The best books to understand gender, religion, and domestic violence through non-Western eyes

Why am I passionate about this?

As a Moldovan emigrant growing up in Greece, I believed that Western institutions were centers of excellent knowledge. After studying in the USA and the UK and conducting research with Muslim and Christian communities in Africa, I became aware of colonial, ethnocentric, and universalizing tendencies in gender, religion, and domestic violence studies and their application in non-western contexts. International development had historically followed a secular paradigm congruent with Western societies’ perception of religion and its role in society. My work has since sought to bridge religious beliefs with gender analysis in international development work so that the design of gender-sensitive interventions might respond better to domestic violence in traditional religious societies.


I wrote...

Adapting Gender and Development to Local Religious Contexts: A Decolonial Approach to Domestic Violence in Ethiopia

By Romina Istratii,

Book cover of Adapting Gender and Development to Local Religious Contexts: A Decolonial Approach to Domestic Violence in Ethiopia

What is my book about?

The book offers a decolonial deconstruction of gender and development theory and practice in non-western religious societies through an ethnographic study of conjugal abuse in Ethiopia. 

In it, I scrutinize the Gender and Development and Gender-Based Violence paradigms and relate their deeper metaphysical assumptions of humanity, gender, and religion to western societies’ experiences with Enlightenment science, theological dogmatism, and secularization. I argue that this epistemological grounding deems the paradigms irrelevant or unhelpful in non-western religious contexts and propose an approach embedded in communities’ own belief systems to identify appropriate gender-sensitive interventions to conjugal abuse. The book is informed by my Eastern European positionality and critically engages with African, African American, and Latin American critical, post-colonial, and decolonial writings.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Invention Of Women: Making An African Sense Of Western Gender Discourses

Romina Istratii Why did I love this book?

Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí’s was the first book I encountered when I started to critically engage with Western feminist scholarship as a Master's student in the UK.

This book made a major intervention by challenging theories of gender in Western social sciences and questioning their relevance to African societies. I especially loved the book because Oyěwùmí offered a detailed presentation of gender realities in the Oyo-Yorùbá society of Nigeria that paid attention to human relations holistically and situationally and did not assume gender inequality on the basis of female/male bodies.

A must-read analysis for anyone working to decolonize gender theory.

By Oyeronke Oyewumi,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Invention Of Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The "woman question", this book asserts, is a Western one, and not a proper lens for viewing African society. A work that rethinks gender as a Western contruction, The Invention of Women offers a new way of understanding both Yoruban and Western cultures.
Oyewumi traces the misapplication of Western, body-oriented concepts of gender through the history of gender discourses in Yoruba studies. Her analysis shows the paradoxical nature of two fundamental assumptions of feminist theory: that gender is socially constructed in old Yoruba society, and that social organization was determined by relative age.


Book cover of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Romina Istratii Why did I love this book?

Saba Mahmood’s book is an intellectually stimulating and insightfully written study of a grassroots women’s mosque movement in Cairo, Egypt.

Speaking to a North American audience, Mahmood challenged secular-liberal theorizations of human agency and views that depicted Muslim women in patriarchal societies as without agency. Her nuanced and multi-dimensional study evidenced a considerably more complex picture of moral choice, agency, and Islamist politics that centered on the women’s own understandings and interpretation of a complex religious and political landscape.

It is Mahmood’s balanced and reflexive approach that makes this book a deeply educational study for students and scholars alike.

By Saba Mahmood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Politics of Piety as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Politics of Piety is a groundbreaking analysis of Islamist cultural politics through the ethnography of a thriving, grassroots women's piety movement in the mosques of Cairo, Egypt. Unlike those organized Islamist activities that seek to seize or transform the state, this is a moral reform movement whose orthodox practices are commonly viewed as inconsequential to Egypt's political landscape. Saba Mahmood's compelling exposition of these practices challenges this assumption by showing how the ethical and the political are indelibly linked within the context of such movements. Not only is this book a sensitive ethnography of a critical but largely ignored dimension…


Book cover of Here, Our Culture is Hard: Stories of Domestic Violence from a Mayan Community in Belize

Romina Istratii Why did I love this book?

Laura McClusky’s investigation of conjugal abuse among a Mayan community in Belize is one of the most ethnographically compelling books I have read on lived experiences of domestic violence.

McClusky was motivated to write this book because most domestic violence research had been clinical or sociological and had focused solely on the experience of violence, often approaching the phenomenon in a “peopleless manner.”

Refreshingly, McClusky decided to focus on the emotions, desires, motivations, and personal experiences of living women more holistically, thus overcoming tendencies to reduce women to the experience of violence and granting them the recognition as agents of actions that they deserve.  

By Laura J. McCluskey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Here, Our Culture is Hard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marriage among the Maya of Central America is a model of complementarity between a man and a woman. This union demands mutual respect and mutual service. Yet some husbands beat their wives. In this pioneering book, Laura McClusky examines the lives of several Mopan Maya women in Belize. Using engaging ethnographic narratives and a highly accessible analysis of the lives that have unfolded before her, McClusky explores Mayan women's strategies for enduring, escaping, and avoiding abuse. Factors such as gender, age inequalities, marriage patterns, family structure, educational opportunities, and economic development all play a role in either preventing or contributing…


Book cover of Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture

Romina Istratii Why did I love this book?

I read Nzegwu’s book after completing my PhD and it left a lingering impression on me.

Her work effectively challenged conceptualizations of gender that assumed an inherently hierarchical relationship between female and male. It also drew attention to the role of colonial laws and judicial edicts in promoting gender inequality in Nigeria’s Igbo society.

Nzegwu's discussion of the Onitsa dual-sex system that had historically embraced sexual difference but still granted women and men respective powers and responsibilities in society told a different story about gender relations in African societies prior to Western colonialism.

Nzegwu’s work echoes Oyěwùmí’s, and together they offer a window into alternative gender realities we can learn from. 

By Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Family Matters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Charts new trends in gender studies through a compelling analysis of Igbo society.


Book cover of Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam

Romina Istratii Why did I love this book?

Talal Asad’s genealogical analysis of the concept of religion in Western thought is a classic.

Asad, a Saudi-born anthropologist, proposed that it was the unique product of Western modernity and secularism to perceive religious discourse in the public arena as a disguise for power, which created a bias towards it in public life. This bias was then internationalized through the transposition of an inherently ethnocentric concept of religion.

Among other insights, Asad stressed the need to approach religious traditions in reference to the experience of the believers and the texts or traditions they invoke in their everyday life. A seminal piece of work that can provide a point of reference for anyone working to decolonize religious studies.

By Talal Asad,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Genealogies of Religion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In "Geneologies of Religion", Talal Asad explores how religion as a historical category emerged in the West and has come to be applied as a universal concept. The idea that religion has undergone a radical change since the Christian Reformation-from totalitarian and socially repressive to private and relatively benign-is a familiar part of the story of secularization. It is often invokved to explain and justify the liberal politics and world view of modernity. And it leads to the view that "politicized religions" threaten both reason and liberty. Asad's essays explore and question all these assumptions. He argues that "religion" is…


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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