By Sainabou Hydara
Anyone who spends more than two minutes engaging with Muslim Twitter is more than well aware that the main topic of conversation at any given times is relationships. Most often than not the general conversation is revolving marriage, how to find a husband and or/ how to operate within said marriage…of course throw in a couple of hypothetical scenarios about being slapped by your imaginary mother in law whilst you’re there because why not? Despite this fixation with marriage and relationships nobody ever wants to talk about a large part of what makes up a healthy relationship, sex. As Muslims living in the western world we are surrounded by sex every single day, from music to TV to fashion everything revolves around sex. So why do we as a community pretend like it doesn’t happen, or worse, that we are all having or thinking about sex. So, in this article I hope to start an open, frank conversation about just that, and hopefully dispelling some patriarchal myths along the way.
Is the Muslim woman in need of liberation? In my opinion, yes. Too often I see Muslim women shudder or shrink at the mention of sex in any explicit manner, sometimes even hearing younger girls talk about their anxieties around losing their virginity and not knowing what to do, largely as a result of being told from an early age that sex was simply forbidden until marriage, shutting down any conversation around sex forever. At the same time, their brothers and cousins are roaming the streets of London having sex with just about any girl that looks in their direction, with no fear of repercussion. If that isn’t oppression, then I don’t know what is.
Before we can begin to evaluate the possibility of being sexually liberated we must first establish what ‘liberation’ really means. So, from an initial Google search we get a definition of ‘liberated’ as being ‘free from social conventions or traditional ideas, especially with regard to sexual roles.’ This definition in the context of our post third wave feminist period is referring to the role of women as demure, submissive and generally free to choose their sexual partners as well as engage in sex for more than just the purpose of conceiving children. Although this describes overall what one might hope to get out of a sexual liberation movement, it doesn’t represent what liberation means to the individual woman.
To most people, being sexually liberated is another way of saying one has multiple casual sexual partners with no reservations about it. So, although there is nothing wrong with this (#prohoe) it doesn’t sit very well with ‘good’ Islamic practice. This is because in Islam Zina is a major sin that must be avoided at all costs. Zina is the sin of fornication and unlawful sex between two unmarried people, and this belongs to the exclusive ‘Hadd’ class of sins. These are the few sins that have a specifically mentioned punishment in the Holy Quran itself.
It is widely accepted that sexual liberation equals free and frequent sex, usually outside of the confines of marriage. However, for Muslim women this is simply not possible. Yes, Zina is the sin of fornication and unlawful sex between two I unmarried people, but it can also be adultery, prostitution, bestiality as well as rape. This belongs to the exclusive ‘hadd’ class of sins. These are the few sins that have a specific punishment mentioned in the Quran itself. So, in the case of Zina, the punishment is 100 lashes but only with the testimony of 4 witnesses (Al-Nour 24:2, An-Nisa 4:15). Zina is in fact mentioned a total of 9 times throughout the Quran, meaning its viewed quite seriously in terms of sin.
So as a Muslim woman growing up that’s all you’re ever told, that Zina is a major sin and you’ll burn in hell for all eternity if you do it and treating it like the gateway drug to all other forms of sinful behaviour. This also turns into a demonization of anything that could lead to Zina, i.e. wearing ‘revealing’ clothing, hanging out with boys outside of your immediate family listening to music with provocative lyrics etc. I believe that this indoctrination from an early age is something a lot of young Muslim women internalise and so by the time we grow up and have some degree of agency in our lives we cannot detach from that distorted view of sex. However, I think that by taking time to look at how sex-positive the hadith is and catch up on the sex ed that our non-Muslim friends may have by now will definitely help start the journey to reclaim our sexuality.
Once married it’s very easy for wives to essentially hand their sexuality over to their husbands, especially if their husband is more sexually experienced than themselves. This is very easily done when you’ve had no sexual experience, or agency prior to that point. However, going back to the hadith can arm one with knowledge on the do’s and don’ts of sex as well as its importance. For example, Imam as-Ŝādiq (as) narrates that the Prophet (S) addressed one of his companions on the day of Friday and asked: “Are you fasting today?” (The companion) replied, “No.” The Prophet (S) asked: “Have you given anything as ŝadaqah today?” (The companion) replied, “No.” The Prophet (S) told him: “Go to your wife and that is your very ŝadaqah to her.”. This hadith tells us the importance Allah (swt) has place on a healthy sexual relationship between a husband an wife, equating it to doing a good deed. But it is also acknowledged that you as a woman deserve a good sexual experience. It is narrated from Imām °Alī (as): “When any of you wants to sleep with his wife, he must not rush her for indeed women have needs (too).” but also the Prophet (S) said “Do not engage in sexual intercourse with your wife like hens; rather, firstly engage in foreplay with your wife and flirt with her and then make love to her.”. To many, myself included, reading these hadith for the first time it can be quite shocking to see quite how open and positive they are about female sexual pleasure in the context of marriage. Arming ourselves with the knowledge that in fact your sexual desire is not just valid but encouraged can often be the first step to truly liberating your sexuality. So, coupled with other resources such as the Muslimah Sex Manual it can really help develop and encourage a healthy sexual relationship between a couple.
