EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Innovation and continuity in the anthropology of gender and sexuality (Network for the Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality)

Location T-314
Date and Start Time 01 August, 2014 at 09:00


Anna Fedele (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), CRIA, Lisboa, Portugal) email
Kim Knibbe (Rijks Universiteit Groningen) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This is the inaugural panel of the Network for the Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality. We wish to explore the breadth of the ethnographic research that is being done on this topic and to situate current analyses within the history of anthropological scholarship on gender and sexuality.

Long Abstract

Many developments within Europe and the wider world make it necessary to bring together scholarship on gender and sexuality to facilitate intellectual exchange and comparative work. These developments include long-lasting processes such as the multitude of institutionalized forms of male domination, as well as daily practices of hegemonic masculinity and the use of stereotyped concepts of masculinity, femininity and heteronormativity to legitimize sexist and homophobic practices.

There are also more recent phenomena such as the perceived threat to liberal values concerning gender and sexuality from migrant groups in Europe, the broad discussions on gay marriage in many countries, but also the ways in which feminist agendas are (ab)used to legitimize neo-colonial and military interventions, and the rise of 'sexual nationalism' in Africa and Europe.

We therefore invite ethnographically grounded papers that develop the anthropology of gender and sexuality as it has evolved over the past decades or explore new ways of addressing gender and sexuality. We particularly welcome papers that situate themselves explicitly within the history of the anthropological study of gender and sexuality. We look forward to a stimulating first session that will be the foundation for many more sessions to come, to develop and expand an international sharing of research on gender and sexuality.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


'Be graceful, patient, ever prayerful': negotiating femininity, respect and the religious self in a Nigerian beauty pageant

Author: Juliet Gilbert (University of Birmingham)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how a Nigerian pageant, grounded in Pentecostal fervour, moulds emic conceptions of beauty and is used by young women as a ‘platform’ for success. Focusing on the emergence of new feminine subjectivities, the discussion highlights agency, resistance and the religious self.

Long Abstract

Beauty pageants in Nigeria have become highly popular spectacles, the crowned winners venerated for their beauty, success and ability to better society through charity. This paper focuses on the Carnival Calabar Queen pageant, highlighting how pageants, at the nexus of gender and the nation (cf. Cohen et al. 1996), are sites of social reproduction by creating feminine ideals. A divinely inspired initiative of a fervently Pentecostal First Lady, the pageant crowns an ambassador for young women's rights. Where the queen must have 'grace and beauty' and be 'ever prayerful', the discussion unravels emic conceptions of feminine beauty, religiosity and respectability. Yet, young women also use pageantry as a 'platform' for success, hoping to challenge the double bind of gender and generation they experience in the postcolony. The discussion pays particular attention to how young women, trying to overcome the insecurities of (urban) Nigerian life, make choices to negotiate individualism with community, and piety with patriarchy.

Ethnographically, this paper draws on the longue durée, situating beauty pageants in the region's past and present practices that mould feminine subjectivities. Contributing young women's experiences to recent literature on the temporalities of African youth (Honwana 2012), the paper's explicit focus on how new subjectivities form through action illuminates important themes regarding agency, resistance and notions of the religious self (cf. Mahmood 2005). In doing so, it furthers current analyses of Pentecostalism, seeking a more nuanced understanding of gender reconfiguration (cf. Mate 2002) and demonstrating how religious subjects can be formed outside of church institutions.

Women's hidden economies of exchange in two patriarchal cultures

Author: Laura Stark (University of Jyväskylä)  email

Short Abstract

Economic systems which seem to subordinate women can actually involve secret economic transactions which may go against public morality but allow women to fulfill contradictory social expectations. Cases discussed are: low-income areas of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and 19th-century rural Finland.

Long Abstract

This paper applies James C. Scott's concepts of 'hidden' versus 'public transcripts' to gender relations in two cultures: 19th-century rural Finland, and present-day low-income, predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For 19th-century Finland, I examine ethnographic archival data on the practice known as 'home thievery', in which farm mistresses secretly sold goods from the farm behind the farm master's back in order to buy clothing with which to display their superior status, and to pay 'gossip-women' to gather and disseminate information on their behalf. In Dar es Salaam, I have employed ethnographic methods to study transactional sex among poor Muslim youth, in which young women receive money and material goods in exchange for sex with men who have better access to work and wages. This practice, while ensuring that women are dependent upon men as providers, also ensures that they can resist parental authority and be self-sufficient and therefore respectable vis-à-vis other women in their neighborhood.

