Platonic Friendships and the “Man Box”

A recent online discussion sparked a heated debate over the idea of platonic friendships. A video was shared about Steve Harvey, author of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” (I don’t blame you if you want to headdesk after reading that title), who told CNN that women and men cannot be friends. His argument was that platonic friendships could not exist because men are always seeking an opportunity to make it more than just friendship. He backed up this claim by simply saying, “Because we’re guys.” In other words, all men are the same and biologically programmed to be attracted to every woman they meet.

I explained to my friends that my problem with Harvey’s comments is that they are sexist and homogenizing. In the heterosexual context, arguing that women and men cannot be friends reinforces a lot of rigid and sexist norms about gender. It perpetuates the popular stereotype that men are innately sexual predators who “cannot control” their “desires” or “urges,” while implying that women cannot be sexual and are “delusional” for believing that they can have male friends. I do not deny that there are challenges in platonic friendships, especially when one person is interested in something more than friendship, and I do not deny the possibility of physical and/or emotional attraction. Certainly, there are people who have struggled in maintaining friendships with the opposite sex, but it doesn’t mean that true platonic friendships cannot exist, or that women and men must be completely segregated. It doesn’t mean women and men are wired to exclusively view each other in a sexual and/or romantic context. A brilliant blogger at “Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?!” criticizes the way Good Morning America once cited a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found opposite sex friendships have a 15% chance of ending in an affair.  The show emphasized on the 15%, but never asked about what happens 85% of the time.

In many ways, dichotomous conceptions of gender service patriarchy because they assign sexist gender patterns to both women and men. Consider, for instance, how sexually promiscuous men can justify their behavior by merely saying, “Hey, I can’t help myself. I’m a guy!” This “excuse” not only equates male sexuality with sexual promiscuity, but also standardizes such behavior to make it socially acceptable (as is evident in how men are judged in positive ways with words like “stud,” “pimp,” “player,” “Casanova,” and so on). Of course, if a woman behaved in the same or similar manner, she would be called a “slut,” “whore,” and other degrading insults. What is often overlooked is how dangerous this sexual double-standard is and how it’s another way to control women through shame, humiliation, and judgment.

On the same thread, a couple of people supported Harvey’s statements by bringing up John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” book. I mentioned a feminist critique of the book and explained how extremely problematic Gray’s presentation of the sexes is. Aside from the fact that Gray writes from “his own observations” and doesn’t include a single footnote in the book, he treats all men as alike, and all women as alike. He states that when men are troubled, they will “retreat” to “their cave” (which he defines as their television room, basement, workshop, etc.) because they need “alone time” to “sort things out.” Gray suggests that there is nothing a woman can do or change about her male partner’s refusal to speak or express himself. She is supposed to leave him alone because that’s how all men are: we’d rather just sit in front of the TV than seek help and communicate with our partner.  In actuality, credible research shows that men tend to resort to bullying and abusive behavior when they are troubled (source cited in Julia T. Wood’s critique, “A Critical Response to John Gray’s Mars and Venus Portrayals of Men and Women”).  It is true that women and men have differences, but to treat them as if they’re from different planets essentially creates an unnecessary barrier and completely shuts down room for healthy dialogue. After exposing Gray’s sexist and totalizing portrayals of gender, a male Muslim defender of the book called my analysis “militant” and “tainted by an aggressive feminist flare.”

What I found discouraging was how antagonistic a couple of the Muslim men were towards feminism (and, for the record, I know plenty of non-Muslim men who would vilify feminism as well). Although there was a Muslim man who agreed with me on the thread, he was quickly pushed out of the conversation when the debate became about feminism.  Consider bell hooks’ definition of feminism, which she describes as a movement that seeks to eradicate sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. It is a movement that recognizes the interlocking nature of sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression, and how these injustices must be confronted in order to radically restructure society and bring about revolutionary, transformative change. I argue that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a feminist because his elimination of female infanticide in 7th century Arabia, along with other revolutionary acts, sought to end sexism, sexual violence, and other oppressions.

Despite sharing this definition of feminist philosophy and politics, I was told by one of the Muslim men that feminist classes are “full of rubbish” and “nonsense.” He also said, “You need to learn about manliness in Islam.” The other Muslim man said that women and men cannot be friends because a man is “weak” and can “succumb” to his “desires” at “any moment” and at “any time.” In other words, regardless of how deeply in Love a man is with his life companion, being alone with a female friend would cause him to cheat on his wife/partner. After all, men simply cannot control themselves!

