Previous month:
May 2014
Next month:
August 2014

June 2014

Things straight Muslims and other allies can do to support asexual Muslims

  • Recognize that asexuality and asexuals exist.
  • Become alert to sex-normative and amatonormative statements like “everybody experiences sexual desire”, “everybody wants sex”, “everybody enjoys sex”, “everybody falls in love” etc, and find more inclusive phrasing and concepts.
  • Recognize that some Muslims do not want to have sexual relationships, even within marriage, due to asexuality, aromanticism, sex-aversion, lack of sex drive, or other factors and that the sunna of marriage does not apply to these people.
  • Recognize that some Muslims may be harmed emotionally, mentally, and spiritually by being required to have sex and that sex, even within marriage, may be a site of oppression for them.
  • Recognize that it is not an act of disobedience to God to not want sex, even within marriage.
  • Recognize that some Muslims will find a healthful condition, integrity of heart, preservation of faith, and a soul at peace through celibacy.
  • Conceptualize the purpose of marriage as tranquility, love, and gentleness per Quran 30:21 (rather than as “regulation of sexual desire”).
  • Conceptualize nushuz (recalcitrance) as violating the mutual agreement made between the spouses in regard to sex (Quran 4:24), rather than using a uniform standard of compulsory sexuality.
  • Support the idea of celibate marriages when it is the mutual agreement of the two partners.
  • If you are in a position to be a wali, arbitrator, judge or other authority figure, support women who wish to leave a marriage because they cannot provide sex, rather than telling them Islam requires them to have unwanted sex.
  • If you are in a position to be a wali, recognize that some Muslim women may seek marriage for tranquility, love, and gentleness and not sex, and support them in designing a marriage contract to achieve this.
  • Exhort Muslim men to follow the Sunna of the Prophet in interpreting Quran 4:34.
  • Exhort walis, arbitrators, and judges to follow the Sunna of the Prophet in supporting women to leave marriages when they feel they can’t be a good Muslim while remaining in the marriage.
  • Support and promote interpretations of Islam that enable women to claim their rights directly rather than being dependent on the good-will of men.
  • Speak out against patriarchy and misogyny in interpretations of Islam and in attitudes of Muslims.
  • Consider exploring ways to support same-sex marriage in Islam.
  • Reach out to unmarried Muslims to include them in community events, especially during Ramadan and on the Eids.
  • Respect the choice of unmarried Muslims (whether asexual or not) to be single and support them in leading spiritually fulfilling lives in accordance with Quran and Sunna as unmarried rather than always pushing marriage on them.

My posts on asexuality, Islam, and marriage provide further information about each of these items.

Reconciling Asexuality with Belonging to a Muslim Community

Note: This was originally published at The Asexual Agenda

Over a series of recent posts, I analyzed how Muslim scholars have constructed a sex-normative discourse around marriage in Islam, argued that the consequences of this discourse can be profoundly harmful to asexual Muslims who are unable to provide sex, and offered a simple proposal for an ace-positive framework for marriage in Islam instead.

One of the things my analysis pointed up is how many alternative interpretations and special arrangements an asexual Muslim would need to employ in order to secure their right to a celibate marriage under the current framework. In a response post, Marriage, Islam, Orthodoxy, elainexe brought up an important question: What happens when your alternative interpretations and special arrangements are too unorthodox for your religious community?

This is an important factor in my decision not to marry. I feel that it is possible - in theory - to construct a celibate marriage arrangement for myself. But I would need to find not only a husband who would agree to it (presumably an asexual Muslim man), but also an agent (wali) to manage the marriage contract (and having the right clauses in this contract is absolutely critical to the plan) and, just to be safe, potential arbitrators and in some circumstances a judge who would respect my situation and my wishes in the event that the marriage and its special arrangements go wrong. As a convert, I don't have a Muslim father or brother who could serve as the wali and the standard procedure in this case is for the local imam (the prayer leader in the mosque) to either serve as the wali himself or to designate a man within the community who is both knowledgeable about Islamic jurisprudence relating to marriage and respected for his piety to be the wali.

The necessity of having all of these men involved (and, yes, they do have to be men) is largely due to patriarchal interpretations of Islam that give men freedom of action while leaving women dependent on the good-will of men to secure their rights. My situation as a convert also means that I would have to rely on the very men who are the establishment of orthodoxy in the community to support my very unorthodox approach to marriage.

