Post-liberal jihad: Muslim feminism during a time of cruelty and despair

I’ve written a commissioned article for The G-Blog on the present challenges of Muslim feminism in Malaysia and globally, linking it to wider structures of war, (post)-neoliberal economics, and the rise of alt-right political narratives.

Excerpt:

Situating Muslim feminism in the bigger picture

Let’s face it, times are bad. Full-time and secure paid work are drying up, and real wages are not catching up with the rising prices of basic essentials. More adults in their 20s and 30s continue to live with their parents because it is too expensive to live on their own. Millennials have inherited a post-2008 global recession that never really recovered and an overpowering culture of debt. And now we welcome 2017 on a low note. We watch a car crash in slow motion as global superpowers and their leaders prove themselves to be devastatingly anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, and anti-peace. It will take a long time to offset the damage of their politics.

So what is the role of Muslim feminism during this period of cruelty and despair? Feminist-identified Muslim women of all ages are faced with challenges that crisscross faith and the secular arenas of their lives. It is time to connect the dots between different types of gender-based oppressions with those of male-dominated interpretations of religion. But being female and Muslim is not isolated from the economic and political reality either. In fact, the poor economic situation and political corruption have an impact on feminist and faith-based belief. The spiritual meaning of patience (sabar as being a component of one’s iman) and moral right or haqq are not used and reclaimed in the public discourse to alleviate the daily humiliations of Muslim women and non-normative people. Instead, sabar is distorted to justify domestic and national suffering. What is morally right becomes manipulated to condone the discrimination of women and people of non-normative genders and sexualities from attaining their full potential in the public sphere.

What does it mean to be young, Muslim and feminist today? For many young women, it means a whole new life; a commitment that transforms their way of thinking about the world, a new set of friends, and re-orientation of priorities manifested in their ambitions and daily practices. This commitment is synonymous with what is understood as ‘feminist consciousness’, a process of seeing the world from a gendered perspective and about being re-born as a feminist. However, the backlash that awaits them for articulating their feminist commitment is often hostile and violent. Rather than an apparatus and ideological framework for social justice, the iconoclastic demands of feminism are frequently judged as un-Islamic and inimical to local culture. Muslim feminism is not the default feminism for people who identify as feminist women and Muslim. When I conducted a focus group last September on what it means to be a Muslim feminist today, the responses I got were eye-opening: Muslim feminists are not entirely enamoured by the limits of ‘Muslim feminism’. Perhaps there is an assumption that being a Muslim feminist means looking at every feminist issue from a religiously-informed lens when not everything that is important to being a person is religious or Islamic.

Read the rest here and the Malay version translated by Sarahaida Khairuddin.

Masculinity and sexual humiliation in Quickie Express

The following is a lecture about Indonesian masculinities and male sex work to accompany the film screening of Quickie Express by Dimas Djayadinigrat that I delivered for my class Sex and the City in Southeast Asian Cinema. Reading it through once again, I found to be rather scrappy and also, please pardon the occasional chatty style – this was meant to be delivered verbally rather than read. Despite the rough edges, there are some themes of male sexual humiliation in physical comedy that remains unstudied and therefore stands as a large uncharted landscape few scholars of gender in film studies choose to venture:

Talking about Quickie Express brings us to various discursive directions; masculinities in recent Indonesian cinema, the notion of masculinity in crisis, representations of male sex workers or gigolos in films, and masculinity as spectacle.

Quickie Express plays on a parody of both traditional masculinity and sexuality. It suggests that working in the sex industry is quite humiliating for a man as it involves being subjected to sexual servitude for an array of female clientele made up of overweight women, bondage fetishist, elderly women who are made to look not only comedic and physically unattractive but more crucially to personify grotesque forms of female sexuality. Or rather female sexuality as grotesque. But what Quickie Express also shows is that male prostitution also generates unexpected benefits – a high end lifestyle and romance.

This brings us to a discussion about representations of the male sex worker, the comedic element that mitigates against the anxiety and potential humiliation of masculinity, and the construction of men as objects of erotic desire – all of which I will discuss in great detail.

