“Female Sexuality Through the Eyes of Islam”
by Aanya F Niaz
(Book Review on Fatima Mernissi)
A highly accomplished Moroccan writer and sociologist, Fatima Mernissi is considered as a revered Islamic feminist, whose investigations into the Muslim world of females provide ample sources for Muslim women around the globe to advance their understanding of Islam. She grew up in Fez and pursued higher studies in Europe, after which she pursued Islamic studies of women. This book review is on Fatima Mernissi’s book titled Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. It was published by the Indiana University Press in Bloomington and Indianapolis in 1987. It analyses women in modern Moroccan society and offers an effective glimpse into the world of Muslim women. Nevertheless, It must be noted that Moroccan modern life for females does not, in any way, represent Islam in a universal way. In fact, it is deeply influenced by the culture and traditions of Morocco itself. Mernissi’s work is directed towards the “Western Reader” so as to provide a refreshing new angle on Islam and its treatment of women. It studies the most significant events that women have undergone in history, and connects that to the universality and timelessness of Islam. Originally, published in 1975, she wanted to understand gender relations in Morocco, capturing a major transitional phase going through urbanization and fundamentalism at the same time. She believes that fundamentalism has to do with gender and relates to men and a return to traditions and liberal interpretations of the Bible. She sees fundamentalism as a modern political force. Mernissi is often seen as too secular with her views on Muslim women, and shares similarities with Afsaneh Najmabadi, an Iranian-American whose studies in women and gender and modernization shed light upon how various movements were taking place to promote how women could be Muslim and modern at the same time. Najmabadi’s ‘hybridization’ evaluation outlines the women in the newer generation who believed that women could be modern and Muslim together, and that they could use Islam and their rights to help them advance in society. Both these authors offer an expansive foundation upon which secular views of Islamic women rest. This book review will take the undertone of such secularity, and specifically assess and analyze Fatima Mernissi’s work in Morocco in Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society.
Fatima Mernissi argues both for and against Islam comprising of a progressive nature, and finally puts forth her thesis to be in support of Islam as a progressive religion. Her work contributes to understanding Islam through the eyes of a knowledgeable and bipartisan individual; whose personal experiences and verbalizations of the Muslim way of life are very different from what the West has been taught to see. From seeing Islam as an oppressive religion, to it exploiting the position of women in society, Mernissi contributes to the literature on the debate on the treatment of women in Islam. By providing both sides of the argument, she systematically argues each point. Her arguments are based off of the famous Austrian neurologist Freud versus a scholar of Qur’an and Hadith, Imam Ghazali. She uses their theories, interpretations and perceptions of Islam to highlight both sides of the story: Does Islam mistreat women or not? Mernissi adopts a very simplistic, articulate and cohesive manner of writing, in which she cites numerous passages from both Freud and Imam Ghazali’s works in order to clarify her argument. Sigmund Freud’s focus is on finding the biological equity between men and women when it comes to sexual needs and desires. Whereas, Imam Ghazali draws attention to how men and women have separate tasks to manage, as God has made them biologically different, even if they both equally contribute to the reproduction of a child.
Significantly, her focus on Male-Female dynamics of sexual behaviors in Islam is of particular interest to me. Such work is rare to find and the subject is deemed unsuitable in many Islamic cultures. However, this subject speaks directly to me. This is because, being a young female Muslim studying in the United States, I am often faced, and at times troubled by the differences between the East and the West; and what Islam expects of me. Mernissi’s strategic style of posing both sides of the argument clearly, and providing substantial evidence by citing Freud and Imam Ghazali enabled me to clarify many misinterpretations I had myself, being a Muslim from Pakistan. I had previously believed that Islam prohibited females from equal rights as a wife, but reading examples of Prophet Muhammad in Mernissi’s work cleared these ideas and misunderstandings. I have begun to view Islam with a broader mind now, and recognize it to work towards female and male equity in every aspect.
Below, I provide an organized format of my own reactions and opinions of her work, in particular her studies of Male-Female sexual dynamics. Mernissi’s view of history reveals that female oppression is a phenomenon found in every society of the world. It is common to find women in a subservient role and the man in a dominating one as a universal characteristic. Not only are females deemed unequal in their physical abilities, but their intellectual capacities are also branded as inferior. However, it is reasonable to deduce that in our day and age, with current events and focus on the Muslim world, that Islam is labeled as the most oppressive religion of all. It is deemed to manipulate the females and regard males as the superior beings.
