Jelle Wiering

Talking and Walking; Exploring Intersections of Embodiment and Agency in Religious-secular Formations.

Jelle Wiering

Talking and Walking; Exploring Intersections of Embodiment and Agency in Religious-secular Formations.  

Noster/CRCG thematic seminar February 27th 2019, Oude Boteringestraat 38, Groningen


On February 27th , 2019, a collaboration of scholars[1] from the University of Groningen, University of Amsterdam, Tilburg University, and Radboud university will organize a one-day seminar on religious and secular forms of embodiment. This free accessible seminar, held in Groningen, is funded by the Dutch Research school Noster[2], the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization[3], and the University of Groningen, faculty of Theology and Religious studies. The day will feature plenary lectures and responses by, among others, Schirin Amir-Moazami (University of Berlin),  Anna Fedele (Center for Research in Anthropology at the university of Lisbon), Birgitte Schepelern Johansen (University of Copenhagen), and Kholoud Al-Ajarma (University of Groningen)

Registration (maximum of 50 participants):

What do embodied practices, such as particular forms of sitting, walking, praying, talking, or teaching, contribute to peoples’ experiences, identity, and understandings of religion and secularity? Why is it so important for many pilgrims to walk, for many Buddhists to sit, and for many sexual health professionals to talk? How do forms of embodiment in these formations perhaps alter across the globe? How do particular embodied configurations perhaps even attempt to produce specific sought expressions of religion or secularity, and on whose authority? When are forms of embodiment disapproved and by whom, and how do people negotiate with these condemnations (Amir-Moazami 2016)? How do religious and secular embodied practices become entangled in the production of difference, and processes of inclusion and exclusion along the axes of gender, class, race and ethnicity? What does embodiment mean in an age of digitalized religious and secular practices, and how does it affect practitioners’ agency? And, finally, as academics, how, if at all, does embarking in these practices of embodiments ourselves contribute to our understanding of religion or secularity?

By departing from the concept of embodiment, the thematic seminar attempts to live up to McGuire’s (1990) call to consider bodies as more than rather passive and malleable subjects produced by society. Rather, by taking embodiment seriously, it sets out to illustrate how agency may actually be exercised through the practices people conduct in various formations and contexts (Fadil 2009; Mahmood 2011). Though such approaches, at first sight, appear to be best suited for utilization in the context of research focusing on contemporary religion and secularity, people’s experiences of embodiment, obviously, are not limited to our contemporary world, and hence a focus on embodiment is interesting in more historically-oriented forms of research as well (e.g. Foucault 1978; Gerson, Shavercrandell, Stones, & Krochalis 1998; Asad 2003; Scott 2017). Hence we hope the seminar has the potential to attract scholars from a variety of disciplines including sociology, theology, psychology, history, anthropology, religious studies, and gender & sexuality studies.

The overall question the thematic seminar will seek to answer is: How do specific expressions of embodiment pertain to the religious-secular formations they are discerned to be part of?

Morning program (0930 coffee), 1000 start seminar:

Keynotes by Schirin Amir-Moazami and Anna Fedele, responses by Birgitte Schepelern Johansen and Kholoud Al-Ajarma

Afternoon Program:

13.45–1500: First session – ‘(Re-)shaping bodies’ 

Moderator: Suzanne van der Beek

  • ‘Embodying Michael Jackson: the ethical self-formation of MJ-pilgrims.’ – Fardo Eringa, University of Groningen
  • ‘“We have no labour therapy”: The embodiment of obedience and humility in the Russian Baptist rehab.’ – Igor Mikeshin, St. Petersburg State University
  • ‘Designing the body. Agency and embodiment in researching African-Dutch women’s lives.’ – Brenda Bartelink, University of Groningen and Sophia Lowe, Design that Matter

1500 – 15.50:  Second session – ‘Exploring the secular body’

Moderator: Suzanne van der Beek

  • ‘Idle Minds and Empty Stomachs.’– Erik Meinema, Utrecht University
  • “L’affaire du foulard”: laïcité, bodies as national symbols and veiling as a “political act” in colonial and postcolonial France –  Lucy Spoilar, University of Groningen

1605 – 16.55: Third session – ‘Negotiating bodies’

Moderator: Erik Meinema

  • ‘Selectively “smart”: embodying norms of marriage among Ghanaian-Dutch and Somali-Dutch couples in Amsterdam.’ – Amisha Bakhuri, University of Amsterdam
  • ‘The secular Body in Dutch sex educations’ – Jelle Wiering, University of Groningen

1700 – 17.50: Fourth session –  ‘Embodied (de-)conversions’

Moderator: Erik Meinema

  • ‘Embodying Deconversion: The Lives of Orthodox Jewish and Orthodox Reformed Women in Contemporary Popular Culture.’ – Nella van den Brandt, Utrecht University.’
  • ‘Beer, Bayern and Belief: professional soccer players converting to Christianity and Islam in Europe.’ – Mariecke van den Berg, Utrecht University

[1] Jelle Wiering, Fardo Eringa, Elizabeth Mudzimu, Brenda Bartelink, Kim Knibbe, Suzanne van der Beek, Amisah Bakuri, Rachel Spronk, Rahil Roodsaz, and Erik Meinema.



