Muslim, man, HijabMan: An interview

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

11 Comments

  • OmarG says:

    >>ex-fiance and her family about how the ‘islamic’ way was that her money was her money, and my money was ‘our’ money,

    Yeah, that’s the biggest crock I’ve heard and merely reduces the man into slavery to women. The proper retort to that and to the canard about the Sunnah doesn’t require women to work, is to change your phone number and run.

    That and so many other assertions just highlight how conservative people live in such a la-la land divorced from the reality of real family situations. Kudos to HM’s parents for stepping up to the plate and doing what needs to be done instead of passing the buck onto gender roles.

  • HijabMan says:

    OmarG:  crock or not, it is the “islamic” way for many Muslims—and that just adds to the difficulty for young people to find spouses.  You need to figure out where they are on the spectrum, and I’m not talking just general spectrum here. What confused me most was the mix and match game- some very liberal aspects, some very conservative aspects.  Sure, we all do it to some extent, but when I was dealing with it?  It confused me to no end.  So then you have people who say “this is islamic!”  “this is islamic!”  but then go eat not-so-halal fast food.  I’m not saying this to judge, I’m just saying, it is pretty darn confusing.  And to some extent, I’m grateful I did come face-to-face with that reality—because it forced me to actually DEFINE my approach to islam.  (See http://www.hijabman.com , within the last 3 posts)

    Rabea:  Maybe Abbass and I need to have another interview, hahaha.

    A couple of things, my older sister’s influence was key.  She was giving me reading materials on ridiculousness of zina laws in Pakistan as a teenager. I was also reading Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Farid Esack, Amina Wadud, Asghar Ali Engineer, yada yada yada, starting from when I was 15 and being part of the Progressive Muslim Listserv.  I went to my first progressive Muslim conference at 16… so my experience with Muslims from a very young age—- progressivey Muslim scholars.

    As far as non-Muslims, my experiences in public school most definitely allowed me, quite clearly to decide what kind of man I wanted to be.  I’ll just give you three quick examples.  1. Age 11.  I ask a football player, in homeroom class if he’s doing okay, he’s clutching his arm and wincing.  Within 3 minutes, he has his hand against my throat, bending me backwards against a desk. In his face, all anger.  Severe anger management issues.  Not what I want to be like.

    2.  Sexually harassed in the gym locker room, Age 16.  Explanation here:  http://hijabman.com/journal/i-didnt-want-to-call-it-sexual-harassment
    Definitely, not what I want to be like.

    3.  Working for mediaed.org at the age of 18.  I interned for the Media Education Foundation. Where we worked on videos like Killing Us Softly, or Dreamworlds, which dealt with images of women in advertising or images of women in music videos on MTV, respectively.  Or, wrestling with manhood, and tough guise… about the construction of masculinity.  So there you go, here I am at 18 developing my identity, and I am constantly being reminded that a. images of women in the media—aren’t really women, just airbrushed, infantilized, and put in an animal print, and b. the way masculinity is sold and packaged really messes with boys heads.

    If i was you, I’d sit your 17-18 year old down and watch stuff like this. It was so helpful. http://www.mediaed.org/cgi-bin/commerce.cgi?search=action&keywords=gender&template=PDGCommTemplates/HTN/SearchResult_Gender.html

    4. Just for good measure. Taking “muslim” classes in an academic setting.  My first women’s studies class in college was “Historical Construction Of Sexuality In The Middle East.”  Again, I was introduced to medieval islamic texts on sexuality, and discussing Islam in an academic setting.  Definitely helped shaped my worldview.

    Hope this answers your questions in some way or another.  Maybe I’ll write up a piece.  Asma can you hear me? 🙂

  • I found it really interesting that HijabMan believes it is because he didn’t grow up around a lot of Muslims and didn’t interact with the Muslims at his university that he had the good fortune of not encountering “Muslim gender” until his twenties.  I wonder what this means for those of us who have grown up in gendered Muslim spaces – how “objective” can we really be if, whether we like it or not, we have probably internalized the gender dynamics of our community and relate back to them either as an ideal to aspire to or a norm to rebel against?  Also, I’d like to hear HijabMan’s thoughts on the gendered experiences that he surely had outside the Muslim community while growing up.  How much does he believe his experiences operating in society as a man have affected his understanding of gender as well?

