Gender in Religious Studies: The Experience of a Student

by Jonas Dyck, University of Heidelberg

When I was offered to write something about my experiences with “gender” in religious studies, I was surprised by my own reaction to this offer. Not surprising was the mix of excited, joyful and nervous emotions I felt when I thought that strangers could read a text of mine. This roller coaster was to be expected. What was surprising was that I also had mixed feelings about the subject itself. In my self-perception I like to deal with gender as a category of analysis, and not for the first time. Both in relation to personal, individual processes, but also integrated into larger theoretical contexts. So why wasn’t I just happy to write about a topic I liked? To answer this question, we need to clarify a few things about gender relations and male privileges.

I will mainly refer to experiences from a seminar in the last semester. This dealt with the intertwining of feminist, eugenic and esoteric discourses at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, especially in Great Britain and the USA. It was attached as a proseminar to the introductory lecture, which must be attended once by all students. This was probably also the reason why there was a roughly balanced gender ratio among the students in a seminar on feminism and gender. (At least as far as the voices, appearance and names of the students are concerned.) Nevertheless, I noticed that the male participants in this course on feminism and gender nevertheless managed to deal with gender as little as possible. In a freely chosen group work, in which two of four topics had a direct reference to gender, six of the eight people read as men registered for the other two topics. But why are so many (cis-) men so reluctant to deal with gender?

One might think that men, too, can gain a lot from dealing with gender. The construction of masculinity, for example, is often linked to ideas of “hardness”, or “strength”, which can make it more difficult for men to seek support in crises. The concealment of psychological or even physical illnesses often leads to worse progressions and worse consequences. It can at least be assumed that one of the reasons for the comparatively high suicide rates among men is that they find it more difficult to seek help. So, masculinity is also toxic for men. In the context of (religious) science, it is clear that gender as a category of analysis helps to question existing notions of the “normal” or “universal”.[1]Those who leave gender as a category out of their research run the risk of including only male perspectives. Why it is not a sign of good research to exclude a considerable part of the relevant perspectives is self-explanatory. Men could also have a vested interest in critically reflecting on existing gender relations. Both for their own good and to gain a broader perspective on their research topic.

However, men not only have a lot to gain, but also a lot to lose as a social group when they critically examine existing, hegemonic gender relations. It would be naïve to claim that (Cis-) men suffer from these conditions in the same way as (Cis-) women, trans- or non-binary persons do, for example. A closer look at the construction of gender(s) reveals that we are not simply dealing with different categories at eye level with different advantages and disadvantages, but with a hierarchy. The “masculine” is set as a norm and defined by what is excluded from this norm. “Masculinity”, for example, is constructed as rational and reasonable by constructing “femininity” as irrational and emotional. The philosopher Judith Butler describes this as a process of rejection.[2]A hegemonic subject is created, which constructs itself by rejecting other identities. The boundaries of these conceivable, possible subjects are by no means static and vary according to place and time. The dominance of patriarchy and gender binarity thus arises from the rejection of femininity and other genders. (Cis-)men benefit from this constellation on a structural level, whether they like it or not.  

However, social scientist Raewyn Connell has rightly pointed out that there is not only one form of masculinity. She divides it into hegemonic,subordinateand complicitmasculinity. Hegemonicmasculinity lays claim to authority over masculinity and embodies the ideal of masculinity at a particular time in a particular place. This does not mean that the majority of men, or even all powerful men, correspond to this ideal. However, it is culturally present and defines an ideal type to which a certain minority also seems to correspond. The counterpart of hegemonic masculinity is subordinatemasculinity. Connell gives examples of discrimination against homosexual men in today’s Western society, but also points out certain groups of heterosexual men who are rejected. What they all have in common is that they are symbolically brought close to the “feminine”.[3]Connell uses several lines to name a series of swear words which are mainly aimed at the “weakness” and “softness” of a man. Ascriptions to the rejected “feminine” thus reappear here in order to reject certain masculinities. The last, and perhaps the most decisive category for us, is that of complicitmasculinity. This includes the majority of men. Those who do not meet the demands of hegemonic masculinity, but who certainly benefit from its domination. Connell describes this in terms of a “patriarchal dividend” that every man gets paid. Even without him doing much for it. Simply for being a man. 

It is important to keep in mind that these are merely functions in a system. Which masculinities take on which role varies according to place and time. Connell also considers marginalisation through other axes of power such as race or class and the resulting different masculinities. Nevertheless, it can be seen that men have a structural interest in stabilising these gender relations and continuing to receive their dividend. However, they do not only do this by actively working for these relations, but also by doing nothing. Most men are silent profiteers and can continue to be so because they have the privilege of not having to deal with masculinity. In contrast to women, trans- or non-binary persons who are constantly confronted with the consequences of these conditions. So it is not enough to do nothing, men must actively participate and critically reflect. Everything else is nothing but stabilising the conditions. As a man in the academic world, this can mean including gender as a category of analysis and thus counteracting the normalisation of “masculinity”. This can start with such small things as choosing a topic for a paper or deciding on which topic to write an essay on – or not.

I was afraid of making myself vulnerable and, as a (cis-) man, writing things that ignored certain perspectives and reproduced violent discourses. This concern is not entirely unjustified, men have written a lot of uncritical nonsense on the topic of gender. This is not a plea for men to take all the stages and publications to simply express themselves somehow on gender. But not writing about it and not dealing with it is not a solution either. The solution should be to deal with the problem, to talk about it with those affected by masculinity (women, trans- and non-binary persons) and also with other men. In religious studies, this can mean including gender as a research interest and considering what marginalised genders had and have to say. I can actively pay attention to the perspective from which my sources speak. Do I learn about “religion”, or certain aspects of a religion primarily from a male perspective? Are there perhaps other, marginalised perspectives? How am I taught the subject, or how do I convey the subject? As something that is talked about for an hour in a course, or as an integral part of an introductory course? There is a need for places where gender is not only negotiated as optional and we are confronted with it. Because it is too easy not to be. 


[1]https://engenderacademia.wordpress.com/2020/05/03/teaching-gender-and-religion/

[2]Butler, J. (2018[1993]). Körper von Gewicht, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

[3]Connell, R. (2015[1995]). Der gemachte Mann: Konstruktion und Krise von Männlichkeiten, Wiesbaden: Springer VS. 

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