This conversation was presented on August 27, 2020, by the HDS Women’s Studies in Religion Program, which brings five scholars in gender from around the country each year to enrich the experience of HDS students. The research associates shared their thoughts on the ethical responsibility of scholars to be engaged in the study of gender.
Every year at Harvard Divinity School, we welcome a new class of students and we welcome five new scholars to our women's studies and religion program, each one of them working on a book length project that advances our knowledge of the relation of women to religion.
This year is like no other. We welcomed our first fully online class of students, a wonderful group that I've had the chance to start working with in class this semester. We also welcomed a remarkable group of women's studies scholars, who I'm pleased to introduce to you today.
I'm so grateful to them for persevering in their important work in the strange circumstances that we find ourselves in this year. We'll all be conducting our colloquia online, and so we're happy to come to you online for the first introduction of the scholarship of this year's five scholars in women's studies and religion.
Miriam has just joined us. So I'm going to give her-- even though she's an A in the alphabet, I'm going to give her a moment to get settled into our Zoom call. And I'm going to start with our second research associate in alphabetical order, Professor Nyasha Junior, who I see is wearing the number 7 tonight. And I hope you'll explain that to us.
Professor Junior is associate professor of religion, teaching Hebrew Bible at Temple University. She's the author of An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and most recently to a reception history that just came out this summer, Black Samson, The Untold Story Of An American Icon.
And Professor Junior is with us this year working on an exciting project, focusing on one of the pioneering figures in the religious history of American women, the Black Christian preacher Jarena Lee, who was denied ordination during her lifetime in 19th century, and then was posthumously ordained by the African-American Episcopal Church in 2016.
Professor Junior, what made you interested in studying Jarena Lee? And why do you think her story has become so important in the 21st century? And lastly, if you have time, I'd be grateful if you could share with us how your previous scholarship on the Hebrew Bible informs your approach to the study of Jarena Lee. Professor Junior.
Thank you. Hello, everyone. I'm Nyasha Junior. I use she and her. And I bring you greetings from Philadelphia. the unceded territory of the Lenape nation. Dr. Braude asked about the number seven. I'm wearing a Kaepernick jersey from the 49ers. And to return to the research, this year, I'm working on a project on Jarena Lee, as she mentioned, a 19th century Black woman evangelist who was part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
She was denied ordination and was posthumously ordained in 2016, as she mentioned. So my project is called the Resurrection of Jarena Lee. And it's a biography, a reception history, and an oral history that looks at how various religious and literary communities have understood and reclaimed Jarena Lee.
I first found out about Jarena Lee in MDiv program at the Pacific School of Religion. Although I grew up AME and I knew about pioneering figures like Richard Allen and Sarah Allen, I'd never heard of Jarena Lee. So the project came about because I was interested in finding out more about how she became this figure.
The work I do as a biblical scholar relates to this new research because my work has moved in the direction of reception history. So I'm interested in texts, but I'm also interested in how people use texts and use the impact, the influence that texts have. So my most recent work on Black Samson was looking at the figure of Samson in American life and culture. And Jarena Lee is just a movement in that direction to focus specifically on one figure and to talk about how different people understand her over time.
A class that I'm teaching this fall is called Black Women, Black Church and Self-Narratives. And we'll be looking at Black women's memoir and autobiography in part because Jarena Lee wrote her autobiography in the 19th century.
That's great. Thank you so much, Nyasha. and I know there's a huge amount of interest in your class. I think that's going to be a really exciting opportunity. And you were so disciplined in keeping to the time. Probably, we'll have some time for questions. So you can put questions into the chat. And we'll hold them till we've heard from our speakers. But we hope that all the speakers will have a chance to answer one or two questions at the end.
Now, I'm going to return to Professor Mariam Ayad, who is an Associate Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. She is the author of God's Wife, God's Servant, The God's Wife of Amun. And Professor Ayad recently convened an international conference on women in ancient Egypt at the American University in Cairo.
And at that conference, Mariam, you began by addressing the topic of gender bias in Egyptology. Why does it matter that there is gender bias in the study of the ancient world? What does your current research reveal about the potential of gender analysis in Egyptology? And about the contributions, Egyptologists can make to women's studies in religion. And finally, I would love to know who is your favorite female figure in ancient Egyptian religion and what should we all know about her? Mariam.
