Breaking the Taboo: Why Muslim American Women Should Start Talking About Sexuality, Eroticism, and Femininity.

The discussion of feminine desires is something that I’ve always wanted to write about because having been in a culture that adamantly advocates modesty, a culture that equates desire to moral distaste, I feel that it’s my obligation to write about why women and men should learn how to understand that fearing desire inevitably divides women from themselves.

As mentioned in my post “Virgin”, women are strictly forbidden to engage in sexual relations because then they are branded as ‘unfit’ for marriage. They are prohibited from even the mere discussion of these ideas in a civil manner. By imposing limits on women like this, we forbid their sexual education.

We can look to American history. We can hearken back to the days of slavery when slave masters rather unconditionally ensured that their slaves would remain loyal only if their education were taken away from them. The logic follows similarly with how, I believe, men subconsciously view women’s  are afraid of women knowing the power they have within them, so they subdue them through social constructs that promote the taboo of women learning about themselves. Sadly, the majority of men who subscribe to the ‘pure, virgin’ ideal of women are the slave masters in this case.

Women in history have been avid speakers against this poisonous social ignorance, even from antiquity. Sappho, the poetess from Lesbos, uses her voice to speak about how she is inextricably bound to the challenges she faced as a woman. Her voice serves to empower as well as sensitize the audience.  In the final lines of her poem, she closes with, “the mortal husband of the immortal wife,” brilliantly portraying how marriage is orchestrated to subdue and perpetually subjugate women to be immortal slaves to men, because men are allowed to have a beginning and an end to their manhood; conversely, women are eternally widowed, with identities eternally silent. Another prominent female writer and womanist I’ve studied, Audre Lorde explains “that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage.” In this context, Lorde is not telling women to fear marriage, but she is telling women not to fear the erotic because the erotic allows women to fulfill themselves as well as replenish a woman’s identity with empowerment and independence. The joy that two lovers share and the knowledge of that joy does not need to be labeled ‘marriage’, because that joy can thrive regardless.

In contemporary American society, women are taught to silence themselves out of respect for their husbands, even if they are intruded in any way that depletes them of joy. The joy that women hold when they are unafraid is the positive energy that fuels a woman’s spirit and allows her to speak. The joy can be expressed in the erotic form, or it can even be expressed in more subtle tones. As mentioned in a Villanova University discussion post, in fragment 31, Sappho’s expression of the physical desire for another woman renders her sensitive to the flames of passion. She says, “a fine fire at once runs under my skin,” however since her “tongue is broken,” she is latched from opening her mouth to articulate herself about experiencing the erotic. To expound on this suggestion, the erotic allows her to explore her cravings and her impulses, to venture inward and irradiate her sensations. Like Lorde, Sappho does not pledge to desist from suppressing the truth about her raw identity. Feeling love and echoing those sentiments show how a silenced woman feeling love for a woman is like being afflicted with a malady because they imagine the world beyond merely being subordinate to men. Because Lorde and Sappho defied social norms and expectations, they were able to offer new perspectives as women who fervently desired other women and subsequently distinguish themselves as justifiers of sexual freedom. They manifest themselves in the rawest forms by the way they publicly embody and embrace their exemption from sexual persecution.

The similarities between Lorde and Sappho are especially intriguing to scrutinize. As previously discussed, Lorde was born with an extended ligament in her tongue that inhibited her from speaking intelligibly. This certain condition propelled her to emphasize her fascination and obsession with physical urges and the impact of the erotic on women. In “Love Poem,” Lorde unashamedly details, “And I knew when I entered her I was high wind in her forest’s hollow,” and makes her rapacity of her lover apparent by “howling into her entrances through lungs of pain.” She is openly resentful toward the challenges that women, black women in particular, face and how vilified women are. The only way she can heal herself and escape is through this tantalizing description of her erotic connection with her confidante. She howls to pour out her agony and to defy the limitations that are imposed on her.  Love for women-identified women is a risk of consciousness because it requires women to extract themselves from societal expectations, to bend the psyche and demolish insecurities that otherwise serve as tools for self-flagellation in society. To satisfy oneself as a woman, one must connect with the soul and consciously embrace one’s desires in every dimension and in every bold manifestation. Both writers acknowledged the strength and the pertinacious resistance it takes to be a woman who zealously expresses that she is a woman who loves and who yearns to be loved.

The critical aspect to investigate is the fact that silence can either be imposed, or it can be natural.  The voice vocalizes point-of-view, and knowing this provides a space for freedom of individual expression to permeate. This alone challenges that male writers represent the universal, because males do not fear their voices nearly to the same extent that women do.

The compelling creativity depicted in all of these texts is inseparable from the reasoning that these women provide as evidence for why they deserve their sexual freedom. As Luce Irigay argues, a “woman’s sexuality and creativity emerge through her totality of body, a huge erotic field that brings her joissance” (DeShazer, 375). If you’ve ever heard the words, “A woman’s body is art,” this is precisely what Irigay is describing here, except the true joy that one procures from art is within the art itself. The true art in this case, is the femininity that nests underneath the shell that is the woman’s body.

