The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (2024)


Women's religions are, from a cross-cultural perspective, anomalous. Despite my growing excitement as I “discovered” more and more women's religions buried in the pages of ethnographic and historical tomes, the fact is that most of the religions of the world are dominated by men. The anomalous status of women's religions leads us to ask when, why, and how they occur.

In the following pages twelve examples of religions dominated by women are presented. The descriptions in this chapter should help the reader follow the thematic analyses in subsequent chapters. (Concise summaries of the main features of each religion can be found in the Appendixes.) But before we begin our journey into the worlds of women's religions, it is worthwhile to point out ways in which these religions differ from one another.

Some of the examples are self-consciously independent religions that exist in a society where the dominant religion is male dominated (e.g., Feminist Spirituality, Afro-Brazilian religions). Others are religious streams that co-exist alongside of, and sometimes intertwined with, male-dominated religions (e.g., zār, Spiritualism, Korean shamanism, Burmese nat cultus). Still others are the major religion of an entire society (e.g., the Ryūkyū Islands, the Black Caribs of Belize). And finally, others are sects of otherwise male-dominated religions (e.g., Christian Science, Shakerism).

One problem I faced in writing this book concerns terminology: the experts whose research I rely on use uneven nomenclature to describe their religions. Among the terms used are “cult,” “cultus,” “sect,” “religion,” “group,” “society,” and “movement.” In addition, at least one of the examples (Korean shamanism) is probably most accurately described as a “religious situation.” Rather than repeat the phrase “religions, religious cults, groups, cultures, sects, societies, and situations that are oriented toward and dominated numerically and in terms of leadership by women,” I have chosen to gloss all these terms as “women's religions” or “female-dominated religions.”1 Although my decision may offend some scholars, in light of the fact that all of these terms are etic (imposed from the outside by western scholars) and not emic (the terms used by members of the various religious groups), my decision is defensible—provided that I show each example in its proper societal context. I wish to clarify that I use the term “female-dominated religions” to indicate that women are the majority of participants and leaders, there is no higher level male authority that ultimately directs these religions, and that these religions focus on women as ritual actors. By female dominated I do not mean to imply physical dominance or institutionalized power inequality between men and women. I use the term “women's religions” interchangeably with “female-dominated religions.”

Some examples are all-women religions (Sande is a women's secret society), others include some men (Spiritualists do not exclude men, just more women join), and still others include many men yet limit leadership to women (on the Ryūkyū Islands men attend religious ceremonies, yet the leaders are all women). The implications of these distinctions are significant, and it may well be that future studies will narrow down the field of inquiry. In thinking about the religions described in this book, it is helpful to treat the diverse examples as points on a continuum, rather than as a strictly hom*ogeneous group.

In this chapter I am not comparing “women's religion” to “men's religion.” There is no such thing as an archetypical “women's” or “men's” religion; I do not believe that religiosity is a biologically determined sexual characteristic. My goals are far more modest: I am comparing specific religions to other religion(s) of the same place and time. Among the questions I ask are: Is this religion the only option available at the given time and place? If not, how is it different or similar to other religions of its day? What is the relationship of this religion to other religions of its day (nat religion vs. Buddhism; Thai spirit cults vs. Buddhism; Korean shamanism vs. Confucianism; Afro-Brazilian cults vs. Catholicism; Feminist Spirituality vs. American civil religion; African cults of affliction vs. ancestor worship; Spiritualism, Christian Science, Shakerism vs. Calvinism)? What is the status of this religion—is it the official state religion, a new religion, a persecuted cult? What is the historical and cultural context of this religion? In what way is this religion female dominated?

These religions are not randomly scattered throughout the globe. In fact, all of them are clustered in three loosely defined culture areas.

East and Southeast Asia

Four of the women's religions are located in East or Southeast Asia. The similarities among these religions will become apparent as we look at each religion in turn. What I wish to point out here is that unlike most of the women's religions outside of East and Southeast Asia, all these religions seem to be indigenous, probably ancient, religions. While they all have undergone changes in the past century, none of them can be identified as having arisen at a particular point in the historically recorded past; none has a named historical founder.2

Japanese scholars speculate that the ancient religion of Japan was dominated by women, and that vestiges of that domination can still be found in modern Japan. According to Teigo Yoshida (1989), the continued religious domination of women in the Ryūkyū Islands reflects the failure of Buddhism to have made much of an impact there. Whether or not Yoshida is correct, it is clear that in East and Southeast Asian societies in which the indigenous religions are dominated by women, men tend to be involved in newer religions. Thai and Burmese men are active Buddhists—many if not most young men enter Buddhist monasteries as novitiates for several years, and Korean men are responsible for Confucianist ancestor worship. In three of the four key East and Southeast Asian examples, men embrace religions that came in from the outside while women dominate the indigenous religion.

I would tentatively suggest two possible historical scenarios. First, it may be that in very ancient times the only religions in East and Southeast Asia were dominated by women. When new religions (Buddhism, Confucianism) were introduced into the area, men were especially eager to adopt the new religions because of their subordinate status in the traditional religions.3 Alternatively, it may be that in ancient times both men and women were involved in the indigenous religion. For known or unknown social reasons, men more than women were attracted to the new religions, leaving the ancient religion in female hands, where today it has an ambivalent and often inferior status. It is significant that the male-dominated “new” religions of East and Southeast Asia, unlike the female-dominated indigenous religions, preach doctrines of female pollution or subordination.

It is perhaps not unexpected to find that women's religions have continued to thrive in Buddhist countries. In contrast to Islam or Catholicism, Buddhism is relatively tolerant of other religions, and generally allows adherents to participate both in Buddhist and non-Buddhist religious rituals. In East and Southeast Asia it is quite common to find that the men of a family are active Buddhists, whereas the women are dedicated participants in women's religions. Such a situation would probably not be tolerated in Islamic or Christian societies.

The Religion of the Ryūkyū Islands

Religion on the Ryūkyū Islands is inseparable from ethnicity or nationality; the religion has no name, it is simply the religion of the people of the Ryūkyū Islands. The Ryūkyū Islands, of which Okinawa is the main island, extend south and east from the south of Japan. They are a combination of sparsely populated, well-populated, and totally unpopulated islands and coral reefs. The Islands have, at various points in their history, been an independent kingdom, a tributary to China and Japan, incorporated into the Japanese Empire, and occupied by the United States (after World War II). Since 1972 the Islands have been part of Japan. Yet because of the isolation provided by the sea, many old customs have survived. Ryūkyūan culture has been notably unreceptive to outside beliefs, and has typically reinterpreted foreign elements in light of its own, indigenous cultural system.4

Ryūkyūan religion is characterized by a highly elaborated ritual calendar and sacred geography. Myriad events, dates, objects and locations are reasons for priestesses to perform religious rituals. Most rituals are directed toward appeasing, notifying, or thanking the divine beings known as kami.5

The most outstanding feature of Ryūkyūan culture is the belief in the spiritual predominance of women; on the Ryūkyūan Islands women dominate the religious life of the family, community, and (in the past) state. Only women can officially mediate between the supernatural and human beings, women are expected to be much more knowledgeable about religious matters than men, and men are required to participate in religious rituals led by women. It is of interest that the Ryūkyūans have adopted certain Chinese ancestral rites in minute detail—with one exception: in Ryūkyū unlike China the rites are conducted by women. In general, Ryūkyūans are dissatisfied if rituals are conducted by men. Ryūkyūan men do not even pray at the household hearth. Women are so thoroughly associated with the sacred that in the past the rare man who entered the sacred groves had to practice a form of ceremonial transvestism—that is, dress like a woman. This was true even for the chief ministers of state.

While the precise role of priestesses and the exact dates and compositions of rituals vary somewhat from island to island (Mabuchi 1964), the religious culture of the Ryūkyūs is basically hom*ogeneous.6 Within the household the sister predominates in spiritual matters, and the same is true within the kin-group, cult groups (in the southern Ryūkyū), village, and state. All public and almost all private religious rituals and festivals are conducted by women. In addition, personal problems are often solved by shamans, most of whom are women.

According to the Ryūkyū Islanders, men are spiritually protected by their sisters. The sister of the kin-group head is in charge of domestic rituals; the sister of the village headman is the village priestess; the sister of the king on Okinawa was the head priestess of the kingdom. Priestesses who marry out because of virilocal residence rules continue to return to their natal houses to act as priestesses for their brothers' households.

In contrast to Japan, Korea, and many other cultures in which the mainstream or official religious practitioners (priests) are men while the marginal practitioners (shamans) are women, on the Ryūkyūs both priestesses (noro) and shamans (yuta) are women. The very few male shamans on Okinawa are men with major physical disabilities that preclude their functioning in typical male roles. These men have a low social status and a reputation for being emotionally disturbed.

Almost all the clients who call on yuta are women. Even if the woman is accompanied by a husband or son, it is the woman who communicates directly with the yuta. In Ohashi's (1984) study of a middle-sized town in Okinawa, more than half the women had contacted yutas, with the percentage increasing as women age. Of women in their sixties, 85% had contacted yutas. When the women were asked in what religion they believe, more than three-quarters said “ancestor” (i.e., the traditional Okinawan religion), and among the older women nearly 100% gave that answer.

Douglas Haring noted that the association of women and religion in the Ryūkyū Islands is similar to what we know of early Japan—but in Japan, Buddhism and Confucianism exterminated that association. “Perhaps Buddhism failed to gain wide acceptance in … [the Ryūkyū Islands] despite centuries of propaganda because its priests were male” (1964, 121). On the other hand, William Lebra believes that there has been a decline in the power of priestesses on Okinawa beginning in the sixteenth or seventeenth century as a result of contact with China and the influence of Confucianism with its stress on the superiority of males, and the penetration of Japanese Buddhism emphasizing the ancestral cult through the male line. “From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, history reveals a persistent effort by the government to reduce the powers of the priestesses” (1966, 117).

It must be emphasized that unlike most other women's religions that are one option in a cultural situation providing two or more religious choices, the Ryūkyū Islands are the only known instance in which the official religion of a people is dominated by and oriented toward women.

Burmese Nat Religion

Buddhism is the state religion of Burma. Alongside of Buddhism, however, there is an earlier, indigenous religion that revolves around appeasem*nt of spirits known as nats. Nats are propitiated to prevent and cure illness, at key stages in the agricultural cycle, at births, deaths, and marriages, and at Buddhist initiations. Unlike Buddhism, nat rituals are dominated by women.

