Sexuality, Gender and Islam

Women’s Sexuality and Islam

The subject of ‘Same-Sex Relationships between Women and Islam’ should be explored and understood in the context of women’s sexuality and Islam in general, which in turn should be understood in the context of ‘Gender (roles) and Islam’.

Although sex and sexuality is a taboo subject in many (Muslim) societies and often strictly regulated in Muslim laws, some scholars have argued that the Qur'an and early Muslim scholars dealt with sex and sexuality openly and positively. They have argued that the Qur'an recognises human beings as sexual beings and that although procreation is one of the functions of (heterosexual) sex, sexuality is also recognised as a intrinsic part of being human. They also point out that the Qur'an and early Muslim scholars do not see sexuality as being opposite to spirituality. In short, these scholars believe that Islam is a religion that views sex and sexuality positively (Kugle, Yousef Foundation, Hassan, Esack, Anwar).

Some feminist scholars have pointed out that this so-called ‘positive’ or ‘affirmative’ Islamic approach to sexuality, is mostly (or only) affirming masculine (heterosexual) sexual experience (Wadud). For example, they point out that the Qur'an seemingly talks about male sexuality and fantasies, without mentioning women and women’s sexuality in an equal way. For example verses affirming men’s rights to sexual satisfaction, verses allowing polygamy and verses allowing temporary marriage, as well as certain supposedly sexual references to the pleasures in paradise. This emphasis on male (hetero-)sexuality is reflected in Muslim laws and the way they are used in society (Wadud).

Women’s sexuality in Muslim laws and societies is limited to monogamous heterosexual marriage. This set form of sexuality is believed to be preserving a ‘sexual purity’ that is heterosexual and requires male control over women’s sexuality. In some cases where a woman is considered to have violated the codes that keep her or her family’s ‘sexual purity’, her identity or behaviour can and has led to so-called honour crimes including being subjected to violence, forced marriage and even killed. (See: Honour Crimes Project, Afsaruddin, WLUML, WWHR).

The supposed need for male control of women’s sexuality has also been used as a justification for male guardianship over women in the family as well as in Muslim laws and in society in general. (See also ‘Gender (roles) and Islam’). Many feminist scholars have written extensively about how male notions of female sexuality lead to the creation of gender-biased Muslim laws. Some scholars believe that these male notions include the idea that female sexuality, if not controlled, could result in social chaos and social disorder (fitna) (Dunne, Mernissi, Wadud). Some scholars also point out that this male fear of ‘uncontrolled women’ stems from the time of the newly formed Muslim community, when men feared that the Prophet Muhammad was encouraging a women’s rebellion (nushuz) by stopping violence against women (Mernissi (1996)). Nushuz has also been translated as ‘recalcitrance’ for example when a wife refuses to have sex with her husband (Wadud, Mernissi).

Many reformist and feminist scholars have argued that male control of women’s sexuality is not expected by the Qur'an. They have sought to challenge the idea that Islam needs fixed gender roles and impedes women from controlling their own sexuality. (Hassan, Wadud, Asma Barlas, Yamani, WLUML). Within frameworks for progressive Islam, they have explored the different standpoints on sexuality, for example about topics like women’s rights in family laws (An-Naim, WLUML) women’s control over their own reproduction (WWHR), violence against women including honour crimes (WWHR, WLUML, SOAS and Interights websites) and HIV/AIDS (Wadud, Farid Esack).

Although this work challenges gender-bias it is still assuming that heterosexuality is the norm for everyone. Some scholars have extended these studies to uncover a heterosexual bias, in the same way that feminist scholars have uncovered a male bias in Muslim laws (see ‘Frameworks for Progressive Islam’). These scholars question the assumption that same-sex sexuality is always an un-Islamic expression of sexuality (see ‘(Male) Homosexuality’ and ‘Same-Sex Relationships between Women’.) These explorations are still in the initial phases. They could also be extended to look at bisexuality and polyamory and other forms of sexual and gender diversity on which little work has been done.

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Glossary of Key Terms
Biological sex / Physiological sex: the biological classification of physiological bodies as male or female usually determined by external sex organs, internal sex and reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones and secondary sexual development at puberty. Bodies with an ambiguous biological sex, i.e. with both male and female characteristics are sometimes characterised as hermaphrodite or intersex. A person’s biological sex usually – but not always - corresponds with her/his gender identity. (See also transgender and gender dysphoria).

