modern muslim masculinity and
of Fariha = Twitter: @fariharoisin
you seen Zayn?” My friend, Sara, messaged me a few months
ago. It was the summer and I’d been on Tumblr, my newsfeed
virtually a photographic exploration of the ex-One Direction superstar.
I knew exactly what she was referencing: when Zayn walked past
the cameras at a Louis Vuitton show, sporting newly shaved platinum-blonde
hair and a silk floral shirt with a brocaded ‘Louis Vuitton’
stretched across his chest, like a banner. Before Zayn’s
departure from the monochromatic boyband lifestyle, he was a poster
boy for on trend. Now, all of the sudden, he was an eccentric.
Every action filled with a resoluteness that comes naturally with
mapping your own destiny. This Zayn, this handsome Gary Busey-esque
creature of well-timed defiance, conquered all questions of masculinity,
and its servile definitions.
abstraction of masculinity is that men must be macho, unfeeling;
devoid of emotional truth and honesty. Essentially, men who aren’t
real. Zayn is a new breed of male. Soft-spoken and mysterious,
with a gentle repose, Zayn is both a heartthrob and an idealist.
People tend to think that humans exist in binaries, but through
the ostensible oxymoron that is ‘Muslim pop star,’
Zayn is a new category in himself. He has feelings. He has emotions.
The world pushes men like him towards the patriarchy, towards
categorization -- ?but as a Muslim pop star, he exists outside
Zayn is a Softboy. Someone who is “Nice yet Complicated,”
according to Softboy luminary Alan Hanson. As a Pisces Moon, Zayn
is an emotional creature. The nuance of his unease is rooted in
an unabashed honesty. In April, he tweeted: “Wanna say thanks
to everyone that’s been there for me over the last few weeks,
love you all . . . you know who you are x.” In typical Softboy
fashion, he’s generous -- ?he bought his parent’s
house for them, and he funds his cousin’s private school
education. He prefers to call his fans “passionate”
as opposed to crazy; he knows the cost of impertinence. Zayn,
however, is also aware of his mistakes -- ?his penchant for alcohol,
girls -- ?but wants to make them anyway. The Softboy oscillates
between being kind-hearted and scathing. Earlier this year, he
tweeted about former friend and producer Naughty Boy: “You
fat joke, stop pretending we’re friends.” But we all
know that Softboy Zayn probably felt really bad after that.
men aren’t ever seen as docile. They are feared and vilified,
marginalized and taunted? -- ?and even if they are shy that’s
always characterized as something more nefarious. When the world
pictures Muslim men, they see beards and cloaked bodies, gangly,
dirt-smeared refugees. And they think: terrorists. Or at least
that’s what a Texas teacher thought this year when 14-year-old
Ahmed Mohammed was arrested for making a clock in school. His
teacher labeled it suspicious because of his name and ethnicity,
but Mohammed later explained that he made the clock to “impress
his teacher.” His innocence was misread as a threat. His
shyness and softness were seen as incongruent within the construct
of Muslim masculinity.
Google ‘Muslim boy’ there’s no accompanying
photo of Zayn being a shy kid at a British elementary school,
getting good grades, challenging stereotypes. These Muslim boys
turn into Muslim men; they are never shown to exist within the
appurtenance of innocence. So when Muslim pop stars publicly identify
as such, it proves that Islam? -- ?a religion that’s so
often been reduced to an exaggeration? -- ?has cultural value.
The very presence of Zayn, then, a British Muslim male superstar,
who has captured our hearts through his demure shyness, ruptures
the dichotomy of 'us' versus 'them,' because one of 'them' becomes
one that becomes an us still has to explain the actions of them?
-- ?or namely the violent, extremist ones. When Zayn tweeted “#FreePalestine”
late last year, he was confronted by death threats. The public
statement was innocent, but others didn’t read it as such.