Well, thank you for the introduction. I appreciate it. But that's also a lot of material to cover in a relatively short period of time. So I'm trying to whisk through it. And I'd be happy to take questions later on. Can I start by addressing aspects of gender bias in Egyptology? Because at the moment, if I go to a national meeting of my profession, most of the attendees and presenters are women. So it's not that we're underrepresented. The issue is really how the evidence has been interpreted over the years.
And in my paper that you mentioned at the conference, I gave some blatant examples of that where, say, inscribed with the name of a princess would be discarded not considered an evidence of her literacy, but first discarded as a toy, or maybe of what of offering, or maybe a painter's palette. So everything and anything, but evidence of her literacy.
And to my research, it became very clear that the evidence for male officials or male literacy is not subject to that kind of scrutiny or criticism and became also very clear that people are taking evidence of female empowerment, including literacy and effective roles in the temple as mostly exercises in critical thinking, how many ways can we come up with to describe the evidence.
And sometimes within the same article, there would be arguments that are quite close to one another, but they're put forward, just to discard the evidence, not to seek proofs. So what I really am very passionate about is understanding Egyptians, Ancient Egyptians on their own terms, whether I'm looking in the social structure or religious practices, men or women doesn't matter.
And we all have biases. And it's very important that we recognize own personal biases where we're examining the evidence rather than projecting them onto the evidence, and coming up with ideas that are really generated by our own experiences, and not by the evidence presented to us.
We can come back to that later on, but I think the added value of understanding the evidence on its own terms is essential to understanding such an ancient culture. Ancient Egypt is so popular because so much survives of it, and sometimes that can be the curse as well as a blessing because of the embarrassment of riches that constitutes our evidence, right? So people are very busy either doing the [INAUDIBLE] translations of texts or [INAUDIBLE].
And often, there isn't the time, or the academic award for stepping back, and actually being analytical about what it is that we're reading or finding. And again, we can talk more about that later if people are interested. In terms of my favorite religious figure, it's actually Queen Hatshepsut because she was a truly innovative person in terms of initiating new cults in the Theban region and initiating things that became standard in the late Thutmose kingdom.
And often, she's not given credit for that. You often hear Amenhotep III, or Rameses II or Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti, but really Hatshepsut's foundation in terms of establishing new cults and starting new rituals and festivals that became part of the normal religious practice in Ancient Egypt. And she's not given enough credit for her work in that regard.
Thank you so much. This is really fascinating. And we obviously have a lot to learn about gender and Egyptology. Next, I'm going to introduce Dr. Georgette Ledgister who goes by Jojo. Dr. Ledgister is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And she is an instructor at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She received her PhD from Emory University.
Dr. Ledgister, your topic is Charlotte Masangu wa Nkulu, who rose to the highest ranks of the Mai-Mai rebel movement during the five-year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that began in 1997 and became the most deadly conflict since World War II.
While most accounts of war treat women solely as victims of violence, you focus on a woman who engaged ancestral power to become a rebel leader in a country where the legacies of colonialism and slavery continue to cause dire poverty and violence. There are many urgent topics of study. Why is the study of the religious practice of a female rebel leader important enough to be among them? What was it like for you to study such a controversial and gender defining figure? Jojo.
Good evening, everyone. It's exciting to be here. You ask really great questions that I will try to answer concisely so that we can get to the discussion. There are so many assumptions that are made about Africa, about African women, about African religions. And this project was an opportunity to really delve into aspects of African religions and personhood of African women that are often elided or missing from the way that we approached the academic study of religion and gender.
And so while, you're right, there are so many aspects of my home country that could be studied. The access to agency that the Mai-Mai rebel movement offered to women. It offered them protection through their rituals from rape. It offered them the ability to rise to the rank of general, which outside of the war. Those were roles that women were not seen as accessing. And it paints a picture of Africa that is often not seen. And it's very Black Panther-esque in the mystique around it.
