I finished reading another article today – Challenging the myth of the happy celibate: Muslim women negotiating contemporary relationships by Alia Imtoual & Shakira Hussein. Published: 31 January 2009.
The authors describe the typical scenario of minority Muslims in Australia (and largely other Western countries as well) in which there is a strong need to keep unmarried women celibate. Intoual and Hussein argue that Muslims have this notion that anyone seeking sex before marriage is not morally and intellectually mature. “However this negates the position of women who are well past their teens, intellectually and morally mature, unable to locate a suitable marriage partner, and who have strong (unfulfilled) sexual desires. There is no relevant discourse circulating in Muslim communities in the west to cope with this reality. Muslim women are thus taught to endlessly deny and repress their adult sexuality if they are without the presence of a husband.”
Their research shows that there are several difficulties in finding a suitable marriage partner for many Muslim women in minority Muslim communities mean which means that “their adulthood (is) defined by discourses about celibacy during a time in their lives when traditionally Islamic discourses would be encouraging them to explore their sexual identities within the context of married life. While Muslim men notionally face a similar dilemma, communities tend to be far more accepting of Muslim men ‘sowing their wild oats’ before marriage, and tend to assume that a man over a certain age will be sexually experienced, whether or not he is married.”
The authors explain that supposed differences between ‘Western’ and Muslim sexual norms emerged as an important marker of identity during colonial rule. Both Orientalist discourses and their Occidentalist responses position the ‘self’ as sexually appropriate and the ‘other’ as sexually deviant. This gave rise to minority Muslim communities to imagine themselves as sexually appropriate in the West while the Western women being sexually deviant. The major reason for not being able to find suitable marriage partners is given as
the tendency for first-generation migrants to ‘freeze’ their personal values at the moment of migration. Anxious that their children should have a sense of cultural identity that is distinct from that of the new society (often perceived as degenerate and threatening), parents attempt to inculcate their offspring with a loyalty to their ‘own’ moral code. While the version of the ‘old’ country transmitted to second-generation migrations remains fixed in time, the ‘old’ country itself has inevitably undergone its own transformations over the years… In an attempt to facilitate the transmission of the ‘home’ country’s values through the generations, families may seek to match young men with girls from ‘back home’. Second-generation daughters are often considered inadequate matches in this regard. They are often thought of as too ‘Westernised’ and it is therefore better for young men to marry the authentic ‘home product’3. These parents often want their daughters to marry ‘home product’ men too, but such daughters themselves are often reluctant to do so as the men in their family’s ‘home’ social network often do not have comparable levels of education and earning capacity and may have incompatible understandings of gender roles. Such conditions have resulted in a growing number of second and third generation immigrant young Muslim women who are unable to find ‘local’ husbands and unwilling to marry ‘imports’. Some of these women, not content with the myth of the happy celibate, are seeking sexual encounters without waiting for a nikah
This gives rise to what the problem that the authors call the “cult of the hymen” that requires expensive and unnecessary hymenoplasty – “doctors are assisting these women to ‘reclaim’ their virginity, in some cases even inserting vials of a bloodlike substance behind the new hymen which bursts upon penetration thus furthering the illusion of first-time sexual encounter.” (Note that hymenoplaty is now on the NHS for rape victims in the UK).
The authors not only blame men but also women for perpetrating injustices against single Muslim women forcing them to keep up the myth of the happy celibate. This means that “unmarried older women particularly those who are divorced or widowed must negotiate a different set of perceptions regarding their sexuality. No longer perceived as ‘pure’ good girls to whom the throb of sexual desire is entirely unknown, they are thought to be aflame with frustrated libido. Women who have not succeeded in obtaining a licit partner by a particular age are expected to be grateful for any male attention they can get… For many divorced western Muslim women their position as sexually experienced and single often results in their being targeted as second wives by men interested in polygamous relationships.”
This is where the writers talk briefly about the Misyar, Urfi and Mutah marriages gaining prominence in minority Muslim communities. But that has a negative side to it for the women – “some men may consider ‘unwanted’/‘discarded’ Muslim women as less risky partners in an illicit liaison, because such women will usually be very mindful of the ramifications of revealing the encounter publicly, and therefore be strongly motivated to keep their transgressions secret.”
Then the authors make elaborate references to the online Muslim website for Australian Muslims, Muslim Village where on the chat forum Muslim men and women discuss how to remain celibate (link to the forum). A Muslim woman on the chat forum confides,
i’ve found that (engaging in pre-marital sex) to be very true of my male muslim friends (the few that i have), and when i point out the hypocrisy in their statements they just say ‘it’s different for girls.’
This is similar to the analysis of the chats by the authors,
There is a marked difference in tone between male and female contributors, in that while some of the male contributors discuss scenarios in which they are ‘on the brink’ of having illicit sex, female contributors talk only of how to ‘cope’ with pent-up desires and emotions. Male contributors, then, talk of ‘resisting temptation’, while female contributors talk of dealing with ‘feelings’, without ever acknowledging the possibility of such feelings being acted upon.
Furthermore, Imtoual and Hussein note that there is a strong implication among Muslim men on the chat forum that a woman who is capable of provoking lustful feelings cannot possibly make a suitable wife and that if “one were to succumb to temptation, it would be with someone who did not share one’s own values on sexual issues. One half of the sexual couple is always assumed to be irreligious and sexually licentious, tempting the ‘good’ Muslim to stray from the path.”
Frustrated with the scenario, the authors note that,
there is no suggested scenario in which two young Muslims who are both committed to celibacy find themselves unable to resist the temptation to have sex with each other and then go on to marry each other. Male participants in particular seem to envisage that any sexual transgression would be a meaningless one-night stand, rather than an act committed by two people who love or care about each other.
The conclusion to the article is somewhat vague with a series of questions that are never answered and a reader is not given any solution to the problem of the Happy Celibate. The authors mention, however, that “in order to maintain the myth many single Muslim women self-surveil their own physical appearance and behaviour so as not to jeopardise their freedoms. That is, they are hyper-aware of not presenting themselves as ‘too sexy’, ‘too beautiful’ or ‘too stylish’ to avoid suspicions that they are in fact unhappy with celibacy either because they are craving sexual interactions, or ‘worse’ still, lesbian, or not celibateat all. The myth therefore works to bolster the misogynistic discourse that unmarried (and attractive) women are ‘fitna’ or dangerous temptation in society.”
The main problem presented in the article that a reader may note is that Muslim societies (even in Muslim countries, I should mention) expect a woman “to encompass both extreme chastity and lustful sexuality. However, the expression of ‘lustful sexuality’ is to be confined to relations with her husband on his instigation after marriage. Such lustful sexuality is expected only to be ‘switched on’ immediately upon marriage and ‘switched off’ once the marriage has ended.”
But the solution to this problem is not offered. How does a single Muslim woman NOT switch on her ‘lustful sexuality’? And what if, God forbid, she erroneously switched it on and can’t switch it off?
Do you have any solution(s)? What are your thoughts?