From an Islamic perspective, I’m sure most Muslims have heard the Hadith that says the devil is the third person when a woman and man are alone together.  Aside from the fact that Hadiths are disputed (and that there are Muslims who will only follow the Qur’an), there is a Qur’anic verse that may shed some light on an individual’s responsibilities and personal relationship with the self:

When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves.’ (Qur’an 14:22)

What stands out to me is how Satan says he has no power over a person and that he can only call the person.  The choice to respond to his call is yours alone.  So, if the argument is that women and men cannot be friends because men are “weak” and “succumb” to their desires, then why bother teaching self-discipline and self-control at all in Islam?  Why teach about mutual respect and that we are individually responsible for our sins?  Why treat men as exclusively sexual creatures who will want to sleep with every woman they meet?  Islamic teachings, particularly from the Sufi tradition, emphasize immensely on cleansing the self, building a personal relationship with the self, as well as with God, because there are conscious choices and decisions that we all make.  I want to clarify that I’m not saying every heterosexual person should have friends of the opposite sex, nor am I suggesting that I look down upon people who refuse to have such friendships.  I completely respect a person’s decision to abstain from opposite sex friendships (for whatever reason, spiritual or otherwise), but what I find problematic and offensive is how segregation of the sexes is often used to display one’s “religious superiority” over another person.  In other words, respectful dialogue is not encouraged when someone argues against platonic friendships while declaring that it is “un-Islamic,” “sinful,” and “against the Sunnah,” or way of the Prophet.

The comment about me needing to “learn about manliness in Islam” made me not only consider the way feminism is often stereotyped as being about “women dominating over men,” but also how strict and suppressive male social norms are.  In December, a couple of months after I wrote my post, “Eradicate Masculinity,” I saw an incredibly moving and inspiring TED video featuring activist and lecturer Tony Porter, who encouraged men to break free of the “man box” (the video is posted below, so please check it out whenever you can!).

The “man box” is a social construction; it contains the ingredients that are required for a man to be considered a “real man.”  Similar to Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” Porter describes how men are constantly taught and socialized to be “tough,” “strong,” “dominating,” sexually promiscuous, etc.  Even in times of weakness and emotional distress, men will conceal their pain and sorrow by projecting a false image of themselves.  Porter tells a moving story about the loss of his teenage brother and how his father would not cry in front of him.  It was only until they were in the presence of women did his father eventually break into tears.  Later, Porter’s father apologized to him for crying, while commending Porter for not crying.  Why is it so shameful for men to express their emotions, their weaknesses, their doubts, their need for Love and compassion?  We think the “man box” actually protects us from looking “weak,” or “sissy” (which is really code for “being a girl”), but what it actually does is lock us up in a tight, suffocating prison that sucks the humanity out of us.

If the “man box” teaches us that being a man is about not being a girl, then, as Porter asks, what does that say about what we teach about girls?  Doesn’t that uphold the Mars and Venus mythology that women and men are like different species that cannot transcend socialized gender norms?  What does it say about male and female relationships, be they platonic, romantic, father-daughter, or mother-son relationships?  What does the “man box” tell us about masculinity and how it operates in terms of who gets to exert power, who gets to dominate, and who gets to control?

In heteronormative societies, to criticize masculinity is to challenge something that is celebrated in the mainstream. Deconstructing the way masculinity has been and continues to be defined is to criticize social norms that are glamorized and rewarded.  bell hooks contends that all men must “begin to criticize the sexist notions of masculinity… that equate manhood with ability to exert power over others, especially use of coercive force.”  She also adds that this violent and sexist construction of masculinity is celebrated in mainstream media:

Most men who are violent against women are not seeking help or change.  They do not feel that their acceptance and perpetration of violence against women is wrong.  How can it be wrong if society rewards them for it?  Television screens are literally flooded daily with tales of male violence, especially male violence against women.  It is glamorized, made entertaining and sexually titillating.  The more violent a male character is, whether he be hero or villain, the more attention he receives.  Often a male hero has to exert harsher violence to subdue a villain.  This violence is affirmed and rewarded.  The more violent the male hero is (usually in his quest to save or protect a woman/victim), the more he receives Love and affirmation from women.  His acts of violence in the interest of protection are seen as gestures of care, of his “Love” for women and his concern for humanity.

This image of the violent male hero/protector is  undoubtedly a dangerous standard that continues to perpetuate in most societies.  It not only normalizes male violence against both women and men, it also reemphasizes on the “innate differences” between women and men that completely close off dialogue and understanding.  The “man box” teaches us to suppress our emotions, and it can be challenging for many Muslim men because, for most of us, we feel pressure to establish careers for ourselves before we can even think about getting serious with a woman, falling in Love, and getting married.  We don’t feel worthy enough, and how can we when the “man box” tells us we need to prove our “manliness” by constantly displaying our “toughness” and “masculinity,” while hiding the things that make us human?

