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Islam and ChristianMuslim Relations
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Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender in
modern feminist interpretation
Elizabeth Shlala Leo
a
a
Department of History , Georgetown University , Washington,
DC, USA
Published online: 12 Apr 2011.
To cite this article: Elizabeth Shlala Leo (2005) Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender in modern
feminist interpretation, Islam and ChristianMuslim Relations, 16:2, 129-140
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09596410500059615
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Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender in
Modern Feminist Interpretation
ELIZABETH SHLALA LEO
Department of History, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA
ABSTRACT Sexuality, gender and patriarchy are modern concepts that Western feminist scholars
have unquestioningly utilized in their historical inquiry into women in Islam without ample
consideration of periodization or problemization. Within the revelation of the Quran, the sexes
were gendered in relation to each other in a reection of their physical and biological
complementarity. There was not, however, the construction of sexuality and gendering that is
evident in the patriarchal society of the modern world. In this essay, I will attempt to trace the
historiographical evolution of female sexuality from the time of the Prophet until the Middle
Ages, particularly through the development of the female gendered roles of wifehood and
motherhood as found in the Quran, hadith and qh. Additionally, I will argue that until the
present these modern constructs have been taken for granted by postmodern scholarship on the
topic across many academic disciplines. This has led to scholarship that superimposes modern
conceptual frameworks upon earlier time periods. Although these are modern concepts, they may
be aptly applied to discourses evident in the period under review, but they must be properly
claried and situated. Furthermore, I myself will work with these concepts, but I will
problematize them to show history as a process through which one can nd the precursors for
modern sexuality and gender construction.
The Prophet said that women completely dominate men of intellect and possessors
of hearts,
But ignorant men dominate women, because [these men] are dominated by their
animal nature. (Jalaluddin Rumi)
Introduction
Sexuality, gender
1
and patriarchy are modern concepts that Western feminist scholars
have unquestioningly utilized in their historical inquiry into women in Islam without
ample consideration of periodization or problemization. Within the revelation of the
Quran, the sexes were gendered in relation to each other in a reection of their physical
and biological complementarity. There was not, however, the construction of sexuality
Islam and ChristianMuslim Relations
Vol. 16, No. 2, 129140, April 2005
Correspondence Address: Elizabeth Shlala Leo, Department of History, Georgetown University, 2501 Q St,
Washington, DC 20007, USA. Email: ehs6@georgetown.edu
0959-6410 Print=1469-9311 Online=05=02012912 # 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080=09596410500059615
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and gendering that is evident in the patriarchal society of the modern world, which was
formulated upon misogynistic, Aristotelian reasoning during the Middle Ages. That is
to say, it was not until years after the Quran was revealed to Muhammad that the onset
of patriarchy as a system occurred. In the Arab world, patriarchy was heralded by a
break with tribal culture and ensuing power struggles for leadership, which were caused
by the rise of early capitalism in Mecca, the regional diffusion of Islam with a concomitant
inux of slaves, and increased urbanization. In an effort to enforce the patriarchal order,
the restraint of human sexuality became a means of maintaining social control and
harmony in a way that appears to be signicantly different from the preceding eras.
In this essay, I will attempt to trace the historiographical evolution of female sexuality
from the time of the Prophet until the Middle Ages, particularly through the development
of the female gendered roles of wifehood and motherhood as found in the Quran, hadith
and qh. Additionally, I will argue that until the present these modern constructs have been
taken for granted by postmodern scholarship on the topic across many academic disci-
plines. This has led to scholarship that superimposes modern conceptual frameworks
upon earlier time periods. Although these are modern concepts, they may be aptly
applied to discourses evident in the period under review, but they must be properly
claried and situated. Furthermore, I myself will work with these concepts, but I will
problematize them to show history as a process through which one can nd the precursors
for modern sexuality and gender construction.
Further justication for using the above-mentioned concepts is that feminist inter-
pretation itself is a modern approach to understanding Islam. Feminist interpretation is
aligned with the modernist approach in the following ways. Itjihad (personal interpretation)
allows one to deconstruct women and gender through the reinterpretation of the texts, so
feminists turn to the women portrayed in the Quran and the message of the suras concerning
women to deduce a freedom and equality that is missing in the modern female gender con-
struct. In addition, early Islamic modernists such as Muh

