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Sex and the Muslim Feminist

On refusing to equate sexual pleasure with freedom.

I first learned about sex positive feminism in a graduate seminar at a large mid-western University. Every Tuesday and Thursday the long bare classroom would fill with students eager to talk about their hook-ups, their predilection for one or another kind of erotica and their general affirmation of the transformative capacities of the sexual act. For those who weren’t there, sex positive feminism stands for the precept that women are not free until and unless they are sexually free. In the competitiveness that graduate seminars breed, my classmates rambled on about threesomes, triumphant and unceremonious dumpings of emotionally attached lovers (who has time for that?) and in general lots and lots of sex. Our smug professor, nose-pierced and wild-haired and duly sporting the scarves and baubles of the well-traveled, encouraged it all. The question of how and when sexual liberation had become not simply the centerpiece but the entire sum of liberation in general never came up. The year was 2006.

I was disappointed but I said nothing. I had cuddled up with alienation just as soon as I began my graduate program. I wasn’t older but I was divorced and a mother; I spent a lot of my time juggling money and precarious childcare. At the time I took the seminar, I had just returned from Pakistan, where I was from, still bruised at having to explain my life choices to a family that had never before seen a divorce. In Pakistan I had worried about somehow losing custody because children were seen as part of the father’s family; in American courts I had had to explain my fitness as a mother because I worked and went to school all day. I agreed with sexual liberation as a portion of liberation in general; I wasn’t convinced that it was the whole.

That was not the only reason I kept quiet. Being Muslim and female was an identity that rhymed effortlessly with repression and oppression in the view of most liberal academics and students. I had heard it all so often and in so many other classes: the interdiction of the hapless women who were imprisoned by Islam, as an offhand way to highlight the relative fortune of the more successful Western feminist, the one that had moved from questions of basic equality to concerns with sexual pleasure. No texts by Muslim feminists were assigned reading for the course: not Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam and not Amina Wadud’s Qu’ran and Woman. The course’s sole concession to diversity a single slim text—Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza—by the Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua.

That curriculum was chosen nearly a decade ago, but the exclusion of Muslim feminists has continued. In an interview published in the New York Times last week, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, whose latest memoir was published last month, named twenty-eight women and three men in her list of “best contemporary feminist writers.” She fails to mention a single Muslim feminist. In other instances, I’ve found my own writing on women and militancy attacked; not met with analysis and engagement, but with condescending suggestions that, because I am female and Muslim, I am somehow “excited” by the idea of a female Muslim warrior. While the tone and tenor of these may vary, the message is the same: The Muslim feminist is either left out of the conversation or included only as an example of a deviant type, demanding liberals’ suspicion and vigilance.

I realized this even then. Contesting the premises of my professor and classmates would label me the prude, the insufficiently liberated. Speaking would court encirclement by pitying, knowing glances reserved for one understood to be plagued by yet un-confronted repressions. If I spoke, I would give them what they wanted: a Muslim woman to save, to school in the possibilities of sexual liberation. It would be impossible, in the rush and fervor of that savior encounter, to explain that my oppositions were not at all to sex or sexual pleasure, but to its construction as unproblematic, un-colonized by patriarchy, the entire measure of liberation. A Muslim feminist, I was sure, could not make that sort of nuanced distinction.

It was not always this way. When radical feminist Kate Millett wrote Sexual Politics in 1970, her central thesis was that the sexual act is imbued with the power differentials that operate in a patriarchal society. Millett argued that sex had an ignored political aspect and to prove it she took apart the work of then “progressive” writers Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Normal Mailer. What passed for risqué and erotic, she asserted, was really a normalization of subjecting women to the demeaning and the degrading. Feminism could not leave this realm unaddressed; Equality or the real power of the Sexual Revolution could not be harnessed unless this happened. Sexual liberation could not be the sum total of women’s liberation, because the role of sex as a venue for the perpetuation of patriarchy needed to be analyzed.

A 16-year-old Arab Spring protestor in Cairo, 2011, who convinced her parents to let her attend the demonstration.
Yuri Kozyrev / Noor

It looked like it would happen. When Millett’s book was published, it was a best-seller and she was feted as a darling of the feminist movement. The renown or the centrality of her thesis did not endure, and while the tracts of other Second Wave feminists remained referenced and read, Millett’s problematization of sex was sidelined. As Second Wave turned to Third Wave and then post-feminism, Sexual Politics became ever more rarely read and for a while even out of print. In 2010, forty years after its publication, feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys—one of the few feminists who have drawn parallels between cosmetic surgery and practices like Female Genital Mutilation—wrote a commemorative article, presenting her own account of what had happened to Millet’s work. She credited Millett with having fueled the work of feminist critics of pornography, such as Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin—that came later. Jeffreys attributes the neglect of Millett in part to the turn toward “pro sex feminism in the academy,” which promotes other, less radical voices instead.