Significantly, many have been lead to believe that Islam only allows men to have sexual needs, and that women have no right to sexual desires, needs or pleasures. Their only task is seen to submit themselves to the men, serve them physically and remain loyal irrespective of how the men are behaving. However, contrary to common belief, in Islam, as long as a woman or a man, who have made a promise to one another of commitment, loyalty and sincerity in the form of marriage, feels the need to act sexually in good faith, with intentions that can benefit him or her and the society, then Islam does not hold your actions against you. In fact, Islam requires that men and women pursue their sexuality completely, as long as it is not in a way that disturbs or harms the social order within which they reside. However, such interpretations of Islam are rarely highlighted. Instead, the focus remains on Islam’s position of exploiting females and granting them second-rate rights in comparison with males.
There are several such postulations labeling Islam as the most backward and unjust religion of all. These have exploited the name of Islam by misinterpreting and claiming that Islam’s views on women are iniquitous and unreasonable. Therefore, the purpose of this book review is to highlight these assumptions that shed a negative light on the Muslim world so as to eliminate misunderstandings that mark Islam as a regressive religion. This book review is divided into two distinct sections, followed by a conclusion that reinforces Mernissi’s view of Islam as an accepting and progressive religion, in stark contrast with widespread credence.
The first section elucidates the dominating assumptions made regarding gender segregation between men and women when it comes to sexual behaviors. The second section explains how and why these assumptions do not have any solid root or basis. Lastly, diverse aspects of Islam are highlighted to endorse how it is; in fact, a promoter of equal rights in sexual activity, and considers women as powerful, individual and free human beings who possess the same liberties as men to own their sexual desires and engage in sexual activity.
It must be made clear that Islam is a religion that embraces humanity, individuality and equality. Sexuality is considered a very healthy and normal part of life. Sexual behavior is understood to be carried out between husband and wife because Islam promotes loyalty and commitment in a relationship, where such intimacy should be shared between two people who have swore allegiance to one another officially. According to Islam, the female has to be treated with grace, decency and sincere affection upon such a binding of relationship or marriage. However, no man or woman is permitted to act on ill intentions, mistreat the other gender or coerce them into sexual activity in any manner. Such interference in the harmonious social order of a community or life is frowned upon.
As Fatima Mernissi underscores in Beyond the Veil, “Imam Ghazali in his book… gives a detailed description of how Islam integrated the sexual instinct in the social order and places it at the service of God. [Sexual activity], used according to God’s will, the desire of the flesh serves God’s and the individual’s interests in both worlds, enhances life on earth and in heaven. Part of God’s design on earth is to ensure the perpetuity of the human race, and sexual desires serve this purpose.” (p.28, Mernissi) At this point, a definition of social order is pertinent. According to Mernissi, it is when a community exists in peace and stability, where men and women do not compel one another to interact sexually, but both recognize that since they have been endowed with sexual organs biologically, they have equal rights to seeking and enjoying pleasure in appropriate ways. The social order must continue, and women must reproduce when they can and agree to with full consent in order to keep the social institution of life going.
According to Mernissi, onlookers of the religion consider gender segregation highly prevalent in Islam. There are several assumptions that are made in this regard. These include, firstly, that Islam gives incomparably more sexual rights to males than to women. Secondly, women are required to fulfill their husband’s physical and emotional needs, whereas the men are not compelled to do the same. They cannot be held responsible for their actions. Particularly, when it comes to loyalty, men can perform sexual activity with other women but as soon as a woman does the same, she is shunned from society and deemed dirty. Thirdly, Islam requires women to cover themselves up because they are incapable of dressing decently, or in a fashion that would not entice men. They should be limited to residential work, and secluded from male eyes so that they remain chaste and modest. They must not reveal their beauty to the world but save it only for their husband. However, these myths are not true and cannot be claimed to have root in Islam or direct links in the Holy Qur’an. This takes us to our next section, which explains the reasons why these assumptions can be argued against.
