Muslim Masculinity: Relationships and Family (Part 1)

Left to right: Dr. Halim Naeem, Dr. Sameera Ahmed, Shaykh TA Bashir, Suzy Ismail, Javed Memon. Photo via @TinyMuslimah

On Saturday, November 14, 2015, altMuslimah (“altM”) and the Princeton Muslim Life Program co-hosted the symposium, Muslim Masculinity in an Age of Feminism. altM is dedicated to broadening the impact of the conversation. The Twitter highlights are recapped here. Below is part one of the video recording and transcript of the second panel, Relationships and Family. Part two is located here.

Asma: This panel will be exploring masculinity in the context of relationships and poverty.

To get us started one question for all of you: Why is the issue of Muslim masculinity important to you personally?

Dr. Naeem: In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.

Dr. Halim NaeemAbout six or seven years ago, I used to do a blog about Muslim masculinity. I felt like it was important. It always has been important. A lot of the ills and a lot of the things that we’re talking about right now, in terms of our relationships with our families, [and] these horror stories that you’re hearing, that we’re continuing to hear, and that we unfortunately will probably hear in the future is due to a desecration of an interpretation of masculinity. Shaykh Yahya was talking about it in terms of a spiritual degradation, which leads to many diseases. It’s so important to me that we adopt a functioning interpretation, a functioning definition of masculinity that has been laid out to us in previous generations that can help our families, our children, our youth, and our communities move forward.

Dr. Ahmed: Salaam Alaikum.

I grew up in an environment which had more cultural notions of what it means to be a man. Growing up that didn’t exactly sit with me; I really struggled with it. Then as I came more into Islam and started interacting with other individuals I was able to be exposed to other activists. Those activists, who happen to be male, really exemplified a different notion of masculinity that I hadn’t been exposed to before. These individuals were secure with themselves, their manhood, and because of that security they were able to create space not only for themselves, but also for those around them, including myself.

It really helped empower me and enable me to fulfill my objectives and what I thought was needed for the community and partner with me and be my ally towards positive change. Seeing that and the impact it had on my life, and eventually marrying one of these men. My husband is an amazing model of masculinity; seeing how his actions, his notion of masculinity, has impacted so many other young men, and model for both of my daughters, what it means to be a man. And not to settle for anything less. For me personally raising that next generation into making those changes, it’s extremely important for us to have this discussion on masculinity.

Dr. Bashir: Salaam Alaikum.

I had some problems with trying to confine the entire race into two dichotomies male and female, or masculinity and femininity, because I think somewhere in the mix we lose sight of other people and other interpretations of personalities. We’re practicing what a lot of people would call a “heterosexual bias.”

When we talk about masculinity I see that as a social construct, a hypothetical construct. What happens with that terminology is that we say, “You can do this because you’re male, and you can do that because you’re female.” We restrict the roles of human beings and their natural inclination to the things that may be part of the fitra based upon some biased notion of where genders are supposed to fit, based on physiological anatomy, if I could be that polite. In terms of working with young boys and older men, fixed ideas about gender have caused a lot of pain, not only with the families that they live with, but also in terms of their own lives because they have to live up to false expectations.

Islam right now is facing a tremendous amount of ostracization due to the fact that it’s running smack dab into secularization. We never had a word for religion until the 13th century, when in the Western world, there was an attempt to make secularization dominant and put religion in its place. We have to understand that we’re trying to take what has come down to us historically about Islam and put it into a pluralistic context. What I mean by that is that here is a country that says, “You can do many things based upon your ability to motivate people and to have them vote.” Whatever is legal [and] illegal is based upon people coming together and trying to vote, except when it comes to the Muslim.

I want to [wrap] up by saying that Islamophobia is not new; the press just discovered it. I see there’s a couple of senior Muslims here like myself [and] they know that Muslims were discriminated long before 1965.

Suzy: Salaam Alaikum.

I’m going to answer this question from a very personal perspective. As a mother, a wife, a daughter, a teacher, a professor, a counselor, a speaker, a volunteer in all of the positions that we live in every day, all of the roles that we undertake, we recognize that we don’t live in a bubble. That we’re not a gender neutral society. Neither are we a society that is able to ever fully engage with one gender alone and without interacting with the other. It’s so important to go back to what our deen tells us what it means to be a Muslim male, what it means to be a Muslim female.

