I recently spoke with “HijabMan”: a persona, a brand, and a recognizable part of the tapestry that is the Muslim community. He was recently named one of the world’s 500 Most Influential Muslims, in addition to having his designs appear on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. I asked HijabMan about his story and had him reflect on the meaning of manhood for Muslims today.
HijabMan – where did the idea for your brand come from?
Salaam Abbas! First, thanks to AltMuslimah for the interview request!
Well, I can thank Encyclopedia Britannica and my tendency towards geekdom for the original “Men Who Wear Hijab” web site. At 14, I would read my parents’ twenty-some volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica for fun. Eventually, I got to the “T’s” and learned about the men of the Tuareg tribe. They wear veils!
Eventually, I dropped the full title of the web site, kept the name HijabMan, and developed the brand around my identity as HijabMan. Many are surprised that my name doesn’t really have anything to do with hijab, and even more shocked that I don’t believe a head covering is an obligatory part of our religion. The great thing is that it attracts both more traditional folks in addition to those who aren’t so into traditional. I’ll give you a quick example. My shirt, “This Is What A Radical Muslim Feminist Looks Like”, sells equally along the whole spectrum of Muslims from the most conservative to the most liberal. I love it.
How has the Muslim community response been to your merchandise/blog? They seem to try and present a lighter, humanizing side of the Muslim community.
The vast majority of Muslims that I’ve met love my merchandise. They do offend a few older people who don’t necessarily ‘get’ the shirts. Especially the little piglet that wears a t-shirt that says, “Thank You For Not Eating Me.” Aunties tend to stay away from that. Vegetarians and Jewish people love it, so it all works out!
What would you identify as your first gendered Muslim experience, something that made you aware of expectations of you as a Muslim man?
I’ve thought about this question for a few days, and this question made me realize that I am very lucky. I don’t think I came across a situation like that until I was well into my twenties. Let me explain. I grew up in an upper-middle class, White suburb outside of Philadelphia. With very few Muslims around, and a liberal-but-practicing family, I didn’t really have to deal with a Muslim community. At the age of 12, I began to attend the Islamic Society Of Central Jersey’s Sunday school. They put me in the Kindergarten class (yes, at 12) and so again, I didn’t really deal with any strict separation. The mosque itself didn’t have a partition either. I began reading translations of the Qur’an independently at 14, and started developing my own ideas about what it meant, and what the whole point of it was. Despite my parents’ gentle nudges in the direction of medicine, I majored in Psychology, with concentrations both in Middle Eastern Studies and Women’s studies – again, I tried to keep myself at a distance from the Muslims at my university. Eventually, I joined the Muslim Students’ Association of Smith College, an all women’s college. I was the only male member, and everyone was really laid back, and so I didn’t have any issues there either.
It wasn’t until I was engaged to a woman from a fairly conservative Muslim community that I was forced to deal with these issues. I ended that relationship after it was absolutely clear that our expectations of gender roles in marriage were on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Like I mentioned before, I come from a family where we don’t really have strict gender roles. If you asked my parents, they’d tell you that their roles flex for the situation. If my dad isn’t feeling up to it, my mom will mow the lawn. If my mom isn’t feeling like cooking, my dad makes something for himself. They don’t split up their money into “mine” and “yours.” Everything they have is “ours.” So when I kept hearing from my ex-fiance and her family about how the ‘islamic’ way was that her money was her money, and my money was ‘our’ money, it was completely foreign to me. Because everything I know about a partnership is “ours” – no splitting up of finances, of ‘this is my job and this is your job’ strictness. When I was going through this crisis, my parents spoke a lot about their own relationship, and how back in their day, to a certain extent, they didn’t just marry for companionship, they married for practical reasons. Dad didn’t know how to cook much. Now that we are in a place and a time where women and men can both take care of a household and work outside the home, marriage is about companionship. I can clean and cook. I bake excellent cheesecakes. I don’t need a woman to do it for me. I’m self sufficient, and so are many women. Thankfully, I’ve met a woman who shares similar ideals – and loves my cheesecakes. In fact, I’m moving to Malaysia because she got an excellent job offer there.
How do you react to religious/community leaders who prescribe a certain idea of manhood?
I simply ignore them. Everything I read in the Qur’an tells me that there is diversity for a reason. That there isn’t just one way of doing things. I have nothing against people who do things their own way. I do have to speak up when people say that I have to fit a certain mold though. Thankfully, through my web site, I have met a community worldwide who doesn’t buy into that ‘certain idea.’ I take comfort in the fact that most Muslims in North America don’t really attend the mosque. I know it may sound offensive, but I don’t believe most mosques in the U.S. cater to the needs of the American Muslim community.
What challenges do you see in the Muslim community to address patriarchal attitudes?
This is a pretty broad question Abbas, but I think I’ll continue in the same thread as above. I’ve spoken to many men and women that have tried to change their community mosques from the inside. That is, they join committees or groups within the mosque and lobby for changes like taking down partitions between men and women. From what I’ve gathered, it doesn’t really work, especially when in several mosques I’ve attended, women are barred from the executive committee or put in charge of ‘women’s and children’s affairs.’ I think young people need to build their own institutions. I think they need to make their own mosques that cater to the needs of both men and women.
Any final words on how and where spaces can be created for a wider spectrum of behaviors and life-paths for Muslim men?
You and I are already examples of this shift, Abbas. Musa Syeed, an award-winning filmmaker is another example. From the little I know of your family and Musa’s, I think that we all had rock star parents and rock star siblings that encouraged us to search for our God-given talents and then find a way to do what we loved with those talents. I encourage other people to do the same. Discover your God-given talents. Try on various hats just to see which one fits!
Abbas Jaffer is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah