The PelicanWeb's Journal of Sustainable Development

Research Digest on Integral Human Development,
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Vol. 6, No. 2, February 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor

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Woman as "Other"
in Monotheistic Religious Discourse

Zilka Spahic-Šiljak
Professor of Religious Studies
Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies
University of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Originally published in Puls Demokratije, 16 January 2008

During the past decade in Bosnia and Herzegovina, much work has been done on the promotion of women's rights, gender equality, equal rights and opportunities and the creation of a platform for fighting against all forms of discrimination. Since “religion simultaneously reflects and creates the cultures and civilisations it is a part of,"1 its influence can be felt in the regulation of inter-gender relationships and in the delineation of desirable gender roles. Religious and cultural heritage are important factors in the formation of an identity, a system of values and a lifestyle. However, they have not been thoroughly analysed in connection with women's engagement in public life and politics.

Occasionally we hear about the powerful negative effects religion has on women’s status in political life. However, these statements are inadequately augmented and there has been no scientific research to prove them. As evidenced by a number of research papers and studies showing that traditional cultural values are obstacles to women’s full political participation, this topic has been written about and discussed in other countries of the region as part of the greater question of gender equality.2 Also, it has been pointed out that religions contribute to this kind of division and to models of male-female roles, indirectly or sometimes directly denying women the right to political engagement.3

We analyzed the newsletters of religious communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to shed light on the role that religious and cultural traditions play in the participation of women in political life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The newsletters in question are Preporod [Islamic Community], Pravoslavlje [Christian Orthodox Community] and Katolicki tjednik [Catholic Community]. The ways in which women are represented and depicted in religious newsletters is an excellent reflection of the viewpoint of religious communities on the place and role of women in public life and politics. Socially determined roles for women and men are best maintained and enforced through the media. Religious newsletters are an important medium for promoting specific models and roles for women or else for completely negating topics related to women clearly indicating their importance and position in a given community.

An Analysis of Religious Newsletter Content

An analysis of the content of religious newsletters in Bosnia and Herzegovina was carried out in the period from January to March 2006. Its aim was to determine, using a quantitative-qualitative approach, the ways in which the newsletters of religious communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina depict women and the system of values that they promote and encourage. In order to determine this, the following issues were analyzed:

- to what extent are women present as the authors of texts in religious newsletters,
- what topics and issues concerning women are present in the content of religious newspapers,
- what roles, functions, traits and attributes are ascribed to women by way of the content of the texts and the symbolism of the images which accompany the texts,
- which messages and images dominate the texts and images.

The general conclusion is that women have a small part in writing the texts, especially in the case of Preporod. However, it is very important to analyse what women choose to write about and what topics they tackle in their texts.

Katolicki tjednik – The great majority of texts written by women, which make up 19% of the total number of texts, deal with religious life and culture (18 texts, 33%). This means that women usually deliver news in the form of short reports about religious and cultural events that, according to the accompanying images, are attended by both women and men. However, there is a predominance of images of men, especially images of religious authorities and important personages from religious and cultural life. The second place is occupied by theological texts. This is positive because women are writing about, commenting on and discussing theological issues (11 texts, 20.75%). The third most numerous type of text concerns youth, their activities in the Church and at Church events (9 texts, 16.98%). In fourth place are texts from the domain of history and politics which present characters and events from history (8 texts, 15%) Finally, there are also texts concerning family life, everyday life and the possibility of overcoming frustration through faith (7 texts, 13.20%).

Preporod – The majority of texts written by women (26 of 338 texts or 7.69%) concern religious life and culture and report on religious and cultural events, public discussions and sharia weddings (18 texts, 69%). The second place is occupied by texts on the culinary art, that is recipes for housewives (6 texts, 23%). The third most numerous type of text concerns history and politics (2 texts, 7.69%), and includes a discussion on a translation of a text and a report on the establishment of a Women’s Forum for the protection of the rights of Muslim women in Europe. Therefore, women writing for Preporod are not concerned with theological issues or topics related to family life, which, in most cases, are common topics for women to write about when provided with a writing opportunity. It is also interesting to note that texts concerning youth and their participation in religious life are absent.

