What a tangled web of issues…

…it is when a woman wants to claim the right to ownership of her own body.

The comments that I have received since the last post have been overwhelming. Partly because they’re unintentionally triggering. But mostly because this is such a complicated, interconnected mess of issues. It’s like saying “no” touches a wire that threatens to blow out a bunch of circuits. Or threatens to blow you up. Or something.

Men using porn and justifying it “Islamically” because their wife supposedly isn’t attractive enough, and their kids having to witness their mother being treated like that. Questions of marriage law and whether it can be reformed… and if it is even ethically possible to have an “Islamic” marriage… and what the ramifications of this are for those who want to remain within Muslim communities. And the internalized guilt for not following the rules, for refusing to “sell” your vagina in marriage in exchange for nafaqa and a new guardian. And internalized guilt also because, well, doesn’t the Qur’an say to men that “women are your tillage”? How can a woman refuse to be tillage, or in the very least, refuse to pay lip-service to the idea, and still claim to be a Muslim?

And yet another issue that no one has mentioned yet (but give them time…): the implications of all this for the laws and community practices governing acts of worship. (more on that in a minute)

Oh God, in other words.


Considering this mess of issues, I have an irreverent thought: Straight, cis-gendered (and free) Muslim men don’t go through this sort of thing, and didn’t have to in the past either.

No, they don’t go through this.

So, why should women???

As some “progressive” apologists are so fond of saying, Islam is a sex-positive religion. (For straight men, that is… though they don’t spell that out.) Because that “sex-positive” system is meant to cater to male sexual desires, straight men are rarely if ever put in the position where they have to choose between the laws/practices governing sex and their own integrity as human beings (meaning, as thinking individuals with self-respect, as well as individuals with duties and responsibilities to protect those with less power, such as children).

(Just writing that last bit is extremely triggering… brings back some awful memories. Oh god.)

I have yet to meet a straight, cisgendered Muslim man who is torn apart by guilt the way that so many women are. Women are taught in so many direct and indirect ways to feel guilty, while men are taught… to feel entitled.

I have yet to meet a straight, cisgendered Muslim man who deals with PTSD that is in part a result of Islamically lawful, marital sex.

And I even have yet to meet a straight, cisgendered Muslim man who is deeply and sincerely regretful of the ways that attitudes to sex that are shaped by the notion that men are entitled to sexual service and pleasure have harmed his children.

What I do see is men who feel entitled. Not just in the bedroom, but everywhere. Such as the mosque. Men who truly believe that their delicate eyes and ears and noses and sensibilities ought to be protected from ever having to see, hear, smell or otherwise be made aware of the presence of women in the same prayer hall, because this would be too “distracting.”

Which brings us to the heart of the problem, really. The law’s lack of interest in girls’ or women’s consent (whether to marriage in the first place, or to sex within it) isn’t just an issue related to marriage or the family. It unfortunately has a wider significance than that.

A number of aspects of laws governing women’s acts of worship are shaped in various ways by men’s supposed sexual “needs”… and also (though this is seldom spelled out) by the presumption that the wife’s consent to sex is irrelevant. Take the rules about a wife’s fasting outside of Ramadan if her husband is present, for instance. On the face of it, it seems rather silly to explain (as is commonly done) that a woman can’t perform extra fasts without her husband’s permission if he is with her, because he might want to have sex with her, and her fasting would mean that he would have to wait, which would be unfair to him. The only way that this explanation makes any kind of sense is if the wife doesn’t have the right to say “no,” and her lack of desire to have sex at that time doesn’t matter as far as the religious law is concerned.

Or the sexualization of women at prayer. Women have to pray behind men, and they have to be silent. The whole “women are distracting” discourse that is marshaled in support of this (as well as by some in support of barriers in the prayer hall, or better yet, women praying at home in the darkest corners of their houses…) is again based on the assumption that men are sexually acquisitive, predatory, even, and that this state of affairs is but “natural.”

So of course it’s also “natural” that a man could be sexually aroused by the sight or sound of a woman who is… praying. Not meaning to arouse him at all. Not interested in him in the slightest. But then, her lack of intention to arouse him doesn’t matter, because it’s men who are expected to be sexually aggressive, while women are assumed to be passively inciting. The notion that her lack of consent ought to be a turn-off is absent in this way of thinking… and every time we pray at the back, quietly, we affirm this idea with our limbs. We internalize it, and help others to internalize it… whether or not we are conscious of it.

