Concept paper on Muslim women and sexuality

Why Muslim women and not simply women and sexuality?
The concept paper for a workshop on Muslim Women and Sexuality held at the World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, January 2004.
The workshop was co-organised by The Muslim Women's Rights Network (India), Aawaaz-e-Niswaan (India), Sabah (Organised Lesbian Alliance for Visibility and Action), and The Safra Project (UK).

Muslim Women and Sexuality

Why Muslim women and not simply women and sexuality…

The mainstream notions of a Muslim women’s sexuality consist of an exoticised imagery of an obedient veiled woman with very high fertility, with no will of her own/no agency, completely dependent on her male relative. Western Imperialists have used these stereotypes to their advantage and bombed countries on the pretext of freeing the Muslim women from a life behind the veil. These stereotypes are ample evidence of the limited understanding of the Muslim woman and her struggles. At the same time, regressive forces within Muslim communities who seek to manipulate religion for political ends have also promoted this stereotype in order to crush alternative political forces and in order to monopolize the definition of a ‘proper Muslim woman.’

Despite this, issues of sexuality and issues of Muslim women are seen as divorced from each other as far as activism is concerned. On one hand the existing discourse on sexuality in India does not reflect the struggles of Muslim women living outside of hetero-patriarchichal norms while on the other the national Muslim women’s movement restricts it’s focus on issues of matrimonial rights and socio-economic empowerment. It also tends to discredit as being disruptive those voices from within that raise the issue of sexuality.

The dilemma faced by non believing Muslim women is that religion governs every aspect of their life, intimitate relationships and socio-economic decisions regardless of their personal faith. At the same time many believing Muslim women also reject attempts to control their lives through the slogan of religion, and regard faith as a private matter. But in many countries where Muslims form the majority and also the minority, women’s daily lives in the family are governed by statutory laws based on narrow interpretations of the Koran and Hadith or uncodified Muslim Personal Laws. Moreover, in most communities, it is customs not laws which govern women’s lives. Both these laws and customs are reflective of male domination. Muslim women wanting to break free then have to face the risk of fatwas or social ostracism for their “immoral” and “unislamic” acts.

Inspite of such strong controls, women have rebelled and questioned not just male privilege but heterosexual privilege, questioned the manipulation by the powerful for the preservation of the status quo to further their political control with the aid of religion. There are also those who have questioned the inherent inequality in religion. While there are similarities with all those movements which question male-dominated, male-monopolised interpretations of religion which promote control of women’s sexuality, the issues of Muslim women are unique on account of the distinctive nature of controls employed especially as regards sexuality.

Through this workshop we would like to break the silence around the issue of Muslim Women’s Sexuality and understand its many dynamics. This workshop will be a space for learning and strengthening our struggles for sexual rights. A space where we can build alliances with the many others who share our dilemmas and experiences.

Aspects of sexuality that can be explored…………

1. The State and Sexuality:

Sexuality like any other aspect of our lives is a highly contested and political domain. The history of development of nation states has governed the regulation of Muslim women’s sexuality in different ways. For instance, the demography of nation states, the political formations around them, their social, historical and economic trajectories have influenced the way in which Muslim women’s sexuality are inscribed within state institutions and in the public imaginary.

The way in which Muslim women’s sexuality is inscribed within theocratic states, within secular states, or states in which Muslims are a significant minority or the majority population, in post-colonial states or those that do not have a colonial legacy is very different. The shifting ideological underpinnings of state development, social and economic vested interests and realpolitik have determined the extent, nature and degree of control of Muslim women’s bodies, their psycho-social freedoms and the agency they exercise.

We hope to explore this phenomenon by making connections between state formation and the regulation of sexuality, particularly Muslim women’s sexuality. We do this with the understanding that the category of ‘Muslim woman’ is not a monolith but referential and determined in part by the location of the Muslim woman of whom we speak.

For the sake of the panel then a presentation on the construction of sexuality vis-à-vis a Muslim majority and/or a theocratic state as well as a state in which Muslims constitute a significant minority will be useful. It will serve not only to reveal the dynamics that determine sexuality but also to destabilise the idea that there are Islamic prescriptions which are apolitical, absolute and insensitive to the passage of time.

2. Sexuality and the right wing:

After the strikes against America on September 11, 2001, the ‘Muslim’ has been reified as the enemy of the state, as a regressive zealot who is bloodthirsty and menacing: the quintessential terrorist. The face that we associate with the word ‘terrorist’ is a Muslim one. The rise of chauvinism, both political and religious, have threshed a new but familiar language of impending danger, the need for curtailing freedoms and civil rights, the importance of obedience and loyalty to god or nation and the suspension of one’s own critical faculties.

What implications do these have for Muslim women’s sexuality? Many Muslim women find themselves at the cleavages of political and religious fundamentalisms where controls on their sexuality are seen as the key to the community’s worthiness, its honour and purity (“honor” killings, child marriages, female genital mutilations, etc). At the same time, Muslim women’s bodies are the site of attacks by extremist groups as they are perceived to strike at the spirit of the community and destroy it. As a response to attempts at assimilation or attacks on symbols of identity, Muslim women are resisting in ways that revolve around their bodies and sexuality, such as taking to the purdah.

Using diverse country experiences, we hope to explore how the strengthening of right wing politics globally as well as locally implicates the sexuality of Muslim women.

3. Gender & Sexual Pluralities & Muslim Women:

The claims to plural gender and sexual identity made by Muslim women from their standpoint within the power dynamics in their communities as well as in the tensions created by an aggressive external threat to those communities have not found adequate space in the mainstream discourse. In the current global scenario, where sovereignty of nation states is being eroded by the market economy, national and religious identities are seen to assume increasing value and Muslim women’s struggles to gain control over their bodies and exercise gender and sexual will against male domination are precariously placed and inadequately understood.

Muslim women have rebelled and redefined meanings of self, community and nationality from within and outside the boundaries of their religion. While some of these rebellions (women’s groups, right to education, etc) have found legitimacy in atleast some circles (feminist women’s groups), resistance centred round sexuality has been silenced and invisibilised. We hope to appreciate the ways in which Muslim women have exercised their gender and sexuality to challenge and transform hetreonormative and patriarchal structures. What are the complicated negotiations that are part to realigning one’s gender and sexual identity with one’s religious identity, with one’s national identity as well as issues of personal faith or the absence of it (as atheist Muslim women)?

4. The construction of Muslim woman’s body and sexuality in the Koran:

What interpretations of the Koran hold liberatory potential for women to control and enjoy their bodies, their gender, their sexuality and their reproductive potential? Can the Koran be interpreted to challenge male domination and patriarchal mechanisms of surveillance and control over women’s bodies? Does the use of the Koran as a means to seek empowerment of women challenge or reinforce male domination within Muslim communities?

When non-Muslim communities demonise the Koran and pity the Muslim woman who is portrayed as its victim in need of rescue (by followers of other religions who claim superiority, by the “liberal modernists” from the “developed first world”), how do Muslim women resist the male domination within the community as well as unmask the domination of their communities and their bodies by the external enemy? What role does the Koran and the religion play in the way in which Muslim women experience their bodies and their self? How do misogynist customs not sanctioned by the Koran get legitimacy in the name of religion (“honor” killings “FGM”). What happens when Muslim women claim rights outside the Koran? How does one reconcile to the concept of a Muslim atheist?

How do we create space for women to reinterpret the Koran in ways that affirm themselves as well as space for women to criticise the Koran without their adherence or their criticism being used to delegitimise their struggle to shape their lives?