You don’t often hear about Muslims and sex. Maybe that’s because we always seem to be having babies — and you all know how much sex a couple with a baby (or two, or three…) is having.
But in the Media, the topic of sex in Islam is second only to niqaab and terrorism. Primarily because hetero sex, sexual expression, sexual freedom, sexual exploitation, and sexual stereotypes at times deals with female liberation VS male dominance, and the Western Media really, really wants to liberate Muslim women. How on earth can a woman who’s covered from head to toe in that black thing be having sex? Good sex? Enjoying sex? Selling sex? Kinky sex? How on earth indeed. How on a bed, in a car, on a train, in a shower, with herself, with more than one partner, with a same sex partner? Muslims? No way.
They’re way too pious. Too 7th century (they apparently didn’t have sex either). Too different. Too Arab. In the Western literary tradition, there exists a stereotypical picture of the Muslim woman as veiled, untouchable and subjugated by her lustful and dominant Arab partner. That for some (Muslim and non) the Muslim women’s dress code is paramount to controlling their sexuality (as well as their actions, voice, and public power) — and that women must be segregated or secluded to protect men from their tempting wiles.
Which leaves the picture of the lustful Muslim male as cavorting through the West and practicing on “promiscuous” non-Muslim women before returning home to his four virginal wives. Meanwhile, Muslim women are forcibly sexually ignorant… until the wedding night. Why else would there be a cultural appropriation of a woman and her body through a piece of cloth, if not for the insane machinations of sex-starved men? And if they control how the women dress, lord knows what other kinky, crazy ways these women are controlled.
The Media mystique surrounding Muslims and sex, specifically women and sex lies in equating the hijab/niqaab with the repression of sexuality. How can a religion that calls for sex segregation, chastity (no dating/sex before marriage, no infidelity) and a public covering of all that can make a woman desirable discuss sex with the same openness as the sexual revolution? Yet Muslims are having sex, enjoying it and are producing tones of offspring.
Even though these stereotypes are used by the Media, AND by Muslims to indeed subjugate women, this picture of sexually charged Muslim men, and sexually ignorant Muslim women runs contrary to the fact that the Islamic injunction to maintain one’s chastity is directed to both men and women, and that sexual fulfillment is a right of both partners.
Sex is not a taboo topic in Islam. Because Islam is purported to be a complete way of life for its followers, one’s actions are always supposed to be pleasing to God — especially for the acts that have reward attached to them. For example, there is reward in kindness. Muslims are taught to be kind to animals, to their neighbours and especially to their family. It’s almost like receiving frequent flyer points. When you’re kind to your parents, you get some kind of heavenly reward, be it erasure of sins, giving an angel his wings or simply receiving a nice warm fuzzy feeling in your tummy. (I jest. Islam is not a points based religion. Just a good deeds one.)
But it’s in the sexual act itself that has reward. Many scholars spoke about how foreplay is necessary and that one gains spiritual reward by showing kindness toward one’s wife. Sex in Islam is seen as recreation, for strengthening the bonds between couples, as well as for reproduction. Both the Qur’an and hadith (prophetic traditions) are explicit as to what is permissible and impermissible sexual relations. Sodomy, bestiality, and intercourse during menstruation are forbidden; masturbation is frowned upon, but it’s a-ok for the majority of legal scholars; birth control is permitted, as is abortion (with restrictions of course — the mother’s life has to be in danger, and that is always up to interpretation); and both men and women are entitled to orgasms. In fact, not receiving orgasm from her husband is legal grounds for a woman to divorce him.
Throughout the history of Islamic traditions, philosophies, and law, much has been written to encourage Muslims to cultivate both sexual passion and tenderness in their marriages, and often in frank and explicit terms. As early as the 9th Century, when the sciences began to develop in the Muslim world, there are detailed accounts and diagrams of male and female anatomy and discussions of sex in explicit terms. There are even detailed descriptions of the gestation period of a fetus found in the Qur’an.
