Teen Skepchick Interviews: Sadiqah, Part 3
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists, skeptics, and feminists about life, the universe, and everything.
This is part 3 of my interview with Sadiqah, a formerly devout Muslim woman who began questioning Islam while living in a Muslim country and, after several years, left the country and her religious beliefs behind, returning to the western U.S. with her children.
In part 1 of this interview, she described her personal journey from religious woman to apostate, and in part 2, she discussed Amina, the Moroccan girl who killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist, and what we can do (and just as important, not do) to help abused Muslim women and girls.
n this final part of our conversation, Sadiqah talks about sexual identity in Muslim culture, discusses the fine line we walk in the name of religious tolerance, and dispels common myths and stereotypes about Muslims, particularly women.
How is sexual identity viewed in Muslim communities?
The only identity you have is as a Muslim. There is a lot of pan-Islamism right now as well as strong nationalist and ethnic identities, although this often clashes with Islamism or deeply religious views. The idea of a sexual identity is bizarre in an Islamic context. Men having sex with other men is not uncommon in the Muslim world at all, and yet they would completely reject the idea that they are homosexuals.
Many people have passionate same sex friendships, because you socialize only with your immediate family or people of the same sex as you. There are women who engage in same sex intimacies as well, although I don’t think it is as common as men having sex with men. Same sex sexual relations are condemned by Islam and can be punished by death, so it is sort of like an open secret. When we hear about people being killed for it, they are usually people who would identify as homosexual or who weren’t discreet enough, or they were killed for some other reason but were branded “homosexual” to bring shame to the family.
Unlike in some forms of Christianity, in Islam sex is not meant to be strictly procreative. There are things from the Prophet about “playing” and enjoying yourself (mostly for men). The Quran and Sunnah and the culture of Islam cast men as nearly unable to control their passions and sexual urges, which is why women have to cover and why it is a major sin for a woman to tell her husband “Not tonight dear.”
That is also why Islamic law doesn’t consider a wife’s nonconsent to be rape. The marriage contract in Islam is about exchanging a dowry for sexual access to the woman so that the man might be “pure” and have an “outlet” for his passions, to maintain social order and control.
Sex for women is often cast as a duty, and in women’s circles, women often complain of pain, dissatisfaction, or lying back and thinking of the kaaba or something. I think if a Muslim woman did enjoy sex, she would be ashamed and afraid to admit it. There are now one or two “sex therapists” in the Muslim world, but sex is largely seen as something secret, slightly dirty, necessary to appease men, and necessary for babies. So the idea of having a sexual identity of any type is sort of alien.
All I can tell you is that homosexuality is an open secret, is considered something you do to “pass the time” until you marry (and yet many continue it even after marriage), and is something that you can be killed for—if not by the government, then by your own family.
Are there Muslim feminists? Did you see yourself as a feminist when you were Muslim?
Yes, there are. I definitely did not see myself as one, though others said I was. I hated the word “feminist,” because I was taught that it was the worst thing you could be other than an atheist. All I wanted were the rights that were supposedly afforded to me by Islamic law—that made me “feminist.” Which tells you a lot, doesn’t it? Some well-known Muslim feminists are Huda Sharaawi, Nawal Saadawi, Zainah Anwar, Asma Jehangir, and Hina Jilani.
My opinion, however, is that it is nearly impossible to be an Islamic feminist. One can be Muslim and feminist, but not Islamic and feminist, by which I mean that one cannot honestly base one’s feminism on Islamic sources. Everything about Islam is about maintaining social control through patriarchy; feminism is about challenging patriarchy and naming it as the basis of women’s oppression.
Efforts to “re-imagine” and “re-interpret” Islamic sources and Islamic law to make them more feminist or humanist or whatever are intellectually and spiritually dishonest. It’s no different than the twisting and turning that we see happening with other religions, who so desperately want their pre-modern desert, tribal-based religion to fit in with their desire for equal human rights and simple dignity for all.