And so I think my own sense of interest in encountering these narratives, I was fascinated. I wanted to know. Is this real? Is this true? How is this possible? And of course, the outcome is a study that was phenomenological in nature. I studied the phenomenon and the meaning that people made from the acts of valor that this woman performed. And it really brings together the fields of religion, gender, and conflict in ways that I think can point as to how it is that religion, and not just African religions, but how religion can help people to make sense of the world in times of crisis. And we are in a time of crisis right now.
And as far as how it was to study with her, I was frightened of her the entire time. My nine-month-old daughter, she was nine months at the time, she's four now, came to the field with me and so did my mother. So I was a new mom and doing this work with the warlords. She looked just like one of my aunties. I mean, she looked ordinary as you could, but did these extraordinary things, and taught me so much about Luba religion and cosmology.
And my kid was not afraid of her. I think she was afraid of my kid. And so it kind of balanced out a little bit. But it was a lesson in-- so much, but also in life, and in womanhood, and in person.
Oh. I can't wait to learn more about this topic. This is absolutely fascinating. And thank you so much for bringing it to Harvard Divinity School. Next, I would like to introduce Dr. Nahid Siamdoust. She comes to us from Yale University, where she spent a number of years as lecturer in Persian studies. And I'm very proud to, and please, to give some hot off the press news that when she leaves here, she will be assuming a new tenure track position at Rice University. And I'm not sure what the department is, but maybe she will tell you. Yeah, we're really thrilled about that.
Dr. SIamdoust's first book on music In modern Iran has one of my favorite book titles ever, The Soundtrack Of The Revolution. And we are thrilled that she is here this year to work on her second book on music in contemporary Iran.
Nahid, the religious regulation of women's voices and how women circumvent those restrictions has long been a major focus of women's studies in religion. Yet, few studies have focused directly on musical voices. How does the discussion of women's voices shift when we turn our attention to female singers? Can you help us understand the life of a woman singer in a country that makes her solo voice illegal? How is the use of new media allowing women singers to have an impact on Islamic Law?
Thank you so much, Ann, for this very kind introduction. I just have to correct that I'll be an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Oh, so sorry.
That's all right.
That's all right. And thank you so much--
Department of Middle Eastern Studies.
Wonderful. Thank you. It's such new news. I didn't have it in writing.
That's all right. That's all right. I'm very excited about it. And thank you for your very great questions. I might take a few more minutes than my fellow panelists did. And I just should say that I'm so excited to be part of this group of scholars, and very excited to be exchanging ideas with everyone, and having the luxury of this year of doing my own research.
The first question about, as you mentioned, about music. And you mentioned my book. So in my first book, I studied politics through music. And what I learned was that when we shift our gaze away from the brick and mortar understanding of politics, when we shift our gaze toward the cultural and in the case of my book, music-- and in my second book, I'll be looking at music as well. But it'll be one of the chapters.
And we find a space that because of its being untethered from sort of traditional notions of politics, actually presents a more multifaceted nuance and ultimately for your space, for the negotiation, and mediation of cultural, social, and political values. And the same applies to shifting the question from women's voices such as let's say political expressions, and demands, and newspaper articles, or political rallies themselves, very important in their own right.
But when we shift our gaze, especially within authoritarian systems, we're able to witness the same sort of slightly under the radar quality of interaction, which allows for greater pushing of the boundaries, and greater fields of action, and very importantly for me since I work on the contemporary period, the empowering affordances of new media. Though as in most cases, in Iran too, we have to temper our enthusiasm of new media because they're equally used by regimes to varying degrees, whether in the US, Iran, or Hungary, to securitize the public sphere and stifle dissent.
And then of course, their tonal and affective qualities to music, and especially the human voice that are able to relay feelings or sentiments that circumvent verbal and rational communication to deliver a certain message, which may or may not be received in the originally intended way. In terms of sort of understanding the life of a woman singer in a country that makes her solo voice illegal, in my research as an anthropologist, I interviewed several of the most prominent solo singers, a solo female singers.
One of them was at the beginning of the height of her career. So when the revolution happened in 1979, she was in her late 20s. And she would have gone on as a sort of classical vocalist to have, let's say 30 years of a glowing career when she was told that her voice was haram, forbidden by Islam, and that she could no longer sing.
She went silent for about 15 years. Literally, she told me she didn't even sing to herself. It was that kind of revolutionary context that not being able to pursue her career and passion. She just went silent. And only about 15 years later started figuring out how she could continue her profession with integrity.
And she decided the way she could do this was go abroad and give concerts there, publish her work abroad, which was also forbidden inside. And she's remained living in Iran, and interestingly, because of the particular genre of the kind of work that she does, the authorities haven't bothered her. She has enough of a sort of stature that they won't touch her even though she performs without a hijab outside of the country. Because usually, when people do work outside of the country, when they come back to Iran, they can get into trouble.
And so the government's able to control not only what people do inside Iran, but also if they wish to continue living in their own home country, what they do outside of the country. But because of media technology, such as of course cassette tapes, and then VHS, and CDs, and satellite TV technology, a large number of Iranians have been able to consume her work and the work of other women who've produced outside of the country.
And so this path has worked for Parisa. She's chosen not to engage at all would be internal regulatory or political field and partly prompted by this development and the recognition that half of the nation's voices had been silenced from singing. The Islamic republic around the same time in the 1990s devised plans to organize concerts by women for women. So these are spaces that are highly securitized where no one is allowed to even take a picture because none of what happens within that context is allowed to leave that context and be consumable by men.
Parisa believed this gender segregated format relegated her to a second class citizen. And she decided that she would never take part in these kinds of fora, but of course others have. There's just such a big discrepancy, and with it on this topic in the pre versus post revolutionary or Islamic Iran.
Iran had an illustrious pop music empire with female singers that gave world tours prior to the revolution, so people have continued listening to this pre-revolutionary music from women and also younger women who live in exile. And now over the last decade, a whole new generation that has grown up consuming this heritage has come of age presenting a considerable number of master vocalists who have posted their work online, which are avidly consumed.
But of course, these women can't give concerts inside Iran or legally sell their work, so they've resorted to all kinds of tactics to create a fan base, including private concerts, and concerts abroad, and singing multi0vocally, which theoretically is allowed.
So in the end, at this point in time, any female vocalist who reaches prominence, any kind of traction on social media has a lot of followers, now really has to contend with- and it took it took the state several years to figure this out, but now, really has to contend with repeated interrogations and impositions of restrictions on their works both offline and online, which as some of my interviews told me, can be very debilitating to an artist.
And then moving on to the question about has the use of new media allowing women singers to have an impact on Islamic Law? To put it in a nutshell, new media affordances have allowed women singers to push the boundaries to the point where state and religious authorities have been called to task to openly and clearly present their opinions on the female voice.
And in the process with witness somewhat of a-- the emperor doesn't have any close moments where even Iran's supreme leader has reiterated his already long standing jurisprudence that in and of itself, female vocals are not haram, so inadvertently admitting that the issue is a political one.
So it's not so much that through their use of new media, women singers have managed to bend Islamic law. But that the veracity of this law existing so categorically has been shaken to the core. And furthermore, because of women's efforts to publish their work and online fora and these questions coming to a head, we're now learning more about the state security bodies and how they work to limit women's presence, not just physically in Iran, but even abroad and online. And this is something that I'll talk more about in the lecture that I'll give later this semester. I'm really sorry about the interruption here.
I just want to say a sentence about the course that I'll be teaching. I realized I've taken much more time than all my fellow panelists. So for those of you who will be joining us, we'll be examining instances like this one, so solo female singing in Iran, and the debates, and the kinds of political and cultural fissures that they throw open, and really hold them against the grain of what the Quran or sunnah Islamic traditions have been interpreted to prescribe.
And we'll do this by examining a diverse set of texts and events in various media across five Muslim majority countries, namely Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, really trying to incorporate a comparative perspective into our readings. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Nahid. And thank you for persevering your incredibly poised. I really appreciate it. And that's all part of women's studies.
It seems so, thank you.
Our last speaker tonight, before we get to the discussion, is Dr. Meryl Winick. She goes by Mimi. Dr. Winick is an instructor in the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. And she received her PhD in English Literature from Rutgers university Dr. Winick, your study focuses on the first generation of women academics in Great Britain.