An embodied education

Jelle Wiering /

An Embodied Education 

I’m sitting in the corner of a classroom, watching five actors getting ready for their upcoming play. There is some tension among the actors and they appear a bit nervous. Each of them has her or his own way of preparing. Meanwhile, I am just looking around, observing the classroom: the tables are arranged in some sort of square, leaving space in the middle for the actors to perform.

Suddenly, there is the sound of loud knocking on the classroom door. One of the performers opens the door and instructs the students waiting outside to wait a little longer as, he says, they have arrived too early. There are some protests from the students, but the actor simply ignores them and closes the door. “Ok we need to get ready now”, he then says to his companions. He, in fact, already said that a couple of times in the past 15 minutes but this time it appears to have more impact. The actors start to practice a fragment of the play, which apparently gone less well the last time they performed it. Leonie says: “This time, make sure to stop playing that stupid guitar on time Mitchell. Last time, I had to do that stupid dance way, way too long, it was so awkward!”. I have no idea what they are talking about but I am really looking forward to the things to come.

As often is the case in educations I attend, things do not go as planned. Once all the students have managed to find themselves a chair somewhere in the classroom, and things finally are about to get started, one of the students needs to visit the bathroom, forcing the moderator to wait yet another five minutes to begin her introduction.

Two minutes have passed now since that student left for the bathroom, and it really has become a bit of an awkward situation. All students are expecting to be entertained by the performers. They simply sit quietly and keep looking expectantly at the moderator. The moderator, though, still can’t really start her introduction as she needs to wait for the student that went to the bathroom. She tries to buy some time by asking casual questions about the other lessons the students will have that day, and about the students’ upcoming holiday plans. It remains a rather one-sided attempt at conversation though.

Finally, the moderator decides to no longer wait for the student and to just get started. She introduces the play and the actors start to perform.

The play surprisingly advances with some beautiful guitar play that fills the small classroom with music. Mitchell, who plays the guitar, has sat himself down in a corner and has his eyes closed whilst playing and singing an emotional song. Meanwhile Leonie has moved herself to the center of the classroom and she begins introducing to the audience her character Hayat. The beautiful guitar play, combined with the personal introduction of Hayat that describes how her Moroccan family has rejected her because of her sexual attraction to women, really affects me.

A few minutes later, we are introduced to Bruno, a guy who has, for a long time now, experienced himself to be gay. Bruno lives in a white Dutch family. He has a brother who excels at playing soccer, and Bruno himself is expected to have some talent too. He does not though, and he really detests the game. Still he goes to soccer, pressured by his dad to become a good player one day too.

Near the end of the play, Bruno begins to dance in the middle of the classroom. He performs rather abnormal dancing moves: he throws his legs up high, reminding me of some sort of river dance. We saw that Bruno locked himself up in his room upstairs, hiding from his father and brother downstairs. After a while, his father suspects something and manages to break into Bruno’s room. He is baffled as he sees his son dancing in his mother’s clothes. Bruno tells his father that this is who he is, a dancer, not a soccer player, and he puts forward his hand and begs for his father’s acceptance.

Bruno did not receive any form of acceptance from his father. Nor did he receive acceptance from his brother, who, upon seeing Bruno begging his father for acceptance, even decided to strike him hard in the face. Bruno, according to his brother, had simply asked for such a physical correction.

The play comes to it end. We see Bruno lying on the ground with his hands on his face. Mitchell’s deep voice, again, pierces through our bodies in the classroom: “I can’t change, even if I wanted to”, he sings. Leonie then starts to sing along and its sounds wonderful, regardless of her voice being sometimes a bit out of tune.

The play ends. The atmosphere in class has changed radically compared to one hour ago. I myself experience a certain urge to help Bruno, to stand up for him, and when I look around I notice I am not the only one. The students’ previous reluctance to engage in any conversation that had made the introduction of the play so uncomfortable has been replaced by clear feelings of injustice and compassion. The actors, by addressing our senses with music, but also through illustrating us their courage of dancing and singing in socially-condemned ways, have successfully created an atmosphere where we feel safe and united.