On a personal level, my definition of what it means to be masculine and what it means to be feminine is clearly defined in the Qu’ran. When we look at Surah Al-Ahzab, verse 35, Allah (SWT) speaks to both the Muslim men and the Muslim women. The versus begins, “Indeed the Muslim men and the Muslim women, the believing men and the believing women, the observant man and the observant women.” The verse continues by talking about the patient men and the patient women. The men who bear their chastity and the women who do so. The truthful men, the truthful women. You see at the end of that verse that after delineating what it means to be a Muslim man and what it means to be a Muslim woman, Allah (SWT) promises that there’s forgiveness and great reward for both the Muslim man and Muslim woman who live by these definitions.

As I raise my children, I’m blessed with two beautiful girls and a son, as I look to my husband who’d incredibly involved in Boy Scouts and soccer, and a multitude of activities, as we look towards bringing our children to society, which has created definitions and labels for what it means to be a man and a woman that may be very different from what Allah (SWT) has told us it means, it’s so important to bring them back to the understanding of the hikmah of Allah (SWT).

Allah (SWT) will not judge us on whether we are male or female, but he will judge us on whether as males and females we have lived up to the definitions he has given us, which is to be truthful, to be believers, to be observant, to be good to one another, to be chaste.

In that verse, we see that’s a commandment for men and for women. Personally that’s why for me Muslim masculinity, Muslim femininity are both very important. They’re important in getting back to our core, which is our core of humility.

Javed: Salaam Alaikum.

After hearing all I’ve heard during our day today I wanted to reiterate something that Imam Khalid placed in my mind before I talk about why Muslim masculinity is important to me, [which is] that these rigid notions of Muslim masculinity have very real consequences for many women. As my co-panelists have probably seen first hand as well as counselors. I just felt like I needed to say that as a man and someone who had the privilege of having some several opportunities to step outside that box. My confrontations with rigid ideas of Muslim masculinity are mere inconveniences compared to issues like domestic violence, for example.

For me, Muslim masculinity is fluid. To be honest, I haven’t actually had to think about it in those terms for a long time. I live in an international community in Westford, Virginia three hours away from the nearest major city. I don’t often get confronted with these static ideas of Muslim masculinity. Mostly because I just ran away from the Muslim community into a small town.

As you heard in my question in the last panel, the issue is important to me in regards to the education of my daughters. Asma and Sohaib’s invitation to me to be on this panel came just as I started engaging with the local Muslim community and the local mosque.

I’m really looking for a Muslim space where my daughters are treated as equals and… these rigid notions of masculinity and femininity are not pushed upon them. I feel a sense of responsibility to provide them with a framework with which to place their relationships with men, Muslim communities, and Muslim institutions into context.

I want to give them opportunities to read text that are not the mainstream narrative and to give them rich life experiences

I was thirteen when the Internet was made publicly available. My brother brought home this AOL CD, floppy disc, that said 24 free hours of AOL Internet. I logged on and I had all these people to talk to. Unfortunately, I had a really bad experience where a woman I was speaking with turned out to be a male online predator. At the time, I was also being physically bullied by hyper-masculine young men in school. I thought to myself as a fourteen year old, “Who is a group of people I could talk to online that no one would want to pretend to be?” It turned out that that was Muslim women. It’s sort of embarrassing to say I chatted exclusively with Muslim women online since I was fourteen years old. I guess I was looking for a safe space, an empathetic ear, about me being bullied and things like that. What ended up happening was that these Muslim women I was chatting with online started sharing their stories with me about their relationships with men, about their whole lives.

People we don’t know are [often] one-dimensional in our heads, especially to a fourteen year old. As I learned and as I listened to these stories it really informed how I am and how I think about my own masculinity today. At the same time, my sister was handing me feminist Muslim texts, poetry from Taslima Nasreen, and a scholarly article on how women who were raped in Pakistan were charged with zina. I had the benefit of a big sister who was feeding me… that theoretical framework as well. That’s an introduction to why I’m interested in the issue Muslim masculinity.