Firstly, the Qur’an is a highly ambiguous text, which allows for multiple interpretations. On most other matters, it is taken to be vague but it is paradoxical to see individuals, especially males, argue that the Qur’an provides specific rules for women to limit and seclude themselves. Contrastingly, the purpose of the vague message that the Qur’an offers is so that it can be interpreted and adopted in accordance with the times. Secondly, Prophet Muhammad provided ample examples in his own life that indicated respect for women must be taken seriously. He believed that if the beauty of other women ever drew men, their duty was to return home to their wives, so as to rid themselves of their impure desire by sexually engaging with their wives. Mernissi cites an example: “The Prophet saw a woman. He hurried to his house and had intercourse with his wife Zaynab, then left the house and said, ‘…When one of you sees a woman and he feels attracted to her, he should hurry to his wife.” (p.42, Mernissi) Thirdly, according to Islam, God gave both males and females’ sexual organs therefore; no man should be able to decide which is superior and inferior. They both rest on the same foundation of the necessity of a human to seek sexual pleasure. It is seen as part of human life and identity, and such a natural and biological need is not shunned or looked down upon by Islam. According to Imam Ghazali in Mernissi’s book, he interprets Islam as providing both men and women with the identical cell. He states: “The child is not created from the man’s sperm alone, but from the union of a sperm from the male with a sperm from the female…and in any case the sperm of the female is a determinant factor in the process of coagulation”, therefore rendering all prior beliefs that men are the producers of children and dominate the genetics of babies as false.
The difference, according to Imam Ghazali, does not lie in the biology of both man and woman; rather it lies in the Islamic view of treating women with an added taste and sense of earnest and genuine affection. Furthermore, the fact that women take longer to ejaculate is seen as reason for man, according to Islam, to work harder in order to please her and offer her satisfaction. In this manner, Islam has biologically set up woman to require man to fulfill her needs. Not only can she fulfill his needs better this way, but the attachment and relationship between man and woman can gain intimacy, benefiting the couple. Even Prophet Muhammad comments on how man must exercise greater effort in order to meet his wife’s sexual needs. He clearly asks that with kindness and softness, both of them should enjoy the experience. The Prophet said: “No one among you should throw himself on his wife like beasts do. There should be, prior to coitus, a messenger between you and her. People asked him, what kind of messenger? The Prophet answered, kisses and words.” (p.40, Mernissi)
As Mernissi points out, Islam has always recognized the legitimacy of female sexuality. In fact, sexuality is considered to be part of human identity in Islam and there are various documented quotations made by the Prophet Muhammad that indicate the significance of sexual activity in the lives of both men and woman. Furthermore, these quotations highlight that men must fulfill women’s needs, and recognize that their sexual desires are equal to their own. Contrary to common belief, female sexuality is given equal weight in Islam. In fact, Mernissi cites an example of Prophet Muhammad where he explains that a man must approach the woman with tender and gentle intentions and that one of the weaknesses in a man’s character would be that “… he will approach his [wife] and that he will have intercourse with her without having prior to that been caressing, been tender with her in words and gestures and laid down beside her for a while, so that he does not harm her, by using her for his own satisfaction, without letting her get her satisfaction from him.” (p.41, Mernissi) At this point, Mernissi has explicated, by drawing onto numerous examples, how female sexuality has been viewed with a broad vision in Islam. There are several other authors who advance Mernissi’s point of view, and provide both side’s of the story for Western and Eastern readers, both, so that they may enhance their knowledge of Islam’s treatment of women, a topic that is highly controversial and with its redeemable implications.
As mentioned in the beginning of this review, Mernissi’s secular perceptions of women in Islam can be tied in with Najmabadi’s. Substantially, both writers and sociologists have drawn into the specific culture of the area they have studied, which explains how different Muslims around the globe have adopted Islam in multifarious ways. There is no one set standard of interpretation or adaptation. In fact, each country with its past, present and future along with the socio-economic, political and cultural diversities proposes a different view of the religion and its treatment of women. Najmabadi describes how due to the political events of 1953 in Iran, there was expansive anti-US sentiment which resulted in modernists rejecting Islam and viewing it as regressive. This actually led to the development of feminists in Iran who believed that women should unveil and pursue their lives in a modern fashion so as to gain liberation. At that time, even the government of Iran wanted the same so that the world would view it as a modern nation. Therefore, we can see that Islam does not have a single interpretation or manner of practice. In fact, it is most vague and broad, and anyone can choose to use its ideals and values to suit their lives in the best way possible.
 Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, 377 p. (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005).
 Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print.