Muslim Masculinity: Recognizing the real-life impact

October 21, 2010. The Moth and Live from the NYPL. OMG: Stories of the Sacred.

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 the video recording and transcript of Imam Khalid Latif’s keynote address.

The way I like to frame this conversation is with a story that I was told when I was younger and it involved a young man who had a family that he loved very much. He had a wife that he cared for deeply, they had a son that was the object of their adoration and affection. The situation comes about that this young man, his mother passes away and his elderly father needs a place to go and stay and so he goes to the home of a young man. An elderly father needs constant care and attention and the responsibility of this comes upon the wife of the young man. He is someone who is quite old and his needs are often just overwhelming. It causes a lot of frustration in their home.

One day they sit down to eat their dinner and this elderly man is so frail, he’s so fragile that the sheer weight of the plate that he’s holding in his hands is too much for him to handle. It falls from his grasp onto the ground, shattering into pieces. The young man, he can’t really take it anymore. He unleashes all the frustration out on his father, “Since you can’t eat without causing a commotion, from now on you will not be able to sit at the same table as my wife, my son and I. You will have to sit at a table by yourself in the corner of the room. Since you can’t eat off of the same plate that we eat off of without making a mess, from now on, you’ll eat from this wooden bowl.” The elderly man with a tear in his eyes, he goes and does what he is told.

The next day now, this young man he comes upon his own son, he comes upon his own child and he sees him on the ground playing with some scraps of wood. He wants to be with his son, he wants to play and participate in what it is that he is doing. When he gets close enough to him, he says with deep love and adoration and affection in his voice, “Oh my son, what are you doing?” The child reciprocates in the same love and adoration and affection in his voice response to his father, “Oh my father, I’m making a wooden bowl for you to eat out of when you get old.” The idea is such that we learn both implicitly and explicitly, consciously and unconsciously – who I am today most assuredly is impacted by every yesterday that I lived in this world.

The moment that we are in today, right now, is going to definitely have an impact on moments beyond this one. The presence and absence of certain individuals dictate for us our perspectives, our ideas, our values, our opinions. The way that we shape and understand the world around us as well and especially in the importance of the conversation today, the world inside of us is heavily shaped by our processes of socialization. For many, in our relationship to Islam, whether we are Muslim or we come from a different walk of life, we deal with many challenges and gaps that on an individual level and institutional level, you see now movements to fill but nonetheless the over-presence of certain ideas that become that much more emphasized because there is an absence of other ideas based off of really how we landed where we are today, not really in a vacuum but where we are coming from, is something that I think is important for us to understand. You keep that in mind as we move forward with this discussion.

To me, I don’t think that systems in of themselves can be absolutely understood, it’s not just right and wrong. When we only think in absolutes, many Muslims think in absolutes, everything is good and bad and right and wrong, it gets elevated to halal and haram, primarily what it causes is an inability to know how to make choices and decisions. We don’t know how to move forward, we become very paralyzed. It’s not even just about moving forward, we don’t even take chances that might cause us to stumble and move backwards, everything is just about the comfortability where we have to stay still.

Whether we are having conversations on gender, we are having conversations on politics, we are having conversations on anything, there’s an inability to bring the best of ourselves, because the absence of confidence brings us to a place where we believe even if no one else is having the conversation or is better poised to, we don’t think that we are the ones who should be.

Then beyond rhetoric and discourse that just surrounds us in a regurgitated way, what we fail to then do is bring the best of our talents to actually build services and institutions beyond words that in a very active way fill the gaps that we’ve seen. Why do I think this is important? Because in the work that I do, I’m not really a scholar in any way — and that’s not me being humble. I’m blessed to serve a community, which is a different form of activism, building intentional community.

The words and the conversations to me are only important if they yield manifest action, if we go out and deliberately fill some of these gaps.

When we fail to do so in this frame of gender, the discourse in of itself that we conclude on can’t in of itself be what is necessary to limit realities that are real harsh. What do I mean by this?

