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May 2014

Sex-Normativity in Islamic Discourse and the Queerness of Asexuality

Note: This was originally published at The Asexual Agenda

In my post, Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife, I analyzed orthodox Islamic discourses on marriage and how they may impact asexual Muslims who are seeking to get married but who do not wish to or who are unable to provide sex.

My analysis showed that there are two elements of Islamic discourse on marriage that may be oppressive to asexual Muslims. The first element is the idea that the purpose of marriage is the regulation of sexual desire. In the discourse, this is taken to create a right to sex on the part of each spouse, and an obligation on the part of the other spouse to provide sex. This in turn leads to conceptualizing a spouse who withholds sex as recalcitrant. Recalcitrance (nushuz) is seen as putting the marriage in danger and thus triggers a series of rights and actions for the other spouse than can ultimately lead to separation through divorce. The second element is patriarchal interpretations of Islam that severely disadvantage women and put an asexual wife in a much more vulnerable position than an asexual husband.

There is already a great deal of Islamic feminist work to dismantle patriarchal interpretations of Islam so I will not spend more time on this element here. Instead, I would like to focus on the first element, the sex-normativity of Islamic discourse on marriage.

As I argued in my earlier post, sex-normative discourse about marriage leads to the conceptualization of the asexual spouse as innately recalcitrant. Or, as I put it there, as an asexual woman who is unable to provide sex, I am not able to be a "good Muslim wife". There are a variety of tools I can employ to secure rights for myself to a celibate marriage, but as long as the sex-normative framework remains in place, these can only be exceptions to the general rule or special arrangements. The state of innate recalcitrance remains in place and I would revert to it whenever the exceptions or special arrangements fell through.

This creates a situation where behavior that I engage in because of my sexual orientation (i.e., avoiding sex) becomes marked as inherently disobedient to what these discourses tell me are God's commands. Moreover, if I attempt to avoid this inherent disobedience by choosing not to marry, I can then be stigmatized as going away from the way of the religion (I should also note that stigma for failure to marry is often much greater for women than for men because we are seen as failing to fulfill our womanly duty to be wives and mothers).

There's no way for me to win here. Whether in or out of marriage, I am seen not only as not "normal" by not having sexual desire, but as innately disobedient to God's commands regarding sexuality. The only way for me to avoid this would be to submit on an ongoing basis to something I would experience as oppression and trauma (i.e., unwanted sex).

It is for this reason that I consider asexuality to be queer within Islam. It is not hypervisible in the way that homosexuality is (indeed it is invisible and erased) and the stigmas are different. But it is still in some way deviant.

Asexuality is usually not seen as deviant in Western discourses. Ianna Hawkins Owen argues that this is due to the racialization of asexuality as white. I think this is true, but it is also very specific to the U.S. context and to the recent historical period.

I believe that its deeper roots are in Christianity and a perceived association of celibacy as purity. In reality, most Christian discourse is very sex-normative as well. Moreover, as much as celibacy is seen as virtuous or pure, the concept of self-restraint is central to it. Purity is achieved by overcoming desire and showing self-mastery (interestingly, Ianna Hawkins Owen argues the same thing about whiteness and sexuality). Having a lack of desire is seen as unnatural or somehow "lazy". If asexuals are "pure", we're doing it wrong!

Nonetheless, this is a trend that is found to some degree in Christianity. The thing is, Islam is not Christianity. Celibacy or self-restraint from desire is not seen as the ideal in Islam. In my original post on Asexuality, Islam, and Queerness, I quoted several foundational texts in Islam that strongly discourage celibacy and encourage enjoyment of sex in marriage. 1,400 years of Muslim scholarship has followed this lead.

Even in Christianity, sex-normative discourse means that in reality asexuals are often seen as not normal or not natural. But without the countervailing factor of the idealization of celibacy that one may find in Christianity, I believe that asexuality is much more obviously deviant, and queer, in Islam.

Towards an Ace-Positive Framework for Marriage in Islam

Standard Islamic discourse on marriage assumes that its purpose is the regulation of sexual desire, and this is how I presented it in my post, Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife. However, it is worth noting that the Quran never states this in any place.

