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Sexuality and Social Change in the Arab World

By:
Jedidiah Anderson
Source:
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Sexuality and Social Change in the Arab World

This article discusses discourses about sexuality in the Muslim world from the early Islamic period to the present day, focusing on social movements and how they have shaped and been shaped by sexuality. Most discourses relevant to sexuality in the Muslim world increased exponentially after the 1800s, but discourses in early Islam are also rife.

Early Islam

Early Islam was notable in its time for relatively egalitarian treatment of women, in comparison to that of the society surrounding it, as well as for its positive concept of sexuality (Ali, 2012, p. 7).

A proponent of this view is Kecia Ali, who observes: “[b]oth classical and contemporary authors … recognize women’s sexual needs and appetites, but with different emphases. Classical texts note the importance of female fulfillment, but usually focus on the discord-producing effects of female dissatisfaction while stressing the wives’ duty to remain sexually available to their husbands” (Ali, 2012, p. 7).

Ali’s perspective is not unanimously shared. Prominent feminist writer Fatima Mernissi, for example, argues that Islamic society, instead of providing “female fulfillment,” divides society into two spheres: the universe of the ummah, or Muslim community, in which men dominate, and the universe of the domestic, in which people “…are primarily sexual beings; … defined by their genitals and not by their faith. They are not united, but are divided into two categories: men, who have power, and women, who obey” (Mernissi, 2003, pp. 489–491).

Meanwhile, critics like Fida Sanjakdar (2011) synthesize the two arguments, observing that “although discuss[ing], teaching and learning about sex, sexuality and sexual health has a prominent place in Islamic teachings from the Qurʾan, some Muslim cultural perspectives have attached a ‘taboo’ stigma to this learning” (p. 110).

These “cultural perspectives,” according to Joseph Massad (2007), frequently stem from anxiety about modernity and how the Arab world framed its civilization in the wake of colonialism and contact with the West, which frequently portrayed the Arab world as sexually perverse, and thus less advanced when compared to the West (Massad, pp. 55–56).

Homosexuality in the Premodern Arab World

Homosexuality in the premodern Arab world is regarded generally by scholars as having enjoyed greater visibility and tolerance than in contemporary times. In a seminal study Khaled El-Rouayheb observes that “the Arabic literature of the early Ottoman period (1516–1798) [was] replete with casual and sometimes sympathetic references to homosexual love” (El-Rouayheb, 2009, p. 1). The same can also be said of the Islamic golden age, with prominent poets who wrote homoerotic verses, such as Abū Nuwās, occupying a place of high regard in the ʿAbbāsid court (Wright and Rowson, 1997). Meanwhile, Massad argues that the decline of this more “tolerant” perspective on homosexuality is the result of the epistemically violent encroachment of Western taxonomies of sexuality on the Arab world. These identity-based taxonomies, which were incommensurate with Arab cultures, resulted in greater oppression and policing of homosexuals in the Arab world (Massad 2007, pp. 35–40).

LGBTIQ Social Activism in the Modern Arab World

As a result of colonialism and this globalization of LGBT identities described by Massad, many countries in the Arab world now have added laws that prohibit homosexual activity, and in response to those laws, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) activists have formed groups to work against both homophobic laws and societal homophobia. For example, in Lebanon, Article 534 in the Lebanese Penal Code, which penalized “unnatural intercourse” with up to two years in prison, stemmed from the laws of the Mandate period, when Lebanon was colonized by France. According to Georges Azzi, a former executive director of Helem, these same LGBTQ Lebanese began to organize in response to this institutionalized oppression. This was initially achived through a “gaylebanon” internet group in 1998, eventually developing into a social organization called Club Free, which then became Helem, and was officially registered with the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior in 2004 (Azzi, 2011).

This group advocates for LGBTIQ rights in the Arab world, organized the first LGBTIQ rights protest in the Arab world in 2009, and has engaged in activism that has led to various district court findings that homosexuality is not to be considered unnatural intercourse under Article 534, even if the article still remains on the law books (Reid, 2017).

This same group has been criticized by Joseph Massad, who claims that it works with a nebulous collection of “international US and Europe-based organizations” which seek “to incite discourse on sexuality in Arab countries and claim that they are trying to push these societies to protect the rights of their homosexual populations, which these international organizations themselves are creating” (Pagano and Massad, 2009).

In Israel/Palestine, the organization Al-Qaws (The Rainbow), was founded in November 2007 with the intention of serving the LGBTIQ Palestinian community. It describes its purpose as providing “Palestinian LGBTQ activists and allies with space for creative and dialogue-based activism.” With centers in “North (Haifa), East Jerusalem, the Center (Jaffa), and the West Bank (Ramallah),” Al-Qaws also works toward a “unified national Palestinian LGBTQ leadership that practices self-determination and strives toward a de-colonized Palestine” (Al-Qaws).

