How to Hurt Like a Man
On growing up Muslim in America, worshipping an indistinct ideal of manhood.
I was an uncomfortably shy twelve-year-old, dealing with a stubborn new mustache, perpetually crooked glasses, and this growing feeling that — because of my religion and the way I looked in my brown skin, in my off-brand basketball shorts, with my wavy black hair, and my meek, cracking voice — I didn’t belong.
It was summer in Springfield, Illinois, and I was playing basketball with an older white boy who lived down the street, when he suddenly decided to say something about my mom.
The thing is though, on the court, with the ball in my hand, I always felt a little more confident, and a little more like a grown man — which, at that age, meant some combination of Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, and the prophet Muhammad.
There were even times when I felt so dominant dribbling across the lane that I would forget how uncool my off-brand shoes were or that my clothes smelled like ilish maas or whatever Bangladeshi torkari my mom was cooking that day. I’d let my arm linger in the air after a shot, and sometimes smile knowingly as the ball sailed over the other guy’s outstretched hand. Swish.
In those brief moments, I was the hero: strong, on top of the world.
This kid from my block, though, he was better than me. Not only was he a year older, but he was bigger, had post moves, and was more adept at trash talk. You’re weak. You shoot like a girl. And though I was used to this, today my game was off — and his insults were piercing.
“Why does your mom wear that thing on her head?” he asked with a smirk I can still picture nearly twenty years later. “I heard it’s because she has warts all over her face.”
I paused about fifteen feet from the basket, feeling the synthetic leather of the ball in my sweaty hands, staring at his sideways mouth, thinking about my ammu and her hijab. Thinking about the game I was losing. About how much I hated being on the outside of everything.
It was a silly, incoherent insult in retrospect, but as the rush of all my 12-year-old anxieties converged, I suddenly felt exposed.
So I threw the ball directly at his face — knocking him to the ground. He looked up and laughed. But for an instant, standing above him like that, I felt something like strength. I gave him the finger (probably the wrong one) and got on my bike to ride away, only to realize halfway down the block that we were playing in my driveway. I kept going anyway — overcome with anger, tears, embarrassment.
That was the entire extent of my first “fight,” but over time, it became something larger in my mind. Though white supremacists burnt down our city’s mosque two years earlier, and I had found a neo-Nazi newsletter on our doorstep once after that, it wasn’t until I felt the sting of that boy’s words that I began to understand exactly how different I was in this country.
But I never got in another fight. In seventh grade, when bullies held me upside down on the playground, called me “Apu,” and stole my lunch money (really), I didn’t hit anyone. On the bus back from a basketball game freshman year, when they thought it was funny to pull their pants down and sit on my face as I slept, I just woke up and pretended to laugh with them (and took two showers when I got home).
There instead developed this overwhelming feeling of otherness, one that wouldn’t coalesce until a few years later, when, on September 11th, teachers asked me to stand at the front of their classes and “explain what was going on.” And a few days after that, when some peers whispered “Osama” as I walked down the hallway.
But in that period after Al-Qaeda’s attack, as paranoia spread in the U.S., I still kept my own frustrations mostly inside, just below the surface when I was pulled over for looking “strangely” at a white cop, or when passing strangers would call me a “sand n — r.”
Despite my increasing awareness of the world’s imbalance, I was never quite angry enough to hurt another person. And I was lucky enough that I was never in a situation where my life was in immediate physical danger or where I felt I had to fight back to survive.
Because the truth is, it wasn’t my religion or the experience of racism that led me to knock down a boy on that summer’s day.
It’s true I looked up to Muhammad as a kid and even dreamt of becoming him, even if I knew that was impossible. And it’s also true that part of his appeal was the fact that he defeated his enemies in battle.
But the idea that I could feel powerful through aggression, that inflicting pain on someone — fighting — would prove my manhood and keep me safe above others, wasn’t a lesson learned from any single source. It was ubiquitous in the world I grew up in.