Bisexual(ity): a category of sexual orientation, referring to person who can experience emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction to persons of both their own sex and the opposite sex. There are various forms of bisexuality, varying from being primarily attracted to persons of the same-sex and only occasionally to persons of the opposite sex (and vice versa) to being equally attracted to persons from the same sex and the opposite sex.

Feminists (Feminism): the Safra Project defines feminists as scholars and activists challenging gender bias and/or working towards gender equality.

Gay: A term used as a synonym to homosexual. The term ‘gay’ is usually preferred to the term ‘homosexual’ when describing a person’s sexual orientation, i.e. she or he “is gay”. Sometimes the term gay is used to describe only male ‘homosexuals’ (see also gay man).

Gay man: a man who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to another man or other men. His sexual orientation is categorised as homosexual.

Gender: refers to the social and cultural codes used to distinguish between what a particular society considers ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities, characteristics, attributes or behaviours. The definition of gender varies widely and is often the subject of exhaustive debates, although most agree that gender is largely socially and culturally determined. People are attributed a social and cultural gender that usually corresponds to their (assumed) biological sex and they are then expected to behave in accordance with gender roles as defined by their social and cultural context. Gender can be expressed in physical appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns, and social behaviours and interactions. The attribution of gender to a person by others is a (unconscious) categorisation of a person as being a man or a woman. A person’s own gender identity, i.e. their deeply felt (or psychological) sense of being male or female (or both, neither or other), usually - but not always - corresponds to their biological sex and to how they express their gender. (See also transgender, transsexual and gender dysphoria).

Gender dysphoria: a medical term referring to people who have a compelling sense that their gender identity is not in conformity with the physiological or biological sex they are born with. In other words, persons who feel that they are born in the ‘wrong body’, i.e. biological women who feel they should have been born as men and vice versa. These persons are generally referred to as transsexual or transgender.

Gender equality: refers to people receiving equal opportunities to realise their full human potential according to their wish, irrespective of gender. This can for example include equality in opportunities to take part in social, economic, cultural and political developments and benefiting equally from the results. It can also refer to the equality in protection of (human) rights. Gender equality does not necessarily mean ‘identical conditions’ or ‘identical rights’ as these conditions and rights may in themselves already be gendered. To achieve gender equality, recognition is needed that current social, economic, cultural, and political systems are gendered (i.e. constructed according to gender roles) which lead to women being disadvantaged in all areas of life (gender bias). This pattern is further affected by other factors of oppression and inequality such as race, ethnicity, culture, immigration status, class, age, disability, sexuality, gender identity and/or other status. Gender equality requires the empowerment of women in their particular contexts, taking their experiences and perspectives into account.

Gender identity: is a person’s deeply felt (or psychological) sense of being male or female (or both, neither or other). A person’s gender identity is the gender to which a person feels she/he belongs. This usually corresponds to a person’s biological sex and to how they express their gender. However, some people have a compelling sense that their gender identity is not in conformity with their physiological or biological sex or feel and/or express a gender identity that is other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. These people are usually referred to as transsexual or transgender (see also gender dysphoria). Gay men, lesbians and bisexual people are usually content with their gender identity and/or their biological sex, including those who are not content with their gender roles. For example those who dress or behave similar to what is socially and culturally perceived as the opposite gender, such as a woman who behaves or dresses according to what is perceived to be a ‘masculine’ manner.

Gender roles: Gender affects how people perceive themselves and others and how they expect themselves and others to behave, that is, either in a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ manner. These gender roles are learned and culturally and socially determined. They are also affected by factors such as education and economics. Therefore, gender roles can evolve over time. Gender roles and expectations are often identified as factors hindering gender equality. In practice gender roles usually affect women adversely in relation to many aspects of their life, such as family, socio-economic status, health, life expectation, independence, freedom and rights (gender bias).

Heterosexual(ity): a category of sexual orientation, referring to a person who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to (a) person(s) of the opposite sex. This is also called ‘being straight’.

Homophobia: an irrational fear of, or hatred against, lesbian, gay and bisexual people and homosexuality.

