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.
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:
- Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition (a book and the most comprehensive resource)
- The Problems of Conscience and Hermeneutics (a survey of the major different Islamic feminist responses)
- The Ethical Problem of the Existence of 4:34 (takes a deep, cosmological or mystical approach to why difficult verses exist)
- Decoding the DNA of Patriarchy in Muslim Family Laws (the context of Islamic feminist approaches)
- Does the Quran Tolerate Domestic Abuse? (a survey of opinions on the "alternative translation" approach used by some Islamic feminists)
- An Islamic Perspective on Domestic Violence (explores how far we can get using traditional methodologies and sources)
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.