ammad

Abduh posited that Islam


was the rst community to recognize the full equality of women with men. This argument
lays the foundation for most feminist arguments today in support of a pure Islamto be found
in the distant past, and to which women must return to regain their proper place beside their
male counterparts in modern times. Finally, a critical point made by H

asan al-Banna and


Sayyid Qut

b is that Islam saves women from the exploitation of their sexuality that has
been brought about by Western capitalism. This point is also important for refuting devel-
opment theories that point to Muslimbackwardness as a cultural product rather than a result
of serious socio-economic problems endemic to some countries of the modern Arab world.
Adhering to these parameters, recent feminist inquiry is by its nature a modern inquiry, and
as such assumes an agenda replete with modern questionings that go back in order to inform
the past; this is dangerous and may lead to linear thinking and faulty deconstruction.
I will demonstrate how time and again scholars make a theoretical leap between early
Islam and modern argumentation with little to no elucidation of the concepts of sexuality
and gender. Arguably, there are three main reasons for this. First, the period from the
seventh century until the Middle Ages and then from the Middle Ages until the modern
period is not a part of Western secondary or college curricula. Second, there is in
Western academic institutions a dearth of translated sources which scholars may use to
interpret these times.
2
Lastly, modern scholars insist on garnering legitimacy by relying
on classical exegesis passed down from the medieval jurists instead of searching for
innovative ideas inside or outside the Arab world at different times in history.
130 E. Shlala Leo
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Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmed, Nawal El Saadawi and Fatima Mernissi are among the
scholars I will address through their grammatical, theoretical and practical exegeses of
the Quran by casting new light on the accepted lineage of certain tafs r, hadith and
qh that are patriarchal and pejorative in their treatment of women. The feminist approach
they take is based on the modernist exhortation to disregard medieval qh and to return to
the pure Islam of the Quran through itjihad (personal interpretation). Feminists are thus
able to reinterpret the Quran and to extricate medieval juridical and hadith gendering of
woman that is not evident in the sacred text of divine revelation.
Nonetheless, the issue remains the unproblematized modern framework that they
employ to do this. It is unproblematized in the sense that these writers mistakenly
pose modern questions that are more applicable to the lives of modern Muslim women
than to the women who lived in the seventh-century world of the Prophet Muhammad.
This oversight may be the more surprising given the overwhelming cultural and religious
sensitivity these scholars bring to their use of Western concepts when they treat topics
about Islamic women in the Middle East. In favor of such an inquiry into Islamic
female sexuality, Leila Ahmed writes:
Other worthy areas of investigation include issues of sexuality and the ways in
which sexual and erotic experience, heterosexual and homosexual, shaped con-
sciousness, and even more fundamentally the meaning of sexuality and whether
the spectrum of emotional, erotic, and sexual experience within Egyptian and
Arab society might be adequately or accurately captured by such modern Western
terms. (Ahmed, 1992, pp. 185186)
While Ahmed thoughtfully questions the application of modern Western concepts to
modern Middle Eastern society, the greater dilemma, which she neglects to mention, is
how to avoid superimposing modernity onto the past by assuming that the questions of
today are applicable to yesterday. Finally, these ideas have become tangible through
Michel Foucaults idea of sexuality, and the construction of the female body in relation
to the greater social body through discourse.
3
I will attempt to demonstrate that this modern idea of sexuality was not present in the
Qurran, but through discourse was added years later through medieval tafs r, hadith and
qh, as demonstrated by these feminist scholars. I propose that the modern construction of
woman as wife and mother is not found in the Quran either. That is not to say, however,
that a concept of sexuality and gender specic to that time did not exist. Indeed, the