Quite frankly, I find patriarchy and often outright misogyny to be far too common in Muslim communities, especially among religious authorities, for this to be a viable option for me.

There are several organizations such as Muslims for Progressive Values (in the U.S.) and Inclusive Mosque (in the UK) that are welcoming to queer Muslims and that are attempting to create alternative communities and mosques to provide community and leadership support. However, neither of these organizations has a branch in my area, let alone a mosque. The same may be true for many asexual Muslims. God willing, these groups may be able to expand over time to support more Muslims. For now, however, this may not be a viable option for me either.

One might ask, why not just have a civil marriage (and divorce, if needed) and not worry about the religious side of things? As elainexe notes in her post, forgoing the requirements of a religious marriage or divorce could create significant issues of legitimacy for the marriage, or for a couple subsequent to a divorce, within the community (something, it should be noted, that usually results in significantly more stigma for the woman than the man).

More than this, however, community is an important part of Islam. And I say this as someone who has gone through periods of huge isolation from Muslim communities since converting and who is currently unmosqued and primarily connects with other Muslims online. The ideal Muslim is not one who is cloistered in worship by themselves, but one who is involved in, and who serves, their family and their community.

Not only that, but many asexual Muslims may believe that the orthodox rules represent the most correct interpretation of Islam and thus should be followed as much as possible, even where this creates significant difficulties for them.

It often seems odd to a primarily secular/atheist queer and asexual movement, but for many queer Muslims (including me), faith is a very important part of our lives. Besides Islamophobia, failure to understand the importance of faith is one of the struggles many queer Muslims have with mainstream LGBTQ communities in the West. (Indeed, I am far from the only queer Muslim who feels caught between worlds; for many, the queer Muslim community may be the first or only place they can feel whole in themselves.)

Beyond this, and depending on the particular background and situation, the "orthodox" Muslim community may be the context in which one interacts with family, friends, or neighbors, or that represents an important link to one's heritage. A particular queer Muslim may be actively involved in social justice work within their own community on any number of issues. For many queer Muslims, then, cutting themselves off from the community is not a viable option either.

At some point, you realize there are no viable options for obtaining an unorthodox marriage and for maintaining ties with the community that supports your faith. All too often, this is the dilemma of the asexual Muslim, as it is for so many other queer Muslims.

Same-Sex Marriage in Islam: Notes for Asexual Muslims

In my post, Why marriage? Issues for asexual Muslims seeking to legitimize non-sexual cross-sex relationships, I explored some reasons why a cross-sex asexual Muslim couple might wish to marry in order to legitimize a non-sexual relationship. The argument in that post is limited to the situation of asexual Muslims who partner with people of a different assigned sex. More broadly, my entire discussion about marriage in Islam (1, 2, 3, 4) takes for granted an assumption that I might be interested in or be willing to have a non-sexual relationship with an asexual Muslim man, if I could just surmount the obstacles that patriarchal interpretations of Islam place in the way of this.

In fact, this assumption is not correct, and this is something that I have come to realize as I have explored asexual discourse in the last few years.

I am aromantic as well as asexual. I have absolutely no positive gender preference, even in terms of aesthetic attraction. However, I do seem to have a kind of “negative preference”, in that my sex-aversion is much stronger in regard to men than in any other direction. I have come to realize that this extends even to a non-sexual relationship even with an asexual man.

Prior to discovering the asexual community and asexual discourse, I had assumed that sexual/romantic relationships were the only real kind. Since I'm not interested in these, and in fact would experience major difficulties in navigating them, I assumed that having a long-term relationship that might ever be fit into the box of marriage was out of the question. Learning about the concept of queerplatonic relationships opened my mind to a new understanding of what is possible for me and I now am interested in exploring this as a potential in the future (at the current time, it is not more than a distant possibility).

However, when I try to imagine myself in a queerplatonic relationship with an asexual man, somehow it just doesn't compute and it begins to trigger what I have learned to understand as my aversion response. I confirmed this to myself again as I explored the intersection of asexuality and Islam and developed the ideas I'm now publishing in this series of posts. Figuring out how to make such a relationship work within the Islamic framework is good, but I still don't want to actually do it.

By contrast, the idea of a queerplatonic relationship with another asexual woman does make sense in my mind and doesn't trigger the aversion response. In fact, I've become fairly certain in the last year or so that if I ever do enter into a queerplatonic relationship, it will be with another woman.