Asma: I want to look a little bit more at defining masculinity. Atiya in the previous panel said it’s really important to define words, to define concepts. More specifically how those definitions are intersecting with the ways that we are raising our kids and then later, finding suitable mates.

Dr. Naeem, in discussing male domination and the subordination of women many writers distinguished among types of masculinity. There’s peaceful masculinity versus violent masculinity, righteous or unrighteous. On altMuslimah, you refer to a positive model as “Islamic spiritual masculinity“. In other words, masculinity per se is not at fault, it’s a particular type of masculinity that leads to injustices. Can you comment on that?

Dr. Naeem: There [are] a few layers to this.

Gender, like race in our country, is arbitrary, but [it] has real meaning. Just because there’s this dichotomy doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real consequences.

If you look up [the definition of] masculinity, as Imam Sohaib defined, [it] says something that pertains to being a man or being male. A lot of the stuff that I see personally make me and people like Sameera, counselors, imams, who hear really horrific things, different people. They make us different because it’s some really haunting stuff that you hear.

To me, that’s not masculinity at all. To me, its not even worth defining. People say Islam is blowing stuff up… It’s nothing to even indulge or maintain. It’s filled with corruption and falsehood. If you, as a male (I don’t want to say a man), if your final level of control and assertion, your point to get across, the defense for your ego has to fall on you physically abusing somebody, verbally abusing somebody, psychologically abusing somebody. Then you turn around and have God sign off on it because of that interpretation, you’re not a man. It’s not masculinity. What’s an academic way to say crap? Facetious.

That’s not even a direction, a sustainable direction, for humanity to go. I think, in terms of this conversation and pushing it towards, what is it? What is something? How can we function? What can we do?

I think there are amazing roles, responsibilities, and underpinnings that are in previous examples. We’re talking about our Prophet and what [are] some of the top or key things that you think and see. I see somebody strong. I see somebody with integrity. I see somebody with responsibility.

In my heart of hearts, I feel like everything that [the Prophet] was about was driven by love. It was driven by a mercy. It’s actually in the Qu’ran: he’s nothing except a mercy to all mankind. That’s actually the driving force. If we see all this merciless stuff happening here and it’s being attributed and defined as what it is to be a man, I think that’s garbage. It’s not masculinity.

It’s a house of cards that’s about to fall.

I think we as Muslims, as Muslim men and as Muslim women, moving towards pursuing and engaging our rich spiritual knowledge, we can help and save this country honestly. In it’s twisted definitions of what it is to be a functioning, not just man and woman, but a human being. A human being because we get all these attributions linked to gender, to race, and different things like that.

Asma: It seems that the core of what we see as a problematic type of masculinity is the lack of mercy. Dr. Ahmed, what do you see as the problems of the current notions of masculinity? How does it impact male relationships?

Dr. Ahmed: Part of [understanding masculinity] is realizing these are socially constructed notions. That construction comes from many different sources. For many of us it is a society, the culture that we’re a part of. It could be our peers around us. Our ethnic community. Our religious community. So many different layers that impact who we are and we understand masculinity. One of the most influential aspects, what defines masculinity in our society, is the media. Think about the ads that you see on TV. Think about the movies and the actors. All of the individuals who are “role models” and define masculinity.

Earlier today, Imam Sohaib was talking about looking up in the dictionary how you define masculinity. We usually talk about power, aggression, control. These are the words usually associated with that notion of masculinity. That impacts our psyche. It impacts the psyche of men; it impacts the psyche of women. That is what we’re believing and understanding what is considered a masculine individual. What we also find is those characteristics are not associated with building relationships. The very social skills you need to build, strengthen, and nurture a relationship are not in the definition of masculinity.

In this process [we] set men up for failure in relationships. Think about the skills that you’ll need to develop a relationship. You need empathy. You need connection. You need to be able to be vulnerable with another individual to develop that deep bond. These are all characteristics associated with femininity. When a man exemplifies these characteristics they’re devalued. “Oh he’s too feminine.” He’s often bullied, made fun of, he’s “not man enough.”

