Blog: Producing gendered religious subjects

16 March, 2018

From 11 to 13 October 2017, the international research conference Religious Minorities’ Self-Representations: Claims of Difference and Sameness in the Politics of Belonging was hosted by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University. In a series of blog posts, different conference participants write about their research. In this blog about conservative Christian women in the Netherlands and Finland, Dr. Nella van den Brandt and PhD candidate Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo critically reflect upon the concepts ‘religious minority’ and ‘self-representation’.

Producing Gendered Religious Subjects: (Self-)Representations of Conservative Christian Women in Finland and the Netherlands

Authors: Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo (PhD Candidate in Political Studies at the University of Lapland), and Nella van den Brandt (Postdoctoral Researcher in Religious Studies at Utrecht University)

One of the goals of the conference ‘Religious Minorities’ Self-Representations: Claims of Difference and Sameness in the Politics of Belonging’, organized by Dr. Margreet van Es, was to explore how dominant perceptions of religious minorities feed into the ways in which these minorities represent themselves and/or their religion. As pointed out in the conference call for papers, religious minorities in Western Europe are under growing pressure to show that they are loyal to the nation state and that they share its fundamental values. This particularly applies to Muslims, who are often constructed as an Other to the Western Self. In this contribution we would like to problematize a few concepts in order to raise a number of new questions. 

Questioning concepts 
Both of us focused our conference papers on conservative Christian women in media and cultural productions, in respectively Finland (Laestadianism) and the Netherlands (Orthodox Calvinism). Starting from our empirical data, we suggest to rethink the notion of ‘religious minority’: can particular Christian communities be considered religious minorities in Northern and Western European contexts, even if those who belong to them are white? If yes, how exactly? While some religious communities in Western contexts are clearly on the margins in terms of religiosity, history, social class, culture and race, others might be considered at the margin of society in some respects but not in all. Therefore, we argue that we need to clearly situate the ways in which certain communities and traditions might be both disadvantaged and privileged, and how these positionalities intersect. 

Second, we pose questions about the distinction between ‘representation’ and ‘self-representation’. There might be empirical phenomena that justify such a dichotomy, think for example of law, newspapers and policy-making (‘dominant representation’) versus activism against such dominant representation (‘self-representation’). However, if one thinks of cultural productions such as documentaries or autobiographical novels, the boundaries between representation and self-representations become blurry. We will explore these two issues further below in our case studies.       

Focus on Laestadianism in Finland – Sandra Wallenius-Korkalo
In my doctoral research, I study popular culture representations of the Laestadian revivalist movement in order to investigate the power-laden ways in which gendered and embodied religious subjects are produced. 

Laestadianism, fairly little known outside Finland and Scandinavia, is a conservative Protestant Christian movement founded on the spiritual work of the Swedish-Sami botanist and priest Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-1861). Today the movement is most prominent in Finland, wherein Laestadians form circa 2% of the country’s population. Despite its relatively small size, Laestadianism is an influential movement with many entrepreneurs, business owners, and politicians – such as the current prime minister of Finland. Officially, Laestadians belong to the Finnish Lutheran Church, but they have their own organizations. Especially the Conservative Laestadian faction – the largest group of Laestadians – maintains an exclusive view of a ‘church within a church’: they consider their organization to be Christianity in its purest form, and hold that outside their group salvation is impossible.

What distinguishes Conservative Laestadians from mainstream Finnish society and makes them a certain type of Christian minority is that they live by strict theological and moral codes and practices. Conservative Laestadians generally do not, for example, approve of premarital sex, allow birth control, use alcohol, dance, or watch television. Gender hierarchy is woven deeply into Conservative Laestadianism. The Office of Preaching is reserved for men only, as are all the leading positions in the movement’s organization. The woman’s role is to be a helpmeet for the man and a mother for the children. Thus, especially women’s lives in Conservative Laestadianism are regulated strongly by the evidently patriarchal doctrines. 

Like many conservative religious groups today, Laestadianism is under pressure to change as it is increasingly affected by secular society’s norms and practices. In recent years, the Laestadian movement has been frequently discussed in Finnish media and popular culture. Novels and movies, and even a reality-television show feature Laestadians and ex-Laestadians. These representations highlight the many challenges that the community faces as it tries to maintain its traditional way of life, internal cohesion, and membership.

In my conference presentation, I focused on the aforementioned reality-tv, ‘Iholla‘ (‘On the Skin’), a case study from my dissertation, in order to explore the dynamic between representation and self-representation of religious identity and belonging. ‘Iholla’ is a documentary reality-television series wherein ordinary Finnish women are given hand-held video cameras for six months and are asked to record one hour of their life every day. This material is then edited into a television series. Season two, first aired in 2013, features Sanni, an ex-Conservative Laestadian woman in her early twenties. What is (self-)represented in the show is the everyday life of Sanni: her relationship with her fiancée, Sanni’s work, Sanni brushing her teeth, choosing her clothes, visiting relatives, pondering about her insecurities, planning her wedding, and going out with friends. What is also constantly made visible is the way in which Laestadianism is part of Sanni’s life; her looks and behaviour, the people and places she visits, and the discussions she has about it. 

In my case study, I trace the ways in which Sanni discursively and materially negotiates, and struggles with, the transformation of identity, following religious exit. I apply Rogers Brubaker’s (2016) formulation of ‘trans’ to think with and about changing conceptions of religious identity. Brubaker uses different modes of ‘trans’ “as an analytical lens through which to consider how racial as well as gender identities are increasingly open to choice, change, and performative enactment” (Brubaker 2016, 133). Adapting his concept ‘trans of migration’, ‘trans of between’, and ‘trans of beyond’, I approach Sanni’s identity transformation in threefold inquiry: Firstly, as a unidirectional movement, emphasising breaking away from the perceived constraints of Laestadianism; secondly, in continuous gradation and negotiation, rather than categorical difference between religious and secular identity enactment; and finally, as an active and self-conscious stance that challenges the idea of a one-dimensional continuum between one category and the other. The position of in-betweenness that characterizes ‘trans’ identity is not defined in temporal terms, as a phase that will pass, but as a position of political potentiality through active experimentation.

