Confronting Personal and State Violence Simultaneously

Within the past month or so, a couple of friends were telling me about the racism and sexism they continue to experience in social justice spaces. Yesterday, another friend was telling me about her experience with abusive “activists” who refuse to take any responsibility for their racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism.   I know I have addressed this before on my blog, but what does it say about the power of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy when we constantly face the internalization and reproduction of these oppressive forces within our own communities where we are supposed to be safe?

It is disturbing how misogynist men in particular can carry on with their celebrity “activist” status after being called out on their sexism. It is as if making the choice to march in the street, chant a slogan, and organize rallies and meetings suddenly purifies an individual of their racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The practice of self-labeling as “liberal,” “activist,” “progressive,” or “radical,” especially in this day and age of social media, has come to mean that anyone who takes a stance on a social justice issue is devoid of responsibility and accountability.  Making unwanted advances at women and objectifying them is “ok” just as long as the heterosexual male activist was arrested by the police in the past and, at the end of the day, “does important work.”

There isn’t much I can add because there is already an important article written about this: “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements.” The author highlights on the frightening reality of informants who infiltrate activist movements for the purpose of destabilizing them. She stresses that misogynists make the perfect informants, and whether or not these misogynists are working for the state, they effectively weaken movement building and perpetuate gender violence that only makes marginalized communities even more vulnerable to the state that wants to destroy them.  Here’s an excerpt:

To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements.  Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Also, this:

We have a right to be angry when the communities we build that are supposed to be the model for a better, more just world harbor the same kinds of antiqueer, antiwoman, racist violence that pervades society. As radical organizers we must hold each other accountable and not enable misogynists to assert so much power in these spaces. Not allow them to be the faces, voices, and leaders of these movements. Not allow them to rape a compañera and then be on the fucking five o’ clock news. In Brandon Darby’s case, even if no one suspected he was an informant, his domineering and macho behavior should have been all that was needed to call his leadership into question. By not allowing misogyny to take root in our communities and movements, we not only protect ourselves from the efforts of the state to destroy our work but also create stronger movements that cannot be destroyed from within.

I believe these points must be stressed over and over again.  I remember a friend reminding me that our communities cannot survive if our politics don’t confront gender violence, misogyny, and heteropatriarchy. As the author writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do.” This is not a call for men to think of themselves as “saviors” of social justice movements, but rather to look at their own complicity. How have we raised our voices over women and refused to let them speak? How have we interjected ourselves into discussions where we should have shut up and listened?  How have we stood silent when a fellow male activist, whom we respect and admire, got away with sexual objectification, misogyny, disgusting sexist jokes, and sexual assault?  How have we participated in this abuse without holding ourselves accountable?  These questions are important because it is dangerous how misogynist male activists use their power to deflect attention away from their abuses. It is dangerous because these individuals do not think of themselves as sexist or misogynistic, but rather as people who do “important work” that apparently “no one else can do” and therefore must be excused.

I’ve been thinking about all of this with relation to the Muslim community. I was exchanging messages with another Muslim friend and we were talking about a popular article that was being re-posted a lot on Facebook: “Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques in Attempt to Reform American Islam.”  I’m not sure if I’ll get into a full critique of it in this post, but my issue with the article didn’t have anything to do with launching gay-friendly or women-led mosques. I support women-led prayers, ending gender segregation in mosques, welcoming LGBT Muslims, and eliminating sexist oppression in our communities. I didn’t take issue with any of that because I believe Islam advocates respect and rights for every person, irrespective of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. All of us have to make our spaces respectful, accepting, and appreciative. Muslim unity means that we acknowledge the vast diversity in our Ummah, and instead of making everyone conform to a singular and narrow interpretation of Islam, we need to learn how to show respect and appreciation for each other. Faith is personal and it is not something that should be policed by any person or by any government.

What I found problematic about the article was how it’s framed in a good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. A few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on my blog that got quite popular – one was about ending gender segregation and the other was entitled “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress.” Both posts were critical of Muslim communities, but what bothered me was how many white liberal non-Muslims would link to those posts and make comments like, “Looks like someone is being critical of his culture, good job!” or use my posts to pit me against the rest of the Muslim community. As if I am the “good Muslim” and everyone else is “bad.”  What this reinforces in a society that calls itself a “melting pot” (where people are supposed to assimilate into one identity as opposed to having multiple identities) is an “us versus them” mentality. We don’t need to look any further than the Orientalist wars to see how this plays out: “Good Muslims” are state-friendly, whereas the “bad Muslim” is anyone who isn’t and therefore must be categorized as a potential threat to western civilization as we know it.

