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Women, the Aged and Religious Activity: Oppositions and Complementarity in an Urban Locality Renée B. Hirschon INTRODUCTION Themes In the urban setting of Yerania, a long-established and densely populated district of Piraeus (population of over 3,000 in 1971), the choice of religion as a topic for analysis may be unexpected.1 Yet field work experience over seventeen months revealed the vitality of religious activity and ideology here, and its analytical importance is clear, particularly in the structuring of relationships between women and men, and between older and younger adults.2 The allocation of gender roles and the character of generational differences are examined with I am grateful to C. Stewart and C. Shore for many useful comments and to the Anthropology Seminar, University of Sussex, for stimulating discussion on this paper, though it has not been possible to incorporate all the points raised. My thanks also go to Manolis Philippakis for patient encouragement and to Lesley Watkins for typing the manuscript. 1It is commonly assumed that urban life is associated with increasing secularization, alienation and the diminution of kinship bonds (cf. Lewis, "Perspectives on Urbanization "). Despite long-standing challenges in the literature (eg., Häuser and Schnore, Study of Urbanization; Southall, Urban Anthropology), these culturally based assumptions continue to be expressed; material from Yerania provides an interesting case study for alternative interpretations. The term "religious" will not be defined, presuming in the reader an intuitive understanding. This can be justified since Greece is a Christian country with many fundamental similarities to Western culture, but certain differences will become clear in the discussion. 2Inevitably, since I am a woman in a society where gender-roles are clearly defined, my associations were mainly with women. Their varied activities in religious matters, in life-crisis rituals, domestic and church observances, and on excursions, became an important part of my fieldwork experience. I was fortunate in having among my friends several older women who were highly articulate and I am particularly indebted to Eliso Vamvakari, Marika Ioannidou and Athina Georgiadou. 113 114 Renée B. Hirschon regard to religious organization and in the process the analysis touches on some issues of general and theoretical interest. These relate to the problematic relationship of the public/private (domestic) dichotomy in discussions regarding gender roles in Greece, and secondly, to the character of social change and continuity in the urban context where clearly marked expectations relate to the life cycle. It has often been noted that women are the chief actors in informal religious observances in many parts of the European Mediterranean (e.g., Douglass, Death in Murelaga; Cutileiro, Portuguese Rural Society; Christian, Person and God; du Boulay, Portrait). But in most interpretations women's religious activity is viewed as part of the private realm and is contrasted, implicitly or explicitly, with the formal organization of the Church as a male hierarchy and with the men's public engagement in political and economic life (e.g., Brandes, Gender Distinctions, 178). Religious activity on the part of Yerania women, however, is not restricted to the home; its spatial context extends beyond the immediate locality to shrines and pilgrimage centers throughout the countryside. Since these activities are considered accepted and essential aspects of women's duties (not as excuses to escape the posited confinement of the house; cf. Fernea, Guests of the Sheik) they constitute an established public dimension in women's lives, both geographically and socially, through mobility and contact with strangers in areas distant from home.3 Thus, the complementarity of male and female roles extends beyond the domestic realm. In this wider view of the sexual division of labor, men are expected to deal with material provisions for the family while women are responsible for its spiritual needs.4 An additional point of significance is that, while men are usually seen as instrumental in creating the networks of relationships in the wider society, here it is the women who are active in social communication with unrelated people beyond the locality and family. These contacts generate the recognition of universal human concerns which 'The public/private dichotomy is not always clearly defined although it is a recurrent notion in much feminist writing. In some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Pages
pp. 113-129
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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