Sexuality in Muslim Contexts: Restrictions and Resistance

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 Sexuality In Muslim Contexts
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Anissa HélieHoma Hoodfar
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Policing gender, sexuality and ‘Muslimness’

This book looks at emerging trends that affect women’s sexuality, with a particular focus on Asia and the Middle East, and documents both the curtailing of sexual rights occurring in diverse Muslim societies and the strategies designed to counter these developments. Yet this focus in no way suggests that the policing of gender and sexuality is unique to Muslim societies: rather, bodily rights, sexual conduct and gender expression are regulated in all societies.

Through- out the world, a range of actors – from families to communities to governments – refer selectively to ‘Western values’, ‘Christian values’, ‘African values’, ‘Jewish tradition’ or ‘Muslimness’ to justify stigmatization and repression.

Nonetheless, there is a widespread tendency to posit gender equal- ity and emancipation within the sexual realm as products of modern

– or ‘Western’-inspired – reforms. On the one hand, conservatives and Islamists in Muslim communities reject gender equality and gender plurality as impositions from ‘the West’. On the other hand, Western discourses (from popular media to mainstream journalism to academic writing) often stigmatize Muslim communities for limitations placed on both women’s rights and bodily rights. The authors here reject this reductive perspective.

They recognize that such an approach not only ignores the sexual plurality that existed in Muslim communities and cultures prior to encounters with ‘the West’,1 n Muslim societies have designed empowerment strategies within their own societies that draw on existing traditions.

 The assumption that any movement towards sexual emancipation in Muslim communities must be linked to ‘Western’ influence carries the risk that advocacy around women’s empowerment2 and sexual rights will continue to be dismissed as foreign and imported from/imposed by ‘the West’.

Instead, the essays in this anthology discuss the means people in Muslim societies employ to negotiate sexuality in their specific contexts: all contributors explore infringements on expressions of sexuality, and document the ways through which social actors confront a range of challenges, using a variety of means.

While rejecting the assumptions that Muslim societies are unique in policing women’s sexuality, and that any movement towards greater emancipation is linked to Western influence, the essays in this volume nevertheless recognize that sexuality remains one of the cornerstones through which ‘Muslimness’ is enforced.

 Thus, it is critical to question the very concept of ‘Muslimness’. What is it supposed to convey? Who defines it? And how is it used to legitimize the control of sexuality, with women and stigmatized sexualities being particularly targeted?

These are important questions at a time when widespread references to the ‘Muslim world’ (which is by no means the monolithic whole suggested by this formula) tend to obscure the complex his- torical, cultural, economic and political legacies that shape specific Muslim societies. The notion of a ‘Muslim world’ also ignores the fact that the meanings attached to ‘Islam’ vary not only between different societies but within them, with individuals or groups adopting different beliefs and practices.

In the same vein, the concept of ‘Muslimness’ erroneously suggests homogeneity among communities whose understandings of Islam may vary widely. Far from being designed to transcend existing dif- ferences, the discourse of ‘Muslimness’ purposely ignores diversities that exist and operate across and within Muslim communities, and projects a diasporic identity centred on an ‘imaginary transnational Muslim culture’ (Hélie-Lucas 2004).

 Often promoted by actors linked to political Islam, this essentialist representation is a political con- struct that portrays ‘Muslimness’ as unified and Islam as monolithic in order to establish a set of totalizing ‘truths’.

First, Islam is no longer understood simply as a question of belief (as related to personal faith); instead, it becomes an all-encompassing identity – one that should shape an individual’s sense of self, as well as the collective code of conduct. In addition, the notion of ‘Muslim- ness’ supports the transformation of Muslim-majority countries into ‘Muslim countries’; in the process, long-standing contributions of non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as those of secular-minded people, are minimized or erased. In this view, anyone born in a Muslim-majority culture is automatically assumed to be a believer who should be made to behave according to prevailing cultural norms.

 Further, this definition of ‘Muslimness’ is posited as impos- sible to challenge because it is cast as deriving from an ahistorical ‘Muslim identity’ which is divinely ordained. The consequence is that alternative visions of what it may mean to be a Muslim are dismissed as culturally irrelevant; they may even be denounced as blasphemous, a charge that can lead to severe sanctions imposed on individuals or entire communities (including the death sentence).

