Whether on TV, in movies, or out of the mouths of many a politician, stereotypes of Arab Muslim men abound: They are angry, violent, fanatical misogynists. The truth, however, is not so simple.
While reports of men sexually assaulting women in Tahrir Square and setting them up as human shields in Gaza deserve our attention, so does this: “Love comes as a result of marriage. Before marriage, you discover common areas, attraction develops. But when two people unite in marriage, they become more understanding of each other and love develops.”
This is a quote from Fuad, one of more than 330 men from 14 Arab countries I have interviewed over the course of 15 years, creating one of the largest data sets of in-depth life histories of Arab men ever assembled. Their personal stories paint a very different picture than the one we see on Homeland.
Most of the Arab men I spent time with seek love within marriage, viewing their wives as companions in sickness and in health. Arab men want children with those wives, not only to continue the family line, but for the sheer joy of parenthood. When reproductive problems arise, as they often do, men seek infertility testing, and also support their wives through expensive forms of treatment, even in the face of less understanding cultural and government roadblocks.
Take, for example, Hatem. This well-to-do Syrian farmer, who I interviewed in 2003, risked potential community ostracism by refusing to divorce his infertile wife, Huda, after 17 years of childless marriage. Instead, he secreted her over the Lebanese border six times for IVF treatments in a high-tech clinic in Beirut. When they failed to make a test-tube baby, Hatem purchased costly donor eggs for Huda, even though the Sunni Islamic clerical establishment officially prohibits donor eggs. As Hatem explained, “The love between us—I love her a lot. I was the one who considered going for IVF, for her sake. But we must keep it secret, and we just mention to our families that she’s receiving treatment.”
Hatem is not alone in his commitment to his wife. The hundreds of professions of love that I have recorded over the years—not only on the part of men, but from women speaking about their husbands—point to the deep marital and familial bonds that are part of Middle Eastern social life. Middle Eastern fathers love and care for their children, sons show life-long commitment to their mothers and sisters, and husbands feel romantic love for their wives, even within arranged marriages. These are emotional connections that are often taken for granted in the United States, of course, but in the face of such persistent and inaccurate caricatures of Arab men, the bonds are worth noting. These men are just like any other men: They love their wives, hope to have kids with them, and want the best for their families.
When Eyad, a Palestinian man, was forced to flee from a refugee camp at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s, he left behind his childhood sweetheart, Lubna, promising to marry her when the war was over. But the war raged on for 15 years, followed by 10 years of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. By the time Eyad was able to return to Lebanon in the new millennium, he and Lubna were already in their 40s. Eyad then married Lubna, the love of his life, hoping to have children not only with her, but for her.
Although there is no single word in the Arabic language for the human couple, the notion of hubb, or love, is one of the most important words in the Arabic lexicon. “Love” marriages, marrying “for love,” and falling “in love” within arranged marriage are the ways that most men described their conjugal relations to me. Indeed, new beliefs about the meaning of marriage—as romantic, committed, and companionate—are becoming the dominant form, and are helping to overturn Middle Eastern patriarchy across social classes.
This is, of course, a gradual process, but Arab men in the new millennium do not want to be viewed—nor do they view themselves—as uncaring, unfeeling, polygamous patriarchs. (Indeed, according to demographers, less than 5 percent of marriages are polygamous in the Middle East, with polygamy formally outlawed in both Morocco and Tunisia.) Today, the Middle East is rife with social change. But it’s not just the Arab Spring. Examples of what I’ll call “new Arab manhood” are everywhere. My research documents men’s desire to date their partners before marriage; men’s acceptance of condoms as a form of male birth control; men’s desires to live in nuclear family residences with just their wives and children; men’s encouragement of their daughters’ education; and men’s love and support of their infertile wives as they pursue in vitro fertilization. According to my study, new patterns of manhood can be found across social classes, within different Middle Eastern faith traditions, and among men from all regions of the Arab world.
What’s more, many men are now self-consciously critiquing forms of “Oriental” or “Eastern” manhood that they see as oppressive to women, even doing so publicly. Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, young men have taken to the streets and to their Facebook pages with signs in support of Arab women. Indeed, the Facebook page “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World” has attracted nearly 80,000 users, many of them men who state their reasons why “I am with the uprising of Arab women.” A typical pronouncement reads: “I am with the uprising of Arab women because I want my daughter to have the life my sisters and mother wanted but couldn’t get.”
Yes, there are still plenty of examples of patriarchy, violence, and oppression in the Middle East, most of it enacted by men. But these are often isolated examples that get outsized attention or are the product of government sanctioned misogyny. They are not, as my data set shows, representative of the entire Middle East, or of the personal feelings of most Arab men.
This news needs to spread. Many Arab men today are attempting to unseat patriarchy in their own marriages and family lives, just as they have attempted to unseat inhumane, dictatorial rulers. Instead of portraying and viewing Arab men as the unpredictably violent enemies of women—and of the United States—we need to realize that most young men who have taken to the streets during the Arab uprisings are there for a reason: to create more just and humane societies, including for and with their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters.
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