modern concepts of sexuality and gender may be enlightening tools to apply towards
understanding this period and dening the antecedents of modern sexuality and gender
constructs in their own right. I will attempt to dene and explain them in their modern
forms.
Patriarchy and Islamic Feminist Historical Narratives
Patriarchy is an inherently unbalanced and unstable organizational system in which over-
riding social norms postulate that men are superior to women. Therefore, men hold overt
power over women through the process of social construction as evident in the depiction
of sexuality, the assignment of gender roles, and the social hierarchy that exists in every
facet of social relations. Since patriarchy is undeniably an early modern and modern
Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender 131
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organizational belief system, a lacuna exists for the portrayal and function of sexuality and
gender outside of known patriarchal systems. The dawn of Islam may be an appropriate
moment to initiate such an inquiry, as there is not enough academic evidence denitively
to support or deny the existence of patriarchy in the seventh-century Arab world. Certainly
power relations existed in society, and they seem to have stratied the sexes. However,
what the dominating beliefs and social norms were remains controversial. There is no
denitive proof that men were perceived as superior to women or that social relations
were prioritized along those lines.
4
Feminists and misogynists alike have analyzed the
Quran to show the efcacy of both sides of the argument, particularly through the
portrayal of quranic female gures and suras relating to women. Furthermore, much
tafs r on the message of the Quran poses the same problem as that of sexuality: Did
the Quran encourage or condemn patriarchy? Here again it must be reiterated that patri-
archy, like sexuality, may not apply to that time period, and the question may be too
modern to ask without rst grappling with its position within the historical process.
Abdur Rahman I. Doi presents the popular assumption that the period of Jahiliyya was
one in which women were scandalously mistreated by men. This is a modernist argument
widely accepted throughout the Islamic world. It is important because it attributes revolu-
tionary change to Islam and credits the message of the Quran with saving women from the
horrors they were experiencing during that time. Monogamy and the prohibition of female
infanticide are two of the oft-cited innovations of Islam. Doi states that before Islam
the Arabs would bury their female infants alive, make woman dance naked at annual
fairs and treat women as cattle for sexual pleasure, giving them no rights. Islam was
revolutionary because it regards women and men as created from the same soul (nafs),
which gives women full humanity with men (Doi). Although the conditions may have
existed, Doi does not use the term patriarchy. Modern feminist scholars do not present
a unied picture of this historical narrative, but the concept of patriarchy certainly
informs their narratives.
Nawal El Saadawi postulates that the period of the Prophet was a cross between
patriarchy and matriarchal systems where, however, man had the upper hand
(El Saadawi, 1982, p. 126). She believes that there was a matriarchy before the rise of
Islam whose goddesses were conquered by the Prophets male god. She goes on to
explain that this eroded the preceding matriarchy through an inux of male control over
religion and the economy. She notes that women in the towns were less free and more
veiled than their desert counterparts who directly participated in the economy without
the veil (ibid., pp. 125131). Like some other feminist scholars, El Saadawi records the
strength and power of women during the pre-Islamic period, or Jahiliyya. She notes
that there were many important and socially powerful women who went to war with
and against the Prophet with knives slung across their pregnant bellies. Finally, she
identies the greatest social change to be the Islamic institution of marriage. Jahiliyya
marriages were not restrictive for women or sexuality; children were named after their
mothers. In her expose, Islam and economic factors brought an end to this matri-
archy, which was followed by the rise of patriarchy as early as the seventh or eighth
century. Fatima Mernissi also claims that in the Jahiliyya period tribes followed a
matriarchal system. She contends that it was Islam that brought the innovation of paternity
to the region through the institution of