How do you view the idea and practice of religious tolerance as it relates to Islam, particularly as it relates to Muslim women and girls?
I think in general, it is a positive thing if it is embraced in such a way that Muslim women and girls feel that they are welcome in society. We have seen, in different Western countries, some Muslims feeling that they aren’t welcome, and as a solution to their alienation, they embrace deeply neo-conservative teachings, like those of Saudi Arabia, or try to revive or cling to “old country” ways. For example, in the UK, there has long been a practice of sending young women “back home” to South Asia to get married to a cousin or someone else they have never met, in a country they have visited a handful of times (if that).
On the other hand, I am troubled by the tendency to sweep abuses by Muslims in the name of Islam (as well as lively debate and criticism of the religion) under the rug in the name of “tolerance.” Or non-Muslims waving it off as “That’s their culture. Who am I to tell them that’s wrong?” Tellingly, this trope is often used when the issue at hand is the treatment of women.
There is a great deal of ignorance about the basics of Islamic theology, practice, and law, and in my experiences, people—liberal and conservative—tend to resort to stereotypes.
What other misinformation about Islam, Muslim women, Muslim communities, etc., do you often encounter? What myths would you most like to dispel for our audience?
That all Muslim women wear hijab. They don’t. Maybe about 50% in the whole world do. That women are forced to wear hijab or niqab (face veil). Sometimes they are; sometimes they aren’t. Women have many different reasons for wearing the things that they wear.
That every Muslim woman has the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia. This isn’t true. Women can drive, for example, in every other Muslim country. It is important for people to understand that Islam actually teaches that men and women should value and pursue education. What some cultures have done with this (or not done with it!) is beside the point. I think if people understand that Islamically, women and girls should be educated, they might take a different approach when dealing with the issue of women and Islam.
In addition, I think people often conflate Arab culture with Muslims, and this isn’t so. Muslim women are extremely diverse, culturally and racially. I find it disheartening that the existence of so many African American Muslims is ignored by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. These are people who adhere to and follow mainstream Islamic teachings, not the Nation of Islam.
I would also like to challenge people not to be put off by cries of “Islamophobia” when it comes to criticizing Islam or to looking at how the story of non-Muslim and Muslim relations is being shaped by some people, particularly when it comes to distinguishing politically rooted groups from Muslims in general. (The majority of Muslims in America do not even attend or belong to a mosque.)
For example, a few years ago, it was alleged by the Muslim community that some Muslim children had been “gassed” by an unknown vandal in a mosque during Ramadan prayers. After many headlines and much hysteria from Muslims, comparing this incident to gas chambers, it turned out to be a prank of a Muslim child.
It’s not Islamophobic to demand accountability from community leaders who screamed about “hate crimes” and shamed the non-Muslim public before the whole story was known, just as it’s not Islamophobic to ask critical questions about, say, the superstitious teachings of Islam—particularly when the Quran teaches that Islam is perfect and that it is the one true religion for all people in all times.
Muslims openly condemn and mock the superstitions of other religions in the pulpit, at the study circle, in books, and online. Religious Muslims often engage in lively and spirited discussions of the “shortcomings” of other religious traditions, and there are many books about the faults of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. It’s not Islamophobia to examine Islam in the same light.
I noticed in my last year and a half as a Muslim that Muslim apologists and thinkers often fail to recognize or address atheism in any meaningful way, and I came to the conclusion that it was because they can’t. Islamic creed starts with the teaching that God is necessary to the existence of the universe, and it never goes past this, into why or how God exists. Atheism says there is no need for a god, but that if there is one, then evidence should be shown. The evidence until now has been pretty flimsy.
We can exist in a state of mutual respect and cooperation as fellow citizens without excusing the excesses (be they political, legal, philosophical, or theological) of Islam—or any religion.
Image credits: Photographs by New Media Norma Rae, McKay Savage, Steve Evans, Meena Kadri, James Gordon, Daniel Zanini H., and Danumurthi Mahendra.