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Religion and Patriarchy: Gendered Inscriptions on Religious Beliefs and Practices

Part of the New Approaches to Religion and Power book series (NARP)


Religion, being one of the greatest identity markers of human beings along with other social factors such as caste, class and ethnicity, its role in the construction of gender identity is critically examined in this chapter. This is done by reading the experiences of Catholic Syrian Christian women using a feminist lens. Religious doctrines, beliefs and practices serve to translate to everyday experiences the patriarchal ideologies that legitimize and reinforce the existing gender hierarchy. Gendered consciousness acquires a normative value in the lives of women and men through religious indoctrination which affirms man’s position as the ‘head’ of the family, and consequently idealizes and glorifies submission as the characteristic mark of ‘womanliness’. This has a hegemonic impact on women as it normalizes their subordination as divinely ordained. Consequently, patriarchy persists despite women’s higher ranking in gender development indices mainly because it is mediated by religion.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-21488-3_5
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  1. 1.

    Attoh, F., “Gender, Religion and Patriarchy: A Sociological Analysis of Catholicism and Pentecostalism in Nigeria” Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 4:14, (2017), 158–170, 158.

  2. 2.

    Linda Woodhead, Gender Differences in Religious Practice and Significance, In J. Beckford, & N. J. Demerath III (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore: Sage, 2007, 550-570.

  3. 3.

    The gender-class-caste nexus in the identity construction of Indian women has been the focus of many feminist enquiries. See Kumkum Sangari and Suresh Vaid (eds), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, New Delhi: Zubaan 2006. Also, Julia Leslie and Mary McGee (ed), Invented Identities: The Interplay of Gender Religion and Politics in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press 2000.

  4. 4.

    Gender theorists observe that religion matters for concerns such as the ratio of females to males in educational enrolment, the female adult literacy rate, the use of contraception and the UNDP Gender-Related Development Index, as well as for opportunities for women in the paid workforce and in parliamentary representation. See Ingelhart, Ronald and Pippa Norris, Rising Tide. Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 69.

  5. 5.

    In the Catholic Church in Kerala, every parish is divided into smaller units of 15–20 families for better pastoral outreach, and these are called Family Units.

  6. 6.

    Mathrudeepthi being an organization for mothers, it aims at helping mothers in fulfilling their maternal and spiritual duties. The organization prioritizes spiritual activities like conducting prayer services that include the Rosary, abstinence prayers, Bible study, Liturgy preparations and so on. Through Mathrudeepthi, the Catholic mothers engage in acts of charity like collection and distribution of food to the needy, providing educational and marital assistance and so on, and they involve themselves more actively in parish works like fundraising by setting up stalls that sell home-made products, church cleaning and decoration. Mathrudeepthi is a well-organized network at the parish and diocesan level that serves to contain women in the gendered mould of the glorified feminine.

  7. 7.

    V. Geetha, Patriarchy, 153.

  8. 8.

    Melford E. Spiro, “Religion: Problems of Definition and Explanation” in Melford E. Spiro, Culture and Human Nature, New Brunswick, N. J.: Transaction Books, 1994, 187–222.

  9. 9.

    Helen Hardacre, “Japanese new religions: Profiles in Gender”, in John Stratton Hawley (eds) Fundamentalism and Gender, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, 111–133.

  10. 10.

    V. Geetha, Patriarchy, 132.

  11. 11.

    Ibid., 134.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., 141, 155, 148.

  13. 13.

    The respondent, a lady college principal, shared her views in an in-depth interview.

  14. 14.

    Some of the clergy men interviewed as part of my study asserted emphatically about the role of man as the head and the woman as heart of the family based on a gendered theological anthropology that God has created man and woman different, although they are equal in dignity before God.

  15. 15.

    V. Geetha, Patriarchy, 132.

  16. 16.

    Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit, as cited by Marsha Aileen, Critical Theory of Religion: A Feminist Analysis, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, 45.

  17. 17.

    This parable is in the Gospel of Luke, and it tells the story of a father with two sons; the younger son goes astray, but when he returns home, he is welcomed wholeheartedly by his father. Cf. Lk 15: 11–32.

  18. 18.

    V. Geetha, Patriarchy, 144–145.

  19. 19.

    Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835, New Haven, and London: Yale University Press, 1977, 67–69, 97–98.

  20. 20.

    Susan Visvanathan has done an extensive analysis of the customs related to marriage among the Syrian Christians. See Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala: History, Belief and Ritual among the Yakoba, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993, 102–117.

  21. 21.

    Tali is a medal, a pendant with the shape of alila (banyan leaf) with a figure of the cross embossed on it. The groom ties the tali around the neck of the bride as a sacred symbol of their marriage bond.

  22. 22.

