In laying the groundwork for productive discussion on dating, it is essential to pay close attention to how we communicate with one another. Four panelists kick start a discussion on the communication divide between Muslim men and women, and how it must change on both the individual and communal level (Anas Coburn’s recent article also takes an in-depth look at this issue). This is the beginning of a complex and multi-faceted conversation that will expand throughout the Dialogues, and so we encourage readers to sustain it by sharing their own perspectives and questions.
In her Altmuslimah article on marriage, Zeba Iqbal writes, “Gender conflict is also an issue. Already due to the general lack of dialogue between the sexes, and the lack of a proper framework for decisions relating to marriage, there is a great deal of ill will and misunderstanding between the genders. Normalizing basic gender relations between Muslim men and women is critical to smoothening the path to marriage and a stronger community overall. The gap in trust and understanding between the genders is further complicated by issues of identity, insecurity, judgment/criticism and social pressure.”
How can we begin to work through these feelings of mistrust and misunderstanding and normalize gender relations between Muslim men and women?
Imam Sohaib Sultan: Need for a New Normal in Gender Relations
Zeba Iqbal’s analysis is on the mark: We have a gender relations problem in our community that is in part due to mistrust between the sexes and compounded by several other factors. But, in our call for “normalizing” gender relations, we have to be very careful in how we define and what we expect normal to actually look like in our community. If by normal we are superimposing upon ourselves the standards put forth by the larger culture we live in, then there’s one major problem, in my opinion: That framework has not worked either in producing healthy gender relationships in society or in marriage.
So, perhaps what we need first is to define for ourselves what normalizing gender relations means and looks like with the aid of Islamic-based principles. I’ll throw out the first principle to get the conversation started: Respect. This principle is based on the prophetic saying: “None of you is a believer until he likes for his sibling [in humanity] what he likes for himself.” Yes, I know respect is an overused and abused word, but it is still essential for imagining our new normal. For me, respect means engaging one another—intellectually, socially, and spiritually—with as much integrity and consideration as we would like ourselves to be afforded. It means creating a culture in which exploitation and sexism are unacceptable; and in which cultivation of kindness and honoring of others become the new normal. In this respect, fostering healthy gender relations is as much a spiritual affair as it is a social project.
Zeba Iqbal: Walk in Each Other’s Shoes
Gaps cause conflict, and the gender gap in our community is no exception. To better understand the depth of the conflict, discuss these articles with a trusted group of men and women, or simply skim the comment sections:
In both cases, the reactions are polarized. Perhaps it is the hot-button nature of the topics, or the perspective of the articles. Regardless, one can see that a (wo)man reader understands and defends a (wo)man’s position much more easily than (s)he understands and defends the opposite gender’s position. This is an understandable, but narrow view on gender.
Expanding intra-gender comfort zones and areas of overlap and trust will require our sincere and conscious efforts to understand the other gender better. This process will be slow, but necessary. Without it, men and women will be sitting on opposite sides of the gender debate for a long time. Bridging this divide will require communicating and sharing our experiences – painful and pleasant – with the opposite gender. Each side needs to feel that their position on an issue has value and that the discussions are inclusive, multi-faceted, and respectful.
To gain any traction on this issue, the first step will be building a deep level mutual trust and respect. How? Well, the best way to understand and value someone is to walk in their shoes, so why not start there? Are men and women willing to switch sides and defend the other side even if (in the beginning) only for the sake of debate?
Little steps like this, together with accepted rules of engagement and large doses of honesty, will help us build bridges across the gender gap.
Michael Vicente Perez: Understanding the “Gender” in Gender Relations
I think that any attempt to address this question requires a thorough examination of how Muslims understand the meaning of gender.
Gender relations are often based on assumptions about the meaning of sex. What Muslims believe a man is plays a fundamental role in determining what his relationship to women will be. If we believe that men are hyper-sexual creatures programmed to seek sex at all costs, then it isn’t hard to see the logic of segregation and, if segregation creates inequalities between men and women, then it also isn’t hard to see why there’s gender conflict. Thus resolving the question of sex and gender –or at least engaging it in an intellectually informed way—becomes essential for establishing more productive gender relations.
Despite some notable exceptions, Muslims haven’t done enough to clarify what we understand about the relationship between sex and gender. Consider that many Muslim men still hold stereotypical and sexist ideas about males that sustain discriminatory practices towards women. It isn’t hard to find an imam or sheikh who will claim that women must be kept away from men or else sexual fitna will occur. Ideas like these inform contemporary Muslim female-male interaction in the United States and have led to a rising tension among young, educated Muslims who haven’t come to a comfortable and more intelligent understanding about what the relationship between gender and sex is and what difference it should make for Muslim gender relations.
If we want to build healthier relations between the “genders,” we should start talking about who and what the genders are.
Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine: Create Opportunities to Practice Communication
I find it remarkable that our young men and women can comfortably interact with the opposite gender in their classrooms and workplace, but when interacting in their local mosques or Islamic organizations they feel stilted in uncomfortable conversations. Segregation between young men and women for so many years makes communication easy with Muslims of the same gender, but awkward with Muslims of the opposite gender. Additionally, families place expectations on youth to preserve their honor and chastity in order to get married, so then mixed interactions are often seen as suspicious rather than as grounds for practicing communication skills.
One way to improve gender relations is to have more opportunities for men and women to work together on projects and initiatives in their mosques and organizations. Through these situations they will learn different styles of communication and how to better share ideas and understand each others’ paradigms. Another way is to have equal representation of men and women on mosque executive boards so that both voices are heard. Women are often placed in charge of the women’s committees or youth groups, or made the token “woman” on boards, but do not have equal footing on the executive boards. When men and women work together on the administrative level in promoting a united vision for the mosque, they will model equity in gender relations and respect for both genders. The notion that men and women can communicate and compromise when making decisions will influence the rest of the community, thereby promoting a change in mindset within our communities and social interactions.
Imam Sohaib N. Sultan is the full-time Muslim Chaplain at Princeton University. He is the author of two books on Islam: The Koran for Dummies (Wiley 2004) and The Qur’an and Sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Skylight Paths 2007).
Zeba Iqbal is the Executive Dircector of CAMP (Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals). She is also the author of Dating Dialogues, published by altmuslimah in June 2009.
Michael Vicente Perez is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Michigan State University. Michael is the former senior editor for Islamica Magazine and is currently teaching at Lansing Community College in Michigan.
Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine is the author of Before the Wedding: 150 Questions for Muslims to Ask Before Getting Married. She received her Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Counseling at California State University, Fullerton and co-hosts an internet radio show, Family Connection, on One Legacy Radio.