Islamic Renaissance

A Voice for the Muslim Freedom Struggle

We Are Not Sex Objects

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God did not create women as sex objects. God did not create women as “shame on family honour”, God did not create women for the pleasure of man, God created women as human beings. Women do not derive their worth from men; they derive their worth from God. And the worth of a woman in the eyes of God is no less than the worth of any other human being. God does not discriminate between his creation, and woe to those who “treat men’s oppression as if it were the Wrath of God” (Quran: 29:10) and attribute to God the oppression that they inflict with their own hands.Read more…

For too long now, Muslim society has attributed to God, the prejudice that only they are responsible for. Muslim women are treated primarily as sexual beings, as opposed to human beings. This sentiment comes from an oppressive sexual ideology that continues to exist because Islam has been interpreted by sexually frustrated men, whose purpose is to justify the existence of patriarchy within an Islamic framework.

It has become socially acceptable to use Islam as a justification to subordinate women, label them as deviant and limit their social influence, especially within the pseudo-religious sphere. A woman’s primary function in society is believed to be sexual, and thus whenever a woman feels empowered by God to strive for a better world, whenever a woman practises the social aspects of Islam, whenever a woman comes out of that closet that she is expected to remain in, she is silenced, slandered and smeared. In other words, when a woman asserts her right to act as a human and be treated as a human, she is whipped back into line and taught to act like a sexual being and expect to be treated like a sexual being.

Let me provide you with an example. When I was 18 years old, I was canvassing for the general elections outside the Mosque. An old man came up to me and told me I had no business standing outside the Mosque talking about politics. When I asked him why, he told me my wrist was exposed to a crowd of men and I was sinning. Yes I said my wrist. In making this point, this man was communicating his implicit belief that as a woman my primary function was sexual and I was a sexual danger outside the Mosque. In pointing to my wrist, this man implied that my entire existence was sexual and unless I’m not plastered from head to toe, I’m a sexual danger to men. I think it’s important to mention here, that at this time, I was wearing a headscarf and the only think exposed was my face, hands and feet, oh and my wrist, can’t forget my wrist! Funnily enough the exposure of my wrist was more important than the issue I was addressing: the issue being that of saving innocent lives.

A Muslim woman’s social identity is inextricably linked to her sexuality. Muslim women are framed into two identities: sexually righteous and sexually promiscuous. These frames establish women as sexual beings because they judge a woman on the basis of her sexuality rather than her humanitarian values and righteous actions. These frames indicate that a woman can only earn a respectable status in society if she is considered “sexually righteous”, and to achieve this status, a woman must be virtually unknown in society, since a righteous woman ceases even the use of her voice as it may ‘seduce a man and lead to his destruction’.

The frames are also loaded. ‘Sexually righteous’ is wrongly loaded with images of a woman locked up in her home, sexually passive and typically voiceless. ‘Sexually promiscuous’ is wrongly loaded with images of an untamed woman, sexually deviant and outspoken. However what’s interesting is that men are able to stretch the latter frame to encompass any woman that does not fall into the former frame’s stereotype.

This was precisely what I was told when I made a video providing Muslims with an alternative Friday Sermon to listen to. There was total outrage. Everyone was furious that I had the nerve to sit in my bedroom and give a khutba in my “nighty”. I was told I had “exposed my privacy on the internet”. They made it sound as if I was sitting on YouTube wearing a bikini, talking about Islam. I, on the other hand was dumbfounded that wearing baggy Eeyore pyjamas could cause such fury. When I argued that I was fully covered, wearing a headscarf, and only showing my hands, face and feet, I was told I was still not allowed to make this video because my voice was a part of my aura and exposing my aura was immodest. What I later realised was that by making this video, I shook their patriarchal order. I openly criticised the Ulema and claimed to do a better job than them at conveying the truth and this upset them. They responded by trying to whip me back into my socially constructed sexual role by arguing that my voice had the ability to seduce men and therefore, I was not allowed to use it, even if I was using it to convey the message of God.

Muslim society constantly uses these frames to define women. Hazrat Aisha is an excellent example to illustrate this point. The Ulema promote the image of Aisha as a woman sitting in a deserted corner worshipping God, and hide the fact that she had the audacity to jump on a camel, and lead an army of men to war. This is because her role in the War of the Camel contradicts the ‘sexually righteous’ frame that these misogynistic men wish to promote.

The impact these frames have had on generations of women is criminal. We are all aware that the media frames Muslims into the “Moderate Muslim” and the “Extremist Muslim”. These frames are so powerful that they determine how a Muslim chooses to behave. Muslims run a mile from the latter frame and do everything necessary to be accepted into the former frame. Likewise, women spend their entire lives fearing the ‘sexually promiscuous’ frame, silencing and censoring themselves in order to fit into this “sexually righteous” frame that has been created to reaffirm male control.

I want to be absolutely clear; I do not oppose sexual righteousness. What I do oppose however, is the fact that this principle has been manipulated in order justify the existence of patriarchy within an Islamic framework. These frames are problematic because they limit the criteria by which to judge a woman, simply to her sexual function. This in effect, becomes the dehumanisation of women, and a complete sexualisation of her existence, and it is these very oppressive conceptions, that God sought to liberate women from.

