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.
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 .
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.