Of course the loss of interest in a critique of sex cannot be pinned on the academy alone. The emphasis on sexual freedom permitted the taming of radical feminism to fit the capitalist society from which it emerged. If sex was understood as a commodity that women were choosing to consume, then its problematic aspects could be disguised. The objectification of women as sexual objects could hence be replaced by the objectification of sex and even sexualization. Put in operation this strategy meant this: women could choose to purchase bigger breasts not to please men but because they enhanced the woman’s own self-esteem, enhance her capacity to enjoy the liberation of sex. The focus shifted away from the state and from oppressive institutions to the women herself. Instead of taking on the thorny business of how sex itself replicated patriarchy in complex ways, sex was made into a commodity, which could be consumed by both men and women.

The visible consumption of sex birthed a sort of easygoing, pop-feminism, and as the 80s marched into the 90s it was everywhere. Sex and its avid consumption by women was the basis of the hit HBO television show Sex in the City; the character Samantha’s voracious sexual appetite was popular culture’s way of celebrating all the equality that the Sexual Revolution handed women. Feminism, as it had survived in the American mainstream, was sex positive, and questioning whether the calibration of equality or liberation against the amount of sex consumed was not of much interest. Sex and the female consumption of it, was again an issue in the HBO show Girls. In an effort at greater realism, borne of millennial self-consciousness, there was more awkwardness, more gritty detail (in one episode, Hannah, the main character Googles “the stuff that gets around condoms”) but the show did not contest the premise that the consumption of sex, even bad sex, is a central to feminist liberation.

In the years that followed, imperialism was also invited to the party: after 9/11, the idea of that sexual liberation was necessary for gender equality was deemed one of many reasons to wage war on countries where attitudes towards sex were different from American attitudes. Women’s groups like the Feminist Majority supported, even exhorted, the invasion of Afghanistan, to liberate Afghan women from the Taliban. The Afghan woman’s blue burka became the symbol of sexual repression, the basis for the most righteous feminist indignation and of bombings and night raids. That the same women may not want their country bombed and occupied, or might wish to fight their own battles, were the sort of ifs and buts that were not entertained.

Feminism joined hands with nationalism and everyone cheered the newlyweds, even though they had previously been (rightly) suspicious of each other. If burka-wearing Afghan women were repressed then surely American women, their saviors, were liberated. Even more feted were Muslim women who chose to follow the American recipe and define their own feminism entirely in the vocabulary of sexual liberation; the performative equivalent of this was to throw off the veil. Books featuring American women descending into Afghanistan, opening beauty shops and educating Afghan women in the ways of the liberated—books like Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Beyond the Veil, which ironically tells of how beautification can be a form of empowerment—were bestsellers.

The paper I wrote for the graduate seminar looked at a Pakistani law that criminalizes fornication and adultery. The Zina and Hudood Ordinance had been passed in 1979 by a military dictator General Zia ul Haque. It had stayed on the books since then (and is still there today) even after the country had elected a female Prime Minister twice. The best she had been able to do was to order the freeing of all the women imprisoned under the law. Some of them had refused to leave the prison; being accused of a sexual crime had been damning and they would face too much stigma if they returned to their families. The law remained a mess: one of its worst consequences was that women who made rape accusations were then criminalized as participants in fornication or adultery.

I argued that the secular feminist movement in Pakistan that challenged the laws had been a failure. The public rallies they held could not attract ordinary women and political risks that came with visible opposition could mostly only be taken by women who had powerful male benefactors with existing political clout. Because of this the only women who marched or protested were elite urban women who were themselves rarely targeted by the law. A better move, I argued, would have been to take to task the Islamic credentials of the law itself. Muslim feminists like the legal scholar Asifa Quraishi were doing just that: In her paper “Her Honor: An Islamic Critique of the Rape Laws of Pakistan from a woman sensitive perspective”, Quraishi tries to debunk the idea that Islamic law demands Zina prosecutions in the form that they were being legislated and carried out in Pakistan. Quraishi tries to reorient the discourse on Zina in the direction of seeing Islamic law as a tool for women’s empowerment rather than oppression. In addition to Quraishi, I discussed the work of Quranic scholar Amina Wadud, whose “Inside Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam” had just been published. Like Quraishi, Wadud argued that Islamic religious doctrine, interpreted for hundreds of years exclusively by men, had to be reclaimed by women. In the reclamation lay the possibilities of equality and empowerment.

