Reconceiving Muslim Men: Love and Marriage, Family and Care in Precarious Times

Reconceiving Muslim Men: Love and Marriage, Family and Care in Precarious Times. Marcia C. Inhorn and Nefissa Naguib, eds., New York: Berghahn Books, 2018, 335 pp.

The title of this significant, highly interesting, and at times heartbreaking book raises a question: Given that the majority of the book chapters do not deal with reproduction, why does the title speak of “reconceiving” Muslim men, rather than using a more intuitive term, for example, “reconsidering”? I read the editors’ choice of term as referring to the two main plot lines of the collection, one being about the families of Muslim men, community and matters of love, and the other rejecting a stereotype in the Western imaginary, namely, that Muslim men are highly patriarchal and violent.

Each of the 15 chapters tells a profound story of men from different parts of the world, many living under rough to extremely miserable conditions and trying their best to be loyal and caring family and community members. The book is divided into three parts. The first reports on “Muslim Men in Love and Marriage,” the second on “Muslim Family Life and Men as Caretakers,” and the last on “Muslim Men in Precarious Times.” It is impossible to do justice to the many intriguing essays in this book within the limits of a short review, so I will have to suffice with teasing out some of the main highlights of this rich volume.

A common image of Muslim men in global media, but also in scholarly works, is of the ruthless violent Other. Such an image centers the warrior and misogynist aspects of Muslim masculinity. The contributors to this volume deliberately resist this framing. They refuse to view Muslim men through the lens of fear and orientalism, which needs the Other to be a villain for Us to be superior. Rather, the authors offer a highly empathetic point of view, attending to the interlocutors’ enormous challenges, hardships and pain in their home countries as well as in migrant and refugee communities.

This choice is not naive. It is attentive to relationality and context, including the realities of war. In 2017, out of the 10 most serious global conflicts, seven were occurring in and around Muslim majority countries, mostly in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. The authors and editors recognize that the second decade of the 21st century has brought extraordinary levels of economic, political, and social precarity to the Muslim world. Likewise, they not deny that traditional attitudes concerning gender equality prevail in the Muslim world, leading to extreme cases like that of Afghanistan, where women are practically imprisoned at their homes. This situation makes it impossible for Andrea Chiovenda to meet the wives of the Afghani men his chapter discusses. Chiovenda compensates for this by learning of their relationships through listening to their telephone conversations.

Under such circumstances, it is challenging to maintain hope of change and to support the book’s central claim concerning emerging, nurturing forms of masculinity in the Muslim world. Each author meets that challenge through person-centered ethnographic writing. The men profiled in this book are typically from working- or middle-class backgrounds, some of them employees of international humanitarian NGOs, others refugees. From this, it seems like hope, signs of change, and even resistance are not to be found in the leaders of Muslim societies, but in the underprivileged, struggling strata.

The chapters span a large number of communities around the world, from the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, to Syrian refugees who crossed the Russian–Norwegian border on bicycles in search of shelter, to infertile refugees (mainly Iraqi) living in what Inhorn terms “reproductive exile” in Arab Detroit. Other studies follow men living in urban Egypt, or in non-Arab communities in India, Kazakhstan, Kurdistan, and Java. Muslim men are also studied in Brazil (mostly converts to Islam), Barcelona, Greece, central Africa, and Tanzania. Overall, the collection demonstrates the tremendous diversity among and within Muslim populations. The book thus also resists the imposition of an authoritative understanding of what Muslim men are.

By using person-centered ethnography, looking behind cultural norms into informants’ subjectivity, the book convincingly evidences Marcia Inhorn’s concept of “emergent masculinities,” which is intentionally plural. The volume describes new ways of being men, despite the persistence of old patriarchal norms. It calls attention to how men express desire to have compassionate marriages, to support their daughters’ education, or to show compassion for the weakest. At a theoretical level, it offers new understandings of the meaning of concepts such as care and nurturing, and of gender itself. For example, Farha Gannam, writing on men in urban Egypt, aims to “extend the ethics of care beyond the work usually done by women in the domestic sphere to include men’s labor and work outside the home” (p. 142). She argues that notions of care are materialized, gendered, and classed. The working-class men she studied do not work for self-fulfillment, but because they are responsible and loving to their relatives.

The volume also challenges supposed dichotomies between domination and loving commitment, arranged and love marriage. It further contests other dominant discourses (e.g., the prosperity and financial independence resulting from finding natural gas in Tanzania). In his chapter, Vinay R. Kamat illuminates the toll of displacement and dispossession that gas discovery has taken on local populations. In a chapter about central Africa, by Louisa Lombard, we learn how men understand that their only chance of being taken seriously is to threaten and take up arms, and thus to fulfill a violent stereotype. Other essays, like the one by Gustavo Barbosa, discuss how pseudo anthropological and psychological definitions of gender force an incorrect reading of a supposed crisis of masculinity among men in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. These men, unwilling or unable to perform hegemonic masculinity, thus become hard to interpret with current concepts.

I wish to end with the words of Tina Palivos. Her chapter shares her painful emotional experiences while conducting research with Muslim refugee and migrant men in Greece who provide care and protection to Muslims who survived their escape through the Mediterranean Sea and suffered trauma due to the loss of children and spouses who drowned on their way to the coast. Concluding her chapter, Palivos writes:

This chapter shows that Muslim migrant men are simply men and, as men, are also human beings. … My findings reveal a level of sensitivity, compassion, and care among these men that was most often motivated by a sense of doing what they believed was the right way to treat each other and human beings in general. (p. 277)

I find this a bittersweet ending, reflecting on the state of the world. One of this book’s many strengths is that it foregrounds the ways in which Muslim men are normal. Having to show that Muslim men are human, and stressing it to resist their demonization, is highly important and timely, given current political discourse. At the same time, the very fact that anthropologists need to remind us of the humanity of their interlocutors remains upsetting.

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