Female social realities
Female social realities and discourses in history and present of Religion – an epistemological challenge.
Religious studies as a subject draws legitimacy not least from the fact that its perspective is one of cultural studies. Cultural studies takes positions of actors as part of discourses leading to the production of 'reality'. This 'reality' is then contextualized by scholars of religious studies. Contextualizations show the historical conditionality and relativity of reality. Alternative possibilities in historical developments become visible. As a consequence, the status quo can be challenged since it no longer appears as a product of fate or destiny.
In the face of this highly differentiated approach it seems paradoxical that analysis of religious discourse – for example that of religious texts – is rarely critically engaging its pervasive use of male-centered perspectives. Especially up to the middle of the 20th Century, scholars automatically and categorically subsume female experience under that of men. Religious norms and promises of salvation articulated by men are taken by this implicit mechanism to be the same for women. Recognizing, however, the pervasive social differences based in gendered societal norms and a resultant different experience of life, the possibility of treating the female experience analogous or equal to the male becomes questionable.
A further problem appears in situations, where explicit mention of women in religious discourse is taken to be a direct transfer from historical situations. Since male perspectives dominate the discourse, a more likely supposition is that women in religious discourse are configured as products of male fantasy. Such fantasies serve only as indirect references on the social realities of women. As metaphors of societal ascriptions, these narrations tell us something about views on women, not views of women. A reason for this state of affairs is the patriarchal structure of many religious traditions, which materializes itself in above-mentioned norms and narratives in religious discourse.
The Heidelberg Institute of Religious Studies aims to reconstruct female realities in religious discourse. This allows for a more adequate understanding of social realities. Concomitant with such understanding comes also a more adequate understanding of male perspectives, fantasies and norms. Our approach to religious studies therefore includes the critical, historical investigation of women in the so-called great religions, but also in other religious traditions. Central to these inquiries is the question of breaks in male perspectives or the rare inversions of patriarchal orders in gynocentric societies. While we do assume that binary norms of gender have led to the historical (and therefore historically contingent) generation of male and female experience, we do not assume gender identity to be binary by nature. In addition to the focus on female realities in religious history, we furthermore research sexual identities in the whole LGBTQIspectrum. We take a queer broadening of religio-historical inquiry to be the stringent realization of a historically-critical approach in religious studies. Within such an approach, one needs to make the same shift of focus away from views on queer actors to views of and from queer actors.