(RHET 400) Review: The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality

March 9, 2009

The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality, strictly speaking is not an article. Rather, it is the first chapter of a book titled Beyond The Veil by Fatima Mernissi. The book, however, can be seen more as a one-author-anthology where each chapter is, in and of itself, vested with enough autonomy to justify a rewarding, self-sufficient read. The author is considered one of leading Islamic feminists and that is the undertone of her entire book. With that in mind, I start off by introducing the content of her article, along with some background, before shifting into an assessment of the technicalities.

Published in 1987, The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality is an article that traces the social restrictions on women in Muslim countries – Hijab and other forms of social seclusion for example – to the Muslim “concept of female sexuality” as an active form of sexuality (30). The article concludes with a not-so-unique-a-conclusion: “the entire social structure can be seen as an attack on, and a defense against, the disruptive power of female sexuality” (45). However, what is unique and interesting about this article is the way it goes about reaching that conclusion as it tackles the issue by comparing the findings of leading western psychologist, Sigmund Freud, with that of leading Muslim scholar, Imam Ghazali.

Mernissi tackles the issue of the unfavorable status of women in Muslim societies by linking it to their concept of female sexuality. She argues that in Muslim societies the women’s sexuality is perceived as active and that is why Muslim societies enforce “respect [of sexual rules] by external precautionary safeguards” – by external precautions she means the veil and other forms of seclusion (30). She contrasts that with Freud’s passive concept of female sexuality and how that concept, in enforcing respect for social rules, depends on internal sexual prohibitions. That, in turn, is why western societies “accord women a maximum of personal freedom, knowing that the internalized ethics of premarital chastity and post-marital fidelity will ordinarily suffice to prevent abuse of their liberty” (30). Through that process she explains the widely accepted fact that, in Muslim societies, the patriarchal system is abusive to its women.

Another leading scholar in the field of Islamic feminism is Leila Ahmed. Although she reaches the same conclusion that Islam reinforces patriarchy, which was – and still is – harmful to women, she proves that by using different means. Instead of assessing the psychological/cultural aspect of it, Ahmed analyzes the Qur’an and hadith. By using textual analysis and proving her point by finding historical facts in the Qur’an to support it, Ahmed’s method represents an alternative to Mernissi’s cultural approach. The reason why Mernissi hasn’t utilized the text analysis approach could be linked to her field specialization – she is an anthropologist. Notwithstanding her non-theological orientation, her approach added much to the discourse of Islamic feminism and is considered a pillar for scholars studying the subject.

The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality is a scholarly article that goes about its analysis in a typical fashion to be expected of academic discourse. It evolves coherently and lays out the points to be tackled at the beginning of the article before dividing them into the relevant subsections. For example, Female Sexuality: Active or Passive, Imam Ghazali vs. Freud: Active vs. Passive, and finally, the Fear of Female Sexuality – all three sections and their informative, though not necessarily rhetorically brandished, titles are characteristic of scholarly articles. Thus, in terms of structure and organization, which is typically uniform to the point of being dull, the article meets the standards. Moreover, in terms of content, we note that Mernissi cites certain scholars without introducing them hence the assumption is that the audience is sufficiently acquainted with discourse-specific ideologues – for example, sociologist George Mudroch (30) and Muslim feminist Qasim Amin (31).

Even though the article specializes in a specific discourse, it nevertheless manages to address scholars in multiple academic disciplines including Islamic sociology, Islamic studies, Islamic gender studies or gender studies in general, sociology, and psychology. The fact that it addresses Islamic sociology is reflected in the way that she launches into her active versus passive analysis by saying “societies fall into two groups with respect to the manner in which they regulate the sexual instinct” i.e. the study of societies is her starting point and the fact that they are Muslim societies renders it within the realm of Islamic sociology (30).

Its correspondence to Islamic studies is self-evident insofar as it is a study of Islamic societies and Islamic concepts; Islamic gender studies insofar as it related to Muslim women, the Muslim concept of female sexuality and how it affects the particulars of male-female dynamics; of course, the more general gender studies, insofar as it relates to male-female dynamics in general; sociology because it is also a study of different societies and cultures – “in comparing Freud and Imam Ghazali’s theories we will be comparing two different cultures”; finally, psychology, simply because it includes Freud in the dialogue.

On a similar note, if we were to look more broadly at Mernissi’s audience, moving beyond the sphere of academia, we would see that her audience is by no means limited to Muslims. This is evident by the fact that she explains terms such as fitna that would be familiar to a Muslim audience but not necessarily a non-Muslim one (31).

Also, in elaborating on why she chose to compare Freud and Ghazali, Mernissi explains that “the purpose of the comparison is to highlight the particular character of the Muslim theory of male-female dynamics, and not to compare the condition of women in the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim east” (35). This means that, to prove her point, she is creating an analogy that would be more familiar to her audience both in terms of rhetoric and, perhaps more superficially, in terms of the familiarity associated with the name Freud and the connotations associated with his name. Though this might simply imply an audience well-versed in psychological discourse, it is within the realms of the logical to assume that the audience is also non-Muslim, more particularly, that its western: if it was Middle Eastern Muslim, chances are she wouldn’t have to familiarize her analysis of Ghazali’s theory by comparing it to Freud.

Generally, Mernissi’s article has been quite consistent, in terms of format, with your typical scholarly article format. What is intriguing and unique about it, however, is the content and the approach she utilizes to explain women’s status in the Muslim world. Another approach would have been that represented by the like of Leila Ahmed who applies religious text analysis to derive historical support for her argument. Both scholars belong to the same wave of Islamic feminism and both reach the same conclusion, yet they reached it by utilizing different approaches. Mernissi’s approach, however, goes one step beyond as it opened the door for scholars of different specialties to contribute to the discourse of Islamic feminism.

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