I argue that gendered arrangements which appear to subordinate women can involve hidden economic transactions which go against public concepts of morality but which allow women to fulfill the contradictory social expectations laid upon them. I use these two cases to also argue for a more nuanced picture of female social agency in patriarchal cultures as composed of (1) economic dependence on men and (2) resistance to the public transcript of patriarchy through subversive practices, as well as (3) the attainment of autonomy and status vis-à-vis other women through these practices.

Feminine aspirations: initiation rites in contemporary Malawi

Author: Jessica Johnson (University of Birmingham)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on contemporary female initiation rites in rural Malawi. I examine the novel ways in which messages about HIV and human rights are incorporated into the rites, reflecting shifting aspirations for femininity and women’s sexuality and confirming the rites’ enduring importance.

Long Abstract

Taking inspiration from Audrey Richards' classic study 'Chisungu', this paper focuses on contemporary female initiation rites in rural Malawi. It is based on twenty months of ethnographic research, and forms part of a broader study of gender justice. I examine the innovative ways in which messages about HIV and human rights have been incorporated into initiation rites, reflecting shifting aspirations for adult femininity and women's sexuality, without undermining the continuing significance of the rites for female sociality and social reproduction. Initiation ceremonies are explored as an important venue for women's maintenance and re-negotiation of a moral community, and thus for the shaping of expectations for gender roles and sexual and marital relationships.

The paper illustrates the reflexivity with which Malawian villagers contemplate their customary practices in the light of changing circumstances. It also alerts us to the relevance of changing aspirations for young girls' futures, as well as the strength of feeling of the majority of villagers who hold not only that initiation remains essential preparation for adult life, but also that the social importance of female initiation extends beyond the serious business of passing on traditions (miyambo) to their daughters and matrilineal heirs. My argument demonstrates that the association of women with 'tradition' is by no means a necessary corollary to their marginalisation or subordination, and nor should we assume that it is always somehow antithetical to women's rights.

Becoming a real man: evangelical discourses on masculinity

Author: Kim Knibbe (Rijks Universiteit Groningen)  email

Short Abstract

This paper maps discourses on masculinity in Dutch evangelicalism, the ways these problematize masculinity in present day society, and the strategies to remedy this situation. Co-authored with Marten van der Meulen, Miranda Klaver, Johan Roeland, Hijme Stoffels and Peter Versteeg.

Long Abstract

Dutch evangelicalism has always been male dominated, and has always known various forms of male brotherhoods. However, the past years 'the problem with men' has come to be defined in a particular way, and a whole genre of books has emerged defining and explaining this problem and proposing solutions. Surprisingly, the sources and legitimizations for the essentializing gender ideologies and hierarchies proposed in this literature derives less form biblical sources, but rather leans on popularized forms of evolutionary theory and biology, as well as popular culture in general such as movies and music. Furthermore, a new kind (new for evangelical circles) of mens movement has emerged that focuses more on the body and on physical endurance as a test for manhood.

This paper will describe these developments and contextualize them in relation to similar developments in other parts of the world but also in relation to the so called mytho-poetical movement, of which the book Iron John by Robert Bly is an important exponent.

Female empowerment through spiritual motherhood? Exploring the intersections of contemporary spirituality and alternative mothering movements

Author: Anna Fedele (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), CRIA, Lisboa, Portugal)  email

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on the intersections between contemporary spirituality and alternative mothering movements. Particular attention will be paid to the way in which spiritual feminist conceptualizations of motherhood as empowering are opposed to those of other feminist authors and groups.

Long Abstract

This is an exploratory paper based on ongoing research on the religious dimension of alternative mothering movements. I use the term "alternative mothering movements" (AMM) as an umbrella to describe different social groups and movements that advocate contested practices such as homebirth, full-term breastfeeding (typically a period of several years) and attachment parenting. I will refer to fieldwork in Spain carried out among members of the Goddess movement as well as on ongoing research in Portugal and in the Swiss Leman area. These mothers (and some fathers) insist that birthing and breastfeeding are not only physiological processes but also religious and spiritual occasions. The theories and practices they use to justify their choices, make sense of their rituals and sustain their communities are influential to and at the same time influenced by contemporary spirituality. Scholars focusing on the religious dimension of motherhood in the United States (e.g. Klassen 2001; Ward 2000) have analyzed the way in which scientific concepts and religious metaphors and symbols are woven together to advocate homebirth or long-term breastfeeding as a choice that is natural, healthier and empowering for both mother and child. What interests me is the way in which these mothers often describe themselves as feminist activists or as part of a spiritual feminist movement and oppose other feminist authors (e.g. Badinter 2010) or groups that consider intensive mothering as primitive and disempowering for mothers.

