Performance of Religious Identity
For the purposes of this project, I am going to refer to Victor Turner’s analytical framework for ritual and liminalities. This is not the only way to outline ritual process, but it is commonly accepted as a useful model. Ritual, as Turner defines it, is “undertaken as a response to some crisis” or when an individual or group decides to undergo a ritual that “suspends their involvement in everyday social life.” In theory, a person should be reintegrated into a community or a community should feel a renewed sense of “communitas,” or the state in which a community shares a sense of togetherness within their institutional structures. Turner separates ritual into three stages:
1. "Separation from everyday activities, social relations, and/or cultural conditions.”
2. Liminality which is the “result of the exit from normal social life and the entrance into a threshold phase where everyday notions of identity, time, and space are suspended.” This is often commonly referred to as an “in between” space.
3. Reintegration or reincorporation of the individual or group back into normal social life, but more deeply than before.”
Religion and performance of gender are two of the most commonly recognized forms of ritual. One can easily apply Turner’s framework to both of these rituals. For example, every week Jewish people ritually observe Shabbat. Traditional Jews separate themselves by abstaining from technology and “work” for approximately 24 hours. They exist in a liminal space for that day in which they are disconnected from activities which would usually reaffirm “identity, time, and space.” They are then reintegrated into the modern world at sunset each Saturday and even perform Havdalah to mark this transition.
One way in which gender is affirmed through ritual is the first time that a woman is told that she needs to wear a bra for the first time. Using Turner’s definition the woman is in a state of “crisis” because she has transgressed from social norms. She is separated from society while she goes shopping for a bra. She is placed in a liminal space where she may question the point in her life she is at (i.e. woman/girl) or need to ask questions of those who are older than her to understand why she needs to wear this item of clothing. She is reintegrated into society after she conforms to the standards of the community and starts wearing a bra regularly.
Religion and Gender
We have established that both gender and religion are rituals. I would like to argue this point further and say that religion itself can be a gender reaffirming ritual. According to Kelly Therese Pollock, in some religions, “gendered existence begins at birth.” She argues that one of these religions is Judaism. She uses circumcision, the Jewish ritual in which a male enters into a covenant with G-d, as evidence for this claim.
I would argue that mechitzas are another form of gender reaffirmation which Orthodox Jewish women continuously undergo. Mechitza tells women that there is a difference between them and the men on the other side. Women are separated from the leadership of the synagogue, who are typically male. This separation affirms that there is something different between themselves and those leading the services. In some spaces of worship, women receive additional visual cues for the separation, as they may look over the mechitza and see men wearing tallit. Depending on the architecture, mechitzas might also cut women off from the bimah. Women are placed in a liminal space in which they are often not leading services, are not center-focused in worship, and are cut off from visual cues and/or traditional garb. They are reintegrated when they reunite with their male loved ones at the end of services after having completed their ritual separation. In the case of mechitza, space dictates a religious ritual which affirms female gender identity. Space affects gaze and ability to have a sensory experience.
Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn, and John Hockey. “From a Certain Point of View.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 44, no. 1, 2013, pp. 63–83., doi:10.1177/0891241613505866.
Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519-31. doi:10.2307/3207893.
“Gender Rituals.” Encyclopedia of Religious Rites, Rituals, and Festivals, by Kelly Therese Pollock, Routledge, 2012.
Turner, Victor. “Liminality and Communitas.” The Performance Studies Reader, Routledge, 2016, pp. 97–104.