[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]
The study of masculinity in the Middle East has a recent history. While, since the early 1970s, many studies have focused on women—their practices, bodies, and identities—men as gendered subjects have been relegated to the background. Despite the fact that men have been present in many studies, their gendered identifications were rarely investigated. This tendency has shifted over the past decade, and a growing body of literature is exploring how men are shaped by social norms, economic forces, political processes, and cultural values. Anthropology and history, in particular, have been on the forefront of this research and have been instrumental in the study of how manhood is defined and redefined under different circumstances. Current studies show the changing nature of masculinity and how it is produced by the interplay of multiple economic forces, social values, cultural meanings, and political systems. Such studies have succeeded in problematizing dominant negative representations of Middle Eastern men, who are often depicted as violent and misogynistic, and illustrated the complex forces that shape their daily struggles, dreams, and aspirations. The following selections include key studies of masculinity in the Middle East; however, it does not address the growing body of literature on Islamic masculinities. Although there is an overlap between masculinities in the Middle East and Muslim societies, the two are not to be equated. The following list is organized based on the date of publication to give the reader the chance to see how the interests and issues addressed have changed over time.
Ghoussoub, Mai, and Emma Sinclair-Webb, eds. Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity in the Modern Middle East. London: Saqi Books, 2000.
A pioneering and important collection that draws on ethnographic, historical, and literary analysis to shed light on masculinity in different countries in the Middle East. The papers address a wide range of topics such as circumcision, military service, sexual identification, and the use of violence. The chapter by Julie Peteet on how Palestinian young men define their masculinity under Israeli occupation is a must read. The volume offers several fictional pieces and personal reflections (my favorite is the piece by Hassan Daoud about the meaning of mustaches) that are wonderful to read and add depth to our understanding of the struggle to be men.
Altinay, Ayse. The Myth of the Military-Nation: Militarism, Gender, and Education in Turkey. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
An important ethnographic and historical study of the relationship between the military, nationalism, citizenship, and gender in Turkey. It pays particular attention to military service as a rite of passage that transforms the standing of men and transitions them into full citizenship. Military service enables men to boast about their experiences and bravery while serving as well to facilitate their access to many resources and opportunities (such as employment) that are essential to hegemonic masculinity. The study shows that military service is not only about training men to become soldiers but it is also key to the production of gendered bodies and national subjects.
Amar, Paul. “Middle East Masculinity Studies: Discourses of ‘Men in Crisis,’ Industries of Gender in Revolution.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6, no. 3 (2011): 36-70.
A critical and important look at the discourse of “crisis” and how it is often deployed to racialize, de-historicize, and depoliticize the social forces that structure the life of men in the Middle East. Drawing on post-colonial theories and gender studies, the article offers an alternative way of connecting masculinity to neoliberal policies and regimes of governance that target and regulate certain gendered bodies and subjects.
Jacob, Wilson Chacko. Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
A rich historical analysis of the performativity of effendi masculinity in Egypt under British control. Struggling both against orientalist discourses, which feminized and stigmatized the East, and against the colonial rule itself, which aimed to subordinate and subjugate Egyptians, the bourgeoisie produced a new masculine identification that drew on historical discourses as well as contemporary norms and values. Looking at different practices of self-care, including sports and fashion, the book shows how effendi masculinity was constituted at the intersection between local, national, and global understandings of modernity and modern subjectivity.
Açıksöz, Salih Can. “Sacrificial Limbs of Sovereignty: Disabled Veterans, Masculinity, and Nationalist Politics in Turkey,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 26, no.1 (2012): 4-25.
A timely look at disabled veterans in Turkey and how they are positioned (and position themselves) in the national imagination. Wounded veterans have been redefined by the state to support nationalist projects while these disabled veterans mobilize to constitute themselves as national and gendered subjects who deserve medical service, social support, and political recognition.
