religion and leadership.
Choose a female religious leader (from the past or present) and give a synopsis (biography) of
her life story, describing how she achieved a position of leadership (of what nature and over
whom), the challenges or impediments she may have face, how that leadership was exercised,
what reactions there were from the larger community, and possible impacts.

Theme D: Women, religion and contemporary issues
Here you have a broad choice to select a topic relevant to this course that is of particular interest
to you and on which you would like to do further research. The topic could be an extension of
your tutorial presentation, or address a religious tradition not directly covered in this course. For
this theme it is of particular importance that you prepare an outline well in advance and work
closely with your TA or the professor to ensure that the topic is suitable and carefully delimited.

Theme E: Spiritual autobiography [ask for separate handout if interested in this topic]
Write your own religious autobiography. It may focus on one or two key events that had a
transformative impact, or it may cover a long period of time and many events. The handout for
this topic will give additional guidelines.

Exam: Take-home exam, in the form of essay questions, covering the entire course content, to be
given out in class Thurs. Nov. 29. Due date to be determined in consultation with class.

Additional Information:

Late penalties: Students are urged to begin work on written assignments well in advance of due
dates. Late assignments will be penalized by 2% per day, except in cases where a medical note
from the student’s faculty is presented.

Academic Dishonesty: Academic dishonesty consists of misrepresentation by deception or other
fraudulent means (such as plagiarism, that is, submission of work that is not your own or for
which other credit has been obtained, or copying or using other unauthorized aids in tests and
examinations). Cheating on tests and exams and plagiarism in one’s written assignments (essays
and reports) are very serious offenses that can result in a grade of 0 for the course and possible
expulsion from the university. The “Academic Integrity Policy” for McMaster University defines
what constitutes academic dishonesty and specifies the procedures to be followed in the event
that a student is charged with academic dishonesty. See the document “Academic Integrity
Policy” – especially Appendix 3, located at: for
additional details. If you have any questions about the Policy, contact the Office of Academic
Integrity in MUSC 211.

Email Etiquette: Do not hand in your essays as email attachments. They will not be accepted.
Do contact either the professor or the TA via email if you have an administrative question, a
technical query or point of clarification, or an emergency. Also contact us if you want to set a
time to meet apart from the usual office hours. However, please refrain from using email to ask
a question about course content, such as “What is the meaning of sin for women in Christianity?”
If you have a question about content, you can ask it in class, approach us after class, come to
office hours, or set an appointment. We encourage dialogue and debate – but not, for this course,
in cyberspace.

                                    COURSE OUTLINE

Date                       Topics and Readings_______________________________________
Note: “cc” stands for the custom course pack and page numbers refer to the original article
pagination; a bolded “T” indicates that the reading following it is suitable for a tutorial
presentation. Not all T readings need to be covered in tutorials, but all should be read.

Sept. 6-11-13: Introduction to Course: Key Concepts and Themes

   x   Gender and religion (how is religious experience gendered? What is gender ideology and
       what role do religions play in creating, preserving, enforcing or interpreting it?)
   x   Issues in the study of women and religion
   x   Feminist theory in religious studies

              Readings: Fisher, 12-33; cc. Gross, “Where have we been?...” (17-27)
              Handout – “Issues in the Study of Women and Religion”

Part I: Learning Your Place -- Images of Women, and Prescriptive Roles and
        Responsibilities in Scriptures and other Authoritative Texts

Tues. Sept. 18: Women in the Jewish Textual Traditions (Hebrew Bible, Talmud)

              Readings: Fisher, 156-167; T cc. Steinberg, “From a ‘Pot of Filth’…” (369-386)
              Recommended: P. Bird, “Images of Women in the Old Testament”
              From R Ruether, ed. Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and
              Christian Traditions (1974), on reserve at Mills.

Thurs. Sept. 20: Women in the Christian Textual Traditions (New Testament, Church

              Readings: Fisher, 188-200; T cc. Balmer, “American Fundamentalism: The Ideal
              of Femininity” (47-61)
              Recommended: Parvey, “The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New
              Testament” (117-149), on reserve in Mills.