This isn’t to say men are exploited or oppressed by patriarchy, but rather that they do suffer from it.  To break free of the “man box” is to redefine ourselves, to liberate ourselves, to shake off the stereotypes that have been assigned to us from sexist and patriarchal ideals. My position is that male supremacy needs to be challenged, deconstructed, and eradicated to assist feminist movement in ending sexist oppression.  In order to do this, more men need to join feminist movement and challenge the way male supremacy operates in our lives.  I think one of the most common misconceptions about feminism is that it doesn’t help men, but it does and in a very meaningful way.  It liberates us from the restrictive “man box,” it teaches us to embrace our emotions and humanity; it tells us we can find Love, that we can receive and give it; it opens our hearts to understand that we are not confined to social constructions that say “boys will be boys”; it encourages us to see ourselves beyond the sexist notion that we are “only sex-minded” and that, yes, we can have meaningful friendships with women and men, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc.  Tony Porter closes his talk with these beautiful words:

I need you on board. I need you with me. I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men — that it’s okay to not be dominating, that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions, that it’s okay to promote equality, that it’s okay to have women who are just friends, that it’s okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.

“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” How beautiful would it be if we all recognized this interconnectedness?

I am on board, Tony.

47 thoughts on “Platonic Friendships and the “Man Box”

  1. This was such a great read – thank you, thank you. So many great points raised. The whole segregation thing seems to be based on false ideas. As you’ve pointed out so well men are not completely lacking in self control. All of us, male & female, can take action should we feel attraction where we shouldn’t. If we segregate people don’t get the opportunity to build those skills, to develop their discipline & learn to make good choices. This just helps perpetuate the myth that men can’t control themselves & need to be saved by being separate from all women, women staying out of community life and by women covering up as much as possible. Hijab is another area where these strange ideas come out – that Muslim women must cover to make things easier for men.

    • Thank you for your comment, Majeeda! Men definitely need to take more responsibility in acknowledging that we *can* control ourselves and shouldn’t blame everything on the lack of segregation, or on the way women dress, speak, behave, etc.

      “This just helps perpetuate the myth that men can’t control themselves & need to be saved by being separate from all women, women staying out of community life and by women covering up as much as possible.”

      Beautifully said! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

  2. Wow, this is quite a substantial post, full of great points. I especially liked this one: “What stands out to me is how Satan says he has no power over a person and that he can only call the person. The choice to respond to his call is yours alone. So, if the argument is that women and men cannot be friends because men are “weak” and “succumb” to their desires, then why bother teaching self-discipline and self-control at all in Islam? Why teach about mutual respect and that we are individually responsible for our sins? ” — thank you for making such a clear rebuttal of that ridiculous claim.

  3. Thank you for writing this! I had a friend read an excerpt of Steve Harvey’s book to me, and I was so disgusted I was shocked that my friends found it funny and “totally worth a read”! What’s so funny about being told to think like a man but act like a lady? I don’t understand, and I hope never to understand anything as sexist as this. ‘S all good, though — I never did view Harvey as an intelligent man whose views I should give a second thought. Ever.

    I read a part of Gray’s “Men are fom Mars, Women are from Jupiter,” and I, too, noted that he was putting all men in one category and all women in another. Such works are nothing but pitiful attempts to impose a certain definition of “normality” on all of us, a backward attempts to continue marginalizing those who do not fit into the musty little boxes they’ve created for every single human: You’re either a man or a woman; end of debate.

    What I find bothersome at times is when some Muslims quote Harvey or Gray to support the man-made concept of gender segregation. God forbid a man shall see a strand of my hair at my wedding! God forbid a man shall see my ankle and gets attracted to me and then we, the beasts we clearly are supposed to be, end up lusting after each other or whatever.

    I’m sure you must know about Zakir Naik and are always told to go read his books/lectures so you can become a better Muslim or something! Yeah, well, he cites this one instance in one of his video-lectures that one day, he was invited to give a lecture on Islam and he specifically requested that the women be in the back and the men in the front. But, unfortunately for him, the people didn’t listen, so, he says, “When I was giving the lecture, I could look only either at the ceiling or the floor. I couldn’t look straight because there were women right there in front of me, and I had to keep my hijab.” Funniness?

    He also says, when asked about female prophets (and I quote him verbatim): “… a Prophet has to even lead the congregational prayers. And as I said earlier, that there are certain postures like Qayam, Rukuh and Sujud, standing, bowing and doing the Sujud – prostration – and which, if a Woman Prophet does, the congregation behind will get disturbed” (from his book “Rights of Women in Islam,” p. 57).

    He even says: “… if someone says that he looks at a woman and nothing happens to him, then he requires a psychiatrist” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GchZLOe7wf8&NR=1, 00:57 – 1:02).

    So! Those men who don’t feel anything upon looking at a woman need to see a psychiatrist.

    Anyway, an excellently-written post; it was a pleasure to read it!

    • Thanks, Serenity! I never heard about Steve Harvey until I saw the CNN interview with him. His simplistic portrayal of gender reminded me so much of John Gray. It’s amazing how people find their work credible!

      Haha, yes, I’ve seen Zakir Naik’s lectures before and I’ve been advised by many Muslims to watch his videos to strengthen my iman! I can’t believe he said something like that at the lecture! What’s so ridiculous is people like him don’t even realize how dirty a comment like that is! It basically says that if he looks at women, he won’t be able to control himself and will do God knows what! Unbelievable.

      Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out soon! :)

      • I’ll tell you what is most disturbing about Steve Harvey’s thoughts: He is a comedian, and is a big figure within the black community. He has his own radio show in the mornings that airs nationally on stations that mostly have black listeners. So that is the problem I have. He is teaching misogyny as normal and ok to the black community, and I have a problem with that.

    • I’m sure there is a conversation about this in the Black community. In fact, the critiques I’ve read of Steve Harvey were written by Black feminists. Those who were defending Harvey on my friend’s Facebook page were Muslims of various racial backgrounds – South Asian, Arab, and white.

      • Yes there is, I have a few black friends who love his books, I would voice my objections but I could end up hurting their feelings.

        What I really hate is how Harvey is now treated like this relationship expert all of sudden. But what’s worse is he’s treated like he’s expert on the issues facing the Black community. No one ever seems to ask black academics about this issues.

  4. Hi
    I’m a new reader
    It was very interesting!
    I would like to say that men and women can be Friends but not “good friends”. Because there is not only physical attraction that can lead to infidelity but thre is something called emotional infidelity, I personally would never approve of that. Actually emotional infidelity hurts more, because the intimacy a wife/fiance craves is shared with someone else. I can never forgive that!
    Thanks and regards!

    • Sana, welcome to my blog and thanks for sharing your thoughts! I agree that it is possible for platonic friendships to cause disruption in one’s own relationship/marriage, but this is not always the case. I think it has to do with security and maturity. That is, if two people deeply Love one anther and are fully committed, then they’ll be able to work out whatever problems they may have. This is why communication is so important!

      I believe women and men can be good friends without any emotional or physical infidelity taking place. It all comes down to communication, trust, and honesty.

  5. I enjoyed reading this, thank you. I showed Tough Guise to high school students a few years ago. I used it as a way to open discussion about gender role stereotyping and to prevent bullying between the boys. We had a great discussion about what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl. They quickly realized that many had fallen for gender role stereotypes and complained that it was all over the movies and videos and even their parents and teachers reinforced these stereotypes.
    It’s great to see posts like yours. Do you ever go speak in schools?

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed the post, Lily! Thanks for reading! I think “Tough Guise” is an excellent documentary to use in classrooms and encourage discussion about socialized gender roles. I remember seeing it in one of my classes a couple of years ago and it made me think about how these stereotypical and sexist notions of masculinity are perpetuated by media and society. At the time, I didn’t really think about this before.

      I haven’t spoken in schools about gender, but I have spoken in classrooms about Islamophobia and media representations of Muslims and Arabs. I was recently published in a book called “Teaching Against Islamophobia,” where I wrote about the demonization of Muslims and Arabs in mainstream American comic books. Perhaps some day I will get the opportunity to speak about gender. :)

      • Great! I will try to find your book, because I agree that the media continues to demonize Muslims and Arabs…it happens ALL the time ALL around us. I am seeing it with Mexican immigrants too.

      • Wow this post is opening up so much for discussion. There is a lot that I could say regarding stereotyping and racism (for want of a better word) against Muslims, and others, but I think I’d better save that for another day. I feel incredibly frustrated by it some days but currently am not sure how to go about changing it. Btw Lily I see the same thing happen here in Australia with other cultural groups too ):

      • I know, I’ve read studies released in 2010 that report higher anti-Muslim attitudes among Americans than there were after 9/11 (and I think this was quite evident in the controversy surrounding the Islamic center in New York). I have been discriminated against twice and it can really take a lot out of you. I see it happening to the Latino community, too. The acceptable violence, arrests, and dehumanization (through the normalization of the word “illegal”) is so disturbing.

  6. Serenity, I don’t think I’ve heard anything this pathetic for quite a while: “When I was giving the lecture, I could look only either at the ceiling or the floor. I couldn’t look straight because there were women right there in front of me, and I had to keep my hijab.” I had never heard of him before…thankfully :)

    • LOL. I know! I know of him only because I’m from Pakistan, and he’s THE “scholar of Islam” for Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. Pity, isn’t it? It’s actually more scary than pitiful because he’s got millions of followers from what it seems, and he’s the first person who comes to the average Muslim’s mind when you talk about women’s rights, progressive Islam, hadiths, or scholarship in Islam. And he’s a medical doctor by training … which he abandoned after being influenced by Ahmed Deedat’s attacks on Christianity, Christians, America, the Bible, etc., etc., which both of them consider “da’wa to Islam”!

      But, anyway, so yeah, he’s a scary figure.

  7. Folks!
    If you think that you know Dr Zakir Naik’s nonsense to it’s fullest strength.., think again! :)
    Here is a video in which he reveals that core idea of General Relativity was actually given by a 9th century Muslim scholar Al-Kindi. Einstein did a “little bit work” over it and got famous…, largely because of some Jewish Conspiracy Theory, you know. :)
    And that old Pythagorean theorem that you did in your high school, well that was proved by a 13th century Muslim polymath Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. I guess they wrote Pythagoras’ name in text books probably because Tusi’s name was as much difficult as it is unfamiliar….And no, he is not done ye…, these were some 15 century Arab scholars who told us that the world is not flat.

