Gender plays a role, whether implicitly or explicitly, in many of the facets of prayer we discuss—whether it is prayer as a form of healing, warfare, politics, social solidarity, or a mechanistic bodily practice. Deities, spirits, objects, and religious narratives often have different relationships to women than to men across religious traditions. Some degree of gender segregation or gendered division of labor exists in many collective prayer practices, either with clear theological basis or in development with various structural contexts. Thus, we find phenomena like U.S. women praying more frequently than their male counterparts, according to survey research; the denigration of healing prayers and practitioners, throughout the world, that are most closely associated with women; women struggling to change the structural formats of collective prayer; and numerous states targeting women’s religious practices. We find prayer forms that reinforce hegemonic feminine and masculine norms; alternatively, we may also find prayer forms that redefine gender and aim to support feminist projects. Most recently, we witness growing conversations about prayer and marginalized communities, including those who fall outside of the male-female binary that constructs much of our world.
Few dimensions of prayer are considered as fraught as this one. The study of women and prayer, or more broadly, women and religion, contains the questions and controversies that have troubled and animated (Western) feminist theory over the last few decades: Why do women participate in practices that seem antithetical to their interests? How do they resist patriarchy when they are physically, mentally, and spiritually embedded in it? Do their forms of resistance only serve to reproduce gender inequality? More recently there have been critical efforts to reexamine and deconstruct these questions as well as to recognize variation across different contexts. For example, women are sometimes excluded from prayer practices and in other cases are at the forefront. Further, there have also been critical efforts to expand our understanding of gender to consider the relationship between faith and masculinities. When it comes to the topic of gender, answers about its relationship to religion and prayer often remain as tenuous as the questions themselves. With this in mind, this series is an invitation to acknowledge, document, and examine the many ways in which gender and prayer act upon each other in real life as well as redefine each other conceptually.