Alaine Lowe, Soraya Tremayne, eds. Women as Sacred Custodians of the Earth?: Women, Spirituality and the Environment. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001. 260 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57181-316-9; $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57181-467-8.
Reviewed by Kelli Ann Costa (Department of Anthropology, Franklin Pierce College)
Published on H-Women (October, 2002)
The Natural Woman
The Natural Woman
This volume is an interesting collection of essays directed toward the popular notion that women are inherently closer to nature, and therefore more sympathetic to the natural world than men. The editors have divided the text into four parts: "The Current Debate," "The Sacred," "The Great Religions," and "New Trends." This provocative and compelling work is the result of a two-day workshop at the University of Oxford in 1996 that was organized by the editors Alaine Low and Soraya Tremayne. Not quite a critique of eco-feminist theory or the feminist environmental movement, the book is more a "thinking document" regarding recent trends in linking women, spirituality, the sacred, and the environment.
Pressing beyond simple New Age soft theory, the contributors offer many stimulating intellectual arguments regarding women in cross-cultural environments and their roles in a variety of guises and belief systems. Major modern religions are explored as well as lesser-known traditions. In this review I will discuss the four parts of the text and the overall quality of the text as a whole, and conclude with a discussion of the text's possible value to feminist classrooms, women's studies and cultural anthropology.
Part 1, "The Current Debate," contributes a dense and thoughtful essay by Cecile Jackson which challenges the tenets of Deep Ecology and its tendency toward "anti-dualism" (p. 25). Jackson points out that the notion of humanity as part of nature (and therefore inseparable from it) neglects the gray areas that clearly exist between and among "polarized concepts" such as male and female or nature and culture. Equally problematic is the humanizing of nature and the anthropomorphic relationships and gendered identities that are projected onto the natural world (e.g., Mother Earth). Jackson suggests that eco-feminists often misinterpret the presence of goddesses in traditional belief systems as indicating "harmony and nurturance" (p. 33), while ignoring the human sacrifice, violence and dehumanization that often exists in goddess-worshipping cultures. She concludes by pointing to many other assumptions that "ecological interpretations" of non-Western religions make, cautioning that an ideology of peace and a "reverence for life" does not always translate into basic rights for women or protection for the environment (p. 37).
Part 2, "The Sacred," is a review of both ancient beliefs (Elena Kingdon) and modern, traditional non-Western practices (Veronica Strang, Piers Vitebsky and Sally Wolfe, Sandra Bell, Terrance Ranger, and Monica Janowski). This wide-ranging collection of essays presses the question of women as natural, sacred custodians of the earth through five distinct examples. Kingdon suggests that in Classical Greece there was an essential feminine power that needed to be invoked for agriculture to be successful. In this case the connection between women and the natural world is obvious, though, as Jackson suggested earlier, women's status in the social world was not necessarily the better for it. Strang's example of Aboriginal women and "sacred landscapes" challenges Western notions of traditional cultures by questioning the essentially feminine categorization of non-Western pre-industrial groups.
Vitebsky and Wolfe move further in their essay on Siberian reindeer herders where men are closest to the earth, a realm usually preserved for women. As the political and economic climate is changing throughout the region the herders find themselves relegated to the "lowest status," that often is occupied by women (pp. 81-94). While an interesting and provocative article, the difficulty lies in the authors' contention that the falling status of male herders is more profound and degrading then the long-term, historically low status of women in Siberian culture where they survive and maintain their lives as invisible and unimportant.
Ranger's contribution, "Preistesses and Environment in Zimbabwe," contextualizes the historical status of women in the patriarchal structure of the Shona and Ndebele groups. Unlike witches, who embodied danger and evil, women who participated in traditional earth-centered practices in Zimbabwe, in other words those who conducted "positive" rites, were able to exist above the rules of patriarchy. Woman as priestess or "chieftainess" helped balance power, establishing complementary (though essentially patriarchal) roles in narrow slices of society. The final essay by Monica Janowski examines the Kelabit of Sarawak and their conscious process of maintaining balance by using rice as the symbolic scales between humanity and the wild forces beyond. Rice also symbolizes the social adulthood of women. They plant it, nurture it, and weed it, and this care of the rice contributes to their status as both specialists and caretakers. Cultivation is done by adult couples and "has the capacity to join the genders productively" (p. 113). Janowski interprets this as allowing both men and women of the Kelabit to retain responsibility as sacred guardians of the earth.
Part 3, "The Great Religions," offers five essays on Christian (Anne Primavesi), Muslim (Tahera Aftab), Hindu Tamil (Vijya Rettakudi Nagaragan), Buddhist (Bell), and Chinese (Stewart McFarlane) cosmologies. Primavesi presents an essentially Deep Ecology critique of Christianity. The binary arguments have been made before. First, Christianity separates humanity from the natural world and places it as superior to and different from it. Secondly, within the discussion of women and nature, nature is female, and therefore contributes to the sexualized imagery of men's relationships to the earth, and so on. The various definitions of nature and earth simply reinforce the Deep Ecology assumptions critiqued so thoroughly by Jackson in Part 1.