Given how detrimental the consequences of this sex-normative assumption can be for asexual Muslims, is there an alternative way of conceptualizing marriage in Islam that is less oppressive to asexuals?

I am definitely no scholar and cannot offer any definitive answers to this question. However, I would like to offer the following suggestion.

I believe that the following verse is the clearest statement in the Quran about the purpose of marriage:

And from [God’s] signs are that He created for you from your souls, spouses, that you may be tranquil with them, and He decreed between you all love and gentleness. Surely in that are signs for a folk who contemplate. (Quran 30:21)

The early Sufi authority Abu Talib al-Makki took a very similar position:

God has decreed neither marriage nor celibacy… But he has decreed integrity of heart, preservation of faith, a soul at peace, and the execution of commands needed for these… And if one’s healthful condition, integrity of heart, and peace of soul reside in celibacy, then that is better for him, since these are the things that are desired of marriage. If one can reach these without marriage, then celibacy causes no harm.

I would go a step further and suggest that we recognize that any relationship that brings tranquility, love, and gentleness fulfills the purpose set out in Quran 30:21 for marriage, even if the relationship does not involve sex.

Another passage that I feel is important comes as part of a verse that sets out the basic procedure of marriage:

...And there is no fault on you in what you make for mutual satisfaction by it after the required [bride-gift]. (Quran 4:24)

(The earlier part of the verse establishes the requirement for the husband to provide a gift (the mahr) to the wife as part of making the marriage.)

Rather than designating a spouse as recalcitrant because they don't meet an externally-imposed standard of providing sex in the marriage, why not let the partners agree together on the terms that will give them mutual satisfaction, and only invoke recalcitrance (nushuz) if their specific agreement is violated? If the couple have made a mutual agreement to not have sex in their marriage, then under my proposed interpretation, this becomes the standard against which their relationship is judged, rather than a special exemption to a uniform rule of compulsory sexuality.

This is not so much a change to any of the rules governing marriage as it is a change to the conceptual framework in which marriage is understood. By changing this framework, we can avoid making sex-normative assumptions that end up stigmatizing asexual Muslims who are unable to provide sex and opening them up to potential harm.

Incidentally, the above understanding about the purpose of marriage and the priority of the couple's mutual agreement would not just be liberating for asexual Muslims, but would offer greater freedom in marriage to allosexuals as well. Everybody benefits when we give people greater autonomy rather than imposing uniform assumptions on them.

Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife

In my post Asexuality, Islam, and Queerness, I wrote that marriage is out of the question for me because I am not willing or able to have sex due to my asexuality, aromanticism, non-libidoism (lack of sex drive), and sex-aversion.

Marriage in Islam is understood primarily as a means of regulating sexual desire. Since sex is forbidden outside of marriage*, the marital relationship is considered the only legitimate outlet for sexual desire. Each partner is thus considered to have an obligation to meet the sexual needs** of the other partner and to not withhold sex from them to the degree that it would cause them to seek it outside the marriage.

For this reason, most scholars of Islamic jurisprudence believe that setting a stipulation in the marriage contract that the marriage will not involve sex is contrary to the purposes of marriage and is invalid. The one fatwa (scholarly opinion) that I've found that specifically mentions asexuality basically says that if an asexual does enter marriage, they need to disclose their orientation to their partner and (although the wording is a bit odd in this part) they can't then withhold sex because that would be unfair to the partner. It therefore recommends asexuals to not marry and says that the usual Islamic recommendations to marry don't apply in this case. As I noted in my earlier post, this is the conclusion I had come to myself long since, and is why I have not married and do not plan to marry.

Having said this, I've done a good deal of thought and research into how I would navigate a Muslim marriage if I had chosen to enter one. Are there ways it would be possible to have a celibate marriage by mutual agreement? And what would happen if that agreement fell apart? The second question led me to confront some very challenging questions about Islam and patriarchy and to delve deeply into Islamic feminism. If you are interested in these questions (and have the patience for a long read), follow me below the fold.

Before I start, a few disclaimers:

  • This post explores Islamic jurisprudence in some detail. While I have tried to make it as accessible as possible, not all the references may be familiar to non-Muslims.
  • Muslims may choose whether or not to follow the rules of Islamic jurisprudence. Many do not; we are not robots controlled by our religion or culture. However, the rules I discuss do shape the expectations that many devout Muslims seek to live by.
  • This post discusses some challenging texts in the Islamic sources. As well, some parts of this post may be taken as critical of some Muslims or interpretations of Islam. I do not in any way authorize the use of this post by Islamophobes or others to stigmatize Muslims.

To address the first of the two questions I mentioned above, while the marriage contract itself should not stipulate celibacy, most scholars also believe that a mutual agreement of the two partners during the course of the marriage to no longer have sex is valid. This is usually understood in the context of changing circumstances such as illness, injury, or advanced age.

There is precedent for a mutual agreement in the Prophet Muhammad's marriage to Sawda. Sawda was an older widow whom the Prophet married after the death of his first wife, and who helped him to care for his young daughters. At a later time, when the Prophet had taken additional wives, Sawda told him (according to the biographer ibn Sad) that she had no interest in sex or in men, but that she wished to continue being his wife. Although he had been thinking to divorce her, they instead agreed that he would spend the nights formerly designated for her with another of his wives. (Interestingly enough, polyamory is a solution that some contemporary asexuals have considered when in relationships with allosexuals.) Since in this case, the sexual needs of the allosexual partner (here, the Prophet) can be met through another lawful means, scholars have generally held that a mutual agreement to not have sexual relations that does not harm the interests or rights of either partner is permissible.

For me, this could open up the possibility of marriage to an asexual man, or to an allosexual man who has one or more additional wives. The mutual agreement could be made unofficially near the start of the marriage, to avoid the rule against stipulations. So there's more flexibility here than there might appear at first, if I were willing to enter into a somewhat unconventional marriage.

But what if the mutual agreement fell apart? To explore this, I am going to step back from my specific situation and consider two cases, an asexual man married to an allosexual woman and an allosexual man married to an asexual woman. We'll assume for the sake of this discussion that the allosexual partner initially agreed to celibacy because they thought they could handle it but they subsequently realized they could not.

Because sexual relations are considered a right of each spouse, to withhold that right is classified as nushuz. This might be rendered literally as "rising up against the rights (of the spouse)" but I am going to translate it as "recalcitrance". Nushuz or recalcitrance covers a wide range of marital problems, not just withholding sex, and implies an unwillingness or inability to change the behavior that is causing the problem. The Quran discusses recalcitrance on the part of the husband in 4:128 and on the part of the wife in 4:34. Additionally, 4:35 commands arbitration or mediation when a breach is caused in the marriage by either party.

Up until this point, our two cases (ace husband, allo wife; allo husband, ace wife) appear to be equal. Indeed, the Quran says to men (2:187): "Your wives are garments for you and you are garments for them," while 30:21 says, "And from [God's] signs are that He created for you from your souls, spouses, that you may be tranquil with them, and He decreed between you all love and gentleness. Surely in that are signs for a folk who contemplate." Islamic marriage has a strong basis of mutuality that is often not recognized.

However, Quran 2:228 also says, "And for [the wives] is the mirror image of what is asked of them. But the men have a degree over them." The husband's degree over the wife can be seen in the differing power each spouse has to deal with recalcitrance from the other spouse and that is what I will now discuss.

Our first case is the asexual husband with the allosexual wife. If the allosexual wife feels that her husband's withholding of sex constitutes recalcitrance, then under 4:128, she can seek arbitration for any mutually-agreed solution up to and including divorce. The divorce must be agreed by the husband or ordered by the arbitrators or a judge (the latter would only be the case in a country with a Muslim personal law code).

Interestingly, if his avowed withholding of sex continues for four months, then she is automatically guaranteed a divorce under Quran 2:226-227.

However, the asexual husband can divorce his wife at any time, for any reason, if he has determined that he can no longer continue in the marriage. For him to not do this would most likely in fact be an act of recalcitrance and a rising up against his wife's rights.

