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  • Roundtable: Negotiating Feminist and Gender Studies
  • Elizabeth M. Bucar (bio)

1. Do you see yourself as pursuing studies in gender and religion or feminist studies in religion? (And why?)

This is a tricky question. I’m actually interested in both, but I want to qualify my answer. I understand myself primarily to be engaged in the study of gender and religion, whether my research is focused on the production of ethical knowledge by women or on how different religious traditions react when confronted with the possibility of sex change operations. In these projects, I do not understand myself as having a feminist voice: that is, I do not begin my research or writing with a prior political agenda of insurgency. For instance, the point of my study of Catholic and Shi‘a women is not to empower them or suggest possible tactics they should engage in. Nor do I have anything necessarily invested in the politics of transsexuality. These are merely case studies that I find useful for deepening our understandings of a given tradition’s ethical understanding of gender and sex.

I think, particularly in the sort of comparative work I engage in, a universal feminist political agenda causes what I like to refer to as academic ventriloquism. As I have argued elsewhere,

Investigating the concept of feminism . . . can over determine data; many of the women I worked with rejected my definition of feminism or that they were engaged in feminist praxis. Even my initial attempt to line up the women on core issues of religious leadership, reproductive rights, or public dress was problematic; Iranian Shi‘a and American Catholic women are simply not concerned with the same set of issues, and to force a comparison on the issue of abortion, for instance, was to misrepresent the range of feminist tactics in Iran. Assuming conceptual parity also far too easily devolved into a “boxing match” between the women. Were Catholic or Shi‘a women more progressive on a given issue? Which group of women was more successful in creating reform?1

But, and here is where I may differ from some of my colleagues, I do not wholesale reject the label feminist. On the one hand, I am trying to redefine feminist studies of religion so that it is not based on some universal concept [End Page 132] of woman or feminism, but rather the process of engagement with authority from a gendered or sexed stance (whether that stance is of the subject studied or some theoretical construct of the scholar). On the other hand, retaining the label feminist is an acknowledgment that many women base political actions on a conception of “woman,” no mater how diverse or problematic they understand this concept to be.

The strongest feminist political arguments that emerge from my research come from the women I study. During fieldwork that I conducted in Iran and the United States in 2004, I was instructed by women time and again on the limits of my categories of analysis (such as feminism). The dynamic form of women’s discourse, which engages, appropriates, and shifts a number of existing discursive strands, pushes me to consider moral discourse as interactive interplay, versus as authored in isolation. There are potentially many additional normative interventions religious women’s discourse can make into the academic study of religion if we are willing to listen to its critiques of our own constructive tendencies.

From a different point of view, the women’s discourse can be understood as feminist politics from within their religious community. This is possible even if one does not assign intentional resistance to the women. Merely through their participation in the moral life, women contribute to the production of ethical knowledge. This participation is tactical insofar as it works within the parameters of the prevalent moral discourse, even as it shifts them through a series of engagements. These engagements demonstrate the limits of conformity to authority/habituation through the inevitable role of creativity in moral praxis.

2. What kinds of challenges have you faced in your course work and research?

I think fieldwork is the most challenging aspect of my research, and often the most rewarding. This is in part because...


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pp. 132-134
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