Again, these values that are core and essential to develop a relationship are the very values that we as a society devalue in men.

We put our men in a difficult situation. We want you to have these deep relationships. We want you to have successful relationships, but we’re not going to teach you. We’re not going to help you be the man that you want to be in those relationships. Knowing how to develop those relationships, creating the social skills to have them, opportunities to nurture them, and opportunities to model them these are all lacking for men in general.

It’s ironic, [when you look at] the Prophetic model. When we look at the Prophet (SAW), we see multiple characteristics. We see him being comfortable darning his socks, kneading bread. We see him expressing his emotion. The year of sadness is a year of sadness because of the loss of his beloved wife and his uncle, who was a like a father figure. We see the example of how the Prophet (SAW) was able to express so many different emotions. Telling his companions if you love a person, if you love your brother, tell him. Express your emotions. Share those emotions.

What you see in his model is the fact that [the Prophet’s] notion of masculinity was fluid and is more based on principles and goals as opposed to strict interpretations of goals and responsibility, which we as a culture take into our psyche.

When you are focusing more on the principles, you are able to be more flexible. It’s not about this is my job or your job, it’s what is our common goal. Just to please Allah (SWT). If that is our goal, how are we going to make it happen? The notion of masculinity shifts [and] the model of what a man is opens up to multiple possibilities. The fact that [the Prophet] was so expressive in so many different ways allows men to create a template for the possibilities that could exist to help deepen our relationships with those around us.

Asma: Javed, we’re going to turn to you. A Washington Post article asked, “What Does It Mean to Be Manly?” It raised issues that are relevant to both how we’re raising our kids and the marriage conundrum facing our community. That is many of our women are highly accomplished professionally and educationally while not enough of our men are reaching those same levels of achievement. The article states, “While we’re catching up with or surpassing men at school and at their first jobs, young women have dumped much of the feminine to embrace the masculine traits that they think represent success. This has left some young men wondering what it means these days to be a guy. Should they, can they, explore their softer sides in a country that places less value on the feminine than ever before?” How would you answer this in in the Muslim context?

Javed: My wife has a PhD from MIT in mechanical engineering. I have a hashtag that I like to say whenever she wins an argument, #MITPhD. She always wins the arguments. She’s exactly what this article seems to be talking about, but I don’t believe for a second that she’s dumping the feminine to achieve her career goals or education. She’s being herself. In fact, in a previous marriage to another Muslim man she tried to fit into this prepackaged idea of what it means to be a Muslim woman. After that marriage failed, she didn’t dump her femininity, she dumped that rigid construction of Muslim femininity because it caused her stress and resentment. It just didn’t reflect who she was.

As far as if I’m exploring my softer side, am I exploring my softer side by taking care of my kids, cleaning the house, cooking meals? I don’t think so. I define masculinity for myself. I enjoy doing all those things and believe I am fulfilling my responsibilities as a practicing Muslim man.

Some people say to me, “But don’t we have a normative idea in our tradition of how a Muslim household should be. Rigid ideas of gender roles?” As we’ve discussed on this panel and previous panels we have so many examples. We have the example of [Prophet] Muhammad (PBUH) running down to his wife after the revelation and saying, “Cover me. Comfort me.” Him stitching his clothes and taking care of the kids. You also have verses that say men are the maintainers and protectors of women.

People choose what they want to emphasize in their own life. Tradition means different things to different people, but why choose one way or another? To me the goal of a Muslim household is to fulfill certain responsibilities: raising kids, financial stability, etc. The way a couple figures that out has to be based on individual preferences and capabilities rather than some box that we cram multifaceted people into. To be a little more concrete and personal, the way my wife and I outlined those responsibilities was through a marriage contract. I have a copy here if you want to look at it… Basically this marriage contract allows us set our own individual, social, financial boundaries and responsibilities.