idda, a waiting period of menstrual cycles to
ascertain if a woman was pregnant before she was eligible to remarry (Mernissi, 1991,
pp. 5253).
132 E. Shlala Leo
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Leila Ahmed proposes an extensive and more complete historical narrative of pre-
Islamic patriarchy. Ahmed states that at the beginning of human history, women were
not subjugated to men, as is evidenced by ancient goddess worship. She identies the
rise of urban centers, increased military competitiveness, the birth of city-states, class
distinctions and economic specialization as contributing to the growth of patriarchy and
the subordination of women between 3500 and 3000 BCE in the Mediterranean.
5
She
posits that women were viewed for the rst time as male property and as such their sexu-
ality and reproductive capability had to be closely monitored and controlled in order for
them to maintain their value. She writes that This led (some have argued) to the emer-
gence of prostitution and to the enforcement of a rigid demarcation between respectable
women (wives) whose sexuality and reproductive capability belonged to one man, and
women who were sexually available to any man (Ahmed, 1992, p. 12). Hammurabis
Code in 1752 BCE was particularly harsh towards women. At this time, respectable
women veiled to show who was sexually available and who was not.
6
Nevertheless, she
details that women were priestesses, held jobs, entered into contracts, bought and sold
property and slaves, and could modify marriage contracts. However, the inuence of
early Christianity on the region brought veiling, seclusion and female invisibility; it
also brought the shame of sexuality to the region. Here she identies that circa 300
BCE cultural exchanges among the Mesopotamian, Persian, Hellenic and Christian
worlds increased patriarchy through the notion that the value of woman was related
solely to her sexual and reproductive biology (ibid., pp. 1318). It is important to note
what a modern argument about gender and sexuality Ahmed is putting forward here.
She further expounds upon the misogyny of Zoroastrianism and Christianity that was to
inform the mores, such as female infanticide, of the Arab population in the Sasanian
society of the seventh century (ibid., pp. 1837). It was at the turn of the millennium
that the idea of woman as thing entered into society. However, Ahmed soundly problema-
tizes patriarchy throughout the history of the region, relying on Gilda Lerners work.
Ahmed afrms that not enough is known about the Jahiliyya period to defend or deny
what aspects of it were matrilineal, patrilineal, matriarchal or patriarchal, but she con-
cludes that through monogamous, patrilineal marriage established by Islam, womens
sexual autonomy was curtailed (ibid., pp. 4043). Fatima Mernissi claries this differen-
tiation between Western Christian and Islamic patriarchal sexuality by positing that they
took two separate paths. According to her, Western civilization divided the individual into
spirit and esh and held that the pure spirit had to conquer the debased esh and its sexu-
ality, while in Islam, she claims, it is not sexuality per se that is attacked, but women
as the embodiment of destruction, the symbol of disorder because, in contrast with
the West, Muslim theory views civilization as the outcome of satised sexual energy
(Mernissi, 1987, p. 44).
Sexuality and Modern Feminist Inquiry
Sexuality is a reproductive and procreative power. It revolves around sex as an act and
sex as a biological assignment; it is not these things themselves, but it draws its power
from them. As Foucault contends, its discourses are an historical construct, although
sexuality itself is not, and under certain social systems its power may be inverted or
thwarted altogether. Female sexuality is a positive, universal force that derives from a
womans physical ability to birth and nourish children from her body. Under a
Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender 133
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patriarchal system, this inherent female power is a threat to the social hierarchy, so dis-
course reveals a womans body and abilities to be within demeaning social construc-
tions, which posit that her body is weak and her being is overly emotional and
unstable. To this end, modern motherhood must be normatively regulated and empiri-
cally standardized. Overall, a great effort is made to disconnect womans reproductive
reality from her material reality through social discourse and construction. This is
evident in modern societies in which pregnancy is monitored scientically, childbirth
is highly medicated and medicalized, and breastfeeding has become a commercially
undesirable option. With regard to women and work, mothers are less likely to
receive pay or promotion at the rate of their male counterparts. Childbirth is diagnosed
in some countries as a disability, and time within the workday cannot be found for
breastfeeding newborns. Female sexuality and reproduction are not ignored as they
may have been in earlier times under different regimes; they are regulated into
inferiority.
Despite past assumptions regarding women under patriarchy, women are not passive
players in discourse and social construction. Women participate in this degradation of
their sexuality by focusing their power on the discourses ascribed to them, and working
towards the goals of gender success as portrayed in patriarchygoals and success that
are meaningless and remain elusive to them as they deny themselves the very real
power that women embody through their sexuality. In fact, the denitions for success
under patriarchy as tied to outward methods of material accumulation in capitalist
systems are satisfying for neither sex.
The fruition of female sexuality has historically been a point of contention and conict
under patriarchy as regulated by the hegemonic authority. In the monotheistic faith
communities, religion has worked in tandem with the state (or pre-state) to this end.
This is why modern Christian cleric, Robert W. Jenson, states that any community that
takes its own reality seriously must be ready to deal with sexuality seriously by a willing-
ness to legislate how it is and is not to be expressed (Jenson, 1984, pp. 4647). Arguably,
male and female sexuality are equally subjected to this legislation, although under
patriarchy female sexuality is of particular concern and construct.
Although male sexuality also has a positive role to play in society, it too is demo-
nized; it is gloried and contextualized as a negative under a patriarchal system. Men
are idealized as powerful, virile and insatiable. Their sexuality, which is also procreative,
is disparagingly equated with violence, anger and oppression. In this way, sexuality
within the connes of patriarchy, and indeed patriarchy itself, serves the interest of
neither men nor women. Nawal El Saadawi seemingly echoes this sentiment when
she states that men:
are also victims of a society that segregates the sexes, and that considers sex a sin
and a shame which can only be practiced within the framework of an ofcial mar-
riage contract. Apart from this permitted avenue of sexual relations, society forbids
adolescents and young men to practice sex in any form, other than that of nocturnal
emissions.
In this way, she explains sexual assault on female relatives and children by sexually
frustrated men, applying the modern paradigm of male sexual aggression in which
sexual forces beyond his control impel a man to victimize a passive female or child
134 E. Shlala Leo
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(El Saadawi, 1982, pp. 1314). She conrms that patriarchy and its representation of
sexuality are untenable and repressive, but she also portrays it as a xed and limited
system and in so doing conceals the dynamism and potential for change that sexuality
portends.
El Saadawi also makes an important distinction between timeless Western and
Islamic thought about sexuality. She contends that in Islamic society sexual satisfaction
for both men and women is thought to render a person more productive, whereas in
Western society the repression of sexuality creates a more efcient person (ibid.,
p. 130). Despite these seemingly divergent viewpoints, it appears that female sexuality,
under the conditions of patriarchy, has been similarly oppressed in both Western and
Islamic societies. Mernissi shares this interpretation of Islams acceptance of sexuality
as a part of human nature, and introduces its socially destructive potential for tna.
She writes:
We have seen that sexual satisfaction is considered necessary to the moral well-
being of the believer. There is no incompatibility between Islam and sexuality as
long as sexuality is expressed harmoniously and is not frustrated. What Islam
views as negative and anti-social is woman and her power to create tna. (Mernissi,
1987, p. 113)
Modern Western scholars have dened and situated Islamic sexuality. Islamic sexuality
appears to be a monolithic concept within the sources. It is best identied in relation to the
Arabic word, tna. Fitna has many meanings in the various texts, such as: female desir-
ability, female power, male weakness, social chaos and social disorder. The term is
used interchangeably to mean any and all of these things. Female sexuality, unutha,
is based on biological, physical and mental differences from men evident in different
genitalia and biological functions such as childbirth and breastfeeding. Its implications
for women as a gender group are that they are quantiably less intelligent than men, phys-
ically weaker and prone to emotional instability. In the modern Islamic world, womens
bodies and beauty are seen as great temptations to weak men who cannot curb their
desires. Women are temptresses who have more sexual power than men. Women are
therefore burdened with the responsibility of controlling male desire, thereby saving
their community from tna. Men are almost powerless when it comes to female sexuality
in this portrayal. Therefore, tna, and not unutha, is the critical social component of
female sexuality.
