Why is it important to rethink masculinities in the Middle East?

I cannot help but post my essay up on its due day. It’s my baby, warts and all:

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Compared to the wealth of studies on women in the Middle East, men and masculinities of the region have, surprisingly, received less attention. Greater focus and interest in the Muslim woman and not the Muslim man in the Middle East may be indicative of the unremitting fascination with the ongoing oppression and the “private” world of women in a society largely known for the seclusion of women and girls. The tropes of inquiry – the hijab, the subjugation of women, female genital mutilation – emerge from a blend of genuine academic interest, feminist activism, and perhaps the “need to save brown women from brown men” mindset through research with a political agenda (Cooke 2002:468). It is then remiss of the academic world for assuming that men can be sufficiently understood if women in their social contexts are studied in depth. While such research have revealed much of the realities beyond the undifferentiated stereotype of the submissive Middle Eastern woman, more is to be done to deconstruct the image of the domineering Islamist male and the Orientalist imaginings of the desert sheikh.

There is a glaring lacunae in an understanding of masculinity that has been affected by the major strides that women in the Middle East have been making throughout the last century in terms of education, employment, sexuality, political representation, and general public presence. Indeed, what is not studied more rigorously are the changing dynamics of gender relations resulting from the increasing independence of women from the home and male members of the family, studies in which men are placed as the central analytical subject. Recent literature that have charted these changes reflect what can be understood as men’s anxieties and fears emerging from “notions still deeply imprinted on their inherited memory which have not adjusted accordingly” to the explosive gendered transformations of the public arena (Ghoussoub 2006:230). Women’s increased emancipation is then perhaps one source of a threat to the grip of a dominant masculinity, but other threats can exist externally for the male collective. Ghoussoub (2006:233) also counts the devastating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel which incurred a lingering dent on the pride of the Arab and Muslim world1, in addition to the unremitting European imperialist presence throughout the history of the Middle East – all of which represents a “symbolic castration in which men’s virility and hopes of progeny are threatened”.

There is then the assumption that the male sphere in the Middle East has been neatly divided into the ahistorical male who is at once authoritative and anti-women, and the “enlightened” male of modernist and moderate Islamic politics. While a culture of male dominance that emanates Middle Eastern societies at different levels and magnitude does incur the overstated notion of women’s oppression, it is pertinent to take into account how men participate in the practice of male dominance, and locate the different points of resistances men perform to diminish certain forms of dominance. In the case of men’s acceptance of women’s changing roles, Kandiyoti (1994:197) has pointed out some explanations which range from 1) exposure to Western and / or colonial ideals (Ahmed 1992:153) 2) new social classes arisen from these contexts and (Cole 1981:401) and 3) the rhetorically-inclusive nature of modernist-nationalist projects (Jayawardena 1988:8).

This essay attempts to reveal the complex nature of masculinity that cannot be taken for granted in relation to in-depth studies on Middle Eastern women. As Kandiyoti (1994:212) succinctly puts it: “behind the facade of male privilege lie ambiguities which may give rise to defensive masculinist discourse and genuine desire and contestation for change”. Therefore I will not dwell too much on the anachronistic yet popular representations of the hypermasculine Middle Eastern man, but aim to shed more light on the dynamic yet fragile characteristics of contesting masculinities that are contextualised against the backdrop of the reformation of women’s roles, the legacy of post-colonial struggle, and more importantly, the internal contradictions within the male collective in relation to the larger socio-political milieu.

I will explore these issues with reference to the influence of raï music on the construction of the politically-transgressive masculine identity in Algeria, and the musical genre’s ambivalent associations with Islam, politics, and women. This is will followed by looking at the formation of the ‘melancholite’ masculinity in the wake of Bourgiba’s dictatorship through Tunisian cinema. It is not an overstatement to say that popular culture represents to a certain symbolic or realist extent the hopes, aspirations, and the realities of society’s despair. I am confident that the medium of raï music and contemporary Tunisian film provides an alternative avenue for publicly articulating the “subtleties, nuances, and contradictions” of contemporary masculinities that sociological studies often cannot capture (Stollery 2001:50).

