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Farha Ghannam on Masculinity in Egypt

February 25, 2014

Men make their own masculinity, but they do not make it as they please; they make it in social contexts, in dialogue with others, including women, and with the resources provided by their social and cultural circumstances, says Farha Ghannam in her new book, Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (Stanford, 2014).

Men make their own masculinity, but they do not make it as they please; they make it in social contexts, in dialogue with others, including women, and with the resources provided by their social and cultural circumstances, says Farha Ghannam in her new book, Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (Stanford, 2014).

What is it like to be a man in the Middle East?

Raising three daughters in Cairo, I spent a lot of time observing differences in child raising not only between between Egyptians and Americans, broadly conceived, but between various intersections of class, religion and sex. Some of my discoveries are articulated in the fourth and fifth chapters of Connected in Cairo.

Over and over again I heard boys and young men’s behavior regulated with admonitions like “Khalik gada!” (Be a man!). Ruguula, manhood, is a central life problematic.

With her new book Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (Stanford, 2014), Farha Ghannam has offered an extended ethnographic exploration of masculinity in the Middle East. It’s a wonderful, readable account that will become a standard work on gender in Egypt.

This book is important for a number of reasons, of which I’ll emphasize two:

First, the study of gender in the Middle East — as in most places– has been largely approached by focusing on women. While this work has helped counter many stereotypes of women as passive and powerless, it has had the unfortunate consequence of rendering masculinity unproblematic. Male becomes the “unmarked category,” the norm against which the female other is assessed.

Second, this woman-centered approach ignores the ways in which gender is mutually constructed. Both masculinity and femininity are shaped by general structures of patriarchy but the agents through which this structure shapes individual males and females in particular ways are people, and usually the people closest to you: it is not only fathers but mothers who make their sons men; brothers not only watch and watch over sisters, those sisters’ speech and actions help form the brother’s behavior in both broad and subtle ways (indeed, the very act of “watching over” a sister forces men to confront their own masculinities in various ways).

Farha Ghannam approaches this problem of masculinity in two ways.

First, she focuses on bodies. One of her central questions is how male bodies are managed, regulated, and shaped by class positions, social norms, religious discourses, and political processes.

In one chapter , for example, she describes a man who explains manhood through stories that

show his body as mediating his relationship with others. It is by working, moving, taking risks, fighting, rescuing, and protecting (especially women and children) that he asserts his agency as a man and materializes norms of courage, toughness, and fearlessness.

This is significant because many scholars (unintentionally) reproduce an ethnocentric Western cultural paradigm that equates women with bodies (especially, in the Middle East, disciplined bodies) and men with ideas (and, essentially, “culture”).

Second, she focuses on life trajectories, in this case, specifically “masculine trajectories” that neatly capture the dialectic between structure (in this case, the widely distributed and institutionally reinforced cultural notions about what it means to be a man) and agency (the capacity of men to improvise, revise, and shift course in response to the pressures and obstacles of life–not only unexpected life events like illness, but also shifts in wider social norms, economic activities, religious discourses, and political systems).

Masculinity, in Ghannam’s account, is an ongoing process of self-making that begins with birth and continues until death, and is shaped through responses to the challenging experiences of unemployment, low paying jobs, accidents, fights, political marginalization, corruption, and police brutality, marriage and fatherhood, death and mourning.

Self-making, for Ghannam, is always a social process. Men act, then their acts are interpreted by others. Those interpretations lead people to speak and act toward those men in particular ways, which further shapes the ways those men act in a kind of multiactor, recursive process stretching out over a lifetime.

Her focus is

this interplay between the doing and the judging, between the act and the meaning given to it, between bodily hexis and its interpretation, between recognition and misrecognition ….

Women are particularly important in the dialectical cultural processes through which a man creates his masculinity. Ghannam writes:

women are not merely an oppositional mirror against which masculine identifications are projected and redefined. Rather, mothers, sisters, and wives actively work to help their male relatives materialize the notion of the “real man” and contribute in important ways to their standing both in private and public. Through tracing changing relationships between men and women and closely looking at the husband-wife relationship, which is carefully monitored by other family members, I show that women’s instructions, criticisms, judgments, and moral and financial support are important part of the technologies that cultivate a masculine identity that is legitimized and recognized by others. It is thus through the interaction between men and women, not their separation or simple opposition, that gendered identifications are elaborated and reproduced.

There are a number of very different stories that capture segments of these life trajectories.

There’s the story of the first ten years of a little boy’s life, as he is charged with more and more errands and responsibilities, each being an occasion for a lesson in bravery, hard work, decency, and generosity, characteristics his family saw as part of becoming a proper man.  And there’s the story of a forty-year old single man attempting to find a wife

And there are deaths: an account of a thirty-year old man’s murder, to a man who dies while working overseas in Saudi Arabia, leaving stunned family to mourn (and restructure their family economy); and a sixty-two-year old man dying in Cairo after a long illness.

I’ve lectured for many years on gender, and on the dynamic between masculinities and femininities, to students long trained by media representations to conceive of Middle Eastern masculinities as a simple matter of patriarchal domination. There’s plenty of patriarchy in this book, but it is thickly contextualized in ways that should open the minds (and hearts) of those who read it, and lead to deep reflection on what it means to be a man, and why it is often so difficult.


 Ghannam, Farha. 2013. Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt. Stanford University Press.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dalia Mostafa Saez permalink
    February 27, 2014 3:41 am

    Very intriguing article, in fact timely and resonating with my PhD dissertation (Arabic) titled:

    “Manhood (masculinity) as a product of mothers’ socialization,” in which I render problematic:
    – the singular form in which masculinity in Egypt is presented, rather than multiple “masculinities”
    – conceptual consensus
    – globalizing the concept “masculinity”

    also drawing on men’s rights; Jungian holistic/spiritual integration of the “one” self; problematizing the fact that women are all the way oppressed, that they can be oppressors too; ……among other themes.

    Thank you for this excellent review
    Dalia (once your student:))

    • Mark permalink*
      March 13, 2014 2:29 am

      Hello, Dalia. How are you? And your family? It’s great to hear from you.

      I still have a copy of your MA thesis, but I fear my Arabic is not up to reading your dissertation. The themes seem very contemporary and on the mark. Where did you get your PhD?

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