Sex and the muslim feminist _ new republic

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 Islamand

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.

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. Instead of taking on the thorny business of how sex itself replicated patriarchy in complex ways, sex was made into a commodity.

Of course the loss of interested

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 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.

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.”


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. 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 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.