Melford Spiro, who conducted fieldwork in Burma, gives the name “supernaturalism” to this non-Buddhist Burmese religion. Since the concept “supernaturalism” is one that western scholars have imposed from the outside, I prefer to focus on the central element of the indigenous Burmese religion—belief in and rituals concerning nats or spirits—and refer to non-Buddhist Burmese religion as “nat religion.” Nat religion is, like Buddhism, an elaborated and articulated system of beliefs, rituals, and practitioners, organized at the household, the village, and the regional levels. Unlike Buddhism, nat religion is not a literate tradition—it has no sacred writings—nor is it a world religion—nat religion is practiced only in Burma. “Resting on a complex mythological charter, the nat cultus consists of an elaborated ritual system under the supervision of socially recognized cult leaders and practitioners. Although, from the Burmese point of view, the nat cultus does not constitute a religion, the fact remains that it rivals Buddhism in its elaborate cognitive, ceremonial, and organizational systemization” (Spiro 1967, 40). Buddhism and nat religion present radically different belief systems, yet there is little conflict between the two because canonical Buddhism recognizes the existence of spirits and demons, and sanctions their propitiation (Spiro 1971, 4).

Spiro's fieldwork was carried out in 1961–62 in a rural village in Upper Burma approximately 10 miles from the city of Mandalay. Spiro discovered that almost half the men but none of the women claimed not to believe in nats. Men and women agreed that women are more involved in nat propitiation, that women fear the nats more, and that women perform more nat rituals. Village nat shrines are almost always tended by women, and village nat ceremonies are attended almost exclusively by women. Shamans, who become possessed by nats, are almost all women. Women also bow to nats, while men do not. Villagers explained this difference in terms of the different status of men and women: within the [Buddhist] thirty-one abodes of existence men occupy a higher position than nats; women occupy a lower position. Thus women are more susceptible to attack by nats than men are. At major nat festivals, which attract thousands of people, women outnumber men by at least twenty to one (Spiro 1967, 123).

Every household gives offerings to the nat inherited through the mother's matriline and to the nat inherited through the father's patriline. According to June Nash (1966), if the parent's nats differ, the mother's nat is more likely to be inherited than the father's nat.7 Women are more concerned than men about propitiating nats, and it is women who give all the food offerings to the nats. Men, who are more involved in Buddhism, tend to either cease believing in nats or to believe that Buddhism gives them power to overcome the power of the nats. Typically, a woman assumes the responsibility for nat offerings when her mother, old and dying, pleads with her to carry on the propitiation or beware of the nat's wrath.

Although both men and women are involved in both Buddhism and nat religion, men are more identified with Buddhism and women with nat religion. Even more to the point, specialists in Buddhism (monks) are exclusively male, and nat shamans are overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) female. In Burma, almost all male children enter Buddhist monasteries as novitiates for a number of years (usually during adolescence). The time spent in the monastery strengthens men's ties to and knowledge of Buddhism, and reinforces women's perception of Buddhism as belonging to men more than to women. The Buddhist leaders with whom Burmese are acquainted—the monks and teachers—are men.

Spiro believes that Buddhism is the most important cultural force in the Burmese village. Buddhist devotions, holy days, and pilgrimages are observed by almost all villagers. In fact, Buddhism and nat religion are so well intertwined that the household nat also receives an offering at the ceremony of initiation of boys into the Buddhist monastic order, and, when disaster strikes, a ritual to propitiate the village nat may be combined with rituals performed by Buddhist monks. During the rice harvest one of the women of the work group performs a nat propitiation ritual for protection against snakes. Immediately afterwards, one of the men leads the group in the worship of a particular Buddha image believed to have the power to cure snake bites (Spiro 1967, 249). In many cases Buddhist and nat shrines are adjacent to one another.

On the other hand, the nats can be understood as symbolizing opposition to authority; when people participate in nat rituals they are, on the unconscious level, expressing their dissatisfaction with official Buddhism. Burmese often feel that Buddhist moral requirements are too strict, and that the consequences of violating Buddhist precepts are too severe. It is significant that nat myths often involve anti-Buddhist themes: disobeying Buddhist monks, honoring sensuality.

Spiro has developed a comparative model that highlights some of the central differences between nat religion and Buddhism. Whereas Buddhism emphasizes a moral code (right speech, right conduct, etc.), nats punish those who offend them regardless of the moral state of the individual, and the charter myths of the individual nats have nothing to do with moral behavior. Buddhism, deeply ascetic, teaches that attachment (to people, possessions, one's own body, etc.) is the cause of suffering and that the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate attachment. Nat religion is absolutely involved in this world—with this-worldly passions, this-worldly desires, and this-worldly relationships. Whereas the Buddhist monk renounces sexuality, sexual intercourse with a nat is the path to becoming a nat shaman. For Buddhists, liberation means dis-attachment from this world; Buddhism teaches that one should abandon family, wealth, glory, comfort. Nats, on the other hand, are propitiated solely for worldly ends—health and livelihood; nats and nat rituals are not concerned with salvation.

At the beginning of the eleventh century King Anawrahta tried to suppress the nat cult and enforce Buddhism as the state religion. He did not succeed in eradicating the nat cult, but did institutionalize it by appointing the Thirty-Seven “official” nats, and establishing a Buddhist nat as their overlord.

Both nat religion and Buddhism are deeply embedded within Burmese culture. Overlaps occur, but the two religious systems have remained distinct, and neither shows any signs of dying out. However, the two religions are not of equal status—Buddhism is consistently seen as more powerful. Observing Buddhist precepts renders one less vulnerable to harm by the nats. Monks are venerated, while shamans may be subject to ridicule and critique. The higher status of Buddhism, coupled with the belief that Buddhism offers magical protection even stronger than that offered by nat propitiation, leads one to wonder why nat religion continues to flourish. While I cannot provide a complete answer to that question, I would at least like to raise the possibility that the tenacity of nat religion lies in the dominant role of women as opposed to women's secondary role in Buddhist rituals.

Korean Shamanism and Household Religion

The Korean religious milieu includes Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and numerous new religions—all dominated by men—and the indigenous household religion—which is the province of women. Women's religion, often called “superstition” or “shamanism,” is sometimes considered to be everything that is not Confucian, Buddhist, or Christian. Some of its rituals are led by a shaman, and some are carried out by women alone at home. I will refer to this religious complex as shamanism or women's household religion. Korean shamanism, dominated by women, is a “professional elaboration upon Korean household religion” (Kendall 1983, 166); shamans are the experts in household religion. The Korean shaman is an accepted and recognized religious professional.

Youngsook Kim Harvey contends that in Korea, “The predominant religion is shamanism, despite its lack of organization, coherent doctrine, the outcast status of its practitioners, and a long history of official suppression extending back at least to the fourteenth century” (1976, 189). Shamanism is in practice supported by the majority of Koreans. To get a sense of the extent of shamanism, Harvey (1976) cites a 1932 source that estimates one shaman per 300 residents in P'yongyan, then the second largest urban center. According to a 1972 survey there was one shaman for every 314 people in Korea. A 1982 survey showed that there was only i Protestant minister per 1000 people and even fewer Buddhist monks than Protestant ministers (Suh 1989). Despite modernization, urbanization, the proliferation of new religions, and organized suppression of shamanism, shamans remain popular in Korea, and there is evidence that in urban areas their popularity is even increasing.

Women's household religion has received little scholarly attention, yet it is clearly a mainstream and pervasive phenomenon. Lacking ecclesiastical buildings and written doctrines, the religion is centered around the individual person of the shaman. “Scholars of Korean shamanism carefully avoid the term “religion” in defining the mudang [shaman] phenomenon … but … despite its lack of teachings or doctrines, … [it] still deserves to be called a religion. … It is the basic religious mindset of the Korean people” (Suh 1989, 6–7). In Korean women's household religion, the senior housewife (and because most families live neolocally, almost all women become senior housewives) honors the household gods. Similarly, village women bargain with the gods on behalf of the entire community. Larger rituals are presided over by shamans. At an elaborate ritual, kut, the costumed shaman is possessed by a succession of ghosts and ancestors. The job of the Korean shaman is to seek out the gods, engage them in conversation, lure them into houses, and bargain with them. She is an independent practitioner and does not collaborate with any sort of male religious functionary (Kendall 1985). Among the reasons for consulting shamans are to communicate with and placate ancestral spirits, to pick auspicious days for weddings and funerals, and to divine causes of illness, misfortune, and family discord.

Almost all Koreans who consult and hire shamans are women, and women are the most numerous and enthusiastic participants at shaman rituals. At these rituals most participants are women over the age of forty (Janelli and Janelli 1982). Not only the client but also her neighbors and friends actively participate in the shaman's kut. The women spend small amounts of money on divinations, they dance, and they form a concerned chorus (Kendall 1985). While this is going on, men gather in other rooms to drink and make derisive jokes about “superstitious women” (Wilson 1983, 124). Korean women sometimes hide from their husbands their involvement (particularly financial) with shamanism.

Male opposition to shamanism is sometimes merely a pose, and when very ill or suffering from prolonged misfortune, many men are perfectly happy to have their wives turn to shamans. Kendall stresses that Korean women and shamans and their rituals are not at odds with men and their goals. Shamans and housewives accept the values of Confucian society: children should respect elders, the living should honor ancestors, sons should be born. “This is often not the case, however, and shamans provide not only explanations but therapies” (1989, 141). It is crucial to understand how closely the various religious streams are woven together. “The same informant might worship at Buddhist temples, visit shaman shrines, and set down rice cake for the household gods” (Kendall 1983, 35). Buddhism, unlike Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, does not make an official demand of exclusive allegiance from its followers. In many Buddhist countries, other religions co-exist alongside, and sometimes intimately intertwined with, Buddhism. Many Korean Buddhists avail themselves of shamans, and even visit Christian churches of various denominations without feeling a conflict of loyalty. According to Kendall, Korean women see the rituals in the shaman's shrine and the offerings they make at the Buddhist temple as parallel. The prayers women make at Buddhist temples and shaman's shrines are the same: for the children, health, and a peaceful family life (1983a, 84).

Northern Thai Matrilineal Spirit Cults

In Northern Thailand groups of matrilineally related kin—people who are “of the same spirit”—make ritual food offerings to spirits known as phii puu njaa. Phii puu njaa are tutelary spirits who have been inherited from matrilineal ancestors who once served them. According to Cohen and Wijeyewardene, “We are justified in treating the phii puu njaa cult as a single cluster of institutional activity” (1984, 250). Since the ethnographic literature reports considerable variations both in cult group rituals and in Northern Thai social structure, the following paragraphs should be seen as an attempt to summarize in a very general way the nature and role of matrilineal spirit cults in the context of Northern Thai family and village life. For specific villages some of these remarks do not hold true.

“The role of women as custodians of the house spirit cult is one aspect of a more general association between women and domestic spirits. Every woman possesses a certain mystic essence, sometimes called a spirit (phii) and sometimes a teewadaa, which derives from her house and ultimately from her cult group spirit” (Davis 1984, 266). Thai matrilineal spirits are believed to reside in the female body and to succeed from a mother to her daughters. The spirits lodged in a woman's body would be violated if she were to have sex or any bodily contact with an outside man. A man giving money to propitiate his wife's spirits is the crucial element of marriage ceremonies.

“The [Northern Thai] matrifocal kinship system was legitimized by a belief In protector (territorial) spirits. … This spirit cult demanded one woman per family to reside in her household until the end of her life to take care of her domestic ancestral spirits. … Through this custom, kinship lineages evolved around the female members of related families” (Tantiwiramanond and Pandey 1987, 137).

The ritual constellation surrounding the phii puu njaa takes place within the context of extended family groups, also referred to as cult groups. All the matrilineal descendants of a founding ancestress constitute a cult group. Men are formally members of their mothers' groups, but in some families husbands join their wives' cult groups. The median size of the descent group (cult group) is four households (with a range of 1–24). The groups never seem to be more than six generations in depth, and the oldest ancestors remembered are typically a set of sisters. Ideally, the group spirit is lodged in a shrine located in a house site containing the original house, in which a female member of the senior generation currently lives. This woman is both descent group head and ritual officiant.

While in a very few ethnographic accounts men appear as ritual officiants of cult groups, most ethnographers have reported that older women officiate at all cult rituals. (A man, however, may fill in as cult leader after the death of the previous woman leader and until an appropriate young woman of the next generation comes of age.) Typically, men, having little to do with the cults, claim that they are women's business.

There has been scholarly disagreement as to the function of the cults: Some say that the primary function of the cults is to allocate rights to land, and the ritual aspects are secondary. Others argue that the cults serve(d) as an institution of social control, and especially of controlling female sexuality. Andrew Turton contends that descent groups and their cults have important jural and symbolic, rather than economic, functions. He quotes a village headman: “Even within the memory of my mother there were no officials, no law … not even a village headman, no single leader, only the old men … then the phii puu yaa (descent group spirits) were the law … though not really law, it was mutual respect” (1976, 214).

In recent times many Northern Thai men and women have moved away from their villages to urban centers. Ethnographers have found that adult women who have moved away from their natal villages and from the authority of their parents remain under the control of their cult group spirits.

In the cities, professional women spirit mediums have begun to replace female family cult leaders. In many instances these mediums claim to be possessed by their own ancestral spirits, thereby guaranteeing the continuation of the traditional cults (Irvine 1984, 316). Gehan Wijeyewardene believes that this contemporary mediumship “had its institutional anchor in the matrifocal spirit cults, though there is no reason to suppose that its practice was confined to these cults” (1986, 153). Although urban mediumship is not an obvious or spectacular phenomenon, most urban Northern Thai probably know how to find a spirit medium, and some people are acquainted with several. During the ninth lunar month groups of women (and some men) get together and dance in public. This festival, according to Wijeyewardene, “establishes the institution of urban membership as a public, culturally sanctioned one, rather than some vaguely illicit, private practice” (1986, 223).

Although Thais have traditionally been tolerant of other religions, Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand, and the Thai king is required by the constitution to be a Buddhist. In Thailand, as in Burma, the Buddhist temple is the symbolic center of village life, monks are the most prestigious residents of the village, the annual cycle is structured around Buddhist festivals and ritual events, and contributions to monks and the temple take a significant amount of village money.

Buddhism defines women as inherently lower in religious status than men. Women are excluded from the sangha (community of monks), while many Thai men become monks, or at least novices, for some portion of their lives. Whereas a man's major merit-making act (in Buddhist terms) is ordination, a woman's is giving a son for ordination. The rationale for excluding Thai women from Buddhist monastic orders is the fear that women would lead holy men astray. In this system, monks are always meritorious whereas the laity are always deficient in merit. This compels the laity (especially women) to be economically active in order to have enough to give food to the monks, whereas monks are exempt from economic activity. Monks welcome women's economic support, but are suspicious of their sexual and reproductive powers. The belief that a son as a monk can accrue special merit for his parents (especially his mother) means that sons and daughters in a family are treated differently. The son is excused from household chores while girls are expected to be active in the house. Sons are given greater consideration. Daughters are taught to serve and yield to elders and males. Being a mother or wife does not give one merit. A mother gains supreme merit only when her son is ordained. Tantiwiramanond and Pandey refer to this as a “merit trap” for women, inducing women to become mothers of sons and depreciating women's economic contributions (1987, 131). A son could repay his debt to his parents by becoming a monk. A daughter could repay this debt only by being a lifelong caretaker of her parents.

Because women were deprived of entry into monasteries, they were also deprived of literacy, which until the twentienth century was acquired only in Buddhist monasteries. Lack of literacy meant lack of access to knowledge of medicine, arts, and lack of social mobility and political participation. “Buddhism became a legitimizing agent for the Thai patriarchy to affirm and sanction the role of women which was limited to reproduction and economic production” (Tantiwiramanond and Pandey 1987, 132). Although women are seen as being on a lower plane of karma than men, in many other ways laymen and women are not greatly differentiated in Theravada Buddhism, and the distinction between male and female appears to be less important in old age as sexual activities wane.

Thai women are very involved in economic activity. Thomas Kirsch (1985) interprets this as reflecting women's lower status in Buddhism; economic activity is one more symptom of being “rooted” in the world. Charles Keyes (1984), on the other hand, argues that popular Buddhist texts portray women as inherently good, especially as mothers. Through their personal experiences of the loss of lovers and children, women are more easily able to understand Buddhist teaching. Kirsch, in return, contends that women's attachment to their children has a negative valuation in Buddhist ideology. According to Tantiwiramanond and Pandey, Buddhism has played a crucial role in subordinating women. “Through religion, women internalized a view of themselves as the subordinate sex in society. A woman not only had to become a mother—to provide fresh labor for the subsistence agricultural system—but also had to bear at least one son—in order to be eligible for ‘extreme merit’ ” (1985, 142).

Wijeyewardene (1970; 1977) contrasts the inner shrine in the Buddhist monastery in which monks conduct rituals from which laymen (and all women) are excluded, with the spirit cult shrine located in the eldest woman's bedroom from which unrelated males are excluded. He believes that the spirit cults are a female response to the male domination of the monastic Buddhism and to Thai ideas about female pollution. However, since there is no reason to believe that Buddhism predates the matrilineal spirit cults (indeed, the opposite is more likely), we can equally well argue that the ease with which Buddhism conquered Thailand constituted a male response to the female domination of household religion.8

In a fascinating study, Steven Piker (1972) has looked at how Thai individuals deal with the conflicting beliefs of Thai spirit religion and Buddhism. He found that most people feel that the two sets of beliefs are coherent. One of the most common ways that Thai villagers reconcile conflicting beliefs is by saying that they themselves are not learned in Buddhism and that if one wants to understand these questions one should go to the city and ask the really learned monks.9

North America

The second culture area in which women's religions cluster is North America, specifically during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The confluence of a variety of historical and cultural factors has given rise to this cross-culturally rather anomalous situation.

To begin with, neolocal living arrangements combined with high geographic mobility have meant that Americans tend to live outside the sort of closed and powerful extended family groups that could perpetuate kinship-based religions. Individual Americans, including individual women, are relatively free to join new religions. In addition, the cultural pluralism of America has resulted in a situation in which individuals are aware that other people believe in different religions than they themselves do. Unlike in isolated villages or tribes, people know that their own beliefs and rituals are not the only ones that exist.

The well-documented “feminization of American religion” that took place in the nineteenth century has meant that American women arc inclined to see religion as their own sphere of action (Welter 1966). Nineteenth-century women's religions grew out of a century of evangelical revivalism that spoke of women's superior moral qualities. It bears emphasizing that in contemporary American culture, religion in general is seen as women's sphere. Studies show that American women are more religious than men both in terms of church attendance and personal faith and commitment to orthodox beliefs (Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi 1975, 71–79). While the feminization of religion is clearly rooted in European religious experience (see Desan 1990), the institutionalization of the process is more characteristic of American religion.

Both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the growth of feminism has parallelled the development of women's religions in the United States. It is not surprising that feminist political awareness is reflected in feminist religious awareness.

Christian Science

After decades of struggling with illness and marital difficulties, Mary Baker Eddy discovered the central tenet of Christian Science: The world as we see it with our physical senses is illusory.10 Therefore, sickness and suffering are illusory. Once the individual understands that this is so, his or her sickness and suffering will disappear. Women have been the majority of Christian Scientists since its founding by Eddy during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Christian Science rejected the Calvinist theology of its day, which emphasized final judgment, endless punishment of sinners and nonbelievers, predestination, and the salvation of only a select few. Christian Science sees itself as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and relies heavily on Biblical interpretation. The God of Christian Science is the God of the Bible, and Christian revelation is accepted as true.

Christian Scientists believe that people are already perfect; there is no need for a future salvation. Through Christian Science people are awakened to an understanding of the perfection that is already theirs as children of God. The function of Christian Science ritual is to demonstrate that perfection. People under the illusion that matter is real cannot break with this illusion on their own; they need a mediator to awaken them from their false belief. Jesus was one such mediator, but Christ as the ideal of humankind was not confined to Jesus. Jesus was unusual in that he fully embodied the Christ, but everyone is capable of attaining what Jesus attained. Christian Science endeavors to be a very rational religion; its belief system is “proven” through successful spiritual healing.

