In this post, Jessica Albrecht explores the intersection between religion and feminism in a colonial context. Using the example of transnational encounters between Buddhist and theosophist women in 19th century Sri Lanka, she argues that religion and feminism need not be mutually exclusive.


Religion often seems like a relic of times past, especially when judged from a secular feminist or European perspective. Yet it is and remains constitutive and identity-forming for our present and future. Feminisms that see themselves as secular often criticise religion for the way it supposedly determines binary and immutable gender identities. However, looking at it through European glasses, it is usually overlooked that there are religious groups around the world within which women fight for rights and change, using their religious beliefs for rather than against their feminism.

Buddhist movements in Sri Lanka are one such example: women have been trying for over 100 years to reintroduce the women’s order that died out in the 11th century. The order of bhikkhunis in Theravada Buddhist tradition, such as in Sri Lanka, is part of a societal order. There, the Buddhist society is divided in four parts: the bhikkhus (“monks”), bhikkhunis (“nuns”), laymen and laywomen (male and female “householders”). However, the efforts by female renunciants in Sri Lanka are prevented by the bhikkhus arguing that the bhikkhunis could only be ordained by an unbroken Sinhalese Theravada tradition. However, this forgets or leaves out the fact that the order of bhikkhus was also revived only in 1753 by Thai bhikkhus.

Yet these feminist Buddhist activisms and “modern” feminism have common roots. They date as far back as the 19th century and are linked to the period now known as the first wave of feminism. At that time, women and other members of the global women’s rights movement fought not only for women’s suffrage, but more importantly against various forms of unequal treatment, especially the prevailing double standards regarding marriage and family law as well as sexuality. Then, from both anti-feminist and feminist perspectives in colonising as well as colonised countries, women’s identity and their abilities and limitations were equated with the idea of motherhood. Girls were seen as future women; womanhood meant motherhood – be it in a biological or social way. Particularly with regard to education, this argument played a decisive role. Future mothers or women in social positions should be able to become qualified wives as well as educate the future generation. The concept of the mother – combined with that of the wife – was therefore used to argue for women’s education, especially for those from the lower classes. This, however, differed from that of boys. In addition to basic knowledge in literature, history, geography and mathematics, with the help of which they could be conversational partners, girls were also to learn embroidery and knitting, housekeeping and music.

Religious groups played a special role in this form of gender-specific education. This did not only apply to Christian movements that advocated the education of the lower classes “at home” or established schools overseas in the course of missionary movements. Modern esotericism, which was just emerging at the time and which combines religious and spiritual elements of different regions and times, also had a major influence.

In the 19th century, the religious formations that we still understand today as “world religions” emerged. As a result of the emerging authority of the natural sciences and in distinction to other “religions”, which now became opponents in the course of a world that had grown together globally through colonialism, the understanding of religion as a specific social sphere that can be separated from others, such as politics, and that is part of the private sphere, was formed and continues to exist today. At the same time, esotericism was formed, almost as a countermovement to the separation of religion and (natural) science. The Theosophical Society can be seen as the founder of esotericism as we know it today. This was founded in New York in 1875 by the German-Russian spiritualist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the American lawyer Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) alongside other spiritualists and occultists. In 1881, the Society realigned itself and moved its headquarters to South India. It was through the Theosophical Society that “Asian” or “oriental” religions were popularized in the “West”. This was also used by Hindu and Buddhist reform movements for their own anti-colonial or national endeavours.

In addition, the Theosophical Society had made it its task to provide education. Specifically, this meant that it promoted Hindu and Buddhist education as an alternative to the missionary schools. In Sri Lanka, therefore, the first Buddhist schools for boys were founded as early as 1882 and the first Buddhist school for girls in 1891. The latter was named after Sangamitta, the eldest daughter of King Ashoka, who had brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 2nd century BCE. The Sangamitta Girl’s School was first run by the German-American theosophist Marie Musaeus-Higgins and later by the theosophist Countess Miranda de Souza Canavarro. They worked with Sinhalese teachers to provide English and Sinhala Buddhist education for girls. This is only one example of global efforts by early esotericists to enhance the education of boy and girls in colonised countries. Notably, it was a gendered and religious education.

Musaeus-Higgins founded her own school, the Musaeus School and Orphanage, in 1894, which still exists today under the name Musaeus College as one of the largest private girls’ schools in the country. Higgins also founded other schools for girls and a teacher training college, which also exists today in a modified form as a state teacher training college. She is therefore seen and celebrated as the founder of girls’ education in Sri Lanka. Although the two women, Higgins and Canavarro, did not always agree in their feminist and religious views, they do have some things in common: both were seen as “white mothers” by their students and both campaigned for the re-establishment of the Bhikkhuni order with reference to Sister Sangamitta.

Here it becomes evident that even in early feminism motherhood was not attributed to a biological ability of women. Rather, it referred to a specific social characteristic, one that was only constructed at that time by feminists. As historian Joan W. Scott has argued in her book “The Fantasy of Feminist History” (2011), the concept of the mother was an image feminists used to create a sense of community and a shared identity that was not there before. This historically specific and not essentialist identity was able to create a feminist agency. This idea of motherhood was also used in a paternalistic way and for their own purposes by so-called imperial feminists in colonised countries. They created a hierarchy within what they called “sisterhood” based upon religion and race. But theosophical feminists often reversed this hierarchisation and argued for the independence and religious superiority of the colonised countries.

Thus, Canavarro and Higgins conspired with Buddhist women in Sri Lanka and together they began to develop new forms of monastic female participation in Buddhism and to fight for the complete reinstatement of the Bhikkhuni order. Both also wrote internationally circulated articles on the need for a female order in Sri Lanka, referring to the figure of the Sangamitta.

These early connections of transnational and trans-religious actors clearly show that feminism was neither a Western invention nor that feminism and religion have to be mutually exclusive. An intersectional feminism therefore needs to embrace the diversity of women’s choices and orientations and not obscure them in the course of imagining a secular feminism.


Jessica Albrecht is a first year PhD student in the Study of Religion at the University of Heidelberg. Her research interests lie in the interrelation of feminism, religion and esotericism in the 19th and 20th century with regional focus on Sri Lanka. Jessica holds a masters in Gender History as well as South Asian Languages. She is also co-founder and editor of the international and interdisciplinary postgraduate journal on gender research En-Gender!.

Featured Image: Sri Lankan Buddhist nuns in the Dalada Maligawa, 17 April 2013. By Denish C on Flickr.


Further Reading:

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety. The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott, Joan Wallach. 2017. Sex and Secularism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bartholomeusz, Tessa J. 1994. Women Under the Bo Tree. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, Joy. 2001. Divine Feminine. Theosophy and Feminism in England. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.