This Ramadan, we are exploring and cultivating the tender masculinity embodied by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his followers over the past 1,400 years, with our 8-year-old son.
The seeds of this journey lie in a surprising birth. I was raised in California, in a family of strong Muslim women, and later worked for women and girls’ human rights in the United States and abroad. Close relationships with my mother, sisters and chosen sister-friends are the rivers that have carved the deepest canyons in my heart and soul. So of course, I assured myself, the child I carried would be a girl.
Instead, it was my son who arrived on a winter day in San Francisco in 2010. I held him in my arms and pondered this being – both known and unknown – whom I had no idea how to mother or raise into manhood.
“I don’t know anything about boys,” I wailed to my partner in the sodden weeks of recovery after the C-section birth, when everything felt insurmountable. American culture trains boys to be predatory and disconnected from their hearts and humanity. Even more daunting: raising a biracial Muslim son with all the racist stereotypes and fear that would be projected onto him as he grew into manhood.
It wasn’t until he was 9-weeks-old that I began to see him instead of my fears. The first word of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet was “Read!” I began reading everything I could about men and boys in America.
I also felt connected and indebted to my ancestors, realizing that they too, must have struggled to act from love instead of fear. I thought of my parents arriving fresh from medical school and marriage, from the green fields of Pakistani Punjab to the snows of Chicago, and all the wonder and insecurity they poured into me, their first child, born a couple of years later.
There were whole decades growing up during which I was confused or enraged by both white and South Asian Americans who told me that I had to choose between my American and Pakistani identities. It took me years to realize that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to imagine and fully embody my whole self; to claim both countries and swallow them whole. I was determined to give my son a joyful sense of himself – in which his multiple heritages are an adornment, not a confinement – and to be available to answer all his questions with the openness that I had longed for as a child.
For the first few years, helping my son stay connected to his heart seemed possible.
Then, after the third day of kindergarten, he informed me, “Boys don’t cry.”
Before I could respond, he followed up with, “What’s the F-word?”
I quailed at the thought of that crude word on his sweet baby lips.
“Is it ‘fat’?” he wondered.
I hoped he would forget. He didn’t. Instead, he asked a playmate. When he came to me, mournfully admitting that he had asked someone else, “because you wouldn’t tell me when I asked you,” I knew I could never abdicate my parental responsibility again, no matter how uncomfortable the subject matter might make me.
Of course, I would be tested in my resolve.
Recently, he became fixated on the word “pussycat” and then, as he often does, began playing with the word, eventually shortening it to the one made infamous by the current inhabitant of the White House.
Children are experts on their parents, reading our every micro-expression. I willed myself not to cringe, but he noticed and began shouting the word in glee. Finally, I told him that it wasn’t the best word around playmates and playgrounds. While delicately explaining the abbreviation he had stumbled upon, I mentioned that, in this culture, it was sometimes used to imply weakness in men and boys.
A few days later, he told me that he was his “real” self with us, but was afraid to show tenderness with other kids. He was afraid of being called “that word” and felt that he had to “be a tough guy” outside of the home.
“It’s okay to save our intimate self for those we trust and know,” I said, holding him close. “And, being kind to people is not a weakness. It just takes practice to build our courage to be our truest and best selves in public.”
“But, I don’t want to tell anyone how much I love our family!” he said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Whatever stories you choose to share when you’re older, let them be both true and kind, and reflective of who you truly are. That’s part of why we pray, you know. It’s important to be in touch with our hearts every day.”
We spoke for an hour. I mentioned role models like his father, male relatives and teachers, and our friends who are “uncles” to him – the men in his life who are tender and faithful, strong and brave. “I’m so happy you feel you can really open up to us, because it wasn’t always that way with our parents,” I said.
He looked scandalized.
“Sometimes, they were afraid of losing me to a culture they weren’t born into,” I explained. “Sometimes, my questions upset them. For most of my life, I wished I had a trusted elder. But, I know they loved me and did the best they could.”
Some of the most important conversations I am ever going to have will involve the soul, mind and body of my son. My task as a parent is to face these sacred moments – many of which will stretch me thin into discomfort and growth.
The Prophet said, “One who knows himself, knows his Creator.” Intimacy and love – of self, others and God – is the core of our human experience. And yet, as a culture, we hobble our boys from acknowledging, feeling or expressing emotions other than rage.
I know that unless my son – and yours – retain their humanity and whole hearts, they will not be able to see themselves as fully human, nor respect the full humanity of women and girls.
Later, I drew a picture of my 8-year-old as a Muslim knight and asked him which qualities he thinks he needs to live his truest life and best adventures.
He replied, “Kind, respectful, noble and loving.”