So, what's the situation for a same-sex asexual Muslim couple? First of all, traditional and orthodox Islamic jurisprudence does not support same-sex marriage at all. This should not come as a surprise to anybody.

It's not simply that marriage is defined as between a man and a woman. The very way that marriage is structured in Islam establishes two distinct gender roles in the marriage. The man makes the marriage by offering the bride-gift or mahr (Quran 4:24), the woman accepts or rejects. She can initiate the process by inviting a particular man to propose to her, or by inviting a number of suitors to present their cases to her and she will choose among them, but she does not herself offer the mahr to a man.

Within the marriage, the man provides complete financial support (maintenance) and in return* has the right of qiwamah or leadership (Quran 4:34). The woman is expected to follow his leadership (this can be understood as anything from accepting his decision as final after their consultation to patriarchal ideals of unquestioning obedience) and rejecting his leadership is an instance of recalcitrance (nushuz). I have already discussed at great length how this framework affects asexual Muslim wives who are unable to provide sex.

The man is also able to make a divorce completely on his own initiative, for any reason that he chooses. While women have a range of rights to divorce in Islam, a wife does not ever make the divorce herself, but rather the husband agrees to, or is ordered to, make the divorce at the time or in the circumstances she has requested or previously designated. The most sweeping divorce right for women, delegated divorce, still recognizes that the authority of divorce rests with the man and in that situation is being exercised by the woman acting as his proxy.

Progressive scholars have begun making cases within the framework of Islamic jurisprudence for allowing same-sex marriage. In my opinion as a non-scholar, these arguments are very important, but only a first step, because they don't address how a same-sex couple would deal with the gender role structure of Islamic marriage.

Does one of the partners agree to take on the "other" gender role within the marriage? If there is no offer and acceptance of mahr by persons in the appropriate gender roles does it even count as marriage according to Islamic jurisprudence? If the marriage is not considered legitimate, this can have serious negative consequences for the couple within the community (a topic I explored from a different angle even in the context of cross-sex marriage).

The ace-positive framework I discussed previously could be very helpful here, by stressing the centrality of the mutual agreement that the couple make (indeed, by making tranquility rather than regulation of sexual desire the purpose of marriage, it establishes a sound basis for same-sex marriage in Islam).

For the sake of argument, we'll assume that a same-sex couple have made a mutual agreement that one of them will take on the "other" gender role in the marriage and that each partner will follow all the rules and responsibilities set out in traditional Islamic jurisprudence for their gender role.

Such an agreement would enable the partners to receive financial benefit from the marriage, particularly in the case of the partner in the "wife" gender role (the partner in the "husband" gender role taking on the responsibility of maintenance). This is one of two reasons I gave why a cross-sex asexual couple might wish to legitimize a non-sexual relationship as an Islamic marriage.

The second reason I suggested is to uphold community standards in the regulation of social interaction. Traditional Islam strictly regulates interaction between men and women who are not married to each other, to the point that even the activities that a couple in a queerplatonic relationship might engage in (sharing a residence, being comfortable with each other in private, cuddling, holding hands in public) should only be allowed within marriage.

The thing is that the Islamic discourse around social interaction is utterly embedded in compulsory heterosexuality. One might argue, based on principle, that people should observe these rules with those people whom they are attracted to, or who are attracted to them (thus, asexual Muslims would get an exemption from most of the rules), regardless of the designated sex of the people involved. However, in practice, the rules are stated as between men and women** and are not applied to same-sex interactions.

What this means for asexual Muslims is that most of the "queerplatonic activities" discussed above would likely fall into the zone of what is acceptable between same-sex friends (especially since many Muslim cultures are more accepting of displays of homosocial affection, even between two men, than are Anglo-American cultures).

It may be that a same-sex asexual Muslim couple who have a queerplatonic relationship would not need to marry to legitimize their relationship in this way. Given that any such marriage would be highly unorthodox and require a large number of special arrangements and agreements, it would probably be easiest to not seek an Islamic marriage but to present as "roommates". This is an odd case where compulsory heterosexuality actually benefits asexuals in same-sex non-sexual relationships, an admittedly very narrow loophole.

For right now, this discussion is entirely theoretical for me, but there's a lot to think about should I have the opportunity of a queerplatonic relationship at some point in the future.