The masculinisation of raï music and the rise of the transgressive Algerian male identity

A number of theorists have suggested that within the Middle East and North African region (MENA), there exists, on a general level, a homology of patriarchal norms within both the private and public spheres (Stollery 2001:50). Arguably, the region shares a conceptualisation of a state that is, according to As’ad Abu Khalil, “a reflection of male supremacy within the family” in which “the leader is the father figure with the privileges of the use of force and social control” (1997:100). It can be argued further that the political situation in the Middle East is largely repressive at various levels. However, arguing from a Foucauldian standpoint, individuals are still able to find spaces for resistance in a variety of expressions, even in the most oppressive of circumstances (Foucault 1978:96). With that said, I will discuss the role of raï as an “explosive site for Magrebi identity” (DeAngelis 2003:276) and political resistance taken up by male raï singers and the largely male following of the musical genre.

Originated from Oran, Algeria, raï began as a folk musical genre that became popularised in cabarets and clubs frequented by the social elite during the colonial period where it had gained a reputation for being decadent and un-Islamic (ibid. 2003:276). Then in 1999, raï gained global attention with the release of the hit single Desert Rose featuring Cheb Mami and the British singer Sting. The musical genre is typically associated with youth and immigrant subcultures, and often described as risqué or vulgar (ibid. 2003:277). The question of whether raï is vulgar, however, is complicated by the nationalist and Islamist notion of the musical genre’s former associations with French colonial culture and resulting from such an opinion, the genre became labelled “inauthentic” by official Algerian cultural standards (ibid. 2003:281-82). But what was at the heart of the two political factions’ concern was really to do with raï as a form of social critique amongst young Algerians. Moreover, the cause of concern was implicated by the fact that raï became, as DeAngelis (2003:283) argues, “a subculture, [that] disrupts the hegemonic discourse of the nation, and allows for another way of imagining society and identity that does not necessarily fit with that proposed by the government or the Islamists”.

In spite of this, raï music continues to be performed at weddings and male circumcision ceremonies but outside these circumscribed spaces, raï retains a forbidden and a particularly masculine aspect which are evident in the lyrics of some songs on illicit love affairs and the dwindling numbers of female raï singer since the 1970’s (ibid 2003:286). By the mid-1980’s, raï became an implicit youth protest against the stifling morality and moribund economic policies of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) regime. While in France, it formed a mark of solidarity for Algerian migrants against the intensifying White racism (McMurray and Swedenburg 1991:42). The crackdown on raï by the successor Islamist party, Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), led to the assassination of the popular singer Cheb Hasni in 1994, and the subsequent exiles of fellow singers (Cheb) Khaled and Cheb Mami in the following years. In light of these events, raï singers developed a more overt political stance in their lyrics and a strong following among younger men who embraced the newly transgressive nature of the musical genre. Raï also became a marker in the hierarchicalisation among men that determined who could listen to it in whose presence. This is illustrated in the way only a few men would listen to raï in the presence of a male of superior status, whether a father, uncles, or older brothers (DeAngelis 2003:290).

Since the 1990’s onwards, raï has established an image of counter-hegemonic rebellion culture headed by the “fathers” of the folk genre, namely Cheb Mami and (Cheb) Khaled, and strong legion of male listeners who make up raï’s greatest fans, however, at the same time, raï retains some residual hegemonic elements as it is received by many critics as ambivalent towards women, reflecting the general conservatism of Algerian society (ibid 2003:289). Schade-Poulsen’s interviews with male listeners reveal their critical and negative attitude towards women portrayed in the songs, as well as towards women who frequent cabarets where raï is usually performed (Schade-Poulsen 1999:143). In contrast, the lyrics in a few of (Cheb) Khaled’s songs feature messages of women’ emancipation as exemplified in “Hada raykoum” (It’s your opinion 1985) (Rosen 1990:22) :

The young girl wants to be married
The divorced woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants a divorce
The married woman wants to break loose
The married woman wants to go wild

You’ve done what you wanted
You’ve done what you decided
My God, my God, the husband’s asleep

Gender egalitarianism is the central theme in Khaled’s 1996 international hit “Aïcha”. In the lyrics, a man laments that his love for a woman, Aïcha, is not returned as she wants only equal rights and genuine love:

She said, keep your treasures
I’m worth more than all that
Cages are still cages even though made of gold
I want the same rights as you
And respect for each day
I don’t want anything but love1

Analyses on the political nature of raï lyrics and in particular those more in favour of women’s emancipation are yet to be found in scholarly writings. Questions as to whether these be may be encouraging signs for female fans of raï, and if such lyrics cultivate a shift toward progressive attitudes towards women are waiting to be answered. These would be interesting sites for further investigation but in the meanwhile, raï is understood to be intertwined in a complex interaction between the political, personal, aesthetic, and religious, that simultaneously raises questions about its role as the voice of disaffected masculinity and Arab cultural authenticity (McMurray and Swedenburg 1991:42).