    • I feel half bad for not staying on topic, but, Usman, that made me laugh. I hope this isn’t seen as mockery of him, because I don’t mean it that way; I just find it difficult to believe that people are willing to accept him as an authority on religions (not just Islam but on Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and every other religion on earth as of yet!) and on science — and medicine, of course, since he’s a doctor as well. In another video, he mocks the “theory” of evolution by saying, “NO science book will tell you that it’s not a theory; they all say it’s a theory.” So why should people accept it, right? Duh. But at the same time, the Big Bang, in his opinion, is not a theory :) He tells everyone it’s a fact, not “just a theory,” and scientists who think it’s just a theory simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

      But then again, he also thinks that the Big Bang is supported by the Quran, that’s why. I wonder, though, what will happen if science were to, in the next thousand years or so, conclude that, no, the Big Bang actually never happened or they find some evidence that contradicts it. Then what’d Zakir Naik say to that? . . .

      • He is not the only medical doctor teaching “Religious Science”. There are many more , with far more crazy ideas. In Pakistan, back in 1980s, there was an effort on governmental level to carry out some feasible plan to “melt the jinns (ghost)” so that they can produce pure energy out of it. And that would solve all the energy crisis, according to them. The mastermind of this plan was no other than a qualified nuclear engineer working in state of the art nuclear facility near the state capital. Once again, he is not the only “scientist” in play.
        Here is Nadeem F Pracha’s blog in Dawn newspaper, which reveals more of this “Islamic Science” being practiced in some Muslim countries.
        http://blog.dawn.com/2010/11/25/the-science-of-farce/

        There is a lot more to say, but the discussion is going out of topic, so I better leave it here or Jehanzeb may end up kicking me out of his blog. :P

    • I disagree with the way Dr. Naik presents Islamic history, but he isn’t that off the mark when he says the media has done a lot to ignore Muslim contributions to mathematics, chemistry, medicine, astronomy, architecture, art, literature, etc. (I know Naik doesn’t mention all of these fields) In my high school, I certainly did not learn about great Muslim scientists and thinkers like Mohammad Al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Al-Tusi, Al-Kindi, and countless others.

      It is true that many of the Europeans read the translated works of Muslim scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and artists and added further developments. Thabit ibn Qurra made a significant contribution to the Pythagorean theorem, as well as to geometry. In fact, the reason why we have the Greek philosophical texts is because Muslims preserved them, yet this is rarely taught in mainstream American schools.

      One of my favorite books on Islamic contributions to the world is “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists” by Michael H. Morgan. I highly recommend it.

      Having said that, I agree that Dr. Naik’s “Jewish conspiracy” theory is nonsense. I disagree that Muslim countries are struggling simply because “they are not practicing Islam,” as Dr. Naik argues. It’s far more complex than that. Also, the Islamic societies that Dr. Naik praises were actually far more open-minded than he probably likes to admit. Many factors contributed to the downfall of these societies: internal conflicts, greed, the rise of the western imperialism, coupled with Wahhabism, etc. Ironically, the narrow-minded and dogmatic approach to Islam that Dr. Naik subscribes to is one of the elements that closed Muslim-majority societies off to learning.

      • Do you really think that it is supposed to be “the media’s job” to portray some Muslim contributions in science and literature?
        What happened to Muslims scientists had happened to Hindu scientists, had happened to Chinese scientist, had happened to Egyptian scientist as well. Anyway I leave it the day when you come across this topic ever in future.

      • I believe media plays a powerful and significant role in society. It is our number 1 storyteller – it shapes and establishes the attitudes, perceptions, and norms we have about race, gender, class, religion, beauty, body image, lifestyle, freedom, and so on. Given how credible research have consistently found strong correlations between media imagery and the way people behave and/or think, I do believe image makers need to be more responsible.

        The demonization and vilification of Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, and others has been very prominent in Hollywood cinema. Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs,” analyzes over 900 Hollywood films and exposes the demonization of Muslims. He argues that part of the reason why people were so willing to support the war in Afghanistan and Iraq was because people were already conditioned by the media to perceive Muslims as the enemy.

        My issue is with how media and educational institutions erase the contributions of non-European civilizations. This includes the contributions made by Africans, Arabs, Persians, South Asians, East Asians, Native Americans, Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, etc. There is a lot of ethnocentrism in mainstream American history classrooms and media doesn’t help us see the valuable contributions of others when it romanticizes medieval European history (especially the Crusades) and glorifies war criminals like Christopher Columbus.

  8. Great post! Yeah I don’t like Steve Harvey, because his books a lot of black women are going to be alone. It is possible for men and women to be friends, I’m friends with a couple of guys and it’s platonic.

    But I want to know what your view is on men calling themselves feminists? I only ask because there’s feminists who believe that men can’t be feminists, but can only be allies. I think it has to do with creating spaces for women only.