I felt the article about progressive Muslims played into that dichotomy and it became apparent when the author would mention a progressive Muslim and then talk about the death threats that particular person received. As if being a “good Muslim” in the eyes of white liberal Americans means you have to pit yourself against your community and be threatened by your fellow Muslims.  If Muslims don’t fit this narrow definition of a “progressive” Muslim, then they are either issuing death threats or they are “regressive” and practicing “draconian ways of Islam.” I don’t deny that death threats are a problem or that it doesn’t happen; what I’m critiquing here is the way this is presented in simplistic ways and within an American-centric, pro-secular narrative. Such framing runs consistent with the logic of white supremacy because the construction of “American Islam” becomes the “superior Islam,” i.e. “superior” to the way the rest of the world practices the faith. Also, secularism is left unchecked, as if secular states are not violent. Secularism doesn’t mean everyone lives in peace; the majority of wars have been secular, and homophobia doesn’t come solely from conservative religious people, it’s part of heteropatriarchal white supremacy. I believe we need to decolonize and build societies that we actually want to live in – based on interrelatedness and mutual reciprocity.

Another thing that stood out to me in the article was how it mentioned Asra Nomani with no criticism at all of how she recently came out in defense of the NYPD-CIA spying on Muslim students. In the past, she has advocated for the United States to “adopt” the “Israeli model” of profiling, and she also supported Peter King’s hearing on the “radicalization of Muslims.” If to be a progressive Muslim means we should advocate gay-friendly and women-led mosques, shouldn’t we also challenge the way Islamophobia has become embedded in state policies, law enforcement, educational institutions, media, etc.?  How will our communities survive if we defend such oppressive practices and laws?

What I’ve noticed for a while now is that Muslims who confront oppressive forces within our community and Muslims who confront Islamophobia and racism often work in isolation from one another. Just wanted to stress here that this is only based my personal experiences, so I don’t want to discredit or ignore those who do confront interpersonal and state oppression simultaneously, but for those who don’t, sometimes it feels as though it is either we talk about one or the other. The challenge then becomes about reconceptualizing how we organize our struggles. How, for instance, can we work together and eliminate oppression within our communities without relying or depending upon the state to help us? A couple of friends recommended the Incite! anthology “Color of Violence” (cover pictured above) to me and I’ve just begun to read it. Perhaps understanding the following strategy developed by “Incite! Women of Color Against Violence” can help us think about connecting our struggles in more effective ways:

There are many organizations that address violence directed at communities (e.g. police brutality, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism, and so on). There are also many organizations that address violence within communities (e.g. sexual/domestic violence). But there are very few organizations that address violence on both fronts simultaneously. The challenge women of color face in combating both personal and state violence is to develop strategies for ending violence that do assure safety for survivors of sexual/domestic violence and do not strengthen our oppressive criminal justice apparatus. Our approaches must always challenge the violence perpetrated through multinational capitalism and the state.

With this in mind, white supremacy impacts marginalized communities in different ways, so the point here isn’t to organize around “shared oppression,” but rather understanding that our struggles are interrelated. We need to fight sexism, misogyny, and homophobia within Muslim communities, and we need to fight racism and Islamophobia directed at us.  Our responses to Islamophobia should address the interlocking systems of oppression and how our own internal struggles (i.e. oppressing women, threatening to kill LGBT Muslims, discriminating against Muslims based upon race, gender, class, etc.) make us weaker, enables state violence against us, and threatens our survival. Informants, like ex-FBI informant Craig Montielh, have used misogynistic tactics, such as pursuing sexual relations with Muslim women, for the sake of obtaining information and reporting to higher authorities. Misogyny not only makes great informants, it is also makes our community more vulnerable to this violence.

The question we have to ask ourselves is when are we going to wake up on sexism and gender violence in our community and how it is so strongly connected to our fight against Islamophobia and racism that targets both women and men?  So many times, I’ve heard and seen racist non-Muslims interject themselves into conversations among progressive Muslims and then vilify anyone who dares to even acknowledge institutionalized oppression against gendered, racialized, and queer bodies (and yes, this includes the non-Muslims who have used my blog posts for racist purposes).  This defense of state oppression is used by misogynists, racists, and homophobes alike who not only want to neatly categorize marginalized communities, but also infiltrate and divide them.

The Dervish and the Princess (Or How Men Fantasize About a Woman’s ‘No’ Being a ‘Yes’)

Whenever I have discussions about men “misinterpreting” women, within the heterosexual context, I remember a Sufi parable I once read about a dervish and a princess.  The story is part of a collection of Sufi tales that originate mostly in classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and South Asian literature and oral traditions.  Described as “teaching-stores of the Sufi Masters over the past thousand years,” the selections serve as a way for students to increase knowledge and perception, as well as obtaining a better understanding of their fellow human beings and the world around them.  It is noted that many Sufi tales “have passed into folklore, or ethical teachings, or crept into biographies.”  They are also commonly valued as “entertainment pieces.”

The story about the dervish and the princess is interesting because I believe it touches upon a number of serious issues that are relevant today. Perhaps to some, the reality of men “misinterpreting” a woman’s friendly behavior, for example, as flirtatious or “leading him on,” may sound harmless, but in order to understand why this is serious and even dangerous, it’s important recognize the oppressive forces at work within patriarchy that makes abuse, violence, and rape against women acceptable. It becomes more than just “misinterpreting,” but rather exercising masculine power and domination facilitated by oppressive hierarchies already in place, as well as maintaining and constantly constructing these social structures.