According to Mark Swanson, this has led to modern and medieval programs of social
health through veiling and the strict segregation of the sexes. In an effort to control peri-
lous female sexuality, women are educated in Islam and marriage is the strict social
norm; social chaos and female sexuality are thus equated and avoided. He also demon-
strates that there were both negative views of sexuality, including the idea that it was a
cause of unbridled chaos and psychological disorders, and positive views, including
associating it with greater intellectual power and continuation of the race, although
the latter were minimized in favor of the negative discourse (Swanson, 1984,
pp. 187203). In an attempt to interpret the suras of the Quran and their tafs r with a
view to their application in the modern world, he traces sexuality from the seventh to
the twenty-rst century with no discussion of how this modern concept can make such
an ahistorical leap back and forth through time. For example, when commenting on
Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender 135
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Surat al-Nur (Q 24) 2733, Swanson moves between the Quran, twelfth-century jurists
and modern Egyptian scholars. How could one idea about sexuality span such a vast time
frame? The answer is that as a xed, static concept which exists as a social construct
shaped by historical discourses, it cannot.
Female circumcision is a local cultural invention, probably pre-dating the rise of
Islam, which is supported as a way of controlling female sexuality in some conservative
Islamic countries. The modern feminist interpretations of the Quran show that it is
absent from the text. Therefore, in a modern controversy spurred on by the West
much like that of the veil, scholars search for its entry and acceptance into the
Muslim discourse. Jonathan Berkey attempts this with the wise warning that modern
ideas and practices may reect medieval ones but cannot always be presumed to do
so, lest we fall into the trap of abstracting and idealizing phenomena which are in fact
historically contingent (Berkey, 1996, p. 23). The same can be said for equating
ancient and pre-modern ideas with medieval and modern ones. He nds that medieval
jurists repeated verbatim earlier hadith both in favor of and in opposition to the practice.
In general, it was perceived by medieval jurists as a ritual of religious purication for
women in line with that of male circumcision. It can also be traced to ancient gendering,
according to Berkey, when it was believed that men and women were born bisexual and
so had male and female parts cut off in order to maintain their gender identity. Most sig-
nicantly, Berkey links the medieval and modern misogynist discourses concerning
females having too great a sexual appetite which therefore needed to be curbed by excis-
ing clitorises to avert sexual chaos through adultery. Furthermore, he states that these
discourses are common to patriarchal societies in the Mediterranean and Near East.
Thus, women had a right to sexual pleasure as long as it was a highly prescribed
sexual pleasure modied by excision, while men had expansive sexual rights to these
women. Although this interpretation is critical from the outset in terms of properly
placing time-specic practices, it is not as thoughtful about imposing terms such as
gender on the ancient world, or about analyzing how the concept of female sexuality
could have remained so limited in scope and argumentation over such a great period
of time. To his credit, Berkey does highlight the fact that womens voices on this
issue are generally absent from modern analysis from the eighth until the twentieth
century.
Quranic representations of women and their exegeses over centuries provide another
example of shifting representations of sexuality and how modern tna is linearly traced
throughout time. Gayane Karen Merguerian and Afsaneh Najmabadi follow the amor-
phous story of Zulaykha and Yusuf from its quranic and biblical roots through its medi-
eval exegesis until the modern era. It is evident that the timeless idea of tna can
be followed throughout history to fulll the modern of agenda of destabilizing the
notions of womens sexuality as a social and individual threat to the Islamic community
(Merguerian & Najmabadi, 1997, p. 503). However, is it possible that the same misogynist
discourse simply continued to expand further and further over time? Were there no voices
of dissent or contradictory models? Although Merguerian and Najmabadi give an excel-
lent treatment of tna through the analysis of female guile, it again appears as if
tna were an ahistorical concept. Signicantly, they explain the power of female bleeding
during menstruation and childbirth as an indication of female sexuality and a direct threat
to male power. They also demonstrate that, although various embellished medieval
accounts of the Zulaykha and Yusuf story exist, male sexuality is always victorious.
136 E. Shlala Leo
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As the frequently quoted tenth-century message of al-T