    Also I heard some stories about Dr. Naik,dude sounds like he has some repression issues.

    • Thanks, RenKiss! More and more people have been telling me about how sexist Steve Harvey is. I’ve read some other blog posts that criticize him as well.

      As for your question, I believe men can be feminists, for sure. bell hooks provides a lot of interesting commentary on this and how it’s related to her definition of feminism. One of the reasons she defines feminism as a movement to end to sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression is because it doesn’t characterize men as the enemy. In other words, it doesn’t limit sexism to men because women can be sexist, too. Feminist struggle, she writes, happens any time a woman or man resists against sexist oppression.

      In her book, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” she has a chapter on men that considers male feminists comrades in struggle. She also writes that men have contributions to make in feminist struggle. Having said that, I think men have to be aware of their privileges when identifying with feminist movement. That’s very important to understand in order to prevent men from speaking *for* women. I know there have been cases where men were excluded from some feminist projects, but I felt that it was justified because my role as a male feminist and ally is to respect the requests for space.

      Tim Wise, a white anti-racist activist and writer, once spoke about how he doesn’t use the “n” word because it means something different when a white man says it. He explained that the discussion over the usage of the “n” word is strictly a black conversation and white people should not get involved in it or try to influence it. He also said, “unless I am a racist, and a pretty vicious one at that, I need to trust that black folks are smart enough to figure for themselves when and how and if to use it.” Similarly, as a man, if women feminists have feminist projects that exclude all men, I have to trust that they are smart enough to figure out who they want to include.

      I read a really powerful blog post about feminist men and how privilege can take over our writing. Ever since I read it, I do my best to be conscious of it. It’s rather blunt, but I think it’s worth reading:

      http://welcometomanhood.tumblr.com/post/1593202386/a-short-note-on-male-feminists

      Thanks for the question. Feel free to share your thoughts.

      • Yeah I agree with you what you’re saying. I think the feminists who say that are probably rad fems. Now I’m also wondering about Dr. Naik, if he stares at a woman, is he afraid of getting a hard on or something? O_o I mean what’s the deal with that?

    • RenKiss it always seems to me that questions of whether a man is, or can be, a feminist or likewise whether a Muslim woman is feminist, depend on the meaning you ascribe to the word feminist. Your interpretation. As with many other things in life, people view it differently and like the many varying Muslims in the world today there are many varying feminist interpretations. I have heard just recently a female speaker on Islam who claimed not to be feminist yet many of the things she spoke of (not all, but many…actually I had big disagreements on some aspects, but moving along…) certainly sounded very feminist in principle.

      I haven’t had time to read the other comments this morning so I’m sorry if I’ve missed anything. I’ll be back! :)

  9. Thank you for such a wonderful and thought-provoking post.
    I absolutely love your thoughts on the importance of breaking down ALL gender stereotypes – not just the ones for women, but the necessity of breaking down the ones for men as well. I truly do think, that the only way to gain full rights for both genders, is to break down these stereotypes of how one “ought” to act and behave, and instead let people be free to find their own paths.

    Also, I completley agree with you, that the thought that men should be completely unable to “control” themselves is absolutely disgusting. I mean, how low are you valuing men by saying this? To say that men can’t focus on praying because there’s a woman praying in front of them? They shouldn’t have their focus on her at all! If they can’t even keep their focus whilst praying to God, they’ve got real problems, and need to work on those, instead of blaming women for their own short-comings.

    • Thank you for your comment, Becky! I agree that it’s very important to deconstruct these stereotypes that have been assigned to both women and men. It’s really sad that men are socialized to believe they cannot control themselves whenever women are present or not “covered up.” If men are so absorbed in their prayers for God, then why would they even look at women? As you said, the focus should not be on them at all, lol.

      By blaming women, we’re not taking any responsibility.

      • For me a wonderful proof that men can control themselves is found in the fact that in many societies women wear whatever they like (much more revealing at times), men and women work and socialize together in most areas and men ARE controlling themselves. I don’t deny there are problems, but there are not the huge problems that some Muslims want us to believe there are. Room for improvement, sure, but basically a working system. It’s proof in my eyes.

        Segregation not only brainwashes men (and women) to believe it can’t work, or is evil in some way, but it robs men and women of the opportunity to develop the skills they need to relate in a proper/modest fashion. It thereby becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

        As a revert I felt very uncomfortable even crossing the path of some of the men in the community. That caused me to start supporting segregation for a very short time. I soon woke up and realized that the problem wasn’t with me being in the same vicinity as these men – the problem is w segregation itself and the mindset that goes with it. 

      • Actually, you tend to see more harassment of women in Muslim majority countries where women are more covered up.

        The few times I have been harassed in Denmark, has sadly always been by non-ethnical Danes (i.e., Middle Eastern guys).

        In Egypt for example, something like 80% of all Egyptian women (98% of all foreign women) have been sexually harassed over the past year – about 82% of those women were wearing hijab at the time.

