The Problem of Men by Merryl Wyn Davies

To paraphrase the classic pop song: men — what are they good for? Currently a consensus appears to be forming around the song’s repost — absolutely nothing! In which case it may be necessary to issue the time-honoured alert to ground control: Houston, humanity has a problem.

Our age it seems, at least in western societies, has little use for men; it is the era in which anything men can do women can and should do. Old ideas of manual labour conjuring visions of heads of households who are strong horny-handed sons of toil venturing forth as breadwinners is passé. Women have been liberated from the drudgery of housework and released into the wild open spaces of employment. They have been uncoupled from reliance on men for financial support while contraception has given them control of their reproductive options making them even more independent. Indeed, advances in the technology of reproduction have created so many options – donor sperm, in vitro fertilisation, surrogate pregnancy, with anonymity at each stage along the way, that a newborn can be delivered to a mother without any of the messy transitional stages requiring the forming of human relationships. When mother and child become the basic unit of society supported by a system of entitlements to state benefits – who needs fathers? The consequence of these immense social changes is a crisis of masculinity, a problem of men. 

Muslim discourse is so mired in the intractable conventions of debate on the problem of women that it hardly knows how to address the reality of the lives of real women or men. Yet Muslims are not immune to the predicaments of the society or the planet on which they live. There are growing numbers of single Muslim mothers in all our states and nations; family breakdown, domestic violence, inter-generational tensions are the norm everywhere. The perverse self-image foisted on Muslim men and women that incarnates female temptresses and requires exclusionary avoidance as the only answer demonstrates the inability of traditionalist strictures to fit young people facing such problems. These are the kind of issues nice Muslim gatherings and organisations sidestep with diplomatic silence while they concentrate on broadcasting idealised abstractions. The abstractions insist we have all the answers while they are patently failing to materialise in the lives lived in our communities. 

There are, of course, caveats to all aspects of these discussions. Those who raise the problem of men are not without a political agenda. When, for example, Labour MP Diane Abbott raised the issue of ‘Britain’s Crisis of Masculinity’ in a speech to the Demos think tank (16 May 2013), one could be forgiven for remembering that the Labour Party is conscious of its problems with white working class male voters. Those sons of toil that once were the bedrock of its support have been evaporating as a secure voting block since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Such considerations, however, do not obviate the issue of widespread underachievement, poverty of ambition, hopelessness, frustration and all its consequent social ills which a recent report by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) has now shown is more severe among white boys than any other section of British society. 

Also in Britain, the Centre for Social Justice has reported that the rise in single parenting, predominantly featuring single mother heads of households, is the greatest engine of child poverty and a signal of social dysfunction. Advocates for single mothers responded defiantly that poverty was the issue, not the lack of fathers. Society has become more complex and the idea that only the presence of a father could set children on a secure path to becoming well adjusted and successful adults, despite statistics, was no causative factor, demeaning to single mothers as a class and blind to the diversity of human ingenuity and ability to survive. The lack, or otherwise, of male role models is a matter of individual personal circumstance, not a matter for social engineering by a nanny state. 

When the Muslim Institute decided to reverse the usual terms of address and debate ‘Men in Islam’ at its Winter Gathering in December 2012, there was much trepidation on the part of the male participants: it would merely be an excuse for another onslaught of demonisation from monstrous regiments of women. While female participants rightly and righteously objected to the way being women is debated as the eternal existential problem of Muslim society, in the end the discussion fell back on familiar ground, bemoaning of the fate of women. 

Male participants ended up pleading for understanding of the social dilemmas faced by Muslim men: stereotyped, demeaned, undervalued, regarded with fear as a potential global threat, they were now being told they could not even look for reassurance and status in their own homes. How could we raise generations of men able to withstand the pressures wider society placed upon them if they had no bastion of strength to rely upon? By general consensus the Gathering became convinced we had a subject category – ‘men in Islam’ – but no way to refine or describe the issues or debate the nature of its problems let alone consider solutions. 

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