Blurred lines, Muslim-style

“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.

The road I was on unfortunately didn't have anything like a rumble strip. Looking back, I can see that that was by design. Without the right to say "no," nothing halaal done to you can be violate your boundaries... supposedly. That was what they wanted us to think, anyway.

The road I was on unfortunately didn’t have anything like a rumble strip. Looking back, I can see that that was by design. Without the right to say “no,” nothing halaal done to you can be violate your boundaries… supposedly. That was what they wanted us to think, anyway.

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.

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by B on September 14, 2013 - 5:31 pm

    This post was intensely personal, raw and moving, especially for those who have had similar experiences, and I imagine it was not an easy feat to put into words, let alone to post it here. Thank you.

    I did wonder, aside from forced marital sex, have you ever discussed, or even experienced the effect of pornography in muslim marriages? I have grown up witness to the horrific effects a husband’s addiction to pornography can have on a marriage, and I feel it links closely to the idea you touch upon in this post about how women are expected to “keep beautiful” and “not let themselves go”, while men are to pursue and enjoy them… This is one excuse I have heard for the husband watching pornography (i.e. he feels the wife has let herself go so no longer is able to please him). It sickens me. I am sure it happens in non-religious marriages too, but the reason I raise it here is because another excuse the husband has given for it is that “it is more halal than outright sleeping with other women”. In my mind, though, I can’t help but think it is almost more haram than actually taking a mistress… At least with a mistress, there is something tangible to deal with.

    Any thoughts? I have often, often wondered about this issue but never actually articulated into a post or a question like this. Having read your blog from afar, at first with skepticism and cautiousness having come to it through one of my own existential crises, I have come to really appreciate the well-articulated eloquence and raw honesty of your posts. Mostly, I truly appreciate the courage you show by creating a platform to discuss these issues that hardly anyone else dares to with such candid openness and blatant personal experience.

    My mother was an eighties convert like you, and your blog is helping me untangle some of the mess that, as you know better than anyone, ensued for the children within such marriages, especially for girls.

    All the best,

    B

    • #2 by xcwn on September 14, 2013 - 11:20 pm

      B—Thank you for your kind words. If my blog is helpful to anyone, I am glad.

      My ex didn’t watch pornography, as far as I know. He would have regarded it as haraam. But he used to put profiles on Muslim matrimonial sites, claiming to be divorced with no kids, and looking for a wife. Women would send him pictures, sometimes without hijab, and he’d email and phone them. According to him, this was all halaal.

      Bah. Basically, whatever these guys want to do, they do, and then justify it somehow as being in accordance with what God allows. And this is an issue that needs another post.

  2. #3 by B on September 14, 2013 - 5:37 pm

    P.S. It is your posts on hijab and women’s dress in particular that piqued my respect and interest in this blog. Having read all of them, at least twice, some three or four times, all I could feel was relief – the sentence that kept running through my head said: “I’m not alone!”. All the years of questions, the intense, dark struggles and my own attempts to deconstruct my upbringing finally had a reasonable voice airing the same concerns… Thank you so much…

    • #4 by xcwn on September 14, 2013 - 11:25 pm

      B—You’re welcome. I’m glad if my ruminations are helping someone.

      I often wonder what happened to the daughters (and sons) of converts that I knew or met back in the day. I imagine that it must be difficult to untangle some of the stuff that happened—it certainly is for me. Hopefully, more people will blog about their experiences, and we will not feel quite so alone.

  3. #5 by nmr on September 15, 2013 - 5:24 pm

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the “go plough your women as you do your fields” , the interpretation of which is dependent on the reader’s knowledge of hadith versus sustainable agricultural practices.

    This is one of your rawer, oozing posts, and I can’t imagine it was easy for you to write, but please know your honesty is appreciated.I feel privileged in being, if only a small part watching on the sidelines, a part of your recovery.

    • #6 by xcwn on September 15, 2013 - 6:07 pm

      nmr—Absolutely awesome comment. Yes, the “women are your fields, so go to your fields as you wish” verse IS at odds with sustainable farming practices—but I never noticed that before. And that’s especially weird, seeing that there was so little land that could be farmed in Medina!

      (Which I suppose is why some modern apologists claim that this verse doesn’t mean what it apparently does, because a farmer can’t just sow seed whenever and however he wants and expect to reap a crop… but anyway. Both the verse as well as its traditional interpretations construct men as sexual actors in relation to women, who are passively acted upon. Really rape-y.)

  4. #7 by Me. on September 15, 2013 - 7:32 pm

    That was an extraordinary post. So perfectly clear in its horror and truth. Takbir Sister!