In the early years female practitioners (healers) of Christian Science outnumbered males by about five to one (Gottschalk 1973). In the United States of 1926, 55.7% of members of all churches were women, yet 75% of Christian Scientists were women (Stark and Bainbridge 1985, 237). In the United States during the 1950, 87.7% of Christian Science practitioners were women (mostly married women, Wilson 1961, 198). Through the 1950 Christian Science church attendance was made up of more than twice as many women as men (Wilson 1961, 199). A more recent study found the ratio of female to male practitioners to be 8:1 (Fox 1989, 100).

Recruitment to Christian Science is through conversion; even those raised in the faith must make a deliberate decision to accept or reject the religion. There is a formal membership process in Christian Science, and members cannot belong to any other denominations. Christian Science realizes that healing is its best advertisem*nt and its best way of recruiting members. Since the early twentieth century most members have been middle class. Stephen Gottschalk has explicated the affinity between Christian Science and American middle-class beliefs that a person can control his or her own destiny, that it is wrong to submit to undesirable conditions, and that achievement and upward mobility are highly desirable.

A recurrent pattern throughout Christian history has been the labeling of new movements as heretical. Accusations of heresy often coincide with the condemnation of active participation and leadership of women in these movements (e.g., Montanism). Christian Science, especially in the early days, was vehemently opposed by Protestant clergy; it was accused by the medical profession of harming people's health; and Eddy herself was often the target of personal abuse.

As I will later show, Christian Science differs from almost all other women's religions in several ways: Its belief system is complex and unconditionally obligatory, it is based on a large written literature, and the church organization is highly centralized.


In 1742 a group known as the Shakers emerged from the multilayered spiritual environment of eighteenth-century England. The early Shakers attracted the local proletariat, particularly from the textile mills of Lancaster. In 1758 Ann Lee, born into a working-class family in Manchester, joined the Shakers, and by 1770 assumed a leadership role. In 1774, having received a vision promising that the millennial church would be established in New York, she took a small group of followers with her and left England for the New World. Believing Ann Lee to be the Savior, in 1776 the Shakers founded a community near Albany. Both in England and in the United States the Shakers were persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Shakers believed the End of Days to be imminent. They saw proof for this in the socioeconomic upheavals of the late eighteenth century, and in the revelation of Ann Lee as the second coming of Christ. They emphasized religious experience instead of doctrine or creed; Shakers were famous for their emotionally stirring and physically active forms of worship (dancing and shaking). In the early years, Shakers made use of the emotional shock brought about by the unveiling of personal secrets. Sermons dealt at length with the regions of darkness in which lost souls suffered in agony.

Shaker communities grew during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet Shakerism never became a mass movement. The rural communities served as the ideological, spiritual, and organizational centers of the Shaker religion, although not all Shaker believers renounced their former lives and went to live in Shaker communities. Within these communities, Shaker “brethren” and “sisters” were organized into “families” or administrative units of between thirty and one hundred members, each of which was governed by two male elders and two female eldresses.

Based on records kept by the American Shakers, we have some picture of who joined their agricultural communities. “Though they embraced a radical gospel of millennarian perfectionism, the Shakers were not a dispossessed or socially deviant constituency. … sectarian beliefs could appeal to a representative cross section of rural New England society” (Marini 1982, 96). From the perspective of gender, however, it is clear that the Shaker way was not equally appealing to everyone. Whereas almost equal numbers of men and women joined the Shakers, far more women than men remained in the communities for long periods of time (Foster 1981; Stein 1992).11 Thus, the reality was that Shaker women outnumbered Shaker men by approximately 2:1 (Desroche 1971, 131), and in some communities there were less than half a dozen brethren between the ages of eighteen and forty-five (Brewer 1992, 630). Shaker communities underwent demographic changes over time, and the unbalanced gender ratio became much more pronounced as the years went on. It is likely that while Shaker theology was equally attractive to men and women, the neat, safe, and ordered life-style was particularly compelling for women. In addition, it may be that the Shakers consciously sought greater female than male membership. William Sims Bainbridge raises the provocative possibility that as the Shakers came to realize that many boys and men would defect, they began to accept fewer and fewer males (1982, 360).

Shaker ideology explicitly addressed issues of gender inequality. They developed a dual form of leadership, with a man and a woman at every level of the hierarchy. In addition, they believed that celibacy would contribute to the breakdown of women's subordination.

Ann Lee was the leader of the Shakers until her death in 1783. After her death, leadership was taken over by men, James Whittaker from 1784 until 1787, and Joseph Meacham from 1787 until 1796. This pattern—the founding of a new religion by a charismatic woman and then institutionalized leadership by men—is a common one in the history of religions. In the case of the Shakers, however, female leadership was resumed in 1796 by Lucy Wright, who retained leadership until her death twenty-five years later. Following Wright, there was no one single leader, either male or female, but rather groups of men and women who led the Society. At certain times, male leadership was in ascendancy. From 1876 onwards, women played increasingly prominent roles in the Society's leadership. During the twentieth century, “Shaker women began to dominate nearly every aspect of the society's life” (Stein 1992, 256).

The mid- to late nineteenth-century religious climate in the United States did not encourage large groups of people to seek radical religious alternatives, and Shaker membership accordingly declined from the mid-nineteenth century on. Because of the celibate Shaker life-style, Shaker membership was limited to adults who had actively chosen to join the Shakers, and to children who were brought by their parents to Shaker communities. Many of these children left the Shakers after adulthood (Stein 1992). Shakerism thrived as long as its religious vision and economic organization appealed to segments of the American and English population. Peak membership was reached in the mid-nineteenth century at nearly 4000 members (Bainbridge 1982).

It is tempting to compare Shakerism to Christian Science—both are Christian-derived religions founded by English-speaking women. A closer look, however, shows some interesting differences. Shakers, unlike Christian Scientists, advocated celibacy and pacifism. Shakers lived in isolated communities where all property was communally owned; Christian Science encouraged its members to mix with the world. Shaker communities were in rural areas, while most Christian Scientists have been urban dwellers. The Shakers attracted mostly (although not exclusively) poor and working-class members, while Christian Science membership has tended to be middle class. Whereas Christian Science provides means of overcoming problems met with in this world, Shakerism prevents its followers from encountering such problems by living in Utopian communities. Shakers emphasize the millennium while Christian Science emphasizes healing (see Klein 1979). And finally, the Shakers have all but disappeared while Christian Science still thrives.

Feminist Spirituality and Womanist Theology

Writing about the contemporary Feminist Spirituality Movement(s) of North America and Western Europe is an extraordinarily complex task. As a religious system it is quite new (it began in the 1970) and still evolving. There are no official sacred texts, no absolute leaders, no required affirmations of faith, no membership dues, and no undisputed agenda of beliefs and rituals. Feminist Spirituality encourages and accepts as valid and legitimate the inspirations, dreams, visions, experiences, and interpretations of individual women. In contrast to many other women's religions that lack self-generated literature (as opposed to studies conducted by outsiders), Feminist Spirituality is an exceptionally prolific religious movement; its corpus of literature includes novels, diaries, descriptions of rituals, sacred histories, and philosophical treatises. Yet none of these writings is considered canonical. The theological and ritual focus of Feminist Spirituality is the celebration of womanhood.

Because women active in the Movement are aware that they are creating a new religion, one of their most important challenges is the search for authenticity. On the one hand, Feminist Spirituality roots its claims for authenticity in the academy: archeology (statues of ancient goddesses), anthropology (studies of primitive cultures in which women are less oppressed than in modern society), history (reports of persecution of women throughout the ages), literary analysis (of books by women authors), and psychology (Kristeva, Jung, Melanie Klein, and others). The very eclectic literature of the Feminist Spirituality Movement has delved into symbols from African religions, African-American traditions, and the Ancient Near East. On the other hand, Spiritual Feminists focus their search for authenticity on women's dreams, fantasies, intuitions, and direct revelations and encounters with the sacred.

A second challenge faced by the Feminist Spirituality Movement has been to negotiate the relationship between religion and politics. The Movement is clearly a feminist (as opposed to women's) movement, and in many groups political action, especially around issues of ecology and women's rights, is perceived as having spiritual elements. Simultaneously, celebrating and strengthening womanhood through rituals is seen as preparing women for political action.

Just as it is difficult to point to a static set of beliefs and rituals and call them “Feminist Spirituality,” it is difficult to point to a particular group of women and call them “Spiritual Feminists.” A large core of Spiritual Feminists identify themselves as witches and belong to organized covens. Other Spiritual Feminists belong to ritual or study groups that do not identify with Wicca (witch) religion. To further complicate matters, many women who feel a sense of identity with the Spiritual Feminist Movement have retained affiliation with the Jewish or Christian group in which they were raised. Such women would be likely to participate in both Feminist rituals and Jewish or Christian rituals, and to work at effecting feminist change within mainstream Jewish or Christian denominations. Although no one really knows how many Spiritual Feminists there are, Solovitch (1990) has estimated that they number about 100,000 in the United States today.12

The Feminist Spirituality Movement offers women rituals celebrating the female life cycle: menarche, first org*sm, birth, and menopause. Other rituals reflect the cycle of nature, and the winter and summer solstices and autumn and spring equinoxes are celebrated by many Spiritual Feminist groups.

Starhawk's Truth or Dare (1987)

includes rituals for building community and rituals for self-knowledge and conquering fear, a ritual for healing from abuse, a body praise ritual, and a ritual of preparation for political struggle.

Parallel to the Feminist Spirituality Movement—which has attracted mostly white and middle-class women—the Womanist Movement has developed among black women.13 Cheryl Sanders offers the following succinct definition of Womanism: “The womanist is a black feminist who is audacious, willful and serious; loves and prefers women, but also may love men; is committed to the survival and wholeness of entire people, and is universalist, capable, all loving, and deep” (1989, 86).

Womanist theology draws on secular feminism, Christianity, the writings of Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple), and African-American folk culture. Unlike white Feminist Spirituality, which is often separatist and anti-male, Womanism affirms black women's “historic connection with men through love and through a shared struggle for survival and for productive quality of life” (Williams 1989, 182). Womanism gives black women the freedom to explore their own history and culture, without being constrained by what white feminists have already identified as women's issues.14

Both Feminist Spirituality and Womanism differ from contemporary mainstream Christianity and from American civil religion in several ways. These women's religions embrace non-materialistic value systems, decentralized organizations, ongoing revelation, and female images of divinity.