I’ll just quote a little piece of it, “We acknowledge that one spouse may take primary responsibility for acting as childcare giver during our marriage while the other spouse may assume the burden of support. Any such division of roles will be mutually agreed to and neither partner will be treated as contributing any less to the family because of that spouse’s particular role.” We also talk about, “It will not be the sole duty of either spouse to maintain an attractive domestic environment,” for example as well. Preserving that mutual cooperative decision making process is really the core of household. This is the way we are able to make our marriage work, by transcending those very strict ideas of what the man’s role is, and what the woman’s role is, and masculinity and femininity.

To go back to this idea of the Muslim marriage crisis, this conundrum, I thought that this might be interesting to share. Before I got married I was engaged to a woman who also had received more education than me and had more earning power. She and her family also held on to a rigid idea of masculinity and found it puzzling that I had a preference for what I wanted to wear to the wedding for example, [and] even more serious, that I sought financial and domestic equality in our marriage. They found it unreasonable.

I find because the world is changing and men’s roles are changing, we have a disconnect. There’s the reality and then there’s religious or cultural expectations of what a household setup should look like. This is cause for great stress. It mirrors the stress that my wife had with her previous marriage. That was a very difficult thing to go through. On one hand a group of people is telling me this is what it means to be a Muslim man, but internally I was just, I didn’t have a job. I did a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, Middle Eastern Studies, and Women’s Studies. I wasn’t going to be the head of the household. That just wasn’t going to happen.

Asma: Suzy, in the same Washington Post piece that I referenced before, one professor states, “Parents have paid a lot of attention to girls and the results are noticeable. The best and most ambitious students are for the most part women. The number of college graduates returning home to live is disproportionally male. In trying to empower the girls we have personally sent a message that the guys were not as good. Woman succeeded in creating positive new roles for themselves. What we haven’t come up with is what a positive image of a man should be.” Your thoughts?

Suzy: That statement definitely applies on many levels. One of my roles is as a teacher at in Islamic school. It’s interesting that right before this panel, I came from the mock trial meeting for the team that I coach. Traditionally our team has consistently proven itself as one of the top teams. Two years ago when I was coaching the team as well, we were third in state. We are an all-female team. Imagine: we are in the courtroom, all females, young Muslim women wearing hijab, standing before a jury largely made up of men because [in] most other schools, the mock trial teams are largely made up of males, and winning. Many, many times I look at my girls… and I’m so proud of them because I know that they’ve been able to transcend those stereotypes that our Muslim community has tried to instill within them often, to be the Muslim women by being voiceless… by being the one who is neither seen nor heard.

In that same vein, we see that what we have come to our communities today is a bit of a confusion. Gloria Steinem, the famous feminist once said that, “In raising our girls we constantly try to raise them as sons, but not many of us try to raise our sons as we would raise our daughters.” This is something consistently that I see. We have different values. We have different ideas of what it means to be a constructive member of our society and our Muslim communities based on gender. As I mentioned earlier I think those are very social and constructive elements rather than elements that can ever be delineated to a divine definition of what it means to be a Muslim man or a Muslim woman.

Gloria Steinem also once said that, “In trying to improve ourselves as women, we have become the men we want to marry.” This is something else that we see consistently. Part of the work that I do at Cornerstone, the counseling center that I run, is marriage facilitation. In our database we have a very long list of beautiful educated strong women who are looking for marriage. We have a very list of eligible educated individuals that are males that are ready to get married. That’s concerning because that tells me that we’re heading towards an imbalance. We’re heading towards a world where the definitions of male and female are dictated in actions.

As women are starting to assert themselves more, as women are able to find their voices, our men are becoming more and more silent. Our men are starting to fade, unfortunately, not because of their own volition, but because many of them are not confident enough like Brother Javed to stand up and say, “This is who I am, this is what I do, and I’m not defining or going against the Muslim definition of a male, by being this individual.” We are not instilling in our sons pride in being that equal partner in the relationship. Instead, we are telling them to shy away from that. They’re choosing paths that are different than what would be best for the Muslim community.

