When Men on the Left Refuse to See Their Sexism

leftfailpatriarchy

TRIGGER WARNING: This post cites examples of misogynistic language, gender slurs, sexual objectification, and other forms of sexist oppression.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article on Vice that was oddly titled, “You’re a Pussy If You Think There’s a War on Men.” It seemed clear that the author, Harry Cheadle, was referring to an awful “reverse sexist” and anti-feminist article about “The War on Men,” which asserts that women are to blame for the “dearth of good men” and must “surrender to their nature” while letting “men surrender to theirs.” Cheadle writes in defense of feminism and exposes the absurdity of claiming that men are “oppressed” by women. While I agree with his arguments that men need to stop blaming and fearing women, the sexist use of the word “pussy” in his title couldn’t be overlooked. After a brief conversation with friends who also found it offensive, I decided to write an e-mail to the author. I expressed overall support for his post and agreed that men need to be held accountable for their sexism, but I also pointed out that using the word “pussy” as a slur to characterize men as “cowardly” and “weak” is still misogynistic because it relies on degrading a woman’s body. It reinforces the sexist logic that being called a woman or, in this case, a body part of a woman, is always negative, demeaning, and shameful. It reminds us that in order for men to feel truly insulted, they must be compared to women because women, as heteropatriarchy teaches us, are weaker and inferior to men. I mentioned in my e-mail that I had no problem with calling men out on their laziness, lack of accountability, and insecurities. However, using the word “pussy” to describe their fear of women is counter-productive and perpetuates sexist attitudes.

I never heard back from him, but a few days later, a friend of mine noticed a status update on Cheadle’s public Facebook wall*, which read:

Just got an email from someone who A) assumed I was an ally in the “feminist struggle” B)Took issue with my use of the word “pussy” in my article “You’re a Pussy if You Think There’s a War on Men” and C) informed me that “the term is not only misogynistic, but also inaccurate since the vagina is actually quite tough, not weak.” asldkfjalsjf adlsj foiasj doia e

When it was asked on the comment thread about whether or not he identified as an ally, Cheadle responded, “I just hate whiners and knee-jerk anti-feminists. I don’t really feel that I’m a part of the whole feminist enterprise, and I don’t really want to be.”

Not sure what he meant by “feminist enterprise,” but I was taken aback when I read these comments because I felt that I was being supportive of his article’s overall message. The quote he used from my e-mail (point C) was actually me paraphrasing common anti-sexist responses to those who equate the vagina with “weakness.” I also pointed out in my e-mail that women have done a lot of work on gendered insults and the impact they have on society. What I noticed the most, however, was his refusal to acknowledge the sexism in his title, which he never chose to change.

I share the above as an example of something I want to discuss in a broader context: sexism and misogyny from men in Leftist spaces and their refusal to hold themselves accountable, even when they are called out on it. What does it mean when a man speaks in defense of feminism, but then, after being informed of his sexism, rejects being an ally in order to absolve himself of any accountability? What are the implications for women who self-identify as feminist when men can easily reject feminism or disassociate from it to excuse and normalize their own sexism? In this post, I will discuss how this refusal of accountability contributes to violence against women, beginning with the usage of misogynistic language, then addressing the various manifestations of sexist oppression, and concluding with points on doing work to end this violence.

1. Misogynistic Language

Whether we are men who self-identify as anti-racist, advocate against homophobia, hold leadership positions in radical movements, rightly express outrage against right-wing misogynists and patriarchy at large, write articles that condemn all forms of injustice, or all of the above, none of this gives us a free pass on sexism, including sexist language. Gendered insults like “pussy,” “cunt,” “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” etc. are so normalized and acceptable that we hear them in classrooms, workplaces, activist groups, and from our friends and colleagues. In mainstream media, the frequent and increased use of the “b” word on prime-time TV shows over the past decade only reinforces this acceptability. Even in popular video games like Batman: Arkham City, women characters like Catwoman and Harley Quinn are repeatedly called the “b” word by both good and bad male characters (and when women gamers address sexism in gaming, many men respond by trivializing the slurs and making misogynistic attacks). The pervasiveness and normalization of misogynistic language is not simply limited to particular movies, games, songs, or novels, but rather reflective of the sexist and patriarchal values that shape society. These sexist values, as bell hooks explains, are “created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

