When I accepted Islam almost two decades ago, I accepted more than five pillars. I also embraced the possibility of a manhood informed by Islamic ideals. The project of becoming a Muslim was therefore inseparable from the project of becoming a particular kind of man. This was no easy task: much of what I learned about being a Muslim man contradicted the man I was. Friendship, marriage, and family were all redefined by the model of a pure Islamic manhood.
Initially, my masculine revolution wasn’t that hard. I was inspired by the new limits placed on what felt like an unlimited experience of masculinity. Dating was prohibited. The pursuit of sexual pleasure had to be subordinated to the context of marriage. Parenthood was the fulfillment of a divine imperative and fatherhood, in particular, was a station of high Islamic honor. Being a man was empowering and seemed to provide the bases for a simple structure for organizing the social world.
Inevitably, my inspiration dwindled. Despite the power of my new masculine ideals, it was clear that the model of Muslim manhood I was learning was fiercely patriarchal. Being a man was about being the head of the family, the breadwinner, a leader. Why? Because I was a man: a naturally rational and assertive creature whose position was assigned by God as the caretaker of women and the community. I also learned that manhood was about control, authority, and power. Women’s bodies were a temptation to men that required public closure. “Our” natures were distinct from that of women. We were equals in “spiritual” terms but distinct in every other. Men belonged in the public, women in the home.
My disappointment with these masculine ideals concerned their implications for a social world that had all of the ingredients of inequality and injustice. At the time, I was a student of philosophy and anthropology. My educational aspirations were no doubt informed by the Islamic emphasis placed on learning. Indeed, the Muslims at my mosque put the acquisition of knowledge above all things. A Muslim was an educated individual. But that very imperative to learn brought me to the limits of what I had learned so far. The social sciences and feminist theory in particular demonstrated, empirically, how gender inequalities reflected idealizations of masculine and feminine natures not unlike those extolled in my community. It also offered a powerful framework for looking at how the various manifestations of difference translated into manifestations of oppression. And this wasn’t simply a matter for “the West:” feminists across the world, Muslims included, took on the task of identifying and challenging their own localized forms of gender inequality.
Faced with seemingly irreconcilable visions of gender, one divine, the other social, I did what any Muslim would do gifted with the capacity to think critically: I studied. And as I studied, I discovered the value of feminist work for deepening my own understanding of what it means to be a Muslim heterosexual man.
Contrary to the dismissive (and often ignorant) attitude of Muslims towards feminism as a “Western” movement against Islam, I learned that feminism and gender studies had a lot to offer. Invested in a more equitable experience for all members of society, I found feminists’ ideals compatible with those of Islam. The home, for example, didn’t have to reflect a gendered hierarchy of male authority and female compliance. Instead, feminists suggested the possibility of a mutually dignifying context in which cooperation, not nature, could define a man’s role. Being a man, in other words, required a responsibility not towards an illusory masculine essence; rather, it required responsibility towards the desires, capacities, and rights of other men and women in my social world. Manhood was not mine alone. It was the shared project of an entire community.
Unfortunately, many Muslims see feminism and gender studies in the “West” as a bad thing. This, of course, is not entirely Muslims fault. Many liberal feminists have aggressively and ignorantly condemned Islamic beliefs and practices as inherently oppressive. Privileging their own visions of gender, Muslim women and men have been degraded as backward or uncivilized people constrained by an irrational ideology. But this trend barely captures the universe of feminist theory or politics. Feminists do not subscribe to a single set of ideas and writers like bell hooks have pushed forth internal critiques of feminism that bring race and class into the picture. These perspectives have not dismissed feminism. Rather, they’ve deepened it.
Feminists, like Muslims, are not a monolith. To say otherwise is not only incorrect but a deception. Put simply, feminism matters and it matters as much to Muslims as to anyone else.
This is not, as some Muslims would have us believe, an “external” epistemology grounded in “Western” ideals. Such simplistic and absurd reductionism is nothing more than a sign of ignorance and fear. Muslims who dismiss feminism either don’t know what their talking about or understand the threat it presents to their vision of an authentic patriarchal world. We, as Muslims, would do well to see that feminism has something to offer. And with the spirit of Islam in our hearts, we should be open to seeing that Islam and feminism are not incompatible ideologies but rather complementary visions of a more just social world.
Michael Perez will be presenting at the Muslim Masculinity in An Age of Feminism Conference. Check out our updated lineup!