At a time when modern knowledge and modern women were defined by a rejection of religious faith, these women scholars turned to the study of religion to pursue feminist alternatives to scholarly and religious traditions. How did their approach to religion differ from that of their male colleagues who we have been taught to view as the founding theorists of religious studies.
These are the very figures whose absence from the curriculum led to the founding of this program. Do you see a connection between their embrace of alternative spirituality and the contemporary embrace of spirituality without religion? Mimi.
Thank you, Ann, and thank you all. I'm so delighted to be here amongst my fellow RAs and to sort of begin the acquaintance with all you students. I'm really looking forward to working together. So yeah, the context that I'm looking at here is the late 19th, early 20th century, primarily in Britain, when women were first working at universities as research fellows and professors. They had sort of entered as students at women's colleges and some co-ed colleges and universities in the generation before.
And I focus on women working in classics, especially the study of Ancient Greek, medieval studies, Egyptology, and folklore, who from these fields, became sort of theorists of religion, who I'm hoping to, in a way, sort of critically recover. And I can talk more about what I mean by critically there.
So their research shared much in terms of subject matter with their male colleagues. And interestingly at the time, a lot of the founding male theorists of religion who we might be more familiar with everyone from sort of the Germans, Friedrich Engels, JJ Bachofen, later Sigmund Freud, also the Brits like JG Frazer, author of The Golden Bough. They were really interested in these, like pretty grand narratives of the evolution and a long history of religion, that saw religion is emerging in this sort of primitive stage of humanity and so-called sort of matriarchal stages of society.
So they saw sort of religion as women-center and even goddess centered. And the women that I look at who include the classicist Jane Harrison, the medievalist Jessie Weston, and the Egyptologist Margaret Murray were really interested in this too. And I'm interested in how they, as women themselves who were in this period, kind of had a privileged relationship to religion. Women were seen as, according to sort of evolutionary doctrine, a bit more primitive, closer to these evolutionary origins in a very derogatory way.
So they had this privileged relationship to what had become for these academic theorists of religion, the derogatory category of primitive religion, and even religion itself. And the way they saw this sort of early original religion was asked this sort of mystical, ritualistic, not yet credal, not yet sort of dogmatic.
And I'm quite interested in how the women in this period took this same subject matter and this similar sort of history, but really told it in a very different way, and changed its meanings, and especially the values of these sort of stories. And so they took this sort of set of associations among women, sort of irrationality, mysticism, and primitiveness, or backwardness, and told stories that actually celebrated these linked categories.
So in contrast to someone like Frazer, who would tell these stories of spiritual evolution where religion sort of begins in superstition or magic precedes through more rational versions of religion often concluded as Protestant, Christianity, and culminates perhaps in a more rational science, and a liberation from religion entirely.
These women tended to sort of present the origins of the mystical, ritualistic religion as something superior, closer to a true religion, or a true spirituality, spirituality because it was vague, or mystical, not organized, not dogmatic. And so this becomes particularly interesting when they begin to write in a slightly more sort of prophetic mode, and begin to sort of suggests that these ancient origins of religion have either been of incidentally preserved in art, or in some cases, more conspiratorially sort of like purposely preserved in secret traditions.
And this is where you get some echoes of like 19th century new religious movements, like theosophy and these women's work. There were some direct connections between the academic work, and the sort of new religious movements, and practices. And I realized that I can kind of hear myself. I tend to get a little caught up in retelling these stories and these changes in the values of women and mysticism. I think it can sound like very exciting and enchanting. And I think it can sound kind of familiar too.
And this brings me to Ann's second question about is there a connection or do I see a connection between these theorists' embrace of an alternative spirituality in their histories, and theories, and the contemporary embrace of the spirituality without religion, spiritual, but not religious. And so sort of emphatically, yes. Part of this is a direct genealogical link between the work of these women. And I'm sort of new religious movement.
So for example, the Egyptologists and folklorist Margaret Murray writes this book published by Oxford in 1921, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. That is sort of a huge hit and basically becomes a founding text for Wicca a couple of decades later. And she goes on to write the introduction to Gerald Gardner's sort of persuasions of the witches craft.
