Why Eliminating Sexist Language Matters

Contrary to popular belief, it's not always about this guy.

If you’re going to advocate for social justice and organize in your community, you need to be actively resisting the potential reproduction of oppressive hierarchies. In other words, if you’re going to fight against capitalism, for example, don’t create a discriminatory “chain of command” reminiscent of the very system you’re fighting against!  This includes being conscious of offensive and harmful imagery, language, slogans, and so on.  Reproducing racist, sexist, classist, and ableist hierarchies within social justice movements isn’t uncommon, sadly, and if we don’t challenge oppression within organizing, the struggle itself will be undermined.  How can you bring about “revolution” when you’re benefiting off of the people you’ve marginalized, excluded, exploited, and stigmatized?  Where is the “change” when people are still struggling against oppression, even within social justice groups?

It is always discouraging to see oppressive hierarchies surface in our own communities because these are spaces that are supposed to be safe.  Recently, I noticed a status message that shamelessly insulted and degraded Muslim activists who have been criticizing the Obama administration.  It isn’t necessary to name this person, though it is disturbing how some people who claim to be “representing” the Muslim American community feel so comfortable ridiculing others.  The message included sexist, masculinist remarks like, “American Muslims need to grow some balls and join the electoral system,” and “American Muslims need to grow up and stop being cynical,” and “American Muslims need to stop whining and victimizing themselves.”  When I critiqued the sexist language used by this person, I received a reply that didn’t address any of my points.  Unfortunately, the person who wrote the message didn’t take responsibility for his sexism either.  Instead, I was told I “misunderstood” what was meant to be a motivational message to get Muslim Americans to participate in “American democracy” and not “whine” about Islamophobia.

I’m not interested in attacking or denigrating this person. I bring up the discussion only to critique the victim-blaming and heteropatriarchal politics that exists in our community.  Indeed, there is a lot to deconstruct when you hear someone say, “American Muslims need to grow some balls” and accompany the statement with remarks like “grow up” and “stop whining.”  As many feminist critiques have pointed out, sexist language makes women invisible and reinforces heteropatriarchal domination. Telling Muslim critics of the Obama administration to “grow some balls and join the electoral system” removes Muslim women from the discussion and, subsequently, from the voting process.  Furthermore, “grow some balls” means to “man up,” which is code for anti-female directives such as “don’t be/act like a girl” (because girls are inferior to boys and men, so if you act like them, you lose your “manhood,” your “natural inclination” to be “superior”). Since male-centered language asserts problematic universalist ideas such as the term “man” equaling “people” (and vice versa), Muslim critics of US wars only consist of men who “lack the balls” to do “macho” stuff, like voting to get president Obama re-elected.  Subsequently, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-imperialist critiques of the administration are characterized as “whiny,” “childish,” “angry,” and “self-victimizing,” which are all code for sexist perceptions of so-called “feminine” traits, i.e. “sissy,” “girly,” “oversensitive,” dwelling in “self-pity,” and so on. Because women are not part of this conversation, the “Muslims for Obama” are “manly” men, whereas Muslims criticizing Obama are the “girly” men.

Unfortunately, anti-racist and anti-war activists are not outside heteropatriarchy either.  bell hooks offers a feminist critique of Paulo Freire’s book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” because of its “tendency to speak of people’s liberation as male liberation.” hooks points out that Freire, like other brilliant political thinkers, including Frantz Fanon, Albert Memni, and Aimi Cesaire, “speak against oppression, but then define liberation in terms that suggest it is only the oppressed ‘men’ who need freedom.”  Missing from their incredibly important works about “colonization, racism, classism, and revolutionary struggle” are anti-sexist politics. By no means is this saying that their works are not important or significant. In fact, as hooks points out, the works are still valued by feminist activists, but with the understanding that focusing exclusively on heterosexual male liberation perpetuates sexist oppression and must end.  Centering analysis and language on men resisting racist, classist oppression erases women’s struggle against racism, colonization, sexual violence, and misogyny (not only within their communities, but also outside).  It is also worth noting that hooks discussed her concerns with Friere, who “supported wholeheartedly this criticism of his work and encouraged me (hooks) to share this with readers.”

Within white-dominated feminist groups, harmful language arises out of failure in resisting discriminatory hierarchies and acknowledging different histories.  AF3IRM, a transnational feminist and anti-imperialist organization, expressed concerns about the “SlutWalk” movement by addressing “the issue of sexual violence and continuing victimization of rape victims by police,the justice system and other agents of authority.”  AF3IRM and other women of color called upon “SlutWalk” to reexamine its use of the term “slut,” which carries a long history of exploiting and oppressing women of color around the world. In their statement to “SlutWalk,” AF3IRM write:

Our collective transnational histories are comprised of 500 years of colonization. As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, we cannot truly “reclaim” the word “Slut”. It was never ours to begin with. 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.

