Islamic sexual culture 2429

always possible. Marriage elevates intercourse
from an act of lust to a sacred task and marks the
boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate sexual
liaisons. Marriage is an obligation of all believ
ers. The restriction of sex to the marital bed at
least in theory creates strict sexual and moral
codes: he ought to display his manliness and she,
her chastity. Any deviation is tantamount to
anarchy and a revolt against God.
Islamic sexuality is ultimately procreational.
The objective of lovemaking is not satisfying
bodily desire but performing a divine mission
(56:59). A quest for family harmony and rais
ing healthy and virtuous children brings a cou
ple together. Even when not resulting in
procreation, marital intercourse performs its
sacred mission by functioning as an antidote
against the temptation of fornication.
Though these ideological constants are
routinely negotiated and redefined in social
practice, they are nonetheless significant in
defining normal sexuality and how indivi
duals must manage their sexual desires. Sexual
ity is intimately linked to religion, family law,
and politics. The most blatant example is the
Shariah based notion of tamkin, according to
which being financially provided for by her hus
band obligates a woman to live where he chooses
and to serve him including sexually as he
desires (unless his demands contradict the Shar
iah). States often regulate private erotic expres
sions to accord with the religiously defined
appropriate sexuality and conservative moral
standards. Deviation from sexual norms can be
easily attributed to conspiracy with foreign
powers to undermine religion and state.
Unequal power within the family severely
compromises womens rights to consent and
inextricably ties sexuality to violence. Passage
to manhood involves rituals of violence (e.g.,
circumcision and conscription) that entail sub
ordination of women. Circumcision or military
training abuses inflict pain upon young men,
yet this pain is celebrated and revered as a
precondition to manhood. Crimes of honor,
punishment for adultery (death by stoning),
and female genital mutilation neither of the
latter prescribed by the Quran are other
manifestations of violence and sexuality.
Nationalist and modernization projects have
drawn middle and upper class women into the
public sphere, but they have also reemphasized
womens maternal responsibility and have
valorized them as symbols of nation and tradi
tion, leading to new measures of control over
female sexuality. In Turkey, for instance,
womens chastity (iffet) was a component of
the Kemalist reconstruction of Turkish identity.
In many Middle Eastern countries, a female
students chastity is a prerequisite for entitle
ment to formal education. Often, even married
women cannot attend day classes in high school;
they are required to enroll in evening classes
with older students if they wish to continue their
According to Islamist ideologues, women
stand at the vanguard of foreign intervention.
Women are also the most significant bastion
against external powers. Capitalizing on the per
ceived western threat to Islam and the Middle
East, Islamist movements have promoted
restrictive definitions of female gender roles
and sexuality by assigning to women the task of
preserving authentic culture. Traditions have
been revived and invented. Hejab (the Islamic
dress code) has been referred to as the flag of
Islam. Weakened customs such as muta (tem
porary marriage) have been reinforced (e.g., in
Iran), and in some cases (e.g., Pakistan under
President Zia) rape has been redefined as a form
of zina (adultery).
Despite conservative tides, sexual ideologies
and practices have undergone some changes.
Emerging voices have addressed sexuality,
especially restrictions on female sexuality, as a
human rights issue. Feminists have attempted
to move sexuality away from the sphere of
metaphysical rules and place them in the con
text of social relationships. Progressive political
movements are moving away from the belief
that sexuality (and womens rights) concerns
only the bourgeoisie. Evidence from a number
of Islamic societies suggests that many youths
are experiencing premarital sex. Though most
women in Islamic countries marry, postponing
marriage, even never marrying, is gaining gra
dual acceptance. Homosexuals are also slowly
asserting their identities as gays and lesbians.
Studies of sexuality in Islamic cultures have
been rather limited. There is a need for inves
tigating the actual sexual behavior of the popu
lation, changes in attitude toward sex, and
emerging sexualities. It is also pivotal to closely
scrutinize classical and contemporary treatises