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.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on December 9, 2011, in feminism, gender, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. In history, people always make mistakes when setting laws for the nations after God’s words. Apart from the original meaning of God’s word to care and to love others, human-beings create a lot of unnecessary rituals and rules in order to force people to obey. In most of the cases, it is simply due to the rulers’ power-hungery control over people. Sometimes, they are so ambitious that they forget the meaning of the rules behind the original goals of setting those rules. However, in today’s society, as the lower class is getting more power, we have the duty to voice and to fight for a fairer system. And as Islamic people are starting to revolt, I believe that changes will be made in very soon too.

  2. First off, I appreciate a article highlighting positive aspects of Islam and Women. Media over Islam in the past couple years has just blown up all the misunderstanding/negativity that is related to certain cultures and peoples personal actions that having nothing to do with Islam. Before reading/hearing about Islam in the news no one knew what it was…..that because it has always been a peaceful religion….and the only knowledge anyone knows about Islam is the one propganda all over the world….in all its negativity and falseness. So, one should always educate themselves completely before speaking of a topic they have no true proper understanding/knowledge of. Islam, as it states in the article, values women highly in all forms may it be home, education or workplace. Women are more important in Islam because they are essentially the ones who spend more time with kids, raising them, educating them so a good foundation for women is necessary for greater prosper of family as a whole. Sexuality is something that is preserved, sacred and something beautiful not only for women but also for men. It’s a an exchange of all the things stated in this article which have been forgotten by everyone in general due to the overexposure of sex as a sort of materialistic bodily achievement. To the majority, sex is a number more than a special bond made between two people that last till ‘death do you part’. It is something that is celebrated and honored at the time of marriage as is in all religions. An religion isn’t an blind act of obedience but a conscious, educated, learned process that builds over time.

  3. Gds1 Gretchen Sturkey

    I agree completely that the Quran is misinterpreted. Most religions are. One, because they are so old and have been told many different ways, and also simply selfishness. All religions were based on a certain criteria. That criteria has been chopped and screwed more than anyone can imagine. Women are taught to serve the man and take care of home and family. In the Muslim culture this is dramatized. My Muslim friends do veil head to toe and they say it is because a women should not show any part of her that is considered sexy in public. When I ask them is it in the quran they believe it is. This is how they were raised and is the only way of life they know. In other religions like Christianity most believe that the bible means for a women to serve a man when it stated a women should submit to a man. I believe this just means for a women to understand a man, and love him unconditionally. It is hard to imagine having to live in a country where a misinterpreted religion is forced upon you. I believe that most people know the misunderstanding of religion and women but feel there isn’t much they can do about it. Women who live in Arab are accustomed and forced to live this life. It is sad to some and the way of life to others.

  4. It is surprising to me that Islam is taking such a positive approach to women’s sexuality because I believed in the popular belief that women are supposed to secrete their skin and hide as much of it as possible. I was also amused that Islam stresses the equal status of a man and woman because I’d expect their society to see women as the inferior. I’m really glad they’re opening up and letting women express their sexuality and beginning to seek equality for women. Honestly, Islam would be the last place I’d expect to be so open about this matter because of how I’ve seen so many women from that culture covers themselves to avoid strangers’ gazes. I think it’s great that they’re taking a step forward and letting women express their sexuality.

  5. I was studying English in an international school called SAL (Second American Language) at the SJSU, where met many Muslims from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Arab youth shared their cultural experience with me, for example, a girl had a perfect English and she was very beautiful and smart, but she obeys her brother and father how let her have this educational trip to the U.S.. She said that without their agreement she couldn’t come. I noticed interesting thing, that she wasn’t shy and she new that she is attractive, but she never let herself flirt with somebody, but her brother spent all weekends on a Santa Cruz beaches. where he was definitely staring on half-naked American women. Also our teacher asked everybody whom we will prefer to be born, and all Arabs said without even thinking, that they want to be born only in a men’s body. I my opinion Arab culture is paying more attention to women’s needs, like this girl, who wanted to go to the U.S., to study English and get to know North American lifestyle.

  6. You are right Islam religion that even most muslims do not understand how much is easy and equal for both gender. It is sad to see that some families follow the tradition and culture more than what religion says! and most these families have lack of knowledge and not open-minded who keep this children get married in so young age!

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