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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. Read the rest of this entry

The Islamic State Isn’t Islamic

Islamic peaceThe Islamic State is not Islamic.

Neither was Afghanistan under the Taliban, even though its leaders said they were striving to build, “the perfect Islamic state.”

Many will be surprised to learn that the Quran has very little sexism and gave women many rights that most women in the world did not enjoy in the 7th century, when the Quran was written.

In fact, most of the sexism you find in the Middle East comes from culture, not scripture.

The Quran gives women the right to: Read the rest of this entry

Early Islam Was Kind of Feminist

Ramadan 2014 is nearing its end, and in honor I am reblogging a piece by a Muslim feminist who talks of the strong feminist strain contained in the Quran.

Here is a link to a related piece that I wrote years ago (Early Islam’s Feminist Air). And here is another by one of my students (Women’s Sexuality in Islam).


the fatal feminist

Your God
Who created you from a single person
Created, of similar nature,
its mate and from them twain
scattered like seeds
countless men and women;–
Reverence God,
through Whom ye demand
your mutual rights
And reverence the wombs that bore you,
for God ever watches over you. (Qur’an 4:1)

The work of Muslim feminists is revivalism rather than reform, because the Qur’an itself is not only egalitarian but decidedly anti-patriarchal, as is Islam as it was practiced by our Prophet, who was in many ways a feminist. Since the Qur’an was revealed to a patriarchy and has been interpreted mostly by adherents of patriarchy since its revelation, it is the readings of the Qur’an and the interpretations by patriarchal Muslims that appear to be oppressive–not the Qur’an itself, whose teachings are neither framed by nor concerned with patriarchy, as proven by its strongly egalitarian essence and…

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Selling Daughters into Slavery is “Baad”



The word itself suggests evil: baad, the practice of making daughters pay for others’ crimes. A young girl becomes a slave and target for the rage that one family feels toward another. In the end, greater wrongs are committed than the original crime.

Baad is practiced in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The most well-known case is Bibi Aisha whose disfigured face shocked the world on an August 2010 cover of Time.

Aisha had been forced to marry at age 13 in retaliation for her uncle’s crime.  Read the rest of this entry

On Burqas and Being Subordinate

1By Zaineb Alkhaleef

Last Halloween I saw a white teenage boy dressed as an Arab man. His friend wore a burqa — and a rope around (his/her?) neck, which the “Arab man” held as a leash. He kept pulling “her” around and shouting orders. I was shocked and wondered what their motive could be.

It got me thinking about women and rights.

I am a devout Muslim woman who wears hijab, a scarf to cover my hair.

Why do I do this? Because I am inferior and subordinate? Because it is my job to control men’s sexuality?


I grew up hearing that men are sexual predators who are incapable of looking at a woman who isn’t covered from head to toe without wanting to rape them, or “mentally rape” them.

But that’s not why I cover my hair.

In fact, while some say women must dress modestly to keep uncontrollable men from sinning, I don’t buy it.

Read the rest of this entry

Saudi Women Can Vote. West, Middle East Can Learn From Each Other

Saudi women got the right to vote and run in municipal elections this week. It’s a big step forward.

There are limitations. It’s hard to run for office when you can’t drive or show your face. Some fear political stalling. And men could keep their wives and daughters from voting. But the women are optimistic. Let’s hope for the best.

Interestingly, only about five years ago George W. Bush sent Karen Hughes to Saudi Arabia to express her hope that one day Saudi women would be able to vote and drive. She was surprised when many said they didn’t want to do either.

Past relations between Western and Middle Eastern feminists have sometimes been strained with Western feminists lecturing Middle Eastern women, and Middle Eastern women rejecting what they see as Western arrogance.

Yet the road to women’s rights presents plenty of opportunity for all of us to learn from one another.

There is plenty that Westerners could have, and may have, learned from our Arabian sisters and brothers in the early years of Islam. When we were in the Dark Ages.

Back in the 7th century the Koran gave women the right to work, own property and inherit, and provided protections from domestic violence. Women were also granted the right to give their consent to marry.

But lately Arab women have been taking some cues from us.  Both the Arab Spring and Saudi women’s suffrage were inspired by Western democracies.

And perhaps now it is time for us to learn from them, again. The Arab Spring has inspired many Americans who wonder at our current state of democracy which is marked by legalized bribery (large campaign contributions) that make important matters like environmental sustainability and economic renewal political impossibilities.

Too often Western women think they have nothing to learn from their Middle Eastern sisters, while Middle Eastern women reject Western notions out of hand.

Perhaps we would do better to have dialogue and learn from each other.

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Female Activist Says Legalize Sex-Slavery

A female political activist and former parliamentary candidate prescribes sex-slavery as a means of protecting Kuwaiti men from committing adultery, according to the Kuwait Times and the Arabic news website, Al Arabiya.

