The International Research Network on AIDS and Religion in Africa (IRNARA) organises a conference on “Biographies in Times of Crisis: Exploring Religious Narratives of AIDS in Africa and the African Diaspora” (Groningen, the Netherlands, December 13-15, 2012). At the conference I will present a part of my ongoing research on religion, masculinities and AIDS in Africa. Here’s the title and abstract of my presentation.
Rewriting the Male Self:
Masculinity and Social Vulnerability in the Conversion Narratives of Pentecostal Men in Zambia
The HIV epidemic has revealed the dangerous fragility of masculinity in many men’s attempts to act out the ideal of the ‘real man’. It is becoming increasingly clear that living up to the hegemonic norms of masculinity puts men (and women) at risk for HIV infection. At the same time, precisely because of these hegemonic norms, HIV prevention messages seem to have little effect among men, particularly male youths. But of course, after three decades of HIV and AIDS, men often have their own experiences of suffering, disease, death and social disruption caused by the epidemic. This paper investigates how men, against this background of social and existential vulnerabilities, are rewriting the male self and how religion provides them with the means to do so. The paper’s empirical basis consists of interviews with about fifteen Zambian men who identify as born-again Christians and who are members of a Pentecostal Church in Lusaka. The interviews reveal that becoming born again and living as born-again Christians has an enormous impact, not only on these men’s religious but also on their gender identities. For them, the break with the past advocated by Pentecostalism entails a break with popular forms of masculinity in society, which they associate with drinking, sexual aggressiveness, violence, absence from the family and the oppression of women. Becoming born again means that they adopt a new, ‘biblical’ and ‘Christian’ understanding of manhood, defined in terms of responsibility and self-control. The paper discusses how Pentecostal Christianity and in particular its programme of born-again conversion is a discursive regime through which men can rewrite the male self and are reshaped into a born-again masculinity that overcomes the fragility and vulnerability of popular masculine ideals and that yet make them ‘real men’, even more than before conversion.