To go back to the initial question in terms of definitions and what’s happening with the male and female definitions and whether or not our men are losing that empowerment or understanding [of] who they are, I think traditionally women have taken the forefront in meta-cognitive thinking of gender. We see in the 1950’s, for example, there was a book that was considered groundbreaking… written by a woman named Betty Friedan… called the The Feminine Mystique. It was considered groundbreaking because in this book Betty Friedan began to ask the question, what does it mean to be a woman? What is the role of a woman in society? Can a woman be a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a professional? Can a woman succeed inside the home and outside of the home? For many, many decades as women tried to answer that question, what were men doing? Listening, but not trying to ask questions of their own. Listening and in that there is benefit. But not trying to form their own understandings, and their own identities, and their own concept of what it means to be a male in our community.

We fast forward to just a few years back we see Sheryl Sandberg who was the COO of Facebook. A very powerful professional woman who wrote a book called Lean In. She wrote this book in response to a commencement speech that she had given at Barnard College… which graduates many strong women who view themselves as feminist… In that commencement speech she said, “I don’t want you to think that the most important choice you’re going to make in your future is what career path you follow, or what job you take, or what internship you land. The most important decision you are going to make in your life is who you marry.” When she said this she was pelted with tomatoes and eggs. She was booed off the stage essentially. In response to this negative reaction she received she wrote this book Lean In. In it she explained why it’s so important as women to find that balance. She tried to answer that question of what it means to be a woman. Can a woman be successful in the home and outside of the home? It’s sad to see that just shortly after the publication of that book her husband, who was the rock in her life, passed away. She’s going through another period of time right now trying to define and understand.

What we learn from all of this is that we can’t hang our definitions of self on another individual. We can’t decide what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a man based on what the other gender is doing.

We don’t need to decide that way. We can judge ourselves and define ourselves based on the definition Allah (SWT) has given us. We can judge ourselves and decide our roles based on our actions not only on our genders.

Asma: Dr. Bashir, do you see expectations of masculinity asserting itself in male behaviors? That is, do you feel that at times men respond to their social expectations by demonstrating otherwise unnatural focus on power and control?

Dr. Bashir: I just want to digress a minute to the quote that Brother [Halim Naeem] had gave earlier… that the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) was sent as a mercy to all mankind. These are the little things that bug you because I’m picturing my granddaughter who’s five years old and what does she hear when she hears, “all mankind.” Is that a statement that would motivate her toward inclusion or would that motivate her to exclusion?

Amina Wadud wrote two very important books in terms of the interpretation from an androcentric sense… of what the Quranic text means to a woman. For instance, the word “leader” and things of that nature. Men are supposed to be the leader, but what happens if the man is unable to lead. Many of you may know the hadith that they bring up about a woman that led the prayer even though there was a man present in the house. The history of that is that this man was a forgetful person. He was unable to lead the prayer so she lead the prayer.

The other thing I want to talk about is that a friend of mine, Siraj Wahaj, had a couple in for counseling… The husband was objecting to his wife’s desire to go to school and to open up a business of her own… He kept saying, “You should be more submissive… You should be like Ayesha.” So Siraj said to her, “Well what do you think about that?” She said, “Yeah, I’ll be more like Ayesha if you’re more like Muhammad.”

When we look at these things, often we look at it from a male viewpoint. It’s androcentric. The interpretation that we come up with is biased and it’s not inclusive. If you read the Qu’ran… you’ll see that it stresses things for the individual, but more importantly, it stresses things for the community. Your greatest reward comes to you from doing things for your community. In Surah Maa’oun, it says: do you see the person who’s prayer was thrown back at them? Why were their prayers thrown back at them? That’s the question that we have to ask. Their prayer was thrown back at them because they didn’t take care of neighborly needs. A person would come for a cup of sugar and they would say [things like], “Get out of here. You was here last week.”

We have an obligation to take care of our community. I worked with coaches in New York City, [in] Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, the rough areas. You have to be very careful how you pick with young men because they have to have a sense of pride and they also have to have a sense that they can take care of themselves because the street is very rough. Especially for young men wearing kufiyahs and dowels. Most of them want to learn martial arts. We teach them those kinds of things, but we also emphasis a spiritual aspect of the martial arts. Martial arts is not just about going around and having difficult altercations with people. If you study the tradition you can see that it was a form of spirituality like Yoda.

What are the things that make men click into this kind of thinking? Can anyone here tell me why men abuse women? Any man can they tell me that? Nobody can do that.

