The image of the Muslim man in the popular imagination: conflicted, beset with issues as to his identity, unsure of his place in the world. Muslim masculinity is in a state of crisis.
Honor killings. Political violence. Extremism. Domestic abuse. Grooming. Every touchpaper possible that can be lit, has been lit. Some are aiding and abetting this crisis, while with little fanfare, a lone few Muslim leaders are attempting to take it on. If masculinity is in crisis, the masculinity of the Muslim man is really feeling the heat.
Six years ago, Newsweek asked the question: What is the matter with men? Some Muslim leaders are themselves now posing this question: What is the matter with Muslim men?
A widely-touted 2010 Newsweek cover story on men in crisis, “Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity,” found that the U.S. economy transitioning from “brawn to brain over the past three decades,” and that more women are joining the work force. Meanwhile, men’s “share of the labor force has declined from 70 percent in 1945 to less than 50 percent today.” And that’s just in America. In education, women are outperforming men in college and graduate school across the world. And Muslim men and women are no exception—the pattern is being echoed across the Gulf and Muslim-majority countries everywhere.
Meanwhile men are routinely infantilized in popular culture. “When we think 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,” Dr. Sameera Ahmed, Executive Director of the Muslim non-profit, Family and Youth Institute told altMuslimah.com at an event last year, as she pointed out how Muslim men are consistently portrayed as incompetent children.
“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?’ … Over and over again you see this [idea portrayed in the media that] men are another child that a woman has to deal with,” she says.
If things are bad for Muslim men, what does it mean to be a Muslim man in an age where Muslim women are increasingly dominating the workforce, attaining better academic qualifications on average and succeeding at life?
“When you think of masculinity, what are some of the terms that come up for you?” the Huffington Post asked a group of men last year. The men responded with, “Dominance.” “Power.” “Strong.” “Alpha.” “Control.” There’s no doubt that manhood is linked with domination wherever in the world you are. But for Muslim men, masculinity has taken on a uniquely distorted meaning—and with very different, troubling results. After decades of deconstructing masculinity to better accommodate women’s rights, that very process of deconstruction has left masculinity, including Muslim masculinity, in flux.
These questions have become such a concern in fact, that a group of Muslim leaders in the U.S. decided it was time to rethink masculinity and grapple with the fall out. The crisis of masculinity has been front of center for many Muslim leaders across the world. Many came together at a conference convened at Princeton University in November 2015 by the web magazine, altMuslimah.com and the Princeton Muslim Life Program. Titled “Muslim Masculinity in an Age of Feminism,” the leaders sought to interrogate the way that manhood intersects with politics, marriage, religious community—and religious authority. What does it mean to be manly when women have jettisoned the feminine to embrace masculinity? What does it mean to be a Muslim man? Is it possible for Muslim men to forge a new meaning of manliness?
Masculinity And Political Violence
The crisis of masculinity is a global phenomenon. But instead of reimagining what it means to be masculine, men are clinging to old ideas of manhood that embrace force and aggression.
As Muslim-majority countries are increasingly beset with political violence, manhood in flux leaves a space for extremists who advocate violence to step in and manipulate men’s confusion about what it means to be a man and provide them with a simple—and simplistic—definition. Manhood is now about doing whatever it takes to protect “us” versus “them.”
“To be a man meant not to cry. Men under the Taliban were not allowed to show emotion, they were not allowed to show love,” Palwasha Kakar, the senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and an international conflict resolution specialist, says of her time in Afghanistan. Masculinity-as-dominance is a key driver for conflict—and Islam is now used as a veneer by such men to legitimize violence. The responsibility rests squarely on Muslim men to take up arms and combat oppression.
And it’s extremist groups who are leading that charge. Kakar saw the same distorted notions of Muslim masculinity promoted first by the mujahideen, then the Taliban, then by Al Qaeda. With each group the language became more extreme, but there’s a common theme: it all hinges on the idea that being a real man means standing up to injustice. Muslim men must demonstrate dominance, and dominance must be expressed through anger. The same can be said for today’s Daesh recruits.
Anger in the face of injustice might make sense, but Muslim men are struggling with ways to channel that anger towards positive outcomes. For many Muslim men feeling the weight of oppression, their powerlessness fuels violence.
Violence, draped in the mantle of Muslim manhood, is central to the research of Lahore-based psychologist, Ayesha Iftikhar; she believes that violent extremists use conceptions of an idealized masculinity to lure recruits. There’s “a core appeal to one’s notion of acceptable masculinity. Repeatedly, these narratives seem to be making an appeal to values and social norms around what it means to be a man of honor, of integrity—to be a man at all,” Iftikhar tells Newsweek Middle East.
Too often, studies on violent extremism focus on the role of religiosity, socioeconomic factors, education, and geography—but they neglect masculinity. Iftikhar calls this an “identity package.” And a key part of that package is a clear definition of an acceptable male identity. Even traits that are traditionally discouraged in Islam, such as losing one’s temper, are romanticized as inherent to manhood. “A man can’t help it if his blood boils and he takes action—who can blame him?” As the protector of faith, family, and country, a real man must always remain vigilant against potential threats.
And sometimes those threats are experienced not just in public—but in the private realm, too.
