Women’s Sexuality in Islam
By Dania Jafar
Islam represses women’s sexuality, right? Think again.
We all see Muslim women draped in head-to-toe burqas, or read about 10-year-olds being married off to 50-year-old men, or cringe at women being stoned for adultery or knifed to death by family members in “honor killings” for such crimes as fornication or being with a man without a chaperone – or for being raped. (The stain of sexual impurity must be removed from the family, it is thought.) In some parts of North Africa and the Middle East women’s genitals are ritually cut or removed in the name of Islam.
In such a world, whose sexuality wouldn’t be repressed?
But nothing you just read has anything to do with Islam. All of the above are cultural practices that are not approved in the Quran.
Unfortunately, a lack of understanding has created mistaken beliefs about women and sexuality in Islam, says scholar and feminist Pınar İlkkaracan. And the confusion exists among Muslim and non-Muslim, alike. As she explains (paraphrased):
The classical figh texts of early Islam’s legal jurisprudence kept with their patriarchal societies and ignored the gender equality of the Quran. Today, many on the religious right claim that customary practices that subjugate women are Islamic, and use them to control women and their sexuality. This has led to an incorrect portrayal of scripture both in Muslim societies and in the West.
What does the Quran say? Women have the right to consent to marriage. But ten-year-old girls are not old enough to understand and give consent, so they should not be given to older men. Holy Scripture says that adulterers (male and female) should be lashed, not stoned. But there must be four witnesses, otherwise a woman’s word must be accepted. And genital cutting was practiced long before Islam arose. There’s nothing about it in the Quran.
Even veiling is largely misunderstood. The scripture declares, “Say to the believing women that they guard their private parts, and reveal not their outward adornment and let them cast their veils over their bosoms (24:30-31).”
This scripture simply advises modesty. But what is considered modest varies from place to place. That is cultural. There is nothing in the Quran about full body covering. Or even about veiling your hair.
And covering can be viewed as a good thing with women seen as precious gems, shielded from the unpleasant stares of strangers. Covering can also be experienced as a positive affirmation of devotion to God.
Additionally, Islam stresses the equal status of a man and woman and by no means deems one less than the other. The attitude of the Quran and Muslim scholars bear witness to “the fact that woman is, at least, as vital to life as man himself, and that she is not inferior to him nor is she one of the lower species,” according to Hammuda Abdul-Ati, PH.D. This is also demonstrated in the first word of the Quran, “Iqra,” which commands all humans to search for, and equip themselves with knowledge. God doesn’t differentiate between man and woman and tells us that both are of equal importance.
In contradiction to popular belief, Islam takes a positive approach to women’s sexuality. It affirms their sexual desire and right to its fulfillment in a responsible way, after marriage.
Consider these quotes from the great mufti ‘Sheikh Ahmad Kutty’:
Now coming to mutual obligations of spouses, it is lucidly and beautifully expressed in the following verses: And cohabit with them on terms of utmost decency and fairness (An-Nisa’ 4: 19); And they (women) have rights similar to those of men in fairness (Al-Baqarah 2: 228).
According to the Qur’an, the purpose of marriage is to attain sukun (tranquility and peace; see for instance verses 30:21; 7:189), which can never be achieved through impulsive sexual fulfillment unless it is accompanied by mutual love, affection, caring, and sharing, which are all part and parcel of a fulfilling and productive marriage relationship.
In Islam, man and woman in general, as well as husband and wife in particular, are equal partners; just as a husband has needs to which a wife is expected to be responsive, a wife also has needs to which a husband should be responsive. To be successful, marriage must be based on mutual reciprocity and consensual relationship.
Yes, Islam sees women’s sexuality as beautiful, natural, and fulfilling.