I got a B on the paper. The professor was concerned that I had not really engaged the texts and discussions that had formed the bulk of our class discussions. It was true. I had tried to prove many things with the paper, primarily that sexual liberation was crucial and important, but that it must be centered on the understanding of sex itself as a venue of contention, which has implications on gender relations that go beyond the consent and pleasure of the two parties. Instead of stating my arguments in the language of sexual consumption familiar to Western feminists, a Muslim vagina monologue, or a hymn to the liberation of hymens, I wanted to make room for a feminist discourse that had relevance to Muslim women. I was rejecting the premise that sexual pleasure—instead of equality—had to be the centerpiece for feminist agitation.

Some feminists are now beginning to question aspects of sex-positive feminism. A few weeks ago, Michelle Goldberg, author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, wrote in The Nation: “ For a lot of people, the contemporary sexual regime celebrating pleasure above all else isn’t that much fun.” Goldberg, who titled her essay “The Problem with Idolizing Sexual Liberation,” is discussing the work of Rachel Hills, an Australian feminist who spent several years documenting the consequence of sexual liberation for millennials; having sex, even a lot of sex, she argues, has become its own oppressive sexual convention. Hills submits that “true female sexual autonomy doesn’t just necessitate the right for women to have sex without stigma or judgment, although this is of course important. It also entails the right to confidently not have sex when it is unwanted or unavailable on the terms she might prefer.”

To bolster her argument, Hills presents findings from hundreds of interviews, tales of women who have felt that they have to pretend to be more sexual than they are in order to fit into the ideal of the cool, hip feminist. Magazines marketed to women bolster this paradigm, pushing the achievement of orgasms, adventurous sex lives, and the constant incorporation of novelty as the basis for a good and even healthy sexual life. All of this, Hills concludes, has led to the transformation of women from sexual objects to sexual subjects. While the former were policed by other people, the latter police themselves, watching and regulating their own behavior in order to create for themselves an identity that fits the cultural ideal.

The new form of subjection Hills identifies has enormous consequences for intersectionality, which holds that oppressive institutions, racism, sexism, xenophobia are interconnected and that the task of creating feminist solidarity is incomplete without engaging the overlap between them. If sex positive feminism imposes behavioral rules on women in America, it similarly demands that other feminisms—which seek to ally with mainstream American feminism—state their goals and aims in the same language, equating liberation with sex positivity. The stories and narratives of the “other,” in this case the Muslim feminist, that get touted as heroic and worthy of alliance hence must invoke this language, the celebration and centrality of sexual pleasure as the essence of feminism, unveiling as the central act of liberation. It is not a benign request, since the happy alliance of capitalism and imperialism with this brand of dominant feminism ensures also that those who do not acquiesce are left out of the conversation, deemed irrelevant, prudish, parochial and hence deserving of silence. On the opposite side, sex positivity becomes synonymous with capitalism and imperialism, creating equally crude oppositional discourses that seek the revival of chastity as a norm for Muslim women who oppose capitalism and imperialism.

I wish I could have written this for that seminar. I was angry then, trying to juggle being divorced and a mother in an environment where I had little support. I had broken every gender norm I had been raised with, had chosen education and independence, and all the struggles that came with it. The seminar’s pre-occupation with sex, particularly its frequency and variety, seemed trivial to me, unconnected to the feminism that I was trying so hard to model for my daughter. It hurt to be judged inadequate somehow by those whose class and color seemed to make them better equipped to define the terms of feminism.

I am less angry now, but equally concerned. The anointing of sex positive feminism has over time permitted the transformation of a deep and complex feminist movement into one that helps brand magazines and sell lingerie to women who can imagine themselves emancipated based on the consumption of sex. In becoming the central metaphor for liberation, it has eviscerated critiques of imperial overtures abroad and encouraged a deliberate deafness toward all the dialects of empowerment that do not translate themselves into its language. Its biggest casualty has been the stereotyping and exclusion of Muslim feminists, whose frontline struggles against terror, against religious obscurantism, and against the weight of patriarchal domination have all been relegated to a position of inferiority, based on their refusal to affirm that freedom essentially and centrally means the freedom to have sex.