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The choice between being a real man, a loving partner and a respected head of the family: a study on masculinity, religiosity and IPV in Zambia

Author: Benjamin Kalkum


Work with religious and traditional actors (RTA) on issues of gender and gender-based violence (GBV) has received heightened attention in recent years, perhaps best signified in a paper published by UN Women entitled: ‘Learning from practice: Engaging faith-based and traditional actors in preventing violence against women and girls’. Nonetheless, most of the interventions described focus on religious and traditional leaders, while research on the impact of religious beliefs, religiosity or religious norms on identified or likely perpetrators is scant. This seriously limits our understanding on the role of religious conscience and its resourcefulness in deterring abusiveness among men.[1]  Thus, it is no surprise that opinions on the role of religion in fostering or mitigating GBV vary widely. Against this background, the Partnership for Religion and Development (PaRD), together with the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI), have made a call in their strategic research agenda on religion and GBV  for more research in this area. This call inspired me to conduct the research for my master’s thesis in Zambia on this topic in 2020/2021. As a white Christian non-Zambian it was challenging territory to venture into, and required my having to constantly exert effort not to allow my own background and assumptions to determine my understanding of what I encountered in my research. Being a Christian myself, which I openly disclosed to my participants, would, I thought, be helpful in fostering an atmosphere of trust and openness in my conversations, as I anticipated that my counterparts may feel that I would better understand them than would non-religious white researchers.

Background: masculinity in Zambia

Zambia is a country with rigid expectations for both genders. The Zambians I spoke with perceived these gender norms to be grounded in the three major belief or normative systems prevalent in the country: the local traditional culture with its multitude of tribal customs; Christianity as the predominant religion (~20% Catholic, ~80% Protestant, with strong Evangelical and Pentecostal movements); and ‘modern culture’, especially in urban areas. The latter is difficult to contour, as modern gender norms are not usually codified into concrete moral norms, but are rather cloaked in stories, images, codes and products that evoke local tradition and culture. Nevertheless, it can be said that in Zambia masculinity is constructed through the interaction of these different normative systems, which have inevitably been shaped by colonialization, Christianization and industrialization (Chitando, 2012; Kaunda et al., 2015). Early ethnological records suggest that pre-colonial gender roles were organized in a more complementary way, drawing on dichotomies such as inside (woman) – outside (man), cold (man) – warm (woman), and hard (man) – soft (woman) (Ewusha, 2012). This worldview of different but fundamentally equal individuals is best illustrated by a Tonga wedding ceremony that uses a hard piece of wood and a soft piece of wood as equally necessary tools with which to create fire through friction (Colson, 2006). This acknowledged balance was disrupted by numerous forces, including colonial officials who accepted only male chiefs, Christian preachers who taught that the man was the spiritual head of the family (while women had traditionally served this role in Zambia) and companies who employed only men while offering courses on being a good housewife to their female spouses (Ferguson, 1999; Gordon, 1996; Hinfelaar, 1994). It would be an over-simplification to attribute all gender inequalities to these three forces, but it is safe to say that the idea that most Zambians have about their tradition today has inevitably been shaped by colonial experience.

What did I do?

In the context of my research, I conducted interviews with 19 married Christian men, mainly Catholics and Pentecostals, and spoke with them about their marriage, gender roles and typical situations of marital conflict, as well as about intimate partner violence (IPV). In addition to the interviews, I also collected the participants’ ratings on the Centrality of Religion Score (CRS), as well as their attitudes towards violence against women. While they almost invariably rejected any idea that there are legitimate forms of IPV, they also scored very highly on the CRS, which could suggest that religion strongly influences their lives.[2] From the interviews, I assigned all normative masculinity statements to one of three ‘role ideals’, each of which represents a different dimension of male identity. These were:

  • Being a real man: the participant’s performance as a real man is primarily evaluated by his male peers and determines the man’s social status in the group. This role ideal comprises many of the norms typical of what has been established as ‘hegemonic masculinity’ – including those that relate to the expected behavior of women.[3] It also contains several elements of traditional masculinity and is often equated with it by the men in this study. The main interests of the real man are to:
    • acquire and defend status symbols
    • perform (sexual) strength
    • demonstrate unchallenged authority
    • defend independence to do whatever one wants.
  • Being a loving partner: this role is in many ways diametrically opposite to the real man. A successful performance is oriented not towards the peers but to the partner. Being a loving partner also comprises four interests, which are to:
    • be oriented towards the well-being of the partner
    • protect the preconditions for lifelong union
    • share power and responsibilities
    • foster equitable and honest communication.

