Gay imams and taboo subjects

While looking for material on women in the Gulf I came across an interesting article (Tackling a Taboo Subject – Gulf News – 20/01/07). The article argues that sexual promiscuity and homosexuality is spreading amongst the Muslim youth in the UAE because sex education is not given to them as part of school curriculum. The article makes special mention of lesbianism and I’ll summarise the major points made in the article below:

Psychologists and social counsellors in the UAE say sex education must be part of the educational system as it would prevent many inappropriate practices, and would serve the right of the youth to understand the topic in a scientific and unbiased manner, within the context of religion and culture… ignorance about sexual instincts is the reason behind the high divorce rates, troubled marriages, and the increase in psychological and sexual disorders later on in life… The western media are widely advertising homosexuality, which is influencing the youth. The issue might begin as a likening or imitating of the opposite sex, but in many cases it develops into physical intimacy [homosexuality]… The reason behind the psychological illness is that pupils are not properly brought up. Many of them are raised by foreign housemaids and tend to pick up alien behaviour. He said it is commonly witnessed among pupils of grades 7 to 9 and it is dominant among females, in comparison to males. Some parents are willing to address the issue when they find out that their child is homosexual but most are ashamed and in denial

The article does not offer very good argument but, it does show a “taboo” side of the society which is not discussed openly in Muslim societies for which I give it credit. However, to be honest I was a bit disappointed (but not surprised) to read such negative words about homosexuality. Homosexuality is considered a sin by majority of Muslims and I know that but there are also many Muslims who don’t think it is a sin and who believe that homosexuality is just as much determined by our genes as heterosexuality. Nature Vs nurture is an ongoing debate but both voices should be heard, shouldn’t they?

In some societies that allow freedom of speech, gay Muslims have found a voice and they have come out to say that they can be Muslim and gay. In fact, modern Islam has its own gay imams! There is Imam Muhsin Hendricks from South Africa and Imam Daayiee Abdullah is an openly gay Muslim from Washington, D.C who is a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Religious Leadership Roundtable. Imam Abdullah uses Quran and Sunnah to establish that homosexuality is not a sin in Islam. He says in an interview,

There’s nothing in the Koran that speaks against homosexuality. The Lut [a.k.a. Lot] story speaks about heterosexual men who use homosexual sexual acts as a form of punishment. When you read it literally, it says, ”men who turn away from their wives or mates.” Gay [men] don’t tend to have [female] mates unless it’s a cultural situation they’re forced into, by family or culture… [The Prophet] never had a legal case that dealt with homosexuality… So if it’s not something he did, those Haddith — or stories about the Prophet — that came out later are fabrications.

Similarly Imam Hendricks denies that the People of Lot were punished for being gay. He says,  

The situation in Sodom and Gomorrah was one of male-to-male rape. It was the abuse of sexual power. We’re dealing with a civilisation that was very patriarchal – the men had all the sexual rights. They had legitimate wives but … within the whole setup, sodomy also happened.

Imam Abdullah conducted funeral prayers for gay Muslims who had died from AIDS and had no one to do their funeral prayer. Now he conducts same-sex marriage ceremonies for both Muslim women and Muslim men. He also conducts inter-faith marriages since his partner of 10 years is a Christian man.

Imam Hendricks was involved in the production of Jihad for Love – “the world’s first documentary film on the coexistence of Islam and homosexuality” for which the director “filmed with a very devout lesbian couple in Turkey who were completely out and comfortably with their sexuality [and] an Egyptian lesbian and her Moroccan partner who were so religious they found it hard even to articulate the word ‘lesbian’.” However, Imam Hendricks thinks that in these difficult times for Islam, Muslims have greater battles to fight than acceptance of homosexuality.

Imam Abdullah makes an important point that,

“One of the problems that’s always associated with the Muslim faith — and sometimes mirrored in other faiths — is that homosexuality is all based on sex, the sexual act. It’s not based upon one’s orientation. If you don’t have sex, you can still have a gay orientation. So the issue is not really about sex. It’s about how people interpret the way in which they are able to love another individual. That’s one of the things I try to stress with parents, with other people who are non-gay but also Muslim.”