When I was an undergrad at New York University, I was 18-years-old and it was the first time I met a woman who was a victim of domestic violence. She and I took political science classes together. She came into our classroom one day, a young Muslim South Asian woman, her face was covered with all kinds of makeup, she was covering bruises on her face. I sat down, I started to talk to her about what it is that happened. She kind of muttered and mumbled that, “Oh I fell down the stairs.” I said that this doesn’t happen from falling down the stairs. Then she started to open up about what it was that she experienced. She said that, my father wants me to get married to a man overseas who is much older than me and I don’t really want to do that with my life. When I said to him that I don’t want to, he just started punching me in my face. My brothers they stood and they watched this happen.

As she’s letting it out she’s very open and vulnerable, hoping to find something that doesn’t end in her just dealing with that perpetually either from her husband or a different man. I had no idea what I was going to tell her. I didn’t know who I could refer to her, I didn’t know how to console her. There wasn’t really anything within me that I had been brought up with that would really allow for me to be a resource to her. This is the problem, I didn’t see any institutions, there weren’t any conversations [happening about this], the rhetoric was so simplistic and it was just this constant: Men and women, should they talk to each other, should they not talk to each other? The end result is this young girls is being beaten, what are we doing for her?

She ended up getting married to that man. About seven, eight years later, she’s sitting back in my office. She was emotionally abused, physically abused. When she turned to her family, they said that, “You’ve got to stay there because what would people say if you get divorced?” She had a daughter in that time and on her own she managed to leave from that country and come back to this country and now she is sitting in my office. She had a diary that she wrote in quite regularly. She gave it to me to read. I read it up until I got to a point where she said that every night this man came to be intimate with me, it felt like I was being raped over and over again.

In those seven years, I adopted the option that said for her life to not be in vain, and you start learning about what it is that I can equip myself to do to be true to her reality.

This is her reality and if we think that the conversation we want to have today is not tied to it, or we believe that it could only be a conversation that is about satisfying ourselves and not really thinking about how we have communal obligation to understand that this is a starting point towards the development of things that are much bigger, then we are doing a disservice to many lives that we might not ever come into contact with directly but we most definitely have the ability to impact.

Another young woman came to see me who she said when she was younger she had a facial disfigure. She went to an Islamic school where she said not only her classmates made fun of the way she looked, but she overheard sometimes teachers mocking the way that she looked. She said as she got older, she built up within herself a confidence to make a choice of having reconstructive surgery to deal with the facial disfigurement. She didn’t want to be laughed at anymore. Her home life was such that her father didn’t treat her that well and her mother didn’t treat her that well. What their understanding was of her as a daughter was quite limited in its capacity and then justified the treatment of her through both religious and cultural norms.

[She told me]: Constantly told what was wrong with me, it didn’t really matter what I do with my life because I was going to be made to get married to someone that they wanted me to get married to anyway. I went to have this surgery and prior to it my father who is almost always just angry with me, yelling, screaming, fighting, beating, he said, “Don’t do it and if you do it, we are not telling you not to, God will punish you.” She had the surgery and after the first phase of it, it has some complications and they couldn’t resuscitate her. When they resuscitated her, rather than being met with any type of concern or worry, she said the first thing my father said to me when I woke was, “See I told you God would punish you.” She had the second set of surgeries, she said for the first time I felt just happy looking at myself in the mirror. I enjoyed seeing the smile that I saw, I felt beautiful. My father, my mother, they would tell me I had no reason to smile, that I’m not beautiful, that I’m just as ugly. Nobody would want anything to do with me; no one is ever going to want to marry me. She said, “For the first time I realize how alone I am. That the only time I ever really felt support and comfort was when I was in that hospital with those doctors and those residents and the nurses and everybody else.”

She said, “I picked up a metal can and start to hit my face with it. I wanted to hurt myself so I can go back to that hospital.” She said, “I hit myself so much and so hard that I actually went unconscious. I woke up in the hospital; I was distraught because the doctor had told me that I hadn’t broken anything so I could go home. Now I’m just waiting to die.”

I think it’s important to think about these things, not in ways that we now assume through a frame of self-deprecation, ideas that cause us to be paralyzed in different ways.

When we only have abstract academic conversations about permissibility or impermissibility, we fail to recognize that people’s lives are actively being impacted because of certain things that exist that we have the ability to change strategically. Since all we do is talk and then it doesn’t yield anything being done, we leave these people hanging.

