I feel that I might lack the requisite language and intellectual prowess to write about my observations of being a Muslim guy in an American Muslim experience where certain norms of male behavior seem out of sync with Western norms (majority) and from an outside perspective norms of Islamic traditions. Part of the difficulty in writing this piece is also my own feelings of discomfort about discussing the topic so publicly, sexuality is a sensitive topic that bring out the conservative in everyone. Writing on this issue presents a very real possibility of being labelled in certain ways internally by Muslims as well as externally by outsiders, and I abhor labels. But I find that the topic is important and I don’t shy away from overly controversial topics, I just choose to write about them when I feel I have a grasp on how to present and discuss the ideas therein to others.
The first time I was confronted with the East-West contradiction, around expressed male sexuality, was at the age of 11, while visiting Pakistan. I thought all the guys holding hands in public around the parks and shops of Karachi were Gay, but it turned out that wasn’t the case. The practice of holding hands, in fact “male on male physical affection” is a ubiquitous norm in Eastern cultures, not just Pakistan. You can understand my confusion, having been raised in America where such interactions were considered a homosexual norm, prescribing a sexual preference onto a boy/man exhibiting that behavior, made my observation disconcerting. Further, men dressed as women would parade around the city collecting money and singing and dancing on happy occasions, such open transvestite, but later I realized it was the only cultural and socially accepted norm for Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender’s to express themselves in society and still be part of the main social fabric.
I am not talking about sexuality in terms of “intercourse” but rather the expression of ones gender, through accepted norms encompassing behavior, male to male interaction and the idea of masculinity, what it means to be a man in society. I would think that the Western notions of masculinity and male interaction would be the behavioral norm amongst Muslims given the strict prohibition on homosexuality, along with the attendant expression of that identity, in Islam. But that just isn’t the case as I later experienced amongst the Muslim guys I interacted with at the Masjid, in organizations and when generally hanging out. The Western masculine norms shift and become more flexible, without taking on the homosexuality of the identity that is so closely associated in the West to that behavior. Thats what makes me believe that Islam, through culture, actually does offer a very flexible conception of human sexuality and/or male masculinity. However, I fear that its not as “liberal” as LGBT activists would like.
Going back to the holding hands in public example. Elisabeth Thoburn, a humanities instructor at Washtenaw Community College, visited Pakistan in 2008, her photography taking in everyday street scenes. She was asked about the pictures she captured of men holding hands (here) as being a sign of open homosexuality in Pakistan. She said that “Men holding hands or hugging in public is an indication of a very deep friendship. Male relationships are relationships of equals, so they walk hand in hand. They wouldn’t make it through the market if they were gay.”
This cultural paradigm is supposedly explored by photo-artist Jamie McLeod in the Dalston Superstore exhibition of his black and white portraits of Turkish Wrestlers, “Ottoman Fight Club”. (See Picture above)
The pictures look a 100 years old but the oldest one was from 8 years ago. Mcleod’s images were taken during the annual Kirkpinar tournament, held in Edirne, Turkey. It is the oldest continuously running sporting competition in the world, held there since 1362, which makes the whole presentation even more interesting in context of this post.
McLeod explains how he observed Turkish men and boys interacting with one another, massaging and caressing and laying together while resting between their matches, using each other as living pillows. The behavior/interaction is one that isn’t considered “homosexual” nor does it bring into question the a guys hetrosexuality. (Maybe it might have its root in Greek/Roman culture which was known for a more liberal views on sexuality, which then was normalized through Islamic cultural norms of “brotherhood”) This type of male-male interaction is actually not abnormal, its pretty common, seen as a form of “brotherly love” amongst Muslims (such as holding hands), as well as American Muslim guys (the double- or triple- peck on the cheek with your lips, while saying “Eid Mubarak!’- I refuse to do this, is an example of what is an acceptable norm, but there are others). McLeod comments on how the reaction Westerners have when they see these pictures:
“When Westerners see my photos they normally ask me if this is a gay festival and I laugh and say, sadly, no. It’s amazing to think just because men can express open affection towards each other through the way we would normally express it in heterosexuality, we conclude they are homosexual of which most of them are not.”
That type of behavior is something that is common amongst American Muslim guys, albeit with certain degree of uncomfortability, therefore, far more suppressed. My own perception of male norms arises from my American experience so the behavior, to a degree, made me uncomfortable and took longer to get used to.
For example guys slapping each other’s butts while wearing spandex pants, in the context of American Football it is completely acceptable (macho-straight) behavior, at Pride Parades and outside, not so much. Again I believe that Muslim countries (again, Pakistan leading the way), and amongst Muslims, “sexuality” is far more complicated (giving it flexibility) then the Western conceptions (simplification for the purposes of granting legal status, therefore constricting it?) of human sexuality.
There is a need for more discussion on this issue, beyond the simplification and cultural normative answers amongst Muslims. I believe we need a framework to better express the behavior. Here’s a great observation in an excerpt from @UCLAThinkers post:
It is easy to judge the ‘other,’ but an inward look at American sexuality leads me to believe that, while not always discussed openly, the culture in the Middle East provides greater flexibility of sexual identity than in the West. Westerners are still battling Victorian ideals like monogamy, sexual and gender stagnancy as well as a biased and elitist approach (whether you are on the left or right) to anyone the majority does not consider properly conformed to ‘our’ ways (read Muslims, Arabs).
For example, Mexican Machismo culture and its attendant societal problems, is not limited to the Mexican community, each community carries with it its ideas of male identity, place and status. Muslims have never had a reason to explicitly lay out masculinity and sexuality because for centuries they lived in homogeneous cultures where the norms were widely accepted and perpetuated. But as a minority and living in a multicultural, more globalizing world we need a critical analysis of this behavior, which is supported by scholarly discussions and academic research, potentially giving a framework to a paradigm outside of the Western construct.