Inhorn, Marcia. The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities, Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
An anthropological look at the relationship between infertility, technology, and masculinity. Drawing on interviews with Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian men in the Middle East and the United States, Inhorn shows that men work hard to overcome infertility and deploy the most up-to-date technologies available, in the process subjecting themselves to intrusive and painful procedures. She pays particular attention to highly educated middle-class men, who are able not only to afford expensive technologies but who also have the cultural capital that enables them to redefine the meaning of children, marriage, and coupling. These “emergent masculinities” question the stigma surrounding infertility and challenge the emphasis on children as the focus of a happy marriage and a positive social standing.
Ghannam, Farha. Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt. Stanford University Press, 2013.
A vivid ethnographic study that explores how masculinity is made and remade in a low-income neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt. Drawing on life stories of men of different ages, the book shows how “masculine trajectories” are shaped by multiple actors and forces and materialize the interplay between men and women, the individual and the collective, and the self and other. The book argues for the importance of avoiding the “disembodiment” of men and shows how bodily practices (such as good grooming and working and protecting) are important performative acts that produce proper men in urban Egypt. Unlike the tendency in popular media to equate Middle Eastern men with violence, the book shows that the daily use of violence is socially regulated and defined.
Naguib, Nefissa. Nurturing Masculinities: Men, Food, and Family in Contemporary Egypt. Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015.
An ethnographic study of the relationship between care, domesticity, and masculinity. Looking at food and its centrality in daily life, Naguib coins the phrase “nurturing masculinities” to capture how men in Cairo are not only breadwinners but also caregivers and compassionate agents in the domestic sphere. The book provides a glimpse of the delight that men feel when feeding their children, when eating dishes made by their female relatives, and when helping feed the needy.
Özbay, Cenk. Queering Sexualities in Turkey: Gay Men, Male Prostitutes and the City. I.B. Tauris, 2017.
An exploration of the intersection between gender, class, and sexual identification in Istanbul. The book documents how “rent boys,” young, low-income, heterosexual men, cultivate a slim body and develop bodily styles (such as dancing) to produce “exaggerated masculinity” in an effort to appeal to the middle-class gay men who seek their services. These bodily signs coupled with the insistence of these young men, referred to as “rent boys”, on “playing the top (active) role” in sexual encounters, enable them to see their masculinity as “authentic” and “natural” while viewing gay masculinity as “inauthentic” and “unnatural.”
Balslev, Sivan. Iranian Masculinities: Gender and Sexuality in Late Qajar and Early Pahlavi Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
A historical look at how masculinity shifted during the late 19th and early 20th century in Iran to reflect the broader attempts to constitute a modern nation-state. The emergence a new Western-educated elite generated a different meaning of hegemonic masculinity and introduced a set of important changes into how men dressed, cultivated their bodies, managed their facial hair, regulated their sexuality, and related to their families and communities.
As might be noted from the above selections, most studies tend to focus on certain countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Iran so it is important to expand research and discussion to include how masculinity is imagined and constituted in various countries and across different classes, generations, ethnic, and religious groups. A positive move in this direction is a special issue published in Men and Masculinities 21, no. 3 (2018) and edited by Marcia Inhorn and Isidoros Konstantina. The issue is also worth highlighting for its focus on masculinity during precarious times, particularly its attention to refugee men and how they negotiate different changes and expectations. Recent studies that explore masculinity across classes and sexual identification include Ural, H., F. Beşpinar. “Class and Habitus in the Formation of Gay Identities, Masculinities, and Respectability in Turkey.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 13, no. 2 (2017): 244-264 and Rebucini, Gianfranco. “Hegemonic Masculinities and ‘Sexualities’ Among Men in Morocco.” Cahiers d’Études Africaines 209, no. 1 (2013): 387-415. A creative study (Ekşi, Betül. “Police and Masculinities in Transition in Turkey: From Macho to Reformed to Militarized Policing.” Men and Masculinities 22, no. 3 (2019): 491-515) is valuable for directing our attention to the changing “masculinities of the state” and how the shift to the authoritarian regime in Turkey is shaping the masculinities of the police force. Studies of such processes in other parts of the Middle East would be important and would shed light on how power and gender are interlinked and materialized in various spaces and practices.