The fall issue is always the time that we have the pleasure of announcing the Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza New Scholar Award recipients, a project that itself contributes to the feminist transformation of religious studies by nurturing the next generation of feminist scholars. This year’s first place goes to Ally Kateusz for her article “Collyridian Déjà Vu: The Trajectory of Redaction of the Markers of Mary’s Liturgical Leadership” and second place goes to Amy L. Allocco for “From Survival to Respect: The Narrative Performances and Ritual Authority of a Female Hindu Healer.” Allocco’s article appeared in the previous issue (29.1) as part of a special section, Illuminating Women’s Religious Authority through Ethnography. Articles submitted for the award go through the normal review process and then, if accepted, are sent to a subcommittee of the board that reads and ranks them. Thanks to Kwok Pui Lan, Sylvia Marcos, and Miranda Shaw for serving on this year’s selection committee, and congratulations to the winners.
All the articles in this issue point to new directions for activism and/or feminist scholarly investigation. Meredith Minister, in her article “Religion and (Dis)Ability in Early Feminism,” draws on contemporary disability theory to show how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth’s views of equality participated in the marginalization of people with disabilities prevalent in their time. Building on a significant body of work that has analyzed and critiqued the racist and classist rhetoric of many first-wave feminists, Minister points out that ableism has not been subjected to the same feminist scrutiny. She begins her essay with a discussion of the physical health movement and its impact on the ways that people in the nineteenth century thought about embodiment, health, and illness. In line with the movement’s thinking, Minister says, Stanton argued for women’s innate intellectual, moral, and physical equality with men while assuming that those who are more capable in all these areas are more valuable human beings. Interestingly, Sojourner Truth, despite the ways she challenged racism and classicism in the feminist movement and despite her having a disabled hand, also accepted the idea that more productive members of society have more value. Contemporaneous photographs of Stanton and Truth buttressed their arguments by seeking to present them both as capable women, which in Truth’s case, involved hiding her disfigurement. Minister concludes by calling on feminists today to attend to ability as an important dimension of intersectionality and to develop new theological anthropologies that do not equate productivity with value.
Fatima Seedat’s article, “Islam, Feminism, and Islamic Feminism,” seeks to create a space for gender-equality work within Islam by interrogating what she sees as the too-easy identification of such work with something called “Islamic feminism.” Taking off from Asma Barlas’s critique of Margot Badran’s insistence on using the term “Islamic feminism,” Seedat asks whether it is possible to theorize sexual equality using an alternative paradigm. On the one hand, given the hegemony of the European intellectual tradition, she says, it is almost inevitable that Muslim attempts to improve the quality of women’s lives will be identified with feminism. On the other hand, this label does not necessarily meet the needs of scholars who want to develop new understandings of sex difference in non-Western and postcolonial cultures without erasing the productive differences between Muslim women’s struggles for equality and those in other traditions. The problem, Seedat suggests, is that when ideas are translated across intellectual, geographic, and cultural spaces, the attempt to recognize and appreciate difference can turn into an insistence that Other women also need feminism in some form. Seedat advocates Muslim women’s equality work that “takes Islam for granted” as an independent intellectual and spiritual tradition with its own history of gender equality and inequality. The notion of taking Islam for granted is not meant to deny the historical and contemporary struggles of Muslim women for equality but to make them visible precisely in their particularity as a resource for both Muslim and non-Muslim women seeking to transform their traditions.
