Whose revolution? Critiquing Seyran Ates and her Islamic sexual revolution

The calls of lawyer, activist, and writer Seyran Ates for a sexual revolution in the heterogeneous Muslim world may surprise many, particularly when the movement is commonly associated with free love, hippies, and public nudity. In a recent interview with German magazine Spiegel, Ates begins with discussing what she means by this and her experiences that inspired her new book, Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution.

Things went downhill immediately, when Ates said that she based the term “sexual revolution” on

…Wilhelm Reich and his book about the sexual revolution. I believe that the Islamic world must grapple with the consequences of rigid sexual morals, not unlike the way, as he describes, the Soviet Union dealt with its own circumstances.

Naming Wilhelm Reich as an inspiration for her cause is to me quite problematic. A disciple of Freud, and a serial wife-cheater, Reich is known for his view that sexual repression is the cause of authoritative family and societal structures, and his study was borne out of his criticism against the fascist movement during his time in Germany, otherwise known as the Nazi party. I don’t know about you, but seeing similarities between conservatism in Muslim communities and Hitler’s regime strikes me as a little essentialist and far-fetched on Ates’ part–and that’s putting it kindly.

As much as I welcome a more permissive attitude towards sexuality in Muslim communities, I doubt that a revolution can occur out of thin air. In the West, the impetus for the sexual revolution came as a reaction from multiple directions: scientific (the birth control pill), political (the social paranoia of the Cold War), social (the rise of the women’s liberation movement), and economic (more on this below). This is where I have problems with what Ates means by a sexual revolution. It is an ethnocentric construct that the Western world had a monopoly over. And if we use the Western sexual revolution as a model, then simply place an Islamic label on it, we play by rules that were hardly faith-based to begin with.

Further, it’s about re-asserting economic privileges that few (in 1960s America/Europe) had. Translate that to the Muslim world (in the East and West) today, even fewer people will reap the joys of the revolution. Why? Having a fulfilling sex life takes time and money–raising children, hire nannies, afford contraceptives or divorces–some things many in the middle class can enjoy. It should not be just about access to sexual activity that Ates purports as a revolution, but about making economic sense out of sex. The main reason why young people are less interested in marriage is because it’s expensive.

Then Ates mentions prophets as role models:

SPIEGEL: Muhammad had a dozen wives. Is he a role model?

Ates: When an Arab man needs a justification for having several wives, he says: It was the same with Muhammad.

SPIEGEL: Christian men don’t have that excuse.

Ates: No, but it’s a shame that Christians worship such an asexual man. Muslims are in a better position, in that respect, but this need of the man to have several women, legitimized by Muhammad, has led to a hidden and extreme sexualizing of Islam.

Saying that Jesus is less of a role model than Muhammad because he was seen as asexual is quite offensive. Being a single prophet does not necessarily qualify as being asexual. But most importantly, sexual freedoms include being both sexual and asexual (celibate). Sex is often overrated, while asexuality (or lacking sexual desire) is viewed as being less human–utter nonsense, in my opinion.

Ates asserts that the Muslim world to a large extent is monolithic, that Muslims the world over can relate to each other in all matters sexual. And, yes, liberalism is not our best known trait. Some live under extremely repressive regimes and others endure conservative laws and attitudes to a less extreme degree.

But within many Muslim communities, class disparity can mean a difference in sexual mores as different as night and day. This goes back to the works of Reich, who saw that people from a working class background were the most sexually repressed and were most likely to obey authoritative regimes. By overlapping Ates and Reich’s arguments, one must assume that all Muslims are economically oppressed for a sexual revolution to happen which in my opinion is an unfair assumption.

I don’t believe that a revolution can take place overnight, or through massive protests that Ates envisions. A sexual revolution in a religious context cannot happen without first planting some seeds of change. These seeds can come in the form of faith-based dialogue and rights-based legislation. Also, better economic conditions mean that people can make better marital choices. It seems clear that Seyran Ates takes her cause very personally, but in the interview she does not acknowledge enough the social and moral impact of sexual permissiveness that she is promoting, which is really the main concern of everyone involved in a “sexual revolution”. This remains a big question mark for me, and I will watch carefully in the future for a sexual revolution spearheaded by Ates.

Muslimah Media Watch thanks Mohani Niza for the tip.

Let these songs speak for me for now

[inspired by T-boy’s Malay music madness]

I’ll be needing some time to adjust to my new life in London and SOAS at the moment. Some changes can be really overwhelming especially when one has to move into a completely empty house that is also falling to pieces. I hate the city despite being born and raised in one. Being in of the biggest and most expensive cities in the world doesn’t help either, so I’ll be taking a few days off from blogging (but will still respond to comments) to breathe deeply, and exhale.