I don’t have any answers. All I have is questions. And a desire to be honest. Because all those years of not being honest, of trying to make myself believe that injustice is really justice… have had such destructive consequences.


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  1. #1 by ayasmom on September 18, 2013 - 3:23 am

    As always thank you for writing. Riveting.

    In the past you have said how traditional, conservative and cult-like the brand of Islam that you were living in while you were married was. I wonder though, if all, or the majority, of heterosexual muslims marriages are in fact this way. Is it the norm for the male to be the predator? Is it the norm that the man gets what he wants when he wants it? Is it the norm that a man will deny his wife a day of fasting just in case? I’m not questioning your experience and I’m not doubting that it is in fact the case for many Muslims who are married. I’m just thinking of the premise of your arguments. Is there room, could it be argued that there is in fact room for women to exercise right over their sexual lives within their heterosexual marriages?

    • #2 by xcwn on September 19, 2013 - 10:35 pm

      ayasmom—I’m talking about two main things here: my own experiences, and the texts (and interpretations of these texts, along with popular attitudes informed by such interpretations) that were used to justify, rationalize and dismiss what was going on.

      Of course I don’t deny that some Muslim women even in conservative, cult-like communities like the one I was in wouldn’t see where the problem is. Because it wasn’t happening to them, personally, or because their own husband didn’t buy into such attitudes, or because they don’t know anyone who is facing such things. Partly because things like this are rarely discussed openly anyway, in my experience.

      I’ve no idea how often women are put in the situation of being forbidden to fast—and no idea how to even go about finding that out (perhaps a sociological study would be the answer??). But I don’t think that that’s really the point. The point is that the notion that a wife needs her husband’s permission to fast so that his sexual “rights” over her aren’t infringed is a “mainstream” idea that is commonly found in books instructing people how to fast, on websites, etc. And I’ve rarely heard anyone even question it, much less object that it is demeaning to women (and men), and that it promotes marital rape.

      It’s very telling that conservative community leaders and shaykhs, when asked about this sort of thing, usually reply by deflecting. But that’s another post.

      Is there room for some women to find a way to have a satisfying sex life in their heterosexual marriages? Sure, of course there is. Provided that they are lucky enough to marry a man who wants that sort of relationship, and they have some leverage within their marriages. Lots of women do. But as for those who aren’t that lucky… too bad. It’s a very two-faced discourse, if you ask me.

  2. #3 by nmr on September 18, 2013 - 6:32 pm

    Dear Ayasmom,

    I’m feeling guilty for confusing you. I think the problem that xcwn is running into here is the interpretation conundrum. Whose interpretation do you want to listen to and why? What is your intention behind interpreting a certain ayah a particular way?

    If you want to assume the Quran still has some good advice which we can apply today: what do you make of the “women are your tillage” verse? One way I can interpret it is that if I really value and respect fertile farmland, then I am going to do everything I can to keep that land flourishing. That may mean “feeding” it (with fertilizer/manure), leaving it alone some years, not always planting the same old thing year after year. I want the land to do its best, because then it will give back enormously, to me, my family, and the community. In my dictionary, the 3rd definition for “tillage” is “the improvement and development of the mind or spirit.”, the 4th definition is “sexual intercourse with a woman.” You have a choice: you can interpret the verse as something about men having sex whenever they want, or you could take a different interpretation along the lines of “men, if you help women to do their best, to be fully actualized human beings and flourish creatively (on all levels), then this is going to make you a better person and help your community.”, or you can keep searching until you find an interpretation that makes sense to you.

    • #4 by rosalindawijks on April 12, 2015 - 1:56 pm

      Yes you’re right.

  3. #5 by A on September 19, 2013 - 1:59 am

    Sex related PTSD- u said it all in those few words. How can someone who has not lived through it understand? Talk about triggers. A year and a half since I extricated myself and my children and I still fear the idea of being with someone sexually because I never ever want to back to where I was at before – words cannot describe the feeling of having zero ownership of your own body.

    • #6 by xcwn on September 19, 2013 - 10:53 pm

      A—Yes, sex-related PTSD. And I never knew that there is such a thing before it happened to me. It wasn’t ever acknowledged as something that exists.

      I wish you peace and a full recovery, and I hope that things are getting better for you and your kids.

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