Tues. Sept. 25: film “The Burning Times” (NFB)

Thurs. Sept. 27: Women in the Islamic Textual Traditions (Qur’an and Hadiths)

              Readings: Fisher, 234-252; T cc. Ascha, “The Mothers of the Believers” (89-107)

Tues. Oct. 2: Women in the Hindu Textual Traditions (Vedas and Dharmashastras)

              Readings: Fisher, 64-74; T cc. Belsare, “The Doctrine of Purusartha: A Gender
                    Perspective” (164-177)

Thurs. Oct. 4: (a) Women in the Buddhist Textual Traditions (Pali Canon)

                 Readings: Fisher, 96-109
                 Recommended: Kloppenborg, “Female Stereotypes in Early Buddhism” in
                 Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions (151-169), and Rita Gross, Buddhism
                 After Patriarchy (esp. pp. 29-54)

       (b) Women in Chinese traditions (Confucianism and Daoism) – Fisher, 128-154 (T)

Tues. Oct. 9: Women in the Baha’i Faith

                 Reading: Fisher, 278-281; T cc. Maneck, “Tahirih: A Religious Paradigm of
                  Womanhood” (40-52)
                 Recommended: “Women and the Baha’i Faith” (article by L. Echevarria), on
                 reserve at Mills.
[Essay #1 due]

Part II: A Room of Your Own -- Being religious/ Doing religion
Women’s rituals; Purity and Impurity/ Auspiciousness and Inauspiciousness: Women’s
bodies and biological functions – meanings and interpretations

Thurs. Oct. 11: Gender Ideologies of ‘Women’s Religions’

                 Readings: cc. Sered, “Gender Ideology” (pp. 195-213) and “Maternity and
                 Meaning” (71-87); also T Fisher chap. on women in indigenous traditions, 35-62

Oct. 16/18: Women and Life-cycle Events and Ceremonies

                 Readings: cc. Sered, “Life-cycle Rituals” (138-41); T cc. Gross, “Menstruation
                 and Childbirth as Ritual and Religious Experience among Native Australians”
                 (257-266); T cc. Jacobson, “Golden Handprints and Redpainted Feet” (59-71)

                 Female Initiation Ceremonies
                 Readings: T cc. Roald, “female circumcision” (237-253)

Oct. 23/25: Women’s Ritual Vows and Fasts

                 Readings: Fisher, 79-87 (Hinduism); T cc. Betteridge, “Controversial Vows of
                 Urban Muslim Women in Iran” (102-110); T cc. Wadley, “Hindu Women’s
                 Family and Household Rites” (72-81)
                 Slides about women’s lives and ritual fasts in Hinduism

Oct. 30/Nov.1: Women’s Bodies as Sites of Religious Identity and Contestation;
              Veiling, Head and Body Covering (focus on Islam)
              Readings: Fisher (on Islam) 241-243 (top); 252-268; T cc. Roald, “Islamic
              Female Dress” (254-271; 288-302)

Thurs. Nov. 1 Film “Under One Sky: Arab Women in North America talk about the hijab”

Part III: A Box to Stand On -- Women and Religious Leadership; Contemporary
Issues Where does women’s religious leadership emerge in the history of the various world
religions? Who are exemplars of leadership past and present (judges, preachers, saints, mystics,
scholars, reformers, activists and other leaders)? What are some of the issues confronting
women and religion today (theological, socio-cultural)?

Tues. Nov. 6: Hinduism

       Readings: Fisher 74-79; 87-94; T cc. Llewellyn, “The Autobiography of a Female
             Renouncer” (462-472)

Thurs. Nov. 8: Buddhism

       Readings: Fisher 109- 126; cc. newspaper article “Woman outrages Thai...”;
             T cc. Barnes, “Buddhist Women and the Nuns’ Order in Asia”

Nov. 13/15: Judaism

       Readings: Fisher 167 (bottom) – 186; T cc., Geller, “From Equality to Transformation”
              (243-253); Spectator article “Rabbi Julia...”
       Film (Nov.15): “Half the Kingdom”

Nov. 20/22: Christianity: Mainstream and Marginal

       Readings: Fisher 200-232; T cc. Carter and McLaughlin, “Entering the Sanctuary: The
             Struggle for Priesthood in … Roman Catholic Experience” (373-383) – and use
             updated info from Fisher text
             And, re. women and public leadership in contemporary Islam: read articles in
             course pack (“Woman’s Sermon…”, “A Rebel in the Mosque…”, “The Woman
             Who Went to the Front of the Mosque”)

[Nov. 22: essay #2 due]

Tues. Nov. 27: Feminist Theology; Wicca and alternative religions
       Readings: Fisher, 286-292; and chapter 10 (T)

Thurs. Nov. 29: Final reflections on gender and religion

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