Thursday, December 29, 2011

In Praise of Muslim Men: A Start Towards Counterbalancing the Stereotypes

Asim Rehman defending women against domestic violence

I first read the following Huffington Post Religion article on the blog The Loon Watch.  I'm sure I would have appreciated it at any time, but it struck a particular chord as I was just in a bookstore killing time and looking at the Boxing Week sales. The bookstore was one of the Indigo's chain which dominates retail book sales in Canada. The chain is also the sponsor of a pro-Israel foundation, Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers (heseg=achievement in Hebrew; "lone" as in no family in Israel). This program encourages the recruitment of non-Israeli Jews into the IDF by granting them a 4-year all expenses paid scholarship to an Israeli university if they serve 2 years in the IDF. "All expenses" very generously includes all living expenses as well as tuition and academic supplies--which is rare. Most scholarships at the undergraduate level cover only tuition and maybe books. Certain countries, including Saudi Arabia, do offer scholarships which include a sum adequate to cover living expenses, but these are the exception.

As I was browsing, not buying, I wondered how many of the titles on sale at the local Indigo's would be from what I call the "I was abused by a Muslim man" shelf. Indigo's is very good at stocking and profiling all books on women abused by an individual Muslim man, or an Islamic regime. For a while, most were about Iranian situations. Nowadays, many are about Afghan ones. There is no counterbalancing content. Also the Religion Section has very few books on Islam, while the History and Political section has many about current conflicts, but not from an Arab or Islamic perspective. Needless to say, Bernard Lewis books have pride of place. Yes indeed, all the most recent hardback titles in that category were featured face up on the strategically placed sales tables.

I read the article below with that imbalanced presentation of Muslim men in that particular medium of books and their marketing as one lens. Another lens was that of the Muslim students I meet, men and women, whose fathers, like many of the men mentioned in the article, are encouraging their university studies, and have high hopes and expectations combined with a great deal of material and moral support for both sons and daughters. A third lens was that of Muslim husbands, including the hub, who have made compromises, sacrifices, and accommodations to encourage and support their wives in their chosen careers.

As I was reading, I was struck by how the list reflects the preoccupations of the compiler, though this is to be expected of any list. There is an emphasis on those in prominent positions who are formally as well as informally advocating women's rights, including that to a safe home environment. Domestic violence is a problem in Muslim cultures as in others, past and present. It was not so long ago in Western European and North American societies that domestic violence was tolerated, even supported, by conservative patriarchal elements, and that laws and law enforcement considered it a private matter. If called, police would arrive, calm the situation, ask if the beaten spouse, most often the wife, would like to press charges, and leave it up to them to do so. This changed over time, following the impact of the women's movement beginning in the 70's, and with better understanding of the greater peril that women who pressed charges faced, resulting in their refusal to press charges or dropping them--to the great frustration of police officers. To say that domestic violence is a problem in Muslim cultures is to begin to address it, while not suggesting that all Muslim men are abusive. Some are. Some cloak their behaviour in religion or in tradition, or both. Some make headlines, including in Canada currently, when the abuse rises to the level of "honour killing". Like most headlines, these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Overall, I found the list more representative of the Muslim men I know, from all walks of society, and a variety of Muslim cultures, than the other headlines. What are your impressions?

Dr Mohamed Tantawi, Pediatrician, of Hackensack, New Jersey,
 makes the 2011 list of Favorite Kids' Docs as well as that below.

A Few Good Muslim Men -- Honoring Those Who Honor Women
Posted: 12/27/11 02:43 PM ET

If the stereotypical Muslim woman is an oppressed one, then the archetypal Muslim male is responsible for her condition. In news stories, popular entertainment media and even video games, the image of the violent, misogynistic or abusive Muslim man is present time and again.

To be sure, bad apples exist in every religious, ethnic and racial group. But there is a dearth of positive Muslim portrayals to counteract such negative images on TV or the big screen. As a result, your everyday regular Omars and Mohammeds are sometimes viewed with suspicion and fear.

As 2011 draws to a close, we take a moment to recognize the following Muslim men -- fathers, brothers, husbands, academics, advocates and religious leaders -- selected by others for their individual contributions to the lives of women and, thus, humanity at large:

Asim Rehman (36, New York): Asim is in-house counsel who volunteers his time representing domestic violence victims. Asim's wife describes him as a "fabulous" partner who encourages her intellectual pursuits. Asim has turned down professional opportunities requiring relocation so that his wife can remain in her NYC post, which she loves. The couple is expecting their first child and Asim "cooks, cleans and grocery shops without complaining." His wife says she "can't imagine a better partner than Asim."

