Volume 91, #1

Winter 2018


New Directions in the Anthropology of Religion
and Gender

phone: 202-994-3215  e-mail: ifer@gwu.edu


Volume 91, #1 • Winter 2018



New Directions in the Anthropology
of Religion and Gender:
Faith and Emergent Masculinities



by William Dawley, University of California, San Diego
and Brendan Jamal Thornton, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Islam, Sex, and Sin: IVF Ethnography as Muslim Men’s Confessional

Marcia C. Inhorn, Yale University

ABSTRACT—In Islamic jurisprudence, numerous wrongful acts of behavior are regarded as haram—sinful, illicit, prohibited, and unlawful. Such wrongful behavior can take many forms, with illicit sexuality constituting one of the major categories. Because heterosexual marital sex is the only licit form of sexual behavior according to Islamic jurisprudence, the potential for men to engage in zina, or illicit sexuality, is quite high. Although there are many “sinners,” Islam is not a religion that promotes individual confession. Muslim clerics generally do not take on a pastoral role as confessor, hearing individuals’ confessions of sin or offering forgiveness. Furthermore, religious forms of testimony, of the kind promoted in some Christian evangelical denominations, are not a part of the Islamic religious tradition. As a result, Muslims who have “sinned” do not have religiously sanctioned or socially condoned ways of unburdening their asrar, or “secrets,” including through support groups or psychotherapy. To that end, this article explores Arab Muslim men’s asrar jinsiyia, or “sexual secrets,” as well as their felt needs to unburden their feelings of guilt and shame. Through reproductive life histories undertaken in IVF clinics across the Middle East and Arab America, the anthropologist author—as a “sexually knowledgeable” female Western duktura—has listened to numerous sinful stories, involving excessive masturbation, premarital and extramarital sex, acquisition of sexually transmitted infections, out-of-wedlock conceptions, and the use of donor sperm. Because IVF ethnography takes place in private clinic settings, and involves discussion of the most intimate realms of male sexuality and reproduction, it becomes a site of confession, a mode of self-examination in which men attempt to reveal themselves. This piece explores the place of IVF ethnography as an ethnographic confessional—a safe space in which Muslim men may admit their past indiscretions for the first time and with cathartic relief. [Keywords: Ethnographic Confessional, Islam, IVF, Muslim men, sex, sin]


Pious Masculinity, Ethical Reflexivity, and Moral Order in an Islamic Piety Movement in Pakistan

Arsalan Khan, Union College

ABSTRACT—This article explores the ritual creation of a distinct form of pious masculinity among Pakistani Tablighis, practitioners of the transnational Islamic piety movement, the Tablighi Jamaat. Pakistani Tablighis practice a ritualized form of face-to-face preaching (dawat) that they claim cultivates the pious virtues that allow them to live ethically with kin, neighbors, and fellow citizens. I argue that dawat entails a reflexive ethical stance on male agency and represents an effort to manage the growing problem of male violence in Pakistani life. I conclude by arguing that constructions of “religious violence” so prevalent in the age of the Global War on Terror are underpinned by liberal–secular assumptions about ritual as an absence of critical thought and hierarchy as intrinsically violent. This liberal–secular framework not only rationalizes secular power, it also elides the ethical work that Tablighis are doing to address the violent afflictions of postcolonial modernity in Pakistan. [Keywords: Islam, piety, gender, masculinity, violence, ritual, ethics, reflexivity, liberalism, secularism]


From Wrestling with Monsters to Wrestling with God: Masculinities, “Spirituality,” and the Group-ization of Religious Life in Northern Costa Rica

William Dawley, University of California, San Diego

ABSTRACT—This piece explores the support group movement’s role in restructuring Latin American religion and contributing to the trans-denominational and trans-secular spread of the “reformation of machismo”—Elizabeth Brusco’s (2010) name for Latin American evangelicalism’s focus on transforming men and masculinity. Using ethnographic data from two years of fieldwork in an urbanizing area of northern Costa Rica and life history interviews with men from three churches and three men’s groups there, this paper argues that a region-wide popular discourse about a “crisis of masculinity/machismo” and a “crisis of the family” has broadened the appeal of efforts to transform men and masculinity—not only among most churches, but especially among a proliferating number of trans-denominational and non-religious men’s groups that are modeled implicitly on all-male Alcoholics Anonymous groups, which are extraordinarily popular throughout Latin America. This essay’s argument borrows from Wuthnow’s analysis of “the restructuring of [North] American religion” under the influence of the support group movement (1988, 1994a, 1994b, 1998), but it also employs an historiographic approach, exploring the origins of this restructuring of Latin American religion in the same “Methodist model” of social organization that has driven evangelical growth throughout the Americas (and men’s conversions especially) during times of social change and male social dislocation (Martin 1990). The conversion histories of two Catholic men are used to illustrate how it is participation in these groups, rather than formal conversion, that transforms many men’s lives, their gender identities, and their relationships with others. Finally, the possible contributions of this research to anthropological studies of religion, ethics, and morality are explored, in particular the role that models of social organization might play in the spread of new ethical practices, discourses, or identity models. [Keywords: Christianity, religion, masculinity, Latin America, Twelve Steps, support groups, social organization, ethos]


Victims of Illicit Desire: Pentecostal Men of God and the Specter
of Sexual Temptation

Brendan Jamal Thornton, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

ABSTRACT—For men in the context of urban poverty in the Dominican Republic, Pentecostal conversion may lead to conditions of gender distress: frustration stemming from the challenges of reconciling the conflicting gender ideals of the church with those of the street. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted with members of a Pentecostal community in the town of Villa Altagracia, I discuss how many young men come to experience the initial trials of conversion as tormenting spiritual assaults on their manhood in the form of alluring succubi. At the same time, male converts adopt newly inspired antagonisms with women familiars whom they blame for their illicit desires. Elsewhere I have discussed the strategies Pentecostal men deploy in order to mediate the conflict between barrio masculinity and evangelical Christianity; here I am concerned with illustrating how this conflict is given personal and cultural expression and how the attending experience of gender distress and its symbolic elaboration shapes masculine identity and male subjectivity in the church and local faith communities. By focusing on male converts and their struggles to remain manly, this article contributes to a richer understanding of gender dynamics in Pentecostal churches and offers useful insight into how gender is variously troubled, performed, and remade through conversion and religious practice more broadly. [Keywords: Spirit Possession, gender distress, conversion, masculinity, succubi, demonization, anthropology of Christianity]