*Because this verse is phrased that men are given this right because they have more money and they spend it, some Islamic feminists have argued that if the woman has more money and agrees to provide maintenance to the man, she should get the right of qiwamah. However, this interpretation is not accepted by most Muslims.

**In my understanding, traditional Islamic jurisprudence is focused on the sex to which a person is designated, not to their gender identity. Thus, if you are designated as female because of the type of secondary sex characteristics you have, you should wear hijab because it is intended for people with those body parts regardless of their gender identity. A discussion of transgender and intersex rights in Islam is far beyond the scope of this post.

Why marriage? Issues for asexual Muslims seeking to legitimize non-sexual cross-sex relationships

Across a series of recent posts, I explored whether it is possible to have a celibate marriage within the framework of marriage in Islam, the obstacles an asexual Muslim may face in securing for themselves such a marriage, and a possible way forward.

Why bother? If an asexual Muslim wants to have a non-sexual relationship with a person of a different assigned sex*, why try to fit it into the box of marriage?

For one thing, marriage in a civil context brings a package of legal benefits that are not obtainable any other way, and asexuals may want to obtain these benefits. Asexuals, including aromantic and wtfromantic asexuals, can and have gotten married. People who are getting married for the civil benefits, and who are observant Muslims, might wish to have a religious marriage along with a civil one.

There are also some benefits, within the context of living one's life according to the rules of Islam, to a purely religious marriage.

The most obvious of these are financial benefits. A husband and wife inherit from each other if the other spouse dies. Additionally, the husband is obligated to provide the wife with a bride-gift (mahr) upon the marriage (Quran 4:24; according to Quran 2:237, she is entitled to keep half even if the marriage is never consummated), to provide complete financial support (maintenance) during the marriage** (Quran 4:34), and to provide a gift (mat'a) upon divorce (Quran 2:241). The financial benefits for a woman may thus be substantial. (As a side note, it is the husband's expenditure on his wife that is stated in 4:34 as the reason he gets greater power within the marriage, a topic I discuss at length here.)

The second set of benefits relates to the regulation of social interaction, specifically between men and women who are not related to each other, that observant Muslims typically try to adhere to.

According to traditional Islamic guidelines, a man and woman who are not related to each other should not be alone together in private, they should not engage in unnecessary physical contact (according to the strict rule followed by many devout Muslims, even shaking hands is strongly discouraged), they should lower their gazes around each other, and they should dress modestly (the woman's hijab or headscarf is thus part of a much larger code of conduct whose rules are nearly identical for both men and women, except in the specific form of modest dress).

Because of these rules, if we imagine an asexual man and woman who wish to have a queerplatonic (non-sexual, non-romantic) relationship but they would like to share a residence, be comfortable around each other, and perhaps engage in cuddling in private and holding hands in public, according to the orthodox rules of interaction, they would not be able to do this unless they were married to each other. Yes, these rules are very strict.

The regulation of social interaction is intended to guard against illegal sexual intercourse, and some of the rules will sometimes grant an exemption where sexual desire is not present (this is most commonly encountered in the discussion of shaking hands). One might argue based on this principle that asexuals do not need to adhere to those rules that are predicated on the assumption that they experience sexual desire (there are still some rules they might choose to follow, such as hijab, given that others may experience sexual desire towards them).

Nonetheless, if they wish to uphold the community standards in this area, or if they don't wish to have to explain their asexuality all the time (or indeed if they do not wish to disclose it at all), then marriage provides a way to legitimize a queerplatonic relationship under Islamic social guidelines.

To sum up, then, an asexual woman and man who have a non-sexual relationship such as a queerplatonic relationship may wish to seek a religious marriage for several reasons, including upholding Islamic guidelines on social interaction, financial benefits, or religious recognition of a marriage made to obtain civil benefits. My arguments in support of making celibate marriages within the Islamic framework are intended to make a space for the religious legitimation of such non-normative relationship types for the benefit of asexual Muslims.

*Because orthodox Islam does not support same-sex marriage, I have limited the discussion in this post to cross-sex relationships in order to explore how these, specifically, can be legitimized under orthodox rules.

**According to some traditional interpretations, if the wife is in a state of recalcitrance (nushuz), the husband is not obligated to provide maintenance. However, the Quran rejects this reasoning in 4:19 and 65:1. As and when this rule is followed, it makes the situation of the recalcitrant asexual wife even more dire. This is why the ace-positive framework I have proposed is so essential.