The misogynistic professor
“You can tell a Muslim feminist from the way she has sex with her man,” said one of my Professors at the University in an international human rights law class where we were discussing the topic of Sexual Liberation and Feminism, “She wants to take control”, he continued, “She wants to be a master of the game. The Reverse missionary style is one of the products of western feminism which Muslim women have adopted against the backdrop of their religion.”
“Oh my God!” I thought, “not again.” As cliché as this conversation sounded, the implications of passively encouraging a faulty and repressive view of the Muslim woman’s sexuality was just too far-reaching as far as I was concerned, one of the dividends of being a Muslim woman was the freedom to enjoy sex within the bounds of the permissible. How then was the way and manner in which I achieved my orgasm subject to debate? I just couldn’t let it go.
I was quick to point out to him that men and women in Islam have equal rights to conjugal relations and it didn’t matter what method they employed in fulfilling their desires. But then, he came up with the argument that according to Islamic Jurists, men were the Qawwam, the givers and not the receivers and their position as Qawwam was what gave them authority over women in the bedroom. I was quite shocked when he stated quite sarcastically that rather than focusing on their orgasms, Muslim women would do better by paying attention to their Islamic duty of satisfying the sexual needs of their husbands.
“By the one in whose hands is my life, there is not a man who calls his wife to bed, and she refuses to accept that Allah becomes angry with her until her husband is pleased with her.” This hadith that has been most widely cited by scholars and jurists and has been employed by Muslim men in coaxing women into believing that sex is the exclusive right of the man. Muslim men then take a particular hadith in isolation and manipulate it to their advantage. It is true that some men can be more highly sexual than women. And this ruling was made because of the inherent temperamental, physical and emotional differences between the sexes. But the notion that women were created to fulfil the needs of the husband and thus have no right to make demands for their desires to be fulfilled is unfound in Islam.
The wife’s right to an orgasm
According to Muhammad bin Adam Al Kawthari in his book Islamic Guide to sexual relations, the wife has as much right to expect her sexual needs will be fulfilled as the husband. As such, sexual relations are the right of both spouses. He also stated that In Islam, seeking one’s rights through demands force and argumentation contradicts the spirit of marriage as ordained by Allah. Also, Imam ‘Ala Al-Din Al Kasani, a prominent classical Hanafi Jurist stated that “Both spouses share this ruling of deriving sexual pleasure for just as the wife is lawful for the husband, her husband is also lawful for her.”
Often when I attend Muslim wedding banquets, it is almost trite to expect the Imam who was admonishing the new bride never to refuse her husband in bed even if she is exhausted from work or sick. On such occasions, I have found myself pondering over whether or not Islam placed such iniquitous burdens on a woman. It is understandable that considering the high sexual drive of men, refusing them sex without any valid reason or as a weapon against them could make them seek to relieve themselves unlawfully.
However, the Islam that I know would not ask women to fulfil their husbands’ needs in a state of jeopardy. I decided to look more into this issue and realized that great jurists like Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyah and Islamic Scholar Muhammad bin Adam Al Kawthari, gave specific rulings. The ruling says that if the wife is menstruating or has postnatal bleeding, or is ill, physically unable to have sex, exhausted, emotionally drained or in a condition where sexual activity would be detrimental to her wellbeing, then she is no longer under obligation to comply with her husband’s demand for sex. In the words of Ibn Adam Al Kawthari, “If the wife is not in a state to engage in sexual activity and has a genuine and Islamically valid reason, but the husband forces her, then he will be sinful. Muslim husbands need to understand that they are also human beings and not machines that can be switched on and off whenever they desire.”
“On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear” Qur’an 2:286
On the right of the wife to have her sexual needs fulfilled by her husband — her right to orgasm, there are several traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) that practically depicts the importance of satisfying the woman in whatever manner that would guarantee her fulfilment except what is expressly prohibited.
Imam Ibn Qudama, a renowned Hanbali Jurist, mentions a narration in which the Prophet (PBUH) was reported to have said, “Do not begin intercourse until she has experienced desire like the desire you experience, lest you fulfil your desires before she does.” [Al Mughni, 8:36]. Al Kawthari also stated that “Foreplay can take many forms and it is best left to the couple to discover what stimulates them since each couple is different.”
Sexual liberation via Islam or the West?
Back to my International Human Rights Law class, I couldn’t but ask the question “of what significance is sexual freedom to Islamic Feminism?”.
Mainstream western feminism is of the view that every woman should be able to express her sexuality as she pleases. Including having the right to have sex when, where, how and with who she wants — sex-positive feminism. Mainstream feminism stands for the precept that sex is a commodity which could be consumed by both men and women. And no one is free until and unless they are sexually free. So within this framework, where does the Muslim woman stand? Need I say that being Muslim and a woman was an identity that was already synonymous with repression in the eyes of the world. So while my Professor was making the false assertion that in Islam, Muslim women had no right to enjoy sex, I took one look at my classmates and realized that challenging the claims of my Professor would only label me the inadequately liberated, more so because some Muslim women had chosen to follow the western formula by defining their feminism in terms of sexual liberation and reality, taking off their headscarves.
Triggering a dialogue
So what I did was try to start a discourse on what sexual liberation means to the Muslim feminist. First and foremost, the new obsession with sex was not in any way connected to the kind of feminism that I was pursuing. In essence, sexual equality rather than sexual pleasure was the more appropriate term of relevance to Muslim women. On this premise, I was able to establish the sexual rights of Muslim women with relevant authorities from the Shari’ah. So while mainstream feminism aimed at transforming women from being sexual objects to being sexual subjects, Muslim feminism only sought to assert equality between men and women with regards to sex.
In the end, it would be important to mention that in the Muslim world where Feminism is the new ‘F-Word,’ Muslim women are at a disadvantage. Caught between a patriarchal Muslim community that is always ready to label Muslim Women who speak of their rights as deviants and outcasts on the one hand, and the mainstream feminists who would never accept Muslim women as part of the movement. Bringing me to the now, with me having to emphasize the need for us, as Muslim women, to begin pursuing OUR kind of feminism independent of the mainstream. After all, the basis for our feminism is Islam. And our refusal to affirm that true liberation rests on the freedom to have sex should not be a basis for relegating our struggles against religious dogmatism and patriarchal domination to a position of inferiority.