What is interesting about Quickie Express is that it adds an unusual dimension to the portrayals of masculinities in the post-Suharto era. It presents men as sex objects who struggle as seducers of women. It seems to feature the failure of men and sexual humiliation in a situation where gender roles are reversed: women are the ones who are financially independent and powerful, they are also the active agents of their sexuality, they call the shots because they can.

The three men – Piktor, Marley, and Jojo (shown above) are not even adequate as heterosexual masculine men – that they need instructions on how to be sexually literate through their very camp male instructor who exhibits multiple paradoxes of masculinity – being middle-aged and having a paunch, the string vest, the awkward rather than graceful movement around the pole, but being an expert of female sexuality, dance, and high brow social etiquette.

If you have seen The Full Monty, you will remember the scene in which the men are made to watch Flashdance to learn how to dance. Flashdance is of course an important film that combines the masculine profession of the central female character who is a welder at a steel mill and the predominantly feminine world of dance. So we have two films that uses women/feminine men who serve as instructors in sexual masculine performance whether on stage, or in bed.

A display of non-traditional, non-normative, inadequate, or buffoon masculinities will guide us into a better understanding that masculinity is not a stable or homogeneous category of gender. In the work of Raewyn Connell, masculinity is broken up into four forms: hegemonic, complicit, marginalised, and subordinated masculinities. Today we’ll be focusing on marginalised and subordinated masculinity which we see plenty of in Quickie Express in contrast to hegemonic or dominant masculinity.

Throughout the New Order period, the dominant paradigm of masculinity was defined in familial terms; the man as father and leader of the household, and by extension the nation. Hence, the ideal Indonesian man was defined through heterosexual, monogamous marriage and having a family, preferably with biological children.

But changes in the socio-political and religious mood occurring during Reformasi – the period shortly after Suharto’s resignation – meant that men and masculinities were shifting as well. During this period hegemonic or idealised masculinity becomes increasingly Islamicised. The ability to display or perform their Muslim masculinity through dress, speech, consumption, who they marry, how many women they marry is played out in the public arena as an exemplary form of masculinity. But there is another side of masculinity played out in Indonesian film that we should be more interested in – the disempowered masculinity, the crisis of masculinity.

Masculinity in crisis
Masculinity in crisis is defined as a situation in which heterosexual men experience a sense of frustration, loss, and tension in the face of female empowerment in the public sphere, a loss in a sense of a traditional masculinity, and the threat posed by male homosexuality who are able to look and be just as masculine as straight men.

The crisis therefore rests on the popular question of “What does it take to be a “real” man?” particularly if for most people “real” means cissexual as opposed to transsexual or transgender and straight as opposed to gay man, gainfully employed as opposed to jobless or poor. In Indonesia, Marshal Clark describes the masculinity in crisis which occurs during the Asian economic crisis of 1997, in which many men experienced the double humiliation of losing their jobs and roles as breadwinner of the household.

For Marshal Clark, the Indonesian crisis of masculinity is enacted in post-Suharto films in which gangsters and various other versions of violent men populate the screen, where they overpower the authorities and other weaker members of society. On a more alarming note, he also says that there are more misandrist portrayals of men during this period, as defined as weak, abusive, and socially alienated young men in many films by both female and male film directors. Of course, the weakness and negativity of these portrayals are debatable, as we shall discuss later in our tutorial using Quickie Express as our talking point.

Buffoon men, gigolos, marginalised / subordinated masculinities at the centre

Quckie Express joins the few comedy films and television series about gigolos or men in the sex industry like Deuce Bigelow, The Full Monty, and the American comedy drama Hung. Central to the representation of men in these films and television series is the non-traditional, less than adequate men who face the threat of economic poverty, shame and stigmatisation, the clandestine double life they lead due to the nature of their profession.

If we were to describe a type of masculinity in Quickie Express based on the continuum of masculinities introduced by Raewyn Connell, these men would be categorised in the marginalised and subordinated masculinities. Marginalised because of he portrayal of men such as the Arab pimp and the Dutch Jan Pieter Gunarto.