Erotic practices: using BDSM ritual to (re)inscribe gender

Author: Misty Luminais (Case Western Reserve University)  email

Short Abstract

Using erotic rituals to disrupt binary attributes usually ascribed as masculine or feminine, BDSM practitioners both resist and reify gender norms. Corporeal experiences (re)inscribe gendered ways of being onto postmodern bodies but practitioners cannot escape from preexisting social locations.

Long Abstract

The traits of "dominance" and "submissiveness" are glossed as masculine and feminine, respectively, in the mainstream culture of the United States. Taking to heart Judith Butler's notion of gender as performance, practitioners of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline Dominance/Submission Sadomasochism) in the southern United States engage with gender identity as plastic and attempt to unmoor these attributes from physical bodies. Using erotic ritual practices that often draw implicitly from anthropological theories, such as Victor Turner's concepts of liminality and communitas, group members have created a space to contest the lockstep association of dominance with masculinity and submissiveness with femininity.

Although the emic understanding is that these traits are entirely separate from one's gender, which in turn is separate from one's body, in practice the embodiment of these characteristics affects one's perceived gender over time in predictable ways in the larger heterosexual/pansexual group. The existence of a smaller group composed entirely of self-identified "women who play with women" serves as a foil against which to test the hypothesis that dominance and submission may be unlinked from the physical anatomy of a particular person but still strongly associated with a gendered identity.

By relying on erotic rituals to reinforce novel constellations of dominant/submissive-masculine/feminine, BDSM practitioners tap into anthropological theories developed in cross-cultural settings which have permeated mainstream American consciousness about the malleability of gender, the utility of ritual, and the role of sex in creating and maintaining social identities.

Young Muslim women in kickboxing in The Netherlands: choosing ladies-only

Author: Jasmijn Rana (Freie Universitaet Berlin)  email

Short Abstract

This paper on female kickboxing practices in the Netherlands explores how ideas of masculinity and femininity are contested and reproduced in sports and how the choices of participating in sports are conditioned and situated on personal and political levels.

Long Abstract

In the large cities of the Netherlands, young women are increasingly active in Ladies-Only kickboxing. Ladies-Only training contests the perceived masculine practice of Thai-/kickboxing by challenging the aggressive, competitive, and painful characteristics of the sport. The participation of girls and women in the sport is often motivated as a form of 'empowerment' both by the gyms and local governments, incited by national policies. The wider public tends to hold negative views of kickboxing as an excessively aggressive sport. Yet in the case of women, kickboxing is perceived as emancipatory enskillment and a form of self-defense. This paper will explore how the choices of participating in sports are conditioned and situated in personal and political levels (Abu-Lughod 2013, Butler 2011). My research on female kickboxing practices in the Netherlands explores how ideas of masculinity and femininity are contested and reproduced in sports. How are ideas of what is healthy, beautiful, and feminine influenced by extant structures? And how does the potentially empowering and emancipating ideal of young Muslim women participating in kickboxing, and sports in general, square with the heteronormative foundation of their actual involvement in sports? While taking my own body as the main tool of investigation in participant observation, I will analyze the changes in the practice of kickboxing (via gender segregated spaces, feminizing movements and discourse, and slacking) and in notions of self.

Packaging a glamorous femininity and enacting classed desire: an account of women dating again in their fifties in the UK

Author: Sarah Milton (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the intersections of ageing, femininities and heterosexualities in a UK salsa scene. I discuss the packaging and selling of a classed, glamorous and age appropriate femininity, that within a gendered, youth-orientated hierarchy acts as disruptive capital.

Long Abstract

This paper is based upon the intersections of ageing, femininities and heterosexualities in the UK. It is based upon ethnographic research surrounding women that revisit dating in their fifties after biographical disruption, using salsa classes as a 'way in' to the field. I wish to explore the negotiations involved in the (re)production of selves as attractive and desirable.

Changes in the lifecourse were embodied through different ways of dressing, associated with different relationships to their femininities. At a time of biographical change and whilst at this particular age, adopting a glamorous image negotiated some of the negative associations they held surrounding ageing. Salsa teachers (seen as 'gender experts') packaged and sold a particular kind of femininity. In both the embodiment of glamour and the business of meeting desirable men, space was made to ensure femininity was done in acceptable, classed and 'age appropriate' ways.

In a culturally and historically contingent way of doing gender within a youth-orientated culture, embodying certain aspects of valuable femininity helped to recover, or reinstate hierarchical positions that ageing disrupts. Glamour offered a route to a more assertive and powerful form of gendered identity; 'a performance of femininity with strength' (Skeggs, 1997: 111). In this sense, this type of heterosexual femininity is embodied, but it is also a learned competency and thus may also operate as a form of capital. Beauty capital (Edmunds 2007), or glamour capital, both encodes social hierarchies and threatens to upset them.

