New book illustrates how women transform cultures through religion

In Canadian Women Shaping Diasporic Religious Identities, a collection of essays edited by Humanities Professors Becky R. Lee and Terry Tak-ling Woo, researchers explore how women who hail from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds contribute to Canada’s multicultural society.

This collection focuses on “how Canadian women have simultaneously carried and conserved, brought forward and transformed their cultures through religion,” said Lee.

Terry Tak-ling Woo
Terry Tak-ling Woo

“The essays in the collection examine the religious beliefs and practices of Canadian women in the context of the history of migration and settlement of their communities,” said Woo. They created this book, “to offer a collection focused on the personal religious beliefs and practices of Canadian women and the challenges they face in order to better explain and thus move towards a fuller understanding of religious developments in Canada beyond religious institutions.”

This collection of nine essays is subdivided into three sections. The first covers Christianity and Judaism in Newfoundland, Ontario and Alberta. The second section explores new religions in Canada, and the third delves into South Asian religions in Southwest Ontario. Some of the topics covered include mothering and feminist engagement in Roman Catholic Canada, progressive and inclusive practices in Toronto synagogues, rural Albertan Mormons, Theosophy, Bahá’i women and Hinduism in Hamilton.

Becky Lee
Becky Lee

“The religiosities of women serve as locations for both the assertion of self-identity in diaspora and resistance to old and new institutions, within and without their faith traditions,” Lee said.

The essay authors come from a variety of academic disciplines, including religious studies, sociology, women’s studies, history, applied linguistics and humanities. Lee authored chapter 3, “On the Margins of Church and Society: Roman Catholic Feminisms in English-Speaking Canada.”

“It examines three Roman Catholic feminist movements: women’s religious communities, the Catholic Women’s League and Canadian Catholics for Women’s Ordination and the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality,” said Lee. “I chose this topic because feminism is not the first thing people usually think of when Roman Catholicism is mentioned. Secondly, relatively little attention has been paid to Roman Catholicism in English-speaking Canada where Protestantism dominated.”

With very few books in existence about women’s religious beliefs and practices in Canada and the lack of literature on the intersection of religion, gender and diaspora dynamics, this book fills a void, said Woo.

Cover of the Canadian Women Shaping Diasporic Religious Identities book“That lack reflects two intersecting tendencies. The first is that women often play supporting roles in institutional religion, so it is difficult to see or to find evidence of their influence and experiences, or it is overlooked,” said Lee. “The second is the tendency of women’s studies to overlook religion and, conversely, of religious studies to overlook women. Focusing on women’s religiosity, the feelings and experiences of individual believers enables us to uncover and examine women’s roles in the dynamic interactions inherent to diaspora.”

She adds that often it is assumed that Canadians women’s experiences mirror American women, when in reality the religious history and migration and settlement patterns of both countries greatly differ.

“The essays in Canadian Women Shaping Diasporic Religious Identities represent an early and modest effort at capturing the religious experiences of women in Canada, both historic and contemporary. It is our hope that the works of these authors will inspire and encourage further research about the religiosities of women in Canada,” said Lee.

She and Woo will work on a follow-up volume with another colleague in Humanities, Sailaja Krishnamurti. Tentatively titled, “Religion and Women in Diaspora: Canadian Experience,” it will focus on women and religious beliefs and practices in groups not historically dominant in Canada or globally during European imperialism.