You can tell that I’m quite the sentimental type 🙂

Questioning the veil, questioning the questioner

First published at Muslimah Media Watch. An edited version is published on altmuslimah.com

Source: BBC News website

Today we witness postcolonial Orientalism coming to grips with its obsession with the hijab. While the white French elite seem fixed on debating its symbols, the British media are asking why women choose to wear it. Once, the obsession was an obvious desire to unveil Muslim women (think postcards of semi-naked North African women during the colonial period of the turn of the 20th century).

Such pictorial colonial fantasies are now a thing of the past. Now, French men have now moved from openly desiring topless Moorish young women to getting angry at the concealed women who once incited the fantasies of their colonial forefathers. While the anger and frustrations are expressed by some in the forms of bans and Islamophobic language, others seek the object of their frustrations and ask them, “Why must you cover?”

In an item called Questioning the Veil on BBC 4’s Woman Hour yesterday, two guests, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed and Marnia Lazreg were asked that very question. The reasons why many women take up the hijab should be obvious, shouldn’t it? It’s a personal choice. But both agree that free will has little to do with it. And I absolutely agree with them that women’s sartorial choices must be respected but at the same time those choices are influenced by overarching political and social narratives.

But let’s meta-analyze why the two guests are on the program, almost pitted against each other, and talking about a subject that’s been discussed ad infinitum with more and less the same conclusions: most women make the choice to wear the headscarf, some women are coerced into wearing it. Most reasons are rooted in the spiritual, some are simply an act of resistance against the superficial definitions of femininity. Case should be closed, but…no.

By constantly focusing on the hijab, the real issues that are most important to us women are glossed over–issues regarding economic and social struggles that in reality are the factors of oppression, not the hijab. In Britain, Muslim women from South Asian backgrounds are the most disadvantaged in society, and the same can be said for women of Moroccan ancestry in France. It is all too easy to pounce on the weakest members of society (the women, the minorities, the Muslims) in an effort to reinforce the superiority of White European culture. To avoid appearing bigoted and xenophobic, this superiority is couched on enlightened values associated with the freedom of the individual. As Michelle Goldberg in her piece at the American Prospect puts it:

The debate about headscarves, veils and burqas is a synecdoche for larger, more fraught questions of cultural identity in the age of mass Muslim immigration. Islam is changing European life in a way that makes many Europeans unhappy, but it’s hard for Europeans to talk about without seeming racist or xenophobic. The one place where Europeans do feel confident about defending the superiority of their own culture is in sexual matters. Feminism and sexual liberation become tools of nationalism.

Asking Muslim women why we choose to wear the hijab shifts the attention away from the asker’s insecurity of their own ideas of freedom and sexuality (if you’re comfortable with how everybody expresses their freedom and sexuality, how Muslim women dress should be the least of your worries). In Orientalist discourse, the stereotypes of Muslim women produced from assumptions about the hijab reveals a lot more about Western attitudes about sexuality and social mores than it does about the “mysterious” Muslim women. And so, through the prism of an Orientalist, Muslim women are pretty much everything a so-called liberated Western woman is not. If the definition of a Muslim woman were to be defined using a yardstick alien to her culture, it will not only explain very little about the person in question, but she will always be something inferior, lacking in enlightened qualities. And so despite evidence that many women are happy to cover up, questions about the hijab continue to have forgone conclusions.

I’m fed up by the fact that positive views women make about the headscarf fall systematically on many deaf ears. It’s time that the tables are turned on the curious people who more often than not have misconceptions and pre-conceived views about Muslim women and what we wear, in which we study their motives and question their curiosity about our lives. Enough about us, we should be asking, “Why do you want to know?”

More on men and feminism

Men and feminism: the next frontier on feminism’s agenda. Underrated, under researched, but quite possibly one of the most important issues surrounding our engagement with the source of female oppression. Gareth at Ad Fontes has some thought-provoking views on this:

Patriarchy forces men and women to play gender games that damage both of us. The damage is not necessarily equal, but men do suffer too. Faludi shows us that it is a misstep for feminism to be solely concerned with how patriarchy distorts women without realising the effect it has on men too. Is it any wonder why the self-destructive protest movement Fathers 4 Justice — a group of fathers who campaign against the courts that rule that their contact with their children should be restricted and supervised — choose to demonstrate their suitability for fatherhood by dressing up as superheroes and climbing buildings? This demonstrates too how patriarchy infantilises men, teaching us just to be bigger boys with bigger toys.

Read the rest here.