In an online video the activist, Salwa Al-Mutairi, insists that Kuwaiti men could avoid moral corruption by purchasing non-Muslim women from an “enslaved maid” sex agency, if such a service were legally available. Otherwise, pious men may continue to be tempted by attractive household servants (who may go so far as to cast sensual spells).


Sex-slavery would protect the chastity of both men and women, she claims.

Since she sees non-Muslims as something less than human, Islamic men can’t commit adultery by having sex with them. Al-Mutairi reasons thusly: “The rules regulating sex-slaves differ from those for free women [i.e., Muslim women].” She explains, “The latter’s body must be covered entirely, except for her face and hands, whereas the sex-slave is kept naked from the bellybutton on up — she is different from the free woman; the free woman has to be married properly to her husband, but the sex-slave — he just buys her and that’s that.”

Meanwhile, pious women would be protected from sex-crazed men.

While not scripturally based, she insists the practice is not religiously forbidden. After all, several sheikhs and muftis in Mecca assured her that sex-slavery was perfectly legal under Sharia.

I see the problem here not as religion, but the mindset. Every Muslim I know would be completely appalled by a call for sex-slavery. Or by Al-Mutairi’s view that non-Muslims are something less that human.

Religion and religious advisors can say all sorts of crazy things. The Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament (scriptures Jews and Christians share) recommend that disobedient children, Sabbath breakers, homosexuals and adulteresses all be killed. And God either approves or orders the destruction of several cities and communities. It’s just that today no one pays attention to these extreme passages.

Of course, it’s not just religion. Similarly strange notions can come out of culture, too. New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof, tells a story in Half the Sky that is eerily similar to Al-Mutairi’s proposal. When Kristof asked Indian border guards why they didn’t stop young Pakistani girls from being brought into the country to be trafficked in the sex trade, the guards felt that since there will always be prostitution, it’s better to bring in girls from a lower class (and presumably lower morals) to save the Indian girls’ virtue as future wives of the same men who will frequent the prostitutes.

What of the ethics of Al-Mutairi’s proposal? Is morality grounded in religion? Doesn’t seem like it, given the religiously stained horror of nearly everything written above.

Additionally, must we accept that all cultural practices and perspectives are equally worthy? In most cases I agree with the tenants of cultural relativity: don’t judge a society’s practices if you live outside of it. But I’m not a moral relativist.

I ground my ethics in reason and human rights with this question in mind: Is anyone being harmed? If someone is being killed or crippled, physically, spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually, the behavior is wrong, regardless of culture.

Clearly, slavery wounds. So would the ongoing rape that this setup would entail.

When powerful groups profit by exploiting the powerless among them, I call that immoral. Certainly, sheikhs and muftis who declare sex-slavery acceptable under Sharia would personally benefit from satiated libidos, but at great cost to enslaved women. Regardless of what they claim their religion allows.

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Did Women Create Burqa Culture?

In honor of implementation of the French “burqa ban,” and the brouhaha it is causing from Bill Maher to the New York Times, I repost the following:

The French “burqa ban” has got me thinking. Did women have equal power to create the burqa? And who benefits from this garment?

Some charge that rejecting the burqa comes from fear of the other, or ethnocentrism. I’m in sync with cultural relativism, so long as no one is being hurt. But buqas and “burqa cultures” don’t give women equal power. And women certainly did not have equal sway in creating the customs of these societies.

Think about the laws that exist in places where women are required to cover up in burqas, abayas, niqabs (facemasks) or various other veilings.

Is it likely that women decided that men could easily demand a divorce, but women could get one only with difficulty?

Is it likely that women created the notion that sharing a husband with other women might be fun?

Did women create the idea that an adulterous man be punished by burial up to his waist before being stoned, while a woman must be buried to her breasts – and one who escapes, escapes the stoning?

In these cultures, when a woman is raped it is her fault. She obviously let some hair fall from her covering, or she allowed an ankle to show. Everyone knows that no man could resist such things. Did women decide that women, and not men, are responsible for men’s sexuality?

Did women originate the notion that after rape, the victim must be killed to restore family honor?

Did women clamor for a burqa that limits their power and autonomy – keeping them from driving in Saudi Arabia and getting jobs that are far from home? Did women design this garment that prevents small pleasures like seeing clearly or feeling the sun and the wind?

And who benefits?

Men benefit from easily obtaining a divorce, but not allowing their wives the same privilege. Men benefit from the sexual variety of having many wives, while women are left to share one man. Men benefit by more easily escaping a stoning. And men can rape with impunity since women fear reporting sexual assault, lest their families kill them. Men gain power when women are incapable of getting jobs and income. How much easier is it to beat women for the infraction of straying outside the home, or letting a wrist show, when they are black or blue blobs, and not human beings?