Now we get to the second case of the allosexual husband and the asexual wife. If the allosexual husband feels that his wife's withholding of sex constitutes recalcitrance, then 4:34 directs him to admonish her, to separate from her in bed, and to hit her.

Wait, what?

4:34 has been described as "the DNA of patriarchy in Islam" and as one of the most controversial verses in the Quran, and with good reason. Do Muslims believe that God has authorized domestic violence?

Islamic feminists have taken a variety of approaches in dealing with 4:34. I recommend the following resources for further reading:

For me, an equally important text is this:

It was narrated that 'Aishah said: "The Messenger of Allah [the Prophet] never beat any of his servants, or wives, and his hand never hit anything."

At one time, the Prophet had a major dispute with his wives. According to a well-known narration, he first admonished them (i.e., gave a verbal explanation why he believed their conduct was wrong), then separated them for a period of one month. Then, rather than hitting any of them, he offered them a divorce option.

The Prophet's way of living, or Sunna, is considering a binding source of Islamic law and jurisprudence alongside the Quran. Indeed, the Quran itself says that the Prophet was sent to explain the Quran and is to be obeyed by Muslims. Most of the specific details of how Muslims live, from the exact way we pray, to how we dress and what we eat, even specific methods of purification and cleansing, are based on the Sunna and are only mentioned in general terms in the Quran.

If the Prophet's understanding of 4:34 was to not take the permission to hit his wives, and to instead offer them a divorce option, how is this not considered binding on all Muslim husbands? Since when do Muslim men boast about disregarding the Sunna of the Prophet to take what he refrained from? He even told men that, "The best of you are the best to their wives," and that he himself was the best example of this, and that men who hit their wives are not the best. So now Muslim men are taking pride in doing what the Prophet told them is not good?

I see this as an instance where the patriarchal beliefs of scholars led them to take the worse of two possible courses, but that a feminist Islam can take the better of the two courses.

Whether the "recalcitrant" asexual spouse is a man or woman, if they are unable to provide sex to an allosexual partner, the same thing should result: divorce. The exact path taken in each case is slightly different but in both cases involves verbal discussion (either the wife and her arbitrators under 4:128 or the husband's "admonition" under 4:34) and a separation period that may last one to four months and which leads into the divorce. If we followed the Quran as the Prophet understood it, this is what our Islam would be like.

Having addressed the question of 4:34 and domestic violence, I will now look at some of the other options available to the asexual wife who is unable to provide the sex that her allosexual husband expects.

Khula is a woman's no-fault divorce. Set out in Quran 2:229, khula requires the woman to return the bride-gift (mahr) she received from her husband at the time of the marriage. Thus, the woman's right of no-fault divorce is not equal to the man's, as she has to "ransom" herself. The Prophet established the no-fault nature by allowing a woman to seek khula who had no complaint against her husband but felt that she could not be a good Muslim while married to him. In some Muslim countries today, khula may require the woman to convince a judge the she has just cause.

`Ismat is a condition placed in the marriage contract that guarantees a divorce for the woman in specified circumstances. `Ismat could be used to ensure that an asexual wife can leave the marriage if she finds that she is unable to provide sex that her allosexual husband expects. It should be noted that most schools of jurisprudence require a woman to have an agent (wali; this is usually her father) to negotiate the marriage with the prospective husband, so she would need to convince her wali that such an `ismat condition is reasonable and fair. Historically, `ismat and other conditions in the marriage contract have been the most effective way for Muslim women to secure their rights in marriage.

I already mentioned 4:128 above. If the asexual wife is able to convince her arbitrators that it is unreasonable to keep her in a marriage where she is unable to provide sex, then they can negotiate a divorce without "ransom" for her.

Something we see in common in all of the above options is that a Muslim woman is dependent on the good will of men in some way to achieve her rights. Whether it is her husband's adherence to the Sunna in offering a divorce option under 4:34, having her wali or arbitrators advocate on her behalf for divorce if she is unable to provide sex, or making her go to a judge for khula, she may not be able to act completely on her own. Most of this is due to patriarchal interpretations, not to the Quran and Sunna themselves.

