Masks, the Study of Religion and Digression


Once you have started with feminism, it feels as if you have been put on a pair of glasses through which you see the world in a way that always puts the markers „gender roles,“ „patriarchy,“ or „power“ in front. No, not glasses, you could take them off. Rather, something like a mask that is firmly glued to the face.

With a mask, not only do I see the world differently myself, but others now see someone else when they look at me. Of course, we humans always put on different and many different masks every day (as sung so wonderfully in Alligatoah’s song I Need a Face, which I’ll turn on right now). But wait: the song is not about masks at all, but about faces. Because what is the difference between masks and faces? The former seem removable, as if the real something was hidden somewhere behind them; when we speak of the latter, they appear as a deception behind which it is no longer possible to look. But if we live in a world in which there is no „real I“ at all, because, as so many have already shown, my „I“ and the „I“ that others perceive is always shaped by circumstances, actions, and learned perception and behavior, how can we still distinguish between a mask and a face (put on as well as in its „true“ form)?

So if I now see feminism as a mask with a built-in contact lens, then that explains a number of things.
For example, it explains how all of a sudden my choice of partner changes; or the way I find topics for my seminars; or the conversations I have with my parents; or the reason why and what I research; what books I read and what series Netflix suggests to me.

My mask becomes tighter and more concrete with every decision, every statement I make. The contact lenses become sharper; in the beginning, everything was black and white, now there is gray and some times even a few colored spots appear. At the same time, however, the image that others have of me is being changed more and more by the mask. For some, it is even the first impression they have of me.

But I am digressing again. How did I come up with this topic in the first place? Actually, I just wanted to respond to a blogpost that a student who attended one of my seminars last year published on En-Gender!

In it, Jonas wants to write about what it means, or rather what it was like, for him as a student to study gender in religious studies. But he also „digresses“ and talks about how masculinity is constructed, what forms it takes, and why that might have led to almost no participants in my seminar who were read as male choosing „gender topics.“

Why can’t Jonas and I stay on topic? Is this a problem that only affects the two of us, or is there a connection here, perhaps even one that has something to do with our mask?

One reaction to Jonas‘ post in particular stuck in my mind. I had shared his post in a Facebook group that explicitly explores gender and sexuality in religion and esotericism. While the post was very positively received by many, one person, however, was „disappointed“ that the content was not specifically about gender in religious studies, as the title said, but about a general application of gender studies from a (cis-)male perspective. One could say that Jonas tried to show in his contribution how different masks of masculinity influence the behavior and perception of men* and how these masks try to maintain themselves. Or in other words: masks that attach themselves in such a way that they can no longer be taken off, or only with great difficulty. They are no longer recognized and prevent criticism of themselves. This comment is not so wrong, in fact it hits the nail on the head. But what is the problem? Isn’t that exactly what my seminar was supposed to bring?

Very few people are interested in the details of specific topics in a seminar. Even fewer then retain the content. Because actually the topic serves only as an example. We want to present a theory or a method on the basis of a larger context. This is the only way students can learn how to apply what they have learned to different topics. Theories and methods are thus glasses that change our masks and make them visible. In my case, however, I turned the tables: In my seminar, I looked at examples from the history of religion to examine them through the lens of gender studies. In other words, I basically used the entire field of religious studies as a thematic complex in order to illustrate theories from gender studies.

Is that a problem? Is this perhaps even too political? Even if some might think so, the expansion of a discipline like religious studies by other perspectives, theories and methods — interdisciplinarity — can only be good for a subject. For only in this way can boundaries be pointed out and dark spots recognized and illuminated.

Just as we want to work out with the students in our respective subjects how to get from the small (the case study) to the larger (for example, society), by showing how different theories can be demonstrated on different examples — or how they cannot — in the same way, criticism from outside, however small it may be (in this case, a case study in the history of religion), can be used to point out problem areas in the subject. These can come from always looking through the same mask until it becomes a fixed face. This constant questioning is not only good, but also necessary, both to avoid getting lost deeper and deeper in a dead end and to remain politically and socially relevant — something that religious studies unfortunately needs to get back to.

I have, so to speak, put gender studies glasses on the masks my students are already wearing. Because every one of us wears a mask. The question is whether we want to let it become fixed or whether we put on other glasses from time to time, some of which may eventually become new masks. Nothing else happens every day; in the university we only learn to recognize these masks, to question them and to deal with them — on a small as well as on a large scale.

From the small to the large, from glasses to masks, from seminar to life. So digressing is exactly what we should do.

As a friend has written


You take a peek up,
Sundry in thought,
Dabbling in the jargon
Of Academics,
But not quite.

A glass pane
Reflects another creature,
From the same species,
The same scheme of things,
But just opposite.

The glass pane,
A great enabler
In transporting images,
Thoughts, boredom, restlessness.
On the other side.

Do mirrors have another side?
Am I a reflection in another world?
Am I visible or is my inside?
In another world of evermoving cars,
Where red indicates to come closer
Than to stop afar. 

Mirrors, what a fantastic invention!
To see oneself,
Others, and sometimes oneself in others.
So many faces, so many features,
So very different.

The face doesn’t seem to change,
No matter how many times I look at you.
Each day, every day.
Hoping for a little change.
Mirror, what a worthless invention!


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