Spiritualism, like Feminist Spirituality and Korean household religion, is difficult to pin down. To begin with, Spiritualists are infamous for being unable or unwilling to form a permanent organization to which all Spiritualist groups belong. In addition, a number of somewhat different religious streams in North and South America and in Europe call themselves “Spiritualists.” In this chapter I focus primarily on the popular and vibrant Spiritualist movement of nineteenth-century North America. In addition, I draw upon studies of contemporary North American and British Spiritualist groups, and of contemporary Mexican Spiritualism. The core belief of all these groups is that spirits of the dead can communicate with the living. The central rituals are seances at which this communication is carried out.

The founding of Spiritualism as a popular movement is usually said to have occurred in March 1848 when Kate and Margaret Fox, two young sisters who lived on a New York farm, heard loud rappings emanating from within their house. They attributed the rappings to the spirit of a murdered traveling salesman. Although the founding of Spiritualism may be traced to a discrete event, Spiritualist phenomena spread spontaneously throughout large parts of the United States and England. In the half century after the Fox sisters heard their rappings, hundreds of thousands of individuals, mostly women, gathered in private homes and in public lecture halls, and witnessed the ability of some human beings to communicate with the spirit world. Since most people who attended Spiritualist rituals did not belong to any kind of organization, it is not possible to know how many Spiritualists there were during the mid-nineteenth century. Estimates ranged from I to 11 million (Moore 1977, 14). When Spiritualism spread to England, it became even more popular than in the United States. There was intense opposition to Spiritualism from Christian ministers, doctors, and scientists. Physicians looked as Spiritualism as an illness. Opponents of Spiritualism were preoccupied both with supposed fraudulence in Spiritualist performances, and with the evil inherent in summoning the dead.

In the beginning Spiritualism was not a full-fledged religion—it presented no new theology. In fact, it was seen primarily as a new scientific innovation—similar to the telegraph. But in response to opposition from Christian denominations, it began to develop a coherent theology. Spiritualist beliefs boil down to two key notions: The human personality survives the death of the body, and it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead.

Geoffrey Nelson (1969) has itemized all the forms of spirit manifestations practiced by Spiritualists in 1860: rappings, spirit writing and drawing, trance and trance speaking, clairvoyance and clairaudience, luminous phenomena, spiritual impersonation (behaving with mannerisms of the departed), spirit music, visible and tactual manifestations, spirit intercourse by means of mirror or crystal or water, apparitions of the departed, visions and previsions, dreams, presentiments, spirit influx by which ideas are infused into the mind, speaking in tongues, and possession. Spiritualists sec these manifestations as empirical proof of Spiritualist tenets.

Unlike most other religious denominations of the nineteenth century, Spiritualism afforded women equal authority and opportunities. Studies conducted at the time show that the majority of Spiritualist mediums were women, and the popular press portrayed male mediums as effeminate and confused (Moore 1977, 105). June Macklin (1977) found that in 1975 approximately 70% of Spiritualist mediums in the United States were women.

Ann Braude (1989) analyzes women's involvement with Spiritualism in light of the other religious options of the day. Although piety and morality were viewed as female traits, women were forbidden from preaching and sometimes even speaking in mainstream churches. Women could see that most people who attended church were female, but the church leaders were male. In contrast, “If, during a seance, a woman became the principal actor, the instigator and director of the proceedings, it was because she was thought to possess not only genuine spiritual power but also the right to exercise it. Spiritualism validated the female authoritative voice and permitted women an active professional and spiritual role largely denied them elsewhere” (Owen 1981, 6).

During the nineteenth century Spiritualism was popular among the educated and among religious skeptics, as well as among former political radicals who had become disenchanted with the possibility of creating Utopia in this world and began to look for Utopia in the next. Mid-nineteenth-century Spiritualists tended to support abolition, temperance, women's rights, and social reform. By the end of the nineteenth century, Spiritualism had ceased functioning as a reform movement, those who cared for social reform left the movement, and Spiritualist societies became more and more conservative.

Spiritualist seances typically consist of women mediums helping women clients communicate with departed family members. Contact with the spirits is sought in order to request advice concerning earthly problems, and this aspect of Spiritualism has remained popular today in Great Britain and the United States. Spiritualism does not demand that its members forgo membership in other religions, and Spiritualist groups often choose not to meet on Sunday in order to allow their members to attend church with more conventional Christian denominations. In modern Spiritualist groups most members have been drawn in after having experienced some event that the person considers to be psychic.

In contemporary Mexican Spiritualism, women predominate as clients, healers, and leaders. Although their beliefs are similar to those of American and British Spiritualism, the ritual focus is more on healing than on conversational communication with the spirit world (Finkler 1985b. According to the head of one Spiritualist Temple in Mexico City, Spiritualism is “a total religion, we have our symbols, our laws, and our liturgy” (Finkler 1986, 629).

African and African-American Religions

The social and historical contexts of the African and African-American examples are different from those of either the East and Southeast Asian or the North American examples. While it would be absurdly reductionist to make any sort of global claim about all of Africa, it does seem that a recurrent theme in the ethnographic literature on Africa is gender complementarity—the notion that men and women contribute to the preservation of society in different but equally important ways. Religiously, this often means that men and women have their own somewhat independent rituals, cults, or secret societies. I will present the Sande secret society of Sierra Leone as an example of this cultural pattern. Another characteristic of traditional African religion is its embeddedness in kinship organization and family relations. As we will see, this has rather different implications for men and women.

Knowing that the indigenous religions of Africa often offered opportunities for religious expression and leadership both to men and to women, it becomes interesting to follow the effects of various kinds of changes on this more-or-less egalitarian situation. Throughout much of Africa, Islam has now become the dominant religion. Parallel to growth of Islam with its almost total exclusion of women from Islamic rituals, in some parts of Islamicized Africa women have formed new, non-Islamic (albeit “marginal” in the eyes of male authorities) religious groups. Religious practices involving zār possession are the best-documented, yet far from sole, example of this pattern. A question that cannot be fully answered is to what extent women's possession cults (like the zār) are new responses to Islam, and to what extent they are leftover from pre-Islamic African religion (as in the model for Southeast Asia presented above). Writing about spirit possession among the Diga of south Kenya, Roger Gomm demonstrates that the traditional propitiation of nature spirits once involved both men and women, but is now almost solely a female concern (1975, 134). Similarly, there is good evidence that what is currently the almost all-female bori cult of the Hausa once was the mainstream religion that involved both men and women (Lewis et al. 1991). Although anthropologists and historians talk about the zār cult as having originated in Ethiopia during the past 200 years, spirit possession has a long history in Africa. What we may say with some assurance is that while the zār cult in its present institutionalized and predominantly female form is a new phenomenon, zār-type beliefs and practices are neither foreign nor innovative.

An equally interesting question concerns what happened to African religion in the wake of forcible transfer of slaves to America. While all slaves suffered oppression, violence, and culture clash, men and women experienced slavery in different ways. For example, women more often than men were victims of sexual assault. In many parts of America slavery led to the breakup of families, and men more than women were cut off from any sort of family life, while women and children were often able to maintain some semblance of family relationships. Given the embeddedness of traditional African religion in the family, slavery often meant that women more than men continued to observe religious rituals.

In the post-slavery period African-American men have often found it necessary to leave their families in order to obtain employment either in distant cities or as migrant laborers. Again, the result has been that women are more involved in both family and religion than are men.

Variations of this process took place in Brazil and among the Black Caribs of Belize. It is significant that in both these societies women are also more involved in Roman Catholic rituals than men. Like white North Americans, African-Americans perceive religion (whether female dominated or not) as a female enterprise. In contrast to East and Southeast Asia where new religions attracted men, thus leaving the indigenous religion in women's hands, economic necessity forced African-American men to withdraw from both the familial and religious realms, thus leaving religion (albeit syncretic rather than purely indigenous ones) in women's hands.


The Sande women's secret society exists under various names throughout West Africa, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, and Guinea. Among the Mende, Sherbro and Temne tribes of Sierra Leone nearly 95% of all women undergo initiation into Sande (Margai 1948). Among the Mende (and most likely among the other tribes in which Sande is present) the whole realm of the sacred is controlled by the secret societies. “Most observers of Mende society have been struck by the enormous weight secret societies carry in Mende life. … Like the medieval church, Poro [the men's secret society] and Sande provide sanctions for nearly every sphere of secular life. They embody and control supernatural power, lay down rules of conduct, and provide the major source of propitiation for transgressions of sacred and of secular law” (Cosentino 1982, 22).

During initiation rituals, Sande women gather for weeks or months in “bush schools,” away from contact with nonmembers and men. Sande initiation is concerned with the cultural construction of fertility and reproduction. Adolescent girls are taught about childbirth, trained in household tasks, and encouraged to cooperate with other women. Sande teaches women what they need to know to function in their community: spinning, weaving, fishing, net making, house and mother craft, first aid, and medicinal herbs.

A central element of initiation is ritual cl*toridectomy (see Chapter 6). Another is the appearance of a masked figure who is said to embody Sande spirit. “These masks are representations of spiritual and mythological symbols translated into wood and designed to express a spiritual message so complete that future generations can do no more than learn from its mysteries” (Richards 1973, 76).

Sande chapters are not unified into any sort of central organization. Each chapter owns secret knowledge that is passed on to initiates. Sande chapters also own ritual objects and medicine; that is, “physical substances with effective pharmacological properties and physical substances which link persons with sources of power in the universe” (MacCormack 1977, 95).

Girls are typically initiated into the Sande chapter in their mothers' villages, but, because post-marriage residence is virilocal, transfer to the chapter in the husband's village. Women try to return to their natal villages to give birth in the chapter in which they were initiated. “Sande spreads as women migrate, following marriage, to live virilocally with their husbands' people.” (MacCormack 1979, 28).

Women continue to participate in Sande activities throughout their lives. Older women especially may devote a great deal of time to Sande concerns. A men's secret society known as Poro exists in parallel to Sande, and both Poro and Sande leaders may have a great deal of power outside the secret society.

