I want to begin with a true story shared by writer Yasmin Mogahid:
“Last week my sister called. She has been studying abroad since summer began, so naturally I was thrilled to hear from her. After hearing how she was, I asked about her new home. With her living in a Muslim country, I felt assured that everything would be fine. For that reason, what she described next was a complete shock. She began to describe a place where a girl can hardly leave her house without being verbally harassed by men walking by. She said that the catcalling was no longer the exception; it had become the rule. Then she told me about a Muslim girl she knew. The girl was riding in a taxi and when she arrived at her stop, she handed the driver his money. In many of these countries there are no strict meters, and since the fare is somewhat arbitrary, the driver became angry. Eventually the altercation escalated to such a degree that the driver grabbed the girl by the shoulders and began to shake her. At this, the girl became angry and insulted the driver. The driver then punched the young woman in the face.
“At this point, I was extremely disturbed. But it was what my sister said next that was most devastating. Nearby, there was a group of men who saw what was happening, and rushed to the scene. Naturally they came to help the girl.
“No. They stood and watched.”
Our society today – both in Western society, and in Muslim countries – has lost one of the most fundamental aspects of Islam and humanity: the teaching of compassion. While we as a society teach our girls to be compassionate, in order to prepare them for their roles as mothers, we forget to nurture, and teach our young boys and men that compassion is not just a feminine characteristic. It is a human characteristic.
As such, we shape our boys into what we believe a role of a man should be. We tell our little boys that if they want to be men, they need to be “strong, they can’t cry or show emotion, and that they must be firm and stern.” But what we forget to teach our boys is how to treat, respect, and love women. We forget to teach them how to be compassionate.
I want this to be aimed at all of us. Let us take it as a reminder to teach our boys – be it our own sons, our brothers, our cousins, our colleagues, our friends, any men in our lives – that compassion is important, and that treating women with respect and dignity is essential to a thriving society. Let us take this as the start of a discussion that is rarely had, and as first step of many that we can all take to educate and teach our boys.
Masculinity – when you hear of this word, what do you think of?
Society has socialized men, into what Tony Porter, an educator and advocate against domestic violence, has titled “The Man Box”. The Man Box characterizes everything a boy “must be” in order to become a man. It has “all the ingredients” that we as a society define as necessary to be a man.
To become a man, boys are taught that:
– They simply don’t cry, or openly express emotions, except for showing anger. Showing anger is okay for a man, because anger is strength
– That men are fearless, and cannot show weakness
– That men are in power, and in control
– That men must not be “like women”
– That men have to be tough, strong, courageous, athletic, and are in no need of help
– That women, to men, are objects. That men are superior and women are inferior; that men are first and women are second; that men lead and women follow
The Man Box is not something I made up – it is something that has been researched and studied, but perhaps more so, it’s something that has been ingrained in our society for centuries.
Now many of you might be thinking – okay sure, this idea of a Man Box exists, but Islam does not support this idea, nor does it teach it. You may be arguing, saying that Islamic teachings, and the Sunnah of our Prophet ﷺ show us that the socialized aspects of the man box are irrelevant and non-existent in the Islam.
You are right on one aspect – the Man Box does not exist in Islam. But, Muslims have made it exist, taking the Man Box, and applying it to Muslim societies. Islam and Muslims are two very different things. While Islam’s teachings are beautiful and perfect, Muslims have strayed away from these teachings, and have instead turned Islam into a cultural practice, rather than a religious and spiritual way of life. As such, Muslims have adopted this concept of the Man Box, leading to the demise and destruction of not only Muslim societies, but Muslim women as well.
If we look back at the time of the Prophet ﷺ, we can see that if we take the Man Box, and apply it to one of the most beloved Prophets of Allah, and one of the best men and characters in humanity, the box becomes completely illegitimate.
For instance, one of the most common definitions of manhood today is lack of emotional expressiveness. From a young age, boys are taught to hide their emotions, to wipe those tears and life their heads up. Boys are taught that showing emotions, especially crying, is a sign of weakness. The logic thus goes that only women show emotions and cry, and thus, women are weak.