There is a long violent history of these words being used to shame, exploit, persecute, rape, and murder women, especially women of color, who face racism and misogyny simultaneously.  Sikivu Hutchinson explains that linking the word “bitch” with “bad girls” has strong racial connotations since “black women have always been deemed ‘bad’ in the eyes of the dominant culture, as less than feminine, as bodies for pornographic exploitation.” Azjones0210 mentions in her blog post that the Oxford dictionary includes a definition that states “bitch” is a “black slang” for “woman.” She elaborates:

[O]ur culture has attached the word “bitch” to the character of a black woman so many times that it deserves to be integrated into our formal language system. Regardless of the word “slang” existing within the definition, it is still there. This is not present for other racial groups in the way it is present for black women. This says to the world that when I walk down the street, and people see me and identify me as black, it is acceptable to connect the word “bitch” to me and everything that it carries way before I even open my mouth or complete any sort of action.

AF3IRM, a feminist and anti-imperialist organization whose membership identifies as “transnational women who are im/migrants or whose families are im/migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,” addressed the history of the word “slut” for women of color and how it continues to be used against them:

This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label “slut”: in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.

When white men and men of color who proclaim to be “progressive” and “anti-oppression” refuse to stop using misogynistic language, they participate in another form of violence against women and end up damaging activist spaces that are supposed to be safe. A typical response is to blame women: “But women say these words, too!” Another excuse is that they were using the “b” word as a “compliment” in a “reclaimed context.” A couple of points need to be addressed here: (1) Some women of color and white women believe in reclaiming gender slurs, and some disagree. (2) Whether or not the women in our lives say these words, men should never say them. A woman saying the “b” word compared to a man saying it is very different. Given the history and present day realities I mentioned above, men are in no position to “reclaim” those words nor do they have any right to tell women not to say them. I’ve seen white men and men of color who self-identify as anti-racist use the “b” word in ways to exert dominance over others, including other men (e.g. “Man up, bitch!”), or to “humorously” refer to a group of male and female friends (e.g. “Got a new phone, send me your numbers, bitches!”) None of this is “ok,” no matter what the “intent” is.

When describing racist and/or homophobic women, there are men with progressive politics, whether white or of color, heterosexual or gay, who somehow think it is permissible to use misogynistic language and slurs. Again, this is unacceptable. We need to go beyond “restraining ourselves” from using these words. Instead, we need to eliminate misogynistic language from our vocabulary and challenge the ways in which this language has shaped our perception and attitudes towards women. This doesn’t negate the activist work we already do nor does it diminish the racism of racist women, but rather calls for us to work against sexist oppression and take responsibility for unlearning the serious ways in which we’ve internalized sexist socialization.

2. Men on the Left Perpetuating Sexist Oppression

In addition to misogynistic language, sexual harassment, rape, and the silencing of women is disturbingly common in Leftist spaces. In a hostile white supremacist and heteropatriarchal climate where many women, especially women of color, cannot call the police because they do not want to strengthen the state or be further victimized by it, working collectively against misogyny and gender violence within activist movements is crucial. If a male activist threatens a woman, or follows her home, or sexually harasses her in a meeting or a rally, or tries to silence and shame her, or rapes her, this man must be held accountable. What’s disturbing is how white men and men of color appoint themselves as “leaders” and use their “activist credibility” or “celebrity” status to hide and excuse their own sexism. On one hand, there are male activists who reject feminism, as discussed above, but then there are men who consciously insert themselves into feminist discourse and assert authority over it. Hugo Schwyzer, for instance, persistently defines himself as a “male feminist,” yet doesn’t see the harm he causes when dismissing his history of engaging in sexual relations with students or writing about how he almost murdered his ex-girlfriend and then made himself the “hero” for not following through with it. Angus Johnston of Student Activism describes this crime as an act of gendered violence and explains that “in all his (Schwyzer’s) writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today.”

