Oh, Yes! On a Sexual Revolution in Islam by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Sexuality and IslamFor centuries, religions have controlled sexuality. They have defined the legitimate options with regard to gender, sexual orientation, how to make love and its purpose. The religious discourse on sex imposes patriarchy, binarism, marriage, monogamy, motherhood and heterosexuality as sine qua non conditions for a “proper” sexual life. Also, it has caused the invisibility and subordination of female pleasure and has repressed the power of women’s sexuality that allows us multiple orgasms and tireless self sexual satisfaction for a life time.

The modern mainstream Islamic discourse is the continuation of what I already knew in Catholicism about sex: its purpose is to have children, it is lawful only after marriage, the man controls the couple’s sex life and may have more than one partner while women are the exclusive property of their men.

However, it seems that it was not always this way. The biblical book, “The Song of Songs,” for example, describes a sexual encounter with beautiful metaphors and passionate declarations of sexual desire. I insist in this: declarations of sexual desire. Nowhere in this text do the lovers speak of marriage, fidelity, children they will have or who will pay the bills. The “Song of Songs” is a celebration of sexual desire and the desire to have sex just because it is good and pleasant. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure, without normative assumptions, because sexual pleasure is a divine gift and if is shared, is even more divine.

When did we lose that approach and start to understand sex as a sin, a function, or a duty? Regardless of the many explanations for it, why are we not claiming that sensual autonomy back? If we talk about challenging patriarchy to gain freedom and agency in spirituality, hermeneutics, spaces of worship and revelations, why let sex fall by the wayside?

Am I talking about an Islamic sexual revolution? OH, YES. There’s no real revolution without sexual revolution. Personal is political and our bodies are the first political territory. If the body is not free, pleasure is not free, and then there is no real freedom.

Let me explain how I imagine it.

Death to Heteropatriarchy. Radical Sexuality.

In times where progressive voices speak louder, if we do not speak openly and with a critical perspective on sex, reforms won’t bring real changes. Talking about sex is more than sex education and birth control, AIDS or sexual diseases. Following Gerda Lerner in this, the androcentric fallacy developed in all constructions of civilization cannot be rectified only by adding women or queer people. It’s necessary to go beyond and tackle the “heteronormative discipline of shame”(1) imposed by religion to punish our sexual desire.

The current approach of progressive Islam on sexual morality and diversity is influenced by a “discourse of mirroring”(2) that answers to patriarchy with their equivalent opposite: “If heteros get married, then lesbians can too; if heteros pay dowries, then let queer people do it too”. I don’t oppose people having equal rights, that’s not my point. But this approach dismisses somehow the challenging of hetero-patriarchy-normativity. Fighting patriarchy is a lost battle without fighting heterosexual regime and colonization of feminized, subjected, disabled and/or racialized bodies.

On sex out of boundaries, it is not enough to just say it “is between you and Allah.” This keeps the heterosexual-regulatory privilege. Speaking of marriage, for example, it is publicly celebrated when is by traditional laws. But, if someone dares to celebrate a Mutah, outrage and derision are guaranteed. This comes from progressive and conservative voices: Slut-shamming doesn’t take sides.

Going Deeper in Hermeneutics.

About scriptures, there are issues related to sexual ethics that haven’t been fully addressed; Allah “commanded” Prophet Muhammad marry to  Zaynab, wife of his son? Really? How convenient that was exactly what he desired.  Is polygamy entirely fair and good for women? Is there real equality in marriage, a central patriarchal-disciplinary institution? How does sexual equality in the Muslim family work for, according to professor Nazanín Armanian, the one in three women between 27 and 34 years in Iran who are living alone and childless? Reality suggests Muslims are outgrowing categories imposed by religious sexual discourse.

Unrestrained Islam.

Humankind nowadays consists of queer people willing to be visible, single mothers, divorced parents, people in de facto unions, people who do not want to marry, young adults talking about polyamory, people living in countries where going out on a date or greeting someone with a kiss on the cheek are part of life. If Islam should be a message for all humankind, could that message bring a flexible, creative and satisfactory answer regarding sexuality and pleasure for them? A response beyond the clichés of  marriage, shaming, repentance or refraining from sin?

In a world where women’s groups claim sex work as an economic activity, is Islam able to welcome “unrepentant prostitutes”(3)*? Just asking.

You cannot change the world without changing the household. Sex is not a private matter even though it happens usually within private walls (or against them). Sex is a political issue and that’s why religions are obsessed with it.  In its performance, power relations are recreated. Who controls sex, controls society.  Reform in Islam requires a new hermeneutics of sex that recognizes the autonomy of sexual desire in each of us, without conditions, able to free humans from patriarchy and its tenets at all levels.

