Women’s Sexuality in Islam

IslamBy 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.

Culture ignores gender equality of 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. And 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 (24:30-31):

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.

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 hair veiling.

Also, 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, according to Muslim scholars like Hammuda Abdul-Ati, Ph.D., bears witness to the fact that, as she says:

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.

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.

Islam takes a positive approach to women’s sexuality

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 May 13, 2016, in feminism, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. Yet again, you as an unbelieving, western person are going to tell the world what is Islam, namely your interpretation of the Quran. Don’t worry about that fact that REAL muslims don’t believe that Islam is purely contained in the Quran, no you know better than muslims what Islam is. Don’t worry that real muslims believe in following the Hadith too.

    And since you start the article talking about the burqa, we might point out that the Quran mentions women veiling. How can you say it doesn’t mention hair veiling? What do you think the “head covering” in the Quran is if not the hair at the very least? This isn’t even a debated point in historical circles. Veiling the hair was the culture of the region, it was mentioned in the bible even.

    Islam is NOT redeemable. There is no moderate version of Islam that will fit your agenda. The world of Muhammad and his successors, while not identical to modern Islam, was just as hostile to your world view. Women were veiled and obedient, and beaten when they stepped out of line. Why are trying to redeem the irredeemable? The Muslims won’t thank you for it (or listen to it), and neither will non-Muslims.

    • Oh the irony:

      Everything that is said in this article is from a Muslim person. And the article was written by Muslim person.

      It is you who are the unbeliever — so take your comment and fling it back at you. 🙂

    • Christians, likewise, were expected to beat their wives and keep them in line. And, similarly this was largely a cultural overlay. It is unfair to judge any faith by the actions of its worst adherents.

      • This is not a teaching of Christianity. To beat a woman is a sin. I’m not a religious person but was brought up in the church. No where in the teachings is the beating of a woman condoned.

      • This is true. But in the Old Testament you can do things like sell your daughters or kill your children for being sassy or kill someone for doing homosexual acts. No one pays any attention to that stuff anymore because mainstream Christianity is not fundamentalist – taking everything literally and doing everything exactly by the book.

      • I don’t put any stock in the interpretation of the Old Testament. Frankly it seems these radicals may be basing their ‘laws” on these principles

      • The main difference is how fundamentalist a person is — taking things literally and believing they must live by the morality of 2000 BCE, for instance. Muslim feminists agree that women shouldnt be beaten.

        Thanks for your thoughts on this.

      • I had no idea there were muslim feminists.

      • Yes there are. And some of them are my students. 😊

  2. Jean Claunde

    And how does that make those women’s life any better?
    What difference does it make if they are truly islamists or so-called islamists?
    So the problem isn’t if those women are suffering but not offend those so-called islamists?
    Those women are still suffering and labels won’t change a thing

    • There is actually the possibility for great change if people can get that the things that oppress women are tied to the culture, not the religion. Because it’s much easier to change culture than what is understood as God’s word. And it’s that much easier if you can see that the culture is in contradiction to scripture.

      Also, regarding this point this point: “it’s much easier to change culture than what is understood as God’s word”: I would point out that it’s unlikely that any human has perfect communication with God (assuming that that is what is happening). Even great prophets and apostles like Ezekiel and Paul talk about the difficulty of seeing and communicating with God. (I’m not saying that there is or isn’t a God, I’m just saying that even those who say they commune with God say that it is imperfect communication.) Everywhere, Scripture tends to reflect the culture. Although great religious leaders are much better than most at breaking outside of their cultures, which includes Mohammed, The Buddha and Jesus.

  3. Wonderful post, the writing and ideas here have pieces together the photos and videos of Islamic cities and cultures, where different ideas were allowed and people had a sense of freedom all while being practicing Muslims. This post does give hope that once the radicals depart (which as some point they must…the human spirit will see to that, just hope sooner than later).

