3. Women's ritual-religious behavior in Southern Europe


Women's ritual-religious behavior has a particular importance in Southern Europe, that is to say, in the countries where Catholic and Orthodox religions are widespread. In fact, scholars agree that in Southern Europe "women are more religious than men" (e.g. Schneider 1971: 20), or that, better said, they are "more active in religious practice than men" (Pitt-Rivers 1992: 227): "men are the religious skeptics, women the religious supporters", adds Brandes with reference to Andalusian society (Brandes 1980: 182).

Basic forms of religious behavior, such as attending Mass on a regular basis and taking confession and Communion, were traditionally more common among women than among men. Such behaviors were seen as a component of their social respectability, since they were assumed to imply the adoption of the ideals of feminine behavior upheld by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches (e.g. virginity before marriage, sex viewed basically as a means for reproduction, etc.). However, it is important to remember that these basic forms of religious behavior did not exhaust the ritual-religious practices of Southern European women. On the contrary, folk religion also included other forms of behavior that were not always consistent with the orientations of the official Church, but were nevertheless perceived by common people as genuine expressions of religious faith. If we aim to discover something more about the role of religion in women's life, we must carefully evaluate these practices. Folk religion "is very much about practice, about doing rather than simply about believing; ritual activities, whether within or outside the boundaries (physical or jurisdictional) of the church actually constitute religion […] rather than 'expressing' or symbolizing it." (Dubisch 1995: 60). In speaking of these practices, I generally shall use the past tense because, even if some of them are still alive today, their role in the life of women has generally diminished in the last decades. However, the role of folk religion was until recently so important that we cannot fail to acknowledge its contribution in creating and maintaining a distinctive view of femininity.

Ritual-religious life provided Southern European women with an opportunity for self-expression: such rituals allowed them to be released from muteness in a public context, thus blurring the traditional gendered distinction between a male public sphere of action and a female private one. The sphere of ritual-religious practices was one of the few areas where women could behave as actors and emphasize their expressive and creative abilities. This was particularly true in those contexts where the social position of women was especially marginal (Rosaldo and Lamphere 1974: 9): it is well-known that groups who find themselves in a marginal position tend to resort to symbolic means of expression, such as music, rite, myth.

My goal here is to show how South-European women were able to take advantage of the public sphere of religious action to carry on a specific kind of work, which I would like to call the "work of pain". I suggest that within the sphere of ritual-religious events women were able to take their and their families' psychological sorrows and anxieties out of the private sphere and to express and elaborate these sorrows and anxieties through public performances according to socially acceptable ways of behavior. In this way they created a specific role for themselves and constructed a particular image of femininity. The term "work of pain", which I have chosen to identify this kind of activity, is parallel to the term "kin work", which was adopted by Micaela Di Leonardo to describe the American women's task of sustaining family networks (1984).

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