Advocating for the eradication of masculinity is not reactionary, nor is it self-hatred. It is a diligently honest and critical examination of the fundamental concept and construct of masculinity, how it is defined, particularly in mainstream North American societies, and how its normalization in daily life and culture is interrelated with homophobic, sexist, racist, classist, and oppressive social structures in white heteropatriarchal capitalist states.
Abolishing masculinity is not anti-male, nor is it about extermination of all heterosexual men. It is a bold struggle for radical personal and societal transformation; for vigorous rejection and elimination of harmful and dangerous social norms that are interlocked with oppressive forces in society.
Speaking from the perspective of a heterosexual Pakistani Muslim-American man, there is a lot to analyze and discuss about the way I have seen masculinity, sexism, homophobia, racism, and Islamophobia function in my life and my surroundings. It is impossible to cover the details in this post alone about how complex and intertwined these oppressive systems are, but I want to emphasize that being a man of color and a Muslim in post 9/11 white supremacist patriarchy obviously makes my experience different than white non-Muslim men and women from privileged race and class backgrounds. Most of the literature I have read so far about masculinity centers on the experiences of non-Muslim white men, with occasional mentioning of some men of color. Though there certainly is a lot of overlapping in the way sexist socialization influences and affects men in our society, other forms of oppression rank men, like men of color, differently on the social hierarchical ladder.
Very little has been studied about the way masculinity surfaces and operates among Muslim men who have grown up in North America. At some point, research in this field will enable us to grasp a richer understanding of how masculinity is conceptualized and socialized for Muslims in North America, but for now, I will speak mostly from my experiences and observations.
Dominant conceptions of masculinity and manhood in North America are profoundly shaped by sexism and homophobia. This means men are socialized by sexism and participate in sexist ideology, even passively or unknowingly. At an early age, boys are taught to be anti-female. For a male to behave in any manner that is generally perceived as “feminine” is to be stigmatized by others, especially male peers, because the worst insults for boys and men are designed to deprive him of his “manhood.” If a boy or man is not aggressive, dominant, tough, athletic, unemotional, sexually aggressive in the heterosexual context, he cannot be a “real man.” He is a “coward,” “sissy,” “pussy,” “faggot,” “gay;” a “girl,” a “homosexual.” Inherent in these insults are the extremely sexist and homophobic ideas, stereotypes, and mores in our society. Any man who has resisted to “acting feminine” or “acting gay” has been both a participant and victim of the ruling masculine culture.
It is because masculinity teaches us to be powerful, dominant, in control, defensive, and violent – literally and metaphorically violent, as radical feminist-activist and author Robert Jensen describes it. We cannot show our weaknesses otherwise we will not be accepted in society. Men of color are even more pressured to assert masculinity because white supremacist culture assigns stereotypes, generalizations, and expectations to their race. In high school, I remember my personal religious values of being a virgin and restraining from “checking girls out” were ridiculed by my white friends and peers. The question was always, “Are you gay?” or a harsher variant of that, followed by attacks on my religion/culture being “strict” and “stupid.” Not only did their remarks attempt to degrade my “manhood,” they also characterized my religion, culture, and race as inferior to theirs.
It surprised me a few years later when a close Muslim male friend told me he was depressed about being a virgin and that he was envious of his non-Muslim male friends who had sexual experiences. I was surprised because, at the time, my views on Islam and pre-marital sex were very rigid and conventional, i.e. sex before marriage is “forbidden,” and, due to my lack of exposure to other Muslims during my adolescence, I never thought Muslims felt pressured or coerced into having sex, let alone wanted to have sex before marriage. I now see these realities as complex and recognize the importance for Muslims to engage in an open and honest discussion about pre-marital sex, without dogmatic judgments and stigma. There are Muslims who have pre-marital sex and make a personal, conscious decision to do so, but my point here is neither a condemnation of that choice or even about pre-marital sex. In the particular case of my friend, it’s more about the social pressures he felt in losing his virginity and the belief that having sex, not an emotionally intimate relationship, would make him more “masculine” and “manly,” and possibly even serve as a catalyst to “fit in” with his non-Muslim friends.
Jensen and anti-pornography author and feminist Gail Dines boldly argue that we live in a porn culture. Pornography and the hyper-sexualized images we see in movies, television, magazines, billboard ads, video games, etc. reminds us of our “standing” in the world as women and men. White men represent the default human being, while women are rendered as sex objects. The exoticization and sexual objectification of women of color operates in conjunction with racial stereotypes and prejudices, which are perpetuated by mainstream media representations. Throughout society, this porn culture, which seats white men on the highest throne, sends a very powerful message about masculinity and how men must rule and exercise power – power that Jensen defines as “the ability to make someone do what they would otherwise not do” – not just over women, but over other men as well. In his book, “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” Michael Kimmel describes the socialization of heterosexual men in porn culture:
“Daily life is filled with beautiful and sexual women everywhere [guys] look – in the dorm, in classes, on the street, at work. And the Guy Code is playing an endless loop in their heads: ‘Gotta get laid, you’re not a man unless you try for it, keep going, what’s wrong with you?”
Masculinity is a dangerous game that cannot be won. It is dangerous because it shapes and fuels the ideology of male supremacy which is “largely responsible for everything from rape to the propaganda push leading up to the invasion of Iraq,” as blogger Amanda Marcotte contends. In addition to rape and war, there is misogyny, homophobia, dehumanization, racism, and other forms of oppression. The recent news of 4 teenage males committing suicide in the month of September because of anti-gay bullying and bigotry also exemplifies its danger. Masculinity cannot be won because it is something that men need to constantly prove. It is never permanently sustained. Feminist-activist bell hooks writes:
In patriarchal culture men are not allowed to simply be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do.
I admit there are times when I struggle with this and I’m sure a lot of men can relate. Particularly among South Asian Muslims, there are communal, religious, cultural, and family pressures to prove you are a “real man,” i.e. you have to be confident, fearless, strong, assertive, etc. There are expectations for South Asian Muslim men to study hard and establish well-paying, respectable jobs to either preserve or boost the image and reputation of their family. For example, parents who are doctors often want their sons to also be doctors to preserve the prestige of the family (I believe it can apply to daughters too, but my feeling is that the pressures on men are stronger in most cases). Parents who aren’t doctors and have occupations outside of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) also pressure their sons to establish careers in “respectable” fields, as if to “succeed” where the parents have “failed.”
From an Islamic perspective, Muslim men are taught that a real Muslim man provides and supports his wife and family economically. This construction of masculinity easily establishes gender role expectations for Muslim men and women. Muslim men are the breadwinners, while Muslim women stay at home, cook, clean, and raise the children. I would argue that the growth of Islamophobia can also be linked with masculinity, not only in the way it has been produced by a xenophobic and racist social structure, but also in how we are expected to respond to it. I remember reading a comment on a forum once where a Muslim reader rightfully felt that the Muslim man interviewed by the network was a poor representative of the community, but then wrongfully said, “We need a man to speak for us.” A “man” as in a “real man,” someone who knows exactly what to say, knows how to keep his composure, who holds a degree in “debating Islamophobes” and utterly destroys any racist and xenophobic argument that is flung his way.
But it’s not only about the pressures from family, friends, and religious institutions. Heterosexual men also believe it is necessary to assert their masculinity to impress women. I’m sure a lot of men can relate to this. The subject of marriage in the Muslim community always generates a lot of discussion and I think when most Muslim men contemplate marriage, they think about establishing a career, independence, and stability. Since masculinity is something that always needs to be in operation, it drives us, men, to prove that we are capable of providing for a woman. If we are unable to do so or struggle with doubts and uncertainties about our self-confidence, we feel like we aren’t good enough. More precisely, we don’t feel like “real men.”
By talking about the struggles that men experience in patriarchy, it is important to understand that it is in no way greater than the oppression of women and to place the experiences on an equal plane would be irresponsible, inaccurate, and extremely counter-productive. While it is true that Muslim men and men of color are also stigmatized and oppressed in white patriarchy, it does not excuse the responsibility we have in challenging male supremacy, male privilege, and sexism within our communities. Briefly touching upon the struggles of men is not to belittle, trivialize, or dismiss the oppression of women, but rather to simply point out the hurt men experience as a result of patriarchy exists. We have insecurities, we can have body-image problems, we may compete with other men or may feel intimidated by them – men who we think are better-looking, smarter, and physically stronger than us. We feel this way because we are socialized to view everything in relation to dominance and power; we feel like we need to live up to a standard, even though that standard is about being something no human can be: perfect. Being “tough” about it doesn’t help. Masculinity cannot solve these issues for us because it teaches to shield, conceal, act, perform. We need to vocalize our struggles, talk it out, and communicate.
bell hooks calls male advocates of feminism “comrades in struggle.” She states that men, too, have a contribution to make to end sexist oppression. Eradicating masculinity is one of many contributions that we, as men, can make to feminist struggle, a struggle that advocates for revolutionary and radical transformation in society as a whole. I am sure someone will ask, “If you’re talking about the social construction of masculinity, then why not reform masculinity? Why do we have to eradicate it?” This is a valid question, but I believe once we transcend beyond the hegemonic conception of masculinity, we come to the realization that there isn’t any personal characteristic or trait that is distinctly “masculine” or “feminine.” If to be “feminine” is to be compassionate, caring, and Loving, can a man not have those traits as well? And if to be “masculine,” according to those who argue that there are positive things about “masculinity,” is to be protective, confident, and assertive, is that to say women cannot have those qualities?
These are all characteristics that can be found in any human being. The label of masculinity takes these traits to another level because it is always dichotomous and in opposition to something – to being a woman, being homosexual, being anything outside the narrow and singular social construction of what it means to be a man. This is not to say women and men are the same. We are different physiologically and those physiological factors may contribute to some psychological differences, but these differences are not so conflicting, extreme, or insurmountable that we must close off dialogue and refuse to collaborate with one another.
A world, as Jensen describes, in which “masculinity is shaped by dominance, aggression, conquest, and violence is a world that is unsafe and unsustainable.” We, men, shouldn’t be afraid or feel threatened to deconstruct the social norms of masculinity and eradicate the way it operates in our daily lives. The prison of masculinity is tight and suffocating, and it alienates us from embracing our humanity. It obstructs us from seeing the possibilities, that there is something new within ourselves, something we can create. Rather than constantly thinking that we have to be prove something to ourselves, to others, and those we Love, let us focus on being good human beings. Feminist struggle is not to dismiss other issues like racism, classism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other oppressions. It recognizes the interlocking nature of oppression and how they all affect us.
With the help of women and men, we can find a transcendent model for humanity – one that teaches us to value each other not as objects, not as labels, not as social constructions, not as expectations, but as complex, multi-dimensional human beings.
Jehanzeb Dar is a Pakistani Muslim-American undergrad student and independent filmmaker. He currently blogs at Muslim Reverie, where he critiques media, writes poetry, and reflects on spirituality.