In short, the conventional, commonly used construction of ‘Muslimness’ derives from a conservative political agenda that seeks to implement an ideal ‘Islamic society’. This definition relies heavily on sexual repression, of women and stigmatized sexualities in particular.

Thus the idea of ‘Muslimness’ tends to strengthen exclusionary discourses and to emphasize that personal behaviour and social norms – especially in the sexual arena – should reflect ‘Muslim values’.

The chapters in this volume focus on the many ways that culture, expressions of religiosity and sexual conduct manifest themselves through time and space. Contributors also document recent trends in various Muslim-majority countries where religious arguments are used to deny the complexity and fluidity with which customs, religion and sexuality intersect.

 Indeed, as noted above, the current policing of sexuality is often justified through discourses of moral codes, cultural ‘authenticity’ and religion. In Muslim communities around the world, conservative forces and actors linked to the religious right rely on selective interpretations of Islam to oppose sexual diversity and gender equality. Challenging such trends, this book relies on the premiss that all major religious traditions, as understood and practised in today’s world, can promote either emancipatory or conservative standpoints.

Within each religious tradition, a broad range of interpretations of religious scriptures, combined with diverse and locally defined cultural values, can lead either to promotion or to denial of sexual rights for all.

This volume embraces a broad view of sexuality and sexual rights – in contrast to most of the existing scholarship, which tends to privilege either the question of women’s sexual and bodily rights (with all women assumed to be heterosexual) or the rights of sexual and gender minorities.3 Given that the field of sexuality has been recently dominated by issues relating to sexual orientation (and, to a lesser degree, to questions of gender identity), current debates often de-emphasize or ignore the links between compulsory heterosexuality and other forms of control of women.

This book intends to broaden the lens through which sexuality is analysed. For example, it is commonly understood that a trans-identified person or a bisexual individual can be seen as challenging established ‘Muslim norms’. It is less widely recognized that, depending on the context, a woman may be seen as similarly challenging such norms if she is divorced; if she refuses to marry altogether; if she mingles outside her caste, class, ethnic or religious group; if she refuses to observe the prevalent dress code; or if she seeks work.

Since ‘sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical and religious and spiritual factors’ (WHO 2010), numer- ous elements other than sexual orientation remain tightly linked to local understandings of sexuality and to notions of modesty or promiscuity.

The linkages between sexuality and female dress codes, or between sexuality and the gendered provisions of marriage laws, are made explicit in the case studies presented here. The contributors understand both the centrality of sexuality as a site of control and the varied methods of operation of conservative forces in Muslim contexts.

Their broad framework of analysis brings into visibility the connections between the repression of women’s sexuality and the repression of stigmatized sexualities. At a time when human rights advocates deplore the fragmentation of progressive efforts in the arena of sexual and reproductive rights,4 the perspectives presented here highlight the potential for larger coalitions that would promote a shared understanding that the notion of sexual rights must truly encompass sexual rights for all.

 policing  gender                            

Finally, although this volume explores how people in Muslim societies engage with sexuality differently in a variety of contexts, religious identity is not its main focus. While it is certainly true that discrepancies between the discourses promoted by religious leaders and the actual practices of believers can lead to dynamic tensions and negotiations, religion is far from the only parameter impacting the politics of sexuality and gender empowerment.

Despite pervasive claims positing Islam as the main marker of identity in Muslim communities, women, men and trans persons from Muslim contexts are reclaiming the right to shape their own cultures, within as well as outside religious frameworks. As elsewhere, they are engaged in defining not only their (sexual, cultural, gendered) subcultures, but their societies as a whole.

The volume highlights the diversity of concerns, obstacles, opportunities and forms of resistance within the so-called Muslim world. As noted, this mapping exercise is critical at a time when conservative coalitions of both non-state actors and governments insist on enforcing narrowly defined sexual norms, which are often promoted as Muslim values or Asian values.

 Furthermore, the rise of Islamist rhetoric is made more powerful through its manipulation of Western democracies, which are sometimes blinded by (or even opportunistic about) misguided arguments favouring cultural relativism.

The ongoing competition between legal arguments upholding gender equality and arguments linked to religious freedom is a significant marker of current and serious threats to stigmatized sexualities and women’s individual and collective rights.