Nathan Devir’s article, “Maghrebian Feminism Meets the Bride of God,” highlights a social location that is all but invisible in both feminist and Jewish literary discourses: namely, the North African Jewish experience. Discussing a popular novel written by Tunisian-born Israeli French author Chochana Boukhobza, Devir sees the book as a case study in the intersection of the multiple allegiances and identities that characterize Tunisian Jews living in Israel. As he describes the novel, Boukhobza connects patriarchal family structures within the Tunisian community with both the militarism of the Israeli state and its marginalization of Palestinians and Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews. For the author, Jewish Israelis’ denial of Palestinian reality and rights is linked to the marginalization of Mizrahi Jews who have been associated with the Arab “enemy” and who in fact lived relatively comfortably in Arab lands for centuries. As Devir describes the novel, Boukhobza establishes the connections between various levels of oppression partly through drawing on and reworking Jewish religious texts. For example, the novel’s narrator rejects her given name of Sarah both as a reaction against the legacy of the binding of Isaac, which she sees as analogous to the Israeli military’s willingness to sacrifice its sons, and to protest Sarah’s casting out of Hagar, which she believes is being reenacted in the degradation of Palestinian Israelis. By the end of the book, the narrator is identified with the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God in Jewish mysticism, but again in a way that dissects and subverts received Zionist and Jewish religious pieties.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza New Scholar Award winner Ally Kateusz’s article, “Collyridian Déjà Vu,” offers a fascinating example of the process through which women are written out of history. According to Kateusz, the oldest Dormition manuscript about the death of Jesus’s mother depicts Mary as entering into disputes, performing exorcisms, undertaking healings, leading the apostles in prayer, preaching the Gospel, gathering and teaching women and sending them out to teach others, and in many respects, functioning as a priest. Though this manuscript is often dated to the fifth or sixth century, Kateusz believes it was composed much earlier and may contain oral traditions concerning Mary’s role after Jesus’s death. Kateusz then traces the ways in which text was altered in later versions as individual copyists removed different signs of Mary’s leadership. For instance, while the earliest manuscript speaks of Mary commissioning women to bring “writings” to others to learn from, a scribe changes the word “writing” to “a sweet fragrance.” Or, while in the early manuscript the apostles prostrate themselves while Mary stands in prayer over them, in a later version, the apostles stand too. Kateusz thus reminds us of how careful examination of available evidence can aid in the recovery and reconstruction of “herstory” lost to us.
The poem in the In a Different Voice section raises some of the same issues of translation as does Fatima Seedat’s article and forms a nice bridge between the articles, which seek to create a discursive space for new forms of activism, and the pieces in the rest of the issue, which reflect explicitly on various activist efforts to transform the academy and the larger society. Charon Hribar’s review essay, “Radical Women in the Struggle,” examines eight recently published works that challenge the dominant narrative of the civil rights movement. While in the popular US imagination, the supposedly male-led movement began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the books Hribar discusses show that this narrative cannot begin to capture the extraordinary activism and social radicalism of black women that began in the 1920s and continued into the 1980s. Through focusing on three central themes—the ways in which women connected the struggle for black liberation with movements for decolonization, women’s rights, economic justice, and international solidarity; the need to lift up the untold stories of women’s participation in freedom struggles; and the importance of exploring and de-constructing the tools of domination used by those in power to maintain structural inequality—Hribar is able to complicate and enrich our picture of the civil rights and black freedom movements. This more complex history, she suggests, offers important lessons for developing a theory and practice of social change that can respond to the growing structural inequalities in the world today.
The Roundtable and Living It Out sections in this issue, each of which has its own introduction, continue to explore the theme of activism in a range of institutional contexts. The roundtable, entitled “The Future of Feminist Biblical Studies,” brings together five papers originally presented at a panel at the 2012 SBL/AAR Annual Meeting in Chicago. The participants each address different aspects of the question of how, given that academic work is becoming increasingly professionalized and disciplined, women can remain committed to exploring theoretical and practical questions surrounding the struggle for justice in religion and society. The Living It Out section, “Feminist Liberation Commitments,” also draws on a discussion at the AAR/SBL, in this case of the Feminist Liberation Theologians’ Network, which in 2012 asked four colleagues to share concrete examples of how they live out their feminist liberation theological commitments in their daily lives. Coming at the question from different religious and geographical locations, the papers discuss a variety of specific projects with which the authors are involved.
Back to Volume 29, Number 2