Academy Professor Elina Vuola from the University of Helsinki is working to promote critical dialogue between gender research and theology. Religion plays a big part in society and in people’s everyday life, she says, yet it remains largely invisible or overlooked in gender research. She is currently studying Jewish women in Finland and Finnish Orthodox women, including the indigenous Skolt Sámi. Another area of focus within her team is Conservative Laestadianism.
“Our idea is to draw inspiration from gender research, but at once to engage in critical dialogue from the perspective of research on religion. In other words, we’re aiming to produce new information about gender and religion that is less simplistic and simplified than it has been so far.”
Vuola is a theologist by training, but she has always shown a strong interest in gender research and development studies. She insists that the treatment of religion in the social sciences is neither adequate nor satisfactory. In gender research, religion is either completely sidelined or, conversely, overemphasised: one example is the exaggerated assumption that Islam severely debases women.
Focus on embodied religion
Academy Professor Vuola’s current research project is entitled “Embodied Religion. Changing Meanings of Body and Gender in Contemporary Forms of Religious Identity in Finland.” In particular, she is keen to explore how religious minorities with a strong gender order manage in secular Finnish society. “The surrounding society and mainstream Lutheran religion may be inclined to describe such minorities as problematic, yet at the same time their own commitment to gender equality remains questionable, too.”
Vuola’s research is based on interviews with women. She has now completed her interviews with Orthodox women, and has just started interviewing Jewish women. The dimension of ethnicity is also present in her research, which includes two Finnish ethnic minorities, i.e. Jews as well as the indigenous Skolt Sámi. Furthermore, many Laestadians describe themselves as ethnic Laestadians.
The Virgin Mary and womanhood in religion
One of the themes Vuola has covered in her earlier research is the Virgin Mary cult in Latin America. “The relationship of ordinary women to Mary and the long history of devotion to Mary in this region serve as a critique against research that has sidelined religion altogether or considered it in negative terms only,” she explains.
In her current research she is also interested to learn about the meaning of the Virgin Mary to Orthodox women. It seems that for the Skolt Sámi, Mary is less important than she is for other Orthodox women. “This is a more meaningful way of approaching the subject than to ask the interviewees how they see women’s position in the Orthodox Church. That’s an alienating question. When we talk about Mary, we get to cover a wide range of issues – including questions that have to do with women’s position – without me having to specifically ask.”
In the Orthodox tradition, Vuola says, womanhood is present in a different way than in the Lutheran tradition, especially via women saints, all of whom command respect. Vuola points out that the Virgin Mary is important to men as well.
Expert opinion highly in demand
A major area of focus in Vuola’s earlier research was on Latin America, where she has spent long periods of time, and she served as professor of Latin American research for four years. Vuola is also a well-known figure through her media appearances: her expert opinion is highly in demand by the media whenever there is need for in-depth knowledge about Latin America. She is often consulted for comments regarding Pope Francis, for instance.
Vuola considers this consultant’s role as an important part of her job description as a university researcher, that is, creating an impact on society. She has also written and edited several Finnish-language volumes on her research subject, worked as a columnist for a general-interest magazine, and chaired the umbrella body of Finnish development cooperation organisations.
“It’s not at all difficult for me to maintain a distinction between my university role and my role in civic organisations, after all the two obviously overlap and interact. In particular, I enjoy getting involved in work where I can contribute and have an impact through my research,” Vuola concludes.
For more on Academy Professor Elina Vuola and her research team’s work, go to http://blogs.helsinki.fi/embodied-religion/tutkimusprojektin-esittely.
Finnish text and photos: Leena Vähäkylä