Muslim Men: On Love, Nurturance, Care, and Fulfillment

Marcia Inhorn
May 18, 2016

From April 15-17, Yale hosted an international conference on the theme “Muslim Men: On Love, Nurturance, Care, and Fulfillment.” This conference, sponsored by the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund and the Council for Middle East Studies at the MacMillan Center, featured research from scholars working in 14 different countries. Marcia Inhorn, William K. Lanman, Jr. professor of anthropology and international affairs at Yale University, and Nefissa Naguib, professor of anthropology at the University of Oslo in Norway, convened the conference, and will soon publish an edited volume on the same theme. Both professors have worked in the Middle East and North Africa region for many years, and specialize in gender studies among other fields. They organized this conference in particular to unite scholars from around the world who study masculinity among Muslims, noting that this area of scholarship is still quite under-explored.

In particular, Professors Inhorn and Naguib aim to confront stereotypes of Muslim men as violent, patriarchal, and distant, and problematize the links made between these perceived traits and Islam. In her introduction to the conference, Professor Naguib acknowledged that these realities exist, but argued that “there seems to be no room for normal, everyday Muslim men.” Professor Inhorn seconded this notion in her introduction, stating that one main goal for the conference was to “pay attention to men’s sense of fulfillment, what makes them happy,” and to capture the ways Muslim men “conduct themselves in a caring and nurturing mode as sons, husbands, fathers, friends, and community members.” The conference presenters do so in a variety of different contexts, demonstrating through their research how Muslim men not only practice love, nurturance, and care, but also how these behaviors help them define what it is to be a man.

Gustavo Barbosa, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, finds, for example, that what it means to be a man changes over the generations among Palestinian men living in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp. Whereas previous generations of men practiced their masculinity by engaging in armed struggle on behalf of Palestine, today’s young men find other ways of being men, such as attempting to marry and build homes for their families. In Central Asia, Aina Begim finds that Kazakhstani men, the overwhelming majority of whom identify as Muslim, understand this identity not in terms of piety, but in terms of providing for their families and caring for their extended kin.

The notion that caring for one’s family is part of what it means to be a Muslim man is also found in Norway, where Professor Naguib interviewed recently arrived Syrian refugees living in Kirkenes, the town closest to the border between Russia and Norway. She investigated “how the global remapping of human lives influences and perhaps alters the expectations of intimate relationships,” and found that, specifically concerning Syrian Muslim men’s relationships with their children, this time of crisis allowed for new forms of hope and caregiving to emerge. These men expressed to Professor Naguib that they left Syria because of the love they have for their children, and that even in this entirely alien situation they are still trying their hardest to care for their families. Finally, in the United States, Professor Inhorn explores what it means to be a Muslim man experiencing “reproductive exile” in “Arab Detroit,” the city of Dearborn, Michigan. Many men in this city encounter a number of struggles in their daily lives, including their own infertility. Their double exile is produced by the fact that they cannot return to their countries of origin, but they also cannot access technologies such as in vitro fertilization that would make it possible for them to become fathers. These men do not aim to reproduce in order to fulfill a stereotypical conception of Arab patriarchy, but because they love their wives and want to make families with them. Professor Inhorn even finds that in cases in which a man’s infertility cannot be overcome, he will offer to divorce his wife so that she may make a family with another man.

Overall, this conference opens the door for emerging scholarship on Muslim men and masculinity. Its participants contend that scholars of gender and Islam should write about the humanity of Muslim men, how they practice their masculinity by caring and providing for their families, even in times of amazing distress. Counteracting portrayals of Muslim men as terrorists and misogynists, these scholars demonstrate that, from Brazil to Afghanistan and Egypt to Indonesia, Muslim men define themselves as men through love, nurturance, and care.  

Written by Lizzy Berk, Graduate Student, Anthropology 2020