Pravoslavlje – The great majority of texts written by women (27 texts or 20.45% of the total 132 articles), concern religious life and culture (19 texts, 70.37%). Therefore, this is in line with the two other religious newsletters. Texts on history and politics follow and concern contemporary political events in Kosovo (6 texts, 22.22%). Finally, there are texts on family life and child rearing (2 texts, 22.22%). Therefore, similarly to Preporod, women writing for this newsletter do not concern themselves with theological issues since these kinds of topics are exclusively reserved for male authors.

Texts About Women

Apart from women authors, it is also important to take into consideration texts wholly dedicated to women or addressing women indirectly. A simple quantitative analysis indicates that not only is it women who usually report on religious and cultural events but also that women are mostly represented in this sphere.

Katolicki tjednik – The great majority of texts, of the 28 in total that concern women, are dedicated to family life and the role of the mother and child-rearer. The remainder of the texts, which are dedicated to the lives of female saints who are important historical figures in the Christian tradition, send a clear message that if a woman is not a mother and child-rearer, than it is best that she be dedicated to doing God's work or taking care of others as nuns do. Taking into consideration that women in public life are mentioned in relation to a position of decision making only twice, in the context of a visit by the female Croat minister to the municipal office in Banja Luka to discuss the issue of return to pre-war homes, it is clear that this kind of employment is absolutely suppressed. In comparison with the number of male politicians represented in words or images (29 images), it is clear that the political sphere and decision making are reserved mostly for men. Other professions are not present in any significant sense either. Women figure in three other types of professions: seven authors and poets, six journalists and two professors. Therefore, apart from Church-related professions, nuns who in two cases are presented as the choir mistresses of Church choirs, women are mostly represented in the sphere of the arts, journalism and education, since these are areas in which women in society are generally present in a large percentage (the so-called women’s professions)

The second most important topic dedicated to women is the subject of theology (9 texts, 32.14% of the total number of texts concerning women). Two women have regular columns on topics concerning the preservation of spirituality, morality and a Christian lifestyle. Photographs featuring nuns and women who are active in the sphere of family life, education and cultural life give the impression that women are represented in a large percentage. However, the contents of the texts do not follow this.

For example, it is obvious that the first five pages present exclusively images of men and the texts are addressed exclusively to men. Keeping in mind that in journalism the first few pages or the first section of the newspaper are dedicated to the most important topics and key issues, than the message is clearly that in religious communities men are the norm according to which everything else is defined (J. Lacan, 1997) and women are the “Other” in relation to that norm.

Also, women are outside of the hierarchy; they are not present as part of important religious delegations or as representatives of the official political community. This is further illustrated by the fact that, according to unofficial research, women are not at all present in the hierarchical structure of the community or in important positions in the community. The general impression is that the texts predominantly endorse a stereotypical positioning of female and male characters which confirms the thesis that the messages of the religious communities to believers on the one hand affect the system of values and on the other hand reflect the position of women in society (Spahic-Šiljak, Zilka, 2005).

Pravoslavlje - It is important to note that although Pravoslavlje has a large percentage of female authors, especially in relation to Preporod, there are no texts about women. There is not a single topic dedicated in whole or at least partially to women.

Considering that there are no texts about women, we can conclude that the Orthodox Church ignores topics related to gender and women. These issues are simply not of interest to the Church. Rather, attention is given to other topics, especially historical, cultural and political topics, which women authors also write about for Pravoslavlje. Women in Pravoslavlje have a space for writing about the aforementioned topics of interest to the Church in this newsletter. However, there is no space for topics concerning women, even purely religious topics one would expect this newsletter to include. Therefore, the official message of the Church promotes the negation of the “Other” that is not even interesting enough to be an “Other,” but is completely isolated and excluded. In this way women and the issues that concern them directly and indirectly are ignored. This is even more dangerous than criticism or open confrontation since an open dialogue may lead to some solution, while ignoring and forgetting makes a person nonexistent and irrelevant (Mernissi, 1993).