There are these direct links. And there's sort of direct links to sort of critical feminist takes on religion. So Mary Daly engaged with Jane Harrison, and Jessie Weston, and Margaret Mary and her critiques of patriarchal Christianity and religion. But there's more diffused links too.
And I'm sort of really interested in the way that these women, I think, have inspired a lot of enthusiastic readers to see academic inquiry, so not exclusively a theological engagement with their religion, but specifically sort of humanist academic engagement of the study of the religion and how they presented this itself as a spiritual practice that could be conducive to these feelings of ecstasy and enchantment that I think people sometimes find in these narratives.
And so I'm really interested in exploring the long history, the reception of these theories, not only in new religious movements, but also in sort of more popular fiction and other sort of broader popular cultural engagements with esotericism in the spiritual and not religious.
And there are sort of the more pernicious sides to this too. I mentioned that sort of conspiratorial style that comes into some of these stories about the preservation through secret traditions. And I'm sort of interested in how these theories of religion have also had an impact on shaping, overlapping relationships between the spiritual, and religious, and conspiratorial thinking as well.
So I'm hoping I'll get to explore some of these things. And the course I'll be teaching in the spring, modern women's writing and religion, that's going to be focused-- looking more at literary writing. So we're going to read Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, among-- probably those are the most famous folks will be looking at, and then some lesser-known writers. Looking at the way they combine spiritual practices with practices of inquiry and in their cases as literary writers with aesthetic practices as well. Thank you.
Thank you so much. Let's see. It's really remarkable when the search committee selects the group of scholars from the 100 applications that we review every year. We're not trying to-- we're just looking for the five best projects, but you can see all of the synergy between these lines of inquiry, particularly the issues of women's voice and the way the issues of erasure that these projects will undo.
Now, we're starting to see some questions in the Q&A, keep them coming. And but before we turn to those, I'm going to give the panelists a chance to ask each other questions because this is the first time that they have heard each other speak about these projects. And I know that they're starting to see the common questions and elements among them. So just let me ask the panelists if any of you would like to address a question to your sister panelists before we go-- oh, yes, Georgette.
So I have a question for Nyasha, for Professor Junior. And I'm sure you're aware of this. I think the hashtag Jarena taught me started trending on social media a couple of years ago. And it became a rallying cry right around her posthumous ordination for women who were reclaiming aspects of her autobiography, for those who read it, aspects of her life, of her ministry, and claiming it as their own, and drawing direct ties to her, and elevating her posthumously saying as a minister, as a woman, as a leader, as a scholar, I link myself to Jarena Lee, Jarena taught me.
How do you feel about the reclamation that we often so do in trendy ways on social media? And my second question to you is, in your work, will your work address the ways in which we are not just recreating this figure and making her an icon, but the ways in which we allied, or erase, or polish over aspects of-- or sacralize aspects of figures that now hold to be on a higher level, at a higher platform. Is there is there room to critique some of that process that we put people that we admire through?
Thank you for your question. Yes, I think that there are women who find that Jarena Lee for them is a figure that they found out about, learned about, read her autobiography, and unfortunately, still resonate with so much of what she endured. And so I think when you consider the struggles of particularly Black Protestant clergy women today, many of them have some of the same concerns that she had in the 19th century. So I think that's one of the reasons why people gravitate to her.
And I'm hoping that part of the oral history project will help me to lift up some of those concerns about how basically this is like a canonization process, the posthumous ordination. We'll talk about some of the positives and negatives of trying to connect her story with those of Contemporary Women.
Thank you. Does anyone else on the panel want to address a question to another panelist? Yeah. Nahid?
Yeah. I can ask a question of Jojo. I think the question applies to some of the other panelists as well. But I'm just wondering within these-- when we're studying women, exceptional women like the rebel leader and the general who you've studied, what are some of the structures?
And I know this is a very sort big question-- I know this is a very big question, but what were some of the systems in place aside from-- clearly, she could of overcome whatever patriarchal norms were in place to achieve something that other women hadn't done in her use of religion. So what allowed that particular person to do that? Can you tell us just more about her personal biography? And what empowered her to do that?
