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Evil, Good, and Gender
Author: Jamsheed K. Choksy
ISBN: 0-8204-5664-0; Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 2002

Book Review


Gould, Ketayun
























About the authorJamsheed K. Choksy was born in Mumbai, India on January 8, 1962, and received his initial schooling in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He undertook his undergraduate studies at Columbia University, NY, where in 1985, he received his B.A. in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures with a minor in Biology.  The focus of his Ph.D. work was on history and religions of the Near East and inner Asia. He obtained his doctorate degree from Harvard University in 1991. During the years 1991-1993, he was a visiting Assistant professor in the department of history and the international relations program at Stanford University. From 1993-1994, Jamsheed was a member and a fellow of the national endowment for the humanities at the school of historical studies in the institute for advanced study, Princeton university. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim memorial foundation fellowship in 1996–1997.  He held an Andrew W. Mellon fellowship at the center for advanced study in the behavioral sciences, Stanford university, during 2001–2002. Currently, he is a professor in the department of central Eurasian studies and the department of history and an adjunct professor in the department of religion studies at Indiana university. He has also served as the chairman of the department of Near Eastern.

About the book:[i] This monograph reflects the strengths and weaknesses of a work done by a historian of religion whose central concern or disciplinary training does not extend to gender studies. Choksy brings the remarkable range of his scholarship to do a superb job of examining doctrinal, theological and ritual developments over time in the relationship between evil, good and gender.

The context for this analysis is the Zarathushti attribution of malevolence and benevolence to the feminine, the masculine, the female and the male.  However, when Choksy extends this theme to include socio-religious development during modern times, he loses his vision of how the “images of the female and male in theology, were fundamental in defining both women’s and men’s cultural roles and statuses.” Specifically, the monograph contains five chapters and a brief introduction. The introduction provides a review of the main thesis of the volume.  Basically, Choksy lays out the dichotomy between evil and good as ‘interlinked religious concepts’, with its origins attributed to spiritual entities who act in opposition to each other as advocates of these dual principles.  In many societies, gender came to be associated with evil, and Choksy elaborates on this connection in the context of the Zarathushti religion.  Male clerics subsequently transformed this concept into yielding demonic female spirits.

At the same time, Zarathushti beliefs did not exclude the feminine from goodness.  In fact, Mazdean rites included several female spiritual beings who played important roles in expelling evil and serving as the role models for mortal women. At the outset, Choksy acknowledges that this study places a heavy reliance on the source materials that the religion of Zarathushtra provides.  This approach provides him a forum to guide the reader to specific primary sources, focussing for the most part on texts, artworks, coins and other items that explore the implications of the religion’s attitudes towards gender-related issues. At the same time, the heavy reliance on scholars who are intimately involved in Zarathushti studies leads to a lack of critical analysis – a benign explanation – for some of the religion’s questionable beliefs and traditions that
affect women.  The problem could have been avoided by relying more heavily than the author prefers on theoretical paradigms drawn from other disciplines to search for reasons and the development of theory to explain Zarathushti belief systems.  Unfortunately, the author wants to shy away from viewing “gender-related issues of the past as misogynist,” and in doing so, does not differentiate between a misogynist and a broader feminist perspective that would have allowed him topresent a more nuanced picture.

Chapter 2 provides a straightforward discussion of the rise of the religion – the life of the prophet, scriptures, dualism and the feminine, spiritual entities, the sectarian sacred history, worship and death rituals and the emigration of Zarathushtis to India and their subsequent dispersion to other countries.

Chapter 3 takes us into the domain of female demons and beneficent female spiritual beings, clarifying the gender-specific linkages of notions like deceit, sexuality and avidity that are part of the faith’s symbolism of the demonic female entities, while the divine female divinities are depicted as working to ensure that cosmic order is upheld. Choksy stresses the point of the faith’s dualistic system, and how this orientation accommodated the contrasting notions of order and disorder and simplified the acceptance of the connection between evil and the feminine.

Chapter 4 elaborates on the male dominated religious and societal world views that feminine as a gender were weak willed and easily led astray by the devil’s menagerie. Choksy illustrates this Mazdean belief by referring to the myth of the Bundahishn regarding the act of the first woman, Mashyana, whose  image was projected upon women to reinforce the belief that women, acting independently, will always end up creating the conditions that produce evil. The main emphasis in this section is the tie between pollution and evil, including the threats posed by menstruation and childbirth, plus a discussion of the feminine connection between evil and good in the afterlife.

Chapter 5 is a historical excursion into antiquity and the middle ages for a search of the available records that  might divulge the socioreligious aspects of Zarathushti women’s lives. The pre-modern period saw very little significant change in the male dominated secular order, leading to the conclusion that despite some ability to engage in gender appropriate work, the old dichotomy between evil, good and gender continued to restrict women’s functions in the spiritual life of the community.

Finally, as stated before, the problems with the book are most evident in Choksy’s concluding chapter on socioreligious development during modern times.  The emphasis on “images of the female and male in theology”  (italics mine) that is supposed to be “fundamental in defining cultural roles and statuses” is often lost in the amount of coverage that he devotes to statistics on the effects of western-style societal influences that  might have been responsible in bringing about some secular changes.

Consequently, Choksy fails to stress strongly enough that a relatively egalitarian ideal that might govern societal sex-role behavior might not provide a bulwark against continuing negative images of women in the religious texts and traditions. As a result, the chapter paints an overly rosy picture of women’s  “social and religious liberalization” without any mention whatsoever of some acrimonious issues that have affected Zarathushti women’s spiritual lives. For example, the status of Parsi women married to non-Parsis, the status of their children, their legal status as Zarathushtis, etc., are all subjects of vital concern that deserve particular coverage here since quoting scriptural traditions seems to be the accepted way of justifying the legitimacy of these gender-related religious laws.

Instead of tackling these thorny issues, Choksy backs away from a topic that is nothing but vital in view of the book’s central concern with gender by making some general, non-threatening comments such as the “increase in the frequency of marriage across confessional communities” has succeeded in “bringing new issues and concepts into familial settings.”  A newcomer to the field could read this statement and have no inkling whatsoever about how these socioreligious developments have discriminated consistently against Zarathushti women.

In general, Choksy seems more at ease in dealing with material from the past, and in drawing out the religious and social functions of these ideas such as the effects of the decline of diabology in diminishing perceptions of the negative images of Zarathushti women.  This is not surprising since by discipline and training, he is a historian of religion whose interest lies in furthering discussion of “continuity and change in the history of religions.”  It is in this capacity that this book should be read and appreciated for its impressive scholarship and contribution towards furthering the cause of Zarathushti studies.        

[i] This book review appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of the FEZANA journal and has been reproduced with the consent of Dr. Ketayun Gould and Mrs. Roshan Rivetna, the editor of FEZANA journal.