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  • Feminism and World Religions
  • Jordan Paper
Feminism and World Religions. Edited by Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Pp. x + 333.

The editors of Feminism and World Religions, Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young, both at McGill University, have been editing anthologies, as well as an [End Page 118] annual journal, on the subject of "women and religion" in its various modes and variations, for a number of years. This new iteration is particularly specific to its avowed topic and a valuable addition to the genre. In-depth contributions were solicited for the "Religions of the Book" and for South and East Asian religions. As with any anthology, no matter how well planned, individual treatments will invariably reflect the differences in the interests and methodologies of the various authors. All of the treatments here, however, do focus on history and ideology. All were ostensibly written by insiders, although what this actually means varies from tradition to tradition.

Katherine Young has contributed an excellent, analytical introduction to both the topics of the book and the individual chapters. She has also authored an in-depth "Postscript" (thirty-four pages) concerning a number of contemporary issues relevant to the volume's theme and the issue of "insiders." She addresses such problems as "the politics of identity," "the proper sphere for feminism," "the tension between revolution and reform," and the "polarization between men and women."

I will begin with the chapters on the Religions of the Book, although this does not accord with the order in the anthology. "Feminism in Judaism," by Ellen M. Umansky, is possibly the most succinct introduction available from the last two decades to the extraordinary number of changes, as well as the lack of change, in some varieties of this religion. The contribution by the well-known Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Feminism in World Christianity," briefly traces the roots of Christian feminism from the time of the New Testament and then surveys developments in the United States and feminist theology in Europe, moving on to what many such surveys ignore: the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. "Feminism in Islam" by Riffat Hassan focuses on the nature of androcentrism in Islam. She juxtaposes the Hadith literature against the Qur'ān, and finds that the negative attitudes toward women are not in the Qur'ān but are based on a questionable interpretation of a few Hadith statements. She analyzes three basic theological assumptions and finds all wanting: the issue of woman's creation, the issue of woman's "guilt" in the "Fall" episode, and the issue of the purpose of woman's existence. She concludes with a fascinating comparison of the issue of women's sexuality as found in the Qur'ān and in the history of Islam.

South Asia is dealt with in two very different approaches. Vasudha Narayanan's "Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Performers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition," is a full (fifty-three pages) and engaging exposition of the subject from a variety of perspectives as delineated in the chapter's title. It is a lucid and comprehensive analysis of a most complex issue; indeed, she begins with a survey of the problem of identifying "Hinduism" in and of itself. Rita M. Gross, in her "Strategies for a Feminist Revalorization of Buddhism," quite properly, given her own cultural milieu, speaks not of Buddhism in Asia, but of how Buddhism can be in the West. She argues here, as she has in a relatively recent book, Buddhism after Patriarchy, that the androcentrism, even aspects of misogyny, that is found in the development of Buddhism, does not follow from essential Buddhist ideology, and it need not be continued in the present. [End Page 119]

The remaining two chapters, on China, are more problematic than the preceding ones. The two authors of "Feminism and/in Taoism," Karen Laughlin and Eva Wong, are both connected with the International Taoist Tai Chi Society, which can be perceived as far removed from the continuing aspects of Daoist religion on both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. Their focus is on the classical texts of Daoist...