If we are Divine creation, then, let’s embrace our bodies as beloved and its yearnings as spaces of revelation.

(1)(2)(3) Expressions of my own.

* There is no intention on my part to offend or mock my sister sex workers , I am only using a literary stylistic appeal here.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.

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Categories: Feminism and Religion, Gender and Sexuality, Islam, Sexuality

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31 replies

  1. Allah “commanded” Prophet Muhammad marry to Zaynab, wife of his son? Really? How convenient that was exactly what he desired. Is polygamy entirely fair and good for women?

    I was shocked when I read a book on Mormonism a few years ago in which it I read that that God (allegedly) commanded Joseph Smith to take many wives. I knew about Mormon polygamy, but what I didn’t know was that in practice old men were marrying very young women–in many cases the adolescent daughters born of their wives’ previous marriages. This opened my eyes to the fact that polygamy in most cases authorizes old men to take young wives , again and again, until if the man is rich enough, he may be 70 while his late-in-life bride is 14 or 15. The economic part of the arrangement may or may not be good for the young woman, but the sexual relationship is unlikely to be.

    We should also ask what the “right” to “take” young women multiple times does to the psychology of men as well.

    Thanks again for a provocative post.

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    • Thanks Carol. That’s a side of polygamy that I haven’t noticed and I am glad to know it now. The most I study the relations between religion and sexuality, in the way I understood it, not only related to sexual intercourse but linked also to control, discipline, embodiment and violence, the more I am convinced that religion is not only part of a biopolitics, but itself is a biopolitics, in the sense foucault describe it. Maybe the first in its kind, I dont know. Regarding polygamy, I just don’t see anything good in it nowadays when the reasons that make them acceptable, at least according to islamic narrative, can find better options.

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    • Zaynab’s husband was not Prophet’s son.Pl. make correction.He was His adopted son.When he divorced to his wife which was also cousin of Prophet then there was no legal binding to marry her.In Islam cousin marriages are allowed.

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      • Oh. Here we go again. PLEASE read again the paragraph where I refer to the matter. My point is not about if Zaid was or not adopted or a biological son of Muhammad but about how reliable is the ayat that allowed the Prophet to marry Zaynab because it was EXACTLY what he wanted and is difficult to me to imagine a Divinity that act by request. I repeat my statement: Muhammad wanted to mary Zaynab and, what a coincidence, Allah, as in a delivery service, sent an ayat that in one hand allow him to do it and in the other declared that adopted sons are not real sons, so Muhammad would not have guilty feelings or have to give difficult explanations and questionings. How convenient.

        Even I am not mentioning how bad Zaid could feel, being rejected as a son by “Divine” word. Just try to imagine this situation involving people that is not covered by the privilege of holiness… it’s awful and nothing positive can be taken from it. Do I really believe in a God that allow the suffering of a human to please the sexual desire of other human, regardless if that human is an adopted or biological son? No. I don’t

        My understanding of the revelations is from a transversal and continuous perspective. If there’s only one God, as I believe firmly, then makes no sense to me that the same God that reject King David’s behaviour regarding Bathsheba, collaborate as an accomplice in a similar situation.

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  2. This post “rocks.” Questioning the status quo, digging into who benefits from the way things just “are,” and spreading that all out on the table has got to be good for all of us. Thanks, Vanessa.

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  3. Thanks, Vanessa. The explicit declaration of desire, as in the “Song of Songs,” is something I too have studied in that text and find remarkable. If we read it carefully in English and in Biblical Hebrew, I also think it is clear that the author of the “Song of Songs” was very definitely a woman.

    An interesting book on the topic is “Exquisite Desire: Religion, the Erotic, and the Song of Songs,” by Carey Walsh. Walsh picks up on the refrain which repeats throughout the text: “Do not stir up or arouse love until it delights” — absolutely a female sentiment.

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  4. I think the impact of cheap and effective birth control should not be underestimated for the ability of women to control their own bodies. These methodologies were simply not available at the time of most religions, and the old religions are still trying to catch up.
    Some of the restrictions on sexuality could be related to how to deal with children. Unwanted and neglected children can become socially destabilizing for many communities.

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    • I agree. But also I am suggesting going beyond. In the last years, other religions have opened to accept people just as they are. They have realized that they can’t be an actual spiritual option if they don’t addapt to the new social changes and narratives. Could Islam do so? Nowadays I think is possible, but only is a radical position regarding reform is assumed: Reform while keeping old narratives about women roles and sexuality is not a reform at all.

