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February 2016

Coercion, violence, and queerness in the context of Islamic orthodoxy

Note: This was originally published in f-ace-ing silence, issue 4.

Content warning: This post discusses coerced sex and domestic violence and systems that give religious sanction to these actions.

I have never experienced coerced sex or any other form of sexual or domestic violence. I chose the path of isolation 22 years ago and have strenuously avoided any kind of relationship, especially with cis men, where there might be any pressure on me to provide sex.

Since discovering online asexual communities three years ago, and especially since beginning to write about Islamic orthodoxy from an asexual perspective in the last year and a half, I have thought a lot about the likelihood I would have experienced one of those forms of violence had I chosen to marry.

When I claimed queerness for myself in March 2014, it was not on the basis of same-sex attraction, although I am exclusively emotionally attracted to other women. Rather, it was on the basis of my rejection of sex with men and the way that Islamic orthodoxy marks me as deviant because of that.

Living in a context of Islamic orthodoxy as a woman who rejects sex with men means being marginalized, isolated, and excluded from communities when I choose to reject marriage, or facing the potential of entrapment, coercion, and even violence if I marry. Traditional Islam offers no third choice.

Starting around 800 CE (about 150 years after the establishment of Islam as a religion), Islamic legal scholars began to construct marriage as a contract for exclusive sexual access to a woman. Her sexual availability at nearly all times became a necessary condition for the validity of the marriage.

Framing marriage in this way allowed these scholars to justify the husband’s control of his wife’s ability to leave the house and even her voluntary religious observance. If she engaged in these activities without his permission, traditional Islamic law deemed her disobedient and subject to punishment.

The Quran itself grants husbands the right to take disciplinary action against wives they consider to be “recalcitrant”. Disciplinary action can include verbal admonishment, separation from the marital bed, and hitting.

Islamic feminists and other progressive Muslim scholars today have argued that the normative example of the Prophet Muhammad, who never hit a woman, should be taken as the definitive interpretation of the Quran.

However, the consensus of the traditional scholars is that hitting is allowed and that a wife’s refusal of sex constitutes recalcitrance and thus is worthy of punishment.

In addition to the options of verbal admonishment, separation from the marital bed, and hitting, traditional legal scholars also allowed a husband to cut off the financial maintenance (housing, food, and clothing) that he is otherwise legally required to provide to his wife. (This financial coercion has no basis in the Quran.)

On top of all of this, the traditional legal scholars placed significant limits on a wife’s ability to seek divorce when she feels she cannot fulfill the role expected of her, or in cases of the husband’s mistreatment.

Taken together, these rules create a regimen where an asexual woman would have little to no ability to construct a celibate marriage and where she can be subject to measures of entrapment, coercive control, and even physical violence if her husband deems her asexuality a form of “recalcitrance”.

The stories of Sawda bint Zam’a and Rabi’a bint Isma’il, two potentially asexual women from early Muslim history, illustrate the vulnerability of the asexual wife and her dependence on her husband’s willingness to refrain from using his patriarchal authority against her.

Both Sawda and Rabi’a sought to avoid sex with their husbands. Sawda’s husband (the Prophet Muhammad) accepted this and sought to fulfill his sexual needs through polygamous marriages with other women. Rabi’a’s husband, by contrast, persistently sought to coerce her into sex despite having initially agreed not to.

My own decision not to marry is based primarily on the fact that I think I’m much more likely to end up in Rabi’a’s situation than in Sawda’s. I just don’t trust most men when they have that much power over me. The extremity of my vulnerability in an orthodox Muslim marriage gone bad scares me.

I want to be able to talk about these issues in Muslim spaces and add to the growing Islamic feminist dialogue on domestic violence and the legal tradition.

I also want to be able to talk about coerced sex and domestic violence as asexual issues and as queer issues.

The topic of whether asexual individuals can or should use the label “queer” for themselves is one that come up in recent years in some online spaces such as Tumblr. I believe this debate is based on overly narrow definitions of what it means to be queer.

When we understand queerness solely as the experience of same-sex desire, asexuality is not queer in and of itself. But if we consider queerness to include the absence of cross-sex desire and the failure to adhere to the norm of heterosexual behavior, then we open up the possibility for asexuality to be queer on its own terms.

And when we recognize my experience as an asexual woman who rejects sex with men as queer, then we must also recognize that some queer experiences are distinctly gendered. In Islamic orthodoxy, asexual men would face few of the issues I have described here, because of the patriarchal authority that this orthodoxy grants to men.

Much of the discourse about queerness that I have seen in these online debates seems to be rooted in the experiences of men (specifically of gay men) and I do not believe it sufficiently takes into account the distinctive issues that queer women may face.

That I am not only asexual but socially classed as a woman under patriarchy matters to how I understand my queerness. That I could face coerced sex and domestic violence because of my queerness matters. I want a discourse that acknowledges that.

Without such acknowledgment, I feel erased and silenced, unable to articulate my experiences in a language that others recognize. That I am not straight has had a profound effect on my life and I need to be able to talk about that.