See what I did there?
One of the lead editors at Stain’d Magazine saw fit to contact me, some weeks ago, and suggest that I contribute an item to their forthcoming study on masculinity. In addition to the usual, pathetic feeling of flattery accompanied by being asked to write something for another publication, my response was one of genuine excitement, as masculinity is something of a difficult topic to study; one which I have failed to adequately address for many years. Below are my latest efforts, such as they are:
First thing’s first: I am not a traditionally masculine dude. It’s just the truth! What’s more, it’s a truth that really plagued me for a while. Apart from the standard bullying of a kid built like chicken wire throughout the prime of his skinny ass youth — before tenth grade, I’d really have benefited from being weighed down on blustery days — yours truly got pegged for gay most of his life, and still do.
Bring it, ye of little taste.
As you’d expect, it made me very insecure, but also more empathic towards other people who I knew to be gay — so one good thing came out of it. What can I say, though? I’m slim-built and prefer to dress well. I was raised predominantly by my mother, who was very caring and supportive. I am not exactly an athlete, and of course, the cherry on top of my big, faux-gay cake is that I get along (in a way) with women. Let’s face it, I tick off a lot of the generalized boxes.
And that is very much okay, I hope you’ll agree.
What you just read was a brief, raw insight into my past, but more to the point, a rather less brief preface to my conceding that, to some, I’d perhaps not be considered much of an authority on the subject of masculinity, because I don’t really fit the bill for most recognized standards of said.
But — and here’s a real shocker, I know — you’re going to get my opinion anyway, because a) diversity of perspective is crucial; and b) as we’ve already established, I’m too busy riding this wave of ego from having been asked for writing to care about preconceived notions of the homophobic and small minded.
Besides, I’m still young, dumb and audacious enough to get away with shit like this.
So, where to begin (again)? It makes sense to start with my father, I suppose. Pops is an old fashioned guy, man. He grew up in a culture where masculinity is synonymous with supremacy, where entitlement and hubris are as ubiquitous as they are genetic. He was raised to be religious, and never got over the fact that his attempts to do so with me didn’t quite pan out.
Let’s see, what else? Akmal Mikhail is the youngest of four sons, born to a humble, hard-working Upper Egyptian farmer and an opinionated, no-nonsense Lower Egyptian housewife. He loves his kids more than he loves himself — way more. He was, is and will forever be prone to speaking his mind, irrespective of present or future consequences. Above all else, though, my father likes things the way that he likes them; and I guess he gets along with women, too (once more, in a way).
On the subject of women — this one he didn’t get along so well with — I already mentioned that my mother is to credit for more of the heavy lifting with respect to raising my sister and I. This wasn’t for a lack of effort on Pop’s part, nor certainly for any willful negligence. Mama always just played a more involved, insightful role when it came to parenting, not to mention the fact that she was simply around more.
Among the more reductive ways I try and sum it up is that most of the things about me which are beyond my control (e.g. temperament, stubbornness, ego, looks) I get from my father — sorry, man, but it’s true and you know it. On the other hand, a vast majority of things I’ve been taught, guided towards, instilled with (e.g. how to think, put things into words, how to consider and care for others) I owe wholly to my mother.
All of which I am all too thankful for, Mamacita — you and me against the world since 1991.
Aha! I knew I’d find a segue in there. Qualities I ascribe to a traditional sense of masculinity — ones like entitlement, aggression, closed-mindedness, etc. — are very transparently reflected in my father. Moreover, they are just as transparently reflected in the culture he grew up in; meaning that they are, by literal definition, enculturated.
Such being the case, they are harder to diagnose and treat, very akin to most failings you can’t change having been raised with. By way of example, the notion of waiting for your turn to speak in Arabic culture is either a) fucking nonexistent; or b) hidden away and neglected in some dark corner like a mentally ill relative.
Let me make it very plain that I love my parents, that they did a tremendous job of giving their kids a more happy and privileged life than they themselves or anyone else in our family ever had. Nonetheless, I grew up in a house where multiple languages were spoken, all at the same time, and all at very high volume. Moreover, the male opinion usually took precedence, even when the female one was clearly in the right.
God bless them, but there are members of the Mikhail family who I think sincerely believe that being louder than someone actually makes you wiser than them.
This is to say that, in the same way my sense of masculinity is ingrained in me, sexism is itself ingrained in all of us — and that includes women — meaning that any solution is contingent on exposing the root and analyzing it. In order to do so, I must abstain from reactions like entitlement, closed-mindedness, aggression, etc., in favor of striving to be more compassionate, empathic, and communicative. It’s not meant to be disparaging, but the fact is I have to abstain from being my dad.
What we can deduce is that your mother is always right — not really groundbreaking stuff.
Now, readers, I do not consider masculinity to be inherently negative, just as I don’t consider religious faith to be inherently negative. However, I do consider the incongruities and limitations inherent to religious faith (e.g. prejudice, subjugation, dogmatism, et. al.) which can absolutely be negative, and indeed often are. The same could be said of masculinity, one should note.
Fortunately, there exist fields of study like Theology, Philosophy, Anthropology, and other such schools of thought which challenge and analyze religious paradigms. Less fortunately, only one such school of thought exists challenging the paradigms of patriarchy, that of feminism — one widely and relentlessly discredited for reasons we men are too myopic to realize are objectively erroneous.
I’m starting to ramble, and can’t expect your attention span to be any better than mine, so here it is: I take pride in my sense of masculinity, however inaccessible or unconventional it may be. Similarly, I take pride in my father, however much of a stubborn, cocky, and slightly swarthier version of myself he may be.
Roughly translated, my favorite Arabic proverb reads: “The cub is born of the lion”. Albeit not the most indecipherable, it still resonates with me.
Yet in spite of that pride, I have to be candid and discerning when it comes to calling myself out — that means you too, Pop — on the same recycled patriarchal bullshit that is inextricably linked to conventional norms of masculinity. Remember this: no matter who your parents are or how you were raised, no form of sexism or misogyny is ever ultimately excusable.
No, I’m not the most traditionally masculine dude. I wear skinny jeans and choke up at movies, like to cook, shop and take the occasional bath with good company. Call me metro, queer or whatever is necessary for you to make sense of my deviation from gender roles. The fact remains I am more attuned — if not quite to the extent that I need to be — to my feminine side than most of my male peers, and proud of it.
Because at day’s end, the more effort I put into personal empathy and social justice for women as a gender, the more comfortable I get with possessing feminine qualities — basically, the more I’m like you, Mamacita — the more likely it is that I’ll become a better person. To wit, gentlemen, let’s maybe do away with what’s so direly obsolete. Let your lady flag fly, and I assure you won’t regret it.
Maria Elizabeth Weidmer-Mikhail & Akmal Alfons Mikhail [circa 1989]