Stories of religion, faith, and spirituality have typically been narrated through the experiences of men, despite evidence that women are cross-culturally more religiously devout than men1 . The four films reviewed here explore the diversity of ways in which women understand, question, practice, and ultimately make meaning of their faiths. Conversations Across the Bosphorous, Daughters of Wisdom, Living Goddess, and The Noble Struggle of Amina Wadud each presents a unique perspective regarding women’s relationships to faith and could be effective tools for initiating discussion, complementing texts, and analyzing the role of gender in a variety of religious settings.
Jeanne C. Finley’s Conversations Across the Bosphorous (42 min.) documents two Muslim women’s different experiences growing up in Istanbul. Finley couples poetic letters written by Mine Yashar Ternar, reflecting on her secular upbringing, with the candid stories of Islamic scholar Gokcen Hava Art’s orthodox childhood. Both women describe the various struggles and challenges they face living in a city torn between secular civil society and religiously conservative men and women. In addition, Finley adds the reflections and opinions of scholars and women of the community. These diverse voices paint an intricate and compelling picture of a city and culture divided.
A large portion of the documentary is spent discussing key issues related to sexuality, gender, the body, and power, specifically the covering of women’s bodies. Ternar romantically reminisces about her grandmother’s simple headscarf worn for prayer. Art dismisses the effectiveness of public covering by arguing that all women face harassment regardless of attire. Other voices describe covering as a feminist act, a means of control, a mechanism for separating public/male and private/female spheres, an expression of modesty, a source of power for women, and a symbol of women’s value.
As a tool for initiating critical analysis in discussions of gender and religion in the feminist classroom, Conversations Across the Bosphorous provides a rich and diverse examination of Turkish women’s experiences with Islam during the 1990s. While the film is limited in its examination of religious practice, it could be an excellent work to pair with other materials that examine Muslim women’s experiences in various cultures, such as Elli Safari’s film The Noble Struggle of Amina Wadud (also reviewed here) or the ethnographic studies of Lila Abu-Lughod2 .
Whereas Conversations Across the Bosphorous focuses on scared tension in a secular environment, Daughters of Wisdom (56 min.) is an exploration of life in a homogeneous religious milieu. The highly engaging and beautifully shot documentary highlights the voices of eight nuns of the Kala Rongo Monastery in a remote northeastern region of Tibet. The film emphasizes two key themes: the nuns’ experiences at and prior to coming to Kala Rongo, and the role of the monastery in creating opportunities for women to access education, authority positions and autonomy as well as change traditional gender constraints.
The nuns express numerous reasons for choosing a monastic life. Some seek to remove themselves from the material world, while others fear suffering and death. There are also those who express more practical reasons for coming to Kala Rongo, such as gaining education, avoiding the dangers of marriage and childbirth, or simply desiring freedom from the hardships of rural Tibetan life. Each woman expresses extensive gratitude for the opportunities presented by the monastery and the overall tone of the film is highly celebratory of this unique spiritual institution. However, nuns must still interact in a patriarchal system and struggle with cultural doctrines that place more value on men and men’s experiences. Even as eight nuns are selected for a new leadership council, the idea that someday Kala Rongo might have a female abbot is a concept that seems more utopian than realistic in the eyes of the nuns.
Daughters of Wisdom can also help us explore important questions with regard to resistance, social change, and patriarchy. However, the film provides the viewer with a limited understanding of the Buddhist tradition as it is practiced at Kala Rongo. With the exception of some focus on suffering and the meditative practices of nuns staying in the retreat house, religious practice is limited to transition shots and sound bites. Therefore, Daughters of Wisdom would work best as either supplementary to additional texts or in conversations that are not necessarily structured around the religious tradition.
Ishbel Whitaker’s Living Goddess (87 min.) presents the case of a rare and fascinating religious tradition in Nepal, the living child goddess. The documentary focuses on the life of one girl—eight-year-old Sajani—believed to be the incarnation of the goddess Teleju as well as on the politically motivated riots, demonstrations, and revolutionary violence that occurred in Nepal in 2006.
