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The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ has become somewhat of a cliche in the Western world. As a go-to catchphrase, it has been used to represent the ostensible harms that traditional and normative masculine behaviour – often derided as ‘patriarchal’ – diffuses into society. A crucial aspect of this critique is that the harm generated by toxic masculinity falls not only onto the women and children against whom masculine behaviour is enacted, but also upon men acting out their very own gender roles.
The word ‘toxic’ is uniquely appropriate, as masculinity is conceived here as a virus, afflicting both its carriers and everyone they touch. This conceptualisation of masculinity prevalent within the modern West has been contrasted with the masculine norms present in the Arab world and wider Middle-East, which have been said to epitomise the ‘patriarchy’ and ‘toxicity’ so frequently castigated within Western discourse.
An article in The Economist entitled “The sorry state of Arab men” exemplifies this argument, which resembles an unstoppable assault against the traditional understanding of what it means to be a man. This would all be fine if masculinity had only one meaning or interpretation – but of course this is not the case. In reality, the Middle-East has always been a place of contestation between multiple masculinities, each a different articulation of generalised heroic principles. That’s not to say that toxic masculinity is absent in the Middle-East – rather that there are other stories that hold equal validity.
These are told and retold in stories of myth and religion, where their role in providing excitement and inspiration to children belies their true importance as behavioural templates that instruct men by endowing them with a proper mode of being. We will discuss two such templates, also called ‘archetypes’, to consider whether they really are toxic after all.
1. Warrior Masculinity
One of the most popular and enduring archetypes of masculinity is that of the warrior. All over the Western World, both boys and girls eagerly devour stories told through fiction and film of Hercules and his 12 Labours, or of Achilles and the Fall of Troy. Yet most would be surprised to hear that these stories, foundational to Western civilisation as they are, are paralleled by the story of the hero Rostam, which is best known through the version recorded in the Shâhnâme of Ferdowsi.
A central figure in the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition, Rostam (in the featured image), was a military general serving the ruler of Iran, whose incompetent rulership frequently results in Rostam being sent on suicide missions on behalf of the Kingdom. The tension felt between Rostam and the Shah is a prominent theme of the story, which emphasises the honour and nobility of his pious servitude in spite of the evident decadence of his ruler.
Every year, young children from countries such as Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran (to name but a few) gather to hear the story of Rostam’s arduous trials during his 7 Labours to save the Shah, and in doing so learn that masculine strength and prowess coexist in harmony with the duties of fealty and devotion that Rostam also exemplifies.
Through this story, young boys and men learn the responsibility that comes hand in hand with power – and in doing so are warned away from arrogance in favour of humility. Far from toxic, the Middle-Eastern archetype of warrior masculinity teaches men not to shy away from physical force and its appropriate use. Violence, however, is always the last resort to overcome an obstacle in pursuit of a noble goal, whether defending the weak or following one’s orders. Most importantly of all, ‘might makes right’ is a principle that runs completely counter to the ethos of the warrior, whose adherence to laws and social values is instead what bestows him with legitimacy.
2. Sacrificial Masculinity
Another important archetype found more frequently in religious than mythic tradition is that of the sacrificial hero. Uniquely, this story is found in all three of the major Abrahamic religions, but is articulated most explicitly in Christianity and Shi’a Islam.
In the episode known as the Binding of Isaac, this archetype can be seen in Abraham’s stoic acceptance of God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac. In the Christian tradition with which Westerners are best acquainted (though rarely to any great extent) this archetype is the centrepiece of the Christian story, which holds that the suffering and evil inherent in human existence has been justified and transcended through the crucifixion.
The willingness of Christ to be sacrificed, and of God to sacrifice, is emphasised as the act of a Creator who chooses not to rid the world of suffering, but to suffer alongside His creations. Emulating Christ means accepting the suffering intrinsic to human existence – even up until the inevitability of death – and striving forward regardless.
This story – where Abraham was eventually stopped by God from sacrificing his child – is also central to Sunni Islam. Although different characters are featured, the central message is present in all Middle-Eastern religious traditions, showing their centrality and cultural presence.
This archetype also plays a central role in Shi’a Islam in the form of Hossein, the grandson of Muhammad, the final Prophet of Islam. Hossein’s refusal to pledge allegiance to the colossal Umayyad Caliphate sparked a political crisis in the Arab World that resulted in Hossein and his party traveling to Iraq.
En route at the town of Karbala, Hossein’s caravan was intercepted by a massive Umayyad army, which gave only a day’s warning before commencing their attack. The decision by Hossein and his men to remain steadfast and pray rather than flee despite overwhelming odds is analogous to the choice made by Abraham and Christ; Hossein’s duty is not to himself nor to his own life, but to the principles of justice, jihad (strive in times of tribulation), and faith in God – even when this means being face by paying the ultimate price.
Every year, the drama of Hossein and his sacrifice is relived by Shi’a Muslims all over the world on the day of Ashura, when re-enactments of his death and the events leading up to it are carried out in public venues. The highly emotional scenes of Ashura (which often include the practice of flagellation considered controversial within Sunni Islam) are also deeply instructive; they tell young men that sometimes escaping problems is not the answer. As in the case of Christ, the lesson of Karbala is that the path to righteousness lies not in taking from others, but in giving all that one has.
What can these 2 archetypes tell Middle Eastern diaspora living in the West about what it means to be a man?
Firstly, they can arguably dispense with the shallow idea that there is just one ‘masculinity’, or that society teaches men to behave in accordance with a single ‘toxic’ template.
Secondly, they show us how even the core aspects of the toxic masculinity, such as violence, can actually be habilitated into a framework for positive behaviour.
The story of Rostam teaches us that, instead of being proudly harmless and arrogantly pacifistic, we should instead strive to be modest warriors, acting appropriately and respectful yet willing to manifest our physical strength if and when absolutely necessary in means of self-defence.
Finally, these archetypes show much of masculinity to be defined by one’s inward actions, rather than by external projections. The masculinity embodied in Christ and Hossein is one of noble sacrifice – of bearing the burden of death so that others might live.
In the Western context, this is the masculinity that inspired the men of the sinking Titanic to safely place women and children onto overcrowded lifeboats first while calmly staying on deck, smoking their final cigars and listening intently to the final requiem of the ship’s violins.
In the modern age, many appear to have forgotten that maleness can be positive, and are instead intent on seeing maleness as inherently predatory, harmful, or toxic. Yet masculinity in all its diverse forms – negative and positive – is very much alive in the Middle-East, from which the West may have some to learn.