Another recent example of using offensive language in social justice organizing can found in the “occupy” movements that began on Wall Street. Many indigenous communities in North America have stressed in their critiques that the land being “occupied” by anti-capitalist activists is stolen indigenous land and already occupied. Under occupation, racism and sexism are wielded as weapons against the colonized, therefore use of the term “occupy” dismisses histories and realities of those who live under colonial occupation.  Resistance to this criticism, which is meant to make the movement stronger by centering anti-colonial politics, represents the ongoing cultural genocide of Native peoples.  That is, Native peoples are thought to be “extinct,” therefore their struggles against colonialism and sexual violence are “not important enough” to get the white-majority “occupy” activists to reassess the language it uses.   Recently, the “occupy” movement in Albuquerque, New Mexico decided to change its name to “(Un)occupy Albuquerque” out of solidarity for Native communities.  As one writer explained:

For many indigenous people, the term ‘Occupy’ is deeply problematic. For New Mexico’s indigenous people, ‘Occupy’ means five-hundred years of forced occupation of their lands, resources, cultures, power, and voices by the imperial powers of both Spain and the United States. A big chunk of the 99 percent has been served pretty well by that arrangement. A smaller chunk hasn’t.

Beyond the way sexist language reinforces maleness as the “norm,” which is undoubtedly important to critique because it eliminates women from, well, existence, there are connections that need to be made between sexist language and the heteropatriarchal system which is foundational to the United States. Cherokee feminist-activist Andrea Smith argues:

It has been through sexual violence and through the imposition of European relationships on Native communities that Europeans were able to colonize Native peoples in the first place. If we maintain these patriarchal gender systems in place, we are then unable to decolonize and fully assert our sovereignty… Implicit in this analysis is the understanding that heteropatriarchy is essential for the building of US empire. Patriarchy is the logic that naturalizes social hierarchy. Just as men are supposed to naturally dominate women on the basis of biology, so too should the social elites of a society naturally rule everyone else through a nation-state form of governance that is constructed through domination, violence, and control (emphasis added).

If we apply an anti-colonial analysis to sexist language and the heteropatriarchal nation-state, we can see how arrogant and pompous statements like “America is the greatest nation on earth” are very masculinist because they promote absolute domination and self-entitlement to rule, invade, bomb, and occupy other countries. When Muslim American community leaders assert that Muslims “proudly” played a role in the “founding” of America, they are aligning themselves with the built-in structures of heteropatriarchy and colonialism, as well as dismissing the fact that many of the Muslims they refer to were African slaves forced to this continent.  What does it mean to be the “greatest” nation on earth?  Who determines “greatness” and why is it so important for America to be the “greatest”?  I am reminded of when a good friend told me, “Women have no country” and that the building of the nation-state is masculinist, as is evident in the way it flexes its military power.

"You want to fight sexism and challenge the nation-state?! What are you, crazy?! Think like a man and be more practical."

With this in mind, it is very telling when certain individuals, particularly those who believe they have more authority than others in their communities, resort to sexist language in effort to defend and deflect criticism of the heteropatriarchal nation-state. When anti-war stances are shot down with degrading insults, it becomes that much easier to brush the person off as some “whiny,” “cynical,” and, um, “ball-less” nuisance.  Sexist language often intertwines with ableist slurs like, “you’re crazy,” “you’re delusional,” or “you’re just being hysterical.”  Because women are perceived in heteropatriarchy as “weak” and “irrational,” ableist words like “crazy,” “delusional,” and “hysterical” are easily assigned to them, and especially more damaging to women with dis-abilities.

Masculinity, on the other hand, is synonymous with being “rational,” “brave,” and “courageous.”  When heterosexual male community organizers ridicule anti-racist feminists and assert themselves as “more practical,” they are reinforcing sexist masculine notions that anyone who disagrees with them is “hysterical” and  an “emotional reactionary.”  They’re not “thinking with their head.”  If these anti-racist feminists are women, the attitude is, “Of course they would say that, they’re women.” If these anti-racist feminists are men, the attitude is, “What a bunch of pussies.”  Interestingly, if being masculine is all about “toughness” and “bravery,” then what is to be said about the countless number of women who often put themselves in danger to fight not only against misogyny and sexual violence, but also against racism and colonialism?  What is to be said about the Native women and other women of color who not only fight sexist oppression in their own communities, but also actively challenge the nation-state itself? As bell hooks says, “Struggle is rarely safe or pleasurable.”  Working within the colonial framework, telling people to “shut up” about their criticism of Obama and join the “voting system” (as if voting ever abolished racism, sexism, classism, etc.) only serves to maintain, not disrupt, established power structures and “secondary marginalization,” which is described by Smith as politics premised on the “most elite class” furthering “their aspirations on the backs of those most marginalized within the community.”

