EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Religion, maternal identities and practices [Anthropology of Religion network] [NAGS]
Location U6-30
Date and Start Time 21 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Florence Pasche Guignard (Université de Fribourg) email
  • Dawn Llewellyn (Chester) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Dawn Llewellyn
Discussant Anna Fedele

Short Abstract

Building upon scholarship on topics at the intersection of religion and gender, the contributions in this panel will explore religious and maternal identities and practices, as well as experiences of motherhood (as institution) and mothering (as experience) that reinforce or trouble religion.

Long Abstract

Building upon traditional and more recent ethnographies of fertility management, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, as well as on studies of contemporary parenting cultures, this panel examines maternal identities and mother work, focusing on positions and practices that reclaim, resist, or reform religion and spirituality. The discourses and process that religious traditions inscribe on women are central to maternal identity formation whether women endorse, challenge, reject, or reinvent these traditions, and mothers are still regarded as primary agents in religious transmission and inculturation. The complexity of the articulations between religious, feminist and even maternalist discourses, even within mainstream traditions, has already been demonstrated. Religion has been criticized for reproducing traditional gender models and normative models of motherhood, and anthropology and religious studies have focused mainly on maternal relationships and mother work during infancy and early childhood.

Developing from these rich conversations between religion, gender, feminism and maternalism, this panel calls for ethnographically grounded contributions to explore how and why normative presentations and experiences of motherhood reinforce or trouble religion, both at the collective and the individual level, within and outside of institutions, and in multicultural contexts. Papers are welcomed on a range of themes, including (but not necessarily limited to):

- Religion, motherhood and concepts of choice (including voluntary and involuntary motherhood)

- Motherhood, women's religious authority, power, and agency (or lack thereof)

- Religion and mother-work

- Motherhood and religious practices , traditions, scriptures

- Motherhood and religious identities

- New forms of religious and spiritual kinship

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Agency, authority and motherhood in British evangelicalism

Author: Anna Strhan (University of Kent)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from a three-year project exploring childhood and family life within British evangelicalism, this paper examines contested ideas of maternal agency and authority across different forms of evangelicalism, and how these relate to contemporary discourses on parenting.

Long Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from a three-year project exploring childhood and family life within British evangelicalism, this paper focuses on contested ideas of maternal agency and authority across different forms of evangelicalism and how these relate to contemporary discourses on 'parenting.' Sociologists and anthropologists have described an 'intensification' of both parenting and motherhood in recent years, in which childrearing becomes a more labour-intensive, demanding task, while it is also no longer seen primarily as a social obligation, but as a source of meaning, offering a claim to happiness (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995, Hays 1996, Faircloth 2013). The history of Puritan and evangelical parenting manuals suggests that this 'intensification' has a longer history within some forms of Protestant and evangelical Christianity than in contemporary culture. However there are also particular shifts in contemporary evangelical understandings of parenting. Where in Victorian evangelicalism, the role of the mother was privileged, my research draws attention to how greater attention is today given to the role of the father, and within conservative evangelicalism, we see a countercultural effort to re-inscribe male and paternal authority within both the home and church. Through describing the moral norms and politics of the family articulated in parenting courses and seminars in a conservative evangelical and a charismatic evangelical church in London, this paper addresses how these changing understandings of parental roles are shaping maternal identities and experiences within both settings, and explores the questions of authority and agency implicated in this.

Worship of the Christ Child and maternal identity

Author: Magdalena Lubanska (University of Warsaw)  email

Short Abstract

In my presentation I will analyse the worship of the Jesus Child, as practiced by consecrated and non-consecrated women associated with the Carmelite Order in Poland. I will describe it as a self-embraced development strategy combining a 'fulfilled' maternal identity with a religious one.

Long Abstract

My presentation will consist of an anthropological analysis of the specific nature of the worship of the Jesus Child (Baby Jesus), as practiced by consecrated and non-consecrated women associated with the Carmelite Order in Poland. Based on an analysis of existing data and biographical interviews with the women I try to answer the question why the women choose to worship God as a Child, and how their choice is connected with their spiritual path. What kind of figures do they embrace as spiritual role models, and why? What is it about the worship of the Jesus Child that they find attractive, and how do they maintain and contribute to that form of worship? I will connect those aspects of the worship to the women's strong need for maternity, treating it as a self-embraced development strategy combining a 'fulfilled' maternal identity with a religious life as worshippers of Christ.

Yiddish mamas or Lat(d)ino mamas, are Jewish mothers, just the same

Author: Marina Pignatelli (University of Lisbon - Political and Social Sciences Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses the role of Jewish women and the strategies both Sephardic and Askenazi mothers follow in order to guarantee the transmission of Jewish identity to their offspring and the continuity of the community, while simultaneously several integration efforts are made.