We can also see from the Prophet's example in the instance of khula mentioned above that he did not believe in trapping women in marriages where they were unhappy. Instead of lecturing the woman in this case on her duty to submit to her husband, as many male scholars would do today, he respected her wish to leave the marriage and helped her to arrange it. Why do Muslim men today not follow this example either?

To bring the discussion back finally to my own situation, I feel that in deciding whether to make a Muslim marriage, I need to consider what would happen if things went wrong, especially in marriage to an allosexual man, what I would likely be told by other Muslims I need to do in my situation, and what my chances are of getting the help I would need from others to obtain a religious divorce.

I need a feminist Islam to open any way at all for me to marriage. In a time when patriarchal interpretations abound and patriarchal mindsets are all too common among Muslim men, I don't feel that I can take the chance. Especially when asexuality is hardly known and people believe the only way a person could ever not want or be able to provide sex is some type of physical illness or advanced age. In the worst case scenario, I could be trapped in a situation of domestic violence.

In a patriarchal Islam, the reality is that because of my asexuality, aromanticism, non-libidoism, and sex-aversion, as a wife I would innately and always be in a state of recalcitrance (nushuz) unless I had made special arrangements in advance, and if those arrangements fell through, then I would revert to being in a state of recalcitrance. I am not able to be a "good Muslim wife" and there is no way for me to become one.

*In pre-modern times, men were also allowed to have sex with slave women they had taken as concubines. I do not discuss this here, but Sexual Ethics in Islam and Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam by Islamic feminist Kecia Ali explore these questions in great detail and I recommend these works to those who are interested in understanding the issue.

**It's worth noting that the Prophet specifically stated the wife's rights to foreplay and orgasm (see also here). Pre-colonial texts are often quite explicit, including discussions of oral sex in the form of stimulation of the clitoris and when during the sexual encounter this should best take place.

On being visibly Muslim and invisibly asexual

Note: This was originally published at The Asexual Agenda.

What does an asexual look like? The easy answer is that an asexual can look like anything, since any type of person may be asexual. Yet the images that mainstream Western society imputes to members of certain groups may tend to negate or erase asexuality as a possible identity. Trudy at Gradient Lair and Fiish have both explored how this works for Black asexual women, while Queenie has discussed her experiences as a mixed-race ace of Latina heritage and I highly recommend all of their posts*. I am going to explore a perhaps narrower issue, what images do people tend to have of Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf and modest dress), speaking from my position as a white (European American) convert who is often taken as Arab or ambiguously "not quite white" while wearing hijab, and how does this relate to my asexuality?

Very often, people associate Islam with terrorism and violence and will confront Muslims, or those they read as Muslims, with slurs or attacks related to these beliefs. In my post about queer Muslims and Pride parades, I list some examples of this. Yet, Islamophobia is very gendered and features specific beliefs about Muslim women, especially those who wear hijab. We are often seen as lacking agency or even lacking intelligence, that we have been "forced" to wear hijab by a man (usually a father or husband) or by a culture. In some cases, this leads to a belief on the part of Westerners that we need to be rescued.

In an earlier post on being an ace hijabi, I noted that people tend not to have a stereotype of hijab-wearing women as asexual, but instead I'm often assumed to have a husband, who made me wear hijab (or even made me convert to Islam). Implicit in this is an assumption of uniform heterosexuality. Similarly, in the comments on my Pride post, Ace in Translation brought up an idea that some people taking part in Pride parades may have, that asexuality is a cover for internalized homophobia. They asked me if I thought this applied to asexual Muslims as well.

The anwser is no. Whatever assumptions that people may have about "religious asexuals", these tend to assume Christianity and are almost always overridden by the specific images that person has about Islam. I said I would expect to be accused that Muslims oppress women and LGBTQ individuals rather than being assumed to be non-heterosexual myself and using religion as a way of dealing with it. That's what queer Muslims tend to face.

Even when people don't have Islamophobic or other negative views about Muslims, and my hijab is read purely as a sign of religiosity, I feel that people tend to assume heterosexuality still. I may be read as celibate because of my religiosity, but as celibate straight not celibate queer. Maybe it's because they think I look like a nun?!