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      • :)
        from a Rumi poem:
        A man was breaking up the soil when another man came by,
        “Why are you ruining this land?”
        “Don’t be a fool! Nothing can grow until
        the ground is turned over and crumbled!
        There can be no roses and no orchard
        without first this that looks devastating.”

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  5. The author calls herself “a pioneer of gender studies in Islam in Latin America” yet draws very little upon Islam to articulate her argument for an opening up of Islamic sexuality. Insults the prophetic figure she claims to follow, does not draw at all upon the prophetic reports that urge men to consider female pleasure, and then wraps it up by saying Islam must advocate prostitution to be truly progressive in her eyes,

    Are there issues with how female sexuality has been talked about in the classical texts? Yes. This thing was written in 10 minutes and doesn’t address it. This thing is the reason why Muslims dismiss feminism as a Trojan horse. This will go down well with liberal secular or liberal Christian feminists but the response from her own religion will be slim to none. So how effective is de la Ms Fuente? Not very.

    Proofreading helps, too.

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    • Arguments ad hominem are not real arguments. As a muslim, and because I am not a Christian who have to believe in dogmas, I am totally entitled to reason by myself, Chaplain, whether you like it or not. The male entitlement and dismissing attitude from “Righteous muslims” like you, who doesn’t know how to adress a woman thinking freely without something different than despising her, is the reason why we need Feminism in Islam. Is you who need to read to overcome your lack of arguments. “Mrs Rivera is stupid and need education” is a typical patriarchy-arrogance-based argument.
      Prostitutes can be muslims why not? muslims men who pay for them are muslims too.
      I am sure you won’t say such silly statement to a man. AND YES. I call myself a pioneer of Islamic Feminism and the most critical and challenging thinker around. Why? Because I am. You would know it if you apply on you some of the proofread you recommend. My aim is not make your content anyway. Deal with it. So brave to throw your attacks under a nick. BRAVE.

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    • Classic patriarchy in action. Can’t show where her arguments are flawed so be irrelevant – like bringing up proofreading. Bravo. Patriarchy is so convincing.

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  6. Vanessa, BRAVA! Not enough women are willing to argue back. You’re leading a parade and helping women to become more courageous. And good for you to tell Mr. Muslim that ad hominem (notice that even the Latin term refers to MAN, as if woman cannot argue) won’t get us anywhere. All the Mr. Muslims need to be willing to listen respectfully to all the Ms. Muslims. This is true in all other religions, too. In a more just world we might not need the parade you’re leading. But we’re not there yet. Sigh.

    And maybe thecivicmuslim should also consider proofreading what he posts.

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    • Thank you Barbara. As usual, patriarchy minds only can focus in what allows to consider women as objects. Of all my ideas, thecivicmuslim, only kept in this mind that Im saying Islam must allow prostitution, what, of course, is not what I am saying: When I talk about it, I am posing the question if Islam can truly be the message for all humankind as it claims to be, because, I think it poses so much requests and restrictions that not all humans can match without falling in masquerade, especially regarding sexuality. That’s the problem with the current hermeneutics: Is literal and lack depth.
      There’s an important point you made Barbara: Religious narrative in sexuality even affect what I will call in english because I lack a better term “the privilege of voicing” that rule who can adress some issues and from which point of view. As a woman, is expected I dont adress sexuality and if I do it, must be to talk about the blessings of motherhood and life a s a wife. I think it was Virginia Woolf who said something like “as long a woman support male opinions, she’s entilted to her opinion” or something like that.

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  7. Perhaps the most interesting bit of all of this for me as a Jewish scholar are the oldest interpretations of the Song of Songs. It is often said to portray the relationship between the Holy One and the Jewish people. Could this not contribute to a more liberating sexual ethic? Perhaps, if we grew up in a religious community that was willing to draws parallels between human and divine in erotic ways, we would approach discussions of human-to-human sexuality differently. I have not found a Jewish community like this yet, but one could hope right? And, yes, I am quite aware that there are many patriarchal versions of Judaism that have equally problematic notions of sexuality. At the same time, those problematic interpretations do not come from this text (at least not that I’m aware of). (This also reminds me of Sallie McFague’s book “Models of G-d” in which one of the models envisions the Holy One as lover. How we imagine G-d may have more to do with discussions of sexuality than we may like.)

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  8. Muy buen artículo, como siempre, inteligente y provocador. Mi única perplejidad la tengo con un enlace externo: el de Mutah. En el último párrafo del artículo leo “permanent marriage does not satisfy the instinctive sexual urge of certain men”… Ehm. Creo que ahí también se necesita algo de hermenéutica feminista sobre el fenómeno, porque leído así me suena espeluznante y heteropatriarcal a más no poder.