Thanks, Nahid. That's a great question. So to give you a little bit of background and she doesn't like being called Charlotte. She's like, call me Chatty. And it was a challenge when I was writing about her, beginning to write about her. The spelling in the French is C-H-A-T-T-Y, which in English, morphology read as Chatty. And I was trying to change it. She wouldn't let me. But Chatty is how she wanted to be known.
And she got married-- she dropped out of high school in the late '80s, early '90s to get married because that was what you did, You were lucky in the rural area, in the village of Kabungulu, where she came from, in Southeastern Congo to even get an education beyond primary education. She went to a United Methodist School and a missionary school, got married, and could not have children.
And after 10 years of trying, well, after five years of trying, she stayed married to this man for 10 years. The war and instability started kicking up in that region because the part of Congo that she's from, Southeastern Congo, is one of the most mineral rich areas in the world and also one of the most economically poor areas in the world. So there are very few opportunities for advancement for women.
Your best hope is to marry, and to get married to a decent human being, and to have children, and that is it. And so she couldn't have children. She did not marry a decent human being. And in part of the conversations that we had in the interviews, her husband even came up to her and said, hey, is it OK if I go have kids with other people? Because we really need kids.
And so when the war came through her region, she actually wanted to join the war because she was hoping to die. So that was her way of owning some type of agency that she didn't have in her life as a woman, was to go and die. And in the process, the chiefs of the clans in her region had all turned to African religion to Luba religion to turn to the ancestors and say, we are being invaded. This is your land. Give us access to power to protect ourselves.
These are people with no military training, whatsoever, no resources. And so through Indigenous rituals, that, one, made them bulletproof. So they did this mai-- this Swahilian for water, So Mai-Mai means water water. And there are a lot of actually mystical political movements in Africa that connect themselves to the concept of water. And we could talk all day about the symbolism of religion and water.
And so it's the specific water ritual that you go through. It makes you bulletproof. And it's the use of different elements in nature to be able to fight back. So sticks become sharp weapons. And so she joined the war. She went through this ritual. And it turned out that the fringe benefit of this ritual is that men were afraid to rape Mai-Mai women because they just didn't know what would happen.
So there was this lord, don't rape them. Like something will happen to you. Fill in the blank. Think of the most gruesome thing that a man could fear from a woman, and those were the narratives that were flowing. And in my class we'll talk some more about that. But when she joined the Mai-Mai movement, she ceased to become a woman. She became a Mai-Mai warrior. And because she didn't die, she was like, well, maybe there's a reason the ancestors want me to live.
So she began to look at that as her mission survivor. And as she climbed the ranks of this movement and became completely fearsome. And at the end of the war, she adopted war orphans. She's raising 10 children as her own. And she told her husband to go kick rocks. So he's gone. But she was able to come through this really traumatic period through her access to African religion.
And so my course, Religion, Gender, and Ethics in Africa, we'll talk about those different motives, and how they empowered women like Chatty, poor women from unknown villages, and how their access to religion has given them hope and helped them to flourish, not as female bodies, but as persons who are no longer limited by gender roles.
Super fascinating, thank you.
Thank you so much. I'm going to turn to the Q&A at this point. And the first question that we received comes from Andre. Andre asks or states, these amazing visiting instructors and their research celebrate the voices of Black and Brown women during a time of uprisings against systemic racism. How does HDS see itself celebrating these voices during this time? Thank you so much for the really, really important question, Andre, which I'm not going to answer. I'm going to answer it by shutting up so that you can hear more of the voices from this panel. Stay tuned and please come to their lectures during the semester.
The next question we have is for Professor Mariam Ayad from Al who asks how has the representation of women in Ancient Egyptian religion affected the position of women in Egypt today?
The short answer, there's no connection. Because Modern Egyptians, unfortunately, are completely dissociated from our ancient past. And we see that in events happening since August 2015 where after the change in regime, young adolescent boys would loot museums, provincial museums. And when asked why do you do that, they say, oh, these objects belong to the government. They belong to the tourists. And it was these young boys attempt to get back in the government Were perceived wrong. They suffered. So not at all, in fact.
There is such a dire lack of knowledge of our past in Cairo. And I think it may have to do with the genesis of the field of Egyptology as a Western field of study that started with a French competing Egypt in the late 18th century. And part of the reason why I moved back to Egypt in 2011 is to become part of a group, a small group of scholars and activists who are trying to make Egypt's ancient enmity with history more relevant to modern Egyptians.