The melancholite cinematic masculinities of Bourgiba’s legacy

Modern Tunisian cinema is, alongside its literature (which will not be discussed herein), intensely expressive of the post-colonial state’s discontents (Gana 2010:111). What is particularly salient in the numerous critically-acclaimed films by both female and male directors is the representation of male angst against the backdrop of Habib Bourgiba’s autocratic legacy. The number of films made under the helm of male directors in the last three decades have been critical of the post-colonial Tunisian patriarchal order, calling for the advancement of gender-equal politics. The films that interrogated the conflicted post-colonial male identity range from Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (or L’homme de cendres, or Man of Ashes 1986), Ferid Boughedir’s Halfaouine: l’enfant des terraces (Halfaouine: boy of the terraces 1990) and Un été à la Goulette (A Summer at La Goulette 1995), Jilani Saadi’s Khorma, la bêtise (Khorma, Stupidity 2002) and Ors el-dhīb (Tender is the wolf 2006), to Abdellatif Kechiche’s La faute à Voltaire (Blame it on Voltaire 2000) and La graine et le mulet (The secret of the grain 2007). In contrast to the Tunisian female film directors in whose films (not mentioned here) undertook a feminist cinematic endeavour to undo the normative construction of masculinity, male directors in the films mentioned above delved simply into the masculine experience by deploying a male protagonist as the film’s central subject whilst examining the transformations of the male homosocial space (ibid. 2010:112).

Herein, I shall devote my attention to Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (Man of ashes 1986) as an exemplar of the father-son relationship symbolic of the conflictual inter-generational relationships between men in post-Bourgiba Tunisia. The popular and award-winning film is also a fine study of generational transitions involving the perpetuation, modification, and overt contestation of established masculinity (Stollery 2001:49). Rid al-sadd tells the story of the male protagonist Hechim whose memories of sexual assault as a boy torment him on the eve of his wedding. Told through these flashbacks, a jarring incongruency is depicted of Hechim between his younger and present self. On the one hand, he is the respectable man of the community, and on the other, the subordinated, humiliated masculinity at the hands of his abuser, Ameur, a carpenter with whom Hechim apprenticed. His subordinated masculine past also haunts him in his adult years cinematically as he is shown on the margins of the film frame during scenes showing the preparations for his marriage.

Hechim has three father figures in the film: his biological father, the carpenter Ameur, and Mr Levy, the father of his childhood friend whom Hechim regards with great respect and affection compared to the other two. The representation of the close relationship between the two was ground-breaking and controversial at the time Rih al-sadd was released as Mr Levy’s character belongs to a Jewish community in Sfax, where the film is set. Homosocial tenderness is depicted between Hechim and Farfat, a childhood friend who was also abused by Ameur. The idyll of intimacy from shared victimisation between the two, however, is later shattered by Farfat, who fatally stabs Ameur in the groin – an all too obvious attack on an older, more abusive order of masculinity.

Rih al-sadd interrogates the father-son relationship in which bad fathers are challenged while ideal ones are held in high esteem. This freedom to choose fathers is, according to Stollery (2001:62), harks back to a utopic past of cultural syncretism and inter-religious harmony rather than the divided ethnic and religious present. The shifts between fatherly nurturance and violence are perhaps suggestive of the psyche of the modern Tunisian men, torn between the demands of authority and self-actualisation, and thus representing what Nouri Gana (2010:112) calls melancholite masculinity. Gana reserves the term ‘melancholite’ to describe the neuroticism and anxieties embodied in the masculinity inherited from Bourgiba’s autocracy, that at the same time is preserved jealously against the challenges of feminist rhetoric and the rise of awareness of non-heteronormative sexualities. The greater presence of male homosexuality in the public discourse and the internationalisation of gay culture intensified homophobic disquietudes, and as a result eroded to an extent the forms of intimate male-to-male homosocial behaviour characterised by hand-holding, hugging, and kissing, casting a grim shadow on “traditional” Algerian masculinity (ibid. 2010:121).

