Gender, Islam in Europe, Research Metodology

The Karameh of Being Man


I am sitting in the corner of the mosque, reading an old and torn Muslim educational book on the perfect Muslim family. Surely, it seems that this pamphlet has been read and re-read by almost all the male members of the congregation—women pray in the other room—while waiting for the call for prayer. We know that family is at the centre of Muslim life, and husband and wife relationships are clearly defined. The Qur’an reminds both spouses,

And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquillity with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are signs for those who reflect’ (Q 30:20)

I was sitting there when Abdul, a Muslim man in his forties, joined me. Like a contortionist, he moved his head around the pamphlet I was holding to try to read the title. I passed it to him. ‘Uhmm—he mumbled—if we were real Muslims, we would have Al-Janna (paradise) in our homes. We should jihad to achieve what Allah has asked us as husband and wife.’ Abdul had a very depressed expression on his face.

‘Yeah—I reply—I know, domestic abuse against women is an issue everywhere in this region, not only among Muslims.’ I immediately understood that I had just said something wrong. Abdul looked at me with a suspicious half-smile, ‘Women, women, women, why you anthropologists only speak of women. What about men?’

‘Well—I try to retort—I have met some of our sisters who have been abused by their male relatives, but I have never met a brother beaten by his wife.’

Abdul replied ‘Because we, the men, have to have Karameh [dignity, respect].’ My western stereotypes forced me to be sceptical of this revelation. Yet Abdul, a very good informant, a real ‘gatekeeper’, decided to shred with evidence my feminist induced Maya-veil.

Soon after this conversation came Friday. Abdul tries to squish between two other brothers, so he could speak to me. ‘Jibril, do you see that bro setting in the second row on the left? Well when the prayer is finished look at his face, and then we speak again.’ I was very curious to know why I had to scrutinise that man’s face. Nontheless, when the prayer had finished, I repositioned myself near the door, so that I could easily glimpse the man’s face. He passed on my right, and I was able to see very well his bruised face and neck. He had fought. Something not so uncommon for a young man—I thought. Abdul reached me and impatiently asked ‘So, bro, what have you seen?’ ‘He had a fight, obviously—I replied’. ‘No, he didn’t—said Abdul.’ Only at that point, I recalled the exchange I had with Abdul some days before. I had not time to ask Abdul anything before he whispered, ‘It has been his wife with her shoe; she beats him quite regularly, but he cannot divorce her, for different reasons which are linked to his village [in his homeland]. Yet he cannot even tell anybody, leave aside the police, because the others would laugh at him.’ Abdul knew Aziz very well, they came from the same village, attended school together, both of them were shi’a Muslims; I hoped that Abdul could arrange a meeting with Aziz. Some days later, I received a phone call. Abdul had convinced Aziz to meet me. I have to admit that the meeting was very emotional and distressful. Aziz was a victim without even the advantages of being one. He was a man trapped, and marked with bruises.

Much time has passed since I met Aziz and his “atypical” story of domestic abuse. Yet something similar happened recently and involved me directly. Scotland, where I live and teach, is a land of beautiful lochs, plentiful livestock, famous Scotch whiskey, few people, and even fewer North Sea oil barrels; but high domestic abuse.

A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Frank, was suffering a family breakdown. One night his wife confronted him first with verbal abuse and then with physical violence. She savagely batters him around the head, while Frank attempts to escape from his flat. Yet the vicious attack continues and now Frank is on the floor and loses his mobile. She tries to smash it. Frank cannot reach the mobile; the shoes of his wife reach his hand. Frank screams for help; nobody comes to his aid. Miraculously, he is able to open the door of the flat and escape. He reaches his nearby office and locks himself inside. After a while, he becomes aware that somebody is behind the door. ‘Open the door, open the door!’ The voice asks—his wife. Frank fears for his life. Yet he does not call the police. ‘I did not want to create a scandal, I mean, I want to preserve my dignity’—he would confess later.

He asked the wife to go back home. She agrees. But Frank tries his wife’s mobile phone and hears it ring from behind the door. ‘Another ambush? Does she want to kill me? Could she have grasped a knife from the kitchen?’ Terror. After a between-door conversation and after Frank threatens to call the police, his wife goes back home and, as directed by Frank, turns on the TV; Frank from his phone can hear the Ten O’clock News; the office door is free. Frank’s mobile rings and rings, and the monotone voice of his wife—a voice which Frank would later say was reminiscent of horror movies—continues reading her dairy, page by page. Yet this is not Hollywood, it is real life. Frank escapes from the office in the middle of the night. Men fear too, men cry too, men feel desperation too, they are human beings just as women are. Yet they are persecuted by Karameh, honour. ‘Be a man!’ is the mother’s reply to the scratched-knee son. ‘Be a man!’— Karameh in western salsa.

Finally Frank would find a hotel for his first night alone. Frank is without a home, scared as he has never been, with painful bruises, and, because of the blow to his head, a difficulty in speaking. Frank is traumatised; yes, abused as Aziz, and 2000 other men in Scotland. Frank would move from hotel to hotel for two weeks, sometimes sleeping in his office to save money, before finally finding a new flat. During this nightmare, he continues to attend his job; nobody notices anything. ‘Being a man, do not cry’— again Karameh.

When the day after the assault Frank visited his physician’s surgery, in the waiting room he saw beautiful posters of governmental campaigns, full of smiles and nice ladies. One of the posters advertises: ‘Are you victim of domestic abuse? Phone our helpline.’

The fact that in the poster there is only a woman leaves Frank with few hopes. His physician suggests finding a good lawyer since other men who suffer domestic abuse are often accused of being the aggressors instead of the victims. Frank decides to try one of the helplines, hoping for at least a refuge which could save him another expensive night in a hotel. The helpline is not for men: ‘Sorry, but men do not suffer domestic abuse, they commit it.’

Frank’s story is probably more dramatic than Aziz’s because I have followed it day by day. Yet Aziz is still suffering the aggression of his probably mentally ill wife. I wonder how long Aziz could resist before one day resorting to domestic abuse himself or even worse. Probably newspapers would describe it as an ‘honour killing’-Karameh again. However, if you believe that Frank had met the wrong feminist receptionist on the other side of the line you can read the research document provided by the Scottish executive, of which below I report part of the conclusions:

Neither abused men’s nor service providers’ responses suggested that there is presently a need for an agency whose specific remit is to support male victims of domestic abuse in Scotland. Neither does there currently appear to be a need for refuges for abused men, although some male victims would benefit from support and advice regarding housing.

Feminist theories have strongly influenced social scientific research. Although they address previously overlooked issues, traditional feminists have ended up essentializing and transforming Muslim women into eternal victims and Muslim men into eternal aggressors. But the issue goes beyond Muslim men or non-Muslims. Years of an often uncritical feminism within social science have produced a dynamic —probably unwanted—for which ‘gender’ has come to mean only ‘feminine’. This is particularly true in gender studies focusing on the Muslim world. Only recently, the masculine element of gender in Islam has been rediscovered. Yet even in this book, the issue of domestic abuse against Muslim men has been overlooked.

In my book Jihad Beyond Islam (Chapter 7), I have emphasised the importance of seeing gender not only through culture, but also through emotions, feelings and our shared sense of being human. Cultural, social, and ideological aspects affect violence, but so do—though many anthropologists prefer to overlook it—our human bio-neurological characteristics. Women, Muslims or non-Muslims, are capable of domestic abuse. Men can be victims of women (as caricatured in the pictures of future mother Lynndie England.

Thus, this means we need to free our research on gender relationships of certain feminist culturalist stereotypes and see first the human being, then the man or the woman. Today, I was pleased to see the results of new research conducted by Professor Murray Straus on this issue. It has shocked many, but not me.

Gabriele Marranci

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