The film provides the viewer with an intimate look at the rituals of child goddess worship from the perspective of the worshipped, as opposed to the worshipper. While Sajani, the living goddess of the city of Baktapur is the central figure in this documentary, the film also highlights the lives of two other goddesses; Chanira, the goddess of the city of Patan and Pretti the “Royal” goddess of Kathmandu. Each girl has varying degrees of freedom and ritual duties. Goddesses are expected to continue their ritualistic duties and obligations until menstruation. After the onset of menstruation, it is believed Teleju vacates the body of the living goddess. While former goddesses often return to typical Nepalese life, the transition can be more difficult for Royal Goddesses who are secluded from family and society throughout their reigns.
Throughout the documentary, conflict between students and Nepalese King Gyanendra’s army becomes heightened, causing fear among the people and leading to questions about the future of religion, specifically the worship of child deities. The film climaxes with the king’s address in April 2006, when political power is returned to the people. Protesters celebrate as the film cuts to the goddess Sajani, not in her traditional makeup but in her school uniform, leaving for school. She is almost unrecognizable among the other students.
Living Goddess is an engaging film that can serve as a strong pedagogical tool. While at times the viewer might be unclear about specific individuals’ roles and intentions, the majority of these discrepancies can be clarified on the film’s Web site3 . Complex gender relations are seen not only through religion, ritual, and worship but also in the examination of the revolution and the recent resignation of Sanjani from her position as a living goddess4 . Although the length of the film might make it problematic for some classrooms, scenes are constructed in a way that makes it easy for instructors to play specific segments.
How does an individual’s day-to-day life change when she challenges structures within her religious tradition? This is the central question of Elli Safari’s The Noble Struggle of Amina Wadud (29 min.). The short film documents the life of a female African-American professor who led a mixed-sex Islamic Friday prayer service in 2005.
The film focuses on the beliefs and practices of Wadud and reactions to her statements and actions. In coming to terms with her own faith Wadud has noticed extensive injustice based on gender. Going straight to the Koran, she has sought to find out if offenses against women were consistent with holy text, and how to create a more balanced gender picture within Islamic communities. While her actions have helped educate and empower many Islamic women and men, they have also lead to threats and calls for her resignation.
The compelling documentary provides an excellent example of the intersections of race, gender, politics, and religion. The film provides the viewer with a broader understanding of the multifaceted and diverse interpretations of Islam and with material for exciting analytical discussion and debate regarding the fluidity and changing nature of religion, religious practice, and the meaning of faith. In addition, the film outlines motifs of resistance, empowerment, voice, and agency.
The films presented here all cover various aspects of women’s relationships with faith, religion, and spirituality. All four provide the feminist classroom with tools to engage critical, analytical, and thought-provoking discussions around themes of gender, power, resistance, and choice. In addition, the films presented here stress the importance of examining women’s experiences in the study of faith.
Heidi E. Rademacher is a graduate student in Brandeis University’s joint Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies program. Her academic interests include feminist theory, gender studies, sociology of religion, and sociology of culture.
1See Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Michael Argyle, The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience (London: Routledge, 1997); Leslie J. Francis, “The Psychology of Gender Differences in Religion: A Review of Empirical Research,” Religion 27, no. 1 (1997): 81–96; Tony Walter and Grace Davie, “The Religiosity of Women in the Modern West,” British Journal of Sociology 49, no. 4 (1998): 640–60; and Rodney Stark, “Physiology and Faith: Addressing the ‘Universal’ Gender Difference in Religious Commitment,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 3 (2002): 495–507.
2Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Abu-Lughod, Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
3For more information on the creation of Living Goddess see http://www.livinggoddessmovie.com/index.html.
4For more information on the resignation of Sajani Shakya, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7274132.stm.