Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2019
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Asian Studies
Routine Labor and the Remaking of Religion in an Urban Buddhist Nunnery in Myanmar

This project treats the discourse and practice of Buddhist women's work as a vital but overlooked domain of knowledge production in which Buddhist ideals, identities, and institutions are forged and contested. Through a historical and ethnographic study of a mission-oriented Buddhist nunnery in cosmopolitan Yangon, Myanmar, I explore emergent discourses that link daily chores and missionary training to both the maintenance and innovation of Buddhist devotional and institutional life. The anthropology of religion in general and Buddhist studies in particular tend to ignore the routine labor involved in the establishment and maintenance of religious institutions. In contrast, by joining ethnographic attention to daily chores in a Buddhist nunnery with textual analysis of twentieth-century sermons and biographies written by and about Buddhist nuns, I expand the range of persons, practices, and texts thought to inspire and authorize changes in a religious landscape. Observing how nuns' training for and participation in missionary projects throughout Myanmar aligns with both the hegemonic acculturation projects of the Myanmar state and the diverse aspirations of their immediate communities, I build on and contribute to studies of interpersonal relationships as sites of debate and negotiation of identity and belonging. This contribution in turn provides an updated historical and ethnographic portrait of Buddhist institutions as spaces of encounter for the ongoing redefinition of religion, with implications for feminist anthropology and the anthropology of religion more broadly. Instead of reading links between women's work and Buddhist devotion as evidence of resistance to or subversion of a conservative religious ideology that privileges men over women and monastics over lay people, I demonstrate how the discourse and practice of female reproductive labor imagine new modes of inclusion and exclusion in Myanmar's religious landscape.