It is understandable if the reality of struggle rarely being safe bothers us because it reveals the lack of support and solidarity. No one should ever feel compelled to put themselves in danger for their God-given human rights. I point it out here to emphasize on heteropatriarchy’s dangerous use of language and how its sexist labeling degrades, vilifies, and erases (rhetorically or violently) anything that doesn’t conform to the heteromasculine status quo. If we are going to fight sexist language, the established hierarchies need to be decolonized, and society must base its principles on interconnectedness, mutual accountability and reciprocity, and liberation for all people.  I recall the words of Cellestine Ware:

Radical feminism is working for the eradication of domination and elitism in all human relationships. This would make self-determination the ultimate good and require the downfall of society as we know it today.

The downfall of sexist language is very much part of the revolution she calls for.

Banana 2 Conference and Intersectionality

This is a very overdue post, but two weekends ago, I had the honor to be invited to this year’s Banana 2: Asian Pacific American Bloggers Conference in Los Angeles.  I felt very grateful to speak  on the “Uncovering the Activist in You/Social Media for Social Change” panel with Fatemeh Fakhraie (founder of “Muslimah Media Watch”), Marissa Lee (co-founder of “Racebending”), Frances Kai-Hwa Wang (of “Adventures in Multicultural Living”), Cynthia Liu (of K-12 News Network), and our moderator, Keith Kamisugi.  This was the first time I was invited to speak on a panel and I must thank Edward Hong, an activist, actor, and blogger, for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and connect with fellow activists and bloggers.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort that went into organizing the conference.  I especially Loved how everything in the room was very social media-based (I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised because it was, after all, a bloggers conference!).  For example, draped in one corner of the room was a projector screen that showed live Twitter updates from people in attendance.   There was also a table in another corner that had laptops for people to access the internet and update their blogs and social media accounts.  Above the table was a cute speech bubble painted on the wall that read: “Blog Here!” (I actually updated my Facebook status from this blogging station after I spoke on my panel!)  In the back of the room, there was a white board where people could post up neat and witty sticky notes.   Just by reading the notes, I recognized the diverse Asian community in attendance: Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Filipino-Americans,  bi-racial and multi-racial folks, etc. (sorry if I missed anyone!)

Although I was the only South Asian and Pakistani speaker at the conference, I did not feel alienated or excluded.  On the contrary, I felt very welcomed and I got the sense that people were interested in what I had to say.  One of the first panels actually discussed what it meant to be “Asian” and how South Asians, as well as West Asians, should be included.  Fatemeh and I were the only Muslim speakers and I felt like we made a significant contribution to the discussion.  Given the size of our panel on social media activism, a maximum of five minutes to speak was requested of each panelist.  It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but I was surprised how much could share within that limit.  I was nervous at first, but after speaking with my fellow panelists, particularly Marissa Lee, who told me that this is the most encouraging audience I’ll be speaking in front of, I felt more comfortable about it!  In this blog post, I just want to share some of the things I mentioned in my talk, but also elaborate further on activist organizing.

Prior to the conference, I remember Edward outlining the panel for us and one of the questions he made us think about was, “Can an everyday person make a difference through social media?”  A number of times, I wondered why I was invited to speak at the conference.  My blog is not connected to a group, organization, or a major website.  I really just created my blog to share my experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American and to write about issues that I feel are important.  A lot of times, in my experience, I’ve come across people who didn’t see the significance in blogging, going to a rally, protesting, signing a petition, etc.  They don’t feel like it makes a difference.  I think part of the problem is that we’re socialized to think that revolutions happen overnight and that there must be immediate results from our protesting.  When we focus on this model of activism, it’s easy for us to get discouraged.  We overlook the other significant elements that are important in our struggles, such as reaching out to people, engaging with people on a very personal and individual level.  I strive to do that on my blog, especially when I receive e-mails from readers who share their thoughts about my posts.  Making a difference one person at a time, as cliche as it sounds, is still making a difference.  It is still significant, and with those of us who have access to social media, we can use our blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to network with fellow activists.  It is about sharing knowledge, learning from each other, building and creating communities, advancing upon our movements, expressing solidarity, meeting in person (if possible), and implementing new knowledge and contributions into our social justice activism.