Preporod – Unlike Katolicki tjednik, Preporod does not deal with family life and in the issues we analyzed, of the 26 texts partially or completely dedicated to women, not a single text concerned family life. Texts about religious and cultural life and humanitarian activities dominate and are authored by both women and men. The role of women in religious life is mostly reduced to the promotion of women who have become huffaz (women who have memorized the Quran), women who participate at religious gatherings, either as part of a choir or as students in the final religious studies exam at the mekteb.

In the only interview with a women, a hafiz, a young woman repeats the stereotypical image of women who, unlike men, have trouble concentrating, are emotional and can not deal with even minor setbacks, all because of their menstruation (a natural biological phenomenon) (Preporod, No. 4, 15 February 2006, p. 21)

The second most common role for women is in the realm of culture and art or, to be precise, film since there are detailed reports (4 texts, 22.22%) on the release of the film Grbavica directed by Jasmila Žbanic, the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Although the director herself is promoted, the texts mostly deal with the plot of the film and the issue of female victims of the past war who have been raped and have not received any form of compensation either legal or in the form of social welfare. The third most common role is that of the journalist who writes about everyday subjects, reports from religious and cultural events or else writes about the culinary art. The woman as leader either in the position of manager, director or politician is almost invisible since women appear in these roles only once in the context of another “more important” subject. For example, woman in the role of director appears once, in a text dealing with the Gazi Husref-bey Madrasa awards in Sarajevo for deserving individuals. Women do not appear as theologians, nor do they deal with important issues in the realms which dictate rules and value systems. In view of the fact that a large number of women have graduated from a study of theology (since it was established to the present day), it is surprising that there are no women writing about, commenting or translating these types of texts. Women are not present in the official delegations of the Islamic Community, neither in the important delegations with the reis-ul-ulama nor in delegations of mufti, that is representatives of the subordinate bodies of the Islamic Community. The reason behind this is that there are no women in the hierarchical structure of the community or in decision-making positions.

Women do not appear in the first pages of Preporod except for in a few cases in letters to the editor or in reports on world events about conversions to Islam. As has already been noted, the first pages always contain key news. The position of the female is always that of the “Other” which is not only different but also subordinate in all spheres of religious, cultural and political life. In general, women implement the policies, norms and standards that have been set for them by someone else.

Shaping Gender Roles

The types of roles that women are presented in indicate the type of gender politics the religious communities promote. It is not surprising that the role of mother and daughter are most present, followed by the role of father, husband, wife and son. The mother is the paradigm of the country, homeland and hearth as is symbolically noted in a headline from Preporod: “Bosnia is like the Face of a Mother” (Preporod, no. 5, 1 March 2006, p. 19).

All texts promote the model of a spiritual woman in relation to the image of Mother Mary, saints, other historical characters or a spiritual woman in a contemporary context. She is, above all else, a good mother whose most sacred task is to raise a family and thus fulfill the sacred duty that has been given to her. In one of these texts, written by don Jozo Ancic, “The Child Rearing Task of the Woman, the Mother,” the author emphasises that the rearing of children is the most divine and the most sacred of the mother's tasks because it is the mother who moulds the character of the child. (Katolicki tjednik, no. 11, p. 32). The entire text is suffused with messages concerning the natural preconditioning of women to be mothers because child rearing is the woman’s “natural and sacred right”. Other texts by the same author dealing with issues concerning women also have a similar message about women’s roles that are reduced to motherhood, piety and nurturing.

Androcentric interpretations within monotheistic religious discourse define woman as otherness in relation to man and the male God, thus reducing her identity to an object ultimately resulting in the subordinate position of women. This is the reason why feminist theologians have insisted on reconceptualising the language and intellectual framework in which men and women could be the subjects of culture and scientific discourse (Schussler Fiorenza, Elizabeth, 1996). In this way, we could deconstruct the gendered social constructs created by, among others, an institutionalised patriarchal elite (Simone de Beauvoir, 1972). The language of monotheistic religious discourse is completely masculinised so that all religions are dominated by the figure of the father, or God the Father, who has power and authority. Also nouns such as the Pope, bishop, reis, mufti, archbishop, metropolitan, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, believer, follower etc. appear in their masculine form. In this sense, it is particularly interesting to look at the images of women in religious newsletters, as well as the language of the texts. The images sometimes correspond and follow the content of the texts and at other times are not strictly connected to the text. For example, the role of the mother in the Katolicki tjednik does not appear only in relation to texts dealing with family life but also in relation to other texts: “Faith Consoles" (Katolicki tijecnik, no. 1, 8 January, 2006)

In Preporod, unfortunately, images of women appear most often in connection with the suffering of the Bosniak people, sons lost in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the search for lost family members or contemporary war zones in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the image of the mother is always connected with victimhood, suffering and pain, which dominate the political discourse of the Bosniaks.