It was at the movies, where “action heroes” like Cruise were “good” white men who solved their problems through violence. It was on the news, where I learned we desire dominance in our “commander in chief,” more often than thoughtfulness. It was in how men were glorified in my local Bangladeshi community, where at dinner parties, they ate first and led prayer, as women prepared the meals and stood in the back. And yes, it was in my understanding of religion, where I learned at Sunday school that all the prophets — all the greatest of human beings — were men.
But it was also reflected in what I was reading at public school, where history was framed as this long, bloody battle between men — which was, of course, always won by the strongest, richest, and whitest ones. I couldn’t win that game, but I wanted to play it anyway. I could never change my skin color — but I could still be a man within my own communities. On the basketball court. At the mosque. In my family. A little hit of power was always within reach.
I’m not a Muslim anymore — I stopped believing over a decade ago — but I’ve thought a lot about that childhood “fight,” and the frustration I felt afterwards recently. As an angry young man walked into a church in Charleston to kill nine Black people last year, and as another one was sentenced to death for setting off a bomb in Boston, I recognized parts of my own story in theirs.
Not because of Islam, or because I sympathize with their horrific choices, but because I also grew up as a boy in this country.
Contrary to how we often talk about these incidents, and as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, I don’t think terrorism is a product of some supernatural “evil” or the result of some unknowable illness. Surely many social issues work together to produce the environments in which dangerous thinking flourishes, but there is a too-often unspoken link between men resorting to violence and the same everyday hypermasculine culture that’s made shooting virtual human beings one of America’s favorite pastimes, alongside the harassment of women online, and the celebration of misogyny in sports.
It’s a culture which all of us, to varying degrees, participate in.
It’s easier to avoid this truth about ourselves — to grab at branches instead of digging out the roots. That’s how I dealt with my own frustrations when I went to college in 2002. I didn’t just feel anger towards the white politicians and pundits on TV calling me names, but also the Muslim men around me who I felt weren’t good enough to prove them wrong. They drank alcohol. They talked about girls. They smoked too much hookah. They ate pepperoni pizza one time on accident. If I couldn’t be a part of white male culture, then I wanted to be the “best” Muslim possible — to both rebuke the criticisms coming from white America and to show everyone that I truly mattered. The more religious I could become, I decided, the more I could prove to both my community and George W. Bush that I was a real man.
Though I never lashed out again, I carried with me, for a long time, that feeling of exclusion, resentment, and belief that my self-worth was tied to my ability to control my surroundings.
Of course, it’s not possible to be that in control. And I was just as hypocritical as those I secretly condemned. I went to parties where I stood sober, simultaneously feeling like I was better than all the white people in the room and all the Muslims who weren’t cool enough to be invited. In my convoluted thinking, I was above both the “immoral” people who had sex before marriage, and the “backward” ones who thought being gay was a sin. I casually ogled women, while judging others for smoking weed.
It was an illogical mess, but all that mattered was that I felt superior — in some way, to someone. And actually, most often, those “someones” were women.
Among the chilling tweets on Dzhokar Tsaernaev’s Twitter feed in the days leading up to his attack in Boston, is one that reads “Gain knowledge, get women, acquire currency #livestrong.” What’s scary is that these sentiments wouldn’t be out of place on the timelines of many young men in the country today — or, for that matter, Donald Trump’s — and they’re not so different from the dreams I bought into growing up. In particular, I held that idea that you could prove your masculinity by “getting” women, whether through marriage, dating, sex, pornography, or simply talking about their bodies. And that the alternative — to not be able to seduce a woman, or to not want to — was the ultimate sign of weakness. To be un-manly.
So it feels relevant that though Dylann Roof specifically targeted a Black church in Charleston, and the Black churchgoers inside, he particularly expressed anger around losing control of women. Not only did he kill six Black women there, but he did so after accusing the Black men in the room of raping white women. His frustration was rooted in both a perceived loss of masculinity and his white supremacist beliefs. The two were inextricably linked in his mind.