As in my experience, you never know who’s reading your posts.  I’ve seen my posts being re-published on many different websites, not just anti-racist blogs.  In fact, my chapter published in “Teaching Against Islamophobia,” was a result of a university professor reading my two-part online essay on Muslim women in American and Middle Eastern comic books.  I do not deny that there are limitations with social media, but it is an important tool that we can use to strengthen and further our activism.  I mentioned Egypt briefly in my talk because it does exemplify how social media can be used to coordinate rallies, but I also made it a point to say that it would be very problematic and simplistic to characterize the Egypt uprisings as a “Twitter Revolution.”  That is, people were marching in the streets, putting themselves at risk, and even giving their lives for the sake of justice.  Even when the government shut down the internet, people were still protesting.

For a lot of us in the west, social media was a great way to follow the updates in Egypt.  If I didn’t have social media, I would have been stuck with mainstream American news channels that were distorting the reality in Egypt and discussing the protests through an offensive Islamophobic and orientalist lens.  If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t have been able to easily choose an alternative source, particularly Al Jazeera English.  I remember speaking to some co-workers who were surprised when I told them about Egyptian Christians and Muslims holding hands, forming human chains to protect each other during prayers, and standing in solidarity with each other.  Because of their access to social media, I was able to easily share Al Jazeera English with them.

Similarly, when we use social media to network with people and other communities, we benefit by learning from each other.  One of the most important things I’ve learned about through my discussions with friends on Facebook and the blogosphere is something called intersectionality, which refers to the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, and how they often operate simultaneously.  bell hooks stresses a lot on intersectional approaches because so many white feminists from privileged class backgrounds disregard racism, classism, and other factors that play immense roles in oppressing women.  This approach has taught that we cannot be speaking out against racism while participating in sexist oppression (and vice versa).  We can’t be condemning homophobia while we’re perpetuating Islamophobia (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage!).  We can’t be outraged by Islamophobia while making racist jokes about other communities and folks of color.  We can’t be advocating feminism while spreading racist stereotypes about women and men of color (and I would recommend reading this excellent post “Bad Romance: Feminism and Women of Colour Make an Unhappy Pair” by Sana Saeed).  We can’t fight gender discrimination while advocating racial profiling and congressional hearings on Muslims.  We can’t be standing up for Muslim rights in America while supporting orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries, and I would further add that such a stance plays into the hands of “US-centrism,” where we believe what happens in the US is “more important” than what happens “over there.”  We need to understand the relationship between US imperialism in other countries and oppression in the US itself.

For those of you who are familiar with Andrea Smith’s work, you may recognize that my last point comes from her brilliant piece “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supermacy.” A year or so ago, a good friend of mine shared Smith’s essay with me and I have to say that it remains one of the most important, thought-provoking, and valuable pieces I’ve read on people of color organizing.  Smith asserts that instead of focusing on “shared oppression” or “shared victimization,” we should understand that white supremacy affects us all in different ways and that we need to take responsibility in recognizing how our struggles often run into conflict with each other.  An example she uses is how US-born communities of color join the military “in order to advance economically out of impoverished communities.”  As a result, she adds, we “become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries.”  Meanwhile, “all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands.”  The point in keeping us all accountable is to develop stronger alliances and more vigilant strategies in ensuring that our commitment to social justice and liberation does not oppress others (either within or outside our communities).  I believe Smith’s following example demonstrates how effective this strategy is:

“Native peoples who are organizing against the colonial and genocidal practices committed by the US government will be more effective in their struggle if they also organize against US militarism, particularly the military recruitment of indigenous peoples to support US imperial wars.  If we try to end US colonial practices at home, but support US empire by joining the military, we are strengthening the state’s ability to carry out genocidal policies against people of color here and all over the world.”

I mention this strategy because I think it really makes us focus on the rights, dignity, and care of all peoples.  Its purpose is not to discourage us or to assert any sort of political superiority.  It’s about helping us build communities and understand each other better. I know there were things about the Asian-American community that I didn’t know about prior to attending the Banana 2 conference.  I wasn’t aware that Japanese-Americans were the first community to actively speak out against the vilification of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 (and they recently condemned the disgusting, anti-Muslim rally that protested against an Islamic charity fundraiser in Orange County).  I know there is a lot I can learn from you and I know that the same system that hurts your people is also hurting my people.  I know that when we get to know each other, learn about struggles, and build alliances, we only become stronger.  I know that when I do not stand up for you, no one will stand up for me.  When other people of color see Asians speak out against Hollywood’s whitewashing in “The Last Bender,” for example, it’s important to express solidarity and understand that this is not solely an “Asian issue.”  It’s something we should all be concerned about.