The available ethnographic descriptions of Sande suggest that Sande women do not see themselves as a formal congregation. On the other hand, Carol MacCormack discovered that Sande women in Lungi, Moyamba District, are buried in a great mound in the village. “The mound reminds inhabitants of the power of women to bless and succor, their power existing in unbroken continuity from the living to the ancestors” (1977, 95).

Sande has served as a power base for women both vis-à-vis their own menfolks who can be punished by Sande for infringement of Sande rules, and vis-à-vis outside authorities. For example, Sande women have organized to protest unfair taxes on a number of occasions (see Chapter 13).

Afro-Brazilian Religions

The rich and eclectic twentieth century Afro-Brazilian cults are the most renowned and best-documented examples of religions dominated by women. Known as Candomble (in Bahia), Umbanda (in large metropolitan areas), Batuque (in Belem), Xango (in Recife), and Macumba (in the southern parts of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo), the cults appeal primarily to women. Anthropologists consider these cults to be syncretic—synthesizing elements of African tribal religions, Amerindian religions, Catholicism, and Kardecism (French Spiritism). The various Afro-Brazilian religions differ among themselves, and I will point out some of the more interesting differences. They are, however, sufficiently similar to be treated as a group.

The most celebrated feature of these cults are public rituals in which mediums are possessed by supernatural beings from an eclectic retinue of African, Catholic, and Amerindian deities, spirits, and heros. Possession is attained through a variety of techniques, most notably dancing, and possessed mediums behave in the manner characteristic of the possessing spirit. What attracts most adherents to the religions is curing, and most people who attend Afro-Brazilian religious rituals do so in order to be healed of a variety of illnesses or misfortunes. There are many supporters or followers who visit cult centers, but never become mediums. These people approach the gods and saints who are incorporated in a medium, and ask for advice concerning particular problems. The petitioner is typically given elaborate instructions about herb baths and candle lighting, and told to make contributions to the medium or cult center.

Esther Pressel (1974; 1980) explains the widespread appeal of the Afro-Brazilian religions in light of the strong historical base of spirit possession religions in both Africa and the New World, the failure of medical facilities to keep pace with developments in other spheres of Brazilian society, and the failure of the elitist Catholic Church to meet the needs of people in the rapidly modernizing Brazil.

In fact, Afro-Brazilian religions do not seem to compete with the Church. Despite Brazil's official Catholicism, true Catholic belief is rather rare; the real religion of most people is Afro-Brazilian religion which includes Catholic influenced practices (Landes 1940). For example, mediums honor the saints who are adored by their chief encantados (spirits) and place pictures of these saints on their home shrines (Leaco*ck and Leaco*ck 1972). Over 90% of Brazilians are baptized in the Catholic Church, and over 50% of Brazilians are either spirit mediums or have attended sessions of spirit groups to obtain spiritual assistance. Babies are sometimes baptized in both Catholic and Afro-Brazilian rituals, and marriages are performed by both religions (Pressel 1974). Not surprisingly, the established Catholic Church is less concerned about the traditional lower-class Afro-Brazilian religions like Batuque and Candomble (as they are seen as part of the superstition of the ignorant poor) and more bothered by the religions that attract the educated middle class (like Umbanda).

John Burdick (1990) has compared the appeal of Umbanda, Pentecostalism, and Roman Catholicism for urban Brazilian women. (Most of his comparisons are true for other Afro-Brazilian religions as well.) Whereas Umbanda and Pentecostalism attract women seeking help with domestic problems, women claim that Catholic priests cannot understand their problems because celibate men do not know anything about domestic life. In addition, Catholic church groups are based in the local neighborhoods, so if a woman shares her problem with the Church group all her neighbors will know and gossip about her. The Church tends to blame people rather than supernatural forces for domestic conflict, a viewpoint that easily leads to acrimonious relationships and guilt feelings. The association of poor Brazilian women with the Church is further weakened by contemporary liberation theology stressing societal rather than individual problems, thus ignoring the day-to-day needs of most Brazilian women. Finally, Marian devotion encourages resignation to suffering, an existential stance many Brazilian women find unappealing.

Pentecostalism and Umbanda, on the other hand, blame supernatural entities for domestic conflict, and provide clear means for coping (expelling the devil in Pentecostalism, spirit possession in Umbanda). Pentecostal and Umbanda rituals are gathering places for people with problems—everyone has problems—so people are not afraid that they will be gossiped about.

But whereas Pentecostal beliefs are absolute and dichotomized (God vs. the devil), Umbanda is ambiguous and multifaceted. In Umbanda humans can influence and bargain with the spirits, and the rituals and beliefs are flexible enough so that one can always find a culprit for one's problems. Whereas Pentecostalism preaches human weakness and total submission to God, Umbanda gives a woman magical tools to get revenge against those who have used the spirits to harm her.

A woman will sometimes ask for help in more than one religion. According to Burdick she is not simply “hedging her bets” or “shopping around.” Rather, “In each place she can articulate her predicament in a slightly different way, emphasizing different aspects of the problem” (1990, 167). Catholicism nurtures perseverance, Pentecostalism “letting go,” and Umbanda self-help.

The Afro-Brazilian religions documented in the ethnographic literature are composed primarily of women, and the extent to which men are involved varies from group to group. In general, in the more conservative (African) groups men have less of a role, in the newer groups (such as Umbanda) men are more involved. The first cult centers in Bahia were founded by women priestesses. And Lerch (1980) has documented that in Porto Alegre in 1974–75, 80–85% of mediums in Umbanda centers were women.15

A number of factors discourage men from becoming mediums. The strong Brazilian masculinity complex is not conducive to obedience to spirits and temple leaders. Women are believed to be “softer” or easier for possessing spirits to penetrate. In the more traditional Afro-Brazilian cults men are not supposed to become possessed at all, and the ritual dancing and singing are seen as feminine activities. There is a popular belief that male mediums are hom*osexuals (Pressel, 1974, claims that in fact this is probably not true, but people believe it anyway.) In addition, more men than women work at jobs with regular hours and so do not have the time to spend at sessions. When men do find spare time, they have other places (such as bars) to meet friends, whereas women are much more confined to their homes. Lastly, in Brazil all religion is seen as a feminine activity—even the Catholic Church has trouble recruiting enough priests.

Black Carib (Garifuna) Religion

Old women are the religious leaders of the Black Caribs of Belize.16 Black Caribs, who constitute minority communities in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, are descendants of African slaves and Carib Indians. Black Carib religion is a composite of African, Amerindian, and Roman Catholic elements. Middle-aged and old women dominate the religious life of the Black Caribs of Belize.

The kinship structure of Black Carib communities consists of matrifocal extended families, and households typically revolve around a woman, her daughter(s), and their children. Black Carib children are rarely reared exclusively by both biological parents. Fathers are frequently absent working as migrant wage laborers, and many grandmothers are involved in childcare on a daily basis. As women are “in charge of” kinship, they are also “in charge of” religion. According to Virginia Kerns, whose 1983 study is the best source on Black Carib kinship and religion, informants told her that anyone may take part in ritual—it is just that older women are “more interested” (1983, 167). Black Carib religious ritual is directly related to kinship. The greater part of Black Carib religion consists of rituals aimed at honoring, caring for or appeasing ancestors. The goodwill of ancestors is deemed as necessary to the well-being of descendants. “The ancestral cult … when considered in terms of its practical implications, and its role in preserving the traditions of the group, must be regarded as the core of the Black Carib system of belief” (Coelho 1955, 135).

Older women feel that it is their responsibility to perform rituals on behalf of their ancestors. Because a goal of ancestor ritual is to ensure that ancestors will not harm descendants, older women—who stand at the center of the generational chain—are pivotal ceremonial actors. Their ritual responsibility and expertise guarantee that children and grandchildren will be healthy and happy. Typical rituals involve singing, dancing, and feasting, and spirit possession by ancestors. According to Douglas Taylor's 1951 study, at mourning rituals, “The women … at a conservative estimate, outnumber the men in the proportion of four to one” (117).

Older Black Carib women are most knowledgeable about religious rituals, and organize and attend many rituals each year. These women have a great deal of autonomy in deciding how to spend their time and money, and they have access to other women on whom they may call for assistance in furnishing rituals. All these factors serve to strengthen the notion that women, and especially older women, are the most suitable ritual leaders.

Sorcery and magic are very much part of the Black Carib religious mindset. Almost every act of everyday living is accompanied by some magical procedure, and “Every Carib uses some form of protection against sorcery” (Coelho 1955, 166). So-called “love magic” involves bodily secretions concealed in food served by women to men.

Before going on, I wish to clarify that “love magic” is the term used by outsiders and not necessarily by Black Carib women. As a feminist anthropologist, I reject this terminology for two important reasons. First, it implies that it is ontologically distinct from the ancestor religion described above. Yet although different ethnographers have written about the two ritual constellations, it seems to me that they are intrinsically related: both are focused on interpersonal relationships, utilize food in rituals, and are controlled by women. Second, in line with old-fashioned Durkheimian notions of magic versus religion, the words “love magic” imply private, trivial, and possibly even antisocial acts. However, according to the one ethnographer who has carefully recorded these practices, “[Love magic] is institutionalized and direct evidence [for it] is easily found. Practitioners solicit potential clients, the paraphernalia are occasionally seen, and much of the business of magic is simply not hidden. Indeed, to be effective it must have some public aspects” (Bullard 1974, 263). Like ancestor rituals, “love magic,” according to Bullard, has a stabilizing influence on marriages and families. On the other hand, Virginia Kerns notes that her informants never spoke of these two sets of practices as being equivalent; in fact, her informants related to them as somewhat antithetical (personal communication 1992). In sum, my own inclination to merge ancestral rites and “love magic” is also somewhat problematic.

Most Black Caribs are Roman Catholics and receive some Catholic education. Knowledge of other spiritual matters is transmitted informally. All rituals for the dead, including Catholic ones, are perceived by Black Caribs as a totality—they are all intended to satisfy the dead and protect the living. The middle-aged and elderly women who are experts at ancestor rituals are also practicing Roman Catholics, and they do not seem to express conflict between Roman Catholic dogma and their own beliefs. “The typical Carib virtues of flexibility and versatility enabled them to incorporate this non-Christian tradition into their Catholicism, thus achieving, despite the vigorous denunciations of the official representatives of the Church, a synthesis that comprises a coherent and unified body of doctrine” (Coelho 1955, 135).