        Clothing doesn’t protect against harassment. Change of attitude and behaviour does. – Like you said, it is the mindset that goes along with segregation that is at the root of the problem.

      • I’ve heard that statistic about Egypt, too. I’m sorry to hear about the times you’ve been harassed. That’s awful. :( My mom was groped right in front of the Kaabah in Mecca when we went for Hajj. It’s absolutely disgusting that men cannot control themselves even in a holy place!

        I agree with both of you that it’s about changing the mindset. I thought segregation was about mutual respect and modesty at first, but then realized how it was always about sex (e.g. you have to stay from women because you’ll get distracted and you’ll think of her in a sexual way!). As you said, Becky, sexual harassment still happens regardless of what a woman is wearing.

      • Becky and others I’ve heard about Egypt too. How disgusting and how sad for the Egyptians that they are now known around the world for that!

  10. “How beautiful would it be if we all recognized this interconnectedness?”

    Indeed! That is so beautifully put! I don’t have brothers so I was raised to do things for myself and I never felt the need to have a man around me because I was doing things for my father – changing tyres, taking his car to mechanic’s, carrying groceries for him etc. And when I became the mother of a daughter and sons I realised very quickly that I must make all my children independent and *human.* Their humanity means that boys are able to cry without fear of being made fun of by others. We often use both terms in our household “get up! Be brave; be a woman!” “get up! Be brave; be a man!” My children appreciate that women have greater pain threshold and their mummy will not only survive through the flu and surgeries but will also look after them when she is supposed to be sick in bed. They also appreciate that it is only daddy who can reach that top shelf and open jammed jars. There is interconnectedness because that is how it should be.

    “tainted by an aggressive feminist flare.”

    Why is feminism always qualified by ‘aggression’? It makes me so…so…so *angry* – LOL!

    He also said, “You need to learn about manliness in Islam.”

    Whoa! And what exactly is this “manliness in Islam”? You know, yesterday I had to work alone with three Arab men for a few hours and for the first time I realised that whenever I have said I can work with men without a problem, I was not thinking about Arab men :D I don’t want to sound racist but I did experience some of their *Muslim manliness* – I was infanticlised and patronised and in the end I had to stand up for myself. But how many women are able to do that?

    Excellent post, Jehanzeb! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Metis! I think it’s beautiful when we deconstruct sexist role patterns and reconceptualize the way we’re socialized to raise children. I’m not a father or even married, but it’s always nice to hear how people choose to raise their children beyond the gender role stereotypes.

      I asked myself the same question when I was told I needed to “learn about manliness in Islam.” It’s as if there’s only one way to be a man, or that the way I live my life is somehow not as “Islamic.” I think the common misconception is that feminism is “anti-Islamic,” and while it is true that feminist movements have been largely dominated by white non-Muslim women from privileged class backgrounds, my point was that we need feminist theories and practices that speak directly to our lives, experiences, and communities. The works of feminist theorists and activists like bell hooks have been marginalized in most mainstream feminist discourse, so my point was to show that there is no “one feminism,” and that white feminist movements *have* been and *are* being critiqued and challenged.

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience with the men you mentioned. I know plenty of Arab men who wouldn’t behave like that. It’s unfortunate that we see this kind of behavior across the board though, amongst all racial and religious backgrounds.

  11. Brilliant post!
    As a Muslim and a woman; I feel that this ideology (i.e men are promiscuous by nature and so women should accept it and live their lives to accommodate the trait) places fault on the woman if men act on this “instinct”.

    I think women should have the freedom to maintain platonic friendships with men, especially when they are career women. That being said, men AND women should exercise restraint when friendships begin to exceed the platonic level.

  12. Ah, yes, I have often bemoaned the ways in which gender segregation intensely sexualized EVERY interaction… I remember a time in college. The Muslim students would try to get together to pray Fajr in jama’a in the downstairs center of my dorm. It was really nice for a while, the community and the way it felt to wake up real early and find other people there to pray in community with you. But not only did it start to get ruined by a competitive kind of faith, but sometimes I would be the only woman there, resulting in super weird dynamics. We would often perform a particular zikr after prayer, and part of the beginning requires recitation of Ayat-ul-Kursi. One time, the three boys there had not memorized Ayat-ul-Kursi, and I, the only woman there, was the only one who memorized it. So I offered to recite it, and we finished the rest of the zikr. It was a nice moment, until the very end, when one of the boys (the kind that will not shake a woman’s hand) uncomfortably stuttered, you know it says in the Quran that a woman should not speak in a soft voice in front of men. And we looked at him blankly, not knowing what he meant, and as he stumbled through the explanation of what he meant (the passage referring to the Prophet’s wives and how they shouldn’t flirt/ speak in a seductive way), I realized to my intense embarrassment he was saying I should not have recited Ayat-ul-Kursi in a totally (in my mind) non-sexualized act of worship *because it could possibly turn them on*. I cannot explain the many levels to which I was horrified by this entire event, and totally silenced. I couldn’t even say anything at the time, just sat there intensely embarrassed. Because I was not a human, engaging with them in a powerful ritualized act of community and worship, I was a sexualized object who could not RECITE Quran without my actions becoming sexualized. Ugh.

