This past week I was reviewing a book for Muslimah Media Watch (here) on Amina Wadud’s contributions to scholarship, theology and liturgy. The book titled A Jihad For Justice: Honoring the Work and Life of Amina Wadud features a number of scholars and important Muslim activists discussing their personal experiences in relation to Wadud’s work in the area of gender equality in Islam.
While the book is wonderful all in itself, I was quite impressed by a piece written by Amanullah De Sondy. The piece looks at the, often ignored, question of masculinity in Islam. Many times the focus of the discourse is women and women in Islam. We talk about their rights (or lack of them) and we treat them as if they were a completely separate sphere. Similarly, masculinity in contemporary Islamic scholarship and in the media is not even discussed. For instance, we talk lots about women in hijabs and niqabs and we even create policies to ban them. Nonetheless, we rarely focus on what Muslim wear (or don’t wear) and we do not create laws that diminish their access to the public sphere based on how they look like.
Discussions on masculinity are not new to Islam or Islamic scholarship. Scott Siraj Al-Haqq Kuggle presents evidence of early Islamic scholars discussing gender and sexuality. Ibn Hamz, for instance, had already inquired about issues of sexuality, gender and even homosexuality. Although he was an orthodox scholar with somehow traditional opinions, he was quite open to this kinds of discussions because debate is (or should be) the source and heart of Islamic scholarship.
De Sondy’s piece resonated with me not only because it is very well written and it attempts to bring an academic topic to an accessible level for us who are not specialists in the topic, but also because he concludes that it is difficult to approach the “woman question” without addressing the “man question.” Even when this seems to be a matter of common sense, it is something that we constantly overlook.
In Muslim communities, at least in the few I know, there is a lot on women. Women should behave in this or that way, women can or cannot do this, women should pray here and there and women are this or are not the other. However, we never ask what it means to be a man, (and as redundant as it may sound for some) what it means to be a masculine man in Islam. In addition, we fail to ask the question of how is masculinity built in relation to femininity? What does it need to assert itself and why?
One of the main struggles of feminist scholarship and activism, including Islamic feminism, is the fact that the focus on women tends to be exclusive. It does not lend itself for a variety of women’s perspectives and, sometimes, it does not even consider the role of men in un-doing patriarchal oppression. To some degree I understand it. Women’s role has been for so long determined by a bunch of men doing exegeses and controlling meanings. Yet, in order not to make the reverse mistake we need to open up to questions of masculinity and gender relations beyond the patriarchy.
The same way that women and men support and reproduce patriarchy, women and men can un-do it. But for that to happen we need to comprehend what it means to be a man (or a variety of men) in different Muslim environments.
Although, as De Sondy explains, he, as a man, cannot speak for women, he can attempt to speak as a man on behalf of his masculinity. Similarly, a study of masculinity for Islamic feminists and students of gender will mean to listen and analyze the pieces of Muslim masculinities and how they are constructed. Both together, studies of femininity and masculinity and of women and men in Islam, work to challenge those very normative assumptions of what it means to be a woman (with all our particular possitionings and intersectionalities) or a man (with the same “luggage”).
As a Muslim woman, the piece reassured me that despite the horror stories that we see in the media (i.e. Aisha Bibi’s case or the Shafia murders), there are men out there concern about their own constructions of gender questioning why things are the way they are and turning to feminist scholarship for answers (not that feminism knows it all of course!).
Similarly, as a convert in my particular community in Western Canada, it is encouraging to know that despite the 20 or so cases of domestic violence, spousal abuse and gendered violence in general in my mosque, things can change if we also focus our efforts in educating men on their particular ways to express and assert their masculinities.