Catholicism and Black Carib religion differ in terms of leadership (male vs. female), literacy (ancestor worship, unlike Catholicism, does not involve sacred texts), atmosphere at rituals (formal vs. informal), and organizational structure (Roman Catholicism is a centralized, hierarchical world religion, whereas Black Carib ancestor worship is a nonhierarchical, decentralized local religion).


The zār cult of North Africa and the Middle East is essentially women's business. Capricious spirits known as zār are prone to attack and possess women, especially married women, who then turn to cult leaders in order to be cured. Zār attack takes the form of illness with symptoms ranging from hysteria to physical disorders. Treatment consists of initiation into the zār cult, and the appeasem*nt of the possessing spirit by the presentation of gifts to the patient. Treatment means reaching accommodation with the spirit—taming it—not exorcising it. A woman may go through a marriage ceremony with her zār, which means a permanent relationship of ritual responsibility. Once inducted into the cult group, the woman participates in ceremonies that promote possession-trance experience among its members, all of whom had been afflicted in the past. Members meet periodically to dance, feast, and incarnate their spirits. While the relationship with the spirit begins with illness, over the years the relationship should become one of complementarity and exchange.

In a Northern Sudanese village studied by Janice Boddy, more than 40% of women ever married and over the age of 15 have been possessed by zār spirits. Most afflicted women are between the ages of 35 and 55, two-thirds of the women in that age group have zār spirits. Thus, from a gynocentric perspective the zār cult is far from marginal. Very few men (perhaps 5% of all men) are zār adepts. Lucie Saunders (1977) found in her study of an Egyptian village that most women profess to believe in zār spirits, and most men profess not to. Zār possession is so fully identified with women that among the Egyptian Nubians if the zār cult patient is a man he is adorned as a female bride (Kennedy 1978).17

Participants in the zār cult tend to be individuals of secondary status within their cultural settings. Most scholars agree that the zār cult originated in central Ethiopia in the eighteenth century, and then was spread by slaves in Africa and the Middle East (Natvig 1987). Whether the cult is made up solely of women (Sudan), or whether it also includes poor and marginal men (Ethiopia), its members are people who lack access to most leadership or prestige roles in the society at large.

For the most part, the zār cult exists in Islamic cultures. (The zār also is popular in Ethiopia where most people are Christian and not Muslim.) It is crucial to bear in mind that all the formal roles of Islamic leadership are limited to men, and women are excluded from most important public religious rituals. On the other hand, there are aspects of religious life in which Muslim women are very active indeed. Lois Beck has argued that in those ritual complexes not formally required by Islamic law and tradition, “men do not participate with the intensity, nor in the numbers that do women” (1980, 39). Examples of arenas in which women are active include life-cycle celebrations, beliefs and rituals connected with early Islamic figures (such as Hussain and Fatima) and contemporary saints, pilgrimage to local tombs and shrines, curing and spirit possession cults, charity, and amulets. According to Jane Smith, “[Women's] unorthodox practices served both to further isolate women from the formal rituals of the Islamic community and to give them an arena in which they could feel comfortable and in control. Despite periodic efforts to ‘clean up’ such heterodox practices, they have been and continue to be a powerful part of the lives of many Muslims, especially women” (1987, 242).

Because women are neither assumed to be acquainted with Muslim liturgy and doctrines, nor expected to have the moral strength to uphold them, women tend to be relatively freer to embrace folk beliefs. In many Muslim societies women have been and continue to be the primary agents in the relationship of humans to the world of spirits; it is women who are experts at warding off evil spirits. Ethnographers have documented the existence of curing and spirit possession cults throughout Muslim societies. Women are active in many of these quasi-Muslim cults (such as the zār cult, the fiqi cult, and cults of saints) which are characterized by ecstatic and nonformalized rituals.

Women's zār activities serve as a counterpart to men's involvement in official Islamic religious practices. Yet while in certain senses complementary to Islamic practice, the zār cult is not equal in status to Islam (or Coptic Christianity in the case of Ethiopia). In the Northern Sudan (as elsewhere) the zār cult is periodically attacked by the male religious and secular elite. During the last 100 years, the zār cult has been described as “un-Islamic innovations,” “bad traditions,” “superstition,” and “backward customs” (Constantinides 1982, 186). Janice Boddy's Northern Sudanese informants report that the zār cult became established in the Sudan at about the same time as Islam thoroughly penetrated the villages. (Although much of Africa had been formally Islamic for many centuries, it is only during this century that more than a thin veneer of Islam has penetrated the villages.) “The [zār] cult gained ground in virtual tandem with local Islamization” (Boddy 1989, 35). Thus we seem to be seeing a paradoxical situation in which zār spreads together with its main opponent. Both zār and orthodox Islam in Africa are responses to twentieth-century social changes.

While orthodox Islam condemns the zār cult for dealing with devils, opposition is moderated by the fact that jinn (spirits) are mentioned in the Koran. Although these jinn can be dispelled by reciting the opening of the Koran, because they occupy unexpected places individuals may still be attacked and thus require a zār ritual. Zār lore abounds with stories of government and religious leaders who attempted to repress the cult until their own womenfolk became seriously ill through zār possession. Then they were forced to agree to rituals being held in their very houses.18

Similarly, Simon Messing has found that the Coptic Abyssinian priests express passive resistance to the cult—they profess to condemn it but do little to counteract it. “This may be because many priests secretly believe in the cosmology of the zār themselves, particularly in spirits that are regarded as Coptic Christian” (1958, 1121).

The ethnographic literature indicates that there is a great deal of local variation regarding the status of the zār cult. Lucie Saunders found that in an Egyptian village zār was seen as so compatible with Islam that at the opening of public zār ceremonies a male leader would read out loud verses from the Koran. Cloudsley (1984), on the other hand, discovered that in Omdurman (Sudan) zār is thoroughly frowned on by devout Muslims, and considered a pagan witchcraft ritual used solely by ignorant women. These two conflicting accounts may possibly be reconciled by Boddy's finding that men see zār and Islam as conflicting but women regard them both as part of a “general religious enterprise” (1989, 142). Men feel that spirits must be exorcised; women feel they need to be accommodated.

One may be tempted to argue that women's religions develop in situations in which women are excluded from the mainstream or male-dominated religion. Zār certainly seems to bear that out: North African women are excluded from public ritual roles both in the mosque and in the Coptic Church. We may recall, on the other hand, that in Brazil the Catholic Church (with the exception of the priesthood) is perceived as a female domain, and rather than being excluded from churches, women are typically the vast majority of participants. I am not convinced that there is any correlation between the occurrence of women's religions and women's exclusion or inclusion in other religions of the day.

A related point concerns the use of the terms “marginal” and “peripheral.” The zār, like many other women's religions, has been considered to be “peripheral” to the larger society (Lewis 1975). Yet, as a feminist scholar, I am obligated to ask from whose point of view the zār is peripheral. It should be clear that in the village studied by Boddy, where most women participate in zār rituals, women would be unlikely to consider zār rituals as marginal. In an excellent essay dealing with possession cults in the Swahili coastal area of Kenya and Tanzania, Linda Giles argues that “spirit possession should be seen as an integrated part of coastal Islamic belief and practice” (1987, 245). Moreover, she demonstrates that cult performances draw a wide range of spectators of both sexes and all ages; that even many of those who do not attend the ceremonies still share much of the cult belief system; that the range of potential cult members is quite extensive; that there are even more cases of people who profess that they do not participate or even believe in spirit cult activities yet who can be found visiting cult mediums in case of illness or the need for other assistance; and that at least on the Swahili coast the link to societal institutions was quite explicit in former times when the cults played a central role in communal rituals (1987, 246–47).

The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (1)

Snake goddess or priestess from Crete, seventeenth century B.C. (Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Mrs. S. Scott Fitz)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (2)

Ryūkyūan priestess praying at shrine. (Courtesy of C. Ouwehand)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (3)

Ryūkyūan priestesses holding food offerings. (Courtesy of C. Ouwehand)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (4)

Ryūkyūan priestesses arranging ritual food offerings. (Courtesy of C. Ouwehand)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (5)

Sande initiates dancing. (Courtesy of Caroline Bledsoe)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (6)

Sande drummers with a pair of drums: a “male” and a “female.” (Courtesy of Caroline Bledsoe)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (7)

Sande dancer in submissive pose, bringing tips from spectators to older Sande leaders. (Courtesy of Caroline Bledsoe)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (8)

Korean Shaman. (Courtesy of Laurel Kendall)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (9)

Shaker sisters and brothers. (From David R. Lamson, Two Year's Experience Among the Shakers, 1848)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (10)

Shaker ecstatic dancing. (From David R. Lamson, Two Year's Experience Among the Shakers, 1848)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (11)

Afro-Brazilian medium in costume. (From Leaco*ck and Leaco*ck, Spirits of the Deep [Doubleday 1972]. Courtesy of Seth and Ruth Leaco*ck and Doubleday Publishers)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (12)

Afro-Brazilian shrine. (From Leaco*ck and Leaco*ck, Spirits of the Deep [Doubleday 1972]. Courtesy of Seth and Ruth Leaco*ck and Doubleday Publishers)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (13)

Afro-Brazilian religious participants. (From Leaco*ck and Leaco*ck, Spirits of the Deep [Doubleday 1972]. Courtesy of Seth and Ruth Leaco*ck and Doubleday Publishers)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (14)

Afro-Brazilian dancing. (From Leaco*ck and Leaco*ck, Spirits of the Deep [Doubleday 1972]. Courtesy of Seth and Ruth Leaco*ck and Doubleday Publishers)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (15)

Entranced Afro-Brazilian medium. (From Leaco*ck and Leaco*ck, Spirits of the Deep [Doubleday 1972]. Courtesy of Seth and Ruth Leaco*ck and Doubleday Publishers)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (16)

The Fox sisters: Margaret, Kate, and Leah. Nineteenth-century American Spiritualists, they claimed to communicate with the supernatural using table rapping. (Courtesy of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Library)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (17)

Woodcut of nineteenth-century Spiritualist séance with table rapping. (Courtesy of the Bettmann Archive)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (18)

Priestess Selena Fox leading Mother Earth ritual, on Earth Day 1991. (Photograph by Michael L. Abramson/Time magazine)

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The Examples | Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women (19)

Contemporary spiritual feminist ritual—birth symbolism—on the Jewish women's new moon celebration. (Photo by Ilene Perlman from Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year by Penina V. Adelman [Biblio Press, 1990]. Courtesy of Penina Adelman and Biblio Press)

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The zār cult is spread over a very large geographical area. The functions and the form of the cult vary considerably from country to country, and even from place to place within each country. Ethnographic reports of the zār cult come from urban and rural Northern Sudan, Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Egyptian Nubia. While I have tried to be sensitive to the different manifestations of the cult reported for the different societies, the main elements of the cult are similar in all five societies.

