The sexualisation of piety

A friend shared this video couple of days ago and I’ve been contemplating since then if I should share it here. I’m sharing because being already out there and the words spoken and recorded, this requires counter-narrative.

I had read all of this before in hadith and seerah and tafsir. I’m aware that this narrative exists in texts, but when I was reading it, at a subconscious level, I thought that nobody really believed it like I didn’t believe it. Hearing it, and listening to it being taught had a completely different impact on me.

It is quite clear that the ‘imam’ fully believes what he’s teaching. The link he creates between different ahadith and tafseer excerpts as well as the Quranic verses is well thought out – men shall outnumber women in heaven (from the hadith that women will outnumber men in hell) because women display their awra (from the hadith banning perfume and Quran banning display of ‘adornments). He goes on to explain the physical attributes of the hoors (from Tirmizi, volume 2, pg 35-40; Bukhari vol.4, book 55, number 544; Quran: 55:72-74; 78:33; 56:37-40; Al-Bukhari volume 4, book 52, number 53; Al-Bukhari vol.4, book 54, number 476). Men’s sexual capacity in heaven is also expounded (from Ibn Majah, volume 5, number 4337) and how they will be busy “breaking hymens” (from Ibn Katheer, 3/564). Again and again the imam tells his congregation that there’s no sin in talking about sex and about the breasts and hymens of these heavenly females because it is right here in Quran and hadith; it is all for Muslim men. While human females must hide themselves, there is no sin in fantasizing about the hoor. There is great emphasis on female virginity – so much that the imam tells the men that each time they have sex with the hoor and return from another one, the first would be a virgin again! At the same time, there is no requirement from men to be virgins as if the concept of male virginity does not even exist (or at least occur to the imam).

This seriously affects how women are treated in the physical world. It is linked to misogyny and is a great reason we need Muslim feminism so that this type of thought and narrative can be challenged. This is being taught to young men in mosques, inside places of worship we hold scared, where actually women are delegated the back spaces. Young men are taught that while they are flawless, human females are tainted, sinful and literally hellbound. In case some women do make it into heaven, there is no description of what they should await. The focus of heaven’s bounty – the food and wine, and sexual pleasure, is the Muslim heterosexual man. Obviously then, the flawless men should teach and control the sinful women.

A friend suggested that one way we can counter this narrative is to encourage our husbands, brothers and sons to report if something like this is taught in mosques. While this can be done in Western mosques, I wonder if someone can actually do much if this is taught in a Muslim-majority country where dissent is met with death. Please, please offer suggestions on how this kind of teaching can be stopped. We all know this isn’t a single instance; we’ll seen and read this before.

Prehominid origins of patriarchy

Sociobiologists and feminists agree that men in patriarchal societies and religions seek to control females. Sociobiologists go a step further and by using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection attempt to explain why males should try to control female sexuality. Sexual selection covers both competition between male and female choice. However, Darwin assumed that choices were made by essentially ”coy” females. Sarah Hrdy argues in ‘Raising Darwin’s consciousness – Female sexuality and the prehominid origins of patriarchy’ that,


“female solicitation of multiple males (either simultaneously or sequentially, depending on the breeding system) characterized prehominid females; this prehominid legacy of cyclical sexual assertiveness, itself possibly a female counter-strategy to male efforts to control the timing of female reproduction, generated further male counter-strategies. This dialectic had important implications for emerging hominid mating systems, human evolution, and the development of patriarchal arrangements in some human societies. For hominid males who will invest in offspring, there would be powerful selection for emotions, behaviors, and customs that ensure them certainty of paternity. The sexual modesty that so struck Darwin can be explained as a recent evolved or learned (perhaps both) adaptation in women to avoid penalties imposed by patrilines on daughters and mates who failed to conform to the patriline’s prevailing norms for their sex. Other supposedly innate universals, such as female preferences for wealthy husbands, are also likely to be facultative accommodations by women to constraints set up when patrilines monopolized resources needed by females to survive and reproduce, and passed on intergenerational control of these resources preferentially to sons.”



Hrdy’s study is both stimulating and extremely valuable. Applied to patriarchal religions it can help to explain the institution of feminism. Feminism is not a natural step in evolution, neither is it a deviation from the ‘natural laws of God.’ Feminism is, in fact, an awakening of the female to realise that patriarchy is not natural and hence could not have been created, implied or advocated by the Creator. It is a regression to the natural origins of the homo-sapiens.


Younger wife

Hrdy originally delivered the chapter as a lecture in the Herbet Spencer Lectures at Oxford University in 1995. In the article, Hrdy argues that selection of a young female for mating is against the natural selection of all primates who almost always choose an adult female for copulation who are experienced and parous hence indicating that they can produce offspring. She asks, “why would male Homo sapiens, virtually unique among primates, be so attracted to neotenous traits?” This unnatural preference, she states, is patriarchal and is derived from purely human institutions whereby men “do not merely mate with virginal and compliant young females, but acquire them as wives, concubines, or slaves whom they essentially ‘own’, and as a consequence … are also obliged to provide for long term.”


