Gender, Religion, and J-Roc

October 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Christianity has a long history of being a female-gendered religion.  I would suggest this derives from the early Christian Church, which saw men and women as equals.  It was only the rise of the Vatican in Rome that saw the gradual dissolution of women’s roles in the church.

In the late 19th century, throughout the British Empire, including Canada, there was a massive reinvigoration of mainline Protestant churches.  In part, this was driven by the concept of “muscular Christianity”, a doctrine that was used to justify and extend the British imperial project.  According to this doctrine, the (white) British Christian man was to give his body and soul over to Jesus.  His body was to be his temple.  The muscular Christian, then, could be found all over the British Empire, in Africa, in India, extending British dominion over a usually recalcitrant populace.  He could also be found in the inner-city of London and Manchester, as well as Montréal and Toronto.  The Americans got into the act, too.  Indeed, the rise of organised sport, largely centred around Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School and the ubiquitous sport, derived from muscular Christianity, as did the Boy Scouts movement of Lord Baden-Powell in the late 19th century.

But this masculinised Christianity arose in response to the feminisation of these mainline Protestant churches.  Women were always the more devout, the ones who actually went to mass, and they began to create space for themselves within the parish, within the church itself.  Women’s auxiliaries, in particular, but also other organisations.  The Catholic Church, at least in Québec got involved, too, creating groups that were female-centric.  The fact that these churches would become feminised is not all that surprising, in many ways.  Women were left without recreative spaces through the rise of industrialisation and the middle classes in the 19th century.   The advent of domestic servants for large swaths of the population meant that these women had less to do.

Just as their husbands’ masculinity had to change and take into account their new sedentary employment as managers, these bourgeois women’s femininity also shifted.  They were no longer so much caregivers and housekeepers, they had free time.  But they lived in a world where their public excursions and causes were always going to be limited due to the dominant patriarchal ideals of the day.  There were concerns about their safety and security, about the “delicate nature of the fairer sex.”  Thus, the church became the ideal location for women.  What safer place could there be than God’s house?  And so the parish (or whatever you want to call it in whatever Christian church you want to talk about) became this feminised space, just for women.

And men were turned off by the church, hence the response of muscular Christianity.

Recently, I exchanged emails with my CTlab colleague, Marisa Urgo, about American jihadists, and she noted something kind of interesting.   She suggested that it makes sense that bored (white) suburban youth in the US would be intrigued by Islam, as it is a very masculine religion, when compared to Christianity.  While I am not so interested in the consequences of this, it’s not my area of expertise, I do find the idea of gender and religion really interesting.  The fact that a particular disaffected segment of white, suburban youth would be attracted to the masculinist vision of radical Islam is fascinating for all sorts of reasons.

I think there’s also something to be said for the exotic here, much like white suburban boys in the late 80s/early 90s got so fascinated by gangsta rap coming out of Los Angeles and New York City.  This was when I was a teenager, and whilst I love hip hop, I never quite understood these guys who became so obsessed with not just the music, but the alleged lifestyle of gangsta rappers, to the point where they began to not only dress like Easy-E and Ice Cube, but they began to commit petty crime and to act like idiots, so that they could be gangsta.  You know the type, like J-Roc from Trailer Park Boys

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