I can sit here and tell you story after story because I see it every day whether people are in my office, I’m getting Facebook messages, emails, phone calls from people all over the world. Not just in the frame of women being abused by men and women, which is an important conversation to have when you talk about gender, but also that young men were abused by men and women. You see what I’m saying?

What you and I have to think about as we frame our conversations today around what Islam says about these things, it’s two-fold. Do we believe in the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition that emphasizes as inherent truth the idea that men are better than women? Do we believe that this is something that is an absolute?

Do we assess that those verses mean that men categorically are superior to women as a divine decree? When we look at narrations that we want to be able to understand and not problematize just for the sake of it but in terms of the real application. The Prophet Alayhis ‘Salam, he says that, All of you are shepherds. All of you are responsible for your sheep. As the narration continues, he says women are shepherds of their husband’s homes. Does that mean he is categorically defining that a woman can only be in that space? Is he speaking only to the realities of the Quraysh and Medinese? Is he saying as a universal that this is something that Islam accepts?

Do you see [how an idea of a patriarchal God] yields realities such as a young girl trying to beat herself into pain? Because the pain of her life is such that what she is told of a young woman she’s supposed to be, brings her into that reality. Or a woman has to be made to endure a relationship that is not based off ideas of love and mercy, because this is what she’s told the Qur’an says a marriage is about. She’s sitting in a place [where] she believes every night of her life [that] she is being sexually assaulted.

What do we start to do? How do we start to build? I don’t believe the answer involves itself purely through individuals speaking and talking. I think the collective that is represented in this room can be one that starts to categorically make shifts in our understanding of this. Because we build our services and institutions that need to be made. The reality of such is that we don’t conceptualize what communal obligation is in the way that we need to. Because we don’t really understand individual obligation. Because we don’t really have literacy in our Islam, in our faith.

We then succumb to individuals who became abusive of their authority because the way gender is constructed itself. In realities that are distinct from our own, that we have to acknowledge not through a framework of being a thousand miles away or even a hundred miles away and imposing our realities on the realities of others whose lived experiences are quite different from our own. It necessitates for them to just function and thrive and live that gender roles and gender assignments have to be done in the way that they are, organically or deliberately just so that they can survive.

What do you do if you’re in a developing country? I visited internally displaced populations in Sri Lanka where for years they were without homes, without infrastructure, without electricity, without roofs. They don’t have medicines to give their new born children to remedy ailments. They could easily survive off what we have in our cupboards that we throw away at the end of the year. For them, survival means different things – it means the ability to say, men do this and women do that.

Here where we’re at, what do we think about this? How do we then assess it and understand it in terms of the gaps that we have in our local community and thinking about what it is that we can build? I had a woman who came to see me after Ramadan two years ago. One of the things that happen after our month of fasting is that Muslims are asked to give a specific amount in charity. Many adopt the opinion that it doesn’t have to be [given in the form] of commodities such as rice and wheat, etc., but whatever the equivalent is in cash can be given. Let’s say it’s $10 per person.

This woman came to see me who her husband had been abusive of her for quite a long time. She had two young kids. She said, when I leave from the house to take them to daycare, kindergarten and my husband would go to work, my life was such that I would just go sit on a bench in the park and cry. Because what was really going on in my existence? [She managed to tap into her] courage, resilience, and she broke away from that home. She went to a shelter system that was arguably more hostile to her — theft, prostitution, drugs. She had to deal with the reality of bringing babies into that.

We have not built for her what we needed to build for her. She’s sitting in my office; I gave her about 3 or 4,000 dollars in this charity that we collect after our month of fasting. When I gave it to her, she gave it back to me. I said, “Why are you giving this back to me?” She said, “I never had my own bank account before. I’ve never paid for my own credit card. I’ve never had my own cell phone bill. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it. You keep it and you tell me what to do.” 40-years-old, got married at a younger age. There are language barriers. The insularity of many of our communities has made her a person who doesn’t know how to interact with people beyond her own culture.

Her challenge is not that she doesn’t get her reality. It’s that we don’t get her reality. We’re only seeing God in terms of an individual obligation – [simply] “let me throw money at someone.” Without thinking about what it is that she needs. Institutionally, she needs a holistic understanding of her reality that allows for us to see where she is today and how we can build services for her. Then we have conversations simultaneously that preemptively deal with whatever is the illness that causes these symptoms to exist.