But they are also examples of subordinated masculinity because of their effeminacy and homosexuality. The gigolos on the other hand traverse across the various forms of masculinities but never quite make it to hegemonic masculinity. They are definitely buffoon men.

Interestingly, at multiple points of the film we find several sequences that threaten the masculinity of an already disempowered masculinity even more; for example, the three men talk about boosting their virility using a tonic from Saudi Arabia and express an implicit fear of impotence, Marley’s small penis that eventually becomes bitten off by a fish and eaten by a hospital personnel.

Key to depictions of men as sex objects is the comedic element to neutralise the anxiety of the male gaze. Now, the male gaze was developed by as a psychoanalytic term by Jacques Lacan to describe the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. In feminist film theory, the gaze was further developed by Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in which she says that the audience is put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. How the camera lingers on the women’s body more than it does on a man’s body in an erotically-charged way suggests this.

I’d like to add on Mulvey’s point that the male gaze occurs also he production of images in television and more particularly in magazine covers, advertising, and fashion photography. Women’s bodies are generally shown as passive objects of desire to be visually consumed by the audience who is presumed to be heterosexual and male. The male gaze suggests that there is a power asymmetry coded in how we look at images of women in film. The male gaze holds water if we know for certain most film directors are indeed straight and male, as for most members of the film industry, and the fact that when sex sells, it means women’s bodies sell.

But when men’s bodies project erotic visual cues, such as a bare chest, a come hither look at the audience, they are countered by traditional masculine signifiers usually through engaging in some form of activity, holding a prop that will reinforce their masculinity. In the case of visual close-ups on men, their faces should express fear, anger, or aggression. Or look away, to not make eye contact with the presumably straight male audience and incite homoerotic passion. The male gaze is implicitly suggests that visual-making is largely homophobic and fears the potential sexy images of men will unsettle the male gaze.

There are exceptions of course, but the exceptions tend to generate discomfort, criticisms, and anger from many people. For example, Sylvester Stallone paying homage to Rodin’s The Thinker on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1999, or the silliness / obscenity of Sacha Baron-Cohen on the cover of GQ, the absurdity of men in pin-up poses.

One the biggest flaws of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze is the assumption that female viewers also have the male gaze in that they look through a heterosexual and masculinsed lens. This anticipated the concept of the female gaze that proposed that women as viewers have the agency to identify in a non-sexist way, in a way that does not objectify women. Also, the psychoanalytic paradigm in much of film theory has been challenged as severely limited; mainly because of its ahistorical approaches to desire and fear, its silence on the issue of race, class, and cultures of the audiences.

I think Quickie Express problematises the concept of the gaze through the portrayal of straight men as male prostitutes hence sex objects and its use of comedy.

The most common stereotype of the male prostitute is as a sexy but tragic figure. This stereotype reveals both a fascination with the male prostitute as a sexual object and sadness or disdain with his situation and life style. This stereotyped male hustler is often an under-aged or teen-age “street kid” or “runaway” forced to leave home because of his sexual orientation or because of sexual abuse. He is often portrayed as a drug addict or thief. The plotline frequently focuses on the crisis of leaving the trade or the street (“one last trick”), or on making enough money for an important use (a medical treatment, a gift). The climax often has one of two possible outcomes: the hustler either abandons the trade and re-integrates society, or he meets a tragic end.

While less frequent in cinema and novels, the male prostitute with exclusively female clients (the “gigolo” or “escort”) is generally depicted in a less tragic manner than the gay hustler (the gigolo is portrayed as older, athletic, well-dressed, etc.), and films like American Gigolo have done much to paint the character as a sophisticated seducer. This portrayal has also lead to cinematic satire

The element of comedy in Quickie Express alleviates the anxiety male audiences, again we’re still using the male gaze as a useful concept, may have about allusions to emasculation, feminisation of men, castration, and the construction of men as sex objects. Comedy allows viewers to accept and laugh characters as simply caricatures, reassuring that they are hyperboles and extreme and absurd representations of men in desperation. Comedy also dislocates the anxiety that straight male audiences may have with depictions of men as sex objects. Should the film be a serious investigation into the life of a male prostitute with many lingering shots of male bodies, we may have greater apprehension with the image.