I was thinking about this recently in the discussion of Pap tests. I wondered if my doctor was more likely to believe I am genuinely not sexually active because my dress is so overtly religious that he assumes my celibacy must be religiously-inspired as well (it's not; I was already celibate because of my asexuality for years before I converted to Islam). Likewise, I think that my colleagues at work and other casual friends tend to read my lack of dating and failure to talk about sex or who is attractive as a religiously-inspired abstinence or celibacy rather than as evidence of a non-straight sexuality.

This made me reflect on Queenie's recent post on being visibly queer (from which I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post). I think that in order to be read as non-straight, I would need to have a same-sex partner - something that is not very likely for me as an aromantic asexual! I'm actually open to the idea of having a female queerplatonic partner, but it's a very distant possibility, at best, right now. How does "being out" work when asexuality is not a visibly queer identity to begin with, and when my religion and my dress tend to impute heterosexuality to me in the eyes of others, whether I want it or not? I haven't figured out the answer to that one yet.

*For more posts on asexuality and race, see Asexuality and Race Resources

When deciding whether to take part is about more than just Pride

Asra recalls a particularly unsavoury incident. "There was an occasion at gay pride once where one of the marchers turned around and quite crudely said 'we didn't know pride was allowing suicide bombers on the march' - it was really shocking to hear it from a fellow gay marcher." (BBC News)

One of the major ways that the asexual community pursues visibility and awareness is through participation in Pride parades. I think this is great! I love seeing photos of ace pride contingents.

So far, no such opportunities have come up anywhere near where I live. But even if I did have the opportunity, the question for me isn't as simple as, "Do I want to be visibly out?" - I also have to think about whether I would face harassment as someone who is very visibly Muslim. As the BBC report quoted above shows, Pride parades are not necessarily safe spaces for queer Muslims.


I wear hijab, the Islamic modest dress, including a headscarf (pictured above). At various times out in public I have had random strangers yell, "Go back to where you came from," at me, had people come up to me and ask, "Are you one of those people that killed our people?", been called overt racial slurs by passing drivers, and even been stalked.

Going out in public always involves mental preparation for the possibility of Islamophobic harassment. While its occurrence is, thankfully, relatively rare, I can never rule out the possibility of having to deal with it.

As a matter of habit, I also usually try to avoid going near large crowds or party-like atmospheres, especially if I'm by myself. Even an apparently happy group can have that one person who gets aggressive in these situations and who happens to be offended by the presence of a visible Muslim.

A Pride parade could fall into this category. I would feel more comfortable about attending if I was with a group of people I was already friends with, such as a queer Muslim contingent or an ace pride contingent.

And I'm not just talking about attending the parade, but about potentially marching in it, which would make me that much more visible to everybody there. While asexuality is sometimes difficult to explain to queer Muslims (as it is to queer groups in general), if they had already accepted me as a member of their group, I doubt there would be any issue about me marching with them. They would also understand the need to prepare for dealing with Islamophobia, since that would be part of their own experience.

But what about an ace pride contingent? While most aces I've engaged with online have been friendly and accepting, I can easily see a situation where an ace group could decide that my veiling doesn't fit the "image" that they want to present and that they might be uncomfortable having me present and visible in their group. This has happened to me before with non-Muslim groups. As with Islamophobic harassment, it's something I always need to be aware might happen. Islamophobia is unfortunately common in American society at large. Aces aren't immune from being like that, or from manifesting any other prejudice or bigotry.

I also think that the asexual community, as I've dealt with it so far, doesn't always seem aware that these intersections exist, that a Pride parade is a type of visibility action that may not be safe for all aces to take part in, and that some aces may face harassment or other obstacles not for their asexuality (which is also an issue, incidentally) but for other characteristics entirely. I've certainly never gotten the sense that anyone proposing visibility actions has thought about how these might work for a hijabi Muslim like me. It's this reflexive lack of awareness that not all aces are positioned the same way in the larger society, and do not all have the same types of experiences, that worries me more than overt Islamophobia.