Home Front: Domestic Violence
Anywhere you look, it is widely accepted that violence against women is a way of establishing a system of male domination. When men fail to see themselves as masters of their own destiny; masculinity expressed through domestic violence becomes a symbolic way for men to become masters of another sort—masters of women. “Although domestic violence in and of itself may not be condoned or thought of as a preferred norm within the home, when traditional notions of masculinity are directly under threat, violence against women is sometimes utilized as a mechanism to maintain masculine privileges,” domestic violence specialist and Executive Director of the University of Chicago’s research accelerator, Samar Kaukab, explains to Newsweek Middle East
The pressure to be the family’s main breadwinner is by no means unique to Muslim men. But religiously-defined gender roles can exacerbate the stress. “There is no way to get around the deep interconnectedness between domestic violence and social constructs around masculinity,” Kaukab says.
Maintaining their identity when it is under threat due to systemic violence, including economic insecurity, global instability, and external violence is no easy feat. Particularly egregious examples of this interconnectedness are honor killings. Last week, Reuters reported that a jirga, or tribal council, in Makol, Pakistan, ordered an honor killing for the first time ever. While it was the first time for Makol, men in jirgas have ordered rape and forced marriage before, and Pakistan generally is the site of 500 honor killings a year, the agency reported.
This grim phenomenon in Pakistan was the subject of a 2016 Oscar-winning film, Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. There, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy told the story of a 19-year-old, Saba, who was shot and left to die by her father and uncle after she eloped with a man from a lower class.
Saba committed the “crime” that, according to the South Asian Network to Address Masculinities (SANAM), is most often linked with honor killings: “free will marriages by women.” Such marriages are one example of bringing “shame” on the community. In the case of the Makol murder, the 16-year-old woman was put to death not for her own marriage, but for helping a young couple run away and elope.
According to a study by SANAM, the thinking goes like this: Women are seen as symbols of honor and “cultural carriers of the values of modesty.” “Good women” are defined as those who uphold the proper code of sexual conduct, and any woman who breaches that code violates disrespects both her community and her family—in particular, the male members of her family. To exact revenge for her breach, tribal custom requires that her husband, brother, father, uncle, or male cousin exercise his expected “manly role” and punish her. SANAM explains: “When a woman takes the decision of choice marriage against their family members she is likely to be perceived as the offender of male power, control and dominance in familial social organization. Thus, the attributes of masculinity begin to emerge and operate in the form of male family members’ anger, reaction, aggression, control and power over women in the kinship and social organization.”
Violence in the face of a threatened masculinity results in tragedy after tragedy. Is there a way forward?
In 2010, others argued that the solution to the crisis is to expand “what men can do for a living.” “[W]omen long ago proved that gender essentialism doesn’t determine what kind of work they can do.” Men must now do the same.
But progress also lies in broadening the overall definition of masculinity. In particular, it requires finding ways to reflect strength without also including violence. Manal Omar, associate vice president at USIP, tells Newsweek Middle East that “men who choose non-violence must also incorporate strategies to present their image as strong and holding moral authority.”
“Without these strategies, the community will continue to gravitate to men with arms for protection which then translates to positions of leadership, authority, and decision making.”
Instead of weapons, the tools for power and protection of self and community have to be based on debate and engagement. “When our emotional reactions come from a place of processing the environment as a threat, we are primed to be reactive rather than reflective, and a more primitive part of the brain takes over, which is more concerned with immediate action (fight, flight or freeze), without regard for the wider consequences. This is known as an amygdala hijack,” Iftikhar says; instead of an “us” versus “them” attitude, cooperation and compromise are key.
“By re-learning associations about threats, about how one’s masculine identity can still survive in alternative ways, mentally we may become less reactive, and more likely to process information through the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which rationally considers a situation and helps in making complex social judgments.”
For Muslim men in particular, this reformation of mental and emotional processes can be found in their own belief set—by following an obvious guide: What does the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) character say about masculinity defined in terms of dominance, control, and violence? Can masculinity be reimagined in ways that better embrace the prophetic model?
At the altMuslimah.com conference, one of the speakers, Dr. Halim Naeem, a leading expert and the president of the organization Muslim Mental Health, best summed it up. “In my heart of hearts, I feel like everything that the Prophet was about was driven by love. It was driven by mercy. It’s actually in the Quran: 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.”
Other specialists cited example after example of the Prophet’s open displays of vulnerability, emotion, and affection.
Trembling in Khadijah’s arms after he received his first revelation; or, when the Bedouins were surprised to see him kiss his grandsons, the Prophet instructed, “Whoever doesn’t treat with mercy will not be treated with mercy.” These kinds of examples provide a concrete model for a re-imagined masculinity.
So while Muslim masculinity may have challenges of its own, it also has its unique solutions. Masculinity evolves with time, but there’s a timeless core in Islam that can help Muslim men think beyond their geographical, social, cultural, and economic limits.
For Muslim men, then, to reimagine is to rediscover maleness—and if this means that they must rediscover the foundational aspects of the Prophet’s personality that elevate and celebrate knowledge, compromise, patience, and kindness—then so be it.
Asma T. Uddin is altMuslimah.com’s founder, editor-in-chief and a religious liberties lawyer.