Closely linked to these loaded frames, is the misconstrued concept of “honour”. The Muslim obsession over a woman’s honour is dehumanizing. Whilst there is nothing wrong with aspiring to become an honourable human being, there is something despicably wrong with equating a woman’s only sense of value to her sexuality. A man’s honour is calculated by his achievements, his occupation, his wealth and his generosity, yet, a woman’s honour is measured simply by the socially constructed frame that she is accused of falling into. In other words, if she adopts the sexually righteous frame, she is considered honourable, and if she rejects these frames, she is considered dishonourable. Thus, her honour is exclusively linked to the frames, which by extension are linked to her sexuality.

Women are seen as a constant threat to family honour. Accused of having greater sexual urges than men, it is believed that women are more prone to sexual deviancy. This socially constructed myth means that women are treated as ‘guilty until proven innocent’, as opposed to, ‘innocent until proven guilty’. When a female is born, she is seen as a burden upon family honour. In medieval times this “burden” was buried alive. Female infanticide was testament to the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ attitude, except in this case, the female was not given the opportunity to prove her innocence.

The same attitude exists in current times. Although, female infanticide is no longer practised under an Islamic framework, (thanks to God’s condemnation) the underlying belief behind the brutal act continues to exist. From a very young age, girls are taught to adopt the ‘sexually righteous’ frame and are warned of the consequences, should they chose to ignore the social code. Consequently, a woman is forced to live her entire life proving herself innocent of the ‘sexually promiscuous’ frame imposed on her since birth, and proving herself worthy of the ‘sexually righteous’ frame, separated from her since birth.

So what happens when a woman realises she is oppressed and seeks to liberate herself? The very frames she contests are used against her. If a woman demands her right to be treated as an equal human being, she is labelled as dishonourable and thrown into the ‘sexually promiscuous’ frame.

A patriarchal society fears autonomous women who are ideologically free and willing to fight for their freedom. Women of such calibre possess the power to overthrow a patriarchal society. And this is why such women are met with fierce opposition. I experienced this fierce opposition first handed when I tried to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing Muslims today. When I criticised Imams for isolating Muslim women from the House of God, I was called a “slag”, “bitch”, “whore” and accused of having illicit relationships. Because I was speaking out against the oppression I faced as a woman, because my behaviour was contrary to what was expected of me, I was discredited with the accusation that I was sexually promiscuous and dishonourable. The key word here is accusation.

Due to the dehumanisation of women, an accusation based on scarce evidence is enough to render a woman unchaste and dishonourable. In a patriarchal society, a woman is defined and framed by her male counterparts. A woman has no voice in society, thus, when she is accused of sexual promiscuity, she is unable to defend herself. One cannot use a voice that does not exist. Therefore, most women remain silent about their oppression in order to avoid accusations they cannot control, escape or defend themselves from.

Furthermore, this “power to accuse” is precisely why female victims of rape are blamed for the crimes committed by their perpetrators. This “power to accuse” is so disastrous that a just leader such as Radeyah Sultana was stripped of her throne simply because her political opponents accused her of being unchaste. This is how powerful women have been subjugated throughout human history. If a woman is a threat to the patriarchal order, it is enough to reprimand her chastity to strip her of her powers.

Before we dwell into the discourse on hejab, we must first understand how the Muslim mind relates to women. Firstly it is important to acknowledge that patriarchal interests have infiltrated our religion and the oppression inflicted by men is practised as if were endorsed by God Herself.

Here are a few points to consider:

•In a patriarchal society, a woman is a sexual being, her existence is sexual.
•It is believed that a sexual being is deviant and is therefore dangerous to a moral society
•She is deviant in two ways:
1. As a sexual being, her sexual needs are greater than her male counterparts
2. As a sexual being she has the ability to seduce a man and lead him to his moral destruction (al-Ghazali)
•This mindset reduces a woman to a sex object. Thus the Hijab is seen as a mechanism that regulates and controls a sex object (the woman) rather than a universal principle that liberates both genders from having an exclusively sexual identity. In this way, Hijab has been misused and exploited by a patriarchal society. This cloth has essentially become a patriarchal statement rather than a symbol of liberation, and this is where the problem lies.

There is nothing wrong with someone choosing to practise modesty by imitating 7th Century Arab dress. This is an individual choice that we must respect. However, we must also accept that this is not the only way to practice the principle of Hejab. Hejab is a universal principle, not a piece of cloth. How we chose to implement hejab in our lives is our discretion.

Hence, I have chosen to break away from the conventional Arab dress code, for two reasons:

1. To be a part of the gender jihad, fighting these negative connotations attached to this piece of cloth, and reasserting a woman’s human status. We are not sex objects that men need to be protected from, we are human beings.

2. To encourage a more ahistorical reading of the Quran. We are not living in the 7th century and to continue to read the Quran by limiting it to its 7th century context we are essentially working against the Quran’s universal stature.

Therefore, the headscarf, which most Muslims wear as an adherence to the Islamic principle of modesty, has become attached to misogynistic conceptions about women. The headscarf reiterates that a woman’s external appearance is exclusively sexual and therefore, justifies the idea that a woman’s primary function is sexual. As a result, the hejab’s role has been reduced to a mere precaution taken by women, for the protection of men, rather than a universal principle that liberates both men and women from being limited to a sexual identity and provides them with the opportunity to be treated primarily as human beings.

As Amina Wadud once said “I once thought that by simply wearing modest dress, especially in styles explicitly identified with Islam, like the hejab, I would be addressed for my mind and my overt humanity. Too many experiences to the contrary have stripped me of this narrow sense of security. It is just as easy to be reduced to my sexuality while wearing the hejab as when not wearing it” (Amina Wadud, Beyond the Veil, p.223)

Recommended Books:

Amina Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad
Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam
Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil

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