Towards the end of the conference, I was trying to articulate about something that I think I can express better on my blog. It’s about an unfortunate phenomenon called “celebrity activism,” which happens far too often.  It’s when being an “activist” becomes a “title” and social justice movements transform into another oppressive hierarchy.  This undermines everything we’re supposed to be standing for: equality, justice, dignity, and yes, Love.  There have been many times when I’ve felt discouraged by fellow activists who assert their political superiority in all sorts of manners, whether it’s because of their emphasis on “sexual liberation” (that is, if you’re not having sex, you’re seen as “backwards” and “regressive”) or their accusing you of being “too negative” and not “positive” enough.  I have seen fellow activists vehemently attack others for not being “consistent” enough in their politics.  In other words, there are “qualifications” one needs to be an “activist.”  There is a specific “way” one needs to speak and behave in order to be considered an “activist.”

On “sexual liberation,” I want to share what bell hooks writes in her book, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center”:

The focus on “sexual liberation” has always carried with it the assumption that the goal of such effort is to make it possible for individuals to engage in more and/or better sexual activity. Yet one aspect of sexual norms that many people find oppressive is the assumption that one ‘should’ be engaged in sexual activity. This “should” is one expression of sexual coercion.  Advocates of sexual liberation often imply that any individual who is not concerned about the quality of their experience or exercising greater sexual freedom is mentally disturbed or sexually repressed.  When primary emphasis is placed on ending sexual oppression rather than on sexual liberation, it is possible to envision a society in which it is as much an expression of sexual freedom to choose not to participate in sexual activity as it is to choose to participate.

To address my other point on “positivity” and “earning” the “activist title,” I need to ask the following question: what does it mean to be an activist?  When we say that we must have a certain mind-set, or a “smile or die” attitude about social justice, we are forgetting about the fact that there are people out there who do not have the “privilege” (I don’t like this word; can anyone suggest an alternative?) to join organizations, to go to rallies, to write blog posts, to write to elected officials, etc.  These are people who are fighting for their rights 24/7, for their basic right to be treated as human beings.  To suggest that these stories aren’t important because they’re “too negative” is exclusionary and oppressive.  Human beings have feelings, they’re allowed to feel angry, sad, and miserable about the situations they’re in.  Arrogantly denying their feelings and telling them they need to be “more positive” is counter-productive and extremely inconsiderate of the fact that racism and oppression affects us all differently.  Malcolm X was angry, does that mean he couldn’t make a difference?  We need people to share their stories and experiences.  If they can’t feel free and comfortable to speak in our movements, then where can their voices be heard?  There is a lot of hurt out there and we cannot heal if we behave like the pain doesn’t exist.

Something else that also happens with “celebrity activists” is that we give them a “pass” on any problematic things they may say.  I am not diminishing the importance of speaking in the mainstream and I mean no disrespect to the scholars, activists, authors, filmmakers, and artists who are doing amazing work (which is why I will not say their names), but there are some who, due to their status, are excused on ridiculing and even exploiting others.  In some cases, the status of these “celebrity activists,” coupled with their “physical attractiveness” is used to gloss over the errors they make in their analysis.  When we excuse problematic statements that reinforce serious stereotypes about communities just because the individual is “hot,” we are asserting the oppressive notion that “physically attractive” people deserve better treatment.  In these situations, let’s consider if these same statements were made by someone that media and society would classify as “unattractive,” would we still excuse them? (and this topic on physical attractiveness and the way we treat people is an important one and requires further anti-racist analysis).

One of the things I appreciated about my experience at Banana 2 was that I didn’t feel a hierarchy. I didn’t get the sense that some bloggers/speakers thought they were better than anyone else.  While I heard things I disagreed with, I felt that this was a receptive crowd and that if we engaged in friendly, respectful discussions, we could learn a lot from each other.  I’m grateful for the opportunity I had and I hope whatever I shared in this post (and at the conference) is found useful.  I’m confident all of us can benefit from each other and build stronger, more effective alliances and strategies that ensure the end of oppression for all peoples.

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.

Muslim-Americans Getting It Wrong on Pakistan

In no way do I support the Pakistani court’s decision to ban its citizens from accessing Facebook and YouTube. As many of you know, restrictions were put into effect after Pakistani officials learned about an idiotic, Islamophobic event on Facebook called “Draw Muhammad Day.” As much as I strongly oppose the event and find it clearly driven by hate and ignorance, I believe the Facebook ban is not only nonsensical and counterproductive, but also an insult to the Pakistani people, implying that millions of citizens would flock to the group and participate if the site is not prohibited. Without a doubt, the blockade of Facebook and YouTube represents the government’s religious insecurity and mistrust of its own people.

