Islam and gender

6 years ago

By Karin van Nieuwkerk

The discourse on sex and gender in the Muslim world is not an easy thing to describe. It should be borne in mind that there is not one discourse, and that they do not define actual relations. Besides, discourses are neither stable over time nor undisputed. In this section, I compare two discourses on gender and sexuality, firstly the orthodox discourse (Sabbah 1984), comparable to what Mernissi calls the explicit theory of female sexuality (1975), and secondly, the implicit theory and its extension into the erotic discourse. I particularly deal with the way the female body is constructed in these discourses.

In the explicit religious discourse the sexes are perceived as complementary. Men are providers for women and in exchange for support, women should be obedient and serve their husbands. They should keep their virginity and after marriage, loyalty, chastity and complete dedication to their husbands are prerequisite for securing maintenance. Women are seen as weak and as easily overpowered by men. They therefore need protection against the strong desires of men. In the orthodox discourse women are not perceived as lacking in passion, although it is less intense as men's, but they are not capable of resisting men.

Male desire is conceived as strong and capricious. Yet, it must be gratified in the legal context of marriage lest zina', illicit intercourse, takes place (Mernissi 1975: 17). Classic Islam defines the wifely duties in terms of women's obligation to provide sex over and above their obligation to reproduce and mother (2). Women cannot refuse to perform the conjugal duty (Naamane-Guessous 1990: 194) (3). They should fulfill this duty so as to prevent men from committing illicit intercourse. Yet, this also protects themselves against their husbands marrying a second wife. Only women who know how to please their husbands are capable of assuring their attention and support.

The powerlessness of women can potentially be inverted if they manage to seduce and ensnare men. Orthodox scholars acknowledge this danger and since men are primarily created to worship God, they warn against female seduction and particularly against attachment to women. God requires the believer's total love and all of his capacity for emotional attachment: "Emotional attachment divides man's heart, and Allah hath not created man with two hearts within his body" (Quran Surah II: 165).

Mernissi argues that implicitly in the religious discourse women are feared for their disruptive potentials. Women are capable of creating fitna (4) chaos provoked by sexual disorder (Mernissi 1975: 4). According to the implicit religious discourse, both sexes have an active sexual nature and female desires should be gratified as well. If women are not sexually satisfied they create fitna by enticing other men than their husbands. Hence: "The virtue of the woman is a man's duty. And the man should increase or decrease sexual intercourse with the woman according to her needs so as to secure her virtue" (al-Ghazali in Mernissi 1975).

The need to satisfy the female desire and the difficulties men have in fulfilling this duty is the topic of the erotic discourse (Sabbah 1984). The erotic discourse is an extension of the implicit theory and deals with female desireas mirrored in men's thought. It is an attempt by religious scholars to counsel the believer in the righteous conduct towards sexual desire. The orthodox discourse mainly focusses on the strong male desire, the implicit theory recognizes the active sexuality of both sexes, and the erotic discourse is chiefly centered on the aggressive nature of female passion. Female desire is active in the implicit theory, but it becomes aggressive and threatening in the erotic discourse. In the erotic discourse there is thus a reversal of roles. Men are impotent and weak whereas women's passion is insatiable. They resort to cunning, qaid, in order to reach their sexual gratification. Yet, despite the difference between these constructions of gender and sexuality, it is striking that they converge in their definition of women as primarily sexual beings. The female body is highly sexualised. Whether the female body should be confined and covered, or unleashes its aggressive sexuality, in both cases the sexual aspect of the female body is cardinal (5). Women cannot refuse to perform the conjugal duty (Naamane-Guessous 1990: 194) Whether women passively try to keep their legal husband's attention through being desirable or actively seduce other men, in both cases their sexual dimension is central. In both discourses the female body is reduced to the sexual aspects.

According to Leila Ahmed (1992), who traces the changes and varieties of discourses in the history of Middle Eastern Arabic women, it was in the Abbasid era that the word woman became almost synonymous to slave and object for sexual use. Marketing of women as commodities and objects for sexual use was an everyday reality in Abbasid society. It is no wonder that Muslim scholars of that period, such as al-Ghazali, mainly define women as sexual beings. This period was however constitutive for the formulation of Islamic law and thus had a profound impact up till today.