Shyam K. Sriram (32, Georgia): A college professor, Shyam is known for his stance against violence against women and girls. In less than one year, he helped a fledgling initiative -- Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence -- become a viable one. Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence trains Muslim men how to teach others that violence against women and girls is Islamically impermissible.

Abed Awad (42, New Jersey): Abed was recognized by his colleagues for the work he has done on behalf of Muslim women both as a past Board Member of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, and on the legal front. An accomplished attorney with his own practice, he has earned a reputation for defending women's rights in religious divorces and other family law disputes.

Davi Barker (30, California): An artist and writer, Davi's wife -- an activist, attorney and community leader -- described him in this way: "He is exactly what I dreamed of when I thought I wanted to marry a man who lived his life and marriage through his faith. Religion, and more specifically 'love and mercy' dictate everything he does in our relationship. His support is what makes my work as [head of a civil rights organization] possible. From being understanding when I have a difficult case or am coming home late regularly to helping with the graphic design for [my organization] and carrying more than a fair share of chores around the house ... I couldn't do this without him."

Imam Mohamed Magid (40ish, Virginia): Imam Magid is the Imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center) located in Sterling, Va. He is also President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Imam Magid was referenced by a congregant who characterized him as, "One of the biggest advocates out there for women's rights." He conducts domestic violence prevention training seminars for other Imams around the country and serves on the Board of Directors of Peaceful Families, a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to ending domestic violence in Muslim families.

Omar Sharif (29, California): Omar was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda who spearheaded numerous small business projects which placed women at the forefront.

Mohamed Tantawi (38, New Jersey): Mohamed's wife says of him: "He's a great pediatrician, he does most of the cooking (and well too), he sings at Carnegie Hall. Most importantly, he does all that is in his power to preserve our family dynamic, one in which he is an active partner."

Ahmad Hussain (28, California): Currently in Nashville, Tenn., completing his surgical residency, Ahmad was also suggested for inclusion on this list by his wife, a filmmaker in California. She remarked about the breadth of sacrifices Ahmed has made for her. For instance, when she indicated her willingness to sacrifice her filmmaking career which requires her to spend half her time in Los Angeles in order to stay with him in Tennessee, he was adamantly opposed to her doing so: "He said he wouldn't be happy with himself if he kept me from becoming a filmmaker. He said it makes him happy to see me doing these things. ... I know it kills him -- he's tired, he's lonely, he's hungry -- but he can't be convinced."

Abdul H. Abdullah (67, Georgia): Abdul is the Chief Financial Officer of Baitul Salaam Residence for Abused and Neglected Women and Children. In addition to contributing his time and money to the organization, he also allows battered women to seek refuge at his private family business when they are in trouble.

Taraq Chand (late 60s, New Jersey): A father of four daughters and one son, he has taught his children that Islam supports women's rights. As a result his daughters are all professionals: a doctor, chemical engineer, pharmacist and soon-to-be-lawyer.

Sheikh Abdala Adhami (Washington, D.C.): Sheikh Adhami is an Islamic scholar who has been serving the Muslim community in the U.S. for more than 20 years. A Washington, D.C. native, he was praised by several women including a New Jersey Muslim mom who described him in the following manner: "Simply a magnificent person, he spoke endlessly on women's rights in Islam, with the notion that women should know their rights and men should know in order to protect these rights, and any infringements on those rights are seen as a crime in God's eyes. He spoke of the many prominent women throughout Islamic history... and how men would travel far and wide to study at their feet. He lectured on how women, even at the time of the Prophet [Muhammed], owned their own businesses and how this money was solely theirs -- to be shared with her family at her discretion, and any money she gave to her family was a charity... [His message] was in stark contrast to what we hear from the Taliban. It brought a peace and comfort and nourished a true connection with one's Lord -- and that is what religion is supposed to do."

Nabile Safdar (35, Maryland): An accomplished doctor who recently returned from a volunteer mission to Haiti where he provided much needed medical care, Nabile is a father to three young daughters. He delivers religious sermons to his local community preaching against spousal abuse while urging men to treat women with dignity and respect.

Ezat Yosafi (Connecticut): Born in Afghanistan, Ezat was recognized by his daughter, posthumously. She attributes her professional accomplishments as an attorney to her father's guidance and advice. He passed away in Connecticut in 2008.

Furqan Ahmed (27, New Jersey): Furqan's wife says that he is "someone who has made law school a more tolerable experience. ... It is not easy to be married to a law student as law school ... involves such a dedication of time and effort. But he really pushes me to do more and presses me to follow up with law firms. ... I think it is really helpful to have someone who is a partner in all aspects."

