Women and Indigenous Religions

Marcos, Sylvia
Santa Barbara, CA, Praeger, 2010, ISBN: 978 0 275 99157 9, 256 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Deborah Eade
Former editor of Development in Practice (1991–2010)


Formal religions, particularly the monotheist faiths, do not have a convincing track record on admitting women to their top ranks. Forget about a Ugandan bishop supporting the death penalty for a wide array of same-sex practices. Forget about whether adults should be helped to prevent conception or helped to die, as they choose. Forget about military spending, human rights violations or the persistent drip-drip of death by poverty that awaits millions of people worldwide. As I write, a growing number of ‘traditionalist’ Anglican clergy and worshippers are converting to Roman Catholicism. Why? Because they do not accept female religious ministry. Offering safe haven from such turbulent seas the Vatican re-stated in 2010 that the ordination of women is a ‘grave delict’, or violation of law. So women may be sanctified, but not administer the sacraments.
Of course most faiths encompass a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices including those who welcome women's spiritual leadership and religious ministry and the intellectual contribution of female theologians. (According to www.womenpriests.org most Catholic scholars do support women's ordination, for instance.) But their more conservative wings relegate women to at best a supporting role – sometimes hidden behind a veil or a screen, as if their visible presence might disturb the male observance of sacred rites.
Women and Indigenous Religions, the latest title in the Women and Religion in the World series, focuses on indigenous religions. These are characteristically based on oral traditions – ‘the transmission of beliefs, rules, customs, and rituals by word of mouth’ (p. ix) – rather than on written law and sacred texts. In these systems, indigenous women ‘preside over rituals, preserve but also re-create traditions’ (ibid.) Indigenous religions are not monotheistic, but tend to view the cosmos as made up of the living and the dead, each essential to the whole. Nature must, therefore, be nurtured. This is in stark contrast to the Western hierarchies of (masculine) intellect and (feminine) intuition or emotion, of objective and subjective, material and imagined reality. Such hierarchies may provide a basis for the view that the natural environment and ‘inferior beasts’ are there for humankind to explore and exploit.
The book comprises 11 chapters on ‘traditions from the Americas, Asia, and Australia’, five on Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru and two reprinted from other sources. The first-person narratives are particularly compelling. Renee Linklater conveys the anger, resentment and ‘multiple unresolved grievances’ (p. 221) caused by having been being part of the ‘Sixties Scoop’, when ‘thousands of indigenous children were removed from their families and placed into foster care or adopted out – largely to nonindigenous families’ (p. 218). Her narrative gives a powerful glimpse into the physical and cultural violence of colonialism and the process of ‘assimilating indigenous children into dominant society’ (p. 221). Nuvia Balderrama Vara's lively story records her increasing curiosity about and critical engagement with indigenous beliefs and rituals in Tepoztlán, leading to women's renewal and renovation of these cultural traditions from within. Her enjoyment in her cultural journey is palpable and her enthusiasm infectious. Diane Bell's chapter shares some of this immediacy as she interweaves Ngarrindjeri women's historical-spiritual stories with the recorded chronology of efforts to regain not just access to but future rights over their sacred lands and departed elders in southern Australia.
Other chapters follow a more conventional form of painstaking ethnographic scholarship, sometimes lacking that must-read quality for those without a prior interest in the area under study. But I was struck by two chapters, both of which illustrate clashes but also point to the potential for more constructive relationships between indigenous wisdom and the ‘scientific knowledge’ on which Western modernisation is premised. Frédérique Apffel-Marglin's account of an indigenous woman from a farming community high in the Peruvian Andes who trains as an agronomist is very special. Her professors are genuinely baffled by how such a brilliant student could cling to pre-modern ‘mumbo jumbo’ any more than she could settle for their one-dimensional science when her lived experience tells her otherwise:
“How is it possible that at the end of the twentieth century you talk about native knowledge and about ritual?” He wanted to take away my degree. He said I was ruining the reputation of the professional agronomists of Ayacucho. (p. 26)
The threat reveals once again the continuing violence of the colonial project. As Apffel-Marglin notes:
The response to indigenous communal rituals … is in the last instance based on the threat they pose, if taken seriously, to the legitimacy of the separation between religion, government, and science as well as the denied but implicit collusion between governments and science (p. 40).
Morna Macleod examines Mayan women's (re-)connections with traditions that at the height of the violence in the 1970s and 1980s became the target of Guatemala's 36-year war: the polos de desarrollo, or model villages, were a deliberate attempt, as one senior military officer said, ‘to change the indigenous mindset’. Quoting from interviewees who hold diverse views, Macleod avoids either idealising Mayan culture or treating it as hermetically sealed and unchanging. Concepts such as ‘complementarity’, ‘duality’, and ‘equilibrium’, particularly between women and men, are keenly contested, as is the relationship between discourse and practice. What does become clear, however, is that notwithstanding internal debate regarding gender roles within contemporary Mayan culture, in the face of outsiders' criticism, perceived or actual, women and men close ranks. Engaging with Mayan women who are themselves questioning certain ideas and practices therefore requires tact, respect, and patience – not qualities that are in large supply in government departments or indeed development agencies.
Each chapter is essentially a freestanding essay, which raises the question that all edited volumes must answer: is it more than the sum of its parts? Sadly, the answer has to be no. The geographical bias is striking and therefore demanded a clear editorial rationale and analytical overview, plus perhaps a brief introduction to each section. In the absence of these things I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that this was essentially a book focused on a few cases from the Americas with a handful of chapters from other countries tacked on. The lack of anything from the African continent is also a shortcoming. And although the syncretic religions, such as Santería and Candomblé, in which women also play a prominent role, may not qualify as ‘indigenous’, the wealth of indigenous religions across Latin America and the Caribbean makes it all the more lopsided to have two (albeit fascinating) chapters on just one Mexican town, Tepoztlán.
Finally, the book missed an opportunity to link up with broader agendas that will, if they have not done so already, affect women and indigenous religions. The continuing focus on the role of ‘faith-based organisations’ (FBOs), viewed as a moderate alternative to fundamentalist and politicised religion – and now the counterpoint claims in Western Europe that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ – are trends that cannot but have some impact on indigenous religions. If legitimising ‘faith’ now falls within the remit of international development, what does this mean for minority – including indigenous – belief systems? Should they lay claim to these new resources in order to consolidate their rights, or renegotiate their status in relation to the state and/or majority religions? Or should they ‘pull in their horns’, regarding the enterprise as a neo-colonial threat to their identity and integrity? Whatever the response, given where the growth-led model of modernisation has led us, the time seems ripe for indigenous religions to contribute to wider thinking about such basic issues such as food and sustenance and what it means to be human in the natural environment – in essence, to offer their different approaches to understanding the place of traditions, cultural expression, and spirituality in public life...