    The mantrakodi is a special saree with which the groom drapes the bride’s head during the marriage ceremony. Both Tali Ketu and Mantrakodi are adaptation from the local Hindu customs. In the opinion of Syrian Church historian Mathias Mundadan, these are ‘instances of how the Christian community founded by St. Thomas grew in India assimilating its culture’. See M. Mundadan, The Syro-Malabar Church, Kalamasserry: S.H. Provincial House, Department of Communications, 1995, 68.

  23. 23.

    Cf. The following prayer is recited by the celebrant while blessing the tali: ‘Lord who took the church to be your bride through your death on the cross, bless this tali which will unite the bride and bridegroom in faith and love. May this tali, a symbol of unity, bind them in undivided love and total trust. May the cross embedded on it give them strength to bear joyfully the ordeals of life and to live in holiness according to your will. May this be a sign of their faithfulness’. See, The Syro-Malabar Bishop’s Synod, Syro-Malabar Sabhayude Koodashakal, Kakkanad: Major Arch Episcopal Curia, Secretariat Commission for Liturgy, 2005, 68–69. Taliketu is a common practice among most of the Indian communities, but putting the mantrakodi is something unique to the Syrian Christian community.

  24. 24.

    This text (Eph 5: 20–23) from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is read at all Syrian Christian marriages.

  25. 25.

    The term ‘masculinist protectionism’ I borrow from J. Devika, “Bodies Gone Awry: The Abjection of Sexuality in Development Discourse in Contemporary Kerala”, in order to explain the domination-dependency dialectic of the catholic Syrian Christian marriage.

  26. 26.

    Cf. Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, 108.

  27. 27.

    Steven Parish, Hierarchy and its Discontents, 18.

  28. 28.

    Explanation about ta-li ketu kalya-nam and sambandham is given in Chap. 2.

  29. 29.

    See Vettom Mani, Amara Malayala Nikhandu, Kottayam: Urvashi Publications, 1973, 702 and 707.

  30. 30.

    ANOVA with a significance value of .000 supports the positive relation between religious indoctrination and patriarchal notions of decision-making in women.

  31. 31.

    Here, Linda Woodhead makes a critique of the notion of religion as a ‘sacred canopy’ by Peter Berger. See Woodhead, “Gender Differences in Religious Practice and Significance” in J. Beckford, & N. J. Demerath III (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore: Sage, 2007, 550–570, 556.

  32. 32.

    Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Capital Accumulation, 40.

  33. 33.

    The data from quantitative research, which points to 60 per cent of the men considering that the good woman is always obedient, is an indication of the internalized religious injunction of men having the right to ‘rule over’ women.

  34. 34.

    See Anindita Ghosh, “Introduction” in Anindita Ghosh (ed) Behind the Veil: Resistance, Women and the Everyday in the Colonial South Asia, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2007, 7–11.

  35. 35.

    As is clear from the graph, there is a direct relation between religious teaching on wives’ submission and gendered consciousness, and ANOVA with a significance value of .000 supports this inference.

  36. 36.

    Linda Woodhead, “Gender Differences in Religious Practice and Significance”, 558.

  37. 37.

    Cf. Clifford Geertz “Religion as a Cultural System” in The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books Inc. 1973, 90.

  38. 38.

    J. Devika, “Bodies Gone Awry…”, 25.

  39. 39.

    Rahner Karl, Theological Investigations, Vol. 19, Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 1984.

  40. 40.

    Susan A. Ross, “Mary: Human, Feminine, Divine?” Concilium, 2008/4, 27–33, here 27.

  41. 41.

    Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Jesus, Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, 165.

  42. 42.

    Samuel Rayan, “In Christ: The Power of Women”, in Kurien Kunnumpuram (ed) Collected Writings of Samuel Rayan SJ, Vol I, New Delhi: ISPCK 2013, 112.

  43. 43.

    Helen Hardacre, “Japanese New Religions: Profiles in Gender”, in John Stratton Hawley (eds) Fundamentalism and Gender, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, 111–133.

  44. 44.

    See Bhagavad Gita 1.41 cited in Hawley, “Hinduism: Sati and its Defenders” in John Stratton Hawley (eds) Fundamentalism and Gender, 79–110, 103.

  45. 45.

    Davidman, Lynn, Tradition in a Rootless World. Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1991, 116–120.

  46. 46.

    Susan Rakoczy IHM, “Religion and Violence: The Suffering of Women”, Agenda, 18:61(2004), 29–35,, accessed on February 20, 2019.

  47. 47.

    Kuttikat, Miriam, “Religious Patriarchy and the Subjugation of Women in India” The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences: Annual Review, 3. (2008), 21–29. accessed on February 27, 2019.

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Abraham, K. (2019). Religion and Patriarchy: Gendered Inscriptions on Religious Beliefs and Practices. In: Persisting Patriarchy. New Approaches to Religion and Power. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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