Growing up in a South Asian Muslim community as a girl, I’ve witnessed some of the most cringy and boorish displays of masculinity. The expectations placed on men by their families and cultures are overtly different than the expectations for women. Simply put, it is a fact universally known by young women in the South Asian culture that boys get away with troublesome behavior much easier than a girl can or ever will– moreover, the expectation for a man’s success is much lower than that for a women’s. Is he going to school? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he eating the food his mother prepares him? Wow, shabash, beta! Is he doing the bare minimum any decent human being would do, like saying thank you and greeting visitors? Wow, shabash, beta! Meanwhile, girls much work much harder to prove to our families and communities that we are serious about getting an education and being young professionals in America, and are often told over and over again that we are so lucky to have the opportunities that our male counterparts take for granted. I grew up knowing that I would have to work harder and fight longer to gain the respect that the men in my community already had. This archetype of the hard-working, idealized young woman and the dundering, wayward young man is constantly propagated in Muslim media, and though it is realistic, I honestly can’t help but feel annoyed and constrained by it.
Take The Big Sick for example, the famous rom-com by comedian Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani that took its ranks among Muslim-American media in 2017. The story follows Kumail, who has been perpetually lying to his parents about studying for the LSAT and does stand-up comedy professionally, when he meets Emily, falls in love, and persists at lying to both his girlfriend and his family about his dedication to either. Kumail is clearly torn between two worlds– the world of his “American” life (Emily, stand-up, his passions, etc)– and the world of his family and culture (complete with arranged marriage and expectations to be a lawyer). The movie acts as a clear sympathy-builder for Kumail in the sense that we pity his poor and constrained life circumstances– it seems like the one thing standing between him and all his dreams is his family, culture, religion, traditional expectations, etc. And I’m not saying that these aren’t very real problems faced by men in South Asian American communities– they are. But somehow, this movie subtly degrades two really important facts in favor of winning a “white” audience: 1) the value of culture, tradition, and family, and 2) the compounded problems of women in these communities.
There is one particular scene that I’m still so annoyed by: when Kumail is meeting potential brides by his family, one of the girls asks him if he would like to meet up again. He refuses honorably, saying, “I don’t deserve you.” If this is the case, then why don’t men in these communities work harder and do better rather than seize their privilege by the reins and go to town? And why don’t we, as responsible art makers and consumers, attempt to challenge these notions?
The archetype of the wayward Muslim boy is not only present in The Big Sick, but so much of Muslim media that is put out today. It’s the case in Fatima Farheen Mirza’s bestselling novel A Place For Us, where the male protagonist runs away from home and renounces his religion (to be fair, though, I love this book with all my heart– it’s a very mature grasp on the culture and people). It’s the case in Osamah Sami’s Australian-Iranian rom-com Ali’s Wedding, where a young man lies to his whole community about getting accepted into medical school. There’s a blatantly ignorant son in Wajahat Ali’s play The Domestic Crusaders to contrast his socially aware younger sister. The archetype is real and constantly a tool used by Muslim writers because it reflects some truth in Western Muslim cultures.
I know this is a niche worry in a small subset of American culture, but it’s really important nonetheless– we have to have characters that not only represent the wrongs of a particular society, but also characters that show us that we can do something right. I want to see men that care about their background. I want to see men that are socially aware of the faults and beauties of their culture. I want to see Muslim men and women and all people working together to make their communities places of success and joy in corners of the world that are not their own. I don’t want to constantly see the poor, dundering young Muslim man who feels so torn by his two worlds that he is pitifully forced to lie and hide who he is, while his sisters, who usually have much more grotesque expectations placed on them, slink in the shadows of their traditions. There have been great advancements in the literary field in making diverse art– now we need to curate and be mindful of how the archetypes affect American and American-Muslim people alike.