Heterosexual men are socialized to be homophobic, to be sexist, and to represent a singular mold of “masculinity,” i.e. be tough, aggressive, dominating (especially over women and other men), and even violent. It is common for many to interpret the previous sentence as a “generalization” about men.  However, this is not an attempt to vilify men, but rather to honestly discuss the indoctrination of patriarchal and sexist thinking that surrounds us.  bell hooks provides an important comment on masculine socialization in her book, “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love”:

Whenever women thinkers, especially advocates of feminism, speak about the widespread problem of male violence, folks are eager to stand up and make the point that most men are not violent. They refuse to acknowledge that masses of boys and men have been programmed from birth on to believe that some point they must be violent, whether psychologically or physically, to prove that they are men.

hooks cites Terrence Real, who argues that “violence is boyhood socialization.” That is, the way society “turn boys into men is through injury,” detaching them from feelings, sensitivity, and expressiveness. The phrase, “be a man,” Real continues, means to “suck it up and keep going.”  Images of men being violent, aggressive, and sexually promiscuous are celebrated in popular films, television shows, video games, comic books, advertisements, literature, etc. These images, along with the way boys are socialized early in childhood contributes to the normalization of male domination over women.

When men are taught to expect and/or demand sex on the first date to “score,” or prove their “masculinity” and show off to their male peers, it isn’t about getting to know someone on a deeper, personal level.  It becomes a game. There are strategies that men have to play in order to “score” with a woman – whether that means paying for movie tickets or the dinner bill, or behaving like he’s interested in what she’s talking about. Such socialization is dangerous because it leads to date rape, touching women sexually against their will, and other abuses. Charlene L. Muehlenhard writes a scenario in her piece, “‘Nice Women’ Don’t Say Yes and ‘Real Men’ Don’t Say No: How Miscommunication and the Double Standard Can Cause Sexual Problems,” that I found relevant:

Imagine that a man is with a woman and he wants to have sex with her (or feels he should try to have sex with her, so that he can avoid the stigma of being sexually inexperienced).  He does not attempt to discuss their sexual desires; instead, he tries to interpret her behaviors. She is wearing tight jeans and a low-cut blouse, and she is willing to go to his apartment to listen to records. He interprets this behavior to mean that he is interested in sex. He begins to make advances. She says no. He assumes that she is merely offering token resistance to sex so as not to appear promiscuous – and, even if she does not mean to, why was she “leading him on” with her “suggestive” clothing and behavior?  He thinks of jokes he has heard about unmasculine men who stop their advances after being told no, he thinks of movies in which the woman first resists the man’s advances but soon becomes overwhelmed with desire, and he thinks of his male friends who all have sexual stories to tell. He has sex with her in spite of her protests.

As mentioned earlier, it is more than just about so-called “misinterpretation,” but about male domination and fantasy. A friend, Shaista Patel, shared some important points on how fantasies are about “symbolic violence for the fear of losing a dominant position and hence the object of love (whether it is the woman, the clique one belongs to, respect of other men) is inherent.” Furthermore, these fantasies are not just symbolic violence, but also personal violence.  This fantasy also “emanates from a position of not only dominance, and hence the fear of losing it, but from a position of disempowerment, where a sense of engulfment by the woman, or other men, makes the man take a woman’s ‘no’ as a ‘yes.'”

What’s horrible about this is that women are blamed for men’s abuse.  It is a woman’s fault she was raped, abused, assaulted, etc. because she was being “too flirty,” because she was “leading him on,” because she “smiled at him” in a “certain way,” because her clothing was “too provocative” or “suggestive,” because “she was asking for it.”  Victim-blaming only serves to normalize and continue heteropatriarchy and misogyny.  Of course there is more to comment on this subject, but for the purpose of this post, I thought it would interesting to hear what others think.  I think the Sufi story below could lead to an important discussion.

The Dervish and the Princess

A King’s daughter was as beautiful as the moon, and admired by all. A dervish saw her one day, as he was about to eat a piece of bread. The morsel fell to the ground, for he was so deeply moved that he could not hold it.

As she passed by she smiled upon him. This action sent him into convulsions, his bread in the dust, his sense half bereft. In a state of ecstasy he remained thus for seven years. The dervish spent all that time in the street, where dogs slept.

He was a nuisance to the princess, and her attendants decided to kill him.

But she called him to her and said: “There can be no union between you and me. And my servants intend to kill you; therefore disappear.”

The miserable man answered: “Since I first saw you, life is nothing to me. They will kill me without cause. But please answer me one question since you are to be the cause of my death. Why did you smile at all?”

“Silly man!” said the princess. “When I saw what a fool you were making yourself, I smiled in pity, not for any other reason.”

And she disappeared from his sight.

***

Idries Shah’s commentary:

In his “Parliament of the Birds,” Attar speaks of the misunderstanding of subjective emotions which causes men to believe that certain experiences (“the smile of the princess”) are special gifts (“admiration”) whereas they may be the very reverse (“pity”).

Many have been misled, because this kind of literature has its own conventions, into believing that Sufi classical writings are other than technical descriptions of psychological states.

Eradicate Masculinity

Advocating for the eradication of masculinity is not reactionary, nor is it self-hatred.  It is a diligently honest and critical examination of the fundamental concept and construct of masculinity, how it is defined, particularly in mainstream North American societies, and how its normalization in daily life and culture is interrelated with homophobic, sexist, racist, classist, and oppressive social structures in white heteropatriarchal capitalist states.  Abolishing masculinity is not anti-male, nor is it about extermination of all heterosexual men.   It is a bold struggle for radical personal and societal transformation; for vigorous rejection and elimination of harmful and dangerous social norms that are interlocked with oppressive forces in society.

Speaking from the perspective of a heterosexual Pakistani Muslim-American man, there is a lot to analyze and discuss about the way I have seen masculinity, sexism, homophobia, racism, and Islamophobia function in my life and my surroundings.  It is impossible to cover the details in this post alone about how complex and intertwined these oppressive systems are, but I want to emphasize that being a man of color and a Muslim in post 9/11 white supremacist patriarchy obviously makes my experience different than white non-Muslim men and women from privileged race and class backgrounds.  Most of the literature I have read so far about masculinity centers on the experiences of non-Muslim white men, with occasional mentioning of some men of color.  Though there certainly is a lot of overlapping in the way sexist socialization influences and affects men in our society, other forms of oppression rank men, like men of color, differently on the social hierarchical ladder.

Very little has been studied about the way masculinity surfaces and operates among Muslim men who have grown up in North America.  At some point, research in this field will enable us to grasp a richer understanding of how masculinity is conceptualized and socialized for Muslims in North America, but for now, I will speak mostly from my experiences and observations.

Dominant conceptions of masculinity and manhood in North America are profoundly shaped by sexism and homophobia.  This means men are socialized by sexism and participate in sexist ideology, even passively or unknowingly.   At an early age, boys are taught to be anti-female.  For a male to behave in any manner that is generally perceived as “feminine” is to be stigmatized by others, especially male peers, because the worst insults for boys and men are designed to deprive him of his “manhood.”  If a boy or man is not aggressive, dominant, tough, athletic, unemotional, sexually aggressive in the heterosexual context, he cannot be a “real man.”  He is a “coward,” “sissy,” “pussy,” “faggot,” “gay;” a “girl,” a “homosexual.”  Inherent in these insults are the extremely sexist and homophobic ideas, stereotypes, and mores in our society. Any man who has resisted to “acting feminine” or “acting gay” has been both a participant and victim of the ruling masculine culture.

It is because masculinity teaches us to be powerful, dominant, in control, defensive, and violent – literally and metaphorically violent, as radical feminist-activist and author Robert Jensen describes it.  We cannot show our weaknesses otherwise we will not be accepted in society.  Men of color are even more pressured to assert masculinity because white supremacist culture assigns stereotypes, generalizations, and expectations to their race.  In high school, I remember my personal religious values of being a virgin and restraining from “checking girls out” were ridiculed by my white friends and peers.  The question was always, “Are you gay?” or a harsher variant of that, followed by attacks on my religion/culture being “strict” and “stupid.”  Not only did their remarks attempt to degrade my “manhood,” they also characterized my religion, culture, and race as inferior to theirs.

It surprised me a few years later when a close Muslim male friend told me he was depressed about being a virgin and that he was envious of his non-Muslim male friends who had sexual experiences.   I was surprised because, at the time, my views on Islam and pre-marital sex were very rigid and conventional, i.e. sex before marriage is “forbidden,” and, due to my lack of exposure to other Muslims during my adolescence, I never thought Muslims felt pressured or coerced into having sex, let alone wanted to have sex before marriage.  I now see these realities as complex and recognize the importance for Muslims to engage in an open and honest discussion about pre-marital sex, without dogmatic judgments and stigma.  There are Muslims who have pre-marital sex and make a personal, conscious decision to do so, but my point here is neither a condemnation of that choice or even about pre-marital sex.  In the particular case of my friend, it’s more about the social pressures he felt in losing his virginity and the belief that having sex, not an emotionally intimate relationship, would make him more “masculine” and “manly,” and possibly even serve as a catalyst to “fit in” with his non-Muslim friends.

Jensen and anti-pornography author and feminist Gail Dines boldly argue that we live in a porn culture.  Pornography and the hyper-sexualized images we see in movies, television, magazines, billboard ads, video games, etc. reminds us of our “standing” in the world as women and men.  White men represent the default human being, while women are rendered as sex objects.  The exoticization and sexual objectification of women of color operates in conjunction with racial stereotypes and prejudices, which are perpetuated by mainstream media representations.  Throughout society, this porn culture, which seats white men on the highest throne, sends a very powerful message about masculinity and how men must rule and exercise power – power that Jensen defines as “the ability to make someone do what they would otherwise not do” – not just over women, but over other men as well.   In his book, “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men,” Michael Kimmel describes the socialization of heterosexual men in porn culture:

“Daily life is filled with beautiful and sexual women everywhere [guys] look – in the dorm, in classes, on the street, at work.  And the Guy Code is playing an endless loop in their heads: ‘Gotta get laid, you’re not a man unless you try for it, keep going, what’s wrong with you?”

Masculinity is a dangerous game that cannot be won.  It is dangerous because it shapes and fuels the ideology of male supremacy which is so deeply connected to imperialism, capitalism, sexual violence, and other oppressions.  In addition to rape and war, there is misogyny, homophobia, dehumanization, racism, and other forms of oppression.  The recent news of 4 teenage males committing suicide in the month of September because of anti-gay bullying and bigotry also exemplifies its danger.  Masculinity cannot be won because it is something that men need to constantly prove.  It is never permanently sustained.  Feminist-activist bell hooks writes:

In patriarchal culture men are not allowed to simply be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do.

I admit there are times when I struggle with this and I’m sure a lot of men can relate.  Particularly among South Asian Muslims, there are communal, religious, cultural, and family pressures to prove you are a “real man,” i.e. you have to be confident, fearless, strong, assertive, etc.  There are expectations for South Asian Muslim men to study hard and establish well-paying, respectable jobs to either preserve or boost the image and reputation of their family.  For example, parents who are doctors often want their sons to also be doctors to preserve the prestige of the family (I believe it can apply to daughters too, but my feeling is that the pressures on men are stronger in most cases). Parents who aren’t doctors and have occupations outside of STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) also pressure their sons to establish careers in “respectable” fields, as if to “succeed” where the parents have “failed.”

From an Islamic perspective, Muslim men are taught that a real Muslim man provides and supports his wife and family economically.  This construction of masculinity easily establishes gender role expectations for Muslim men and women.  Muslim men are the breadwinners, while Muslim women stay at home, cook, clean, and raise the children.  I would argue that the growth of Islamophobia can also be linked with masculinity, not only in the way it has been produced by a xenophobic and racist social structure, but also in how we are expected to respond to it.  I remember reading a comment on a forum once where a Muslim reader rightfully felt that the Muslim man interviewed by the network was a poor representative of the community, but then wrongfully said, “We need a man to speak for us.”  A “man” as in a “real man,” someone who knows exactly what to say, knows how to keep his composure, who holds a degree in “debating Islamophobes” and utterly destroys any racist and xenophobic argument that is flung his way.

But it’s not only about the pressures from family, friends, and religious institutions.  Heterosexual men also believe it is necessary to assert their masculinity to impress women.  I’m sure a lot of men can relate to this.  The subject of marriage in the Muslim community always generates a lot of discussion and I think when most Muslim men contemplate marriage, they think about establishing a career, independence, and stability.  Since masculinity is something that always needs to be in operation, it drives us, men, to prove that we are capable of providing for a woman.  If we are unable to do so or struggle with doubts and uncertainties about our self-confidence, we feel like we aren’t good enough.  More precisely, we don’t feel like “real men.”

By talking about the struggles that men experience in patriarchy, it is important to understand that it is in no way greater than the oppression of women and to place the experiences on an equal plane would be irresponsible, inaccurate, and extremely counter-productive.  While it is true that Muslim men and men of color are also stigmatized and oppressed in white patriarchy, it does not excuse the responsibility we have in challenging male supremacy, male privilege, and sexism within our communities.  Briefly touching upon the struggles of men is not to belittle, trivialize, or dismiss the oppression of women, but rather to simply point out the hurt men experience as a result of patriarchy exists.   We have insecurities, we can have body-image problems, we may compete with other men or may feel intimidated by them – men who we think are better-looking, smarter, and physically stronger than us.  We feel this way because we are socialized to view everything in relation to dominance and power; we feel like we need to live up to a standard, even though that standard is about being something no human can be: perfect.  Being “tough” about it doesn’t help.  Masculinity cannot solve these issues for us because it teaches to shield, conceal, act, perform.  We need to vocalize our struggles, talk it out, and communicate.

bell hooks calls male advocates of feminism “comrades in struggle.”  She states that men, too, have a contribution to make to end sexist oppression.  Eradicating masculinity is one of many contributions that we, as men, can make to feminist struggle, a struggle that advocates for revolutionary and radical transformation in society as a whole.   I am sure someone will ask, “If you’re talking about the social construction of masculinity, then why not reform masculinity?  Why do we have to eradicate it?”  This is a valid question, but I believe once we transcend beyond the hegemonic conception of masculinity, we come to the realization that there isn’t any personal characteristic or trait that is distinctly “masculine” or “feminine.”  If to be “feminine” is to be compassionate, caring, and Loving, can a man not have those traits as well?  And if to be “masculine,” according to those who argue that there are positive things about “masculinity,” is to be protective, confident, and assertive, is that to say women cannot have those qualities?

These are all characteristics that can be found in any human being.  The label of masculinity takes these traits to another level because it is always dichotomous and in opposition to something – to being a woman, being homosexual, being anything outside the narrow and singular social construction of what it means to be a man.  This is not to say women and men are the same.  We are different physiologically and those physiological factors may contribute to some psychological differences, but these differences are not so conflicting, extreme, or insurmountable that we must close off dialogue and refuse to collaborate with one another.

A world, as Jensen describes, in which “masculinity is shaped by dominance, aggression, conquest, and violence is a world that is unsafe and unsustainable.”  We, men, shouldn’t be afraid or feel threatened to deconstruct the social norms of masculinity and eradicate the way it operates in our daily lives.   The prison of masculinity is tight and suffocating, and it alienates us from embracing our humanity.  It obstructs us from seeing the possibilities, that there is something new within ourselves, something we can create.  Rather than constantly thinking that we have to be prove something to ourselves, to others, and those we Love, let us focus on being good human beings.  Feminist struggle is not to dismiss other issues like racism, classism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other oppressions.  It recognizes the interlocking nature of oppression and how they all affect us.

With the help of women and men, we can find a transcendent model for humanity – one that teaches us to value each other not as objects, not as labels, not as social constructions, not as expectations, but as complex, multi-dimensional human beings.

Challenging the Performance of Masculinity

“Women are dumb,” Bryan* said, “they already have a thousand things going on in their mind about you, so when you ask her out, set a specific date and time; don’t leave it open-ended.” I think I almost choked on my dinner as I heard him advise my friend, Dave.* I did not want to get into an argument since I had not seen Bryan since high school, but his sexist remarks needed to be challenged.

Bryan, who is engaged himself, did not participate in a dialogue with me. Instead, he resorted to personal attacks, profanity and high school “humor.” Every point I made about sexism, male privilege and socialization was twisted into mockery and dismissed as “bullshit.” Dave, on the other hand, was still stressing about how he was going to ask the waitress out. I said to Bryan, “You don’t think there are a thousand things going on in Dave’s mind right now?” Dave nodded and admitted that I was right. Bryan shook his head, “Stop being a pussy, Dave. Be a man, that’s what women want; women want a man, just go and ask her out.”

I always find it disturbing nowadays when I hear someone, female or male, say, “Be a man.” It is an expression that is not only commonly used in our language, but also rarely confronted. Before I delve deeper into social expectations of masculinity, I want to point out what is occurring in the situation I briefly described above.

I am convinced that gender is a performance – something that we do at specific times and in specific circumstances as opposed to something that we have. While our performances are acted upon individually, they are also collaborative, meaning that they are heavily influenced and stylized by the socially constructed norms we and others accept about gender. A lot of the messages we receive about masculinity and femininity, for instance, is shaped, established, and standardized mostly by mainstream media, namely television – our society’s most powerful storyteller, as George Gerbner and other cultivation theorists argue – and also by family, friends, schools, religious institutions, and so on.

When Bryan challenged my friend’s masculinity or “manhood,” the response was reactionary. However conflicted Dave was, whether about his confidence, the time and place of his possible date, or the general anxiety that comes along with expressing romantic interest in someone, it did not matter. His masculinity was being challenged and even jeopardized in front of his friends. In order to demonstrate and prove his “manliness,” he needed to perform it. Of course, this is not to conclude that this was the conscious reasoning in my friend’s mind. My argument is that many of our performances, especially in situations like Dave’s, result from processes of internalization.

For instance, where does this singular idea about what it means to be a “real man” come from? Who is telling us to “man up” and “be a man?” What happens to those of us who do not “man up?” What images and messages are young men receiving and/or internalizing about “masculinity?” How does it surface in their language, behavior, appearance, social interactions, and other aspects of cultural life? In what ways does the model for “masculinity” in White heteropatriarchy affect men of color? These are several questions I have been reflecting on for a while and I recognize that I may not address or answer all of them in this post alone. However, I do find importance in at least putting the questions forth.

If we look at the way boys are raised, we find an unwritten rule about masculinity that is immensely widespread in contemporary American society: Don’t be feminine. As Dr. Julia T. Wood writes:

Early in life, most boys learn they must not think, act, or feel like girls and women. Any male who shows sensitivity or vulnerability is likely to be called a sissy, a crybaby, a mama’s boy, or a wimp. Peer groups pressure males to be tough, aggressive, and not feminine.