As a Muslim Feminist how do you feel about all this? Do you think that Muslims can’t be gay? Do you think having gay imams to represent gay Muslims is a breath of fresh air we have been waiting for? How do you feel about the article claiming that homosexuality is a “psychological illness” that is learned?

More importantly do you think you must support homosexuality because you are a Muslim Feminist? Are there MFs who think homosexuality is a sin?


Here is a list of links on rising homosexuality in Saudi Arabia and some of these links have further links.

Gay Muslims, a documentary

Trembling before G-d

Love Jihad

“Segregation is spreading homosexuality like wildfire in Afghanistan.”

Question on Muslim women’s sexuality

One of the readers of Metis asked all of us if it is an important part of Islam that a man is responsible for his wife’s salvation. She had read that “the husband, in the afterlife, is responsible for the eternal status of his wife, and must account for her performance during earthly life, as well as his own” and wanted us to talk about this if we wanted.

I am re-reading Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks and while reading the book I recalled Helene’s comment. I was thinking about women in Arabia in the 7th Century and the coming of Islam and what opportunities were available to them. I see a lot of Muslim men being involved in wars for long periods of time. I see them balloting to decide which wife accompanies them to war. I read ahadith in which those without female company are sexually frustrated and want to engage in sex with the female captives of war. They are allowed. At one time Mutah was also allowed with Muslim women who can’t be treated as concubines. There are some incidents of jealousy and rivalry. I see a healthy system being actively created to satisfy the needs for sexual wellbeing of Muslim men.

But I can’t find similar steps being taken for women who were not allowed to engage in polyandry any longer and who had to stay inside the safe compounds of their homes while men went out to war. While the men had female company (as wives or concubines) to keep them from erring, women didn’t. The Right Hand Possessions are mentioned several times in the Quran so they were an integral part of the male society. This vacuum for Muslim women has continued and today women are pointing out that “It’s a bit unfair to tell kids “don’t do ANYTHING” before marriage, when marriage can happen as late as 40! The thing is, there isn’t really a solution. What can replace dating and pre-marital sex? Can we ask a person to not date or have sex until they are 35 and married? I don’t think that’s reasonable anymore…

Obviously this is a problem for both Muslim men and Muslim women in the modern world but in ancient Arabia women must have been in a similar situation. Strangely there is hardly any literature on what women did or how they functioned when their sexual partners disappeared for long periods of time.

Some early scholars like Ghazali were quite aware of the power of female sexuality but there seem to be more restrictions on how to control female sexuality than how to satisfy it. Perhaps this is why there is some literature available on a Muslim man’s responsibility for his wife’s conduct on this earth – there is some obsession with keeping women chaste, virgin, and exclusively for one man. According to this sheikh a Muslim woman “must take care of herself, fast, pray, be God-fearing, keep herself busy…instead of thinking about satisfying her urges” and she is warned that if she errs she might even be killed by her family! A Muslim woman who feels sexually frustrated is advised to make “frequent supplication to Allah in the last part of the night to keep away from temptation, to help overcome the companion devil, and to grant you a pious husband with whom you will feel peace and comfort and with whom you can achieve the prescribed state of chastity.”

I understand that there is a hadith that if a man is financially not able to get married or own slaves for sex then he should fast to keep his sexual urges in check. This hadith is often applied broadly for Muslim women as well. But I see that to be an issue only for those men who were in weaker financial situations who were too few. But even those few men were considered and given advice. In the early Muslim society when men had multiple wives, one wife would not have access to her husband while he was visiting his other wives. Potentially that would mean she would spend a week with him once a month or a day after every four days if they had a weekly schedule. If he went to war for weeks or months then a woman would never know when she’d see her husband again.

In such a society one would expect some movement to create a system for the sexual wellbeing of the women. I was wondering if anyone is aware of what was available to the early Muslim women? Potentially that could be applied to modern times and many women could be advised on what to do if they are not married and can’t date or masturbate. Have you thought about this as a Muslim Feminist? Do you have any thoughts on this topic? I’m planning a section on Muslim women’s sexuality in a chapter on early Muslim women in my thesis and would greatly appreciate any help you can offer.