At its core, this ideal aims at a relationship between equals – a fundamental truth which many men considered to be rooted in their religious beliefs. From this perspective, manhood is defined as the ability to live in a successful lifelong partnership and to win and keep the respect and love of the wife. The defining category is not power, but well-being, or even love.[4]

  • Being the respected head of the family: the third role ideal – that of the respected head – is in some respects located between the loving partner and the real man. Its core priorities are to:
    • fulfil a particular responsibility
    • provide respected and benevolent leadership
    • be a role-model for the children
    • make sure that the man and his family enjoy a good reputation.

These priorities partly overlap with those of the real man and the loving husband: for example, ‘head’ and ‘leadership’ with ‘authority’, and ‘benevolence’ with ‘well-being’. However, these concerns are interpreted differently when the primary audience that evaluates the performance of the man in his role is not the partner or the peers, but the extended family and society as a whole. Hence, the goal becomes ‘respectability’.

Which role ideal becomes dominant on each occasion will depend primarily on the situation and, respectively, on the audience. When surrounded by men, men will want to earn their peers’ respect, whereas at home they will rather seek the respect of their wife. The picture becomes more complex when the spheres overlap and the private intersects with the public. This applies also to minor deviance such as doing household chores, which is supposed to be women’s work:

You see them after one week or a month talking that: “We’ve heard that you are now washing plates, washing even the pants of the wife and what what”. … That respect is going out, so that’s the thing. Because, if it’s home it stays in there – then there is no problem.

(John, 59, Catholic)

It is important for the men to be loving husbands – but they also have to consider the judgements of their peers and of the public in general. A man who is yelled at by his wife in public faces internal conflict: she may even be right to be angry with him, but he cannot allow himself to be seen as weak and ‘under petticoat government’. In this situation, violence could be a way of restoring ‘order’ – but also a sign of desperation (Kaufman, 1999). From this perspective, partner violence appears to result from conflicting role ideals and loyalties within the man: do I prioritize being a loving husband or being a real man? Or rather: which relationship do I prioritize in a situation where complying with all expectations seems impossible? As we will see, the ways in which these ideals and loyalties are prioritized can be directly associated with the way men have understood and experienced their religion.

How does religion play in?

After the coding process, I examined when and how the men referred to religious, traditional or ‘modern’/‘libertine’ norms when speaking about a masculinity norm, and whether explicitly or implicitly, positively or negatively. In the image below, I attempt to delineate the strength of the linkages between the role ideals and the normative systems that the men spoke about:

In examining the references made directly or indirectly to their Christian faith, I observed that the men invoked religious ideals when they spoke about norms ascribed to the loving partner, and to a lesser extent when they spoke about norms related to the respected head. It was also interesting to see that they also referred to Christianity when opposing norms ascribed to the real man.

What does this mean? Firstly, the findings suggest that the men who were interviewed did not believe that the norms underlying the real man role ideal could be justified within their Christian faith – on the contrary, they perceived these norms to be pretty much opposed to it, for example in the discussion around physical violence. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, masculinity from a Christian perspective – at least for the men who were interviewed – was most strongly reflected in the norms ascribed to the loving partner. In their understanding, Christianity taught them to be the head of their family – a clearly patriarchal arrangement – but also to see their wife as a beloved partner rather than a subordinate, which meant prioritizing their wives’ well-being over their own, being ready to make sacrifices, communicating openly, admitting mistakes, and being grateful, faithful and forgiving in their marriages. Overall, for these men religion seemed to function almost as a resource for resisting the peer pressure that asked them to comply with hegemonic and more toxic masculinity norms – which they considered to be strongly rooted in their traditional culture. Thus, their religion appeared to enable them to embrace a broader set of masculinity norms that incorporated more gender-equal practices in married life, such as sharing decision-making with wives, and supporting them with care work and doing chores. One might argue that their religiosity compensated for the backlash these men received from their peers as a result of deviating from the traditional norms and practice. Significantly, these phenomena have been taking place in what has been a dominant patriarchal framework – although not all patriarchy is the same. The type of patriarchal ideals that these men drew from their religion has been labeled by some as “palatable” (Nadar, 2009).