  • asmauddin says:

    I can hear you. 😀 ..and will hold you to a deadline.

  • ghina says:

    “>>ex-fiance and her family about how the ???islamic??? way was that her money was her money, and my money was ???our??? money,

    Yeah, that???s the biggest crock I???ve heard and merely reduces the man into slavery to women. The proper retort to that and to the canard about the Sunnah doesn???t require women to work, is to change your phone number and run.”

    Her money separate from family money exists for a reason.  So that women have means of sustenance if they are divorced or widowed, or if the man simply wastes the family money.  Men are to provide, while women produce and cohere the family traditionally this is biological.  Women are at a distinct economic disadvantage in traditional cultures.  Which is why Islam was revolutionary in providing for them… in dowry and inheritance.  Remember they get less in inheritance because of the greater responsibility of males.  But those males are not always able to provide.

    In modern society this imbalance lessens but it is still there and still to be seen in dire situations.  The societal dynamics as a result of biology cannot be denied.

  • OmarG says:

    I don’t really accept the biological argument for gender roles. There is way too much sociological evidence that people can and do structure their gender roles in a wide variety of ways appropriate to their circumstances. This is why Allah gave us lots of brain tissue: to adapt and overcome.

    I think its a grand mistake to fossilize 7th century gender norms which are alien to my society and then tell us God requires us to conform to manufactured norms borrowed by nascent Islamists a century ago from women-hating Western traditionalists.

    Anyway, such ideas may have been revolutionary in the clime of 7th century Arabia, but we don’t live there nor live then. Its a different world with different standards and we need to accomodate that by returning Islam to the same flexibility that allowed a Prophet of God to be supported by Khadijah, be guided by his wives political advices and still be a man amongst men.

    Let every family negotiate their own gender norms and let no one tell them what to do and therefore spread misery by ignoring the unique social reality present in each and every family. There is no one-size fits all solution to gender roles, especially not from God.

  • ghina says:

    I do agree with you about being flexible, but there is way too much lack of acknowledgement of biology in the modern world as there is way too much structure around it in the premodern world. 

    Independence works for small units but not necessarily societies…well that’ a broad generalization but there’s only so much of a conversation one can have in a comments box.

  • Thanks for the thorough response! I think another piece is appropriate. I look forward to reading it:)!

  • Saadia says:

    This is an interesting interview, but I don’t know that it applies to everyone. It seems hijabman has grown up in a non-traditional environment.

    I’m not sure that every part of the interview reflects everyone’s experiences. A lot of parents have expectations of job security for their children so they encourage some fields more than others, which doesn’t always turn out wrong either.

  • asmauddin says:

    This altmuslimah blog entry is relevant to this interview/discussion:

    http://www.altmuslimah.com/a/b/r/3471/

  • Saadia says:

    I also didn’t grow up with strict gender roles, so its good that is a point was FINALLY affirmed – months later – yeah I’m not a man! Well, not in an anatomical sense. In terms of my mother and I working hard through difficult times, of course you become stronger because of it.

    Plus, the previous article that Asma referred to says that men look for women for non-violence. What type of violence is being alluded to? Is it supposedly coming out in the Berber songs of North Africa, the ones so popular in France? Anyone who listens to Cheb Khaled’s songs knows they aren’t about violence.

    Let’s fix another misconception. In terms of adrogyny, I hear both men and women raise their voices and both men and women have been less than nice online. Both men and women have proved themselves to be competitive. In other countries, women may have the luxury of being more feminine, like in Lahore. This cultural difference may explain both the highly noted and much discussed “hyperfeminine” attributes, distinct for this culture, and also the fact that we, like people all over the world, sometimes raise our voices – sometimes in the privacy of our own home.

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