When writing about “slutwalk,” Schwyzer described his role as “herding sluts” and then gave racist responses to criticism from women of color. Elsewhere, Schwyzer wrote an outrageous article that tried to justify degrading sex acts against women (read Tiger Beatdown’s important response to his post). By declaring himself a “feminist” and advertising himself (as seen on his website) as an “author, speaker, professor” who “shatters gender myths,” Schwyzer dangerously tries to legitimize his sexism as feminist discourse. Refusing to check his white male privilege and power, which has undoubtedly contributed to his “celebrity” status, Schwyzer allows other men to see his behavior and beliefs as “feminism.” When it is taken into account that Schwyzer proudly sees himself as “paternalistic,” it isn’t surprising that he deflects criticism so defensively. His refusal to see this violence is evident in his own words:

Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.

I have seen similar refusal from white men and men of color that I’ve come in contact with. Last year, I wrote a post, “Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions,” where I mentioned a male photography “activist” who took an invasive, zoomed-in photo of a woman’s body and shared it on his Facebook for public viewing. When white men and men of color left despicable and sexually objectifying comments, I was alarmed to see one of my “friends,” a man of color who asserts himself as a “leader” in his local activist community, participating in this objectification. When I and another male friend/ally wrote to him about this, he responded by denying that anything ever happened. We went back to the photo and noticed that he had deleted his comment. We and a few other friends (women and men) who saw the comment earlier must have been “seeing things” (sarcasm). After confronting him on this, he went on about how his friend, the man who took the photo, is an ally in anti-racist struggle and has even gotten arrested for taking photos of the police. The troubling implication seemed to be that if a man does important social justice work and got arrested several times, it somehow “erases” his misogyny and the harm he caused by sexually objectifying women.

Along with shamelessly lying that he ever commented on the photo, this man never took action against the photographer. Despite the messages my friends and I sent to people in our network and asked them to report the image, it still remained posted. A couple of weeks later, this same man commented on another photo, this time of a woman modeling in a bikini (which appeared on my news feed even though the person who posted it is not on my friend’s list). As men left perverted comments, he encouraged their objectification by saying: “Be careful. some of the puritanical leftists will gouge our eyes out. we must remain serious at all times. after all, we are activists. humor is banned at all times :)” (smiley icon in original).

When friends and I wrote to him and voiced our outrage, we never received a reply. Some of us, including myself, deleted him, but still see his hypocritical “anti-patriarchy” comments posted on mutual friend’s walls. I sent out messages to many of these mutual friends and while some were definitely outraged, others excused his behavior due to his activist work and “leadership” role. So, men who perpetuate sexual objection or other forms of sexist oppression can get away with it just because they do “important work” overall? What does this say about sexism and misogyny? That these issues are “secondary,” “not as important,” and disconnected from struggles against other forms of oppression? What some failed to take into account was how men like him are not unique in Leftist movements.

As my friend Sitara wrote in reference to a white male activist in her community:

What does it mean for our movement that a known abuser (who has REFUSED to address his actions in any meaningful way) has put out a call to form a national revolutionary organization whose platform includes “rejecting patriarchy” in all its forms, including “familial roles”? Answer: nothing good.

In Courtney Desiree Morris’s very important post, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements,” she describes the numerous encounters she had with abusive men:

There were men like this in various organizations I worked with. The one who called his girlfriend a bitch in front of a group of youth of color during a summer encuentro we were hosting. The one who sexually harassed a queer Chicana couple during a trip to México, trying to pressure them into a threesome. The guys who said they would complete a task, didn’t do it, brushed off their compañeras’ demands for accountability, let those women take over the task, and when it was finished took all the credit for someone else’s hard work. The graduate student who hit his partner—and everyone knew he’d done it, but whenever anyone asked, people would just look ashamed and embarrassed and mumble, “It’s complicated.” The ones who constantly demeaned queer folks, even people they organized with. Especially the one who thought it would be a revolutionary act to “kill all these faggots, these niggas on the down low, who are fucking up our children, fucking up our homes, fucking up our world, and fucking up our lives!” The one who would shout you down in a meeting or tell you that you couldn’t be a feminist because you were too pretty. Or the one who thought homosexuality was a disease from Europe.

Yeah, that guy.

While she points out that many of these men were probably not informants, “the work that they do supports the state’s ongoing campaign of terror against social movements and the people who create them.” I suspect that many male readers will read the examples shared above and think, “Well, I’ve never done any of that, so I can’t be sexist.” However, this belief is an “innocence” mindset that fails to address our responsibilities as well as the ways in which we are complicit in reproducing oppression.

3. Accountability

There needs to be clarification that not all men benefit from sexism and heteropatriarchy in the same way. Certainly, the ways in which gender and race intersect must be taken into account.The framework here isn’t “all men are the same” or “men are the enemies,” but rather that white men and men of color need to practice accountability and understand the different, though interconnected, effects interlocking systems of oppression has on them (e.g. heterosexual cis-gendered white men benefit from both white supremacy and patriarchy). Men of color are horribly demonized and victimized by racist forces in society (as are women of color), though this should not absolve them of sexism and misogyny. White women can exert power over men of color and women of color through racism and reinforcing white supremacy, though this doesn’t lessen the importance of dismantling heteropatriarchy (which is interlocked with white supremacy).

As Morris writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do. We all must do the work because the survival of our movements depends on it.” Abusive male activist “leaders” maintain power not only by reproducing heteropatriarchy, but also because they are upheld by those who actively support them, which includes both men and women. This support is not always a result of passive or naive internalization of sexist oppression; there is active participation, too. When this complex process is failed to be understood, men may dismiss how harmful sexual objectification is, for example, and make excuses like, “Well, women were commenting on that photo, too” or “But, women weren’t offended by that photo.” Instead of using other women to justify our sexism, we need to challenge heteropatriarchy and work within a framework of accountability. Another mistake that many men (not just those with radical politics, but also those who consider themselves liberal or progressive) make is think they are “outside of patriarchy” just because they read feminist literature, attend patriarchy workshops, have women friends, etc. When we are called out on sexism, instead of getting defensive and claiming that we are “not sexist,” we should be more concerned about whether or not we are reinforcing sexism, either through our language, our behaviors, actions or non-actions, etc. I believe bell hooks’ words are relevant here:

All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another… While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it.

This is not about men taking on “savior” roles, but instead taking responsibility for their complicity. We are complicit when we are silent about misogyny within movements; we are complicit when we tell women to ignore sexist oppression;  we are complicit when we laugh at misogynistic “jokes”; we are complicit when we encourage sexual objectification instead of challenging it; we are complicit when we continue friendships with these abusive men despite knowing the damage their misogyny is causing; we are complicit when we make the conscious decision to refuse listening to those who are calling us out on being silent or participants in any of the above.

Responsibility doesn’t mean we should speak for women either. As I was sharing with a friend, I often get tired of calling white people out on their racism all the time and think it’s important to have solidarity from anti-racist white allies. I don’t need white people to speak for me, for instance, though at the same time, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of racism while my white friends just stand around and do nothing. Similarly, it’s not enough for men to simply say, “Oh that’s messed up,” when they see or hear the sexism of male allies. It is important to confront these men, especially if these are men we work with, study with, have friendships with, etc. If we say or do nothing while women are struggling to address these issues, we are only resuming our complicity.

We need to seriously reevaluate and question what is happening in our communities. If a powerfully positioned “leader” in a radical space that strives to end all forms of oppression is a man who uses bullying, shaming, violence, and other oppressive tactics towards members in the group, why is this injustice allowed to continue? Why is he standing on a podium, dominating the mic, and leading a large rally of people who are seeking to end oppressive behaviors like his? Why is he held up as a “representative” for his community, being interviewed by the media, quoted in newspapers, or featured on popular blogs when there are women within the group who are not only fighting against the state’s racist, sexist oppression, but also against the misogyny within their communities? Oddly enough, when men tell women that they should “ignore” sexism or put their experiences with abuse “on hold” for the sake of “the greater good,” there paradoxically is an acknowledgment that abuse is taking place. And yet, despite this recognition of injustice, no action is taken.

We need to stop giving legitimacy to these men and start holding them accountable. We have to stop promoting them as “leaders” and start listening to the voices that matter. There needs to be collective action and communities need to work within a framework that understands that if we do not fight misogyny and heteropatriarchy, especially within our own groups, then our work will amount to nothing. Refusing to address these problems, as Morris crucially reminds us, has dangerous consequences and will work to strengthen the oppressive forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, imperialism and other systems of violence and domination that seek to destroy us. Whether its men who write articles about women’s rights, men making speeches about ending patriarchy at activist rallies, or men who just think they “cannot be sexist” because they are “nice guys,” our work and words mean nothing if we deliberately refuse to accept and practice accountability. As so many anti-racist women of color and white women activists, academics, and community leaders have articulated in their work, heteropatriarchy and other oppressions cannot be dismantled if we do not also work to eliminate them within ourselves.

Photo Credit: #Leftfail

*I was reluctant to share this status message since I’m not friends with the author, but it was pointed out to me that his Facebook wall is open to the public. After verifying this myself, I decided to re-share.

UPDATE: Other readers have pointed this out already, but I recognize that “Vice” is not a leftist website. I apologize for the confusion and meant to clarify that. Later in the post, I mention that it is not only the sexism and misogyny in leftist spaces that should be a concern, but in all spaces, including on popular websites.

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.

It’s Time to End Gender Segregation in Mosques

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I already know what many of you are thinking.  “This is haram/biddah/un-Islamic,” or perhaps my favorite, “This an example of people following their own desires over what God wants or commands.”  Some go as far to call Muslim feminism an “oxymoron,” or “extremely stupid,” and some even say it’s a “perversion” of Islam.  I’ve heard it all before, so if you don’t have anything new to contribute in what I hope will be a civil/mature discussion about gender relations in Islam, please don’t bother commenting.

We all know what the stereotypes say about Islam and women.  “Islam oppresses/enslaves/subjugates women!” cries the Islamophobe, and in response, all Muslims — female and male — get rightfully offended.  We get offended because we know our faith and our history.  We know how the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, abolished sexist and misogynist practices, such as female infanticide, in order to promote women’s rights and gender equality.  We know how the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, peace be upon her, was an independent business woman who initiated a marriage proposal to Muhammad.  We know that the Qur’an, unlike the Torah, does not blame Eve for the first sin, but rather makes it clear that Adam and Eve were both in the wrong and then pardoned.  And while many of us dispute over how a woman is supposed to express the Islamic teachings of modesty, it is agreed upon that the Qur’an mandates women and men to be modest, respectful, and humble to each other.

We look around our community and know that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women choose whether or not they want to wear the hijaab (headscarf).  We read our history books and learn about empowered Muslim women over the centuries such as the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, peace be upon her, Rabia Al-Adawiyyah, Zeb-un-Nisa, and Razia Sultana.  In modern times, we have seen female prime ministers of Muslim nations like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Muslim women are athletes, journalists, authors, politicians, actresses, filmmakers, photographers, activists, bloggers, students, and teachers, among so many other things.  With all of this in mind, it sounds like the Muslim community enjoys gender equality.  Unfortunately, when we look closer, especially at our Mosques, we see a very contrasting picture.

Muslim Women in Mosques and Male Privilege

In the majority of Mosques, women are isolated in a separate room that is often smaller than the men’s section.  In some Mosques, men and women are separated by a wall or barrier, while in others, women pray behind a curtain.  I’ve been to some Mosques where a balcony is built specifically for women, which makes it easy for men to forget that women are in attendance and easy for women to feel like they have no participation in the Mosque.   Some Mosques, mostly in Muslim majority countries (but in the West as well) may not even have enough space for women.  Their argument is that women, unlike men, are not obligated to pray in Mosques.  Women, according to them, can pray at home and take care of their “womanly duties.”

Depending on how big or wealthy the Mosque is, some Muslim women may be lucky enough to get a sound system and a television in their rooms so that they can hear and see the imam deliver his khutbah (sermon) during Friday prayers.  Sadly, as most Muslim women know, Mosques are infamously known for their poor sound quality and malfunctioning televisions.  But it’s more than just about bad sound or vision.  An article from “Islam for Today,” describes the discriminatory setting that Muslim women experience in Mosques:

…[A]mong those mosques that do let women in, I’m sorry to say that most of the ones I have seen relegate the women to an inferior status. They banish them to basement rooms or other segregated spaces. Too often the second-class spaces allotted to the women are poorly maintained, uncomfortable, cramped, filthy, or otherwise substandard, while the men reserve the best areas for their exclusive use. This kind of treatment makes the preaching about women’s status being equal in Islam sound awfully hollow. Too many places don’t allow women any chance to speak and be heard, let alone have any say in the way the mosque is run.

Muslim women never give sermons or lead prayers, unless it’s front of an all-female congregation and the men can’t hear/see them.  While men are limited to speaking to men only, they have better access to the imam and can make announcements to promote events after the Friday prayer.  If a Muslim woman wants to announce an upcoming event, she must do so through a man.  In other words, she cannot even announce something in her own words or voice.  On important Islamic events and holidays, a Muslim woman’s spiritual experience is significantly affected by the gender segregation.  Krista Riley, a Muslim feminist and contributing writer of Muslimah Media Watch, shares her experience:

On the 27th night of Ramadan – the night most widely believed to be Laylat-ul-Qadr, the Night of Power – I went to the mosque for tarawih prayers, in which they would be completing the recitation of the Qur’an that they had been doing all month. This experience, of praying together on this special night as the Qur’an is completed, is a beautiful and powerful one. At least, so I am told.

What happened in reality is that the women’s section, far too small to fit all of the women who had come that evening, was crowded and uncomfortable. I ended up having to pray close to the elevator, on the marble floor, because that was the only place left when I got there; I had people walking around and in front of me all evening. On top of that, it was NOISY. Several families had brought their small children, who were all sent up to the women’s section (where the “children’s area” was, although few children stayed inside it), and who were yelling, crying, and even running around at various points throughout the prayer. While I could hear the emotion in the Imam’s voice as he recited, I could barely focus on his words, because of all of the noise and activity around me. When the prayer was over, I could not get out of that mosque fast enough. It was, without a doubt, the most stressful prayer experience I have ever had. Far from being inspired, I was annoyed, agitated, and more than a little bitter.

Krista added that she later spoke with a male friend who had no idea about the chaos she experienced.  This reveals the male privilege that too many Muslim men are utterly oblivious to.  As Krista explains:  “Completely disconnected from the women’s space, the Imam and his male followers had the luxury of truly focusing on the beautiful words whose revelation had begun that same month, so many centuries before.”

Muslim male privilege is a reality that cannot be denied, but it often seems difficult for many Muslim men to understand.  Muslim men do not have to worry about having enough space in the Mosque nor do they have to worry about easy accessibility to the imam or shaykh.  Although women have religious and Qur’anic classes, they cannot have the same aspirations as men, such as becoming an imam or shaykh.  As a result of male-dominated spiritual leadership, men can abuse their power and preach sexist interpretations of Islam in order to control women.   Muslim men also have better chances of establishing positions on the administrative board and do not have to worry about being discriminated against because of their gender.

Prior to reading Muslim feminist literature, I was virtually unaware of the sexism that took place within our community, which exposes my own male privilege.  Some Muslims do not consider it sexism, however, and they often present theological arguments to justify segregation.  For example, a study called “Mosques, Collective Identity and Gender Differences Among Arab American Muslims,” by Amaney Jamal, reports that female Mosque attendance is considerably lower than male attendance, but the opposite argument would be that women are not obligated to attend Mosques as men are.  To justify the partition, the argument is that segregation is about modesty and respecting the opposite sex.  Some Muslims believe it is impermissible for a woman to lead men and women in prayer or give a khutbah because their voices and physical appearances can be “distracting.”  While I strongly value the teachings of modesty in Islam, I argue that the manner in which most Mosques practice segregation actually sexualizes gender relationships in ways that many don’t realize.