The post-Bourgiba masculinity described by Gana as “suspended in a state of mutability that is simultaneously cultivated and frustrated” by the challenges faced in the gendered transformations of the public sphere can be captured in modern Tunisian film-making. The cinematic medium depicts the undoing of masculinity and manhood that is both arrested by the pull of nostalgia of an authoritarian and ahistorical patriarchy and the defiance to break out of the mould of rigid notions of post-colonial masculinity. As seen in the masculinisation of raï music in Algeria, there is again the tug of war between the calls for “authentic” cultural identity as glorified by contesting political discourses of the FIS and FLN, and the gravitational pull towards transgressive, “inauthentic” masculinity.

Fossiled masculinity, transforming masculinities: some concluding remarks

The prominent themes discussed above are the contradictions, contestations, and complexification within masculinities in relation to hegemonic masculinities. Hegemonic masculinities implied here are masculine-identified traits sanctioned institutionally as more powerful, more influential, often codified as controlling of women and subordinate men (Connell 1994:77). These are evident in the repressive institutions of the opposing Algerian political parties FLN and FIS, and those embodied by the older generation of men in Nouri Bouzid’s Rih al-sadd (Man of ashes) – of which both instances garner moral ascedancy over other men by virtue of an alignment with politicised Islam and age, respectively. These themes also track the historicisation of masculinity, capturing the “breaks” in the national gender narrative, just as the history of femininity in the Middle East witnessed a well-documented social evolution in the 20th century.

According to Connell, the very concept of masculinity and the norms of male embodiment is largely abstract and subject to change. More importantly, a set of expected norms is historically contingent, and therefore come into existence in specific circumstances both spatially and temporally. In light of this, Connell argues that there would be a struggle for hegemony in which older forms of hegemonic masculinity may be replaced by new ones (ibid. 1994:78). Connell suggests three other types of masculinities: complicit, subordinate, and protest masculinity – all of which contribute to the hierarchicalisation of masculine behaviour and attributes. However, as clear these distinguishing categories are, they are fluid and therefore ‘membership’ is sometimes difficult to identify (Connell 1994:73).

It is probably due to these conceptual ambiguities that I personally cannot confidently place a definition of the masculinities described in the examples discussed above. Hence, placing the raï-listening young men of Algeria in either the categories of subordinate masculinity or a kind of complicit masculinity may not be sufficient. The narrative in Rih al-sadd, on other hand, relies on the in-between position that Hechim assumes that can come to signify the unsettledness of masculine identities in modern day Tunisia. Yet such situational masculinities are for most times under the umbrella of hegemonic masculinity, attaining what Connell (1994:116) calls the ‘patriarchal dividend’ from which men may contribute to supporting hegemonic masculinity by exerting some power, however diluted, in certain circumstances such as through interactions with women and other more marginalised men.

The spaces of resistance that the masculinities assumed by fans of raï and the male protagonist Hechim in Rih al-sadd also depend on the porosity of the institutionalised hegemonic masculinity that is upheld by the state, itself an entity subject to fierce contestations. This view concurs with the suggestions of anthropologists Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne that the control of any type of masculinity is “never totally comprehensive” nor does it “ever completely control subordinates” (Cornwall and Lindisfarne 1994:5). One therefore cannot come to a definite conclusion if the participants of this gender matrix can benefit from their position in the hierarchy of masculinities, however porous each category may be, or whether all men pay the price for male dominance in some way. One must also be mindful not to de-emphasise the role of power relations in the relationships between masculinities. By focusing on the aspect of power invested within these relationships, there would be less of a need to undertake the more difficult task to labelling a man on the individual level as belonging to a particular masculinity type. Hence, the study of masculinity is not about head-counts, but rather a “question of relations of cultural domination” (Connell 1993:610).

My focus on contemporary Algerian and Tunisian masculinities – both North African yet on the margins of the Middle East – offers at best a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that will form a picture of Middle Eastern masculinity that is in many ways diverse, evolving, yet rooted to certain similar cultural and religious particularities. This is perhaps then a good opportunity to say that Islam as an analytical category is not monolithic but nonetheless affects the construction of masculinity in a significant way for better or for worse. It is then best to avoid the essentialisation of Islam that is perceived to be applied uniformly by all men in the Middle East and the way it often “obscures the dramatic changes that have occurred in the body of its values and even rituals throughout history when Islam was being constantly blended local customs and cultures” (Abu Khalil 1997:3). If Islam is indeed an important component in the formation of masculinity, then what is less understood are the multiple interpretational trajectories of Islam’s religious texts that lead to how idealised manhood or masculinity are constructed in a more nuanced, socially-specific way, how the different forms of power over women and other men are legitimated, and how these powers are perpetuated and maintained. And indeed, these processes of the ‘Islamisation’ of masculinity and power cannot exist in a vacuum, but subject to and affected by other sociological factors. Alongside the state, which has been identified above as constituting both abstract and material manifestation of hegemonic masculinity, the music (Whiteley 1999:219) and film industry (Mayne 1985:83) have been traditionally dominated by men and thus the products emerging from these cultural factories cannot be dismissed as entirely innocent of male bias, both at the level of production and reception .