And in a matter of seconds, Zayn’s honest thought was overridden
and dismissed by a pugnacious readership.
wasn’t the first time Zayn experienced this type of xenophobia
in his career. In 2012, after The Telegraph declared
that One Direction’s success hinged on the fact they were
“clean cut, wholesome, whiter-than-white,” (which
in itself is problematic), Zayn was accused of pimping Islam on
people’s children through “boy band Jihad” by
blogger Debbie Schlussel. In another stinging move, earlier this
year, Bill Maher gleefully joked about the supposed likeness between
him and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. To most,
these jokes are innocuous, but they are indicative of something
far more nefarious: the synecdochic treatment of a marginalized
people, a single person plucked to represent the entire group.
No matter their fame, Muslim men are treated as second-class citizens.
obvious that Zayn doesn’t want to be defined by his Muslim
leanings or his Softboy ideals; he just wants to be a person who
exists in his own impersonal limbo. He wants the chance to figure
himself out, outside of the world that had been shaped for him;
he wants “to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax
and have some private time out of the spotlight.” With his
residue of softness, there is an irrevocable desire for truth
and integrity: “I just need to be me now, because I’ve
leaving the group, Zayn drastically changed his hair? -- ?buzzed,
then lime green, platinum blond, representative of a diminutive
Amber Rose. In itself, this is a statement: he’s grappling
with the idea of finding himself and being true to what that means.
By not giving a fuck about his Muslim ideals or what the Western
world wants, he’s effectively declaring his validity as
a young Muslim man. I’ve also sometimes felt splintered
in two: I’m both a child of the West, and deeply rooted
in my Muslim and South Asian heritage. I’ve always wanted
to dictate how I live, by my own standards, never by what was
imposed on me. By the same token, I crave Islam; it’s in
my bones. The world sees Islam as incompatible with Western values,
but what if these two cultures colliding into a spectacular swirl
-- ?like a soft serve with two flavours -- ?is what best represents
Zayn and I?
very little about what he’s up to, or where he stands politically,
Zayn’s pushing off decolonization, and starting anew. Working
with mostly people of colour on his forthcoming solo album (Malay,
who is half-Asian, and who has worked with John Legend and Frank
Ocean, is producing the album) shows an interest to be true to
his definitions, to be a perfunctory role model by just being
himself. He’s separating his identity from the pallid whiteness
that previously bled out his other dimensions. His irreverence
of fame? -- ?his desire to be a person of his own design, no matter
what it costs him publicly -- ?feels resonant of something much
more vital: he’s carving a space for himself. He’s
reclaiming what it means to be Zayn Malik, and thus a Muslim man
of his own making.
search of personhood is tantamount to watching a quiet revolution.
Of self, yes, but that can hardly be dismissed when Muslim masculinity
is defined by ISIS soldiers beheading Western journalists. The
war on terror has been waged against men who look like Zayn. When
Western culture has institutionalized the erasure of men like
you, it is a sincere revolution to be yourself. This is when self-love?
-- ?as in being true to yourself -- ?is an act of resistance.
There is nothing hyperbolic about what he is doing; no exaggeration
of his impact. He’s simply being. Being in a world that
wants you to be a certain way, a way that he is not.
can’t be false-hearted, and although he’s only just
22, he represents the halcyon of an era that’s to come where
we respect Muslims to be, but also where we allow men to be charged
with emotionality. Men are taught to have egos, but never to truly
like themselves. Within his framework, you see Zayn trying, through
acceptance, to shift our perceptions of Muslim men, and even all
men. Softboy, or not.
I look at Zayn, I see my brothers in my faith who have been guilt-ridden,
traumatized, and blamed for actions outside of them. So when Zayn
shows off in public what’s done in private, he’s asking
for change. Muslims aren’t allowed that kind of transparency
-- ?they are not granted that same tolerance, either. There’s
a power in claiming the privilege exists outside of you; to act
badly, but to demand respect. The kind of respect your white peers
get so easily, without the same need to be perfect, or to behave
elegantly all the time. To subvert while complying, is an act
of resistance. To be gentle, when men like are you seen as anything
but? -- ?well, that’s change.