‘Iholla’ constructs Sanni both as an agent self-representing her life, and as a character representing Laestadianism and ex-Laestadianism. As such, self-representation and representation are co-created in the production of the television-series. The question to explore further is how these kinds of multilayered (self-)representations of religious in-betweenness may on the one hand reconfirm existing categories, and on the other hand, may challenge stereotyping representations of religious minorities. Thus, on the one hand, Laestadianism in the show is represented from a secular point of view, portraying those with a more conservative religious worldview as the stereotypical Other. On the other hand though, Sanni, as someone who is both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the movement self-represents an everyday reality that transgress such categories. 

Focus on Orthodox Calvinism in the Netherlands – Nella van den Brandt 
In my postdoctoral research, I explore Dutch media and cultural productions in order to investigate the ways in which religion and gender are being constructed in relation to each other. A case study of how Orthodox Calvinist women figure in novels, movies and documentaries is one way of doing this. 

Here it is sufficient to introduce Orthodox Calvinists as holding ‘traditional’ Protestant views on theological and moral issues. In the Dutch context, they are often understood, both by mainstream media and cultural discourses that are dominated by post-Christian voices, as well as by themselves, as taking up a countercultural position by maintaining the ideal of patriarchal marriage to the exclusion of ideas about the equality of women and LGBTQIs. Orthodox Calvinist positions on gender and sexuality issues may have been strengthened in the dynamic with a surrounding society and culture that values the emancipation of women and LGBTQIs, and that increasingly devalues patriarchal notions of marriage and relationships. In some ways, therefore, Orthodox Calvinists may be considered a Christian minority (in terms of numbers, as well as regarding their theological-moral outlooks). In other ways, they are a rather privileged Christian community (historically established, politically-institutionally embedded, financial means, white).  

In recent years, a number of well-known Dutch novels, movies, and documentaries were produced that present Orthodox Reformed women, and men, in various ways. Think, for example, of the 2014 movie ‘Stable full of Confetti’, which was made by Tallulah Hazekamp Schwab. It was made after the famous 2009 (partly fictional, partly autobiographical) novel by Franca Treur. The movie tells the story of a young girl growing up in an Orthodox Calvinist family at a farm in the province of Zeeland. It shows the family going to church and working at the farm, the children going to school, the death of the grandfather, and the marriage of one of the sons. The only girl among six brothers, Katelijne, is at the center of the story. It focuses on her experiences and her place in the family. Another well-known example is the 2013 documentary ‘Does God Love Women?‘ by Emile van Rouveroy van Nieuwaal, which puts Hilligje Kok, the wife and mother of the family Kok, center stage. The family lives in Staphorst, a village in the center-north of the Netherlands, known for a large presence of Orthodox Calvinists. The documentary follows Hilligje in her two-fold struggle: for women to have more of a say in the Orthodox Calvinist church, and for women to be able to become parliamentary representatives for the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij – the political party supported predominantly by Orthodox Calvinists.

It is important to see that different genres of cultural production ‘do’ different things in terms of producing Orthodox Reformed women as gendered religious subjects. The movie needs to be considered through its style: based on Franca Treur’s novel, it is a mix of fiction and auto-biography. A diversity of perspectives is being used to narrate the story, such as theological discourse and a focus on everyday life, and historical and social themes are brought in such as the differences between urbanized contexts and the country-side, and secularization. The documentary needs to be considered in somewhat different terms compared to the movie. Documentary-makers often make at least partial claims on conveying ‘truth’, and their work is often considered to ‘reveal’ some kind of unknown reality. Documentary-makers have implicit or explicit agendas. At the same time, individuals who participate in documentaries to show something about their lives should be considered agents with their own agendas and voices. The differences between movies and documentaries may also feed into the ways in which they are received. While both ‘Stable full of Confetti’ and ‘Does God Love Women?’ were well received by art critics and journalists, the reception by Orthodox Calvinists is more mixed. The work of Franca Treur, for example, is considered a close resemblance of the everyday experiences of Orthodox Calvinist women and girls, but also causes anger and frustration about the narration of Katelijne’s deconversion and moving away from Orthodox Calvinism. 

Both genres of cultural production need to be explored in terms of an intriguing mixture of representing Orthodox Calvinist women, but at the same time as potentially conveying Orthodox Calvinist women’s self-representations, agency and lived religion. 

Concluding remarks and further considerations 
In her conference concluding remarks, professor Birgit Meyer pointed out the importance of different forms of imagining religious co-existence. Cultural productions such as film, documentary and reality-television shows can be approached as sites where religious identities, subjectivities and (imagined) communities are produced through representation and self-representation. Such (self-)representations call for increased understanding, or dialogue, between religious minorities and mainstream society. What could be explored further is how both mainstream society and religious minorities themselves are ‘making sense’ of conservative religiousness through various types of (self-)representations. The process of ‘sensemaking’ not only has a cognitive and discursive, but also an affective, embodied and sociomaterial nature. Allying ourselves with the aims of the conference and many of its participants, we would like to further the discussion about the functions and practices of (self-)representation in revealing, communicating about, and potentially producing, multi-sensory and embodied experiences of gendered religious subjects.