“She may not deny herself to her husband, for the Qur’an speaks of husband and wife as a comfort to one another.”
[Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence survivors]
When I was a conservative Muslim, I used to read voraciously. Everything that I could get my hands on about Islam, and especially, about what was expected of us as Muslim women. I don’t recall where I read this particular sentence, but I know that I encountered it in some Muslim book or pamphlet-or-other fairly early on.
And it puzzled me. Because if husbands and wives are supposed to be a comfort to one another, that sounded to me then like a, well, mutually supportive and fulfilling relationship. So how did this then come to mean a hierarchical relationship, in which wives are obliged to service their husbands’ sexual demands, and aren’t allowed to say “no”? Where is the “comfort” for the wife in that relationship, then?
This sort of sentence ought to have sent me running far, far away in the other direction, of course. Because the red flags were all there, waving right in my face.
But it hadn’t.
And now, here I was, driving along a lonely country road with many miles to go before I would reach my destination, and as if from nowhere, that sentence popped into my head. And with it, the nauseating feeling of guilt… and then the flash-backs came.
Never again, I said aloud. Never again. Never again will I allow myself to be put in any position in which anyone can possibly think that they have the “right” to lay a single finger on me.
The flash-backs receded, as I reaffirmed to myself that I will never, ever be in this position again. Never ever will I have to bargain over access to my own body. Never ever will I fear divine displeasure, or angelic curses, or condemnation on the Day of Judgment because I wanted a decent night’s sleep or couldn’t bear to have this or that part of my body touched tonight. Never again would I be put in the position of being held responsible before God and the community for another person’s sexual “morality.”
And as they receded, I realized that this can’t be right. Why would marital sex leave any woman feeling as though she had finally managed to run trespassers off her land? As though she had finally gotten her body back, and would never, ever let anyone anywhere near its boundaries again? Isn’t that how a… well… a rape victim might be expected to feel?? But this had been marriage!
There’s rape in marriage, of course… though back when I became a Muslim and for many years after, this was not admitted by the conservative Muslims with whom I dealt, and whose books I read and sermons or talks I listened to. For them, rape in marriage is a contradiction in terms, because rape by definition means a man taking sexual access by force from someone that he doesn’t have legal sexual rights over—aka a girl or woman that he’s not married to. (The rape of boys or men was rarely acknowledged in those circles, but when it was, it wasn’t framed in anything like the same way.)
Why would I have given this type of “thinking” even so much as the time of day? Partly because I was raised with similar ideas. Not deliberately—rape, whether in marriage or anywhere else, was rarely discussed in public in the small town I grew up in. But marriage was supposed to be the legitimate place for sex to take place, and the question of what would happen if the husband wanted sex and the wife didn’t was simply not addressed. The wife was supposed to supply sex. And, she was supposed to keep herself beautiful and not “let herself go.”
And in general, boys and men were the pursuers, while girls and women were the pursued. Girls and women should feel flattered when boys and men found them desirable, because after all, a woman who men didn’t want practically had no reason for living. Sexual harassment was rarely ever discussed either (much less date rape), but when it was, the attitude tended to be that the girl or woman had “misunderstood” whatever-it-was that the boy or man had said, done or intended, or that she “had no sense of humor.”
I recall attending a wedding in my teens. To this day, it makes me shudder. The girl who was getting married (and I had such a crush on her… totally unrequited) was the daughter of a good friend of my mother’s. Their family was Catholic and religious to boot, so the wedding was held in church, although many of the attendees weren’t Catholic. The priest’s sermon explained that the Mass is part of a Catholic wedding because it symbolizes the wife’s giving of herself to her husband on the marriage bed. I listened in horror and disgust, hardly able to believe what I was hearing. I mean, how did this compute? A wife is like Christ so her husband is like… Jesus’ Roman executioners?? Sex for wives is like crucifixion? And somehow, this suffering is presumably supposed to be good, even redemptive?!
Surely this is just crazy, I thought. Surely nobody but that priest really thinks that Jesus giving himself over to be crucified is a great analogy for a wife on her wedding night. But after the wedding was over, I heard the mother of the girl speaking to my mother about how the whole thing had gone. She asked my mother, “…and don’t you think that Father X explained the reason why Catholic weddings have the Mass really clearly?” My (non-Catholic, and agnostic) mother affirmed that yes, he had explained it very well. I stood by silently, wondering why neither of these strong, capable and intelligent women apparently had any problem with what the priest had said.
Perhaps I was the one with the problem? After all, no one else present seemed to think that what he had said was out of the ordinary. This was one of those scary moments of adolescence when the possibility that I Might Not Be Normal raised its frightening head momentarily… and I turned away from that specter, refusing to allow myself to think about it any further. So, I didn’t ask my mother or her friend what they had really thought about the implications of that sermon. I just tried not to think about it.