The Case Against Partition

There is a lot of evidence from the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) that barriers did not exist during the time of the Prophet.  Interesting enough, a Hadith narrated by Ibn Abbas, the paternal cousin of Muhammad, reported that a woman used to pray directly behind the Prophet while he led prayer.  Muslim feminist and filmmaker, Zarqa Nawaz, points out in her documentary film, “Me and the Mosque,” that women used to speak up at Mosques and even refute the speaker if they had to.  For example, after the Prophet’s death, a woman challenged the Caliph, ‘Umar bin Khattab, by citing the Qur’an after he tried to reduce the mahr, a monetary gift a man gives to a woman before marriage.  It was ‘Umar who was ultimately responsible for relegating women to separate rooms.

As I mentioned, separating the sexes on the basis that women and men are physical (read: sexual) distractions to one another sexualizes gender relationships  (it’s really presented as women being distractions to men).  Like all societies, gender socialization is no different in the Muslim community.  Men and women are conditioned by socialized gender roles and expectations, i.e. men are the breadwinners and women are the homemakers.  I remember at a Youth Group meeting, our Mufti was teaching Muslim male adolescents that their primary focus (after being a good Muslim) was on establishing a career that (1) required the least amount of work and (2) paid the most amount of money.  He stressed that careers were important because it enables Muslim men to get married, and settling down with a family is what all Muslims should aspire for.  When we spoke with our Youth Group about dating, I only heard condemnations and unrealistic lessons on how to avoid girls and keep interactions as minimum as possible.  Women were not being presented as individuals, but as temptresses who are after a man’s purity/virginity.   Women, according to the coordinators at my Mosque, need to be avoided until a man is ready for marriage.

Sobia Ali, a Muslim feminist who has also contributed to the aforementioned Muslimah Media Watch, shares her perspective on the sexualization of Muslim women (emphases added):

The reason Mosques segregate is so that men and women do not get distracted by each other. However, the greater concern is with men’s distraction. The segregation is MAINLY so that men are not distracted by women – more specifically women’s bodies. It is not women’s mere presence, but rather seeing her body, or hearing her voice which could distract him. Why? Because men could be sexually attracted to women’s bodies and this will interfere with his worship. Therefore, knowing this, and then being forced to be in a completely different space than men, does nothing but remind me that my body, my female form, is a sexual distraction to the men in the Mosque.  This of course makes me feel like a sex object or sexual being.

The moment we say a woman’s voice may tempt a man, we are making a sexually-charged remark.  We are opposed to the idea of a woman leading prayer because we immediately think that men will “check her out.”  Yet we never seem to realize that women can be attracted to the voice of a Muslim man too.  I remember in my freshman year of college, some Muslim girls I knew were raving about how beautifully a Muslim man was reciting the Qur’an during prayer.  And there was more to it than just appreciating his spirituality and devotion.  “Well it’s different for men,” I remember a Muslim friend telling me once.  “Men are weaker, and they’re easily attracted to the opposite sex.”

Why do we treat gender interactions as a potentially sexual act?  Are Muslim men so weak that they’re unable to control their urges?  Are Muslims supposed to get married based upon socio-economic compatibility over Love and friendship?  I remember a fellow Muslim told me, “Just find someone you’re compatible with, don’t wait to fall in Love.”  At the Mosque, I made a comment once about how I Love Lebanese food, and the response was, “Oh, we’ll have to find you a good Lebanese sister for you, insha’Allah (God willing).”  I’ve noticed that a “good Muslim wife” in the eyes of the Muslim men at my Mosque is someone who is obedient, religious, wears hijaab, and knows how to raise a family.  God forbid if there is anything about romance or a woman’s individuality/personality.  Why aren’t we taught about the Love that hazrat Khadija and Muhammad had for one another?

Who’s Afraid of Amina Wadud and Female Imams?

Amina Wadud is a Muslim feminist and scholar who made international headlines when she led Friday prayer for a mixed-gender congregation in New York on March 18th, 2005.  Over 100 Muslim women and men participated in the prayer despite the controversy and protests that took place.  The Muslim protesters held signs reading, “Mixed congregation today, hell-fire tomorrow,” and one of the speakers was a young Muslim man screaming his head off  about how Amina Wadud is a “prostitute” and “whore.”  Apparently, if a sister in faith is doing something conservatives disagree with, the best way to teach her about modesty is to degrade her sexuality.  Who objectifies who again?

