To qualify as “marriage-friendly” material, a Muslim woman is expected to be:
- Martha Stewart in the kitchen.
- A combination of Hoover feather duster and mop in cleanness.
- Scarlett Johansson in sex appeal.
- Virgin Mary in modesty.
- Mother Teresa in devotion.
- Malala Yousafzai in activism and literacy — only for bragging purposes.
- Octomom in making an army of kids.
- And Wonder Woman in putting up with the in-laws.
What’s a Muslim man to do? Provide, protect, and concur.
Stereotypical, rigid cultural expectations of gender roles in our diverse Muslim communities are baffling, frustrating, and unIslamic. Seriously!
The way we are raised, and alternatively raise our children to fit into these blue-printed moulds of what it means to be woman and man — what constitutes masculinity and femininity — is problematic.
The pressure to conform to these “normative” constructions often lead people to fragmented identities when they fail to meet or fulfill what family members and the larger community anticipate.
I will never forget the day when a prospect suitor was interested in me 20-something years ago. His mother and sister came for a visit to “check me out.”
I was 18 in my last year of high school. My idea about marriage was a knight in shining armor who will come rescue me from sadness and loneliness. After roses and honeymoons, reality hit me hard.
I was expected to cook, clean the house, do laundry, make babies, forget about my education, ask for permission to make friends, wear niqab (face veil), and be at the disposal of my in-laws as they pleased.
I rebelled internally and externally until I earned the titles rebellious, disobedient, and morally f***ed up.
We continue to provide support for women, but we blame, incarcerate, and penalize men who are perpetrators of violence. We are really not tackling the roots of the problem in order to create a culture of prevention rather than intervention.
Today, I sit in a liberal arts university studying cultural and religious misconceptions people abuse and misuse to legitimize and validate all forms of violence against Muslim women.
When I say all forms, I mean physical, psychological, sexual, intellectual, emotional, verbal, spiritual, religious, economic, social, structural, and ideological. And the more I learn about this epidemic, the more I realize that we cannot resolve issues of inequality, injustice, and violence unless we address the social construction of Muslim masculinity and femininity with special emphasis on perceptions of masculinity.
The latter is crucial, because we continue to provide support for women, but we blame, incarcerate, and penalize men who are perpetrators of violence.
However, we are really not tackling the roots of the problem in order to create a culture of prevention rather than intervention.
Just to be clear, this is not a “Muslim” dilemma. The problematic design of gender roles is something that even the most liberal of people struggle with.
The documentary “The Mask You Live In,” explores and exposes the harmful notions of masculinity in American culture. Joe Ehrmann, coach and former NFL player, says in the film: “The three most destructive words that every man receives when he’s a boy is when he’s told to ‘be a man.’”
Sociologist Michael Kimmel adds saying: “We’ve constructed an idea of masculinity in the United States that doesn’t give young boys a way to feel secure in their masculinity — so we make them go prove it all the time.”
In our Muslim communities, the problems are not very much different. Parents teach their boys not to show or deal with emotions, to “suck it up,” to act like men, and to never seek help.
Most mothers also teach their young men, either by serving the father or having the sisters serve their brothers, that it is a woman’s job to do all house chores, to be “obedient,” and that women are spiritually and physically subordinates to their male counterparts.
How did we get here? What went wrong along the way? This article argues that if a man neglects helping his wife with household chores, he is actually neglecting sunnah, or the body of established customs and beliefs that make up Islamic tradition based on the life of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), was asked, “What did the Prophet used to do in his house?” She replied, “He used to keep himself busy serving his family (كَانَ يَكُونُ فِي مِهْنَةِ أَهْلِهِ) and when it was the time for prayer, he would go for it.” (Bukhari).
Did you also know that Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) stitched his clothes?
Aisha is reported to have said, “He did what one of you would do in his house. He mended sandals and patched garments and sewed.” (Adab Al-Mufrad graded sahih by Al-Albani).
Then, how did we end up associating household chores with women and femininity? And if a man tries to practice the sunnah, why is he ridiculed, mocked, and marginalized?
‘The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did domestic chores, including childrearing, alongside his wives. He (PBUH) also took seriously his wives’ roles in politics and education. Yet, the predominant conception of Islamic masculinity — the one being promoted in conflict-ridden areas — is of the man who is harsh and violent instead of loving.’
Discussions around Muslim masculinity are being slowly introduced into academic and social circles. Princeton Muslim Life in Princeton University organized a conference titled “Muslim Masculinity in an Age of Feminism” in November 2015.
Panel sessions covered topics that included spirituality and religious authority, relationships and family, and politics and activism.
Palwasha L. Kakar, senior program officer for religion and peace building at the U.S. Institute of Peace, presented during the conference, saying that the predominant conception of Islamic masculinity is of harshness and brutality.
“The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did domestic chores, including childrearing, alongside his wives. He (PBUH) also took seriously his wives’ roles in politics and education. And yet, the predominant conception of Islamic masculinity — the one being promoted in conflict-ridden areas — is of the man who is harsh and violent instead of loving,” Kakar said.
New York University Chaplain and Executive Director of Islamic Center Imam Khalid Latif gave a talk in Singapore in August 2016 raising the question, “Who is a Muslim man?” He spoke firmly about domestic abuse becoming a severe problem in the Muslim community due to wrong ideas about what it means to be a man.
“Groups like ISIS and Boko Haram reduce manhood to dominance and control, and Islam is used as a veneer by such groups to legitimize violence and sex slavery. Even in the domestic spheres, some Muslim men resort to physical abuse to reassert their control and religious authority,” Latif said.
Parents, siblings, religious leaders, educators, and role models…all of us must rethink, redefine, and offer a healthy alternative to masculinity — if we want to see fundamental change of violence in our local and global communities.
Palwasha L. Kakar concludes her remarks saying that not only do we need to redefine gender roles in our Muslim communities, but we must promote peace to have effective long term solutions.
“We must consider how religious actors play an important role in defining and reshaping peaceful masculinities. Most importantly, we have to provide emotional support to men and boys.”
It is no simple task to challenge and reform structures that support violent masculinities, but we need to start somewhere.
Let us revive ideals of what our prophet (PBUH) demonstrated, such as when he took his beloved wife’s cup and drank from where her lips made contact. How many, in this day and age, consider this act noteworthy within a culture of pervading toxic masculinity?