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Taiwan Research Programme
London School of Economics and Political Science
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London, WC2A 2AE


Professor Stephan Feuchtwang

Dr Fang-Long Shih

Feminisms and Religions: theory and a case study from Chinese culture

With Dr Fang-Long Shih (Taiwan Research Programme, LSE)

Series:  Seminars on Religion and Society

Date: Thursday 4 December 2008, 6pm-8pm

Venue: Seligman Library (Room A607), Old Building, London School of Economics (LSE)

Chair: Mr Stuart Thompson (Taiwan Research Programme)


Twenty years on from the books of the 1980s on the double issue of 'women and world religions', this paper uses the example of Chinese religions to re-examine and re-think the conjunction of feminism and religion from a sociological perspective. I argue that rather than there being a single feminism or definition of religion, there is a plurality of feminisms that articulate a variety of perspectives of certain religions and so, the gaps and spaces leave plenty of room for new voices.

This paper provides an overview of some of the theoretical and methodological arguments and strategies that have been used to critique both certain aspects of certain religions and the ways religions have been studied. I begin by introducing liberal feminisms in contrast to radical feminisms, and I go on to discuss so-called 'French feminism,' focusing on the writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. I characterise their works as addressing ontological questions: this is because of their tendency to offer speculations about the ground of 'the feminine', which is linked to their strategy to radicalize feminists' imaginations via metaphorical transformations of language. I contrast this with the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who rejects ontology and, via her engagements with criticisms of French feminism, provides a bridge to a further group of feminist theorists. This group, which includes Donna Haraway, and Sandra Harding, is concerned with critiques of methodology and epistemology (theory of knowledge). The work of these theorists interrogates the status of knowledge, challenges the structure of the academy, exposes the myth of objectivity, and reveals the biases they claim are built into the fabric of the sciences. This is part of their attempt to transform the research process and thus the outcomes of research.

This theoretical and methodological discussion provides the context for a critical and feminist approach to the study of Chinese religions. I illustrate how the status of women has been constructed in Chinese socio-religious order, adopting a combination of sociological and gendered perspectives to investigate the patriarchal patterns of Chinese religious culture. I then demonstrate how the religious structure's incompleteness and social change both allow for new discursive and physical spaces in which alternative practices and conceptions regarding women can emerge.

About the Speaker

Dr Fang-Long Shih is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre at the London School of Economics, where she is also the Convener of the Taiwan Research Programme. She is a part-time lecturer at LSE teaching Taiwan in Comparative Perspective and a visiting lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies teaching on the anthropology of religion in Taiwan and among the Chinese-speaking diasporas in London and Singapore. She regards religion as being always embodied in political, social, and economic processes, and her work has considered religion in relation to areas such as family, kin, gender, ethnicity, the state, modernity, and globalisation. She is the co-author of the monograph I-Lan Xian Minjian Xinyang 'Local Religion in I-Lan County' (I-Lan County Government, 2003), and is the co-editor Re-writing Culture in Taiwan (Routledge, 2008), and of the eJournal Taiwan in Comparative Perspective. She has published several articles on the anthropology of religion in Taiwan; religion, gender, and modernity; and religion, state policy, and tourism.