Women at Penn: Shayna Golkow (’14)

Earlier this month, Research Committee member Madeleine McClintic sat down with Shayna Golkow, a Religious Studies major at Penn, to discuss her thesis work on women in conservative religions.


Madeleine McClintic (MM): So I guess we’ll start with can you please describe the topic of your capstone project?

Shayna Golkow (SG): Sure. So I interviewed fourteen Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women in the Philadelphia area about their practices, their role in their religion, their status within their religion, their quality of life. I’m looking to compare their answers to each other between the two groups, and also to outsiders’ perceptions of women in very religious communities.


MM: What led you to choose this topic?

SG: Well I’m a Religious Studies major and I’m interested in women’s roles in religion in general. I also think that I have a personal bias sometimes against women in very religious communities. So I was interested to do a little more research and hear a little more personal perspectives from women who actually have either chosen to be religious or grown up in religious communities, to hear their perspective on why it’s a compelling lifestyle.


MM: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about women in more conservative religions?

SG: I think that people see a woman walking by wearing a hijab or a burqa, or a Jewish woman wearing a long skirt and a wig, and have the automatic assumption that the woman is oppressed. Maybe she’s oppressed by her husband, [or] by her religious rules. Of course those things might be true, but I think that it’s not always true. People don’t always take into account the fact that women may actually feel really empowered by their religion. There might be aspects of the religion that make them feel sometimes even higher than men in some ways. They feel like they have a special role. I’m not saying there’s definitely no oppression going on, I’m just saying that shouldn’t be the first thing somebody thinks when they see a woman walking down the street who is clearly religious or is dressed modestly. Oppression and brainwashing shouldn’t be the first things that pop into someone’s head.


MM: What are some of the conclusions you’ve drawn from your research as of now?

SG: I guess some of what I just said, but [also that] the two religions are very similar, especially in terms of women, and a lot of the women I spoke to talked a lot about modesty. That was something they really wanted to get across, that they take ownership over their own modesty, and they don’t wear the things that they wear because a man is telling them to, they wear those things because they feel like that’s how they want to cover their bodies. I thought it was really interesting, a couple of women from each religion actually said to me, when they see billboards of women wearing bikinis and being completely objectified by men, they feel like those women are oppressed, and I guess they look at secular women at Penn and feel like we’re oppressed because we have to live up to the standards of men and participate in hookup culture, and wear revealing clothing, whereas for them they feel like by covering up their bodies they’re able to be appreciated for who they are, for their intelligence or for their personalities. To be honest I’m not saying that I would be ok with this way of life necessarily, but I think that for women who are part of this system and have those values, it can be a really rewarding lifestyle. Over the course of the project I’ve learned to be less judgmental of women who have made a choice to be observant in their religions, because even if I had to live that lifestyle I might feel that it was oppressive, but for them it feels really rewarding and meaningful.


MM: What do you plan on doing later in life in terms of post-graduation plans, and how do you think being a woman would influence that, if at all?

SG: I want to be a rabbi in the conservative movement of Judaism, so women have all the same rights and obligations as men in the conservative movement, so are obviously allowed to become rabbis and do all the same things as men in terms of praying, and all the rules and laws apply to both men and women equally. But I do think that being a woman will have an effect on my job prospects and lifestyle in general, because it is more recent that women have been allowed to be ordained as rabbis, so there are still a lot of people who are surprised that women can be rabbis, or don’t necessarily want a female rabbi to officiate their wedding or [any other kind of] ceremony. Just recently someone said to me that they thought I should be a rabbi’s wife and not a rabbi, because, you know, I’m really into Judaism, so that makes me a great candidate to be what’s called a rebbetzin, which means a rabbi’s wife, but obviously I could never be a rabbi myself because I’m a woman. So I think that I and other people like me will be able to, in the next several years, break down those stereotypes.


MM: Would you consider yourself a feminist?

SG: Yes.


MM: How do you think that religion can play into the feminism movement?

SG: For me, I think that feminism means that men and women should have equal rights, equal responsibilities, equal roles, and equal opportunities. I think that religion, to me, advocates all those same things. I believe that God created me equal to men and to other women, and to everyone, so I think that equality is an important value both in feminism and religion.


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