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.