  4. This post is very clear depiction about how the Quran does not correlate with the cultural effect of oppressing women’s sexuality, so commonly found in Islamic practicing areas. Being a Middle-Eastern American myself, although Catholic, I have pondered this very idea, for I have never clearly understood why Muslim women covered, couldn’t drive in some countries, etc. until the recent past years. My boyfriend of two-years is Muslim, neither of us practices our religions very often, but we identify with them and celebrate both’s holiday’s and recognize the religious traditions, without much conflict. From my Catholic peers, I am often asked if I feel “oppressed” in our relationship, and I don’t at all. I’ve talked to my boyfriend about this and asked questions about such sexual oppression of women in his religion. He has enlightened me and our group of peers, of mixed faiths, of exactly what this blog post is about, that the Quran and Islam itself does not directly relate to the sexual oppression of women. It is sad to say that the girth of society cannot see this clearly, including some Muslims themselves. It’s truly the cultural and political aspects and effects the areas who uphold these standards and laws that oppress women’s sexuality, which so happen to be Islamic areas and, in a way, blame the religion for such behavior.

  5. Michelle Staufenbiel

    This article really opened up my eyes. It made me realize that the Westerns interpretation of another’s culture is often misunderstood. It is not necessarily the practice of Islamic people as a whole who repress women’s sexuality, but other groups such as the Taliban, and other extremists. It is also important to remember that interpretations of religious text can be misinterpreted and that is why people woman are sometimes forced to dress in clothing from head to toe.
    It would be interesting to do research on Genital Mutilation and see where that originates from.
    It is refreshing to see that Islam encourages women to be sexually free with their husbands. At the end the words spoken by the Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, spoke to me. That advice is one that every couple should listen to and follow. Men and woman should be equal partners in a marriage. And that goes for any married couples, female and female or male and male. Not one person should be taking more than the other, that is how conflict arrises.

  6. So, this is how Islam really is, yet most Muslims don’t understand Islam? Then what are most Muslims actually practicing and why should we care about THIS Islam? Shouldn’t we care more about the Islam that real Muslims are actually putting into practice every day? I don’t care about some sugar-coated idealistic version of Islam. What is important is: how do people actually practice the religion in their day to day life? If they don’t actually follow what you say because they don’t understand it, then what you say doesn’t matter.

    • As my Muslim student wrote, “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.”

      The point is that what people — including Muslims — take as Islam is largely cultural, not scriptural.

      And so, the Taliban who were/are trying to create “the perfect Islamic state” and the “Islamic State” do things that are forbidden in the Koran. Or do things differently from the Koran.

      . Slavery is abolished in the Koran
      . women should have consent to marry
      . Women are allowed to work
      . The punishment for sex outside of marriage is whipping, not stoning. And you must have four witnesses. And men are punished too.

      And in north Africa female genital mutilation is practiced because they think it is in the Koran — but it’s not!

      A lot of Christians do things that aren’t very Christian, either. When I finally got around to reading the New Testament I was amazed at what a progressive, and feminist, Jesus was. The Bible is the most persistent least read book in the world.

      • “I was amazed at what a progressive, and feminist, Jesus was.”

        Jesus was such a feminist that he had 12 male disciples, and heavily promoted this rather unfeminist work known as the Jewish scriptures.

      • So… talking to a woman makes you a feminist? lol. Yes, perhaps by the standards of that age, but is that really the standard you are going to judge people to be feminists by?

        Not stoning women to death for their adultery makes you a feminist? lol. Did Jesus say to the woman, go keep on doing what you were doing? No.

        Deacon of course is the greek word for “servant”. So thinking of women as servants makes you a feminist? Count me in as a hard core feminist! lol.

      • Just talking to a woman doesn’t make a person a feminist.

        Talking to a woman in a culture where women aren’t thought of as worth talking to + all of the other things Jesus did, does make him a feminist.

      • “Talking to a woman in a culture where women aren’t thought of as worth talking to + all of the other things Jesus did, does make him a feminist.”