Quickie Express joins a loosely termed genre in recent Indonesian cinema of the sex comedy, and more specifically joins a sub-genre of sex comedy that focuses on the men’s sexual insecurity, namely the focus on the penis. Other penis-oriented comedies include Namaku Dick (or my name is Dick) about a talking penis that turns a man’s life upside down, and XL about a man who is worried that small penis will disappoint a future wife.

Is there an emergence of new masculinities in Indonesia’s Islamic cinema?

Indonesian singer and composer Opick.

When new femininities are introduced in the new wave of religious film-making, different strands of masculinities also emerge albeit in more implicit ways. Like heterosexuality, non-disability, and whiteness, masculinity is often referred to as ‘unmarked’ social category in which male dominance has been historically treated as the ‘norm’ while ‘gender’ is often taken to be a shorthand for women’s issues (Clark 2008:37). Changing gender dynamics resulting from women’s increasing (and empowering) presence in the public sphere inadvertently transforms men’s relationship with women. In Indonesia, what is little noted in contrast to women’s gradual emancipation is that socio-political upheaval and fragmentation of central powers coupled with the Asian economic downturn in 1997 have resulted in feelings of male disempowerment that has driven many men to seek solace in Islam and sometimes violent paths (Clark 2008:38). The concept of masculinities is employed in my study as it takes into account the multiplicity and fluidity of masculine gender performance.

Nilan (2009) has identified three distinct forms of “youthful” masculinities in contemporary Indonesia arising from the tensions between the “familial and pedagogic discourses that call them towards the role of the steady worker and reliable provider” and the “compelling discourses of heroism and macho bravado deriving from both local and global sources create pressure to construct their identity in terms of quite different kinds of masculine cultural practice (Nilan, 2009: 328). The three images of masculinities Nilan has delineated: the bearded male evangelists and all-male nasyid music groups, the hip but sensitive young man, and the belligerent preman (thug) with criminal tendencies all make prominent appearances in current Indonesia film and media. For Nilan, all three images are coded hypermasculine as they form prevailing and persuasive re-iterative performances that connote social influence, aspiration, power, dominance, and the antithesis to femininity (2009: 329).

Marshall Clark (2004, 2008) has explored the ways in men and masculinities in post-Suharto film-making reflect socio-economic trends in films such as Kuldesak (Cul-de-sac) (1998), and two film by Rudy Soedjarwo; Mengejar matahari (Chasing the sun) (2004), and 9 Naga (9 dragons) (2006) where grittier, more violent representations of men accentuated by their grimy, poverty-stricken surroundings take centre stage. Through these different instances of masculinity Nilan and Clark suggest that the construction of hegemonic masculinities has taken place in post-authoritarian Indonesian film and public discourse. Representations of hegemonic masculinities are not fixed states but the “configuration of gender practices” which are implicated in struggle for dominance and /or contingent on context (Connell 1995: 77). The contingent aspect of masculinities will play a significant part in my analysis of ‘new’ Muslim masculinities in film religi.

While Clark has demonstrated a turn for more violent, melancholic, and conflicting representations of masculinities in newer, mainstream Indonesian films, I propose that film religi may offer equally conflicting but ‘softer’ and more diverse portrayals of ‘new’ Muslim masculinities. Two films that befit our genre of interest, Mengaku rasul (Self-proclaimed prophet) (2008) and Emak ingin naik haji (Mother wants to go perform the hajj) (2009), demonstrate images of masculinities that are enmeshed in discourses of Muslimness. Rather than the portrayal of overt, physical violence as a shorthand for conventional masculinity, the two films showcase aspects of masculinity that are coded through a religious lens as emasculated, deviant, and/or disempowered. Like most portrayals of femininities in film and other forms of media, representations of dominant masculinities (or hypermasculinities) in particular offer clues to the conception of gender in society. Images that represent gender in mass media tend to be more simplified, exaggerated, and stylised than gender as practised in ‘reality’ (Connell 1987: 12). Much of New Order Indonesian cinema has been defined by Krishna Sen as “about men and what the films define as men’s sphere of action” while female characters play only “subsidiary roles so that women’s images and actions have a small and/or unimportant function in the narrative (Sen 1995: 116-133). However, the dominance of men in (particularly post New Order) Indonesian cinema is an ambiguous one.