Katolicki tjednik - The greatest percentage of images featuring women in various religious roles and professions are to be found in Katolicki tjednik (79 images). Nuns appear in 40 images or half of the total number of images featuring women. This is followed by images of saints from the history of Catholicism (9 images) and images of Mother Mary (7 images), journalists (7 images), followers of Jesus (6 images) and poets. Other roles in secular life such as the role of the professor, director or politician are completely marginalised. This means that the predominant images are those of the nun who is in charge of education, assistance, taking care of the sick and needy. This is a direct message to the reader about the image of women preferred by the Catholic Church. If we compare this to images of men, presented here for the sake of comparison, it is clear that images of men occur more frequently and are predominantly of cardinals and bishops (104 images), the Pope (61 images), priests at various hierarchical levels (55 images) and 54 images of professors and theologians. Politicians appear in 29 images (6.14% of the total number of images of men), which is not a large number taking into consideration the total number of images of men. Therefore, men occupy the most important positions in the Church and in religious life, and are in positions connoting power. This type of power is spiritual and has a strong effect on the consciousness of the believer since the images presented establish the domination of the male over the female. (J. Derrida, 1981).

Preporod – There is a noticeably smaller number of images of women in comparison to the Katolicki tjednik and the greatest number of images is of female artists (7 images) who have distinguished themselves in the fight for human rights, especially for the rights of female victims of the previous war. This is followed by six images of journalists who appear as the authors of the texts and four images each of mullahs (religious studies teachers) and huffaz. In comparison with the Katolicki tjednik, where the images of nuns dominate, Preporod does not contain almost any images of mullahs although the activities of mullahs concern education and cultural events similarly to the nuns in the Katolicki tjednik. This proves that the traditional division of labour is being promoted and women are still most visible in the so-called “women’s professions.” The image of woman in the role of director, professor or politician is presented once and always in the context of another “more important” event.

The general impression is that there are no women in the images except for the images of women in the background of a religious, cultural or political event. It is interesting that there are no women present at any of the more important gatherings organised by the Islamic Community, or gatherings where representatives of the Islamic Community are present, or else women are present in the background or in the role of caterers at the reception or official visit. Preporod No. 3, 01 February 2006, p. 14, and No. 1 01. January 2006 11, p. 4)

Again, we can make a comparison with men who are dominant in most images. The great majority of the images show imams (75 images) in the context of various religious, cultural or political activities. Therefore, imams are key figures in the Islamic Community since they officially represent the community, while mullahs occupy a subordinate position since they appear only as participants in certain events but not as representatives. This is followed by 58 images of politicians (20.35% of the total number of images of men), which is a relatively large percentage for a religious newsletter. One possible reason for this is the large number of images in the News from the Muslim World column. Unfortunately, the Muslim world today is marked by a great number of wars and so there are many news items concerning this. Also, the large number of images featuring politicians can be connected to visits of official Islamic Community delegations to government representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina and abroad in order to find solutions to the issue of religious freedom and the rights of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Diaspora.

The conclusion is that women are completely marginalised in image representations that carry a clear message about the status and position of women and men. Men dominate roles connoting power and authority, while women dominate supporting roles in principle connected to the issues of education, culture and conversion to Islam. The result is a strong polarity and domination of one gender over the other. (J. Derrida, 1981).