PS: Zuhura’s blog wouldn’t let me post comments (I have lost two long comments in cyberspace!) but you can try and help her with her research on a similar topic here.

A different perspective on hijab

Veil of Ignorance: Have we gotten the headscarf all wrong?” is an  interesting article on hijab by Leila Ahmed in which she talks about her experience of warming up to seeing hijab on young American Muslim women.

Ahmed thinks that Hourani’s article was “spectacularly incorrect” because “veiling among Muslim women, after steadily gaining ground across the globe in the last two decades, is incontrovertibly ascendant.”

Ahmed accepts that she used to think that education and women’s emancipation would free Muslim women from “this relic of women’s oppression” because to her “hijab’s presence meant not piety — for we knew many women who were deeply devout yet never wore hijab — but Islamism” that had its “signature dress, the hijab.” But now she sees it as “a badge of individuality and justice” after speaking to several young American Muslim women about why they choose to wear hijab.

A friend was disappointed with the article; she said she didn’t like the title and that the “conclusion focuses on Western Muslims. Overall tone of article seems to validate stereotypes about veil.” I too felt it focused on Western Muslims because what stood out for me in the article is when Ahmed quotes Albert Hourani to have written in his article that (I quote Ahmed), “It was only in the Arab world’s “most backward regions,” and specifically Saudi Arabia and Yemen, that the “old order” — and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy — “still persists unaltered.”” I couldn’t help but notice that in the Arab world where I live, the countries that Hourani had once considered the “most backward regions” are now actually giving up veiling.

A couple of days ago I managed to conduct a small-scale study into hijab with 47 young Arab women. I carried out short and informal group interviews (of 10-15 women in a group) and asked the young women why they wear hijab or don’t wear it. All 47 women wear abaya but 35 of them don’t cover their heads with what is called a hijab here. They only put it around their necks.

Based on informal conversations with Arab women I have pointed many times that hijab in the Arab world (the Gulf region) translates to something very different than hijab in the West. The interviews I conducted proved my hypothesis correct. The young women gave different reasons for their choice on hijab which I will summarise as quotes as follows:

  • “I don’t cover my hair because I don’t like this” [pulls at the headscarf].
  • “I wear the abaya because my mother is a foreigner and if I don’t wear the abaya people will blame her for our loss of Arab tradition. I do it just for my mother’s sake but I can’t cover my head. Not showing my hair doesn’t make me look less attractive. It is useless.”
  • “Yes that is right. People love to talk. Chi, chi, chi. Gossip, gossip, gossip. That is why many of us wear the abaya because we are stuck in a gossiping society.”
  • “I cover my hair and my face in front of men. My uncle is a muttawa … you know who is a muttawa? Yes, he explain(ed) for (to) me the importance of niqab and it is fard. The words are not in Quran but Allah speaks indirectly; my uncle explain(ed) for (to) me everything in a clear way and I follow my uncle’s advice Inshallah. “
  • “I would never wear this if I was not fat. Look at me! I love to look slim and beautiful in nice clothes and once I lost (lose) weight I will stop wearing this. Till then I can stay without hijab only.”
  • “I admit that I wear shalia when I go to malls or when I’m with relatives. When I don’t wear it like now, I feel bad. Kasm bilAllah (I swear upon God) I know it is haraam what I’m doing but I hate the hijab. It makes me look ugly.”

When asked why she thinks not wearing hijab is haraam she said, “Because I know! It is in Al Islam. We all know. Everyone knows. I have not read the Quran but I know hijab is fard (compulsory).”

