From Kith and Kin to ‘Strategic Sisterhood’:
Gender and Religion in Writings and Promotions of the Self
On Wednesday 2nd December 2015, the Gendered Lives Research Group at Loughborough University held its debut research seminar. If you missed the seminar, here’s a summary of the two papers by Sophie-Louise Hyde and Teresa O’Rourke, PhD students in the School of the Arts, English and Drama who attended the event.
‘If there was a success story to tell, they did write about this.’
Dr Siobhan Lambert-Hurley (Reader in International History at Sheffield University) presented part of a chapter taken from her forthcoming monograph, The Ultimate Unveiling: Gender, Autobiography and the Self in Muslim South Asia. Her paper was titled ‘Narrating Kith and Kin: Gender, Autobiography and the Self in Bombay’s Tyabji Clan.’
By ‘interrogating theories of difference’, Dr Lambert-Hurley’s talk explored ideas of gender and representations of the self in the autobiographical writings of South Asian Muslim women and men. The paper challenged the gender stereotypes associated with autobiography which are all too often based on the assumption that Muslim women of South Asia write only for ‘personal and domestic purpose’, while the men ‘wrote successfully’ about their working lives.
Through a number of case studies that featured the Tyabji clan – a merchant family from Bombay who made many varied contributions to the genre of autobiography over multiple generations – Dr Lambert-Hurley demonstrated that these gender boundaries are somewhat blurred.
Stating her intention to ‘imagine a new global history’ of autobiography as a genre, Dr Lambert-Hurley foregrounded notions of individuality and interiority as she noted how these representations have changed over time. From the ‘innocent intimacies’ of the Victorian period to twentieth-century tales of ‘adultery, pre-marital sex and menstruation’, she argued that there is no distinctive autobiographical style of writing for the Muslim men and women of South Asia.
Introducing the concept of ‘autobiographical genealogies’ and the idea of the family as a ‘shared cultural milieu’, Dr Lambert-Hurley proposed that it is the context of the collective (the Tyabji clan) that gives these men and women the space to articulate their individual sense of self.
‘A battleground with no room for common ground?’
While Dr Lambert-Hurley took us to Bombay, Dr Line Nyhagen (Reader in Sociology at Loughborough University) brought us back again, in a presentation that explored the apparent division between secular and religious women in Europe. Entitled ‘“Strategic Sisterhood”: Who is afraid of Gender Equality?’, the paper challenged our perspectives of these seemingly disparate groups on issues of gender equality, women’s movements and feminism.
Dr Nyhagen’s presentation considered responses from a range of women’s movements (SIAWI, Southall Black Sisters, EWL) that appear to see religion as oppressive to women as a result of its patriarchal nature; understanding ‘religion as a man’s dominion’ (Sheila Jeffries, 2012). Far from concluding that the secular and religious are incompatible, however, Dr Nyhagen identified a long history of dialogue between these various groups, and stressed the importance of finding common ground as a means of mutual recognition and advancement.
Her study of 60 Christian and Muslim women in Norway, Spain and the UK presented an opportunity to further understand this potentially problematic relationship between gender equality and religion. The study’s findings elicited responses that fell into the following four categories: a) gender equality is impossible as a result of god-given prescriptions; b) differentiations in gender equality were without hierarchy; c) differentiations in gender equality only existed in the family but equal opportunities were available in the public sphere; d) equal opportunities were available in both the public and private spheres.
Arguing for a ‘Strategic Sisterhood’, Dr Nyhagen proposed a triangulation of three key elements: Individual Rights = Religious Freedom = Women’s Rights to Gender Equality. Without the inclusion of religion, she concluded, ‘there would be a democratic deficit’ (Habermas, 2005) as we continue to negotiate the cultural representation of women.