The implication here is that among men with a high religiosity, (Christian) religion may in fact challenge more rigidly hegemonic gender norms and support the prioritization of the male role ideal of being a loving partner, empowering some men to resist the peer pressure to comply with more hegemonic forms of masculinity that also foster violence against women. This appears to reinforce previous research results presented in Wilcox (2005), Ellison (2008), Nason-Clark et al. (2018), Adjej (2020), Lynch et al. (2020) and Istratii (2020).


The results of this study illustrate a complex relationship between religion – in this case Catholic and Pentecostal Christianity – and GBV/IPV. Even though certain norms have the potential to challenge and even transform hegemonic masculinity norms, or motivate more gender-equal behavior, the Christian ideals in the men’s interpretations do not appear to support the type of gender equality upheld by  western feminist standards. There is no doubt that all the interviewees saw themselves as the heads of their families. In their eyes, men and women were fundamentally different, but of the same value. The men implicitly presumed a complementary model of gender relations – with a certain patriarchal bias. Through patriarchal interpretations of the idea of male headship and other biblical passages, biblical texts remain open to hegemonic proof-texting. Still, the men in this study interpreted headship in a relatively gender-equitable way, emphasizing the importance of partnership as well as their responsibility for the well-being of the family, which they considered more important than their own. The term “dictator” was used by several interviewees to make clear what headship did not mean to them. In their eyes, a man needs to be ready to sacrifice his own interests and submit to the well-being of his wife and family.

Whether religious ideals are utilized in this way or in a more harmful manner will largely depend on the individual’s intrinsic or extrinsic religiosity,[5] a factor which merits closer research. This finding aligns with the conclusions drawn by Adriaan van Klinken in his extensive research in Zambia (2012, 2013), who found that religion is a double-edged sword in the fight against IPV. Nevertheless, a double-edged sword is still a weapon. Should one not try to use it?

[1] Istratii, R. and Ali, P. (2022) have recently provided a more nuanced analysis.

[2] It is not clear whether this really reflects the high religiosity of the men in my sample or rather reflected my sampling method. While in the beginning I recruited interview partners through parishes, in the second half of the study I tried to diversify my sample, by randomly interviewing taxi drivers, a safari guide and others. Therefore, this apparent homogeneity could also indicate that the methodology, which was developed in the Global North, may not be appropriate to reflect differences in religiosity in this context.

[3] The concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is attributed to R. W. Connell. It was developed as part of her gender order theory, which recognizes multiple masculinities that vary across time, society, culture and individuals. Hegemonic masculinity is defined as a practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of the common male population and women, and other marginalized ways of being a man.

[4] Interestingly, in Zambia – originally among the Bemba – there is a tradition that the wife can honor her husband after several years of marriage (often 10) with a feast, which is called amatebeto: the wife and her family prepare a festive meal for the groom to show their appreciation for his having been a good husband.

[5] The concept of intrinsic religiosity, as originally proposed by Allport and Ross (1967), refers to living one’s religion with sincerity and intentionality. In contrast, the idea of extrinsic religiosity refers to using religion for instrumental purposes, including for the cultivation of social relationships. The basic idea, which has held true until today, is that people are religious or have a religion in very different ways, with varying impact on their values and behavior.


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About the author

Benjamin Kalkum, born in Germany 1985, is researching on religion and gender norms, especially masculinity norms, in the teachings of traditional marriage counsellors in Zambia’s Northwestern Province, where he works on an HIV prevention project.

In his recent study which was conducted as a Master’s Thesis for the University of Aachen, Germany (yet to be published) he interviewed married Christian men about their marriage ideals and gender roles, with a special focus on typical conflict situations which are prone to escalate into violence.