Zeba Iqbal wrote a series of articles concerning the state of gender relations in the Muslim-American community. Although she focused on matrimony for over-30 women, I think she highlights a much larger issue of what expectations are for and from men and women. Zeba asks where all the men have gone. Short answer, it’s a patriarchy, we screwed up, but we are in a position of privilege, so we will tell you it is your fault. You now have the opportunity to change us.
It is difficult to remove male-female interaction from the context of (hetero)sexuality. When we have pubescent boys and girls discovering each other, and themselves, there is a concern that inappropriate relations may emerge. Unfortunately, it seems that the response has generally been to freeze gender relations at the adolescent level and not move beyond that age. This response has the perverse effect of hyper-sexualizing our relations, rather than creating safe environments for men and women to interact.
We are told to treat our peers like brothers and sisters. At the same time, especially amongst immigrant communities, there is a push towards marriage by certain ages. The result is that many youth go from being asexual beings to being sexually aware at the same time the community is saying that sexuality must be controlled in the context of marriage so members of the opposite sex may not interact. This segregation stunts the development of adolescents and creates confusing messages about appropriate gender relations. For example, if I am to view a woman as a sister one day, but a virgin/vamp the next, how can I understand the views of women? or my own ideas of masculinity? God speaks out many times to “believing men and believing women,” so if God can treat us as one community, why can we not do so ourselves? If the Prophetic role-model is meant for us to emulate, did the Prophet (SAS) run from Bibi Khadija (AS) until a matchmaker could do her magic? Or was this relationship built between equals who interacted in an honest an open way?
This division between males and females also produces a skewed demographic. Women who are encouraged to be educated become hyper-successful, because to be a successful woman you need to be far better than a man. Men can be successful by a much lower standard. The result is that, in comparison, men do not actually measure up well to the women in our community. Men feel threatened. Women demand more. Men opt out of the “community.” They “import” eligible females who are less threatening, or “cross borders.” Many of the men left behind wouldn’t make it outside of the community. I may sound like a man basher here, but this is the reality of my observations. I know a number of fantastic women who are well-educated and incredibly successful who intimidate the men they meet by virtue of their accomplishments. They did not sacrifice a personal life for the sake of their careers and they are incredibly warm, genuine people. Men just tremble when they realize what these women do, because they were never held to the same standard of success. Invariably, insecurity emerges and it’s the women’s fault that they are still single.
One of my favorite lines is that a successful woman wants a man to change more than any other woman. It smacks of God delusion, or at least mothers spending too much time praising their little princes. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, the original Robinson Crusoe, lived by himself, and he was changed by the world around him. It’s the definition of life. My friends should never be my equals in anything. We should constantly be challenging each other to be better than we are. Is that not change? Are men so afraid of being emasculated that they are afraid they are the only ones who will change? My wife constantly wants to change me. Guess what? I constantly want to change her. She does not get “Star Wars,” so that only happens on boys nights out, but now, she loves “Lord of the Rings.” I do not leave my jeans on the floor anymore. Really. It’s a relationship. There’s always a give and take. How is this any different than when I go out with the boys and we’ve got to compromise on pizza or burgers? Or when my MBA friends tell me how to stop dressing like an academic and more like a professional?
We need more maturity in how we talk to the opposite gender. Zeba’s has made that point. Do we view all Muslim women as virgins and all non-Muslim women as vamps? If they are our sisters, why do we get shy around them? I’m surrounded by female cousins (no sisters) and I talk to them the same way I talk to my brother and male cousins. I treat unrelated Muslim women of my age the same way I treat my cousins, because they are my sisters. However, there needs to be a deeper cultural shift. When we hit puberty, sex and sexuality should not be this dirty thing that everyone is aware of and no one talks about. It then defines our relationships and we have no idea why. We have extensive hadith on the Prophet’s sexual practices; his wives were not ashamed or afraid of reporting them. Why do we have this taboo that it is something we cannot talk about? Let’s be honest with our adolescents: these are your brothers and sisters in faith. You may now start feeling something other than familial emotions. It’s normal. Let’s talk about the feelings you may have. Let’s talk about how people still deserve the same respect that you always gave them. Let’s talk about how you keep your emotions from overwhelming you; how you develop relationships, and not necessarily romantic ones, now that you have these new feelings. Let’s give these kids a language that does not stunt them as individuals or as a community.
Zeba asks where all the men have gone. Short answer, it’s a patriarchy, we screwed up, but we are in a position of privilege, so we will tell you it is your fault. You now have the opportunity to change us. We have to be real, we cannot exist in an environment where men set the rules of the conversation, the topics of conversation, they ways of the conversation, and then say it is women’s fault when no one is talking.
Photo Credit: Moyan Brenn