Applying Judith Butler’s Theory to the Study of Religions

Judith Butler (b. 1956) is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a philosopher, third-wave feminist, and reputable proponent of gender theory. She is outspoken on the topics of feminism and LGBTQ+ issues while some of her later work engages philosophical theories of violence. To notice how Bulter’s ideas might apply to the study of religion it is important to summarily come to terms with her major ideas.

Butler refers to gender as performative, a central idea she introduced in her essay Performative Acts and Gender Constitution (1988). She argues that gender is created and sustained through the constant repetition of acts and that when these acts are observed they give the appearance of a coherent and natural gender identity: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender… identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (1).

Butler’s view is anti-essentialist. The notion of “performativity” suggests that gender is not something people innately are but is something that they do (perform). Butler writes that “Gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed” (2). A person is not born with a gender that influences her to behave in a certain way; instead, she is perceived to have a gender identity because of how she talks, walks, and presents herself. Given that this involves a repeated performance of acts, gender is given the appearance of a fixed identity.

Butler maintains that the performance of gender is propelled by repeated acts that reinforce oppressive, socially constructed gender norms, especially the traditional domination of women by men and the oppression of homosexuals and transgender persons. These norms position “man” and “woman” as opposites with no middle ground. Butler goes further, however, and contends that this also relates to sex. She claims that sex, like gender, is socially constructed because of the language used to describe genitalia as either being male or female. On her view, our understanding of sex is bound up in notions of what it means for something to be masculine or feminine.

What has Butler’s influence been on religious studies? It has relevance to where the discipline has focused on the intersection of religion, gender, and feminism. 

Scholars are interested in how religious discourses construct and constrict gender identities, as well as how they open up possibilities for subversion of identity. Butler encourages scholars to ask questions,

“In particular, how is it that religious beliefs, institutions, and practices serve the process of subjection—both as subjugation and empowerment—of the religious subject within a religious community or a religious tradition? How do the conditions that form the religious subject produce ambivalence within her psychic life? How do they work to form mechanisms of repression and desire? And what, in this context, is religious desire or longing?” (3)

One can apply Butler’s work on identity as performative to a study of religious rituals. Here one inquires into how religious rituals, as highly regulated repeat performances, “construct and constrict the identities of its performers (e.g., as priest, communicant, healer, shaman; unclean, clean, sacred, profane, etc.)?”,

“By the same token, how are rituals, as necessarily unstable “terminal forms” of power, open to subversion and therefore transformation by their acting subjects (e.g., a gay priest administering Holy Communion, a rock band replacing a church organist)? How do the various aspects of a religious subject always exceed her ritually prescribed identity in “socially impossible” and potentially subversive ways? How do ritual traditions immune themselves to such subversion, and how do they open themselves up to it?” (4)

Through the lens provided by Butler’s theory, the scholar can examine religious history, discourses, and traditions, and the place of gender identity within these contexts. There are many ways the scholar might approach such a study and he can do so in various religious traditions. Scholars of Sufism study historical figures who broke through gender role constrictions in their time.

For example, the Sufi Punjabi poet Shah Hussayn was queer in light of his deliberate unconventionality and homosexual because of his sexual relations with Madho, a Hindu adolescent male of the Brahmin caste. From hagiographic accounts, one learns that Hussayn was an unconventional figure. He would drink wine in public, which was prohibited according to Islamic law despite its wide practice within Islamic societies. There is also the transvestite moment in which after his guide lost his nephew, Khusro dressed up as a female courtesan with bangles and bells and danced before al-Din Awliya to console him.

There is evidence of gender-bending and transgender behavior within Islamic history in the Sufi poet Amir Khusro and his spiritual guide, Nizam al-Din Awliya. Khusro dedicated his life to his guide in a romantic friendship of love, which also caused transgressing accepted social gender norms, particularly by portraying al-Din Awliya as a beloved groom to whom he expresses intimacy through the voice and persona of a woman.

Moreover, how have religious discourses been a source of domination? Historically in the International Society for Krishna Conscious, female devotees experienced significant repression and were viewed as inferior in the spiritual life and pursuit of Krishna consciousness than men. Circumstances have largely changed as women successfully attained reform and equality in the movement. This entailed an emergence of unprecedented discourse within the movement challenging the prevailing oppressive discourses. Scholars have studied these circumstances within the ISKCON movement and many other religious traditions.

Many questions are raised in light of these examples. How did certain religious figures break out of the restrictions imposed on them? Was there a motivation for doing so? What were their responses to the dominant ideology? Was there a social and religious consequence to their actions? What drove the consequences? What do the responses inform us of the broader societal and religious beliefs of their time?


1. Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge Classics. p. 34.

2. Butler, Judith. 1990. Ibid. p. 34.

3. Deal, William E., and Beal, Timothy K. 2004. Theory for Religious Studies. Oxfordshire: Routledge. p. 70. 

4. Deal, William E., and Beal, Timothy K. 2004. Ibid. p. 70. 

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