Religions that are not Dealt With in this Book

Cross-culturally, relatively few religions are dominated by women. The twelve key examples dealt with in this book are, to the best of my knowledge, almost all the female-dominated religions that have been documented in the ethnographic and historical literature. Thus while these examples are not comprehensive, neither are they illustrative of a much larger field. An ongoing difficulty that I faced in selecting and researching the examples around which the book is based concerns the quality and quantity of available information. The contemporary examples are better documented than the historical ones, and several examples are dependent on data gathered by one or two field-workers.

Since the twelve key examples are not the only women's religions that have existed, it is appropriate to explain why I chose these particular religions. First, I preferred not to focus on religious traditions for which evidence is sketchy. I have chosen not to deal with those ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman traditions that seem to have been dominated by women, but for which the only testimony we have is myths and brief inscriptions.19

Another category I avoided includes Gnostic groups and medieval Christian heresies for which the historical documentation is based primarily on polemics against the religion by the mainstream Christian Church. Since I was able to find twelve religions that had been documented by more impartial observers, I chose not to focus on religions for which the primary sources are groups which opposed the religion, and so can be assumed to present a biased account. The fact that in most cases the written sources were recorded by advocates of male-dominated religions makes these sources even more suspect. For example, the important role of women among the thirteenth-century Guglielmites led the Church hierarchy to condemn the supposed sexual orgies held during their rituals, although it is far from likely that these orgies ever took place (Wessley 1978).

A third category that I, with some reservations, excluded from my list of key examples are African religions similar but not identical to the African religions I have included (see Beattic and Middleton 1969; Lewis 1986). In recent writings scholars have begun to treat the zār cult as part of a complex that also includes the West African (Nigerian) bori cult (see especially Lewis 1991).20 For the sake of simplicity, in this book I have chosen to look only at zār, although much of what I have written about zār is also true for bori. The important role of women in African religions has been well documented (if not well publicized) and I found it difficult to select the “best” (most representative, clearly female dominated, and well-documented) examples. In order to avoid working with an unwieldy number of examples, I decided to focus on the Sande secret society and the zār possession cult.

I have chosen to exclude religions that were founded by women and/or in whose early days allowed women leadership roles, but which in the course of institutionalization began to exclude women from positions of power. Examples of this are Pentecostalism (Barfoot and Sheppard 1980) and many of the new religions of Japan (Nakamura 1980) and Africa (Jules-Rosette 1979). I have also chosen not to focus on Theosophy, both because in many ways it is similar to nineteenth-century Spiritualism, and because it was founded by both a man and a woman (Helena P. Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Olcott).

I chose not to work with what could more properly be described as clusters of rituals within a male-oriented religion (e.g., pilgrimage in Morocco or childbirth rituals in India) or with streams headed by a woman but which remained within the rubric of male domination (e.g., Beguines in medieval Europe and various devotional cults in India). Similarly, I have excluded folk variations on male-dominated great traditions (e.g., Mexican Spiritism, which is a form of folk Catholicism). In that my working definition of women's religions entails some sort of recognition that this religious group is independent from a larger, male-dominated institutional context, I have also avoided looking at groups of women who organize under the rubric of male domination (e.g., various Catholic celibate orders).

To all these categories of religions I will refer in passing (see Appendix B).

The category I am the most uncomfortable about excluding (and which I hope to deal with in a subsequent volume) includes various tribal religions in which both men and women have active roles, and in which each sex predominates in certain types of rituals. The three main examples I have in mind here are Australian aboriginal religion as described by Diane Bell (1983), indigenous Philippine religion as described by Teresita Infante (1975), and traditional Iroquois religion as described by Annemarie Shimony (1980). Since the goal of the present volume is to try to tease out how women “do” religion when they are in a position of dominance, tribal religions in which men's and women's religious lives are intermeshed proved difficult to work with. Again, I emphasize that my entire typology is artificial. Taking a religion like that of the Ryūkyū Islands on the one hand and one like Islam on the other, we can construct a continuum going from female to male dominance; we cannot construct absolute categories. Since in all known cultures both men and women are “religious”—my twelve key examples are not pure types.



Anthropologists, sociologists, and historians of religion have defined religion in a multitude of ways. One of the most successful definitions is proposed by Clifford Geertz (1969): “Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” All the women's religious situations explored in this book fall well within Geertz's rubric.


Laurel Kendall (personal communication) confirms my hunch that there is some sort of connection among these religious traditions. The same, or a similar, trend toward female dominance in the religious domain is also probably a characteristic of certain tribal cultures of the Philippines. I hope to look into this issue further in a future study.


Indian colonization in Burma started in the first century C. E. and in Thailand in the second century C.E. Buddhism as a dominant religion was introduced into Burma in the eleventh century and Thailand in the thirteenth. Buddhism was the state religion but not imposed by force. Missionary monks were responsible for spreading Buddhism.


Religious tolerance is characteristic of the Ryūkyū Islands, and Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity can be found on the Islands. Upper-class Ryūkyūans learned and practiced Chinese ancestral rituals. Buddhist funeral rites from Japan (but no other elements of Buddhism) became fairly popular on the Ryūkyūs, and monks were looked at with some disdain. Confucian rituals and status symbols became important in a superficial way and only among upper class families. Even among Catholic converts, no real break was made with former religious consciousness (Anzai 1976, 62).


Ouwehand tells me that the word should be written kan, that kami is Japanese (personal communication 1992). However, since all the English-language sources use the word kami I will, with some misgivings, continue to do so.


Haring (1964) believes that the Amami Island, have had longer and deeper cultural contact with Japan and China (through Japan) than Okinawa has had. Mabuchi (1976a) states that belief in the spiritual predominance of the sister survives more in the southern part of the southern Ryūkyūs than in the main island Okinawa, and is even rarer in Miyako Island (northern part of the southern Ryūkyūs).


Spiro, on the other hand, says that it is normally the father's nat who is inherited (1967, 101).


According to Tambiah (1970), it is not only in Thai Buddhism but also in spirit cults (other than the matrilineal ones treated here) that the ritual specialists are male. Kirsch (1985, 312), on the other hand, found that while women do support Buddhism “it is also true that most ‘animist’ spirit practitioners, displaying a kind of symbolic ‘anti-Buddhism,’ are also women.”


In Burma, on the other hand, people do report feeling conflict between Buddhism and nat beliefs.


Because Mary Baker Eddy exerted an enormous influence over the development of Christian Science, and because movements founded by women (and women who found movements) tend to strike observers as sufficiently unusual to need to be “explained,” many studies of Christian Science have traced Eddy's life story and shown how the events and psychological traumas of her life caused her to discover Christian Science. This fits in with an all-too-common tendency in the scholarly literature to treat women's religion as somehow psychologically abnormal. Perhaps in reaction, I pay attention primarily to the key theological and existential concepts of Christian Science, rather than Eddy's life story.


In the early years, men actually outnumbered women in several Shaker communities (Brewer 1986, 215).


Starhawk believes that the number is even larger (personal communication 1992).


Many Womanist writers do not wish to connect themselves to the predominantly white Feminist Spirituality Movement. On the other hand, most Spiritual Feminists express a strong sense of kinship with Womanism, and generally include articles by Womanist writers in their anthologies.


In the past several years Hispanic feminists have begun to produce a body of literature reflecting their own, special religious concerns. Since this budding movement has (at least until now) identified itself with the Christian tradition and the Catholic Church, I will not be dealing with it in the present volume. Among the many interesting ideas given voice in this growing literature are an acknowledgment of women's numerical dominance in the Catholic Church in Latin America, respect for non-Catholic religions (such as Candomble), recognition of the feminization of poverty and the connections between capitalism and patriarchy, use of traditional female symbols such as the Virgin Mary, and an explicit addressing of political issues that affect women's and men's lives (see Tamez 1989 for a sample of this literature).


Herskovits (1943) found more equal numbers of men and women in Porto Alegre (southern Brazil) than studies of northern Brazil have shown.


Black Caribs are also known as Garifuna. In this book I look primarily at the Black Caribs of Belize because that is the group whose religious and kinship structure has been most thoroughly studied. I have no reason to think that the culture of the Black Caribs of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua is very different.


This is not the case further south, in the Sudan.


According to Boddy, in the Sudan women consider zār to be part of Islam and not a religion in its own right. Men are more ambivalent: The more educated deny that it is an Islamic practice, and the less educated are not sure (personal communication 1992).


Ross Kraemer's newest book (1992) is a brilliant reconstruction of women's religious lives in ancient Greece and Rome. However, much of what she describes seems to be specific festivals rather than full-fledged religions. Even so, much of what she found resonates with what I will be describing in this book.


Scholars of African religion have described many local spirit possession phenomena as being similar to or even part of the zār cult. It seems to me of the utmost importance to differentiate between spirit possession in which women are possessed by spirits who are exorcised by a male ritual specialist, and spirit possession in which possessed women join an ongoing group of fellow-sufferers who gather to share experiences of possession trance. Among the Digo of South Kenya, for example, spirit possession is officially diagnosed and exorcised by a male practitioner, mganga (Gomm 1975). I would treat this a totally different phenomenon from the zār cult of the Sudan. There is a tendency among scholars to treat all African spirit possession as if it were one phenomenon, whereas it is far more reasonable to treat spirit possession as a common form of religious activity, which in different African societies is used and interpreted in a variety of ways. The fallacy of treating all African spirit possession as a unified phenomenon could be compared to someone claiming that all European prayer is one phenomenon—that the secretive Latin of a Catholic priest, the speaking in tongues of a Pentecostal woman, and the formal Hebrew daily liturgy of a Jewish man are essentially the same thing.

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