It is common to make accusations of ethnocentrism when one culture rejects the practices of another. Often the fears are valid.

But if a powerful group creates a culture that benefits themselves to the detriment of others, the critique is not about ethnocentrism. It is about human rights.

Georgia Platts

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Why Do The “Isms” That Affect Men Seem More Important?

“You’re never going to have this revolution happen unless there’s also a sexual revolution.”

That’s Bill Maher’s verdict on the push for Democracy in Egypt as he discussed the matter on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher.

Pro-feminist, Tavis Smiley, agreed that women need to be treated better. Yet he inserted a different spin: “When we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if we treat women better in our country, it demonizes Muslim men.”

The most well-meaning among us, men like Smiley, work hard to respect other cultures. Yet sometimes we need to discern whether powerful elements of a society are harming less powerful targets. And really, is pointing out a need for improvement “demonization”?

Mr. Smiley is a-okay in my book, and I appreciate his aim here. Yet there is plenty of room for change in cultures that (depending upon the country or province) stone women for being victims of rape, beat women for leaving home without a male relative, keep girls out of school, forbid women from driving, make divorce difficult for women but easy for men, remove battered women from shelters, and cut women’s genitals – leaving them in pain, crippled, or dead.

It’s a sad turn of events when early Islam did so much to improve women’s rights in the world. The Koran gave women the right to work, inherit and own property. Female infanticide and slavery were abolished. Women were given the right to consent to marry. Protections against abuse became instituted.

Today Islamic scholars like Dr. Jamal Badawi work to support women’s rights. Meanwhile, large majorities favor legal, political and professional freedoms for women in North Africa and many countries in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. In fact, the Islamic culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia is one of the most peace-loving, egalitarian places on the planet.

Islam isn’t the problem. Neither are Muslim men.

Still, problems abound. Yet Smiley seems more concerned with ethnocentrism than sexism, given his desire to cut off conversation. Why do the “isms” that affect men seem more important? And did women have equal power to create the cultures that oppress them?

When ethnocentrism and sexism are at odds, which worries should prevail? Cultural relativism – don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another – is a good guide most of the time. But what if someone is being harmed? When people are killed for reasons other than self-defense, when they are crippled physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, those circumstances must trump all others.

Must we worry more about offending those who create cultures that harm women than freeing women who are harmed by them?

Meanwhile, Islamic feminists complain that Western women can be too fearful of offending ethnic sensitivities to back their feminist sisters.

Now, is lecture the best way to handle this? Dialogue is better. Other cultures have perspectives that can benefit us, too. Perhaps we can learn from each other.

Love Tavis. But he insists we cannot criticize until we perfect ourselves. We’ll never be perfect. Still, we must fight oppression wherever it is found, here and there, to whatever degree we find it. Tolerating intolerance is not progressive.

Georgia Platts

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Beating Your Wife, Child OK in United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates’ High Court ruled a few weeks ago that men can beat their wives and children. Wives are always fair game, but children may only be beaten if they are young enough to be properly defenseless (only “young” children may be battered). Also, husbands and fathers must leave no visible mark. So keeping wives and daughters properly covered could come in handy.

Sharia law expert, Dr. Ahmed al Kubaisi, reasoned that wife beating is sometimes necessary to preserve family bonds, “If a wife committed something wrong, a husband can report her to police,” he explained. “But sometimes she does not do a serious thing or he does not want to let others know; when it is not good for the family. In this case, hitting is a better option.”

It’s all so clear to me now. 

Except for the part about why men are qualified to discipline women. Is it that men are more wise and compassionate? And we know this because wife and child abuse come so easily to so many of our less evolved brethren? And why would God want anyone to beat anyone else? 

Islamic scholars don’t all feel that beating women and children is consistent with Islam. 

Islamic law scholar, Dr. Jamal Badawi, says the Quran seeks “the prohibition of any type of wife beating.” Lawyer and women’s rights activist, Summer Hathout, observed, “To those of us who know Islam and the Quran, violence against women is so antithetical to the teachings of Islam.” Islamic feminists note that the word in the Quran which is commonly translated as “beat” (daraba) can also be translated as “to go away.”

Basing prescriptions for battering women and children on religion, the word of God, seems odd. How is violence of any sort good for the soul? 

Beating women. Killing women to preserve “honor.” Throwing stones at women in a stadium. A woman is hit by a large stone. She screams out in pain. And cheers rise up from the crowd. This is ennobling? 

What happens to a person’s soul who behaves this way? Only dehumanization comes  from this mindset and behavior. 

Georgia Platts 

Related Posts: Early Islam’s Feminist Air
Don’t Reject Your Culture, Even When It Mutilates You
Cultural Relativism: Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?

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