    So while I’m tempted to agree, to say yes, I do not judge you (you as in you in general) and I do not think that you all need to go out and end your personal gender segregation… I actually don’t think that. I wouldn’t force anyone to anything, but I do disagree with gender segregation on a macro and personal level. I do think people need to go out and stop that with their personal choices. I think it is wrong, and yes to each his own, but I think it contributes to a larger atmosphere of oppression. Because it all plays into a larger system, and these small acts reinforce the ways in which, for example, the community I grew up in WNY can see tragedies like Aasiya Zubair’s death and say but no, this is not part of us– but the same community in which I was sexually assaulted multiple times as a child, with the other boys not believing me. With a community of silence around sexual assault.

    Thanks for the post… though I would like to say that I do *not* identify as feminist, and it’s not for any right-wing/ conservative reaction, it’s actually a deeply leftist / radical woman of color reaction to “feminist-identified” communities. I love bell hooks and many other self-identified feminists, but I disagree that it is the most useful label or that it is the only label for those who work for gender justice. A lot of pain is tied up in the word feminist, pain particularly felt by marginalized communities (working class, people of color, genderqueer, trans, queer, people with disabilities, etc).

    Like for example, this stuff here: http://radicallyhottoff.tumblr.com/post/3284253278/oi-with-the-poodles-already-troll-attack

    I can’t even begin to describe all the reasons I don’t id as feminist and all the pain and excluding of people that goes into that, both in real life and on the internet. Basically, I respect your decision to use feminism as a framework, but I disagree with projecting a “feminist” label onto the Prophet Muhammad (saw) because of what all that means to me.

    Also, not sure if you’re familiar with the term kyriarchy, but it’s one I find particularly useful…
    http://myecdysis.blogspot.com/2010/04/birthing-new-feminism.html
    http://myecdysis.blogspot.com/2008/04/accepting-kyriarchy-not-apologies.html

    Oh! And I thought you would *really* like this– it’s my favorite description of gender performance ever! Imagine if Judith Butler had met him :-)

    Once a young woman asked me,

    “How does it feel to be a man?” And I replied,

    “My dear,
    I am not so sure.”

    The she said,
    “Well, aren’t you a man?”

    And this time I replied,

    “I view gender as a beautiful animal
    That people often take for a walk on a leash
    And might enter in some odd contest
    To try to win strange prizes.

    My dear,
    A better question for Hafiz
    Would have been,

    ‘How does it feel to be a heart?’

    For all I know is Love,
    And I find my heart Infinite
    And Everywhere!”

  13. Pingback: Why is My Body Your Business? Or: The Boob Blog « What I Meant to Say
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  15. Thank you for this post–I am so happy to watch Tony Porter’s video, and to read your words. It makes me happy to see strong voices among Muslim feminists/people working against kyriarchy online, both because of the obvious reason of getting the word out and educating people that neither identity is a monolith, and also because of the selfish reason that I’m interested in both! :)

    (I came to your blog from the Fatal Feminist.)

    P.S. The welcometomanhood wordpress link didn’t work.

  16. While I love your post and agree with much of what you wrote, I have to say that there is merit to the hadiths and of course the beautiful and blessed Quran. What I mean by this is that while Satan has no power over a person he can only call to the person, I believe the intent for a man and woman not to be alone with one another is prevention. I have witnessed and experienced many platonic relationships that commenced with only good intentions and absolutely no intention of anything more than a brotherly/sisterly connection. But as they got to know one another, one or the other person fell in love and ultimately one or both got hurt. They may connect intellectually, spiritually, or just simply they get along – but sometimes the truest forms of love begin as friends. For those that were willing to take this to the next step, and were both free to do so, those tend to be the marriages that survive because at the end they both truly like each other. It’s not just based on a visual attraction or what one thinks they like, or loneliness. It is based on something truer and deeper than that. This is what I believe this rule is based on – not so much abstention but prevention. Especially if one party is married – these type of connections can complicate matters. Not that people don’t have self control, but adultery can be in the heart as well. It is not fair to the other spouse if one commits emotional adultery. And many, many times this is not something planned. It’s just something that happens.

    • Thank you for commenting and sharing your thoughts! Those are important points and I don’t deny that there are lots of cases where one person is romantically interested and the other is not.

      I fully agree with you that sometimes the “truest forms of love begin as friends,” as you said. I would just present another argument saying that there are a lot of heterosexual women and men who *are* in platonic friendships. I think my overall point with this was post was that sexist socialization teaches us that we can only be “one way.” Society is filled with messages saying that “men and women cannot be friends” and this is a harmful message that perpetuates stereotypes about women and men in distinct, though interrelated ways.

      It’s terrible when partners are unfaithful to one another and, as you pointed out, there are different forms of adultery.

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