I read the following excerpt this morning in Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism by Haideh Moghissi (1999) and was left speechless:
In Islamic societies, the woman’s body generates fascination and pleasure. It is exploited for procreation, and as a symbol of communal dignity. It is manipulated and its activities are codified. It is covered and confined. It is disciplined for defiance and is mutilated in anticipation of trespassing – all this often sanctioned legally and, particularly, culturally. The female body is the state of struggle between the proponents and opponents of modernity and is used as a playing card between imperial and anti-imperial political forces. In Islamic societies, sexuality, the site of love, desire, sexual fulfillment and physical procreation, is, at the same time, for women, the site of shame, confinement, anxiety, compulsion. ‘With the first drop of her menstrual blood, every Muslim girl becomes a temple of her family’s honor.’ Woman’s expression of her desires and the pursuit of her interests contradicts the interests of man and challenges man’s God-given rights over woman. Underpinning the sexual and moral beliefs and practices in Islamic societies is the conception of woman as weak in moral judgment and deficient in cognitive capacity, yet sexually forceful and irresistibly seductive. The susceptibility of women to corruption, in this view, explains the obsession with sexual purity in Islamic cultures and justifies surveillance of women by family, community and state.
Managed independent of her desire and will, sexuality for women becomes the legal possession of Islamic community, umma, and, by extension, of the state. Laws pertaining to marriage and divorce speak clearly of women’s disabilities in enjoying full legal status. The marriage contract and the termination of it, divorce, are negotiated between the state and male citizens, that is, father in the case of marriage, and husband in the case of divorce. Young virgin women, according to the Islamic Shari’a, need the permission of their fathers or guardians to enter a marriage contract; fathers can legally marry off their under-age daughters for a set price, mahr; and a man can end the marriage contract without the consent or even the knowledge of his wife. The diverging interpretations of Qur’anic rulings and various legal traditions and reforms launched in Islamic societies in the area of personal status have done little to remove women’s legal disabilities in marriage and divorce.
Islam opposes celibacy and celebrates sexual pleasure as a legitimate right of the believer. Sex in itself is regarded as a sacred function within the domestic field… The promises made to the believer of the ‘good life’ awaiting him in Paradise, a space in which sexual indulgence with ‘eternally young’, ‘fair’ and ‘wide-eyed’ women seems to be man’s only activity, can, perhaps, expose what constituted ultimate happiness for the Muslim believer (Sabbah, 1988:91-7). Eternally lasting physical pleasure and unrestricted access to the female body as the source of physical pleasure would be delivered to the believing man in Paradise as rewards for his piety, good deeds and self-control in life. Decoding Islamic Paradise, Fatna Sabah, suggests that the Paradisal female model, the huri, represents the ideal female and, at the same time, the ideal society for the Muslim believer. The huri ‘is created to be consumed as a sexual partner, her value comes from her physical beauty, which God gives as a gift to the believer’. She is passive and is stripped of the human dimension. ‘She has been created for one sole destiny: to be consumed by the male believer.’ Given the fact that religious instructions in Islamic societies are at the same time state legislation, this concept of sexuality has specific legal consequences for women.
While approving of sexual pleasure, the Islamic orthodox view develops, at the same time, a justification for sexual hierarchy, with women as sexual objects at the service of men. The Qur’an makes men ‘the managers of the affairs of women’, requiring righteous women to be ‘obedient, guarding the secret for God’s guarding’, and reveal not their adornment…save to their husbands’. The sure outcome of this palpable sexual hierarchy, incorporated into family laws in Islamic societies, is that woman’s very existence is serving men, sexually and emotionally. Women are‘tillage’ for the male believer, to go to when he wishes. If a wife refuses her husband’s sexual demands, she is to be punished.
Moghissi is an articulate feminist and the issues she discusses in her book, particularly in this passage, are some that I have thought about for a long time in various ways. I was quite surprised to see a Muslim, a woman, acquiring an unsympathetic tone and literally ripping apart the Islamic doctrine related to the female gender. Her tone is honest even if harsh and you can sense the condemnation she feels for the huri, for being called a ’tilth’ and for being treated like a ‘temple of her family’s honor.’
However, like many other feminists who are Muslim and therefore who don’t know how else to understand these concepts that exist in Quran and Hadith, she calls these problems as issuing from fundamentalism.
My questions to you are:
- How do you, Muslim women and men who are feminists, feel about this passage that I have quoted?
- How do you feel about the ‘insinuation’ (through various verses) that women are primarily made for sex?
- And how do you understand such insinuations for yourself? Do you, like Moghissi, blame patriarchy, ancient culture or fundamentalism? Or do you think that is how nature is – women are created for sex?