Providing for the female

In all other species males and females fend for themselves, indeed in many species it is the female that hunts while bearing offspring, giving birth and lactating. But in human beings the need to control and own the female is so strong in the male that he is willing to take the responsibility to provide for her. It is no wonder then that “patriarchal marriages guaranteed maintenance for discarded or superseded wives, as well as widows.” In this way, alimony does not offer women prestige, honour or freedom but is actually a contributor in their possession by men.


Controlling women’s sexuality

Men control women’s sexuality and make them believe that polygyny is natural while polyandry is unnatural because that is the only way a man “can be absolutely sure that he is the one to have contributed that sperm.” Thus, he may “keep her separate from any other man as in a harem, he may threaten her with violence if she strays, he may devise a mechanical method of preventing intercourse like a chastity belt, he may remove her clitoris to decrease her erotic impulses, or he may convince her that sex is the same thing as love and if she has sexual relations with anyone else, she is violating the sacred ethics of love.”


The argument is that polygyny is not any more natural than polyandry and if we were meant to evolve as monogamous couples then both polyandry and polygyny must go. Hrdy quotes Sherfey (1966) to argue that “women’s inordinate orgasmic capacity did not evolve for monogamous sedentary cultures”; like other primates a human female is designed for multiple partners which she tactfully managed in ancient cultures when patriarchy hadn’t engulfed her freedom.



Human females are also known for not overtly exhibiting ovulation any longer. This is not because we are ‘coy’ as Darwin assumed, but because overt exhibition of ovulation endangers the chances of the male mate to copulate. Thus, human females were commanded by patriarchal males to assume modest clothing so as not to display ‘sexual swellings’, the explicit signs of sexual maturity and ability to produce offspring.


Polyandry to counter infanticide

Socialbiologists have established that female primates cast a ‘wide net’ of possible paternity so as to ensure the safety of their offspring which are often killed by males that are sure they were not the father. Thus, uncertainty about paternity assured ancient polyandrous women (as well as modern Tibetan and Kalahari desert women) that all mates could be possible fathers who all looked after the child even if the biological father died or was captured. Hrdy gives the example of biblical accounts where suckling infants and other children were to be killed outright as highlighting the natural male ability to commit infanticide which is a “protean phenomenon across animals especially humans” to ensure quick resumption of ovulatory cycles for the mother when her child from another mate is removed from her through death. Patriarchy is therefore unnatural to the human species since it restricts women from casting a wide net of possible paternity while allowing men to have multiple sexual partners. Hence if eradication of polyandry is marketed as an evolutionary step, polygyny should also be eliminated from society since it severely restricts the resources available to a human female through sharing it with other unrelated females as is shown by Chisholm and Burbank (1991).


Hrdy states that concealed ovulation, continuous receptivity, face-to-face copulation and female capacity for orgasm are not uniquely human attributes that have evolved, but all this is “much older prehominid heritage that does not assume monogamous mating systems.”


The author also argues that, “relative sexual freedom is permitted women under some circumstances, but the vast majority of human cultures practice a double standard of sexual morality which combined with the human capacity for language and propensity for gossip, subjects any woman who cannot account for her whereabouts to damaging            , even lethal, penalties, as well as to internally produced feelings of mortification and shame.”



Related to such intimidation and indoctrination is also the monopolization by patrilines of resources needed to survive and successfully rear offspring concentrating resources in male hands through patriarchal inheritance systems. Such systems biases intergenerational transfers of resources in favour of sons who can “keep hold of cattle or land, versus daughters who are particularly vulnerable from having it taken away or diverted to their husband’s lineage.”


Concealed ovulation, inheritance transfer, and continuation of polygyny are results of modern life but they are patriarchal and not necessarily a natural step in evolution. Patriarchy was not invented only 2,500 years ago but dates much further back into history. In any case, it is arguably a creation of the mind of the alpha human male to ensure that he can own and mate with the women of his choice so that he only provides for the offspring that his sperm has produced.


I thought the article was brilliant. What are your thoughts? … if you are still awake!


Construction of the homosexual ‘other’

I just finished reading an article titled ‘The construction of the homosexual ‘other’ by British Muslim heterosexuals’ by Asifa Siraj which appeared in the Journal of Contemporary Islam on 31 January 2009.

In Siraj’s own words, the article, “explores Muslim attitudes towards homosexuality and homosexuals … and examines the connection between participants’ attitudes towards homosexuality and their understanding of gender and gender roles… Data suggest that participants held negative attitudes towards homosexuals and this is the result of being religiously conservative in their attitudes towards homosexuality and gender roles.”

