Conceptions of sexuality among American Muslim women

Ten AltMuslimah members/readers gathered on Sunday, February 21, 2010, with the goal of discussing the nature of Muslim women’s sexuality, and how American Muslim women’s social needs may be different. Whether formal or casual, the group agreed in the value of women’s support networks, especially considering the rising prevalence of domestic violence in our communities. A quick brainstorm of ideas brought up the possibility of periodic casual women’s nights, which are actually common in more active American Muslim communities.
Ten AltMuslimah members/readers gathered on Sunday, February 21, 2010, with the goal of discussing the nature of Muslim women’s sexuality, and how American Muslim women’s social needs may be different. Shazia Riaz’s elaborate and creative Asian-inspired feast of noodles, egg rolls, and homemade-to-assemble spring rolls kept our hands busy as we listened and talked. As we sat down to eat and talk, it occurred to me that perhaps private women’s spaces for American Muslim women may be like this – a group of women gathered over a beautiful spread of food, talking about essential issues, and some light non-essentials, too. As it is, my girlfriends and I always meet and talk over good food; why wouldn’t my first AltMuslimah discussion circle be the same? The first part of our discussion centered on an advertisement by German lingerie retailer, Liaison Dangereuse. The ad, reviewed on AltMuslimah by Krista Riley, depicted a sexy brunette dressing herself in, of course, Liaison Dangereuse lingerie, and pulling a burqa and niqab over it as she prepared to step out into the world. The advertisement’s slogan, “Sexiness for every woman, everywhere,” seems to have been put forward as a message of empowerment – specifically, that all women can dress and feel sexy regardless of how much or little they show to the world, presumably by using Liaison Dangereuse lingerie. A couple women in our circle found the ad to be a clever and interesting marketing technique, albeit an overly sexified one. Several other women objected to the ad based on the social and political climate it was released within; many major European countries have taken controversial steps against overt religious expression recently, leaving many Muslims feeling isolated and strongly unwelcome in these countries – Germany, among them. Several women reminded us to keep that climate in mind, and when doing so, the ad’s over-exotification and heightened mystery suddenly felt isolating and objectifying. Similarly, the woman in the ad was clearly objectified as a supremely sexual person using such ad clichés as a steamy shower, nudity viewed in soft focus, high heels, and lingerie. This contrasted highly with the public nature of a niqabi, a religious symbol often worn to remove the wearer’s sexuality from the viewer’s perspective – requiring the viewer to know and judge the wearer based on her non-sexual qualities: personality, intelligence, piety. Multiple women felt the ad’s sexualizing of the niqabi woman was sensational and disrespectful, especially considering the social and political climate of its German audience.

The discussion of a woman’s sexuality in public versus private brought us well into the main discussion point, which was an evaluation of Rabea Chaudhry’s recent AltMuslimah piece, What the Muslim World Can Teach Us About Sexuality. Rabea referred to the traditional hammam-type environment of the Middle Eastern culture, in which women shared their concerns and thoughts with each other in an open and non-shameful environment; they would talk of their marriages, give support to each other, and pass knowledge through generations. Rabea argued that the American Muslim woman has no such established women’s social areas, leaving her with a dearth of support and positive influence. Many of our circle members were of South Asian descent, and were therefore unfamiliar and even uncomfortable with such private women’s areas, as the South Asian culture tends to avoid such discussion, even in private. For example, few South Asian brides get a clear and thoughtful conversation about their sexuality at any time in adolescence or pre-marriage; while there are often nosy aunties asking awkward questions on the wedding day, “to make sure everything worked,” that is typically the only conversation a South Asian woman might ever have, even with her female family members. Many women in the circle stated that they would actually feel uncomfortable in such an environment, sharing personal and sexuality-based thoughts or issues. On the other hand, almost all the circle agreed on the inherent value of female friends with whom they could talk to about personal events and concerns. It seemed that the American Muslim woman may establish her necessary social support on her own, especially when in a college community. Still, many American Muslim women may not have such an established support network of moms, single girlfriends, and married girlfriends. Perhaps a woman just moved to the States, or lives in an area not heavily populated with Muslim women, or does not feel welcome in her area mosque. Where are these women to go?

Whether formal or casual, the group agreed in the value of women’s support networks, especially considering the rising prevalence of domestic violence in our communities. A quick brainstorm of ideas brought up the possibility of periodic casual women’s nights, which are actually common in more active American Muslim communities. We also considered an online forum for anonymous questions and answers; the amount of support and camaraderie that can be built in an online community is well-known these days, and even AltMuslimah is an example of the community one can make online. The circle concluded with some goals for expanding AltMuslimah in the future to include a forum area, although it would require significantly more administration.
Anjum Malkana is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.

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