A legacy of disempowered masulinities appears salient in the two films discussed here. In Emak ingin naik haji, the roles of the three main male characters are positioned in relation to the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Zein is an impoverished artist who intends to fund his elderly mother’s trip to the holy land; successful businessman Haji Sa’un is planning his sixth pilgrimage in an effort to ‘improve’ his piety but still feels inadequate in religious matters; while Pak Joko is convinced that going to Mecca will improve his political image and boost his mayoral campaign. All three men are driven by different desires, some more noble than others but their relation to the pilgrimage becomes a yardstick to how ‘good’ a Muslim they are. Pak Joko’s well-publicised pilgrimage echoes Suharto’s visit to a number of holy sites in the Arabian peninsular in 1991 at the peak of his regime’s Islamisation programme. Their masculinities are also performed through their intimate relations to power and money, of lack of both. When Zein fails to fulfil his duty as the breadwinner and he submits to robbing Haji Sa’un’s house, the sight of the qur’an stops him in his tracks. Pak Joko takes advantage of his influence to cheat on his wife, while Haji Sa’un, as the head of the household, is overcome by his materialistic children and has little religious influence to educate them the value of money.

Mengaku Rasul (Self-proclaiming prophet) is a critique of ‘deviant’ religious teachings dressed as exploitative of women and unscrupulous politicking. Guru Samir is the charismatic leader of a new Islamic sect and self-styled latter-day prophet. Told in flashbacks, the film begins with a young woman, Rianti, who is admitted into hospital following an arson attack on a ‘cult’ meeting with Guru Samir in a village hall. Previously, Rianti followed the ‘cult’ led by Samir after leaving her drum-playing, tattoo-covered boyfriend, Aji. Aji goes after her and discovers that Samir is not the man his followers believe he is – adulterous, deceitful of his ability to perform miracles. In order to win Rianti back, Aji has to prove that Samir is a fraud but he is also determined to end the cult’s deviant practices, which include praying for Samir to absolve his follower’s sins, paying for an ‘exclusive’ course that will guarantee a place in paradise, and having faith in Samir’s status as prophet, a messenger of God. Aji and Samir are portrayed as unlikely opposites of Muslim men, ‘good’ Muslim against ‘bad’, respectively. On the one hand, Aji is not the conventional Muslim hero typical of other film religi; we do not know if he has had a rigorous religious education or if he even prays or knows how to read and speak Arabic. But on the other hand, Samir is in elaborate Muslim gear, in a turban, beard, and flowing one-piece garment. When Aji and Samir’s stepson burns a meeting hall down, they uncover the mystery behind Samir’s many miracles. But before Aji can warn Rianti of Samir’s extraordinary duplicity, she had all along planned to murder him.

In Mengaku Rasul, deviant Muslim practices are accentuated by unprincipled and lascivious passions. The portrayal of Guru Samir as the religious fraud who takes advantage of his influence ends with his death, occurring during the throes of passion with his new wife, Rianti. Samir personifies a Muslim masculinity that has gone astray not only from the righteous path of Islam, but from the normative image of man as trusted head of the home and community. Mengaku rasul joins other Indonesian films that engage with the contested topic of polygamy, but is firmly critical of it. Van Wichelen (2010) locates the newly reconfigured Muslim masculinity within the revival of debates on polygamy in Indonesia after the end of the New Order regime, with particular interest in the publicised endorsements of polygamy by male media personalities and popular preachers. Like the differences of views on polygamy evident in the three films discussed above, the polygamy debate is a lively and contested ground, mainly coming from enthusiastic proponents within upper middle class socio-economic groups, book publishers, and even women, in contrast to the relatively silent critics of the practice (van Wichelen, 2010: 76-78).