Aftab's discussion of women and Islam links the ethical framework of the Quran and the misinterpretation of that framework by males in positions of authority. Though, as Aftab makes clear, the Quran is clear in setting out an ethic of equity and justice for all, sadly it has been perverted, especially by Muslim fundamentalists, into an ideology of hatred, oppression and violence against women. As with Christianity, "[w]omen and land have become items of possession within Muslim societies ... [to be] controlled, disputed, exchanged, and gifted" (p. 152). Aftab suggests Muslim women must regain access to the land and to nature in order to enjoy and attain true freedom. In some areas women are taking active roles in reestablishing this link through the Quran and Islam and through a variety of women's organizations. Nagarajan's essay on Hindu Tamil women's rituals and the idea of "embedded ecologies" is a stellar contribution to this volume. In a highly intellectual discussion of the sacred, the women's ritual of kolam, and the shifting regard for sacralized, ecological space, Nagrarajan provokes thoughtful response to the claim that Western epistemologies of "ecology" are at odds with Hindu traditions of the sacred, natural world (pp. 159-174). The ritual of kolam exists at the boundary or threshold of women's social space; it is exclusive to women and connected to the goddesses of the earth. Where this sacred space would also be a place where trash is thrown and where Western ecologists would see it as defiled, the author reminds us that among Tamil, sacred space is invoked only as long as it is necessary. Women may be custodians of pieces of the earth, but the custodianship is fleeting and requires repetition when the space reverts back to "common ground."
Bell's example of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand and Sri Lanka suggests that women are excluded from religious orders (male space) because of their inherent polluting qualities. Women are not perceived as "closer to nature" than men and in fact are not identified with "nature" at all. Modern women in Thailand and Sri Lanka who adhere to Theravada Buddhism may be in a historically precipitous position due to the amount of work and labor involved in caring for home and children, and the popular opinion of the Sangha monks who see women as stupid and dangerous and impure. Women have fewer opportunities to become involved in monastic life in any meaningful way, and custodianship of the earth is out of the question. To act in such a way would endanger male space which in turn endangers the world. The final essay in part 3 examines the historical influence of Taoist and Confucianist doctrine in China. Though intriguing and highly informative, McFarlane never quite addresses the idea of women as sacred custodians of the earth. The essay is more a critique of Confucianism and Western influence of Chinese thought than a discussion of gender and women's understanding or relationship to the environment. Much like Bell's discussion above, McFarlane describes the exclusive nature of modern Chinese cosmologies in general without discussing the specific question of women's circumstances because of it.
Part 4, "New Trends," is a single contribution discussing neo-Paganism and what may have brought about a renewed interest in earth-centered "wholeness." While Amy Simes describes at length the tenets of neo-Paganism and its relationship to the feminine (and masculine) and its quest for balance (wholeness), the essay does not get much beyond simple description. With the opportunity to "get at" the idea of the sacred (so effectively done, for example, by Nagarajan) the author skims the surface of the relevant beliefs. In this section, the question is: what is new here? More a resurrection of the obscure when used in the context of the mytho-historical, the highly organized and competing factions of the neo-Pagan movement (and the varying status of women and men among them) are mentioned only briefly. The contribution is an opportunity missed rather than an opportunity taken.
Overall, the text is engaging and highly informative. While lacking some intellectual balance (neo-Paganism may not be the only "new trend"; readers could be informed of theoretical critiques beyond those of Deep Ecology and humanism) the volume is highly relevant to the current state of affairs of women in many different cosmological and environmental situations. While appearing to be a challenge to eco-feminism, the volume stands as a critique of Western hegemonic epistemologies of "the other" and the overwhelming (and often unrecognized) influence of Judeo-Christianity upon interpretations of non-Western belief. In this current period of reflection and fear in the West, books such as this are welcome as thoughtful and a challenge to readers in the West to look beyond cultural boundaries that seem to be more clearly circumscribed in this time of globalization and one world rhetoric.
While there are some areas of the text that I feel could have been better discussed such as the idea of women as sacred custodians of the earth, the text could be an interesting addition to an upper-level undergraduate or lower-level graduate course on religion, feminist theory or human ecology. The text could have been "pulled together" more effectively with an epilogue that would serve as a concluding statement, returning to the binary argument of women=nature, men=culture as first discussed in the introduction. As the essays progress, there is a tendency to stray from the question of women as inherently closer to nature than men; the essays become descriptive and in many cases don't offer critical analyses of the subject of gendered lives. Because of this, some classroom examination of these issues would be necessary in order to bring the offerings full circle and return to the initial critique and intention of the book.
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Kelli Ann Costa. Review of Lowe, Alaine; Tremayne, Soraya, eds., Women as Sacred Custodians of the Earth?: Women, Spirituality and the Environment.
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