This conversation could have gone in a lot of different directions. I could have stood up here and I could have told you about Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, who has written a multi-volume text called Al-Muhaddithat that is just [filled with] entry after entry of female hadith scholars for centuries going back. He stopped at, I believe, 40 volumes not because he ran out of people to talk about but because he didn’t think people would read a book that was that long. I don’t think that’s a perspective that I could offer. To me what that does is, it just feeds into what our real big problem is. We just talk and we don’t do. A lot of times our engagement of text becomes one that is more eisegetical than exegetical.

Aside from the Qur’anic commentary we call tafsir is the eisegetical analysis – the meaning you take from the text. What many people do today is they formulate their arguments, then they pull out verses and narrations that say this proves this. You can turn a book to mean anything you want it to. People can pick up the Qur’an and scripture can be very dangerous in this way. They can utilize it to justify domestic violence, as much as they can utilize it to say that is a ridiculous practice and is haram.

If anybody walks away with anything today, [it’s that] you can’t religiously beat your wife — that’s just stupid. What God do you believe in that you can stand in front of and you think that’s something that He would say is permissible to do?

That eisegetical analysis becomes quite problematic in the movement forward. Because it doesn’t then acknowledge how it is that we empower voices that had built themselves up through preexisting cultures. Whatever we want to find, it’s important to find words. I’m not talking about masculinity directly as well as feminism, because it means different things to different people. The end results where we have societies that don’t really take into consideration what actually happens when we only engage in the simplistic discourse on gender is that we end up letting a lot of people be hurt. We have to do better than that. You all represent unique individuals in terms of your trainings, your credentials, your skill set, your level of wealth, your influence, your affluence.

What would it take for us to build something that is a shelter for women? What would it take for us to build a robust counseling service? How do we empower the existence of new institutions rather than taking legitimacy from the existing apparatus?

The last thing that I’m going to say as we wrap is that the conversation on spirituality, I believe, is going to be one of the most critical elements to this. Because when we fail to have literacy in our tradition both on matters that are outward as well as inward, we fail to cultivate an understanding of oneself. What really draws us and drives and motivates us? Why it is that we hate? Why it is that we desire? Why it is that we lust? Why it is that we abuse? Why it is that we do many of the things that we do? Then the society that makes us individuals draws us more towards the material. The acquisition of feeding our stomachs at the expense of the satiation of our souls. We don’t really sit down and talk about the heart. We don’t really sit down and talk about what goes on inside. It’s just about accumulation of things that are outside. Spirituality to me will become a very key element in the building of what it is that we need to take on some of these things. If I can be helpful to any of you in any of the work that you’re doing, feel free to let me know.

[Through our conversation today], we need to figure out ways to collaborate and to fill these gaps in ways that are not sensationalized but sustainable. We’re not creating moments to prove something.

What we need to start doing is moving beyond just a conversation and start to really build. Build in ways where we’re not so attached to our wealth that we don’t give it for the sake of others. What better thing could you do honestly, then to put your money into creating a space where a mother could take a child and break out of the shackles of hostility and abuse, [break away] from a man who has no idea what it means to be a man? You provide her with comfort she might not have felt for the entire duration of her life.

Could you place any material object at a higher value than the thoughts and prayers of that mother, who is asking for your goodness and your benefit, even having never met you? There are thousands that are like that. Not in countries far away, but up the street where you live. As you go through the day, affirm your intention to what brought you here. You came just to talk? I would say then realign. Let yourself be open and present from every aspect of yourself, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Yield to the conversations; challenge those who are going to speak to you. Challenge with an intention that is not to give rise to your ego or self. Challenge because you want to push the collective to have the conversations necessary so that confidence replaces insecurity. We go out and build what we have the ability to do. Again, if we could do that together, it would be an honor and a privilege. I know in my own personal opinion I’m going to have to stand in front of God one day. He’s not going ask me [only] about what it is that I did but also what it is that I had the ability to do.

I know what I’m good at and I know what I’m not good at. I know there’s a lot of you in this room that are a lot better at things that I don’t have the know-how to do. If we came together, we could do some really amazing things that would help a lot of people. Just simply because it’s the right thing to do. May Allah Subhana Wa Tala guide us and protect us.


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