Meanwhile, Tsaernaev seemed to buy into a similar American masculine dream — expressing admiration online for the products of white pop culture, like Eminem and Game of Thrones — while also realizing it wasn’t meant for a Muslim boy like him, creating a need for power which he seemingly thought could only be fulfilled by demeaning others and, ultimately, using extreme violence to do so.
Here and around the world, other disenfranchised men — in places pillaged by years of colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism — join terrorist organizations that portend to be about faith, but which almost universally use sexual violence and the subjugation of women as tools in their “holy” war.
The vast majority of us — Muslim, Christian, or otherwise — will never do anything as awful as an act of terror, but most men will use their power in society to casually degrade women in order to make themselves feel better.
We will whistle at women on the street or publicly “like” some gross meme on Facebook. Most straight men will at some point tease another man by comparing him to a woman, calling him a “pussy,” a “bitch,” or “gay” in order to mock some expression they read as feminine. We may not become Bill Cosby or Terry Richardson, people with long histories of sexual abuse, but many will still learn to use the threat of violence to hurt the women and girls around them — most often Black and indigenous women — and will casually maintain environments at work, at home, at places of worship, or within their friend circles, that are unwelcoming to anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight man, or who doesn’t worship toxic masculinity.
Meanwhile, most young boys in this country, seeing these behaviors reflected around them, will grow up thinking that degrading girls is a part of becoming a “man” — like I once did.
Which is also why that bully targeted my mom to get to me. She was a tool in his attempt to lift himself up. You shoot like a girl. And as a South Asian pre-teen, I not only already understood his insult as a challenge to my manhood, but also as a reminder that I was inherently inferior to him, weaker — and thus, more “feminine” — because of my skin color, ethnicity, and religion.
I reached for violence in that lonely moment because I felt it was the only way I could be strong again. Worth something. I acted not from a place of empathy for my mom, but more out of a need to impose myself in an environment that felt increasingly out of my control.
It took me many more years to realize, though, that I was struggling for acceptance into a club which you can never quite get into. Because no amount of power or bullying or sex could ever make me man enough.
The night I began questioning my faith, I was at a frat party at the University of Illinois. A few weeks earlier, my friend Andy* and I had tried to get into a similar event, but when we got to the steps of the fraternity, after waiting in line for a bit, a row of drunk white men— red cups in hand, popped collars on their polo shirts — wouldn’t let us through their makeshift gate. It was just a piece of string, tied between two sticks in the grass. Andy, who is Black, moved to walk past them, and one said plainly, “We’re full.” Of course, staring across the littered green lawn, people stumbling out to our right and left, we knew it was a lie.
Andy understood what it meant before I did, actually. It took me a while, walking back to our dorms, enveloped by the empty night, to begin to feel that familiar anger rising inside me.
But now here I was, weeks later, inside the party that didn’t want me. And as I looked around, I could see that I was one of the few people of color in a room filled mostly with men. Why did I want to be here? Was it wrong to want to be here? Was I looking to impress some women? Or did I come for another rush of judgmental power?
To be honest, being inside felt a lot like being left out. In either case, I was reminded of everything that made me different. And Islam, unlike so many times before, could not provide me any comfort.
Because so much of my belief system was predicated on this same pursuit of superiority. In a world where I often felt othered, I would find solace in a religion where I always felt stronger than white men — where I had more faith than them, more resolve than them, more access to god’s blessings. And, at the very least, where I was always better than women.
It was that shield of arrogance and guilt though, the one that made me reach for power over men, which also produced the hypocrisy of wanting to shame women, while expecting something in return: If I follow the rules, if I’m pious, they should want me. I deserve to be wanted.
Of course, it was this entitlement which had prevented me from ever truly connecting with anyone. It took me years to understand why Andy stopped wanting to go to those events (and why, as a Black Muslim, he didn’t always have a place at our mosque either). I left that party alone — depressed — and walked home, the crisp air stinging me through my own yellow polo shirt.
