Agency is a concept often used to understand how people participate in (and sometimes resist) religious contexts and structures.

That is, how do people who are in a subordinate position and who are marginalised from the main areas of power, how do they live with (and perhaps overcome) their powerless-ness?

The idea of the agent (the person with agency) recognises the person, not just the victim. This is a person that acts on their own choices, on their own values and beliefs, and is not merely a pawn that is pushed around by those with power. In much discussion, it is when women actively and obviously resist rather than acquiesce that scholars have tended to use the term ‘agency’ — as a way to describe and articulate the women’s resistance to the power that is exerted upon them by others.

Thus patriarchy is often accompanied by women’s own individual and collective actions of resistance, in many different ways. We can look, for example, to well documented Christian women in American history who have resisted male and white power, in different ways.

For example, Anne Hutchinson in the 1630s against the domination of a particular form of Puritanism in the early Massachusetts Bay Colony, or important female figures of the black emancipatory era of nineteenth century America, such as Ida Wells, Sojourner Truth, and Maria Stewart.

All of these women made a stand, showed their resistance, and in doing so were clear and very obvious examples of the acting out of their agency against the established power relations.

But this leaves out other women: the actions that some (indeed many) women take that are not so clearly about resistance and challenge.

Or to put this another way, is a person’s agency only shown when they resist and challenge power, subordination and discrimination?

Can agency also be about exerting ones own sense of power and empowerment, through compliance rather than resistance?

This question is particularly associated with the scholar Saba Mahmood who felt that earlier approaches to agency

‘ignore other modalities of agency whose meaning and effect are not captured within the logic of subversion and resignification of hegemonic terms of discourse’ (Mahmood 2005, 153).

Or to put this another way, women (and other groups who are disempowered and discriminated against) can act with their own agency in ways other than challenging and resisting.

A recent article by Kelsy C. Burke Women’s Agency in Gender-Traditional Religions proposes four different (and distinct) ways to understand women’s agency:

  • Resistance agency
  • Empowerment agency
  • Instrumental agency
  • Compliant agency

It is useful to remember that although this is specifically concerned with women’s agency, if we want to use such a breakdown of types of agency, they can also be used in other political contexts, such as race, sexuality, etc, and also within the context of intersections of identity and agency (specifically black women’s agency, or LGBT Muslims, etc.)

RB014 Agency and Religion (Religion Bites Podcast)

by Malory Nye time to read: 3 min