Long Abstract

The contemporary Jewish community of Lisbon is a very heterogeneous one. It is composed by individuals of very different national and cultural backgrounds, who practice their Judaism in very diverse ways, according to several religious movements and different ethnic branches. In small-scale and fractured communities such as this one, the main threat seams to be the fear of extinction by assimilation. In this paper I intend to discuss the importance of women in Judaism specifically focusing on the Jewish women and Jewish mothers role in the family and in the community, as well as the strategies that the Jewish mothers in Lisbon (both Askenazi and Sephardi) develop to maintain and strengthen Jewish identity in their descendants, while at the same time, all efforts to a successful integration are made. The analysis was based on fieldwork witch included participant observation and qualitative interviews.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish women go to work

Author: Giorgia Foscarini (Ca' Foscari University of Venice )  email

Short Abstract

This paper provides an exploration of the ultra-orthodox (haredi) community in Israel. In particular it examines how the introduction of new study tracks in women's education is changing the role of women as mothers and workers within the ultra-orthodox family and community.

Long Abstract

The ultra-orthodox (haredi) community in Israel is the representative of the most traditional stream of orthodox Judaism and its life and mores originate from Jewish religious law (halakhah). Ethnographers and anthropologists have explored this community and its understanding of reality, where biological differences between sexes are determinant for the characterization of gender and family roles (Hardacre 1993; El-Or, 2005). In particular, women, entrusted with the care of the children and the household, are traditionally cut off from the main sources of power in ultra-orthodox society - prayer and study - and relegated to the private, familial domain (El-Or 1993). Following a fieldwork among the ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem, I attempt to describe how, through a development of the educational system, and the resulting entrance of many women in the Israeli labor market, women's and men's roles are extensively being redefined within the ultra-orthodox community. My aim is to provide a closer image of a sector of the ultra-orthodox community in Israel, where, along the last two decades, a shift has been made from a traditional set of values, tied to the inner, religious world of the community, to a more secular one, rather linked to surrounding Israeli society. Now, more and more women are demanding for a greater domestic involvement from their husbands, in return for the financial support they provide. These demands are precisely the element that is subverting the feminine categorization of the domestic sphere, weakening traditional masculinity, and moulding new schemes in gender and family relationships.

"This image of a mother that is a virgin and is immaculate is a horror": holistic mothering in portugal and its entanglements with (Catholic) religion and (feminist) spirituality

Author: Anna Fedele (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), CRIA, Lisboa, Portugal)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the entanglements between (Catholic) religion and (feminist) spirituality in the context of holistic mothering in Portugal and their consequences in terms of female agency and empowerment.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on ethnographic research about holistic mothering in Portugal. I use holistic mothering as an umbrella term to cover different mothering choices, which are rooted in the assumption that pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood are important spiritual occasions for both mother and child. Holistic mothers choose alternative practices such as homebirth or attachment parenting that are intensely criticized in the Portuguese context. Although it is evident that not all women choosing these ways of birthing or parenting in Portugal do this for religious reasons, the mothers I encountered described their choices as being intimately related to the kind of spirituality they practiced.

Holistic mothers refuse and criticize the Catholic norms and values they received from their parents and /or their social environment as patriarchal and hierarchical and embrace different forms of spirituality they perceive as non-hierarchical and gender-equal. However, I will show that in a traditionally Catholic country like Portugal, Our Lady, the Mother of God, still represents for many women an almost unattainable model of motherly love and care that they struggle to overcome. In this context holistic mothers contest but also reproduce Catholic ideals about motherhood and gender identities.

Drawing on recent critiques of the religion-spirituality dichotomy as well as on texts exploring the intersections between religion, gender and mothering, this paper analyses the entanglements of (Catholic) religion and (feminist) spirituality in the context of holistic mothering in Portugal and their consequences in terms of female agency and empowerment.

Reclaiming sisterhood and the maternal body in women's circles and the red tent temple movement: post-secular femininities in contemporary well-being culture

Author: Chia Longman (Ghent University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper draws on ethnographic research on the way the ‘maternal body’ is approached discursively, ritually and symbolically in the growing phenomenon of 'women’s circles' and gatherings of the Red Tent Temple movement.

Long Abstract

This paper draws on the results of ongoing ethnographic research on the phenomenon of 'women's circles' including the Red Tent Temple movement. Launched in the US in 2007 and now having spread to numerous countries throughout the world, Red Tent circles are spontaneous, non-institutionalized, monthly gatherings exclusively for women who come together to foster the growth of a 'woman honouring culture'. Based on fieldwork and interviews with founders and 'keepers' of women's circles in Belgium and the Netherlands, I show how they appear to offer a growing number of women from diverse backgrounds in secular-liberal societies a space out of a desire for 'reconnecting' - religare - with each other, with their inner selves, their bodies, and sometimes, the 'otherworldly'. I argue that this phenomenon draws on elements, yet also diverts from various traditions in feminist thought such as Goddess spirituality, radical second-wave feminist consciousness raising, maternalism, and also third wave and post feminist individualism. Far from a marginal phenomenon in the sphere of alternative spirituality and NRMs, women's circles aim to engage with and impact mainstream culture in which the boundaries between (gendered) physical, mental and spiritual well-being and its commodification, are being challenged. In this paper I focus on the way the 'maternal' is approached discursively, ritually and symbolically in women's circles and question to what extent it can be understood as an element of a new type of post-secular femininity.