13th Century religious Sufi poetry was also highly sexualized and erotic, but used the imagery to relate how communication with the Divine is as close as sexual union. Probably the most notorious example of erotic Islamic literature is “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Desire” by a Tunisian scholar, Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzowi. His 14th century manual on sex provides the reader with tips on technique, proper hygiene, how to ensure conception, which foods cause arousal or impotence, and the physical signs of sexual pleasure.
Even today, a quick search on online Islamic fatwa banks (not the best method mind you. It’s better to ask a trusted scholar in person than try to navigate the hundreds of, mostly spurious, opinions online when fatwa shopping) illustrates that even among the most pious, there continues frank discussions on sex. People are asking detailed questions on every topic from oral sex to menstruation and sex to accidentally tasting your wife’s breastmilk.
Despite this apparent openness in the Islamic tradition, there is a grain of truth to the idea that Muslim women (and men) have no idea what to do when it comes to sex. Even though sex and sexual enjoyment plays a huge part in Islam, the modern cultural discussion of sex is completely taboo.
During day three of her typical Muslim wedding, a good girlfriend of mine asked me “how to do it.” On day two, after the civil and religious ceremony, she snuck off with her newly wedded husband to get better acquainted. Things apparently didn’t go as well as things do in the movies, which led her to ask me “how does it feel,” “what is it supposed to do? move around? go up and down?, and “why couldn’t we get it in?” I explained some basic anatomy, recommended a great lubrication, told her to go very slowly and get to know each other’s bodies and told her to communicate what she wanted.
The problem was, she didn’t know what she wanted. She had never had an orgasm. (“Never? No self exploring? No boyfriend pillows?” “No.”)
It makes me wonder sometimes just how misinformed Muslim women may be about the workings of their own bodies, and just how correct those Media stereotypes are. I grew up in a very open family. I learned about sex at a young age, shared showers with my mom well into my teenage years, and most recently have been breastfeeding openly in front of my entire family. Some women don’t use tampons out of fear of losing their virginity. Some women (not only Muslims mind you) don’t even look at themselves naked in the mirror out of what? Fear? Shame? Compounding this is a legal opinion that women must cover their bodies from the chest to the mid thigh in front of other women. But even this requirement is a male interpretation of modesty.
I’m not saying being modest in front of other women is bad. What I’m identifying is that it’s contributing to women just not being comfortable with their own bodies (as does sex segregation, and a lack of sex education). Which for me is extremely important. Not only for sex, but self-esteem, sexuality, and eventually motherhood for those who choose it. I can’t imagine how scary it would be to give birth if you weren’t quite sure what things looked like down there.
Many mothers refuse to discuss sex with their daughters, simply out of the desire to keep everyone chaste. If you don’t know what could be, you may not go out exploring. I just find it mind boggling, when even the wet dream is seen as a blessing from God.
This is an older NYTimes article, but every time I read it, I’m amazed:
In Saudi Arabia and other countries where the genders are rigorously separated, many men have their first sexual experiences with other men, which affects their attitudes toward sex in marriage, Ms. Lootah said.
“Many men who had anal sex with men before marriage want the same thing with their wives, because they don’t know anything else,” Ms. Lootah said. “This is one reason we need sex education in our schools.”
She is also emphatic about the importance of female sexual pleasure, and the inequity of many Arab marriages in that respect. One of the cases that impelled her to write the book, she said, was a 52-year-old client who had grandchildren but had never known sexual pleasure with her husband.
“Finally, she discovered orgasm!” Ms. Lootah said. “Imagine, all that time she did not know.”
Ms. Lootah. Niqaab-wearing, Emerati national, Saudi pioneer, sexual activist. The Muslim Dr. Ruth.
After I had that conversation with my girlfriend, I decided to have a sit down with a few of my newly married friends and relatives. Nothing like a stitch n bitch. Just a more subtle, “so… how are things?” I wasn’t surprised when questions came pouring out. I was more surprised at how relieved everyone was to have someone to talk to, compare notes and hopefully learn some things. More women need to learn just how open Islam is to sexuality and sex.
Maybe we should organize a workshop. Thoughts?
Image credit: The Herald Sun
Thanks to the brilliant Rawiya, for her opinion, discussions and joint research that helped to inform this post.