Pravoslavlje – has the smallest number of images in comparison to the two other newsletters and the number of images of women is also very small in comparison to Katolicki tjednik and Preporod. Women appear in only 11 images and in 6 it is the Mother Mary (theotokos) who is represented only as additional image symbolism for a text which deals with another “more important” historical, political or cultural issue. (Pravoslavlje No. 931/932, 1 and 1 January 2006, p. 26-27)

Also, 3 images of nuns are featured in the background of another “more important” event and they function as witnesses of the destruction of churches in Kosovo. (Pravoslavlje no. 936, 15 March 2006)

If we compare this to images of men, we will see that the situation is the same as in the previous two newsletters since the dominant image is that of religious leaders at various hierarchical levels. Priests appear most often (37 images), followed by bishops and archbishops (27 images). Politicians are featured in 17 images (11% of the total number of images featuring men).

The conclusion is that women are completely relegated to a subordinate position, since they appear only in passing and in the context of other topics and more important images. Their role is reduced to the extent that at first glance it seems as if there are no women in this newsletter. The domination of male figures clearly shows who has the authority, power and position to define the rules and set the norms, and in this case as in the previous two cases, the norm is the male and female is otherness in the shadow of the male. (Lacan J, 1977)

The Subordinate Position of Women

By analyzing the texts, images, authorship, the number of texts and the types of texts written by women and texts about women, as well as the shaping of images of women and men in the three religious newsletters, Katolicki tjednik, Preporod and Pravoslavlje, we have proved the theory that women in religious discourse are perceived of as the "Other” and that very often subject-matter and issues dealing with women are ignored. On the whole, women authors are not represented as often as male authors and usually do not write about women or about theological subjects except for in the case of Katolicki tjednik. Also, it has been shown that women are not represented in equal measure in the hierarchical structures of the religious communities and that they are not present in the official bodies and delegations, which is a characteristic of all three of the religious newsletters. Women are mostly represented in the fields of education, social welfare and healthcare, the culinary art and other catering activities that are extensions of housework and the responsibilities that women carry out on a daily basis.

This analysis of the contents of the texts and the accompanying images leads us to the conclusion that the actual position of women is subordinate since in comparison to men the role of women is reduced mostly to that of mother, child-rearer and a subordinate position in the religious community and society as a whole. Therefore, women are in the position of having to fight against being perceived as the “Other” and subordinated while at the same time having to fight against being ignored and excluded from the collective memory and history of a people, community or group.

1 Vidjeti, Swidler, Leonard and Mojzes, Paul, The Study of Religion in the Age of Global Dialogue, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2000.

2 Vidjeti, Tomic-Koludrovic, Inga i Kunac, Suzana. Rizici modernizacije: žene u Hrvatskoj devedesetih, U.G. Stope Nade, Split, 2000, Spahic-Šiljak Zilka, Political representation of women in Croatia: Analysis oh the socio-cultural, socio-economic and political obstacles for full representation of women in politics, MA at the CIPS Sarajevo (International Master Program Sarajevo-Bologna), 2001/2002. i Helms, Elissa, Gendered Visions of the Bosnian Future: Women’s Activism and Representation in Post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 2003.

3 Vidjeti, Anic, Rebeka Jadranka, 2003). Više od zadanoga: žena u crkvi u Hrvatskoj u 20. stoljecu, Franjevacki institut za kulturu mira, Split, 2003.

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Zilka Spahic-Šiljak is the coordinator of the Religious Studies graduate program at CIPS of the University of Sarajevo, as well as the Program Coordinator of the TPO Foundation in Sarajevo. She graduated from theology and law, holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Democracy and did her doctorate thesis in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies.

She has published over 20 articles in Bosnian and English in the fields of women's rights, gender politics in religious traditions, education and cultural heritage. Soon her book will be published under the title "Women, Religion and Politics." She translates from English and her most notable books are “The Forgotten Female Rulers of the Muslim World" (Buybook, 2005) and “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” (Buybook 2006).

Professor Spahic-Šiljak can be contacted via email at zilka@cps.edu.ba.


University of Zarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies, University of Zarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Call for Applications for the second generation of the interdisciplinary postgraduate study program in "Religious Studies" at the Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies, University of Zarajevo in cooperation with Arizona State University, the University of Oslo, and the University of Copenhagen.

Puls Demokratije (Democratic Pulse), Open Society Fund Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Civilization in its present form hasn't got long."

James Lovelock


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