Wadud’s prayer was not the first female-led mixed-gender congregation in Islamic history, but it was the first that received international attention.  Most of the outrage comes, unsurprisingly, from Muslim men, who argue that Islam does not permit a woman to lead a mixed-congregation.  These reactions are interesting to me because I believe they reveal an underlying fear of empowered Muslim women.

It is always irrational when men get offended by feminist movements.  The fear that women want to “enslave men” is a result of the bruised male ego.  Men often neglect the fact that women have been treated as property, non-equals, and sex objects for centuries (and still are) by a male-dominated world.  A lot of men, whether they’re conscious of it or not, do not want to give up their position of power and they’re afraid of losing their dominance over women.  In the case of Amina Wadud, some Muslims argue that a female imam contradicts Islamic Law, but will not bother to read her book or alternative arguments, as if Islam is a monolith and only has one rigid interpretation.

Are we really taught that hazrat Khadijah was an independent tradeswoman and yet women are not allowed to lead prayers?  Are we really taught that “paradise is at the feet of your mother” by the Prophet, and yet we can’t listen to a Muslim woman deliver a khutbah because of whatever “genetic disposition” she has as a female?  Can we really believe that Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet, will be the first person to enter the afterlife, and yet the voices of Muslim women are completely shut out at Mosques?  How can we truly follow the Qur’an, which teaches that men and women are equal spiritual beings, when our community treats women as intellectually inferior to men?

The Muslim Ummah can never move forward or become enlightened unless we evolve spiritually, empower Muslim women, and truly practice gender equality.  Allah gave us brains and encourages us to our reason and logic.  Instead of raging against Muslim women leading prayers, why aren’t we focusing on the horrible sexual double standard that takes place in our community?  What about the Muslim men who fool around with multiple women, but then eventually settle down with a virgin Muslim woman?  It is impossible to deny that Muslim women are far more stigmatized and penalized if their shortcomings are discovered by their male counterparts.  Why don’t the angry protesters at Amina Wadud’s prayer express their outrage at their Muslim brothers who get drunk, sleep around, and deny the rights of their sisters?

Moving Forward

First of all, we need to get rid of this notion that “feminism” is a bad word.  It’s not.  Feminism is about promoting the respect, dignity, and equality of all human beings — women and men.  Second, Muslims need to stop associating feminism with “Western decadence,” or “Western liberalism,” which usually means “secularism.”  Muslim feminist values are rooted in Islam, not in something external.  I believe with all of my heart that Islam is a perfect religion that teaches gender equality, but Muslims are not perfect, which is why it’s important to address these issues.

Mosques need to be more inclusive of Muslim women. Muslim women should be encouraged to be leaders in our communities, as imams, scholars, educators, directors, activists, artists, and so on.  I personally believe in removing the barrier and having Muslim men and women praying in the same room — with men on one side and women on the other.  Separate rooms should be made to accommodate for the Muslims who have more conservative views or want privacy.

Muslims need to remember what their religion teaches them.  If Muslim men really understood modesty and humility, we’d be showing so much more respect to women. If a Muslim woman leads prayer or gives a khutbah, we should not be thinking sexual thoughts. If a man has sexual thoughts going into the Mosque, nothing — not even a barrier — is going to stop him from having sexual thoughts or desires unless he restrains himself.

Lastly, the phrase “tear down the walls of separation” is an Islamic mystical (Sufi) expression used to convey the passionate longing that exists in our Souls — longing for the Divine, longing for Oneness, longing for self-actualization, and so on.  Beyond the physical, beyond gender, and beyond this shell we call “body,” there is a Being at the center of it all.  It is not your mouth or tongue that speaks, but rather your Being from within — that mystery we call “heart” and “soul.” The Qur’an teaches gender equality, and yes, women and men are different in many ways, but rather than limiting ourselves to roles based upon gender expectations, we should emphasize on celebrating and appreciating our differences.  If we do not actively oppose the sexism and misogyny in our communities, it will persist and only move one step closer to becoming permanent.

“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts” – Qur’an 13: 11