The fifth workshop of the ‘Motherhood in post 1968 European Literature Network’ was held on 28th June. The objective of the workshop was to explore the connections between motherhood, religion and spirituality across diverse disciplines (such as anthropology, literature and religious studies) in order to investigate the various ways ‘religions are impacting on mothers as individuals and how women as mothers come to experience it’. The workshop, I believe, has been successful in fulfilling its aims as the presentations addressed specific research questions and the discussions yielded different perspectives on this issue.
Instead of going into the details of each paper, which might sound like repeating the abstracts, I will try to focus on some key issues which, I think, the papers highlighted and the discussions brought forth.
The Maternal Body (and Religion):
Pregnancy, childbirth, lactation: all these aspects of biological motherhood are of profound significance in feminist discourse and it has been a contentious issue resulting in both positive and negative views. Rachel Jones, in her responses after the first plenary session, indicated this debate around the female body, mentioning feminist thinkers like de Beauvoir who had rather negative and ambivalent views on female and/or the maternal body, and also positive accounts of the maternal body as articulated by thinkers such as Christine Battersby. Different religions have always had a strong influence in this area, be it religious interpretations of the female and/or maternal body, ritualization of childbirth, or different theological discourses on motherhood. Anna Fedele’s paper was particularly interesting as it explored how the physicalities of childbirth (which do not really count as emancipating in dominant feminist conceptions) have been regarded as not only empowering but a sacred experience on the part of the mother in terms of her own spiritual transformation, by the members of international Goddess movement. This sacralisation of motherhood, as the paper rightly argues, has the potential to challenge the dominant feminist conception of women’s emancipation. However, during the discussion Christine Battersby raised a very crucial point: are we in a way ‘re-trapping’ ourselves while emphasising the physicalities in this way? I also think that it has the potential risk of reinforcing traditional ideas of biological motherhood.
Quite contrary to the idea of the sacralised motherhood with the potential of spiritual transformation, is the darker side of motherhood tinged with confusion, disappointment, and self-effacement. Julie Rodgers explored and problematized this area in the break-out session that she facilitated, which focused on an extract from Éliette Abécassis’s Un heureux événement [A Happy Event]. The extract juxtaposes a practising Jewish mother of ten children, who purportedly considers her children as her ‘whole life’, with a non-practising, secular mother of one, quite hesitant and confused with her maternal identity. The group discussed a number of questions concerning the encounter of these two different women such as: To what extent is religion influencing these two women’s motherhood as experience? How is the experience complicated and/or dominated by the institution? What is, if any, the common ground of motherhood beyond the religious dictates (e.g. societal factors)? I particularly liked Sheridan Marshall’s interpretation of the supposed ambiguity of the word ‘whole life’. Is it a mother’s conscious decision and love to consider their children as whole life or is her life confined by them? Sheridan’s own paper explored the connection between motherhood and religion in terms of the disappointment (and also ambivalence) they both generate. I would like to mention Pauline Eaton’s paper on Rosie Carpe here, as it, through the analysis of the novel, depicted how the image of Virgin Mary fails to be the model for motherhood today. The extract is also very relevant to the aforementioned issue i.e the maternal body, as it portrays Rosie’s inability to breastfeed her child and her experience of it. In relation to religion’s influence on motherhood, I must also mention ‘Limbo’, the text extract presented by Máire Ní Annracháin in another break-out session, which depicts the extreme agony of a mother whose child has been buried in the cemetery for unbaptized children. These poems unravel how religion as an institution impacts on maternal experience insofar as it can even aggravate and intensify a mother’s pain of losing her child.
Negotiating Motherhood and Religion:
Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor’s paper offered important insights into how motherhood can be reshaped by women as an empowering identity and how it facilitates their religious belief which has otherwise been misinterpreted by patriarchal scripts. Muslim women in Britain negotiating their maternal agency and faith lives can be an example of empowered motherhood which is emancipating for women. Nonetheless, the potential risk, I think, cannot and should not be ignored that this might be seen as over-idealised version of motherhood which can be rather detrimental. In the context of Christianity, Dawn Llewellyn’s paper was interesting as it shows her research on motherhood and voluntary non-motherhood in connection with Christian women’s identity.
Motherhood, Religion and the Question of Situation:
Undeniably situation plays a determining role in the connections between motherhood and religion and its impact on women. By situation, I mean national context and also the socio-cultural and economic conditions in which women come to experience both motherhood and religion. As Mohar Choudhury pointed out while discussing Sariya’s paper: the idea and practice of empowered mothering based on the foundational Islamic text experienced by Muslim women in Britain, might not retain its liberating nature in case of other Muslim women elsewhere (in India, for example, as she said). Sheridan’s paper on maternal and religious disappointment also shows the influence of specific national contexts in forming and/or destabilising the connection between motherhood and religion. The extract taken from the novel Life is a Caravanserai similarly provides much insight into this issue, portraying the changing time and its influence on the protagonist whose mother and grandmother represent two generations and two different sets of beliefs.
The papers and breakout discussions have shown motherhood to be a site of contestation and a site of transformation; to add to this, I would say, most of the papers have also shown motherhood to be a site of profound ambivalence. However, following Rachel Jones (who refers to Lisa Baraitser with regard to this issue), I would say that this ambivalence is not always and necessarily negative; rather, it has the potential to form a maternal subjectivity when a mother can actively reflect upon this ambivalence.
In conclusion, returning to the objective of the workshop – to explore ‘new or re-connections’ with diverse religions thereby enquiring into the influence they are having on women as mothers – I could say the workshop not only succeeded in achieving this objective but also moved beyond this with more questions on and insights into motherhood.