Culture, Gender, and Traditional Authority: A Sociological Approach on Power Relations in Middle Eastern Churches


  • Heidemarie Winkel University of Bielefeld Dep. of Sociology



Women’s limited access to top positions has become of particular interest in the last two decades. A small number of studies bring institutional barriers, attitudes and values in Arab countries into focus. Mostly they emphasize a functionalist perspective of religion as a structural principle; notably Islam is seen as a prevailing, if not as the foremost symbolic resource in Arab societies. Without neglecting the social relevance of religion in the Middle East, for example as an instrument of power maintenance, this article questions the notion of religion as an all-encompassing cultural value pool. Instead, culture is introduced as a pivotal frame of meaning providing individual action and thinking with basic orientation. I assume that these meaning patterns shape the forms of religious participation and leadership, the basis of their legitimacy as well as the direction of their transformation. This will be sketched by means of Arab Christian women in selected Middle Eastern countries. The central question is which meaning patterns are shaping the power structures in the religious field of Middle Eastern societies and how far do they leave a margin for a change of its gendered constitution? The article discusses this by means of Christian women’s religious authority in Middle Eastern churches. This will be done against the background of a qualitative data. This material sheds light on the generative principles of social interpretation and cognition in the religious sub-segment of Middle Eastern churches including culturally framed notions of religious authority and spiritual leadership. Like in Islam, this religious segment is contingent on a specific power structure between the institutionalized theological leaders and the community. Nevertheless, I suppose that Arab Christian women have started to challenge the institutionalised system of power relations. The hypothesis is that a critical reconstruction of gender inequality is invented precisely through the lens of the dominant web of meaning. While these orientation patterns ensure social coherence, they simultaneously form the cognitive background for a challenge of authority structures. They are the starting point for women’s growing aspirations towards participation in religious leadership.


Keywords: Arab modernity, gender hierarchy, power relations, religion


Author Biography

Heidemarie Winkel, University of Bielefeld Dep. of Sociology