abar is passed on once again, they


voice his conviction that:
Female sexual desire is a potential source of danger to men; it will cause them to sin,
because it will come between them and God. It must, therefore, be punished. Only
when satised within the bonds of marriage is female sexual desire redeemable, and,
indeed, rewarded bringing happiness and sons to man. What more could a good
woman want? (ibid., p. 493)
Utilizing al-T

abar as a source always conveys this sentiment and informs this research.
However much al-T

abar may have contributed to the subjugation of women in Islam,


he was not employing a truly modern concept of sexuality and gender in his writings.
Gender: Marriage and Reproduction versus Wife and Mother Constructs
A hadith attributed to

isha issues this statement on marriage by the Prophet:


Marriage is my way, and one who does not follow me is not among my followers. It
is necessary for my followers to marry, so that I will be proud of my community. It is
also necessary for followers who can afford to marry as well as for those who cannot
afford to marry to fast, as fasting can suppress sexual desire. (Kabbani & Bakhtiar,
1998, p. 36)
The issue of marriage before the time of the Prophet among the Arab tribes is controver-
sial. However, the consensus is that the Prophet introduced the concept of paternity
through

idda.

A

isha recalled four types of marriage immediately prior to Islam. One


was similar to Islams concept of a man who asked a womans father for permission to
marry her and then her father received her dowry. The second kind of marriage was
called al-istibda

in which a husband had his wife sleep with another man in order to
conceive. The third type of marriage was when a group of less than ten men had inter-
course with a woman, and when she gave birth she would name one of them as the
father and he would accept. The fourth form of marriage was when a woman slept with
many men indiscriminately, and she decided who was the father of each of her children,
as they were born, according to their physical similarities (ibid., p. 220). Of course, Islam
instituted its own form of legitimate marriage, which made the others illicit. If this
portrayal of pre-Islamic marriages is accurate, the modern denitions of gender and
sexuality may be theoretically enlightening, but they are not representative of this
period. Additionally, if patriarchy can be exposed through marriage relations, it remains
ambiguous in the period of Jahiliyya. It implies that for the Muslim community, marriage
was the communal institution towards which sexual energy should be directed.
The Quran itself portrays marriage as a partnership, not the modern construct of wife
and husband. Doi explains that the reason for marriage can be found in Q 30.21, which
states: And among his signs is this, that He has created for you mates from among your-
selves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them; and He has put love and mercy between
you. Verily in that are signs for those who reect (Doi). He is not alone in this conclusion.
Amina Wadud shows that women are not very gendered or sexualized in the Quran
according to her own tafs r. Waduds modern exegesis provides an example of avoiding
Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender 137
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the above-mentioned methodological pitfalls by simply addressing the text in an
entirely different way, which breaks with modernity and addresses the book as a living
text drawn from the seventh century. Marriage, sexual desire, childbirth, menstruation
and breastfeeding are referred to in the Quran, but not in the form of modern, or even
medieval, wife and mother constructs presented by other scholars. Waduds book is not
about women in Islam, but about the Quran and woman in relation to each other.
She avoids using the sunna and hadith because of the historical preservation and contra-
diction problems inherent in them as rst highlighted by Fatima Mernissi. In the creation
story related in the Quran she nds that there is essential equality between men and
women. Signicantly, it is childbearing and not childcare or rearing that is assigned to
women; it is obvious that the Quran addressed the biological function of mother, and
not the cultural engendering of mother (Wadud, 1999, pp. 722). She singles out
taqwa (piety) as what differentiates human beingsmale and male, female and female,
and male and femalefrom each other, not gender or sexuality. At the same time, she
does admit that Maryam, the mother of Jesus, is the only woman referred to by name in
the Quran, and that the prophets were all men (ibid., pp. 3839). But what does this
mean? Is it some form of misogyny? Is this a precursor or a reection of patriarchy?
Or is there some other divine meaning, as Wadud concludes? Furthermore, she nds
that even in death there is no gender or sexual differentiation in the Quran since all experi-
ence death in the same way, on the basis not of gender, but of good and bad deeds in life.
The day of judgement is similiarly ungendered, for human beings will abandon their daily
reality of beings wives, mothers, husbands, fathers, sons and daughters. Hell is similarly
experienced without regard to gender (ibid., p. 45; Q 3.185). Waduds interpretation calls
into question the validity of the approach of other scholars who nd modern sexuality and
gendering in the Quran.
Wadud equally attacks the assumption that the Quran genders women as mothers
as mentioned above. Mothering is not a womans exclusive role. However, biological
childbirth is important for the propagation of the human race, and is extolled in the
Quran as no other human function. Wadud writes: There is no term in the Quran
which indicates that childbearing is primary to a woman. She further states that no
other gender role in the Quran is exclusive to one sex or the other (ibid., p. 64;
cf. Q 4.1). Wadud determines that household tasks and childrearing are referred to in
the Quran as equally shared by men and women (ibid., p. 91). She therefore believes
that the Quran allows for each society to decide on its own roles and functions, which
is how modern gender roles and sexuality have arisen today; they are not, despite
hadith and qh, inherent in the Quran.
How is it then that Aliah Schleifer represents Islamic motherhood in which she espouses
the modern paradigm of mother as the critical member of the Islamic family, and the
harbinger of faith in the Islamic community? The truth is that she relies very little on
the Quran and heavily on hadith and qh. The Quran certainly encourages children to
respect and care for their parents, but it does not develop the idea of the modern mother
or wife. She refers to Q 2.233, which gives the responsibility of nursing to both the
mother and the father, even though it is obviously physically possible only for the
mother.
7
In this way, she contradicts her own interpretation. It is not until she cites
al-T