However, what puzzles me further is how Muslim-Americans, especially those of Pakistani descent, resort to simplified generalizations and misrepresentations of Paksitan and its citizens. I do not know Arsalan Iftikhar personally, but I have always respected his efforts to speak out against Islamophobia and distortions of Muslim-Americans. Whether on CNN or Fox News and talking to right-wing bullies like Bill O’Reilly, Mr. Iftikhar’s work certainly calls for respect and appreciation.

But I must challenge the comments he made about Pakistan in his latest piece on the CNN opinion page. Mr. Iftikhar paints a harsh picture of Pakistan in the very first sentence:

For a country that has produced five military dictators in 60 years, mourned the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and struggles continually against its own militant extremists who have killed thousands in their own nation, Pakistan has absolutely picked the wrong fight by banning Facebook and YouTube because of an idiotic virtual campaign called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

Mr. Iftikhar went further to argue that the country did not live up to its name, pointing out that the word “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure” when translated from Urdu. “There has been nothing pure,” he writes, “about the downward sociopolitical spiral of this nuclear-armed, Third World fledgling democracy of 172 million people over the last several years.” He cites former US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, who describes the region as terrorized by extremists. Mr. Iftikhar closes with the following:

Instead of conjuring up stupid controversies like the recent bans of Facebook and YouTube because of some silly drawings, the 172 million citizens of Pakistan should focus their political attention and economic resources on educating their women, improving their rule of law system and truly understanding the repercussions that come with ominously naming your country the “land of the pure.”

I will not dispute the social, political, and economic struggles that confront Pakistan. Indeed, they are real. However, what surprises and appalls me is that there is not a single mentioning of the U.S. intervening, exploiting, and attacking Pakistan. Mr. Iftikhar’s article is titled “Pakistan should ban extremism, not Facebook,” but he does not address the root of the extremism. He only touches upon the symptoms of a larger problem. Yes, Pakistan has an unfortunate history of military dictators and while it is important to hold those leaders accountable for their criminal actions, it is also crucial to acknowledge that the US largely supported and funded those dictatorships.

When the United States was hell-bent on fighting Communism, the government subsidized General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s most ruthless military dictator, who was trained in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later stationed in Jordan to train soldiers during the Black September operations, which resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths and causalities. The US-Pakistan alliance monetarily and militarily aided the Mujahedeen resistance movement in Afghanistan against Soviet invasion. Not only were extremists and militant groups supplied with US weapons and trained by the CIA, but the jihadi manuals were also printed in Nebraska.

I have repeatedly pointed this out in previous posts, but after September 11th, then President Pervez Musharraf was given an ultimatum from George W. Bush: “You’re either with us or against us.” Pakistani British author Tariq Ali has also emphasized on this next point: former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage threatened to “blow Pakistan back to the stone age.” Pakistan’s cooperation with the US, as well as fighting in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) has resulted in violent antagonism towards Pakistan from tribal groups, militants and extremists.

In other words, the war in Afghanistan is spilling into Pakistan. The invading Taliban groups view the Pakistani government as complicit with US war crimes, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and Palestine as well. This has resulted in devastating attacks on Pakistan, which has caused so much suffering on the Pakistani people themselves – Sufi shrines being destroyed in Peshawar, the bombing of girl’s schools, sporadic bombings in Peshawar, Lahore and other parts of the country, etc.

President Obama, who frequently criticized the US for supporting Musharraf during the presidential campaign, is not only financially backing President Asif Zardari – a man who is reviled by the majority of Pakistanis – but also escalating troops in Afghanistan and carrying out deadly drone operations in Pakistani tribal areas. In fact, it was reported by Pakistan’s Dawn Media Group that over 700 civilians were killed by drone attacks since Obama took office in 2009. According to PressTV, an estimated 300 people (and counting) have been killed in 42 drone attacks in 2010. Not to state the obvious, but that is a lot of people! Zardari and Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan both welcome Obama’s policies in advancing the Afghan war and continuing the drone attacks, respectively.

Yet it seems that President Obama receives little to no criticism from Muslim-Americans, specifically those who are in Washington or work in civil rights organizations. I often hear peculiar arguments that seek to justify his policies. There are those who even question the number of casualties from the drone attacks (to which author and activist Jeremy Scahill has refuted). Others have argued that leaflets were sent to those areas, so all of the Pakistani civilians should just leave. Funny, because I never heard such excuses when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in December-January of 2008-2009.

The reality is that human rights violations still occur under Obama’s administration – in Iraq, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. In February, US soldiers raided an Afghan home and killed three innocent women – two of whom were pregnant – and then tried to hide the evidence by digging the bullets out of the dead bodies. Earlier this month, 20 people were killed in another drone attack in Pakistan. With such injustice, how does one expect there to be no violent backlash or retaliation at all? Do people easily forget the murders of their Loved ones?