    My “husband” refuses to have a nikkah with me once he realized it meant that I was selling him usufruct of my organs and that it made him my guardian. He won’t be intimate with me, even now after so long, without clear consent.

    At first the idea of a nikkah didn’t bother me as long as we used one of those new gender-friendly contracts. But his insistence–and the writing of Kecia Ali on the subject of marriage law–made me realize that the usul on marriage are poisoned. There is no possible way to marry in Islam, even with a gender-friendly contract, that does not blur lines.

    I have a couple of thoughts I want to see if I can spell out:

    1. If people everywhere (dreaming) used the gender-friendly contracts it would overtake and trample all over the legal history and usul on marriage.

    2. This would mean that no one could seek an alim to affirm its correctness, because that just puts you back into patriarchy deciding whether or not you can consent. No alim I am aware of accepts those contracts and have been known to add patriarchal elements to them re-establishing male control. I even saw this in the case of a “progressive” alim who slipped back into the contract the need for the father’s signature as wali.

    3. Would it still be Islamic? Islamic in the practical sense, yes (whatever Muslims do is Islamic) but not Islamic in the traditional sense.

    4. If the ulama change marriage law to be equalize the genders (and even gay marriage, let us dream!), would it still be tainted because of the usul? Can an amendment be drafted, like the 13th and 14th amendment of the American Constitution that basically tries to nullify the Constitution’s intent (that all people not be equal).

    5. Why do I even give a shit about changing the law or even if it is possible? And the answer to that is that nasty internalization you talk about. I actually still feel the tug of guilt that I am not “properly” married before God. Lord Almighty! Some one bring me some smelling salts!

    • #8 by xcwn on September 15, 2013 - 10:24 pm

      Me.—So many insightful points. This needs another post… thanks for writing it for me. 🙂

      I agree that the marriage law can’t be reformed. It can be whitewashed, and made to smell all pretty from a distance with airy, flowery words about “compassion” and “love” and all that. But all that eyewash doesn’t really change anything. It just gives the illusion of change.

      As for guilt—oh yeah. Muslim female convert guilt is the gift that keeps on giving, unfortunately. I never fail to be amazed at how little guilt straight, cisgendered Muslim men (whether convert or not) seem to have, especially when it comes to issues related to sex and marriage. Even when they’ve done things (or are still doing things…) that are well known to be classified as major sins according to traditional scholars. Somehow, because they’re (straight) men, the understanding is that God will understand, forgive, etc—and whatever sins they’ve committed in any case aren’t regarded as cancelling out whatever good acts they may have done.

      But in our case, we have been taught to believe that our worth and authenticity as female “western” converts begins and ends with our (sexual) “virtue” and “moral” reputation. And we internalized it. Ugh. That’s yet another post.

    • #9 by Katiba on December 3, 2014 - 5:26 pm

      re: the verse about the fields – it was a Madinan who had said she didn’t think a certain type of position in intimate relations was okay. she thought it was dirty. Her husband, from a different culture (Makkah) thought it was normal – since it was normal in their practice. It was to validate that doing it only one way is not forbidden or dirty. it was to expand the legitimacy of varying ways to be intimate. not about frequency or roughness.

      • #10 by xcwn on January 25, 2015 - 9:41 pm

        Errr… that reading ignores the issue of the woman’s consent. Which is not surprising (it’s not a twenty-first century text, so expecting it to care about consent is unrealistic). But pretending that it isn’t problematic for women today is just masking the underlying issue of lack of consent. It should be perfectly ok for a woman to refuse any sexual act because she doesn’t want to do it, period—whether or not her husband thinks it is religiously permissible, or even manages to get a religious authority to confirm his view.

  5. #11 by ayasmom on September 16, 2013 - 1:04 am

    Alhamdulillah-what a moving and thought provoking post. The journey you have had to get to the point to be able to write about it, so eloquently, is just overwhelming to comprehend. Thank you for sharing. I think now I understand the concept of trigger alerts much better, which may or may not be fortunate. Even though I hadn’t realized until now I am a rape victim so the trigger warning didn’t ‘work’.

    The troubling part for me is how can we remain believers in this apparently unjust human concoction? Even if the Quran is the divine word of Allah, what about the above mentioned verse referring to farming? I’m having difficulty reconciling that discrepancy. Certainly Muhammad had encountered farmers having been a trader and having travelled, and you can at least farm dates in Arabia…forgive me. I’m feeling doubtful.

    • #12 by xcwn on September 17, 2013 - 11:03 pm

      ayasmom—Thank you for your comment. I’m finding it very difficult to respond to it, however.
      I think it will take another post.

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