In many disciplines, early literature often dismissed women’s prayer rituals as superstitions and magic. In recent years much of what has been studied on the subject of contemporary prayer centers on health and psychology, examining questions such as the impact of prayer on women’s emotional well-being, rehabilitation, coping capabilities, and medical conditions such as cancer. Prayer, in these fields, is often understood expansively, as a form of social interaction and sometimes-reciprocal communication that may provide solace and support, and can alter the body and mind. But it is, less expansively, women who have been the primary portals for understanding the emotional effects of prayer. The dominant focus on women, prayer and emotional health may reflect the popular associations between women and emotions, or the need for emotional management and support.
Sociological literature has largely taken up the question of why women are more religious than men. Explanations have ranged from social structures such as the family, gender socialization, and women’s risk-aversion, to even physiological differences. But sociologists of religion have also questioned assumptions and prior conclusions about gendered differences. Some research shows that women’s greater prayer and religiosity is not, in fact, universal, but varies across religious traditions and in accordance with different definitions of religiosity.
Moving away from the perfunctory questioning of women’s connections (both real and perceived) to faith and prayer, scholars began to focus on the details of prayer practices and rituals and what they might tell us about agency or subjectivity. One common theme has been the so-called paradox of women’s complicity with, and resistance to, oppressive gender norms. Why, this literature asks, are women so often attached to beliefs that appear antithetical to their own freedom? The concepts at stake here have mostly to do with women’s agency and the extent to which they do or do not exercise agency in prayer rituals. Scholars describe, for example, Jewish women who wear prayer shawls (traditionally worn only by men) and how, in doing so, they simultaneously challenge and reproduce gender roles. To note a different example that has attracted much attention, consider the controversial case of Muslim women leading Friday prayers at their mosques and how they seek to overcome gendered barriers and norms.
In critiquing dominant tropes of agency and resistance, or shifting the terms of the debate about women and religious practice, some scholars explore the creativity and specific forms of interiority that can develop through women’s experiences of private prayer or the pedagogy and performance of prayer/worship in shaping different forms of embodiment. Others point out how, through its collective nature or specific content, prayer can provide space for women’s leadership and for forging communal bonds. In some traditions, women often exercise agency despite gendered barriers, taking on leadership roles in their segregated spaces, as well as in esoteric religious practices, such as those aimed at healing others or removing afflictions from evil. Further, in many traditions, women’s unique participation in prayer rituals does not necessarily reflect a gender hierarchy, but rather plays an equally important role in the religious community.
The task in the continuing study of gender and prayer is to observe and analyze the relevance of gender and power, but also to heed the critical insights that many feminist theorists have made, especially with regard to making problematic generalizations. As Chandra Mohanty wrote in “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” we exercise cultural-imperial power when we construct universal images like “the veiled woman” or “the obedient wife,” or when we fail to see that “woman” is not a stable category of analysis. But by examining specific cases of prayer practices, we can better explore in what contexts, under what conditions, and according to whom, gender acquires meaning.