Siraj believes that Islam, in its original and pure form, does not explicitly condemn homosexuality in the Quran, but Hadith is another matter. An excerpt of most importance from the article is as follows (p.46):

Jamal (2001) in her analysis examined the moral terminology used in the 14 verses concerning homosexuality, and found that same sex-activities in the Qur’an are not considered as different from certain other illicit opposite-sex and non-sexual practices. What is equally important to the debate is that the Hadith which attributes the story of Lut exclusively to same-sex sexuality has shaped the interpretation of the Qur’an. Jamal (2001) further contends that although the sins committed by the people are frequent, the Qur’an does not declare that the people were destroyed for this particular sin. She concludes that the Qur’an does not provide a definitive position on the issue of homosexuality. Omid Safi, an American Muslim scholar, similarly comments that the issue of same-sex relations in the Qur’an is unclear and talk of homosexuality as an abomination is ambiguous because ‘what an abomination is remains open to interpretation’. Moreover, nowhere in the Qur’an does it state explicitly or implicitly that death is the appropriate punishment for being homosexual. Indeed, in order to implement punishment, guilt must first be established, and the Shari’ah requires incontestable evidence such as a confession or four reliable eyewitnesses verifying that they saw penetration (sodomy) take place (cf. Sofer 1992; Schild 1992). According to Vanita and Kidwai (2001) ‘the difficulty of finding eyewitnesses to confirm instances of penetration in effect removes private acts between consenting individuals from the realm of punishment’ (Vanita and Kidwai 2001: 111). Homosexuality is condemned when it is publicised and therefore transgresses Islamic morals (Schild 1992).

Despite all these arguments, Siraj’s study concludes that homosexuality is not, and perhaps will not be, accepted by Islam and Muslims.

As a feminist I feel this study is very important but I am personally not surprised at the results at all. I feel that contemporary Muslims must be educated about homosexuality and homosexuals. Homosexuality is as old as heterosexuality and it is not an “abomination” for which a man or a woman who is homosexual should be killed. This is why such studies are important to me as a feminist because I understand that Muslim women are more easily and more swiftly punished than Muslim men although comparatively it is easier for a Muslim man to have homosexual partners than a Muslim woman living in Muslim countries.

However, I don’t understand what progressive Muslims, Muslim feminists and educated, broad-minded scholars like Siraj want? Do we foresee a future where Muslim men and women and imams and scholars will embrace homosexuality as just as *normal* as heterosexuality (which is what Siraj believes Islam has created) and will welcome homosexuals into mainstream Muslim circles? If that is what we foresee, then I predict disappointment. While I personally don’t find homosexuals as ‘abominable’, I think it will take Muslims another four or five centuries to begin accepting homosexuals as equal human beings worthy of love, tolerance and respect.

What are your thoughts?

Is drag better than being a woman?

MMW had an interesting post yesterday titled Bijli (electricity) about a woman trapped inside a man’s body. You can read the post here and watch the YouTube as well.

Fayyaz ‘Bijli’ talks about his career as a dancer and how he came to live in the USA, but what is most interesting is that Fayyaz confessed that he is lucky to be a transsexual rather than being born a woman which sheds light on the plight of lower middle class in Pakistan.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a real girl. But for all I know, I might not have had the talent to dance. I might have been married somewhere, rearing children. I would have wasted my life away at some husband’s whims. I have also seen women’s lives here [in the USA]. They have very little stature here. A man chases after tens of women and leaves his own wife behind. And what if I was born as a girl? I would have been married off to some man. He would have been faithful to me for a year or two, and then taken after some other woman. Compared to the pain of this scenario, isn’t my predicament better? (Transcript of 11.00-11.48 ).

I am wondering if Fayyaz would have even noticed this plight of Pakistani women if he was not a woman trapped inside a man’s body.



The legal consequences of the Hoor

I realised that I should have posted the two excerpts from Moghissi separately. There is connection between them but the flow was disconnected. Anyway, I am not particularly asking any questions here; merely explaining what I had meant to convey in the last post.

I understand that Muslims, especially women, have often not taken the concept of Huris very positively. Their concerns are more linked to jealousy. However, Moghissi, through Sabah, shows a more dangerous side of the belief in Huris.

