The construction of "Muslim Women's" sexuality and the political use of tradition and religion

A summary of the presentation by Marieme Helie-Lucas at the workshop on Muslim women and sexuality at the 2004 World Social Forum.
If one agrees that personality - therefore also sexuality - is shaped by a number of factors that are determined by circumstances (time in history, culture, religion, family, class, etc...), then how could one imagine for a minute that the sexuality of women who live in as different situations as do women who live in "Muslim" contexts around the world could be similar?
How could the sexual life of a woman who studies, works, earns her living, chooses her husband and determines the number of children she conceived, has legal rights over her own life, mixes with men, has freedom of movement, drives, travels, votes, etc. be compared to the sexuality of a woman who is secluded, has no right to work, no right over her children, can be married off to a total stranger at a tender age, can be repudiated at the drop of a hat, needs permission to go out of the house, can be beaten up, tortured by her family or killed for 'honor' without any recourse, has no civil rights, etc. Evidently, their personality and their sexuality will be shaped differently in these different circumstances. Between these two extremes, one will find all the shades of living conditions within the Muslim world.

What strikes me is that no one would ever dream of considering seriously the question of "Christian women's" sexuality as a whole, for everyone realizes that being born and raised a Scandinavian woman, a North American woman, a Latin American woman, a Philipina woman, a Vietnamese woman, a Senegalese woman, a Congolese woman, a Spaniard woman or an Italian woman, etc. - just to name a few - will necessarily induce that all these so-called Christian women from all these different countries and cultures cannot end up with the same type of sexuality.

Moreover, it is also established that, within Christianity, different forms of religion (Catholics, Protestant, Baptists, you name them...) have emerged over the centuries, both in terms of schools of thought, schisms and the historical changes within one of these Christian faiths.

Then, why a concept that would seem totally unacceptable to any educated person when it comes, for instance, to Christianity, is so generally accepted, even by scholars, when "Muslims" are concerned?

Hence, how can we think in terms of "Muslim Women's sexuality" as if it could be one and only one - and exclusively determined by religion - for the half a zillion women who live in Muslim countries and communities, spread over five continents? From a geographical and cultural perspective, it is impossible.

Religion, just like the rest of cultural and ideological constructs, change over time and adjust to different circumstances. This implies that different political forces, and we women too, have the power to influence these changes. Both religion and traditions are in constant evolution; there is no such thing as 'tradition' and 'modernity', for tradition is the modernity of yesterday, and modernity is the tradition of tomorrow. Tradition cannot be seen as a-historical, fixed in the past. We are actors of these changes.

Hence from a historical perspective too we cannot think of a constant nature of sexuality of "Muslim women".

To start with, I would challenge the term "Muslims" and "Muslim women", for the general acceptance of the term, including by progressive people and feminists, is at the root of this lumping together of "Muslims" as a homogeneous entity, over continents, cultures and ages.

It seems to me that calling a "Muslim" any person born and raised in a Muslim context, Muslim country or community or family, whether or not this person is a believer of the faith of Islam, is an insult both to believers and to those, believers or unbelievers, who have not chosen religion as a marker of their identity. The only historical precedent that i can think of are the Jews, who have moved in the collective unconscious from being followers of a religion to being a "race". Is that the future we are envisaging for "Muslims"? And if this is already happening somewhere to a certain extent, how are we contributing to it, by accepting and using for ourselves the same concepts racists use?

I will only refer here to women living in predominantly Muslim contexts, or under 'Muslim laws', although this too calls for challenge...

If we look at "Muslim laws" in different countries or communities, we can see how different they are from one another and how more or less option-giving they are for women. There is obviously no such thing as THE 'Sharia', as a God given law, eternal and a-historical; there are many different "Muslim laws" and they are man-made. The Muslim world is not homogeneous. It is on the agenda of the political extreme right forces that use religion, i.e. the fundamentalists, to make us - and the world - believe in the homogeneity of the Muslim world. Each time, we accept the use of the term ' THE Sharia' without challenging it, without pointing at the variety of Muslim laws, we are giving in to the fundamentalist agenda, and promoting their reading of religion and their political agenda.

How can we explain the differences that exist between different Muslim communities, and especially in the way of life of women?

First of all, there are different interpretations of religion, different schools of thought which have evolved over the centuries. Sacred texts can be read in different ways. If you look at the Bible, you can find there the God of peace and justice, and you can also find the God of wrath and revenge. The history of Christianity is full of examples of various political forces using different parts of the text to justify their opposite behaviors.

But let's take an example from the Qu'ran: the family law in Algeria, allows polygyny on the ground that the Qu'ran allows men to have "four wives and as many concubines that he can afford". The law in Tunisia, a neighboring country within the same school of thought (Maliki) and the same culture (Berbero-Arab/Mediterranean), forbids polygyny on the ground that the second part of the sentence adds "provided he treats them perfectly equally", therefore limits in fact this right of men; at the time the Tunisian law was passed, it was argued that, even if a man would give the same amount of wealth to each of his wives, it would still be impossible for him to love different women equally. We are here confronted with different interpretations of the same verse.

Different interpretations of religion are not the only source of differences in situations of women living under Muslim laws. Culture is another one. Islam has expanded (in fact it is the only religion in expansion in the world today) over the centuries from the Middle East on to all continents, thereby accommodating the different cultures of the converts. In fact Islam has absorbed and incorporated local traditions and uses them as the religious leaders see fit. However, in present day political circumstances, most progressive religious interpreters of religion and tradition are repressed and silenced if not murdered.