        I think your conception of the Jewish culture is nonsense. The old testament lists many women who are described as prophets, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, Esther and others. Deborah was one of the judges (rulers) of Israel. The Talmud and later rabbinical writings speak of the wisdom of Berurya, the wife of Rabbi Meir. In several instances, her opinions on halakhah (Jewish Law) were accepted over those of her male contemporaries. Acts 13:50 refers to “But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city” in the Jewish synagogue. How could there be Jewish women of high standing, and who would care what they thought if women’s opinions were nothing?

        So if your theory that Jews didn’t consider women worth talking to is actually not true, that means Jesus wasn’t a feminist, right?

      • The earliest concept of God in Judaism, where God is called Elohim, is gender-equal. Elohim is plural, containing both male and female aspects. In the creation of the world is explained in a gender equal way. But like the rest of the world, Judaism got more patriarchal over time. So that by the time Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well the apostles are shocked that he would bother to talk to a woman. Go back and read the passage.

      • Elohim was not “gender equal”, if anything he is non-gendered. I think it’s fair to say that your idea he was plural because he had male and female is entirely unfounded.

        Jesus at the well: If the text said “The disciples were amazed because he was talking to a man”, everyone would be fully clear that their amazement stemmed from the fact he was travelling through Samaria and for some strange reason decided to TALK to a Samaritan. But because he was talking to a woman, you assume it is a gender issue. You put the emphasis on the WOMAN instead of the TALK. I think it’s fair to say this theory is a minority view among commentators. So why weren’t the disciples amazed at all the other women he talked to, only the Samaritan one? We all know the Jews had issues with Samaritans.

        And you ignore Acts 13:50 referring to the Jews incited the devout Jewish women of prominence. How would a Jewish woman be of prominence, let alone anybody care about their incitement if your theory is correct?

        Yes of course this ancient society was patriarchal, but I don’t see much evidence Jesus rocking that boat much with his 12 male disciples.

        It’s a little odd that you cite women being the first witnesses to the resurrection as being women in your “Jesus was a feminist” article. If this happened, then your not being a Christian is odd. If it didn’t happen then you are ascribing to Jesus things that didn’t happen.

      • You seem to think that what I discuss in that post are all my own conjectures. It’s actually based on religious scholarship. This link by a religious scholar has all of the references https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V32N04_9.pdf

        And Elohim is both plural and has masculine and feminine components. Do some research.

      • Don’t elevate some random document on the internet to be “religious scholarship”, as if such a label blesses it with respectability. If you can’t defend what you promote, why bother? And Todd Compton is a Mormon who believes that God was a human who grew up on another planet, which makes him a crackpot in the minds of Christian and atheist alike.

        Even someone with no Hebrew skills can do basic research and see that Elohim has the masculine word ending “im”:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffixes_in_Hebrew#Gender_and_number

        And if you don’t trust your Hebrew skills, you can check this:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elohim

        And The personal name of God, YHWH, the Y (Hebrew yod) is the masculine subjective prefix to the verb to be.

      • Check the footnotes for yourself.

        This scholar is actually a friend of mine who has published with university presses.

        Btw, I’ll be out of the country for several days and not using internet much.

      • Forgot you were from Mormon background, but you think this religion is somehow redeemable also. Maybe it is in as much as it is largely centrally controlled and reinvents itself periodically with a spectacular amount of double think. Even going to the extent of changing the book of Mormon to remove racism. (2 Nephi 30:6). Don’t imagine that this makes Islam reformable though.

        This article you linked to doesn’t even really touch on the point you are contending, namely that Jesus’ treatment of women was way outside the norm of Jewish society. Yes certainly it was quite patriarchal, but my contention is that Jesus talking to some women and so forth was not particularly shocking. And Jesus promoting not to stone a woman is not a gender issue, anymore than his kindness to the thief on the cross can be made into a gender issue.

        You claim Jesus as a feminist only if he was way outside the norm of the time, and this you haven’t demonstrated.

