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Women in World Religions.

This volume is a collection of papers on the subject of women in the major world religious traditions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--with some attention also to tribal religion, specifically that of the Australian aborigines. Their distinguishing aspect is the fact that all are by women (though, oddly, the general editor provides un petit soupcon of patriarchy). And this is no accidental feature. As Katherine Young states:

As is well known, one of the basic breakthroughs in the method of the study of religion is represented by the creatively ambiguous expression: the phenomenology of religion. Among other things, this method emphasizes a sympathetic but not submissive attitude towards the insider's view. It has hitherto been confined to the study of individual religions. This book extends this method to the study of women in the world religions by inviting contributions from women scholars who start not only with an attempt to appreciate the religion from within its own framework but also begin from within their own feminine perspective and so may have a good perception of what a woman's experience entails.

It is suggested that because there have been so few studies of women by women, "we cannot avoid the androcentric text which muffles our stethoscope and prevents us from hearing the heartbeats of real women".

There is much here that invites critical scrutiny. Besides the specific notion of phenomenology of religion invoked, which one gathers is significantly different from the Weberian verstehen, there is added the notion of privileged access. Women have an advantage in the interpretation of women's experience, however distant in religious affiliation, class, etc., from themselves, by virtue of being women. The problem of methodological particularism looms: can only members of a particular group interpret the actions of that group? Are they the most authentic, or the sole interpreters? How is the boundary of affiliation to be established? Is the spiritual life of a lower-caste Hindu woman better understood by a Western middle-class academic woman than by potential male interpreters, even those with closer points of cultural and class affiliation--e.g., a Hindu male of lower-caste origin? The problem is an interesting one, generalizable to religious studies as a whole, although it is never fully addressed here. This is a pity, since clarifying the methodological foundations of feminist studies in religion remains a critical desideratum. In this respect the recent collection of essays edited by Bynum, Harrell, and Richman is much more illuminating (Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols |Boston: Beacon Press, 1986~). But here we have only a series of rather general discussions, covering entire traditions and their histories, in the broad strokes necessitated by limitations of space (20-40 pp.). Scholarly documentation is alarmingly sparse; one essay on a major tradition has only four supporting citations. Both expert and novice are thus hobbled in their use of this volume. The collection is at least a modest start in the study of women in world religions, especially in those cases where that project is comparatively recent.

J. P. K.
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Author:Kenney, J.P.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:506
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