Ultimately, as much as I didn’t want to be those white dudes with their hands on the gate, I didn’t want to be one of the righteous men who told me to find power in the sky either. I hated being bullied by white men, but didn’t love myself either — because in my judgements of others, in the way I viewed women, I was a bully too.
My story isn’t universal, or unique to Islam. But for me personally, starting at that fraternity house, religion started to look and feel a lot like the same manly competition I’d been losing my entire life.
So my faith fell away like sand, through months and years of questioning. The arrogance stuck around though, as I struggled to understand that though a majority of my friends were women, I had never extended them the same empathy which I sought from the white men around me.
Yet nearly all the conversations which pushed me further towards myself, away from depression and that desperate need for the validation of men, were happening with brilliant women. I studied philosophy, but had only one professor who wasn’t a man, and she was the first one who taught us a book not written by a man (The Second Sex). My best friends were women who pushed me daily to live with more intention, and my favorite english professor was a woman who taught me that “Chick Lit” could speak to me more than Wordsworth.
Unlike at my often gender-segregated local mosque, or at hypermasculine college parties, with certain women, in my books and in real life, I could talk about love, I could go dancing, and I could cry. Real freedom was in finding this space where manliness, being dominant, was just background noise. In its own way, studying feminism gave me a new faith in people — including men. Understanding the history of systematic gender oppression allowed me to address my guilt, and seek out those who felt the same. It was only in that context that I could start to see how much effort I had been putting into trying to be a man. And that in this pursuit of perfect white masculinity, I had not only subjugated others — I had been tearing away at my own heart.
Today, even though I can critique the representation of gender in the Qu’ran and how it is sometimes used to prop up patriarchal societies, I don’t support these men who vilify Muslims. Not just because my entire family is Muslim, or because I know that violence is not an Islamic invention. It’s that I can’t justify making anyone feel like they are less than me simply because of their faith or appearance, because I have long seen and felt what harm that does to a person.
Yet in their criticisms of Muslims, men like Donald Trump do precisely that — they bully — often replicating the same fearful language of hypermasculinity which creates oppression in the first place. In fact, many influential people do this, in every political party, at every level of American public discourse.
On the evening of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, for instance, liberal Bill Maher appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live to call the United States a “pussy nation” for their hesitancy in condemning Islam. At other times, he has criticized Hamas by comparing them to a “crazy woman,” and he consistently uses racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic insults in his comedy. All while portraying terrorism as a problem for the Black and brown foreign men who practice Islam (ignoring the many non-Muslims who commit terrorist acts here and abroad, not to mention the millions of Americans — of all races— who are Muslim).
Maher criticizes Republicans who spew hate, positioning himself as opposed to Trump, yet FOX News commentators echo his words, calling President Obama a “pussy” because of his perceived lack of decisiveness in responding to terror attacks.
By using demeaning gendered language that increases xenophobia, men like Trump and Maher keep themselves at the very top of the oppressive system they claim to want to fix. Their fear-based critiques do not actually reduce violence in the world, because they dismiss women and intend to push already marginalized groups further down.
Which is why, again, in their Islamophobic responses to terrorist attacks, or the ways in which Trump dismisses Mexicans, I also see parts of my own story. Not because I am a non-Muslim, or because I sympathize with these views, but because I have also struggled with this desire to prove my manhood constantly.
In July of last year, I read a New York Times op-ed exploring the motivations for mass shootings, where the author concluded that “what makes someone seek solace in a spasm of bloodshed is perhaps unknowable.”
The piece, which is filled exclusively with examples of mass shootings by men (nearly all of whom are white), makes no direct reference to either race or gender, while it investigates mental illness, gun laws, and other possible causes of terrorism.