The daughters of democracy reclaiming motherhood

Author: Karin Ekstrom (University of Gothenburg)  email

Short Abstract

This paper dicusses how women in contemporary, urban Spain engage in cultural negotiations to make sense of and cope with an identity as working mothers, without either role models (their mothers were the rebelling housewives), nor state or partners´ support.

Long Abstract

Since Spain´s transition to parliamentary democracy, in less than a generation´s time, Spanish women have gone from being highly valued full time housewives to sharing their time between insecure part time wage work and part time housewifery, with which noone seems content. Official (social democratic) feminist politics had at its core women´s entry into paid labour, whereas material conditions for conciliating wage work with motherhood were never a prioritized area. Nevertheless, women (still) want to become mothers, and motherhood remains a powerful symbol, albeit contested, due to its link to the former dictatorial regime. These contradictions leave women in a limbo like situation, in which they constantly negotiate their gendered selves, expressing insecurities, incapabilities and stress, not least in their position as mothers. In this paper, I situate my ethnographic material (from field work conducted 2005-7) within the debates on power, central to feminist anthropology since its inception. I follow those who have identified cultural negotiations as a concept vital to identifying power, in its allowing for a transgression of the contradiction between the liberating potential of postmodernist analyses and the need for materialist-political analyses. Feminist ethnography thus needs to identify fora for these negotiations, and analyse how gendered selves are produced, negotiated, changed, reproduced in these arenas. By employing this approach, I have aimed to escape the notions of backlash or reaction, to reach an understanding of how "the daughters of democracy" construct their liberation in the area of tension between discursive equality and material and practical inequality.

Gender, sexuality and "post socialism": a critical analysis of the projects

Author: Monika Baer (University of Wroclaw)  email

Short Abstract

The paper dwells critically on gender and sexuality research I ran in the late 1990s and the early 2000s in “postsocialist” Poland, while located at the intersections of anthropology and feminist/queer studies, and offers a rethought approach toward issues under consideration.

Long Abstract

Considering that anthropology of gender/sexuality has been historically evolving at the intersections of both anthropological and feminist/queer scholarship, its developments can be approached as the attempts at negotiating diverse disciplinary requirements. In the proposed paper I use that assumption as a prism to scrutinize my two ethnographically grounded research projects based in urban environment of "postsocialist" Poland. The first one took place in the second half of the 1990s and dealt with classed and gendered dynamics of a professionally active women club. The other was conducted in the first half of the 2000s and focused on the question of sexualized citizenship within university spaces and beyond. At that time my scholarly positioning was shaped by a vision of anthropology as a social/cultural critique rooted in an ethnographic detail and by three basic locations: of an anthropologist within activist circles; of a feminist/queer activist within a particular context of "postsocialist" anthropology; and of a "native" anthropologist within "anthropology of postsocialism". A specific anthropological perspective on gender/sexuality that emergred at that junction brought numerous critical insights into all three analytical/political praxises, but resulted also in its own blind spots. Seeking tools to design my current approach toward both gender/sexuality and anthropology, which tries to avoid former deficiencies, I turn to such projects as the "anthropology of the contemporary" by Paul Rabinow, "para-ethnography" by George E. Marcus and "ethnography in late industrialism" by Kim Fortun.

Gender hysteria: the dangers of the emigration of the family and the immigration of homosexuality in post-Soviet Armenia

Author: Tamar Shirinian (Duke University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will examine the conflation of the term "gender" with homosexuality in the aftermath of the National-Assembly's passing of the Gender Equality Law.

Long Abstract

With the passing of the Gender Equality Law in Armenia in May, 2013 came what one journalist referred to as "gender hysteria," a moment where public outcry over the term "gender" opened up anxieties about homosexuality. Gender, a word used in its English form, was previously only used in Armenia by psychologists, sociologists, social workers, and activists. In the summer of 2013, however, it became the mark of perversion and sexual travesty by the "public," a mix of nationalist activists, journalists, bloggers, political parties and organizations. The term became synonymous with other derogatory terms for homosexuals. It became circulated as a verb, noun, adjective and incited a panic over a future in which children would not know their mother from their father - a sexless ("sex" as in male and female, not as practice) and familyless society. This paper is interested in the tension that arose after the passing of this law, which only promised "equality," and around the term "gender" in the context of post-Soviet Armenia: a site of mass emigration, a low fertility rate and a uniting memory of genocide, all leading to uncertainties around population loss and the possibilities of the disappearance of the family. Rumors about the law having "hidden" and "secret" agendas about homosexual propaganda circulated, condensing conspiracy theory into effective and usable knowledge. This paper aims to contribute to an understanding of anxieties around futurity and its link to social and biological reproduction and highlights the importance of gender/sexuality to any state/nation/society building project.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.