These women writers must be considered for the secrets that they boldly divulged about their individual sexual desires and exploitations that they experienced in order to change the perception of how women are forbidden to talk about sexuality. Women must sever the notion that they it is natural for them to be silent because man-made social constructs say so. Considering these women writers reinforces that the female voice is not a universal standpoint. There is a critical need for conversation from different female perspectives to encourage women to pursue their sexual endeavors, share ideas to combat imposed silence, celebrate the women who have bravely contributed their stories, and attempt to divorce the problem of fetishizing the objectification of women and instead promulgate a sex-positive atmosphere for women so they can speak up.

Now, I want to turn the discourse to why we shouldn’t be afraid of eroticism and femininity in the context of Islam. Islam has been a religion that has granted women equal rights over 1000 years before the West granted them to women.

“Allah has promised to the believers, men and women, gardens under which rivers flow, to dwell therein, and beautiful mansions in gardens of everlasting bliss.”- Qur’an 9:72
“Never will I allow the loss of the work of any worker amongst you, male or female; you are of one another.”-Qur’an 3:195

Islam pioneered the greatness of women, featuring Khadija, Zaynab b. Ali, and Aisha b Ab’n Bakr, as some of the bravest and sharpest women in the Qur’an whose roles influenced trade, politics, and jurisprudence.

Additionally, Islam has been traditionally known to uphold sexual sacredness through the knowledge of the erotic, making Islam a “sexually enlightened” religion.  Sex brings pleasure, the joissance that Irigay was talking about before. By placing sexual fulfillment as the forefront of marriage instead of standard procreation, that teaches humankind that pleasures that are not merely sensational, but are equally emotionally fulfilling, lead us to spiritual fulfillment that thereby leads us to sexual fulfillment.

An article from the Women in Memory Forum called “Control and Sexuality: The Revival of Zina Laws in Muslim Contexts” ties the true political motives of zina laws to “age-old patriarchal motives” that control society’s sexuality for political and social advantages.  “As the cases of violence against women throughout the world aptly demonstrate, (Ertürk, 2009), patriarchies have emerged everywhere and have invariably used other cultures and religions to justify their detrimental effects on gender justice.” Other motives that  concurrently catalyzed the (re)implementation of zina laws include “protracted socio-economic crises; covert ambitions of political, military, and religious elites; post-colonial and post-nationalist anxieties, and theopolitics–i.e., politics based on the (mis)use of religion.” (7) Thus, zina has made Muslims less aware of Islam’s true meaning of moral and intellectual fulfillment because the laws are driven by sins of control and greed, with deliberate intent to subdue and vilify women, and as even been termed by classical jurists as a hadd or a transgression against “the right of God”–therefore, they have been twisted and repeatedly conceptualized to be politically justifiable based on some vague elements from the classical fiqh. (11)

There is a hadith where the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) says, “Three things were made beloved to me in this world of yours: women, perfume, and prayer.” This hadith shows that sexuality is more than mere desire or lust. It is an intrinsic part of human nature that denotes a certain chemistry that brings people closer together so they can admire and preserve each other. Sex mirrors how one sees oneself and directs how you will relate to others.

My mother reminds me constantly that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) once said, “Heaven is under the mother’s feet.” The Prophet (SAW)’s respect toward women was apparent toward both mother and to wives because he emphasized la haya fee al deen. Rasulullah (SAW)’s personal advice on marriage is, “Indeed the conditions most deserving to be fulfilled are those that make the private parts lawful among you.” (Jami’ al- Tirmidhi, 32)

The primary reason we must educate ourselves on these concepts in Islam is because we are obligated to become aware in these times were the Muslim ummah is under scrutiny and attack by those who misunderstand the truth about Islam. Islam is about knowing yourself and spreading love. It has advocated human rights from the beginning. Sadly, our families have taught us the wrong views about sex. Many parents view it as a danger because indulging in desire is like indulging in a drug. But really, it’s a way for us to discover our own human rights.

In order to move forward, we need to acknowledge that many people are misinformed because there is a genuine lack of information about women and about Islam because of patriarchal dominance. Islamophobia and religious extremism have shadowed people’s willingness to understand because of fear, which causes fear to know oneself. If you’re living in the U.S., the best thing to do is to read more about female American writers. Our struggles echo each other. Do not separate yourselves.

Our Imams must become more aware and remember that women are a central force of our movement. we need to communicate with each other better, we need to provide a safe space for guidance and maturely talk about these issues without fear because these are natural questions. We need to learn how to refocus our lives on the positive instead of blurring the important parts that society has labeled distasteful. We are under no one’s control but Allah’s. Seek guidance through honest, open discussion. We know that one day the body will testify, as the Qur’an states, “On that day We will set a seal upon their mouths, and their hands shall speak to Us, and their feet shall bear witness of what they earned.”  (36:63-65) The body testifies for us, not against us. Do not be afraid of yourselves.

We must look back to history and revere all of the great female leaders who have accessed their own female potential and developed it in powerful ways that can only occur when one connects with oneself. This includes being in tune with your sexuality because it is imperative to connect with your mind, your spirit, and your body in order to experience what your true pleasures, your desires, your sensations, and your creativity are. Women specifically orgasm by connecting their carnal desires with their mind. Our bodies are a compass that direct you to the Divine.

Do not be ashamed of yourselves.

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