References
Clark, M. (2008) Men, masculinities and symbolic violence in recent Indonesian cinema, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 3(1): 113-131.
Clark, M. (2010) Maskulinitas: Culture, gender, and politics in Indonesia, Monash University Press: Caulfield.
Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities, Allen and Unwin: Sydney.
Sen, K. (1995) Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 by V. Hooker (ed.), Oxford University Press: Kuala Lumpur.
Van Wichelen, S. (2010) Religion, politics and gender in Indonesia: Disputing the Muslim body, Routledge Research on Gender in Asia Series Routledge: Oxford.

Introducing Privilege-denying Malay guy. Patriarchy-apologists be damned!

UPDATE: PDMG has moved to a more inclusive space – Privilege-denying Malaysian guy

In the spirit of the hugely popular Privilege-denying Dude meme that’s been circulating the feminist blogosphere, my fellow feminist compadres Tariq and Munira, have started the long overdue Privilege-denying Malay guy. Of course there is no denying that Malay privilege is enshrined in Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution and has long since become the chest-beating mantra of many Malay Malaysians, but other privileges ensconced by being born male, middle-class, able-bodied and straight remain sorely overlooked and the source of much annoyance to many.

Sometimes a humorous and subversive reaction to annoyance is more productive than a frothy-mouthed post on the failures of Malaysian politics, Islam in Malaysian, and Malay men in general. A few pithy words can capture the multifarious nature of the privilege-driven ecstasy that is the Malay guy:

More on Privilege-denying Malay Guy

Is there such a thing as men's issues in Malaysia?

If we consider the major strides women have made and continue to make in education and employment in Malaysia, we think, ‘we’ve never had it so good’. Pro-women policies from the ground up; from the changing attitudes at home right up to the corridors of power, have placed women at the focus of many ‘development’ and nation-building projects. Men, on the other hand, are believed to have always enjoyed the advantage of being considered socially superior to women. But forget for a moment the myth that men have the supposed birthright to be leaders and women are meant ‘serve’ and ‘assist’ them; not all men are doing so well and not all men are the boss. While women are becoming more empowered, the already empowered men are assumed to be happy with that. Under the banner of ‘Women’s Issues’, women’s progress in society is always reported and analysed, much like an intensive health check-up to see if we’re doing okay.

Meanwhile, men’s status in society is considered to be unchanging and frozen in time. Yes, there are still more men in powerful places and still more women who are redressing that gender imbalance. Though I’d like to think that women’s increasing social independence must mean something to the male of the species. If being a woman today means not ever going back to being a woman of the past, then this must impact on what being a man today means. The attack on feminism suggests a resentment that more women will run the show, have more control, have more say in things, and all this may leave men thinking that they now have less control, less power, emasculated even. So it is not surprising in the least that feminism is referred to as man-hating by men themselves, as if feminism conspires to overpower the male race and take over the world. The anxieties of potential female domination are also felt by self-professed liberal men, particularly when expressed in the cautious rhetoric about what gender equality should mean, or what I call the ‘mansplaining of feminism’.

I’d like to call for a sensitive analytical focus on men and masculinities in Malaysia. Call it men’s issues if you like, and the focus should be on all types of men, not men as a monolithic group. What I mean by men’s issues is nothing like the male version of women’s issues. It’s not about working towards giving more rights to men above what women already or do not have. It’s about casting a careful look on how women’s changing roles in society impact on modern masculinity and about making gender equality a project that concerns not women alone but a dialogue between genders. I’m hoping that men’s issues make it a point to raise male privilege as a subject worthy of investigation to be studied and discussed by men and women alike. Only by making these issues visible can we demystify men’s fears and anxieties about what genuine gender equality means.

I’d like to  finish with a quote from Rafidah Abdullah’s interview with The Nutgraph:

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.

I want a Malaysia run by a political party with a “lelaki” wing, and this is the wing that handles food, drinks and menial labour for all the party events. And I want a Kementerian Pembangunan Lelaki, Keluarga dan Masyarakat, which will run workshops targeted at preventing boys from turning into rempit, rapists and incestuous fathers.

Honestly, it’s a losing battle working on women’s issues when people won’t even acknowledge men’s issues

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
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