It would be inaccurate to say extremism and corruption does not exist among certain Pakistani religious leaders and politicians, but excluding US attacks and military operations in the region would be just as misguided. As Tariq Ali has stated in several of his talks, the US presence in Afghanistan is not the solution, it is part of the problem and it is having a disastrous impact on Pakistan. Drone assaults on tribal areas only generates a culture of revenge, intensifies the violence, and endangers the lives of Pakistanis, as well as Americans (see: Time Square).

Extremism does not manifest out of thin air. Ignoring the US as a key factor is a misrepresentation of facts and simplifies the radicalization of extremists and militant groups (similar to how Bush advocates used to say, “They hate us because we’re free”).

Not all of the 172 million Pakistani citizens support the ban on Facebook and YouTube. I would argue that the vast majority of Pakistanis object to it – and I base this on the nation-wide demonstrations that helped reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, as well as the gathering of over one hundred thousand people who observed the 250th anniversary of the divinely inspired 17th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. Though I doubt Mr. Iftikhar was implying that 172 million Pakistanis weren’t doing anything about educating women and improving their ruling systems, I think it was unfair that he didn’t mention their efforts.

As for Pakistan not living up to its name, “Land of the Pure,” I cannot really disagree with Arsalan Iftikhar. However, I must ask: which country is, if any? Which country in the world is the shining example of justice and liberty for all? Sure, there is enough to criticize about the “Land of the Pure,” but let’s not dismiss the facts, the US-Pakistan relationships, the dynamics of power, and the deadly repercussions of military intervention and exploitation.

And surely, that turns our attention to the problems we have here in the “Land of the Free.”

The Flying Carpet Fallacy

Talking about Islamophobia in the United States can get tricky.  Similar to discussions about racism, raising awareness about Islamophobia often result in fallacious flip tactics, where the ignorant non-Muslim fellow turns the tables and accuses you of being divisive, confrontational, and even racist.  This reaction occurs, I believe, because such discussions about racism and prejudice not only address social problems that we’ve been largely conditioned to think are “not real,” or “not as prominent,” but also generate the perception and fear that you are trying to create conflict.  And people don’t like conflict, especially about these issues.

I’ve noticed a pattern when talking with certain non-Muslim individuals about this issue (and they may or may not be Islamophobes; sometimes they’re actually well-intentioned, but just misinformed).  You may be talking to them about Islamophobia and the struggles of Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America, but their responses often mystify you because they’re completely irrelevant to what you’re talking about.  They pull out a magic flying carpet, an orientalist device, and transport the conversation off into a stereotypical, racist, and exotic fantasy about the “Muslim world.”

It goes something like this:

Person A, a Muslim, is speaking with a colleague at her university and says, “Hey, I’m presenting my project next week in the banquet room, you should come!”  The colleague, Person B, lights up with excitement, “Awesome!  I Love research, what’s your project on?”  Person A replies, “It’s on Islamophobia and how it affects the social relationships and identities of Muslim-American emerging adults in post 9/11 America.”  Person B’s smile fades.  “Oh,” he says.  Person A shares a bit of information from her research, but then Person B shifts the focus of the conversation and says something like, “Hey, it’s not as bad as the way Christians are persecuted in Arab countries!”

Before she knows it, Person A finds herself on a flying carpet and sent to some random Muslim-majority country.  It’s like, “Whoa, wait a minute, how the heck did I end up here?!  I was talking about–” and then she gets dragged into a discussion that wasn’t even what she was talking about in the first place.  But she is not really transported to a Muslim-majority country, she is sent to an orientalist fantasy of the “Middle-East,” which only exists in person B’s imagination — a flawed imagining of  “Arab countries” that is consistent with the stereotypical and often racist discourse perpetuated about Islam and Muslims in mainstream American media.  Person B is poorly equipped with the knowledge and experience to hold an intelligent discussion about Islamophobia and Muslim-majority countries, and his magic carpet takes you to a place that blurs the distinction between Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, South Asians, Turks, Afghans, and the various nations and regions they belong to.  That is, what he terms as “the Muslim world,” is simply a single entity in his mind, sort of like an “Indian shop” I know in a nearby suburban town that sells Middle-Eastern and South Asian clothing, belly dance outfits, and plays Far Eastern and New-Age music over the radio for customers.  Yeah.

