CIIS offers the only PhD program in the world in Women’s Spirituality. The program was established in 1992 and also features an MA degree. Both options include the possibility of taking half of the courses online, and both culminate in degrees in Philosophy and Religion, with a concentration in Women’s Spirituality. Current faculty in Women’s Spirituality include many of the founders and leading thinkers in the field: Carol P. Christ, Susan Griffin, Mara Lynn Keller, Charlene Spretnak, Starhawk, and Luisah Teish. Courses are organized in three areas: Women and World Religions; Feminist and Ecofeminist Philosophy and Activism; and Women’s Mysteries, Sacred Arts, and Healing.
Program Chair Arisika Razak describes some of the unique aspects of the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS: “We have the ability not only to teach about the goddess and other sacred ancestors and female divinities but to take students to sites and create environments on campus where students can immerse themselves in their traditions.” Recent trips have included a visit to Ggantija on the island of Gozo in Malta, a temple in the shape of a woman’s body that is one of the most ancient structures in Europe, dating back more than 5,500 years. “We actually got to touch The Sleeping Lady of Malta, a statue linked to woman-centered spirituality in the Neolithic Era, when we were in the Malta Museum,” Razak recalls. Other study tours have visited sites of significance to women’s spirituality in Turkey, Italy, Hawaii, and Greece.
The arts are an important component of the Women’s Spirituality program. “We are a rigorous academic program,” says Razak, “and we also have a strong artistic emphasis. We honor singing, dancing, movement, and the body.” A class taught by the Bay Area musician and composer Jennifer Berezan, for instance, culminates in a ritual concert that the students co-create, and in which they perform. Berezan invites a diverse array of world-class musicians and drummers to participate in this class.
“Another key feature of the program,” Razak relates, “is that students explore their mother lines in the portal or entry course. They trace their spiritual lineage through their maternal heritage. The stories they discover are sometimes inspiring, sometimes painful, always illuminating.”
The program also emphasizes approaches to the academic study of spirituality that are liberating in terms of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. “In colonial times,” Razak explains, “for many indigenous people, their spirituality was the first point of attack. Our program explores the pre-patriarchal and precolonial faith traditions of cultures all over the world, and emphasizes the roles that women played as healers, priestesses, and cultural leaders.” The program provides opportunities for students to study both mainstream and marginalized spiritual traditions, from ancient times through the present. In fall 2011, for instance, the internationally prominent Islamic scholar and theologian Amina Wadud is teaching a class on Islam, Gender, and Reform.
Students in the program represent many different spiritual paths. “There are students here who are involved in Abrahamic spiritualities, and others who identify as Wiccan or pagan,” says Razak. “There are also students who come from other religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, African diasporic traditions, and the Druze faith.”
Razak came to appreciate the varieties of women’s spirituality through an interesting route. “For 19 years I was a midwife at Highland Hospital in Oakland. I helped women from 70 different countries give birth. To care for someone competently, you have to know something about their culture and their spirituality.” Razak sees many parallels between midwifery and women’s spirituality: “Birthing is one of the original templates of spirituality and creation.” She sees a connection between her roles in both arenas: “Here in academia, I feel I’m helping women give birth to themselves, and to their intellectual power.”