It is easy to see the anti-female directive in the way Bryan told my friend to “stop being a pussy.” Whenever men want to degrade, insult, and/or challenge other men, attacks are often made on their masculinity. The insults may be very direct with words like “girlie” or indirect with words like “sissy.” The model of masculinity does not actually teach us what it means to “be a man,” but rather says, “To be a man means to not be female.” Men must do the opposite of what women are stereotypically thought to do: men should suppress their emotions; they must be muscular, strong – physically and emotionally – and confident at all times; and they must not deviate from what society deems as “masculine. It would be irresponsible to ignore the homophobia that strongly accompanies this model as well. That is, one is not only “sissy” and “girlie,” but also “gay,” “homo,” or a “fag.” I remember from my own experience in high school, a lot of young heterosexual men, including myself, were afraid of receiving homosexual labels from our peers because we knew how damaging it was. I even had a friend who was always called “faggot” and eventually got beaten up in the locker room. I was spared because I was good at floor hockey and the only one who scored a goal against our gym teacher. I did not stand up for my friend because I didn’t want to be “faggot,” too.

Being brown, South Asian, and Muslim in a predominately White Judeo-Christian suburban town wasn’t easy for me despite earning some respect based on the talents I displayed in gym, art, and filmmaking classes. During high school and at an age where I was not thinking so deeply or consciously about masculinity, I felt the pressures of doing things that broke from the values I was taught at home. I understand that the South Asian and Muslim communities are not monolithic, therefore anything I say about my experiences and personal decisions should not be interpreted as generalizations about all South Asians and/or Muslims, but my refusal to date and go to the prom was grounded in my personal cultural and religious beliefs. In retrospect, I can interpret how my resistance to dating and school dances were treated as “unmanly” – since having a girlfriend showed other young men that you were, first and foremost, heterosexual and worthy of respect and admiration – and “non-Western.” The attitude I got from many peers was, “He’s not one of us anyway.” Plus, he’s a “faggot.” I remember being laughed at a lot of times when I wore my shalwar kameez to school during “cultural appreciation” days. Young men would ask, “Why are you wearing a dress?” Because White men don’t wear dresses, but apparently South Asian men do.

Within the Muslim community – and I speak from my experiences in my college years since I did not have enough exposure to other Muslims in my childhood – I take note on how financial success is stressed upon for men. The goal is to emulate the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, but I find it interesting how some Muslim men (but not all) I have encountered discourage what would be classified as “feminine” traits such as showing compassion or writing romantic poetry. Loving, compassionate, and merciful – these were the characteristics of the Prophet, but when we challenge the strict gender segregation practices in Mosques, we hear harsh condemnations from scholars and others who dismiss it as un-Islamic. Men are traditionally taught to control their sexual desires, while women are taught that they are the cause of male sexual desires, hence justifying gender segregation. Men are taught that they represent the community; they are at the forefront; and they play an active role in marriages, while women are passive and pushed to the background. This is not only an example of our male unearned privilege, where we are oblivious to the advantages we have over women, but also an example of stereotypical roles we are expected to fulfill as men. In other words, if a man is not assertive in his community or not the dominant partner in a heterosexual relationship, he will be criticized and stigmatized for it.

The mainstream Muslim community also places pressure on men to focus mostly on establishing a career and being financially independent. Success, on these terms, means men are qualified to get married and support a family. The mufti at my local Mosque once taught young men that their goal should be about pursuing careers in fields that would earn them money and respect. The arts were completely discouraged because, according to him, “no one will marry you.” I wonder how this affects other Muslim men who are artists at heart, but are pressured to study in fields they have no passion for. As a result of these pressures, I believe a lot of Muslim men project an image of content, displaying to others that they are secure and comfortable with their circumstances, no matter how dissatisfied they really are.

I do not deny or exclude the Muslim men who are passionate about their career or ambitions in non-artistic fields, but I still think it is significant to examine how societal and community pressures on men relates to the idealized “strong man” or “tough guy” image, which, in many cases, must be projected to prove one’s “manhood,” not just to other men, but to women as well. It behaves as a shield to hide “cracks in the armor,” so to speak. If a heterosexual man believes his sensitive and/or emotional side will stigmatize him among other men, and subsequently be seen as a “turn off” to women, his defense mechanism is to suppress those traits and replace it with the guise of “toughness” (which I will discuss further in the next paragraph). Especially in the Muslim community, if women are socialized to be caretakers and homemakers, therefore conditioned to seek men who are confident decision makers, career-oriented, and financially independent, why would they want to marry a man who shows his weaknesses and doubts? This leads me to the conclusion that all men, not just Muslim men, are taught to be machines, not human beings. The latter are three-dimensional, flawed, and complex, while the former are programmed to conform to socially constructed codes of one-dimensional and rigid prototypes of masculinity.

Conforming to the “Tough Guise” model is not exclusive or unique to Muslim men at all. This is very prominent in Western society among men in general. Anti-sexist male activist, Jackson Katz, writes about masculinity being a “projection, a pose, a guise, an act, a mask that men often wear to shield our vulnerability and hide our humanity.” In his documentary, “Tough Guise,” he elaborates about the mask men wear:

This mask can take a lot of forms but one that’s really important for us to look at in our culture at the millennium is what I call the Tough Guise. The front that many men put up that’s based on an extreme notion of masculinity that emphasizes toughness and physical strength and gaining the respect and admiration of others through violence or the implicit threat of it.