In the comments to the last post, we saw a few different reactions. The most common reaction is that Huris are a metaphor. Certainly if you compare translations of the Quran they are seen as metaphorical from the beginning of the 20th century. Mohammad Asad believes they are the earthly spouses, ‘revirginated’ and raised as Hoor al ain. I have often compared the Hoor al ain with the metaphorical woman in the Zoroastrian text of Arda Viraf. Read this from Chapter 4 of Arda Viraf, verses 18-25:

18. And there stood before him his own religion and his own deeds, in the graceful form of a damsel, as a beautiful appearance, that is, grown up in virtue; (19) with prominent breasts, that is, her breasts swelled downward, which is charming to the heart and soul; (20) whose form was as brilliant, as the sight of it was the more well-pleasing, the observation of it more desirable. 21. And the soul of the pious asked that damsel (22) thus: ‘Who art thou? and what person art thou? than whom, in the world of the living, any damsel more elegant, and of more beautiful body than thine, was never seen by me.’ 23. To him replied she who was his own religion and his own deeds, (24) thus: ‘I am thy actions, O youth of good thoughts, of good words, of good deeds, of good religion. (25) It is on account of thy will and actions that I am as great and good and sweet-scented and triumphant and undistressed as appears to thee.

Now read these passages from the Quran:

They will have maidens with large, lovely black and white eyes. Like pearls preserved in their shells. As reward for their deeds. (56:22-24)

We shall unite them to maidens with big black and white lovely eyes. (44:54)

They will have with them loving wives with big black and white eyes. Who are as chaste as sheltered eggs. (37:48-49)

There will be well-disciplined, beautiful maidens. Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny? Pure ones confined to the pavilions. Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny? Whom no man or Jinn before them has touched; Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny? They will be reclining on plain green and beautifully printed carpets. Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny? (55:70-77)

Reclining on thrones set in lines, and We will unite them to large-eyed beautiful ones. (52:20)

Gardens and vineyards, and maidens with swelling breasts, of equal age, and a cup that is overflowing (78:32-34)

Arda Viraf categorically calls this voluptuous “damsel”, a believer’s religion personified. This is not so clear in the Quran; in fact it has been accepted literally for fourteen centuries. Moreover, at least in Surah Rahman, Hoor Al Ain are a promise of Allah for the believer with the rhetorical question – “Which then of the bounties of your Lord will you deny?”  To treat it as a mere metaphor or an illusion to allure men to do good deeds, (I can sympathize with the traditionalists), would be a deceptive promise.

However, why I quoted Moghissi is because she links the promise and belief in Huris with fundamentalism. She writes:

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). 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.

I’m not concerned here with how Huris have been linked to jihad. I am more concerned with their effect on the lives of earthly women. They have become the ‘ideal female’ – passive and stripped of the human dimension. They teach women to be submissive, quiet, “well-disciplined”, like “well-guarded pearls” that no man has ever touched. Huris teach women to wait for the men, eagerly reclining on cushions. They teach women to desire youthfulness, full figures and big black eyes.  This concept of sexuality also has effects on ‘legal consequences for women’ by creating a ‘sexual hierarchy, with women as sexual objects at the service of men.’

Even if Huris are only metaphorical (which I am certain they are), their effects on human females are very real and so we have books like The Ideal Muslimah (some poignant excerpts here) teaching women to be obedient, pleasing, respectful, pleasing, cheerful, secretive, obliging, eager, forgiving, and one who tries to look good.

The Huri is creating the need for Muslim feminism.

The Paradisal Tilth

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?

Women in positions of power

This is the subtitle of the chapter Position of Woman in the Islamic Shariah in Wahiduddin Khan’s book Woman between Islam and Western Society.  Khan writes:

Even the modern world still finds it unimaginable that a woman should be given a high government office. In a poll taken in 1972, the majority of American voters said that they would rather have a black man than a woman as president. The idea of a woman president was ridiculed. Someone joked: “When the lady president delivers her child, the hospital bulletin will have to announce that ‘the President and baby are doing well.'”

The Persian emperor Chosroes died during the life of teh Prophet. His courtiers crowned Chosroes’ daughter queen. On hearing this news, the Prophet said, “A nation which makes a woman its ruler will not progress.”

The researchers of modern age now testify to the truth of this time-honored principle laid down by Islam. Fourteen hundred years ago, Islam held that a woman was not fit for so high a position as that of a sovereign. While until recently this could have been regarded as a mere assertion made a very long time ago, today it is accepted as a scientific fact. What the Prophet had said as a matter of inspiration has now been established, after a long period of study and research, as a reality. This is clear proof that Islamic principles are based on facts of nature and not just on supposition and conjecture.

I thought this was timely since just recently I had posted on Muslim women and politics. Now that I have come out of my initial shock at Khan’s ideas regarding women and positions of power, I can point to the sources of my horror:

1.  What does he mean by “researchers of modern age now testify to the truth of this time-honored principle”? Who are the researchers? What was their study? What is all this about?

2. Is there a “time-honored principle laid down by Islam” that women are absolutely unfit “for so high a position as that of a sovereign”?

3. Is it a “as a scientific fact”? Really?

4. Isn’t whatever Khan has written actually unsupported “supposition and conjecture” which he presents as an Islamic principle?

5. Is women having babies a joke that should be ridiculed? Does it make woman “unfit”?

So now you know why I have been chewing on my furniture lately!