Yet, concurrent with these troubling indications, there is an unprecedented wave of organizing around sexuality issues, and evidence of ongoing local efforts. Recognizing the ability of local actors to challenge oppressive structures, this volume seeks to make women’s and LGBTT people’s agency more visible, providing testimonies about their ongoing engagements with sexuality, and about the tensions produced in the course of that struggle.

The writings here offer a combination of insights, ranging from the perspectives of advocates and activists grounded in specific contexts to academic analyses coming from a variety of disciplines, including history, anthropology, gender studies, law and political science.

In contrast with much of the available research that tends to concentrate on case studies linked to a specific cultural or historical setting,5 the chapters also reflect the constraints and opportunities of a broader variety of socio-political contexts: the book’s geographical focus encompasses Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Israel, China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Malaysia, with additional examples pertaining to Lebanon, Turkey and Morocco. The authors map the restrictions individuals – women in particular – face, as well as the avenues they find for change. A central focus of the book is the ways women analyse, address and resist the mechanisms of sexual control; while the essays here report on gender ideologies promoted by states and/or customary traditions, they emphasize women’s and LGBTT people’s contestations.

Country case studies, for instance, provide evidence of indigenous strategies that women, as well as people stigmatized for their gender expression or sexuality, have designed – either collectively or as individuals – to mobilize for bodily rights. The various chapters are thematically unified in their emphasis on the varied paths that local actors pursue towards empowerment.

The authors’ combined scholarship suggests that there is a range of ways to reach this goal: from individual to collective, oppositional to coalition-building. One key argument is that transformative resistance is more likely to lead to social change where social actors develop strategies that are grounded in their specific settings.

Several chapters present research from field work carried out through the Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts programme (WEMC),6 offering concrete data drawing from women’s grassroots understanding of sexuality as including ‘perhaps less obvious areas of sexual control such as dress codes, marriage contracts, criminalization of sexuality’. Several chapters stress the impact of customary practices on women’s lives and agency, as well as the impact of non-state actors7 in policing their communities. The book reflects these concerns through explorations of both historical processes and current contexts.

Part I, ‘Tools of Policing: The Politics of History, Community, Law’, combines chapters pertaining to widely different political contexts, including Muslim states such as Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Muslim-minority communities in Israel and India. Historical constructions of gender and sexuality are addressed in two different settings: Vivienne Wee focuses on Indonesia, and Claudia Yaghoobi on Iran.

Both authors sketch the evolution of past and current constructions of gender and sexuality, and both stress the links between gendered sexual norms and broader cultural and political processes.

Wee reports on the drive to police sexuality currently enacted by both the Indonesian government and Islamist non-state actors. She shows that this policing, while ‘ justified’ by references to Islam, in fact draws from earlier periods. She evokes, for example, Dutch colonial officials’ attempts to ‘reform’ indigenous populations by introducing indecency laws to curb their supposedly wild sexuality. She also notes policies enacted by the Suharto regime to control political opponents.

Wee argues that the progressive obscenification of women’s bodily parts has much to do with political agendas.

In a similar vein, Yaghoobi explores the links between modernity and the gradual casting of homosociability as a backward social prac- tice which occurred in Iran in the late nineteenth century. Yaghoobi also considers strategies designed by Iranian women’s rights advocates during the period from the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 to the post-1979 Islamic Revolution, concluding with a brief overview of the role played by sexuality in the more recent Green movement.

The chapter by Hooria Hayat Khan, on Pakistan, reflects on the issue of policing within and by communities. It includes a discussion of the crucial roles of customary practices in defining what constitutes acceptable women’s sexuality, and in sanctioning those who dare to defy tribal norms.

Khan’s case study is anchored in Balochistan, but it illuminates how sexual norms are enforced by non-state actors in a variety of other settings, particularly in contexts where legal and cultural spheres overlap.

While women have occasionally been able to use customary traditions to enhance their rights8 (hence illustrating that local customs do not always work to women’s disadvantage), Khan’s data raise the urgent question of what happens to women, in particular, where states are unwilling or unable to enforce even marginally progressive laws and, instead, allow harsh traditions to prevail.

Part I also includes two chapters focusing on formal legal frameworks. Yüksel Sezgin offers a comparative examination of restrictive legal norms and of women’s resistance in two non-Muslim- majority countries. Focusing on marriage and divorce among Muslim

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