Yet the Prophet of Allah ﷺ was a man of emotions and feelings. In one Hadith narration, when the Prophet ﷺ was handed his daughter’s son who was dying, his eyes flooded with tears. Sa’d, a companion that was with him asked him about the tears saying, “What is this, Prophet of God?” He, peace and blessings be upon him replied, “This is a mercy that the Almighty has made in the hearts of His servants. And surely God has mercy to the merciful ones among His servants.” [Bukhari]
Through various instances in the beloved Prophet’s ﷺ life, we have examples of him crying and showing his emotions in public – from crying over the death of his relatives and wife Khadijah, to shedding tears for the fear of Allah and the power of the revelations he received. The Prophet ﷺ, the best of men, wept and cried in front of his community and companions. He shared with his Ummah his sadness and tears, as well as his happiness and smiles. Yet, today, we as a society shun our boys and men from sharing such emotions?
And beyond just tears and smiles, the Prophet ﷺ used to openly show his affection and love towards those whom he loved.
In another hadith narration, a villager was present, when Prophet Muhammad ﷺ kissed his grandsons on the forehead. At that, the villager said with surprise, “I have ten children. I have never kissed any of them!” The beloved Prophet ﷺ looked at him and said, “He who does not have mercy will not have mercy upon him.” [Bukhari]
Today, how many men are able to show affection towards their sons or daughters in public? How many men know how blessed (and might I add happy) it is to hold their wife’s hand in public, as a sign of love and affection? Do we teach our young boys to love one another, and spread hugs? Do we teach them that love is an essential part of faith?
Another common definition of manhood is that men must be “different from a women”. While biologically men and women are different, what is interesting is how we as a society have constructed roles for what women must do and what men must do. Thus, for men to be “different from women”, they have to stay away from what society has constructed as “womanly roles”. Cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children and the house…these are all considered duties of the females in the house.
And yet, the Prophet ﷺ was a man and husband who constantly helped around the house. His wife Aisha reported, that “The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ used to stitch his clothes, milk the goats and help in the chores inside the house.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
If the Prophet ﷺ himself was a man of the house, and contributed to house work, what are we teaching our boys today when we allow only the sisters and mother to take care of the housework, while the men or preoccupied with other things – like watching TV, or playing games? What are we teaching our little boys about the way the world works, and the place that a man and a woman have in a household by setting such examples? What are we telling our boys when we discourage them from entering the kitchen, because the kitchen is a “woman’s place”? What kind of ideas are we showing our boys, when tell them to put those dishes down because their sister will come and wash them?
But, perhaps one of the most common definitions and characteristics of masculinity is the idea that men should be tough. Gentleness is widely deemed to be a feminine trait. Because women can become mothers, and must then nurture their young, mercy, gentleness and compassion are often considered feminine traits that men simply cannot and should not possess. After all, a gentle man is a weak and useless man, the logic goes.
However, the beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said that, “Allah is gentle and loves gentleness. He gives for gentleness what He does not give for harshness, nor for anything else.” [Muslim] In another hadith, he says, “He who is deprived of gentleness is deprived of good.” [Muslim]
These Hadiths and sayings do not imply or pin-point that gentleness is simply for women. Nowhere does the Prophet ﷺ say “Allah loves gentle women.” Rather, the Hadith states that Allah loves gentleness from ALL his creations – both men and women, and that gentleness and compassion are traits that all humanity must seek to develop and nurture.
And yet, like the story we began with at the very beginning, gentleness has been lost from our modern definition of masculinity to such an extent that boys can consider it manly to catcall and harass women on the streets, but consider it normal to watch as a woman is being abused and hit.
We have forgotten to teach our boys how to respect women, and be compassionate. We have forced our boys to follow the characteristics of the Man Box, instead of teaching them the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ. Hence, these boys have grown into men who may be afraid, lost, confused, or just angry. Men who might abuse women, disrespect their sisters, or take advantage of girls because they believe that such actions are manly.
Yasmin Mogahed sums it up best when she says that all of this truly “makes you wonder if maybe our image of what is ‘manly’ in fact resembles a Hollywood gangster more than it does our beloved Prophet ﷺ.”
We need to make right what we have made wrong. It’s not simply enough to say, “yes this is wrong, and society is messed up” but we need to reconnect with our Islam and its teachings, and then apply those teachings to our lives and our households. We need to lead by example.
Compassion shapes our communities. It is what builds our Ummah, our social circles, and our households. Compassion is the basis of Islam. Yet, we have thrown compassion out of our own religion. We need to bring it back, into our hearts, and homes, and communities. We need to be teaching it to our boys and girls. We need not be afraid to teach it to our boys, because compassion is not feminine. Compassion is human.