Homosexual(ity): a category of sexual orientation, referring to a person who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to (a) person(s) of the same sex. Persons with a homosexual orientation are also referred to as gay (both men and women) or as lesbian (women only). Referring to a person as (a) ‘homosexual’ is usually avoided as this can be considered inappropriate or even offensive. The reasons for this are diverse and include the previous derogatory usage of the term, its medical association and the fact that ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality’ in most Muslim societies and cultures refers to certain specific sexual behaviour not resembling the contemporary ‘Western’ understanding of homosexuality as a category of sexual orientation. Instead the Safra Project prefers using the term ‘same-sex sexuality’. In addition, the term homosexual does not express the diversity of sexualities as it ignores bisexuality nor is it gender specific. When referring to persons, preference is given to the statement that someone is ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ or that someone is ‘a lesbian’, ‘a gay man’ or ‘a bisexual person’. (In plural - LGB people).

Islam: Islam can mean many different things to different people. Sometimes people talk about 'Islam' when referring to the culture or traditions from a particular country or from a specific group of people. Sometimes people use the word ‘Islam’ to refer to the practice of religious rituals and/or to spirituality. People also use the term 'Islam' to talk about a political viewpoint and sometimes they are referring to what is known as 'Islamic law' or shari’ah. This body of rules, norms and laws is itself made up of several schools of thought and differing individual opinions of Muslim scholars. The Safra Project uses the term ‘Muslim laws’ to refer to both shari’ah as well as to modern state laws said to be based on it.

Lesbian: a woman who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to another woman or other women. Her sexual orientation is categorised as homosexual.

LGBT(Q) (people): is the acronym of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender (and/or queer) (people). It is an inclusive term for identities sometimes also associated together as ‘sexual minorities’.

Polyamory: This is a new term that has emerged in the debates about non-monogamy in recent years. It literally translates into ‘many loves’. Polyamory circumscribes a particular relationship philosophy that assumes that it is possible (and indeed desirable) to love many people and to maintain multiple relationships. Within polyamory there is a strong emphasis on love, intimacy, commitment and honesty. Some have defined polyamory as ‘responsible non-monogamy’. Polyfidelity is a concept closely related to polyamory. Polyfidelity is based on the understanding that the partners in a multiple relationship will be faithful towards each other, an assumption that is not clearly spelled out or implied in polyamory. While for some polyfidelity marks a very specific approach to polyamory (or even one distinct from it), others tend to equate both concepts.

Reformists: scholars who have sought to challenge classical or fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran and other sources of Muslim law.

Same-sex sexuality (& Same-sex relationships): a category of sexual orientation, referring to a person who experiences emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction only, or primarily, to (a) person(s) of the same sex. Same-sex relationships are emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional consenting relationship(s) between people of the same sex, that is, between two women or two men. Same-sex sexuality is sometimes used as a synonym for homosexuality. However, the Safra Project normally uses the term ‘same-sex sexuality’ instead of, and/or distinguished from, ‘homosexuality’ as the notions of homosexuality that exist within most Muslim societies and cultures do not resemble the contemporary ‘Western’ understanding of homosexuality. In most Muslim societies and cultures, ‘homosexuality’ refers to certain specific sexual behaviour rather than to a category of sexual orientation that includes a wider scope of (sexual) behaviours, feelings and self-identity.

Sex: can refer to certain forms of sexual behaviour, i.e. ‘having sex’. It can also refer to a person’s biological sex, i.e. someone is from the male sex or the female sex. The term sex is sometimes confused with the term gender, just like the term biological sex is sometimes confused with gender identity. The term sex can be distinguished from sexuality and sexual orientation.

Sexual behaviour: the factual behaviour of a person in relation to her/his sexuality, either publicly or privately, including - but not limited to – having intercourse. Sexual behaviour is different to sexual orientation as sexual behaviour refers to actions whereas sexual orientation (also) refers to feelings and to self-identity. Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their sexual behaviours.

Sexual orientation: refers to emotional, romantic, sexual and/or affectional attraction from one person to another person or persons. Someone’s sexual orientation is categorised according to the gender(s) or biological sex of the people he/she has these feelings for, that is, it describes whether a person is attracted primarily toward people of the same or the opposite sex, or to both. Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive homosexuality to exclusive heterosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality. Sexual orientation is an important part of a person’s total self-identity: how we see ourselves and how others see us. A person’s experience and understanding of her/his sexual orientation can vary during their life. Sexual orientation is different from sexual behaviour because it refers to feelings and to self-identity, rather than mere actions. Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviours. Sexual orientation can be distinguished from other aspects of sexuality such as biological sex, gender identity and gender roles.

Sexuality (Sexualities, Sexual diversity): Sexuality refers in its broadest sense to the quality of being sexual. The term sexuality is also used in plural, i.e. ‘sexualities’, to reflect the diversity of sexuality, also known as ‘sexual diversity’. The main aspects of sexuality are sex, biological or physiological sex, gender, gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation.