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    • Caterina, por supuesto! el concepto mismo de matrimonio debe ser analizado con una perspectiva critica y decolonial, desde su origen, funciones y relaciones. El sexo reproduce relaciones de poder. Mi ejemplo iba sobre los privilegios en torno al regimen heterosexual: El régimen heterosexual impone no solo el matrimonio sino también una manera de estar en el matrimonio, duración, roles, etc. Cuando se habla de matrimonio en el Islam se habla de este y se ignoran los demás lo cual es criticable por dos razones: Primero, por que la mutah y otros arreglos temporales igual suceden y no deberia ser motivo de verguenza ni nada y, por otro, porque se pierde la oportunidad de hacer hermeneutica feminista en ellos.

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  9. As a woman, my relationship to religion has always had a foundation in my sexuality. When I became sexually active, I had to leave the Protestant church that I grew up in, because otherwise, I would have had to believe that God would punish me for sex outside of marriage. When I discovered Wicca, I found one of the most liberating values was its positive take on sexuality. This IS a mirror of the many goddesses and gods within Wicca who are sexual, not asexual, like the God of my youth.

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    • Thank you Nancy. Is interesting what u state because I do think our relationship with religion had a foundation in sexuality and I would add the major concern of religion is sexuality and not human souls. From my childhood I was keen of biblical stories and the most I recall are related to sexuality and its discipline. Then, in Islam I found out the big corpus of narrative about women is again about sexuality and its discipline.. of course, all is good, free and acceptable within marriage, but I do think is necessary to think out of the sandbox sometimes. I am saying this from a concept of religion as a tool of control, I am not talking of spirituality itself.

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    • Thanks, Nancy!! Great comment regards Wicca. The diversity of Paganism with its many different gods and goddesses, generally as an idea, is important all on its own. But I had not previously connected Paganism to diversity in sexuality, that is, the diversity in how we make our own choices. Very interesting what you say here.

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  10. Vanessa,, your interesting discussion with Jules got me curious, how did you come to Islam? Why did you convert?

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  11. Well, holy crap, that was a lot of back and forth! Reading your piece, then the comments in debate, I would say, your writing challenges people to consider uncomfortable angles with honesty. To me, I feel like no matter how it seemed as if there was lack of movement, the debate moves the conversation forward. I think I saw that here.

    To my mind, readers who are shocked should know that there are a lot of Muslims who hold views such as these and do not present them publicly because they do not want to wrestle with the debate and all that follows from it….they know these questions are not to be asked because “we just don’t do that” as some commentators have expressed here. Vanessa is original in her own thinking and approach to this, but do not consider that she is a lone voice in the wilderness. If Islam is going to continue to grow and develop with the community then it must allow these voices to stand and be heard….and not necessarily resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, even the person who voices it (I’m not speaking about Vanessa here who has a forward vision, but in general).

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    • Laury
      Vanessa claims to be a pioneer in islamic feminism, but whatever she says here has been said centuries ago and keep being said by women(and men ) from within and without the faith, including Ayaan Ali Hirsi.
      A quick search online would offer a great list of women who have been representing islamic feminism quite relentlessly, quite well, and quite thoughtfully, some of whom are featured on this blog.
      She is not wrong that Islam has issues, that men have issues, that humanity has issues, the error she makes however is her willingness to make this a religious issue primarily, when it is not necessarily so. Furthermore, she is willing to paint the whole Islamic community with that broad brush that is usually wielded only by Islamophobes like Bill Maher.
      Her main offense, in my book, is that she is speaking without the modicum of knowledge required to make her perspective valid and worthy of being respected. I would not speak on Mormonism or Judaism because I am ignorant in those, and I would certainly be shy of claiming that all Jews or all Mormons are the same.
      As I said before, if I am willing to challenge the understanding of people, past and present who are scholars in islamic knowledge, how can I not challenge someone whose global perspective seems only informed by her individual perspective?
      The Quran doesn’t support patriarchy, as other feminists have shown. The Prophet Muhamad was the original feminist, as other feminists have shown. Islam gave women rights when they had none, gave them dignity and protection when they had little of it. It curtailed the dominance of men in favor of women, as many scholars have shown (I was just listening to Shaykh Mustapha Sy make the case that Eve/woman is greater than Adam/man for many different reasons, too long to go into right now.)
      As someone from West Africa, where women are educated and empowered, the idea that Islam is fundamentally patriarchal is offensive to me, though I support everyone’s right to say that as long as they can support their argument logically.

      Like

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