abar that she declares that mothers who do not nurse their own children break their
maternal bond with their children and deprive them of affection, possibly adversely affec-
ting the child in adulthood (ibid., p. 71). Furthermore, she nds nothing in the Quran to
138 E. Shlala Leo
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support her construct of woman as an important community member through her function
in the family as mother based on her emotional nature (ibid., pp. 4750).
Conclusion
The concepts of sexuality, gender and patriarchy are fundamental to understanding power
relations between the sexes in the modern world. However, these are modern concepts,
constructed and understood within the realm of modernity and the socio-economic and
hegemonic orders that characterize it. Owing to the lack of translated, popular materials
dealing with periods outside of the Quran and the Middle Ages up to pre-modern
times, these concepts, which could prove critical to our understanding of the past, have
not been properly problematicized or historicized. Scholars have almost consistently
insisted on using monolithic denitions that seemingly transcend time.
8
In her treatise
on Foucault, Laura Anne Stoler (1995) reminds us that discourse on sexuality is a
dense transfer point of power between the said of discourse and the unsaid of silence.
One could argue in this case that there may be discourse that is not accessed, creating a
silence that leads to faulty modern scholarship. It is imperative that more research and
translation be done on potential sources ranging from seventh-century Arabia until the
modern day. It is more important, however, to recognize that sexuality, gender and
patriarchy are not useful concepts if they are applied backwards onto the past instead of
having their evolution into our present understanding of them explored. History is a
process, and its concepts and analytical frameworks are complex and dynamic too.
Modern feminist inquiry is not served by articially theorizing a linear progression of
historical constructs in an effort to illegitimize the modern Muslim womans reality.
Notes
1. Gender is a social construct, which identies an individual with a larger social group as dened, but not
limited to: genitalia (sex), behavior, social norms and prescribed abilities.
2. According to John Voll (interview November 2002), history is made by the sources that survive and are
widely translated, and for this reason al-T

abar , who is very problematic for women, is one of the most


cited early recorders of hadith.
3. An expanded discussion of sexuality is presented later in the paper, which is informed by Foucault.
4. This is a controversial point based on historical narratives widely disseminated in the Middle East that
during the pre-Islamic period of Jahiliyya women were subjugated to atrocities by men but Islam was
revolutionary in its egalitarian treatment of women. Ahmed and El Saadawi have very different interpret-
ations of this period from one another, indicating the discrepancies that exist in the history. Thus, it is the
age of ignorance or the age of equality depending on whose narration is read.
5. Lerner (1986) hypothesizes that formal patriarchy was pre-dated to a period of urbanization when female
sexuality as reproductive capability became vital to growing male warring tribes in the Neolithic period.
6. Lerner (1986) explains that women were placed in society according to their sexual relationships with
men, in contrast with men, who were related to economic modes of production.
7. Schleifer (1986, p. 68). The sura states: Mothers shall suckle their children for h

awlayn kamilayn
[that is] for those who wish to complete the suckling. The duty of feeding and clothing the nursing
mother in a seemly manner is upon the father of the child. No one should be burdened beyond his capa-
city . . . If they desire to wean the child by mutual consent and [after] joint consultation, it is no sin for
them; and if ye wish to give your children out to nurse, it is no sin for you, provided that ye pay what is
due from you in fairness.
8. Place is an additional argument to be made, as the Arab world is such a small part of the larger Muslim
world.
Islamic Female Sexuality and Gender 139
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