Sabbah argues that: "Muslim culture has a built-in ideological blindness to the economic dimension of women, who are ordinarily perceived, conceived and defined as exclusively sexual objects. The female body has traditionally been the object of an enormous erotic investment, which has clouded (if not totally hidden) woman's economic dimensions" (1984: 16-17). In addition, it has led to the general eroticization of relations between the sexes. As a result of this, working outside the home by women is often experienced as erotic aggression.

Women are thus generally viewed as sexual beings. Whatever women do, they are first and foremost perceived as enticing bodies. They and their bodies seem to have only a sexual dimension. Working in the male public space is generally perceived as an erotic invasion. The male body, although sexual in the presence of a female body, has several dimensions, for instance, in the economic or political field. Women, in contrast, even if they do not move and dance, but simply walk or work in the male space, are perceived as sexual beings. Even if they use their bodies as productive instruments, they are perceived as sexual bodies.

This construction of gender and the body pertains to all Egyptian women. Female entertainers differ from "decent" women because they publicly use their bodies instead of hiding their shame as much as possible. They publicly employ the power of their bodies. Instead of using their feminine powers in the licit context of marriage, they tempt male customers in public. They thus employ the sexuality of their bodies out of wedlock which is a grave sin.

Entertainment is a particular sensitive field to work in for women because the body is focal. Female performances are inevitably tantalizing. As mentioned above, in strict religious opinion, female singers are also haram.. Listening to the voice of women can evoke tempting images. Especially since female singers are not only audible but also visible, the bodily dimension of their performance has become more prominent. Dancing, however, is quintessential a bodily expression. Dancing is thus by definition a sexual activity. Unlike, for instance, actresses, dancers not only put their sexuality on stage but they even move their sexual bodies. Moving sexual bodies in public, in exchange for money, is almost identical to prostitution.

I had an interesting interview with a sheikh of a small mosque. I asked him whether female folk dancers, who are fully dressed unlike belly dancers, are less haram, he resolutely replied: "no, they also move." I then asked him why male dancing is not haram. The answer was easy: "A man's body is not shameful," and regardless of how it moves and shakes, "it cannot excite." Although this seems to be an exaggerated denial of the sexual dimension of the male body, it illustrates the stress that is put on the productive dimension of the male body. A dancing male body is performing a job, a dancing female body is moving sexual instincts.

In how far is this discourse about seduction, sin and shame shared by the ones most involved, that is, female performers?


1. As Ahmed states the word `awra is a highly complex notion. It connects women, sexuality and shameful and defective things. Its meaning includes the parts of the body that are shameful and should be concealed (1992: 116).
2. Sexual and other services are the wifely duties but not necessarily the bearing of children. There is thus no special emphasis on women's generative capacity, in contradistinction to past and present oral culture. It should be borne in mind, though, that the orthodox perspective is discussed which was influential but not the only voice (Ahmed 1992: 92-93).
3. In Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian women tell their stories (Atiya 1982), one of the women related that her mother went to religious lessons. Her daughter asked her what Sheikh Ahmad taught her that day. Her mother replied: "He said that a woman must care for her husband, that she must wear clean clothes before going to bed, that she should smell good. A woman before she drifts off to sleep should ask her husband three times, 'Is there anything you desire?' And if not, then she can sleep" (1982: 59).
4. Fitna also means a beautiful women or a femme fatale whose attraction makes men lose their self-control (Mernissi 1975: 4).
5. I do not intend to suggest that this is exclusive to Islam or the Middle East. It is a familiar conception in the West as well.
6. For more details about their defense strategies see Van Nieuwkerk 1995 chapter 6 and 8.

This article was originally published on University of Maryland, Baltimore County website.


Developed by Avesta Group and powered by Microsoft Azure
Dabran © 2016 All Rights Reserved