What’s it like being the most famous woman in the world? Do you ever get tired of being eclipsed by your son? And, what’s your favorite portrait of yourself?

These were some of the thoughts entertained by fifty-two educators across the U.S. in response to the question, “If you could meet the Virgin Mary, what would you ask her?” The teachers had gathered at the workshop, “Biblical Women Across Abrahamic Religions,” which was held the day before (U.S.) Mother’s Day, on Saturday, May 8th, 2021. Considering that the Virgin Mary is arguably the most celebrated mother around the world and the recipient of countless prayers for intercessions, said Deirdre de la Cruz, U-M professor and guest speaker, the timing of the workshop and question were perfect. De la Cruz has spent a lot of time thinking about Mary: her book, Mother Figured: Marian Apparitions and the Making of a Filipino Universal, is a study of the efflorescence of the Virgin’s apparitions and miracles in the Philippines.

Four National Resource Centers (NRCs) at U-M organized and held the teacher workshop: the Center for Middle Eastern & North African Studies, the Center for South Asian Studies, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. The day’s activities and instructional resources were funded by Title VI grants awarded to the NRCs from the U.S. Department of Education.

Mary and Jesus (Maryam and Isa) in a Persian miniature

Professor of Comparative Literature and Women's Studies Ruth Tsoffar kicked off and spoke lengthily about Abram’s wife Sarai (Sarah) and her slave Hagar in the Hebrew tradition. Possibly the first example of surrogate motherhood, the story of these two dueling women is also a reaffirmation of both divine and male supremacy. The audience was especially drawn to Tsoffar’s elaboration on the “pregnancy gaze”— forerunner of patriarchy— in this Hebrew story of genesis. “To claim that the male gaze has become the panoptic surveillance of women’s psyche is not an overstatement,” asserted Tsoffar. “Genesis and the patriarchal gaze have paved the way to this system of control and discipline of the body.”

Sarai and Hagar prepared the ground, biblically speaking, for the most famous mother in the Abrahamic tradition. Audience members “loved exploring the different perspectives and interpretations of Mary” provided by Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at U-M. Some admitted to ignorance that Maryam -- as she is called by Muslims -- appears at all in the Islamic tradition. Indeed, they were surprised to learn, she has been revered since her appearance in the Holy Qur’an. Exceptionally pious and spiritually highest amongst all women, Mary(am) connects the Islamic and Christian traditions. Fun facts: Only one surah/chapter (No: 19) in the entire Qur’an is named after a woman. Maryam holds the title of a sole woman named in the Qur’an. The conception of Jesus is miraculous in the Muslim tradition as well.

Because so little is known of Mary from Scripture, “you can project on her whatever cultural values you have,” writes Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. “She can be the grieving mother, the young virgin, the goddess figure. Just as Jesus is the ideal man, Mary is the ideal woman.”

La Virgen del Cerro, depicting the Virgin Mary as Pachamama, circa 18th century

This projection of values happened in the Philippines, where today about eight out of ten Filipinos are Catholic. In the pre-colonial era, began de la Cruz, who is also a historian and cultural anthropologist, women and transgendered women had played key roles as healers, midwives, and priestesses. However, with the arrival of Spanish colonialism and conversion to Christianity in the 1550s, Mary was strategically deployed for the purpose of converting the indigenous populations. Native sacred objects, de la Cruz added, were replaced with Catholic images of saints and Mary. Many teachers in the audience had “never really understood the connection between Spain and the Philippines before!” De la Cruz also modeled the use of primary sources and offered these overarching questions to frame instruction about the history of religion and conversion in the Philippines: “How to incorporate religion as content without advocating a religious perspective?” “How can you read religious actors, texts, objects, practices, or events historically and culturally?” And “How does religion articulate gender roles, and changes in gender roles, over time?” One teacher later remarked enthusiastically: “I loved [this] session and the demonstration of how to use a primary source passage with a focus on bias and alternative explanations.”

About the Latin American and Caribbean context spoke Jamie Lee Andreson, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University’s Africana Research Center, where she researches religions of the African Diasporas and the politics of cultural heritage, with a focus on the Candomblé religion of Brazil. Andreson introduced key concepts of syncretism across world religions, including the ubiquity of a central Mother figure, fertility worship, and indigenous symbols as sites of activism and decolonial mobilization.

“I always knew Mary was an important religious and cultural figure,” said one teacher later, “but to see how interconnected her representation has become with that of indigenous groups/religions all over the planet was fascinating and an important reminder that we all might see things differently depending on where we come from.” The perfect example of African, Caribbean, and Brazilian religious syncretism is Yemoja (Iemanjá), a water spirit from the Yoruba religion. In a practice that emerged during the transatlantic slave trade, she is often syncretized with Our Lady of Regla in the Afro-Cuban diaspora and various other Virgin Mary figures of the Catholic Church. Every year on February 2nd, in Salvador and other Brazilian cities, this Rainha do Mar—Queen of the Sea—is celebrated with much fanfare. Another example of syncretism and indigenous resistance against colonial subversion is the earth goddess Pachamama. The highest divinity of the Andeans, she is associated with earth, farming, crops, fertility, and, increasingly in the 21st century, with environmental crises, as people take too much from Pachamama/nature.

Darin Stockdill concluded the workshop activities, suggesting strategies and resources for teaching about syncretism through global representations of Mary. He is the design coordinator at the Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research (CEDER) at the UM School of Education. “Using the figure of Mary,” said one workshop participant, “as a tool to teach cultural/religious diffusion and imperialism was my a-ha moment —brilliant!” Of the workshop perks were multi-media resources as well as a classroom-ready lesson plan created by CEDER and titled— of course—“Something About Mary.”

To watch any or all of five sessions, please visit Recording of “Biblical Women Across Abrahamic Religions”