For 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.
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.