Sometimes that's an uphill battle, especially when the officials were in charge of education, higher education and antiquities seem to also adopt the team view that Ancient Egypt belongs to the tourists. And there's this commercialization of our heritage that goes hand-in-hand with the decoupling, which is the very same situation.
Thank you. That's really fascinating. I really look forward to seeing how you're able to bring Egypt back. That's the study of Ancient Egypt to bear on Modern Egypt. The next question is addressed to all the panelists. And it's from Arlo, who asks how your research bears on the difference in credibility that is attributed to male and female clergy and other religious leaders?
I can respond to that a little bit. So I think the issue is not so much one of-- it's a great question, but it also sort of reveals at least in my own research, that you know, it's not actually one about credibility. Because when it comes-- at least, within the Iranian field and the you know, the Shiite Clergy, there are these systems of education and ranking that prohibit women from achieving certain of the higher ranks. So a woman only very recently was allowed to be an ayatollah, and I think there are. You know, something like a handful of them.
And so just socially and culturally and religiously, and in every other way, there's this notion that this is man's work. And so while women do all kinds of works, you know, for example, doing eulogies or singing at the birthdays of sanctities, and doing all kinds of work, they aren't really the ones that are vested with the kind of authority, just purely systematically, to do the kinds of things that male clergy are authorized to do. So it doesn't even get to-- at least within my field, it doesn't even get to the point where women can sort of, you know, be kind of measured side by side men, in terms of their credibility.
Thank you. Does anyone else want to speak to that question?
I can jump in on that. It's a bit of a side answer, because the women that I studied were not ordained clergy. And in fact, we're speaking a scholarly authorities, and one of the things that interests me-- the question of credibility was really pertinent to them. And I'm interested in how they actually had a great deal of scholarly authority and credibility, at this time when they were sort of these pioneers as scholars, that they really were unusual and exceptional, like Jane Harrison as the first woman to lecture in Cambridge University buildings.
And even though she is a fellow at a women's college there, she is not yet a member of Cambridge, because women can become members until 1948 of the university, and she dies in '28, but she was taken really seriously. Her books became adopted as exam textbooks for a time. And then her work becomes vehemently discredited, and there are legitimate ways her works become discredited. A lot of scholarship gets superseded when new evidence is found, new paradigms come into play.
But there is a really sort of, troubling image and misogynistic strain to the discrediting that does sort of undermine credibility with references to gendered associations with irrationality, unreliability. And I think this is complicated in interesting ways by the study of religion as a subject matter, that is sometimes seen as well, we have to study this subject that is itself somehow linked with the irrational. And so I'm kind of interested in the ways that there's a lot more variety around the way that they have authority and credibility on this particular subject, at these differing moments in time, in their own lifetimes, and in the later reception of their work.
Thank you. Well, we are just about out of time, and I'm going to close by reading a question from Meredith. Meredith writes, "I am curious about how this program is holding space for and modeling critical engagement with this season of compounding assault. How are you inviting these scholars, women all, and many women of color, to center their safety, health, and well-being in a system designed to both obscure and silence women, and the value and labor of their work?"
Thank you so much for that question. That question is going to be with us every day throughout this year, throughout the program. Writing a book is an incredible work of personal labor. It cannot be separated from everything about the person who is doing it. In the program, we become intimately involved with the lives of our scholars every year. This year, the truth is, we don't know what that will mean. Just as many of you do not know exactly what it will mean for you to be studying and working at your scholarship this year.
What we hope the program will always do, is to amplify women's voices, as we as a society work through this process, and to make sure that the voices that you've heard today will continue to be heard throughout this year and throughout their careers. And we will support that in any way that we can with their help. I hope these presentations have whetted your appetite as much as they have whetted mine. I wish I could take all their courses. I can't. And you can't either, you might be able to take one or two or-- outside chance, three of them, but you can certainly come to all of their lectures, which will be online, and we'll be posted to our website.
Thank you to the audience for your participation. And thank you especially to the five scholars who have introduced their work tonight. Thank you for your work, and for persevering to be with us this evening. Good night.