So, when I read that sentence written by the Muslim da’i several years later: “She may not deny herself to her husband, for the Qur’an speaks of husband and wife as a comfort to one another”… it didn’t sit quite right with me, but it wasn’t an unfamiliar idea either. I could sort of skate over it in my mind, focusing on the idea of husband and wife as a comfort to one another, and almost ignore the first part of the sentence.
The way the sentence is constructed makes such elision all too easy. The chastely serious, euphemistic tone of this sentence: “She may not deny herself….” The wife’s body is gestured towards here—and is somehow collapsed with “herself”—but it isn’t mentioned. The husband’s body isn’t mentioned either.
Nor are the wife’s mind, her feelings, her desires, her pleasure, or her pain mentioned. The husband’s desire is gestured towards, indirectly, but it is not mentioned either. These things are carefully absent, as if they don’t matter in this context.
The absence of bodies and feelings and desires, plus the euphemistic language discourages the reader from saying, “Hey, wait a minute. What does this sort of sexual interaction in which the wife is made to feel that she has no right to say “no” look in practice? How does it make the wife feel? What sort of a man would do that to his wife? What sort of man is turned on by the idea of having sex with a woman who is unwilling, who is crying or pleading with him not to touch her there, or to do this or that? Or who is lying still, not objecting because she is a god-fearing wife, but she can’t quite help praying that he will get it over with quickly and leave her alone?”
Because mentioning bodies—especially naked or partially unclothed bodies in a sexual situation—has already been implicitly placed beyond the pale as “immodest.”
Instead, the reader is directed towards the Qur’an. The well-known verse (so often quoted at Muslim marriage ceremonies) is invoked:
“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find rest in them, and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in this are signs for people who reflect” (Q 30: 21)
And in this way, by this apparently oh-so-easy slight of hand, the man who wrote that “she may not deny herself to her husband…” erases those wives who try to say “no” but fearing that if they do the angels will curse them and God won’t hear their prayers from the reader’s view. Their pleading, their tears, their nausea, their pain are in this way smothered, with the Qur’an wielded against them like a pillow held down over their faces, until they move and struggle no more.
Softly, softly. Shhh. Quiet now. That’s right. Because in the pure, clean, ideal Islamic marriage of this male author’s imagination, a wife is always peacefully and piously and happily yielding to the desires of her husband. There are no living, breathing, feeling wives who are god-fearing and yet say “no.”
The violence of this erasure should be recognized, but it isn’t. Because this silencing, this erasure is done in such a sanitary way.
* * * * *
How does one recover from this sort of thing? From the guilt, the manipulation, the head-games, the lies? The flash-backs?
How did women like me live through this stuff, all those years? How did we manage to assent to what was basically rape apologia, rather carelessly wrapped in a thin veneer of religious verbiage? How did we manage to turn off our bodies, to turn off our minds, to turn off our consciences, to silence that internal voice that kept telling us that something was very wrong? Can what we silenced ever be fully recovered?
Recovery from this sort of thing is more complicated for those of us who are LGBT or Q. Or at least, it is if we listen to those conservative, judgmental, know-it-all voices that we internalized over the years. Those voices that tell us, “The problem is with you. It’s because your fitra is corrupted. That’s why you have difficulty with normal, healthy, clean, pure relationships, done the way that God intends.”
Those voices that in effect say, “To be a god-fearing woman is to have no boundaries, no identity, no healthy sense of self-preservation, and certainly no sexual subjectivity of her own (unless it dovetails precisely with what her husband wants). A woman without boundaries or a sense of self, who is happy to let the scholars past and present (because of course they know better), and her husband and whoever else gets all up in her business define who she is, what she is entitled to, and what access others may have to her body.”
No, the problem is not with us. The problem is with the framework. The cruelty of the framework itself, and the cruel narrow-mindedness of its modern interpreters who in effect tell us, “God doesn’t see people like you. You don’t exist. Your experiences don’t exist. Because the Qur’an says X and the hadith says Y and the great scholars (may God have mercy on them) say Z… you don’t exist. Or if you do, you’re a sinner and a rebel against God.” Or the poisonous compassion (aka condescension) of those who assure us that the problem is that we were just married to the wrong man who wasn’t god-fearing enough, or who didn’t “understand true Islam properly.”
This is yet another of those situations when we are forced to make a choice: between telling the truth about ourselves, and God (aka al-Haqq–“the Truth”). So that whatever we do, we make kufr—hide the truth. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
Perhaps the only way out (or is it through?) is to refuse such a “choice”—which is really not a choice at all.