Finally, I would like to raise questions for future reflections concerning the routes by which men of the Middle East make towards creating spaces for resistance, which can contribute to illuminating the ways masculinities transform and adapt to the changing landscape of power characterised by economic and social inequalities, the impact of globalisation, and the assent of women. Consequences of masculine resistance can thus be anticipated in various ways, and are not necessarily in favour of gender equality, but nonetheless may shed light on how they are transported or obstructed across different spaces (keeping in mind the context-specific nature of masculine identity). It is my hope that out of this patchwork of ambiguities emerge a better understanding of the means whereby the greater scheme of patriarchy is reproduced both between and within genders.

References

  1. Abu Khalil, A. (1997) Gender boundaries and sexual categories in the Arab world, Feminist Issues 15:91-104.
  2. Ahmed, L. (1992) Women and gender in Islam, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
  3. Cole, J. (1981) Feminism, class and Islam in turn-of-the-century Egypt, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 13:387-407.
  4. Cooke, M. (2002) Saving brown women, Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28:468-470.
  5. Connell, R. (1993) The big picture: Masculinities in recent world history, Theory and Society 22:597-623.
  6. Connell, R. (1994) Masculinities (Chapter 1), Cambridge: Polity Press.
  7. Cornwall, A. and Lindisfarne, N. (1994) Dislocating masculinity: Comparative ethnographies, Routledge
  8. DeAngelis, A.M. (2003) Moi aussi, je suis musulman: Raï, Islam, and masculinity in Maghrebi transnational identity, Journal of Comparative Poetics 23:276-308.
  9. Foucault, M. (1978) History of sexuality Vol. 1, New York:Vintage.
  10. Gana, N. (2010) Bourgiba’s sons: Melancholy manhood in modern Tunisian cinema, The Journal of North African Studies 15:105-126.
  11. Ghoussoub, M. (2006) Chewing gum, insatiable women, and foreign enemies: Male fears and the Arab media, from Imagined masculinities: Male identity and culture in the Modern Middle East (Ghoussoub, M. and Sinclair-Webb, E., eds.), London: Saqi Books 227-235
  12. Jayawardena, K. (1988) Feminism and nationalism in the third world, London: Zed Books.
  13. Kandiyoti, D. (1994) The paradoxes of masculinity: some thoughts on segregated societies, from Dislocating masculinity: Comparative ethnographies (Cornwall, A. and Lindisfarne, N. eds.), Routledge.
  14. Mayne, J. (1985) Feminist film theory and criticism, Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11:81-100
  15. McMurray, D. and Swedenburg, S. (1991) Raï tide rising, Middle East Report 169:39-42.
  16. Rosen, M. (1990) Rai, Artforum, 9:22.
  17. Schade-Poulsen, M. (1999) The social significance of rai: Men and popular music of Algeria, Texas: University of Texas Press.
  18. Stollery, M. (2001) Masculinities, generations, and cultural transformations in contemporary Tunisian cinema, Screen 42:49-63.
  19. Whiteley, S. (1997) Sexing the groove: Popular music and gender, New York:Routledge.

1I use “Muslim world” here not to signify a collective committed to a singular Islam, but rather a macrocosm of different interpretations and cultures that associate themselves to the faith.

6 thoughts on “Why is it important to rethink masculinities in the Middle East?

  1. Thanks for this! I’m just starting out in this field of research, any suggestions in the way of key readings on gender/masculinity in the ME?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Behzad,
      The study of masculinities in non-contexts are still peripheral in analyses of gender. One of the very, few key pioneering books are ‘Imagined masculinities: Male identity and culture in the modern middle east’ edited by Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair-Webb, and ‘Islamic masculinities’ edited Lahoucine Ougzane.

  2. Hello, I was wondering if I could reference some of your work from this paper to use in a research paper of mine?It is concerning rai music and its connection to homosociality.Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for this blog, it is the only work I found that I can incorporate in my paper. That being said, can I reference your work for my paper? I talk about the perception on traditional middle eastern men as well as their “domineering” nature. Thanks!!

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