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  • New Directions in the Anthropology of Religion and Gender:Faith and Emergent Masculinities
  • William Dawley and Brendan Jamal Thornton

This special collection featured in Anthropological Quarterly considers an underexplored topic in anthropology: the critical relationship between masculinity and religion. Despite the fact that this relationship is, in many parts of the world, a subject frequently commented upon and stereotyped—with popular media often depicting religion as a source of support for gender inequality and for "toxic masculinity"—sustained attention to religion and masculinity by anthropologists is surprisingly new and remains relatively unexplored conceptual terrain. This is likely in part because a specific scholarly interest in masculinity itself is still a relatively recent phenomenon, the result of a series of developments in how gender has been approached in anthropology, from "a neglected set of subjects ('the anthropology of women') and a specific attitude to them ('feminist anthropology'), [to a] recognition of [gender's] ubiquity ('men have gender, too')" (Laidlaw 2014:1–2). In fact, while anthropologists have addressed both religion and gender from a variety of different angles throughout the discipline's history, it might also be said that viewing religion and gender as mutually constitutive analytical categories has never really taken off. [End Page 5]

When anthropologists of religion have explicitly focused on gender, the literature has tended to coalesce around women as a "neglected set of subjects" within many religious communities. Such literature tends to center on questions about women's relative subordination and/or their numerical dominance in a given community, or on the extent to which women in these communities are subordinated to patriarchy or perhaps resisting various forms of domination, and how they are helped or hindered by their faith in the process. Popular examples of this range from Saba Mahmood's acclaimed Politics of Piety (2005) to I.M. Lewis's 1971 classic, Ecstatic Religion. Thus, for years—and for good reasons—scholars interested in gender within both the anthropology and sociology of religion have regularly trained their analytic attention on the popularity of religious institutions for women and have produced a rich and varied literature focused largely on how religious movements (many with an emphasis on evangelicalism) have reimagined sexuality, the family, and women's agency (e.g., Willems 1967; Stacey and Gerard 1990; Cucchiari 1990; Brusco 1995; Smilde 1997; Metcalf 1998; Lorentzen and Mira 2005; Mahmood 2005; Deeb 2006; Martin 2007; Pfeiffer, Gimbel-Sherr, and Joaquim Augusto 2007; Mayblin 2010; Bochow and van Dijk 2012).1

Such studies have done much to correct for male biases in academic scholarship, reconceptualize female agency, and help rethink the dynamic relationship between gender and religion, especially as it pertains to women. Until recently, however, most anthropological studies of religion ignored the question of masculinity per se, overlooking not only how masculinity transforms religion, but also the transformative role of religion for "men as men,"2 despite scholars' broad general agreement that ideas about masculinity and femininity are usually co-constructed, and that, no less than women, "men have gender, too."3

By contrast, the four essays featured here make the question of masculinity and men's gender central to their explorations of religion. They ask how alternative or "emergent" masculinities are being imagined, practiced, felt, and socially organized through Islamic and Christian religious movements and institutions, which often depict these alternative masculinities in an explicit contrast with local, "toxic" masculinities that are portrayed as being un- or anti-Islamic/Christian.4 Marcia Inhorn examines, in some detail in this issue and at various moments in her book The New Arab Man (2012), how many of her male interlocutors from across the Middle East (largely Muslim and mostly Arab men, interviewed in fertility clinics in Lebanon [End Page 6] and Dearborn, Michigan) struggled in their efforts to craft a masculinity recognizable both as properly Islamic and also exemplifying certain contemporary norms of companionate marriage (as devoted, responsive, and affectionate) that are valorized in media and cultural currents in many parts of the world. She finds that men struggled in part because they blamed themselves for the pain that their fertility problems had caused them and their wives (attributing it to their past acts of sexual misconduct, captured...