  • “I am 20 years old but without hijab I look 14-15 years old and then men don’t notice me. With hijab I look older and men stare at me. I want to be free and don’t like men noticing me.”
  • Abaya is my traditional (tradition). I love wearing the abaya so people know I am Arab. I am proud to be Arab. I want others to know that.”
  • “I wear hijab because my father told me that if any man sees my hair he will lock me and will marry me to my cousin. I know he won’t do that, but what if he does?!”
  • “No, my father is very nice. He said no one can judge you, only Allah (can) judge you. You cover your hair if you want and don’t if you don’t want. When my younger brother forced me to cover my hair my father tell to him (told him), “Who are you? I am here. I didn’t say to her cover! I love my father.”
  • “My mother thinks I wear hijab 24/7 but I take it off as soon as I leave home because it makes me hot and look like an egg. But my mother says what will our family say?!”
  • “I wear it because my mother, aunts, sisters all wear it. How I will look if I don’t wear it? Maybe my daughter will not wear it and we’ll see when that happens.”

What I found particularly remarkable was that no one said they wear hijab because it is their religious choice, or that it liberates them, or that hijab is what Allah wants – reasons often given by Western hijab-wearers. The ones  who believe hijab to be fard believe so because that is what they have been told by others.

Whereas women in the West wear hijab to affirm “pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice”, women I spoke with wear it to affirm pride in their Arab heritage. While for an American woman, hijab was a “required dress that made visible the presence of a religious minority entitled to justice and equality”, in a Muslim majority society being an Arab requires the abaya (with or without the headcovering) as a dress that asserts their exclusivity. In the West women who wear hijab choose it because they are “free to wear whatever they want”, whereas the women who spoke to me were forced either overtly by their families or indirectly by relatives and society in the name of tradition.

Obviously this is a very small study but my aim was to get some viewpoints on hijab and I enjoyed listening to the different perspectives. It also made me realise why I couldn’t understand the Western stance on hijab.  These are women who don’t even know the definition of Islamic Feminism and yet their views on hijab are hardly traditional, whereas in the West where according to Ahmed “Islamic feminism is well and alive”, hijab is a move back to Islamic tradition.

Any thoughts?

Appearance over the essence

Some years ago a friend asked,

“When we start telling our youth “haraam, haraam” you wonder why they aren’t responding. I have learned through behavioral psychology, “if you want to diminish a behavior, you better replace it with a different one.” When we tell our children dating is haraam, you can’t marry right now, you just can’t do anything. Why are we surprised when we find out the youth has been dating, sleeping around and is serious about this non-halal relationship? There must be a halal replacement, any suggestions? We can’t condemn the natural feelings Allah has given to humans as haraam, we can help channel these feelings into the halal Godly way. Let’s start with being honest with our youth, let’s talk it over without the “just believe statements,” shall we?”

A similar question was asked by Saudi psychologist Samira Al Ghamadi,

“Instead of becoming upset that such images (of naked Saudi women) are being broadcast, we should ask why such things happen in our homes. Why do our children enter these sites? Out of curiosity. They seek answers to things we never explain to them. We tell them that this is forbidden, and shameful, shameful, shameful, shameful… We never answer them. We always say: “They will learn in the future.” But they learn the wrong things, I am very sorry to say. We do not give them a sense of security. We do not give them enough room to express themselves, so they go to chat rooms. Many women might be upset with me for saying so, but there are married women whose husbands constantly pressure them, while they themselves go out at night and hang out. So the wife withdraws into the Internet and meet many people. She chooses an imaginary name, and meets guys who value her and treat her properly, while on the other hand, her husband humiliates her. Why wouldn’t she go there?”

This video clip was aired on LBC TV and is a TV Monitor Project of The Middle East Media Research Institute. The video illustrates how young Saudi women (who are allegedly oppressed by their husbands) turn to stripping in Internet chat rooms. The reporter begins the clip by saying:

“Behind closed doors and far from any supervising eyes, they remove their shame and turn their backs on all customs and traditions. Girls display their bodies in chat rooms on the Internet, in most cases, free of charge. As soon as one of these girls places the camera in front of her, she begins to strip, displaying her seductive charms to more than 300 young men of different ages. Some believe that the phenomenon of stripping over the Internet may be understood within the framework of social hypocrisy, especially since they believe that our religious and educational discourse does not attribute importance to the strengthening of self-restraint, and prefers the appearance over the essence. This drives some people to play several roles and wear several masks.”

What is the solution? Where are we going wrong? What is it that we are doing that isn’t quite right? Do we, as Muslims, think that “our religious and educational discourse does not attribute importance to the strengthening of self-restraint, and prefers the appearance over the essence”?