Neither spiritual, nor religious: natural parenting and religion in francophone countries (France, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada)

Author: Florence Pasche Guignard (Université de Fribourg)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the articulation between "natural parenting" and religion in francophone contexts where choices –especially those of women– motivated by religious convictions are subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism by the mainstream of secular society.

Long Abstract

Non-hormonal and non-mechanical family planning, home birth, vaccine hesitancy and home schooling are some of the practices that parents who engage in "natural parenting" sometimes share with religious groups that are often perceived as going against the grain of mainstream parenting, feminist progress, and gender equality in the 21st century. This contribution will examine how mothers who combine "attachment parenting" with a strong environmental awareness while engaging in lifestyles of health and sustainability account for such practices. I will present material gathered through semi-structured interviews conducted between 2012 and 2014 with francophone parents and through several years of cyber-ethnography on a variety of online platforms and social media that allow access to authentic maternal perspectives about natural parenting, its representations, discourses and practices. I will analyze the discursive strategies through which "les mamans nature," with few exceptions, distance themselves from both traditional religious institutions and contemporary movements that have been labeled as "spiritual." In a North American context, some of the practices of natural parenting clearly find their origins in religious/spiritual movements or ideologies, both conservative or progressive. I will show how the articulation between "natural parenting" and religion proves to be a complex one, especially in the context of France where choices -especially those of women- motivated by religious convictions are subjected to intense scrutiny.

Marian devotion and maternal identities in contemporary Ireland.

Author: Attracta Brownlee (National University of Ireland Maynooth)  email

Short Abstract

The aim of this paper is to explore how traditional Marian devotion in Ireland has been embedded in maternal ideologies and practices and how these maternal identities are now challenged in the context of religious and social upheaval and the growth in modern biomedical healthcare systems.

Long Abstract

Traditionally, Marian devotion has held a central place in the expression of Catholicism in Ireland. This devotion to the Mother of God was embedded in religious beliefs and practices and informed not only individual maternal identities, but also public social policy as it impacted on sexuality, motherhood and gender relations in society. In the past few decades the dramatic religious, social and economic changes that have occurred in Ireland have contributed to the sharp decline in the influence of the Catholic Church in both the public and private spheres of life. These developments have implications for wider aspects of maternal identities such as gender relations, the socioeconomic status of women, and personal autonomy within religious and social institutions.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork this research presents two narratives of the interrelation of religion and maternal identities and practices. The first study, focusing of women's home altars, explores the shifting power relations of mothers in the private sphere of everyday domestic life. It will be argued that home altars symbolise not only the religious power wielded by motherhood in familial relations, but also underline the lack of agency of mothers in controlling social and cultural threats to the family unit. The second study explores how grave markers may be interpreted in the context of the subverting and reinventing of traditional religious discourses of motherhood. These memorials symbolise, for some women, a challenge to the power and authority of the traditional religious and social institutions of the State.

Of virgins, vipers, and witches: dangerous motherhood in central Mexican cosmology today

Author: Catherine Whittaker (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Violent religious imagery surrounding both “normal” and “monstrous” motherhood plays a significant role in the reproduction of tense gender relations in rural Mexico, so that men seek to control what is perceived as dangerous femininity.

Long Abstract

In Mexico, violent religious imagery surrounding motherhood is a significant factor in the reproduction of tense gender relations, in which men seek to control what is perceived as dangerous femininity. This paper is based on 15 months of fieldwork in the twelve pueblos of Milpa Alta, in the rural outskirts of Mexico City, where Aztec and Catholic traditions are intertwined, forging a distinct vision of motherhood and violence. For example, Saint Anne, the Biblical mother of the Virgin Mary and patron saint of the Milpa Altan town Santa Ana Tlacotenco, sends snakes after people who have not fulfilled their obligation as devotees. Dangerous maternity is manifest in the cosmological link between women and serpents, both possessing the power to kill and to create.

Every child in Milpa Alta is carefully watched over by several loving, albeit strict mothers: Mother Earth (tonantzin tlalli) and the ubiquitously venerated Virgin of Guadalupe, divine symbol of Mexican maternity, as well as the biological mother and the two grandmothers, which are all addressed as "mamás". Even adult sons may still receive physical punishment from their mothers. The dark side of motherhood is most strongly represented in urban legends about witches. In a reversal of "normal" kin relations, witches suck children's blood and deprive them of life force, instead of bleeding to create new life. Thus, looking at motherhood through the lens of cosmology helps to explain why women in Milpa Alta become victims of gender-based violence from a position of relative power, acquired through motherhood.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.