But Person A may also run into Person C.  Unlike Person B, Person C is quite informed about the social and political dynamics of certain Muslim-majority countries and has actually traveled to one or two.  However, he resorts to the same fallacy, but only after showing off his “credentials” first.  Regardless of how intelligent and articulate he may sound, he still makes the error of using comparative arguments to negate the experiences of the initial group (Muslim-Americans in post 9/11 America).  This is why Person B and C Love using the flying the carpet: they send you far away from the original discussion and make it very difficult for you to come back.  The longer they keep you away, the more they ignore what you addressed.  You may have heard variations of these flying carpet fallacies before when talking about Islamophobia in western media and society (feel free to add to the list):

1.  “Dude, While I want America and the West to live up to their proclaimed ideals, it would be nice to see even a hint of reciprocity in Muslim countries. Defamation of Islam? Please! There is defamation of Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, and Judaism going on everyday in Muslim countries, even sponsored by the governments!!!” (real comment)

2.  “However, while you are complaining of “stereotyping” and “harassment” and “ignorant White people” I would like to consider what you and Muslims do. In case you don’t know, or more likely, you don’t care, Muslims persecute and discriminate everywhere they dominate. Where they don’t dominate, the whine and try to end the freedoms of non-Muslims.” (real comment)

3.  “You cannot be a real Muslim and a feminist.  The true representation of Islam is to kill the infidel and oppress women.  Just look at the Middle-East.” (real comment)

4.  “Try traveling to a majority Muslim country and see what they have to say about other religions. really, dude, Christian majority countries are hardly the only ones on earth!” (real comment).

5.  “By the way, in my knee-jerk American way, I have to say, I am so sorry you are discriminated against here, but have you any, any idea how even Pakistani Christians are discriminated against in Pakistan?” (real comment).

6.  “Get the [expletive] over it, whiny [expletive] baby.  It’s a damn movie.  I’m sure Arabic movies or whatever criticize Americans too” (real comment).

If you encounter Person D, then you’re really in for it.  Person D is the Islamophobe.  Person D hates Person A solely because she is Muslim.  Prepare to be taken to a place where bearded, scimitar-wielding mullahs chase non-Muslims around from dusk till dawn, where a man wakes up early in the morning and then decides to strap a bomb to himself because “the Qur’an told him so,” and where oppressed, veiled Muslim women await their White non-Muslim male saviors to liberate them (depending on Person D’s ideology, the savior for the “Muslim world” may not just be Western civilization, but also Jesus, peace be upon him).  Person D is only concerned about demonizing you and your faith; there is no compassion in his heart.  Person D wants to get under your skin and is so hell-bent on vilifying Muslims that he often comes looking for you, whether on your blog, Facebook page, at CAIR events, or even in your classroom.  If I were to describe Person D theatrically, he’s the guy with the sword shouting, “Fight me!”  There is no point in wasting your time with someone who spends the lot of his time reading hate-literature just for the sake of using that propaganda to argue with Muslims and bully them.

The key to countering the flying carpet fallacy, whether it’s used by Person B, C, or D, is to (1) not get dragged into their orientalist fantasies and (2) bring the conversation home.  One can also refute the fashion in which the said Persons use their comparative arguments and then bring the discussion back to your original point.  Countering this fallacy does not mean that you reject, deny, or ignore the real problems that exist in Muslim-majority countries, whether they concern minority groups or the rights of women.  The point is that comparative arguments by Person B, C, and D are used to dodge an honest discussion about Islamophobia in post 9/11 America.

Often times, when discussing race, we hear people say, “Racism exists everywhere, no matter where you go in the world!”  Yes, it does exist everywhere, but that does not make everything “ok.”  The statement behaves as if it is futile to do anything about it and that we should just “not talk about it.”  Similarly, when we talk about Islamophobia and someone responds with a point about minority groups being mistreated, stigmatized, or persecuted in a Muslim-majority country, the implication is that (1) it’s worse “over there” for “people like me” and (2) Muslims should be “more grateful” to “be here.”  If we’re going to talk about Islamophobia in the US, then let’s keep the conversation centered on that and avoid diversions that may negate the experiences of stigmatized Muslim-Americans.  The same should hold true if we want to discuss the way minority groups are treated in a Muslim majority-country.  Neither topic is “more important” than the other;  discuss them separately and individually instead of comparing.

Bring the discussion home.  Don’t get on the magic carpet.  Take it home with you and use it for fun stuff.  But be warned, when you emphasize and stand by your point, the person using the fallacy may get impatient, frustrated, and even rude with you.  He may start hurling insults and personal attacks at you (especially true for Person D).

Stay calm and don’t get discouraged.  Because when someone demonstrates their inability to engage in civil and mature discussion/debate, they simply expose how ignorant and close-minded they really are.  It is my hope that in most cases, raising awareness about Islamophobia doesn’t result in personal attacks and racism, but in dialogue and understanding.

Peace.