My father grew up in India. He was raised in a conservative family and lived in a patriarchal culture. His sisters and mother lived lives that revolved around the home– raising children, preparing meals and hosting guests. However, more was expected of my father. He was, after all, the eldest son.
While he adopted many of his elders’ traditional views of gender roles, my father was different from the very beginning. He was a thinker. He married an English woman who converted from Catholicism to Islam, and together they created a home was based on what they understood to be normative Islamic values. High among these values was an emphasis on the search for knowledge, both worldly and spiritual and by both men and women.
My father never told me that marriage and homemaking should be my sole goals. He never gave me the impression that he valued my opinion less than those of my brothers. And he always encouraged my education and career goals. Only later did I realize that this attitude was not necessarily the norm.
I watched him live out this gender equality with his children. He and my mother often inverted the expectations of their respective genders. My mother cut the grass and drove on road trips, while my father handled the marriage proposals for me and my brothers and taught us Qur’an.
Looking back, it is obvious where my ideas of masculinity and femininity took root. My understanding of gender came from observing the Islamic values that guided my parents’ marriage and the way in which they raised their children.
One of the most powerful reasons why we shouldn’t limit certain characteristics to men and reserve others for women comes from Allah’s 99 names. Among these names are ones that our culture identifies as masculine qualities—“The Protector,” “The Powerful”—while others carry more feminine connotations— “The Loving,” and “The One Who Heals.” If one of our goals as Muslims is to strive for the 99 characteristics that find their perfection in Allah, then it stands to reason that Allah does not ask one gender to behave in one way and the other in another. It is we who have delineated distinct gender roles and expectations. Allah, on the other hand, asks the same from both men and women—to strive for all of His attributes.
Prophet Muhammad of course was the human being who most closely embodied Allah’s attributes, and when we study the life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), we see that he treated the women in his home and in his community with tremendous love, respect and dignity. He understood that to be a “man” means you do not minimize women, seeing them as threats to your manhood, but rather encourage women and see their successes as a win for everyone.
Atiya Aftab will be presenting at the Muslim Masculinity in an Age of Feminism conference: