Muslim Masculinity: Politics and Activism Panel (Part 2)

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 two of the video recording and transcript of the third panel, Politics and Activism. Part one is located here.

Shahed: If you look at traditional masculinity… men want to be that. Women want to be with men like that. It transcends every culture… it’s an extremely powerful force… How do we begin to deconstruct something so deeply ingrained in humanity? Not just to Muslim societies, but to humanity?

I see this [traditional masculinity] as it expresses itself around the world. Young men picking themselves up and going to fight, joining things, just expressing their rage and their anger in different ways, or their ability to control in different ways.

Michael: First of all I would have to question, do men really want that? Because the ideals and the practices of what we call dominant masculinity don’t always line up with the needs and wants and desires of all men.

My answer to the question is that as long as some women don’t want that we have an imperative to address it, and as long as some men don’t want that we have an imperative to address it.

We know that human beings and social life are very malleable. We know that for a fact because we have so much record that tells us that life has been malleable. Even though we have seen some consonant structures of what we might call patriarchy, they are not all the same.

Sometimes what we may call a patriarchal arrangement, people actually derive a lot of dignity from in some ways. We should be cautious about how we approach those and outright reject them on the presumption that something that looks like patriarchy and smells like patriarchy must be [patriarchy] and everybody is just ignorant about their own oppression.

This is something that I teach about. You have to look at these things in their context. When women are actively wanting to wear the niqab and it’s not to have greater movement or social ability but because they feel it’s part of a construction of a pious self, as Saba Mahmood would say, we have, to some degree, honor that and work with that. We have to be sensitive to the local arrangements that produce masculinities in those contexts and we have to deal with it. But as long as women are in those contexts, saying something could be different, or men for that matter… we have an ethical imperative to address it. We can’t rely on some notion of biology to let things stand where people clearly don’t want them to stand that way anymore.

Palwasha: I just want to push back on this; I think that’s very simplistic. There is so much diversity in the human experience and even this understanding of this concept of what is a traditional masculinity. In some [cultures] it’s traditional for men to be sitting at home and women to be going and doing the heavy work. So I think there is a problem in how we understand that.

[On this question of] encouraging humility in the safe space, I don’t want to be simplistic about it because I think that worldwide this is a difficult issue. How do you encourage that humility, how do you encourage that safe space where a man can actually talk about masculinity and be responsible? This is something we have had to grapple with programmatically trying to think about what’s on the ground, how do we do this in other countries?

In my experience in Afghanistan we were working with khateebs on the ground to try and give them information but also to motivate them to speak openly about issues of domestic violence and what that means. What are men’s obligations, what are their responsibilities and how do they overcome this idea that they have to be violent in their families? These khateebs express being afraid of… what the community would think of them speaking about these issues, [and that it could] lead to [other] repercussions because we have seen religious leaders attacked in that context.

[Through the course of a 4-year program], the one thing that helped the [khateebs] overcome this, so they could speak about some of these issues publicly and we could record them and the work that they were doing, is how other khateebs and imams shared that responsibility as leaders in the community and their moral obligation, and talk to them about their own experiences and share that with them. It’s definitely a very difficult thing to do, but it is doable, and that there are ways of working towards them.

Shahed: You have a question?

Dr. Naeem: Somebody was telling [my wife] that Tunisian women are extremely liberated because they are not allowed to wear a headscarf.

In terms of masculinity and feminism, how do [we define] liberation? Because you see that overtly and covertly, psychologically, get thrown around. There is this picture of a free and liberated man and a free and liberated woman. How is that [idea of freedom and liberation] juxtaposed and interacting with what you are talking about today?

Tariq: I will attempt. [In France], women [from FEMEN] ran onstage with their chest exposed. I know for many Muslim women when they think about liberation, they were like, “Not that. We don’t have to go that far with it.”

To go back to a base level, what rights of passage are people going through that are getting them to these conclusions? How are we socializing, what are we rewarding children for, in high school and things like that, for their behavior and their education? And by saying that I mean, are we rewarding young men? [Speaking as someone] coming from the African American community, [are we rewarding] young men who are involved in gangs? We reward them for doing maladaptive stuff. Are we rewarding our young girls, or are we bullying them into wearing scarfs? There is no reward. I speak from my own family, my own father- it was kufi or this, scarf or this. I know for a lot of other families, they go through the same thing. As far as rights of passage, that’s number one.

Men have to police other men, period.

I had an experience at a restaurant. It was a group of men and women eating with children. A young girl was running around playing. No one paid her any mind until she knocked a Pepsi over on the table. One of the fathers got up and slapped her across the face.

I felt immediately like I had to do something, but there were 3 other men there and nobody did anything. If that goes unchecked, the young men who are around the table, they understand that is what happens, that is how it goes down, that is how I am going to behave later in my life. The young girl understands that this is my place now. I am the person who gets slapped and told what to do and subjugated. Again, what are we rewarding? For her knocking her Pepsi over, she was rewarded with a slap.

Donna: It’s an important question to ask about definitions. What is it we are talking about when we say “liberation,” when we say “feminism.” Like “masculinity,” “feminism” is definitely plural.

As a women of color, I’m looking at a lot of this stuff [and it doesn’t apply to me]. My feminist tradition includes Sojourner Truth and Ida Wells, and not necessarily some of these other mainstream, White feminist paradigms that frankly got nothing to do with me.

It is worth thinking about the ways these questions of gender liberation have been deployed historically to justify colonial and imperial dominative schemes. This is something that Frantz Fanon talked about in A Dying Colonialism, he talks specifically about the guise of rescuing Muslim women from these barbaric Arab male figures that dominated their mind. This project of finding a woman, liberating her, taking her to France, and educating her. How she comes back and talks about how backward it is that a woman still wants to wear… He’s talking in the context of colonial Algeria, but how many times have we seen that played out in the last 2 years?

We can talk about legitimate issues of gender oppression, by our own standards, and at the same time critique these stealth agendas. Whole wars have been fought under the guise of “we are liberating women”; specifically, we are talking about Afghanistan. That’s not to say women aren’t challenged under the regime of the Taliban.

In Tunisia, or France, where Muslim girls who want to wear the hijab literally have to disrobe in order to go to school. This is what happens when you say to women and little girls, “You cannot wear this article of clothing that you feel is necessary for you to feel clothed in public, if you want to receive an education.” That’s French Republicanism, that’s libertarianism.

I don’t understand how that’s free because the issue at hand here is that women’s agency is being removed. Whether she’s being forced to put on a veil or being forced to take it off… I wear a hijab, but it’s not for me or anyone else to make the decision for another woman. What she wants to do with her body is her business. If you are telling me that I cannot wear my hijab… if I want to vote, if I want to get a driver’s license… [then] we need to talk about oppression.

As an anthropologist, a lot of the ways that we define “oppression” and “liberation” is [from] talking to the people whose experiences we are dissecting and how they understand their situation. We need to take their perspective seriously. Sometimes, you encounter people that you really disagree with as an anthropologist or as a psychologist, but you have to take those perspectives seriously.

Shahed: We have a question that’s come in through social media. The perpetrators of the Paris attacks may share names, appearances, and ethnic backgrounds [with] men in our families or communities. They are going to be going to work or school on Monday. What do we say to them? What can we say to them?

I’ll tell you what I told my 14 year old son who brought this up with me yesterday: “There are people who think that this is the way to express themselves as men. You and I know better. We know the place of mercy in our religion and our faith. We, together as father and son, are going to spend the rest of our lives proving them wrong.”

Dr. Perez: I would say to be cautious, for one thing, to be aware of the climate in which you live, and under no circumstance to assume the burden of explaining their actions. We don’t carry that burden. I am not them. Just because we both say we are Muslims doesn’t mean that I have any insight as a Muslim to what drives their actions.

Violence is not unique to any particular people… Violence is not unique, or the privileged area of any particular community in the world. We should not carry the burden of it; we should resist it, and we should treat it, as a shared problem.

It’s not my problem as a Muslim, it’s not your problem as a non-Muslim because you think you are going to be targeted. It’s a shared problem because we are as much interested in not only protecting the potential victims but from stopping the perpetrators from being those kinds of people and thinking that this kind of violence can be meaningful. Because it obviously is to them in some ways and we need to try to understand that and deal with that. So we need to accept that as a shared problem and refuse that it’s our burden to carry.

Shahed: I agree with you. I described, on Twitter, yesterday as the problem being “democratized mass violence.” That is inclusive of what happened yesterday, Charleston, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

Dr. Perez: When somebody says something, you could say, “You, as a White American, can you explain the violence of Abu Ghraib? Do you carry that burden?”

Shahed: Or Newton.

Donna: My Facebook status this morning was about just that. Just this week, there have been death threats made against Black students at campuses across the country by crazy White folks. I don’t know a single White person who has felt in any way compelled to make a statement about how they don’t represent them, they don’t represent their community and not all of us are like this… You just don’t see them wringing their hands about whether or not they need to defend that or how they are going to respond. There are White people of conscience who maybe do because they are people of conscience, but they don’t feel that because they are White that they have to explain the behavior of people who look like them.

People who look like me are targeted all the time, everyday. Forget about the hijab, [because of] my skin color. Nobody has to explain that violence.

We really need to question the operation of privilege and how it puts us in a position [where we have to] defend our humanity from people who are not going to recognize it no matter what you say.

Shahed: Let’s take all the questions real quick and then we will address some.

Audience Member: I identify as homosexual. I grew up in a pretty toxic mosque, but Princeton has been very accepting. This conference has been framed in a very critical, very nuanced way. But I have found that at home, discussions weren’t critical or nuanced. People weren’t evaluating their faith. They were replicating. They weren’t producing. But here people produce.

Are we in danger of forming intellectual enclaves? How do we disseminate this information? How do we break into the mainstream? Because when I go back home, I can’t have these discussions. I’m silent at home. In a practical way, how do we break into the masses?

Shahed: Next question.

Audience Member 2: The majority of the mosques within the United States are essentially owned by probably a few immigrant families that came here for economic stability. The rest of the community, first-generation Americans and everyone who falls in between, their voices aren’t heard.

Maybe this could be a question for Tariq, how do you use your platform as an essayist and as an artist to influence the power structure [in the mosque]? And for anyone else, how do you use that activist mindset within your local masjid boards? Have you seen it be successful? How do you lay a pathway to change the rhetoric and the discourse and the actual things that come out of the masjid?

Audience Member 3: Over the last few years for mental health awareness, sexual assault awareness, and even domestic violence, one thing they are starting to use is story sharing so people sharing their personal experiences. Do you think that is a viable option to start propelling us into a world without this kind of injustice? And if so, how can we get people to start talking about their personal experiences in some of our communities where it’s not really a safe place?

Shahed: Great! Thank you for your questions.

Tariq: From an artist standpoint, a poet, I see poetry as a means to tell a story of people who otherwise wouldn’t be heard. We have to make sure that we make people as uncomfortable as possible within their privilege and in their domination… When we do that, we add the emotional context to things.

Somebody fleeing from persecution in Syria, they might not have the words to say exactly what they are going through, but an artist is supposed to look at that, frame it, and package it so it’s digestible enough for the masses of people.

And those people when they hear that music or whatever it is the emotions should come over them. After that emotion, that feeling should take them toward some types of action. Unfortunately, in the Muslim community, the sound of the artist is drowned out because we have these different preconceived notions about artists.

As far as on activism, you have to hold protests. I don’t care if you are protesting outside the masjid or whatever it is, that’s going to cause alarm. “These Muslim kids are protesting outside the mosque; we’re just trying to pray Dhuhr. Excuse me…” That brings awareness to everybody else. Like I said in the beginning, it’s really on the youth to do that. Nobody 30 or older is going to help you out with that. I’m going to be real with you. It’s on the youth 15-25, maybe 28, to really get out there and start making people feel uncomfortable about whatever the issue that you have.

But, it starts with [the] self. You have to be brave enough to do the action, to do the civil disobedience. You have to be brave enough to write that stanza. There have been plenty of times that I’m writing and I’m like, “Do I really want to put this in here. Is this something… Does that need to go right here? I know this is going to cause trouble.” At that point, when you feel that fear… that’s when you write that joint. You write it immediately. You get it out and you say, “Look I’m going to give this to the public and whatever happens, happens.” Then you have people make transformative changes in their life.

Shahed: I apologize but we have ran into a brick wall called maghrib. I’m sorry we couldn’t get to every one of the questions. I want to thank these panelists for sharing their experiences and starting a really important conversation. I want to thank again the organizers for putting this together.

Imam Sohaib: Thank you to the panelists. Thank you to the audience for coming out today. I want to echo Shahed’s apology that we weren’t able to get to all the questions that people had asked. We hope that this is just the beginning of the conversation.

This is the first time that I have ever been to a conference on masculinity, especially in the Muslim community. We don’t want to abandon the cause and the conversation here. This is hopefully just the first step in having more robust and even more detailed conversations, perhaps on subtopics within the larger theme.

On behalf of the Muslim Life Program here at Princeton University, I’d like to thank you all so much for coming. I want to thank the volunteers.

Asma: I want to reiterate what Imam Sohaib said and what we started off today with Imam Khalid talking about conversation being merely a first step to actual change and action. I encourage everyone to take what they learned today and to begin to make that change at both the individual and communal level.

I want to remind everyone that, a resource that has been around for 6.5 years and has really began to move the needle, even if very slowly, is there. I encourage you to take part in the conversation and to take that conversation to others outside this room. Thank you to Princeton Muslim Life Program for always being a partner with altMuslimah. This is our third conference with them. I thank them and I thank the volunteers. Thank you.


Read Part 1 of the transcript here.

Read the Keynote address here.


Photo Credit.


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