Imam Soheib Bencheikh, of Algerian descent, living in France, gives the following interpretation on the question of the veil: establishing that the veil is nowhere prescribed in the Qur'an which only request a "modest" outfit, both for men and for women, looking at the veil as a Bedouin custom of the Middle East. Imam Bencheikh points at the historical fact that the veil at the time of the prophet marked an immediate visual difference between slave women that could be used and abused, who were forced to go bare breasted, and dignified mothers, wives and daughters who would cover the upper part of their body, and should be respected. What can give women dignity in this century? A piece of cloth on the head and shoulders seems quite inadequate, says the Imam, but education does. Hence he states that the modern equivalent of the veil, what performs the same function in our times, is education.

Let us take the example of female genital mutilation (FGM), which originated in Ancient Egypt and expanded, through the cultural sphere of influence of the pharaohs, to a limited portion of the African continent. There, it is practiced by Christians, Muslims and Animists. However, many of the local Muslim religious leaders of these regions induce women to undergo FGM as if it were Islamic.

Needless to say, the fact that the sexuality of women who live a monogamous marriage or a polygamous one, of women who are veiled or unveiled, of women who undergo FGM and those who do not, will definitely be shaped in a different way.

Moreover, we have witnessed a few years ago an attempt by fundamentalists to export the practice of FGM to Sri Lanka, where it was unheard of. We have witnessed their attempts to export the Maliki concept of "wali" (matrimonial guardian that reduces women to the status of eternal legal minors) from North Africa to Pakistan which is not Maliki. And we have seen their partially successful attempt to export the Shia-Iranian practice of Muta'a marriage (marriage of pleasure or temporary marriage) to Algeria, at least in their guerrilla camps. This practice was unknown in Algeria. For religion and culture do not operate in a political vacuum, and political forces use them cynically.

We are in a period of time when extreme right forces are attempting to monopolize religion to their benefit and to use it to gain political power. I will give two crude historical examples of political use of religion, one from Algeria, one from Pakistan.

At independence of Algeria, in 1962, after 132 years under French colonization, the Algerian government started changing the colonial laws. We women asked for a change in the old pronatalist French law of 1920 (passed after the hecatomb of World War I) that forbade not only practice but even knowledge on contraception and abortion. The President immediately responded that he could not change this law, because it was in keeping with Islam. Women then went to the highest religious authority of the country, the High Islamic Council, for confirmation. The High Islamic Council rapidly gave us a fatwa (an informed opinion) in writing, saying that contraception was perfectly Islamic and abortion too under certain circumstances. (Incidentally, it is the same HIC that issued another fatwa in the late nineties, when Algerian fundamentalist armed forces started kidnapping and raping women and taking them by force to their camps under the pretext of muta'a marriage, allowing abortion for these raped women). But Algeria had lost two million lives in the seven years long struggle for independence, so the President filed the fatwa and did not change the law. Subsequently, in the mid seventies, our population growth was up to 3.5 (one of the highest in the world at the time), while women in age of procreation had an average of 7.9 living children and their number of pregnancies was close to natural fecundity (between 17 and 20 pregnancies in a life time). The ruling class felt threatened with the numerous lumpen youth that could not be accommodated in schools, nor find jobs on the labor market. They pulled out of their drawers the fatwa of 1963 and the law was changed, in the name of Islam.

Needless to point at the fact that control over one's own fecundity does shape women's sexuality.

At independence of Pakistan, in 1947, women found themselves with NO right to inheritance, at all. When they challenged this with the political leadership, they were told, this was Islam. Knowing too well that women may have an unequal share to inheritance, but still have something, according to the most common interpretations of Muslim laws, the women then went through the debates of the Parliament, and discovered that the new independent Pakistani Parliament had used the old British Victorian law (not even in use in Britain anymore) to deprive them of all rights. Like the Algerian government, they did not mind cynically using a colonial law and labelling it Islamic if it suited them.

Needless to point at the fact that economic dependency does shape women's sexuality.

For indeed, the third reason for the differences between laws and practices that affect women and their sexuality, is the political use of both religion and culture/traditions.

We are living in a time when extreme right political forces are on the rise the world over, on all continents. In Muslim contexts, it often takes the form of fundamentalism, i.e.extreme right political forces using religion as a cover for their political ambitions and to cynically mobilize people's discontent in their support. We should not be mistaken, fundamentalism is not a religious movement, as it pretends to be, it is a political movement of a fascist nature. Like Nazis and Fascists, Muslim fundamentalists are pro capitalist, they believe in the purity of the superior race/creed - and subsequently in inferior ones (the 'untermensh' in Nazis' words or 'infra-humans' in the words of an Algerian fundamentalist - as early as the time of independence - referring to 'mixed blood' children!)', they praise a mythical past (Ancient Rome, Aryan civilization, the Golden Age of Islam), they advocate the physical elimination of all opponents and of the 'untermensch' (among whom is the gay community) or of the unbelievers/"kofr".

They should be identified as fascists and denied religious legitimacy by all progressive forces and, within those, by women who are their first targets.

Fundamentalists, for lack of real political programs, obsessively concentrate on the control of women and in particular of their body and their sexuality. They pick and choose, in all cultural traditions (including, as we have seen, in colonial ones), in all interpretations of religion, the worst practices against women, in order to promote them and export them internationally in various Muslim communities - all in the name of Islam. They present themselves as the only true representatives of Islam.

It is the immediate interest of women to denounce, first of all for themselves and within women's organizations and movement, the construction of Muslimness that fundamentalists quite successfully manage to promote the world over. It is time for women to realize that there is no such thing as "Muslim women" the world over, far less "Muslim women's sexuality". Luckily for us, till today, our sexualities are constructed in very different contexts. But it may not be true for ever, if we do not combat in due time - with all our forces, allying with progressive interpreters of traditions, with progressive scholars of Islam and with progressive forces at large - the fundamentalist agenda of homogeneization and monopolization of Islam.