A post just for you because “you are”

I was watching Oprah last night and Tom Shadyac was on the show talking about his new documentary “I am” (anyone watched it yet?) – more on it here.  Shadyac is the director of hit comedy films like Liar, Liar and the Nutty Professor. He lived in a mansion and had an army of servants. In 2007 Shadyac had a mountain bike accident and suffered from post-concussion syndrome.  While recovering from his accident, he realised that something was “wrong with this world.” Reflecting on his life, he decided that to be happy he’d have to learn to give up excess. He gave away most (but not all) of his money to charity and left his mansion to move into a trailer park. A form of asceticism brought him absolute happiness.

Shadyac focuses on three themes in “I am”: 1) the entire human race is connected; 2) we are biologically hard-wired to cooperate; 3) and if you don’t follow your heart, it can destroy you.

While watching Oprah, I kept thinking how humans have always got it wrong. Oprah also asked Shadyac that and he replied quickly by saying that we are a “young species” and haven’t figured out the Universe yet unlike the older species with whom we share the planet. Since the beginning of times, through monarchies and religions, we have highlighted our differences rather than focus on how we are connected. We have tried to destroy the enemy rather than notice that we are hard-wired to cooperate. And we have followed our heads. By “we” I am referring to men.

I also thought how satisfaction through asceticism has always been a male prerogative. Holy men, saints and prophets, all men, giving up the worldly comforts and migrated, contemplated in caves and forests, and searched for God on mountains and in valleys while women stayed home and *manned* the domestic vessel. Women have also been ascetics  – there are nuns and women-saints (Mother Teresa and Rabia Al Adawi come to mind) but men have been husbands (too polygamous) and fathers *and* prophets/saints, whereas women have had to give up men and children to reach out to God. Why does that happen?

When I finished my first Masters I had everyone tell me that I must get married soon. I did. Had a child before I began studying again for a teaching qualification and then another Masters. When I applied for the second Masters many well-meaning souls were disturbed by my choice to go back to school – I had a home, a child (another on the way), a caring husband, why did I need to study further? I was threatening the peace of my family! I survived that with the support of my husband and father. And now when I’m studying for my third degree I have even more people shake their heads. I am constantly told that I will not be taken seriously by Muslims because I am a woman (and sans hijab!) who is studying Islam which is not my “domain.” My choice of research topic is also seen as problematic – why Muslim feminists? What have they ever done for Islam? Feminists are not even proper Muslims – you can be either Muslim or feminist!

If Shadyac is right that if we don’t follow our hearts, it can destroy us then imagine how many women are destroyed every day. I’m not saying that men have it easy. Most men don’t have the luxury to follow their hearts either, but I think women are in a worse situation. We grow up being told that only the vilest of women don’t want to have babies. We are trained in cooking and taught how to sew. We sit with our legs crossed and mouths shut. Women don’t question. Women are not to be heard. Women must guard their bodies at all times. Women shouldn’t be seen running or making noise. Women can’t refuse sex so they must always be on *duty* hence can’t meditate or contemplate. We have all our possible roles already outlined for us.

And what positive role models do we have? All the possible role models offered to a young Muslim woman are role models because they are attached to some man we revere. Our role models are women who were married to sahabas or the Prophet and hence are important. Other than Rabia Al Adawi, who I think is unknown to many Muslims outside the Sufi circle, I can’t recall the name of any female role model who was not attached to a man as a wife or mother that we look up to. Is there anyone I am missing?

I chose to study Muslim feminists because I see a positive future for Islam in you. I wanted to give recognition to Muslim feminists operating on a daily basis in the Muslim society. I wanted to celebrate the voice of Muslim women who call themselves feminist. I honestly see Muslim feminists trying to change the status quo. I see you trying to follow your hearts and bringing spiritual happiness and content in your lives. I see Muslim feminists trying to connect with all Muslim women even if they disagree with them. I see you cooperating. You are fulfilling all the three points that Shadyac raises in his documentary. And so last night I thought about each one of you.

You are!