While other unofficial LGBTIQ organizations exist in the Arab world, Al-Qaws and Helem are the only two official ones in the region, and are also the largest and most significant in terms of their impact on discourse regarding LGBTIQ rights in the Arab world.

Beginnings of Women’s Movements and Feminism in the Arab World

Discussions of sexuality in the Arab world, particularly in the premodern era, were rife and far more candid in comparison to contemporaneous discussions in Europe at that time. Basim Musallim, for example, details the extensive discussion of the use of birth control in classical Islamic discussions. However, cultural perspectives, as described by Sanjakdar, and informed by the same anxiety about modernity that Massad writes about, appear to have resulted in silencing many discussions on sexuality in the Arab world. In response to this, many organizations focusing on women’s rights, sexuality, reproductive health, and feminism have emerged.

The beginnings of this were in the 1900s, when Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi began public lectures for women on women’s rights, and in April 1914 founded the Intellectual Association for Egyptian Women (Shaʿrāwī, 1987, pp. 92, 98). During a public speeach in 1928, Lebanese feminist Anbara Salam Khalidi removed her hijab, which women in Beirut were still required to wear at the time (Kechichian, 2009). Former director-general of the Health Education Department of the Egyptian Ministry of Health, Nawal El-Saadawi, became a foundational figure in the Arab women’s movement upon publication of her book Woman and Sex in 1972. The book dealt with women’s sexuality and the need for women’s equality in the Arab world (Raphael, 2018). Saadawi subsequently went on to found the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, the dissolution of which was ordered by the Egyptian government on 15 June 1991 (Human Rights Watch, 1991).

Sexuality in Modern Arab Feminist Activism

Although these initial pushes toward greater rights for women in the Arab world were relatively conservative in nature and frequently avoided explicit handling of sexuality, modern activism in the Arab world has not always shied away from the topic of sexuality in the same manner. One of the most widely reported recent instances of this occurred when Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy posed completely naked on Twitter “apart from a pair of thigh-high stockings and some red patent leather shoes” in order to protest sexual harassment and negative attitudes toward sex in mainstream Egyptian culture (Fahmy, 2011). Karina Eileraas (2014) argues that Elmahdy’s choice to pose nude in the photo also stands in opposition to Orientalist portrayals of Arab women as passive objects, subverting instead both the male and Orientalist gazes upon her body (pp. 44–45).

Sensational protests such as Elmahdy’s garner a large amount of press coverage and academic discourse. However, it is important to note that this same anxiety about modernity that led to greater homophobia in the Arab world also resulted in discussions about the rights of women. Additionally, it resulted in a resurgence of the Islamic right and the rise of Islamism as a school of political thought. As Pinar Ilkkaracan (2002) observes, this rise of the religious right “has caused women in countries such as Iran, Algeria, and South Yemen to suffer the loss of previously gained legal rights, especially within the family” (p. 767).

The rise of these clashing discourses of feminism and right-wing religious politics, both responses to modernity as Ilkkaracan argues, resulted in “a contradictory picture of the changing social values regarding sexuality in the region,” with premarital sex becoming more common among the young, and sexuality becoming more openly discussed on television. Yet, at the same time laws favor men in divorce, honor killings take place, and female genital mutilation is still carried out in some regions (pp. 768–771).

Conclusion

The question of how society should deal with sex, sexuality, and sexual desire is one that has been further problematized and magnified by modern discourse, because, as Michel Foucault observes in History of Sexuality, the multiplication of discourses about sexuality in the modern era allow the apparatuses of power to extend into private life. This multiplication of discourse, which Foucault calls “incitement to discourse,” combined with the discourses of Orientalism, colonialism, and modernity, have resulted in a magnification of the relationship between sexuality and society, not just in the Arab world, but in the world as a whole. Massad further problematizes Foucault’s idea by claiming that international LGBTIQ rights groups, which he terms “The Gay International,” are intentionally working toward this incitement to discourse for the purpose of imposing a Western conceptualization of homosexuality on the Arab world (Massad, 2007, p. 37).

As a result of the interplay between all these discourses, and the comparatively open nature of discourse about sexuality in the Arab world in the premodern era, current discourse regarding sexuality and society is fraught with contradictions, as the influences of modernity, colonialism, and postcolonialism have resulted in globalizing Western feminist discourses, right-wing religious discourses, and Arab feminist discourses that seek the empowerment of women in a local context.

While groups advocate for LGBTIQ rights and activists pose nude to protest sexual harassment in some countries in the region, sexual and reproductive rights are conservatively and repressively legislated against in most of the region, and at the same time the rights of women as a whole are frequently curtailed as well. Because of this, an understanding of how sexuality is discussed in modern discourse in the Arab world is vital to understanding Arab society and social change.

Bibliography

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