Shari’ah: A body of rules, norms and laws according to which Muslims (are supposed to) live their lives. These rules, norms and laws are found in, and derived from two main sources: the Qur'an and practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith). The Qur'an and hadith are known as the primary sources of Muslim law.
Shar’iah was formulated between the eighth and the fourteenth century AD. In the eight and ninth century AD several Muslim schools of thought (madahibs) emerged in different geographical locations, deriving legal and religious rules from the Qur'an and hadith. These schools also formulated (legal) opinions known as jurisprudence (fiqh), including the assessment of the reliability of hadith. For situations that were not explicitly mentioned in the Qur'an or hadith, the schools used certain methods of legal reasoning to formulate rules. These methods include the formulation of a consensus opinion (ijma), drawing an analogy (qiyas) from an existing rule or law or making a decision on the basis of (principles of) social justice (maslaha). Differing opinions between the schools as well as between individual scholars, combined with influences of local customs and regional differences, caused variations in the rules, norms and laws within and between the schools. This body of rules, opinions and laws, is referred to as ‘classical Muslim law’ or shari’ah. Four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi’i) and one Shi’a (Jafari) school remain dominant today.
The process of understanding and formulating legal and religious opinions from the Qur'an and hadith is known as interpretation (ijtihad).It is believed by traditional Muslim scholars that somewhere between the tenth and the fourteenth century ‘the gate of ijtihad’ was closed, preventing new interpretations of the Qur'an being recognised as shari’ah. Ijtihad was then replaced by the doctrine of taqlid or imitation of the rules, norms and laws that already existed. The idea of taqlid has made it difficult for reformists to challenge the shari’ah and formulate new interpretations of the Qur'an.
Many countries with significant Muslim populations have developed so-called ‘shari’ah laws’ as state law, particularly in the area of ‘personal status’ or family laws. These are either based on, or are variations of, the jurisprudence of one or more of the five schools of thought.
The Safra Project uses the term ‘Muslim laws’ to refer to both shari’ah as well as current state laws that are said to be based on shari’ah.

Transgender (Transgender people): Some use transgender/transgender people as a synonym for transsexual(s) or to refer to persons medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Others use the term ‘transgender’ more widely to refer to all expressions of gender identity other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Transgender can vary from a surgical change to someone’s biological sex (transsexual(ity)) to occasionally dressing in the clothing of the ‘opposite’ gender (transvestite). A transgender person can also transition - sometimes with the help of hormone therapy and/or cosmetic surgery - to live in the gender role of choice, without undergoing or wishing to undergo (complete) surgery. The term transgender can also include those who identify and/or express themselves as neither male nor female and/or those born with an ambiguous biological sex. The International Foundation for Gender Education defines a transgender person as “someone whose gender display at least sometimes runs contrary to what other people from the same culture would normally expect” (www.ifge.org). Female to male (FTM) transgender people are born with female bodies but have a predominantly male gender identity, male to female (MTF) transgender people were born with male bodies but have a predominantly female gender identity. The Safra Project uses the widest possible definition of transgender and includes those who feel not able to express or display the gender identity of their choice, for example for fear of negative reactions.

Transphobia: an irrational fear of, or hatred against, transgender people.

Transsexual(ity): refers to people who have a compelling sense that their gender identity is not in conformity with the physiological or biological sex they are born with (see also: gender dysphoria). This may lead some to seek gender (or sex) reassignment surgery to make her/his biological or physiological sex correspond to her/his gender identity. Some people include under the term transsexual only persons who have already undergone (complete) gender (or sex) reassignment surgery, others include those who wish to undergo gender (or sex) reassignment surgery. Some also define the term more widely and use it partially or completely as a synonym for transgender. As the Safra Project uses the term transgender in the widest possible sense, it usually refers only to those having undergone gender (or sex) reassignment surgery when using the term transsexual but respects the rights of others to self-identify as transsexual.

Transvestite (‘Crossdresser’): a person who dresses in the clothing of the ‘opposite’ gender, either occasionally or always. Generally, these persons do not wish to alter the biological (or psysiological) sex of their body.

Queer: a term often used as a slur in English to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons. The term has been reclaimed by many LGBTQ people, often in a activist or political context, as an expression of pride in sexual diversity and variations of gender identity. The word queer has now become a commonly used term in social science studies and many universities offer for example courses in Queer Studies.