Although I talk about going back to the hadith and the Quran to educate one’s self on halal sex, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that that is much easier said than done. In fact, as I write this I am very conscious of the fact that a lot of my personal research has been done via sheikh google and my mum’s limited Islamic bookshelf, so as a result may not be 100% accurate. After all, I can’t exactly walk into my local masjid as a single woman and ask my 70+ year old imam about the Islamic stance on oral sex, can I? I mean I could, but it’d be very awkward for the both of us. So as a result, many of us are very uneducated or even mis-educated because of how the Muslim community has structured knowledge and the access to it in such a patriarchal fashion. For example, most scholars in the UK that are highly regarded are men, and they give a totally biased male perspective on all Islamic matters, intentionally or not. So, with the constant regurgitation of the same perspective, over time people begin not to see it as one perspective but as fact, and label everything else as incorrect or misinformed. This is very dangerous if you consider the fact that many of these men have been raised in very radically patriarchal cultures that hold very misogynistic values at their core. These values taint the way they interpret Islam and in turn how they teach it. As a result, spreading a version of Islam that is male-centric, and frankly primitive, often placing women and sex at the centre of temptation and men the innocent victims…demonising female sexuality. However, by becoming conscious of this reality it makes it easier to begin seeking out well rounded, reliable sources on sexuality you’ll be introduced to a number of new scholars and women who can help with other aspects of life. Although some may read that and accuse me of being a ‘choose Muslim’ I’d think that instead you’re finding someone that suits your personal interpretation of the religion without omitting anything or adding either.
However, even after you’ve completed the monumental task of unpicking your own perception of sex and tackled all your childhood trauma, then managed to find a scholar who really appeals to you and is also accessible for any questions that arise, you now have the quest to tackle the fetishism Muslim women face from the outside world. I think sometimes constantly being around other like-minded Muslims or socially aware non-Muslim friends we can forget there is a whole world out there with very strong views of what we as a community are like. Those views can manifest themselves in very strange ways. Many men across the globe fantasize about ‘corrupting’ a young woman by taking her virginity, check out the thousand and one videos on PornHub labelled any combination of ‘teen’ and ‘first time’ if you don’t believe me. So, for Muslim women this often manifests itself because Western media has painted us to be the ultimate virgin – sheltered in her home under tonnes of clothing under the watchful eye of her oppressive father, just waiting for the right man to release us from our shackles via aggressive sex with him. Our hijabi sisters especially withstand the worst of this as everyone is constantly wondering ‘what’s underneath?’. I’ve even seen posts on Tumblr (eye roll) where men explicitly voiced their fantasy of undressing a niqabi and …. you know what happens next. This manifestation of the male gaze is not dissimilar to the way men look at other women with the aim of consumption, however with Muslim women there is the added ‘pleasure’ of being the first to taste it. Disgusting. So, it isn’t surprising that some women retreat away from sex and sexuality because it seems like such a male arena but like I’ve mentioned throughout this piece its about reclaiming or discovering sexuality outside of the male gaze and making it your own. So, if that means sticking two fingers up to those who see you as a simple sexual conquest, then so be it!
So, throughout this article I’ve talked about reclaiming one’s sexuality and sexual agency, but I’ve avoided speaking about one of the main (but also the least talked about) ways it is often done…masturbation. Masturbation and the idea of women sexually pleasing themselves is almost always considered taboo in every religious culture, which is why many regards it as a defiant act that physically reclaims sexual agency. However, the Islamic stance on masturbation is highly contested and frankly rather confusing. For most mainstream scholars’ masturbation is haram, full stop. Largely because masturbation is considered to break one’s fast and is not permissible during Ramadan, meaning that it shouldn’t be done out of these times as well. In fact, in Surah Al Mu’minun (verses 5-7) it reads ‘And they who guard their private parts/ Except from their wives or those their right hands possess, for indeed, they will not be blamed/ But whoever seeks beyond that, then those are the transgressors’. This is often regarded as the most concrete evidence of Islam’s disapproval of masturbation, given that it is written in the Quran. Yet based on my personal reading I find those verses very difficult to understand, possibly lending itself to misinterpretation leading to the conflicting interpretations. Actually, some Sunni schools of thought such as the Hanafi and Hambali schools believe that masturbation is in fact acceptable at sometimes.
So, most scholars in these schools of thought see masturbation as the lesser of two evils. For example, if a person is so overcome by their physical desire or their want for a specific person could lead them to commit Zina then it is acceptable to masturbate but is never advised. In effect, many sahaabah are reported to have viewed it similarly, Imam Hasan al-Basri when asked about the topic said, ‘there is no harm in it’ and Ibn Abbaas is claimed to have said ‘It is nothing but rubbing one’s private parts until a fluid comes out.’ (Hazam, pp. 393-394). I would argue that the reason for this confusion largely is because of translation issues. The Qur’an is written in ancient Arabic, translation from this into modern Arabic leads to many misinterpretations and meanings lost in translation so translation into English leaves a lot to be desired. Now taking into consideration that ‘masturbation’ is a fairly new word in the English language, so there may be no equivalent or similar word in ancient Arabic, hence the indirect language we see. As a result, many scholars are making interpretations largely made up of their personal views on the topic, rather than subjective evidence based on Quran and Hadith. Even during my research for this part of the article I saw masturbation described a ‘filthy habit and rampant disease’ and ‘a satanic ritual’, which made the overly negative, one sided answers and heavy use of pseudo-science unsurprising. So, giving you all this information, I’m going to leave it up to you to determine where you stand in the discussion around masturbation, but I hope that wherever you stand and whatever you choose to do as a result, that you do it with the confidence that it is 100% your choice.
Overall, I hope that throughout this article you’ve not only learnt a little more about sex in Islam but also about the gross underepresentation of female scholars and the female perspective in a lot of Islamic conversations. I hope it has encouraged you to become more active in your search for knowledge but also critical. However, the most important thing I hope we all gain from this is the start of a new conversation. I hope that by creating this we can use it as a springboard from which the Muslim community can begin talking about sex and relationships outside of hypothetical situations, because by putting off or totally shutting down conversations around sex we’re also shutting down conversations around rape, consent, domestic abuse and so much more. And I don’t need to tell you how dangerous that is.