Ali Hussain (63, Massachusetts): Ali's daughter notes, "He's coached me in multiple ways with my career, helping me overcome hurdles, to be confident in new situations, maintain integrity, be bold yet gracious in asserting my needs. He also encourages [my sisters and me] to dream big and sometimes dreams for us even bigger than we do."

Prophet Muhammad (posthumously): He is considered by Muslims to be the seal to a long line of God's prophets and messengers beginning with Adam. The Prophet Muhammad's private relationships were based on open communication and mutual respect. He never asked anyone to wait on him and participated in household chores and childcare; he used to mend his own clothes, play with children and perform chores around the home. He promoted and nurtured the education of women (e.g. Aisha bint Abu Bakr). He never raised his hand against anyone in his household. He chastised the Muslim men who dared to strike their wives. In the words of the woman who praised him, "He was kind and respected women and asked men to do the same."

While the Muslim men included above are deserving of our collective support, recognition and accolades, this list is by no means an exhaustive one. Rather, these men are representative of many more Muslims whose names are not included here but whose lives and contributions are similarly noteworthy.

If I may humbly suggest, perhaps this year Hollywood can make the following addition to its collective list of new year resolution: more positive portrayals of the American Muslim community. After all, an image of the Muslim advocate effectively representing the rights of his (or her) female Muslim client in a religious divorce or the imam educating his congregation of Muslim women's equal social status is a truer realization of art imitating life.

On the subject of accolades, a note about Muslim culture. "Mashallah" is a word frequently heard used between Muslims. It literally means "whatever God wills." And it is often said in response to hearing about a person's good deed or impressive accomplishment.


Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.


What Muslim man or men would you include in this list as praiseworthy?
What suggestions would you make to Hollywood about the representation of Muslim men?
What other ways might the prevailing stereotypes be counterbalanced?
Other thoughts, impressions, experiences, comments?

Omar Sharif, Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, center, 
creator of business projects headed by women


Haitham هيثم Al-Sheeshany الشيشاني said...

very good read as usual, thank :)

Susanne said...

From what I've learned about him, I'd include Samer's father because he sounds like he was a wonderful father, husband and doctor.

Wendy said...

Muslim men just like women and especially in KSA are also victims of extremist Islamic rule. Growing up in a segregated society creates so many problems and issues for both sexes and not just women. There are good men inside as well as outside KSA. Like any group Muslim men really should not be categorized or stereotyped as bad or evil.
Mothers of men who grow up demanding, refusing to help their wives, etc. etc. etc. are undoubtedly responsible for the bad behaviour so women have to take responsibility for raising boys to be caring and nurturing men.

Jay Kactuz said...

I would suggest that religion had nothing to do with the admirable behavior the Muslim men cited as role models. Their behavior would have been the same if they were Christian, Buddhist or atheist. The problem of misogynistic or abusive men transcends race, nationality, social class, ethnic group, culture and religion. I know there are many outstanding, moral men, many of which are Muslim.

As to the “stereotypical” concept, there is often truth in them, somewhere. It is a true that subjugation of women follows Islam like a shadow on a hot cloudless afternoon. The fact that the writer chooses her examples carefully and ignores all Quranic verses or incidents in the hadith that would contradict her intended message is also typical (or stereotypical) of Muslims. It is ingenious to think that the negative messages and stories about women in the Quran and hadith have nothing to do with the sorry plight of women in the Islamic world.

Regarding the quote about Mohammed: “He never raised his hand against anyone in his household. He chastised the Muslim men who dared to strike their wives.” – again, this shows a total lack of knowledge of the Quran and hadith. It is as if 4:34 doesn’t exist or the stories about Mohammad hitting Aisha (“He hit me and caused me pain”), or his malicious response to a abuse incident (“never ask a man why he beats his wife”) or even the statement by Aisha that she had never seen women so abused as the wives of the believers are not easily found in Islam’s own writings, along with many many other materials that contribute to the so-called stereotype.

The problem is that if a person (or group) does not recognize the problem, they cannot fix it. This is not a Hollywood problem or a matter of PR images, but a people problem. Ms. Abdelkader, by her ignorance and/or blindness, is contributing to the problem she attempts to address. I fail to see how, even if all Hollywood studios and all TV networks made nothing but shows/movies portraying Muslim men as angels in flesh, doing only good and being kind to their women, this would change anything. My guess is that even with this, Muslims, some Muslims, would still engage in violence and discrimination against each other, their women and infidels.

The idea that for Muslims to be happy and for justice to be done, all that is needed is for non-Muslims to pretend everything is fine, that Islam is peaceful and never ever say anything critical about Islam and Muslims. If only.

Jay Kactuz said...

Chiara, glad to see you are back. Hope you all had a nice Christmas and that this will extend into a good New Year to you and yours (well, if the Mayans are wrong!)


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