      • I left Mormonism. And so has Todd.

        Research finds that the people with the most accurate knowledge of the Bible are Mormons, Jews and atheists. Todd Compton is a religious scholar of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament who has been published by university presses. I’ll take his scholarship over yours.

      • That’s wonderful that you think so highly of him. Trouble is he didn’t say anything whatsoever about your contention that Jesus was somehow outside of the norm of Jewish thinking. He didn’t cite anything or say anything about that. The trouble with you “trusting” certain scholars and not being able to defend your own position on its own terms is you are in grave danger of cherry picking scholars to support what you are inclined to believe. And when it comes to religion you can find someone to support every conceivable contention.

        Re your contention that Mormons have more accurate bible knowledge, I hope you aren’t referring to the Pew survey, because it proves no such thing. So what is your source?

      • University Presses also think highly of him. And he said that you can’t understand how radical Jesus was without understanding Jewish thinking.

        And yup, the Pew research. To quote: Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

        Funny that both of your points completely contradict the facts.

      • Ha ha, that is a bit silly. I did the Pew Survey, 3 of the 32 questions were about Mormonism! So right off the bat that accounts for the 3 point difference to Catholics and Protestants. And since most of the survey is about other religions, and Mormons spend their 2 years or whatever going door to door, we’d expect Mormons to know a lot about what other peoples religions believe.

        BUT

        That wasn’t your contention. Your contention was that Mormons have more accurate knowledge of the BIBLE. Only a few of the questions in the survey were about that, so yet again you’ve cherry picked some scholarship to bolster your pre-conceived view without looking hard enough for yourself to know what it is all about. I’ve talked to my fair share of various religions, including Mormons, and found their bible knowledge pretty poor. Jehovah’s witnesses would wipe the floor with them. I mean, one tends to be pretty superficial in your scholarship to accept a story about non-existent places in the BoM. Not to mention having nothing to say about Joseph Smith’s radically redacted version of the King James Bible. That’s not scholarship, that’s just silliness. Not to mention his fake translation of the Egyptian book of the dead.

        University Presses think highly of him? Oh come on, publishers think highly of anyone who can sell books, and claiming Jesus as a feminist is pure gold for a publisher. You’ll have proponents and enemies of this view lining up to buy it and either lap it up or refute it, but it doesn’t mean diddly about whether it’s good scholarship.

        Anyway, back to your contention that Jesus was “radical”. He was a bit of a rebel, sure. But you actually have presented nothing to say he was radical on this issue. You haven’t even presented Todd Compton because he didn’t look into this issue. So no matter how great he may or may not be, you’ve still got nothing. Todd commented that he in the little data available he treated women with respect etc etc, but so what? Is that strange for Jews, is the question at hand.

        Jesus was mainly a rebel against the Jewish leadership, the leaders of the Pharasees. But I don’t see much cause to think he was a complete rebel against all Jewish thinking. If he was too much of a rebel, he wouldn’t have been accepted. If he’s teaching on women had been radical it would have been a major point of discussion in the epistles of the apostles as they dealt with the results of this major upheaval, had it existed. But I put it to you that nobody noticed anything interesting on this issue, and that’s why it never comes up. Furthermore, in the early church fathers they discussed issues of great controversy and so forth, and I don’t recall any discussion about how to deal with the great feminist revolution that Jesus’ teachings brought on the earth. That’s because it was non-existent. There’s some real scholarship for you to consider, and not the pop-scholarship that you’re used to pushing.

      • I took the test too, and saw only one question on Mormonism. Pew research is held in high regard, and would not bias the sample as much as you claim. I saw one question on Mormonism, one on Judaism, one on Catholicism, one on Islam, one on Buddhism, one on Hinduism and then various questions that hit more than one religion.

        You said in an earlier comment that the fact that Todd Compton is Mormon meant that he would have less religious knowledge than average. And yes, he did go on a mission. Plus, he majored in the classics with a focus on the Hebrews. For whatever reason, he has more religious knowledge than average.