You know why men abuse women? Because they can. Until we step up and say that that kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated, that will continue.

There was a married couple in Connecticut. The husband cut the wife’s head off because he fell in love, so he says, with another woman. They were the first Muslims to start a TV program… Bridge TV. He said his wife was missing, he put the head in the sewer. Now we’re trying to figure out why did you have to do that? Just because you wanted to start another relationship. That question is not solved that easily because this is far and beyond.

I’m dealing with cases where there are physical abuse and often times the woman is the recipient of this kind of abuse because of a misinterpretation of the Qu’ran. Men feel that they are able to beat women if they don’t do what they say when they say it. When we work with men… just like young boys, we got to get them in a room by themselves and let them express some of the things that they harbor inside. Some of you might know that men are not expressive about emotions. In fact they consider that a weakness. We were talking about how the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) would say if he needed to cry he would cry.

In this society if you’re a male and you start to cry, people have some weird ideas about you. It goes to your masculinity. It goes to your sexuality. If you wear certain kinds of clothes, the same aspects come up. If you do certain things, if you cook, people wonder, “Why are you at home cooking? What’s wrong with you?” These kinds of things are what I’m talking about in terms of masculinity that we need to look at [again] and redefine. If a man says, “I want to be a tailor.” People say, “What, you want to be a tailor? Why don’t you go and work construction?” If a woman works construction she’s considered something else.

We have this dichotomy where we had set out roles for gender and we expect gender to conform to those roles. If they don’t conform to those roles then social ostracization is involved. We have men who if you speak to them in a safe place, they question a lot of the things that they heard or they learned. Why is that? They saw their mothers being abused. They saw their sisters being abused. They want to know is this a religious thing, [is] the religion telling us to do this to our women, or is that wrong? What happened is that they have to go against the wall of men’s ideas and men’s thinking and they can’t bring that subject up. That subject is off limits.

As we talk here today, there are many men who are out there that are good people and who would like to hear this message because they have the same feelings in their heart. They’re questioning, but they do it because of the force of conformity that men work with. They work in teams. They like packs. In order to break that down we have to get this message out. We have to ask the imam, don’t talk about domestic violence only in October, talk about it throughout the year. Start teaching the young people what that is, especially young boys, [and] that certain behaviors are not tolerated. They’re not good behaviors that we can depend on to build strong families and strong marriages.

Asma: Dr. Ahmed, Dr. Bashir told us a story of a couple that was really emphasizing about the woman being submissive… How do you see sociocultural notions of masculinity impacting modern Muslim marriages and families?

Dr. Ahmed: That’s something that a lot of people are struggling [with]. What does it mean not only as masculinity as a Muslim man, but what does it mean to be a man in a relationship, in a marriage in particular. How you move it? When we think again about television shows and comic ads, one of the things that you notice over and over again is how men are demeaned. These men are made fun of and disrespected when it comes to the family. You can’t leave them with kids, they’ll mess them up. You leave them and then you come back and end up, “What happened to my child?” Think about a relationship, they can never get it right.

Over and over again you see this [idea portrayed in the media that] men are another child that a woman has to deal with.

This disrespect really causes confusion to young people. How can I be effective? There’s no model of strong, effective man in relationship that we see in social media. That does cause confusion for many young men because there are no models.

Then the other aspect that young people struggle with is lacking models that they can see, interact with, and connect with. The way our society is set up now, you have long work hours, so men are rarely at home. You have [a] transient lifestyle where you live one place for two years and then another place another year because of the way our economy is, you’re constantly moving. We’re not developing those relationships with mentors who could help you facilitate and navigate these life challenges, or changes and transitions.

You have a general issue of young men trying to figure out how to be effective [and] responsible in a relationship as a spouse. How can I be a supportive husband? How can I be a supportive son? How can I be a supportive father? What does that look like? All of these questions that young men, or men in general, are struggling with because they don’t have those models to look up to and relationships to ask advice from. Often times they’re stuck. They’re just trying to figure it out day by day. As a community we need to really start thinking about, “How do we socialize young people?”

Continued in Part 2 of the Relationships and Family panel.

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