Recently, I noticed the celebration of the “Tough Guise” in the Muslim community when Amir Khan, a British-Muslim boxer of Pakistani descent won the world boxing association light-welterweight title in New York. Interesting enough, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese Muslim-American from Michigan, won the Miss USA beauty pageant around the same time. While much has been said about Rima Fakih – some arguing that her victory was worthy of celebration, despite acknowledging the sexist history of beauty pageants, while others found it exploitative and objectifying altogether – I heard no criticism about Amir Khan and what his victory said about masculinity.

The silence comes as no surprise to me. In fact, whenever we discuss gender issues, most of us think exclusively about women instead of both women and men. The same applies when we discuss race; we think about people of color and leave White people unexamined. Men and what it means to be White, in respect to gender and race, are “invisible” and unchallenged by the mainstream. Elan magazine, an online publication on global Muslim youth, published an article, “Amir Khan Crosses the Pond and Dominates,” which wrote the following about Khan’s victory:

Good news, adolescent American Muslim boys – you have a new role model and he looks just like you except with a much better physique! Someone put his name on a kufi for kids to wear to the mosque or give him his own PS3 title, because I think he’s just about to be the next big thing in worldwide boxing. At least, I hope so.

Not only does the author glorify traits that are typically associated with what society and the dominant culture has defined as “manly,” but he also encourages young Muslims to see Amir Khan has a “role model.” Do we really want to teach boys (whether Muslim or non-Muslim) to look up to someone who is simply known for his physical strength and ability to knock someone out? Is that what constitutes a role model or a “real man?” Do we expect Muslim fathers to hold their palms open for their sons and tell them, “Hit my hand as hard as you can?” If Muslim boys experience Islamophobia and racism in high school, should they behave like Amir Khan, throw on the “Tough Guise,” and try to beat up bullies? Is this really “good news” for adolescent Muslim-Americans or is a perpetuation of everything that is wrong with the way boys and men are socialized? I strongly argue the latter.

I am not trying to make this a religious discussion, but there is a famous Hadith (saying of the Prophet) that says the strongest person is not the strongest wrestler, but rather the one who can control his/her anger. The Prophet condemned all forms of violence and only permitted self-defense (and even that had strict rules). I am not making this point to say boxing is “haram” or to “infidelize” anyone, but rather I’m encouraging us to question the stereotypical messages that boxing sends out about “masculinity” and what it means to be a “real man,” mostly because such messages are immensely popular and prevalent. Why do we praise a man for his toughness and physical strength over a man who is sensitive, tender, and compassionate?

Without doubt there is more to discuss about masculinity and I admit that I am exploring this topic myself. I know I cannot deny how boys and men have been insulted, ostracized, and abused for behaving in ways that exist outside of the tight, suffocating box we call “masculinity.” I know that when boys and men express their doubts, uncertainties, and needs for companionship, Love, affection, and even protection, they are discouraged, ridiculed and forced to suppress their emotions and conceal their humanity. This is a danger to men as much as it is to women because, as Jackson Katz argues in “Tough Guise,” much of the violence in the world, whether against other men or women, is committed by men. We just don’t pay enough attention to gender when we talk about violence. When men are taught to “man up” and get physical to solve conflicts instead of communicating, the correlation between masculinity and violence is unsurprising.

The phrases we use for each other are hurtful and even traumatizing for those of us who are very sensitive beneath the “Tough Guise.” Labels like “sissy,” “pussy,” and “faggot” easily train us to become homophobic and hostile towards anyone who doesn’t fit the “right” model of masculinity. I would also argue that phrases like “nice guys finish last” and “mama’s boy” are also hurtful because they can potentially generate insecurity. The sad part is that we don’t ask ourselves: what is wrong with being a “nice guy,” and opposed to what, a “mean” guy? What is wrong with someone having a positive and healthy relationship with his mother? Does that make him less “manly?”

This box is suffocating. I believe many men feel it too, but may not be able to express it. I also believe a lot of men are convinced that they have to be “tough” and that there is no way out of it; it’s simply how they should be. Maybe, as Robert Jensen writes, it’s best for us to throw this whole idea of what it means to be a “real man” out of our minds. We have to break out of this small box and search for something “deeper, richer, and more satisfying.” We certainly need the help of women, but more importantly, we need help from other men, too.

As I watched my male friend Dave hide how conflicted he was about asking someone on a date and then hearing the “stop being a pussy” remark, it made me think about how some deep part of us must be calling for a new model to embrace our humanity. At least, I know this is true for me. There is a longing to be free and not confined to rigid labels or limited by boundaries. To be whole human beings and not the one-dimensional, unemotional machines that society and culture demands of us to be.

* Names changed for confidentiality.