        And if you think that university presses only publish to sell books, it shows how little you know.

        I am also not going to approve a comment you wrote on another blog post because it is clearly meant to be provocative – more heat than light. I will only say that rape is not natural. You don’t find it in gender-equal societies like the Cherokee and the Iroquois when Europeans first contacted them.

        Otherwise, I’m not sure why you would expect that anyone would believe you over universities and major researchers, academic or polling.

      • The 3 Pew questions on Mormonism were “When was the Mormon religion founded?” (Various date ranges offered), The Book of Mormon tells of Jesus Christ in what part of the world (Various continents offered as choice), and “Joseph Smith was of what religion” (choice of Catholic, Hindu, Mormon, Buddist etc).

        Obviously you did the cut down online survey and not the full survey. I got 31/32 on the full survey.

        And again, you’re missing the point which is that you were making assertions about bible knowledge, but citing a survey which has very very little to do with bible knowledge.

        And again, you continue to cite evidences without actually understanding what you are citing. This is the kind of shallow thinking that gives a bad name to anybody pushing an agenda.

        And no, I didn’t say Todd is likely to have poor religious knowledge as a Mormon. I said basically, that I don’t see why I should accept someone as an authority figure on the bible who belongs to a religion that believes God was a man who grew up on another planet. Obviously any religion that believes that is not doing so because they have bible knowledge, they are believing that in spite of bible knowledge because of having an agenda based on other authorities. I mean come on, would you take seriously the opinion of a Mormon about the Egyptian book of the dead after the fiasco that Joseph Smith laid on the world about _that_ document? Such a person won’t be well respected as an authority figure outside of that religion.

        University presses: come on, you’ve got universities in Utah publishing defences of the BoM as real historical documents of things that took place in the Americas. I presume as an ex-Mormon you find this as ridiculous as I do.

        Regarding the other comment you did not publish, apparently you don’t like it if I point out the logical conclusion of someone ELSE’s comment. Yes, the end game of this line of thinking is repugnant, but you don’t want to see where it leads, but you will accept and publish the comment and viewpoint that leads there.

      • On your last paragraph, I made a point that discredits yours. I will not encourage ideas that are meant to encourage either rape culture or to inflame anger — especially when they are not even on topic.

        Curious about the 32 questions I googled them and counted how many questions were directed toward different faiths:

        Christian 10
        Christian/Protestant 12
        Christian/Catholic 13
        Christian/Mormon 13
        Jewish 7
        Muslim 4
        Hindu 2
        Buddhist 2
        Pagan 1
        Atheist/agnostic 2

        That doesn’t give Mormons any real advantage. And how well people did on the topic didn’t seem to be terribly related to how many questions were specifically about their faith, with Jews, atheists and agnostics at a significant disadvantage, yet doing better than most (other than Mormons).

        Otherwise, my friend, Todd, is a religious scholar who knows what he is talking about.

  7. I am amazed by the fact that there has been so much misinterpretation of the Qu’ran in order to constantly put Muslim women in poor situations. It seems that tradition has precedence over reinterpreting the Qu’ran as changing the way how Muslim society treats women would be groundbreaking and incite even revolution, which Muslim society seems to want to avoid. But in recent days, Muslim women are slowly gaining more rights. For example, I heard stories of an all-women airline pilot crew flying their first flight in Muslim countries. However, punishments for so called crimes by women has not changed in recent times. There are stories, especially in Saudia Arabia, of women suffering heinous punishments for their crimes when if men committed the exact crimes, they would receive a much less severe punishment.

    Because the Qu’ran does not mention explicitly the rules of societies and how women should be treated, there is a lot of leeway for those who make the laws of societies to bend the rules a bit, ultimately at the expense of women.

    • Religions pretty much always mix in someway with their cultures, Leaving people believing that the church or mosque they go to is a clear reflection of God’s desires. And yet Islam is practiced differently — sometimes very differently — in different parts of the world.

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