Negotiating Identities: The Case of Evangelical Christian Women in London
Contestations around religion and secularism in the UK continue to unfold. These debates converge most polemically around women’s religiosity, as evidenced by proposed bans on the hijab, and the criminalisation of female circumcision. Research on religious women creates a binary juxtaposition between religion as an oppressive force, on the one hand, and religion as a means of emancipation for women, on the other. These accounts fail to address how religious women experience their religious communities as oppressive and choose to stay. In this doctoral thesis, I introduce a new analytic approach to the study of religious women by investigating how women stay in a restrictive religious context and the strategies they employ, in order to theoretically expand understandings of agency.
This research examines how British evangelical Christian women negotiate their religious and gendered identities in London. My findings are based on a 12-month ethnography and 33 semi-structured interviews with unmarried evangelical women (aged 22 – 40) living in London. Recognising the unique challenges that single religious women face, including dating and sexual abstinence, I focussed on unmarried women. My research asks: How is the female evangelical subject formed through religious practices such as observing sexual purity, attending Bible study groups and fellowship with like-minded believers? Taking a lived religion approach leads me to theoretically analyse how women practice their religion in everyday, ordinary ways. I then examine how these practices shape women’s identities. Evangelical women are assumed to be either empowered by submission, or frustrated and leaving the church, but an exploration of the everyday, ordinary ways that women live their religion reveals the nuanced and important identity negotiations that women make.
My key finding is that evangelical women confront a double bind in their identity formation; the attachment to a Christian identity liberates and supports women, but also ensnares them in a constraining network of norms. Through this discovery, I emphasise the salience of gender in the study of religious practice. By analysing how identities require exclusion for consolidation, I also explore women’s responses to marginality, and re-conceptualise agency. Despite important theoretical contributions to understanding religious women’s agency, scholars continue to ground their approach to agency solely in piety and submission, obscuring alternative modalities. By refusing to align with one side of the emancipation/oppression binary, my research brings a renewed attention to the benefits and the costs of religious belonging.