Solace in a spasm of bloodshed. I’m not sure that’s right either. Or at least it seems to me to be less about the blood, and more about the spasm. The expression of anger itself. The loss of control, as a way to demand control. We can hear that in the words of Roof in Charleston, Tsaernaev in Boston.
Wasn’t George Zimmerman also looking for some comfort, some fulfillment of his worldview, when he erupted to kill Trayvon Martin? Don’t suicide bombers, or those who make videos of beheadings, seek the acknowledgment of their eternal “manliness” as well? The fraternity brothers who used racism to push my friend and I away, didn’t they also seek “solace” in a kind of dominance?
And each time I have been a bully myself –- reducing a woman to a thing, or laughing along with some racist joke –- didn’t I want to be reassured that I mattered somehow, too?
Human actions are always tangled within the many social systems we live in. And without the broad view, we stagnate. We stay put in the same culture of frightening machismo that manifested on September 11th, in the colonialist wars that followed, and which persists today, in schools like the one where a police officer shamed a Black Muslim teenager for building a clock — or at Trump’s raucous speaking engagements.
Yet, in order to zoom out on the issue, we have to be willing to include ourselves in the frame. We have to be willing to challenge all the men we hold dear.
As bell hooks writes in The Will To Change, “To be true to patriarchy we are all taught that we must keep men’s secrets.” This means we often pretend not to know that masculinity has been fundamentally linked to violence and disconnection in our own lives. And we allow our institutions to be built upon this silence. What hooks calls our “cultural collusion with patriarchy.”
I left Islam because I stopped believing in god, but also because I felt isolated by the idealization of men that I saw in my religious community. Yet, the truth is, I’ve never been able to escape that worship of toxic masculinity. Because it is everywhere, and it still lingers in me.
Answers, then, come from listening to women like hooks. It’s not that women can’t perpetuate oppression— they certainly can, as many feminists have written about before — but since my understanding of masculinity is so tied up with feelings of entitlement, it’s illuminating to hear the perspectives of those with a different kind of socialization. This especially includes Muslim women, Black women, indigenous women, and other women of color. People like Kimberle Crenshaw, whose words taught me that patriarchy can’t be dismantled separately from white supremacy, colonialism, or capitalism. Or the queer women who started and built the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and created a more effective challenge to terrorism than any of the presidential candidates, or any presidential drone strike, has ever produced.
For Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to declare, in this country, that their lives have as much value as anyone else’s, is a fundamental affront to the same hierarchical system which put that white boy above me on the basketball court — the same one which encouraged me to demean anyone who wasn’t a straight man.
Because it should matter that nearly all mass shooters in this country are men, and that they are largely straight cisgender white men. It should matter that there are many violent men in predominantly Muslim countries, but that they fight within a global economy ruled by white men. Because, what is too often left unsaid on cable networks or in mainstream political debates, is that terrorism — like police brutality and rape culture — is never the result of any single structure of oppression. And that women worldwide, especially poor, trans, and disabled women of color, are always suffering the most as a result.
When I peer into the lives of the American men who terrorize us, or the uniformed men who keep murdering Black people out of fear, or the men of ISIS who rape women in order to enforce their “moral” code — or those macho men who indiscriminately hate Muslims — I see the same messages around power, race, and gender converging as they once did in me, amplifying that ever-present desire for dominance.
I will always have to face the roots and remnants of this in myself. As will anyone who was raised to be a man, or to believe that there is a single definition of manhood. President Obama is no exception. Neither are the Pope and his Catholic boys club. Any man who claims that they’re not struggling, on some level, is struggling — hurting — at that very moment.
Because the very nature of this struggle is this need to prove that masculinity exists at all. That it is something more than the absence of femininity. That it is something more than the urge to push down.
Yet rather than continuing to spend our energy acting out of this insecurity, we might direct ourselves towards building a society which views women of color like my mom with as much empathy as me. And one that discourages, rather than encourages, the actions of white men who bully.
*Name changed to respect the privacy of the individual