By Shelina Janmohamed
02 May 2013
Abdelaziz Aouragh runs an online sex shop for Muslims. “We don’t sell products that simply enhance the love life between man and woman,” he explains. “All of our products provide a deeper meaning to sexuality, sensuality and even spirituality.”
His company El Asira, based in the Netherlands, offers products like “sensual silicone” and “glamour lotion.” All of his products are Halal.
“The majority of our customers are women,” he tells me. “With men there is too much bravado.”
I see this pattern often repeated of Muslim women leading their male counterparts in the discussion about sexuality and intimacy.
According to Islamic law, sex is limited to between those who are married. But when it comes to exactly what you can do, and how sex is generally discussed, Islam itself is quite open. Sex is of course for procreation, but it’s also for pleasure.
There are stories about how Prophet Muhammad would be approached in the mosque by women and men asking open questions about sexuality. In one famous tale, a woman came to see him on her wedding night, to complain her husband was too busy praying and hadn't come near her. The Prophet went to see the husband, admonished him for being too engrossed in religious prayer and instructed him to, erm, pay more attention to his bride.
This openness has been lost over time, and discussions about sex have become taboo. However, things are slowly changing.
Wedad Lootah is a UAE marriage counsellor who published an Arabic sex guide, Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples, on how to achieve sexual intimacy with your partner, stating couples needed the advice. Her book was blessed by the mufti of the UAE. But she received intense criticism.
Wedad Lootah's controversial book
Whilst engaged, my now husband and I attended a ‘pre-marriage’ seminar, one of the first of its kind in the UK. The one day training included an hour about sex. It wasn’t very good, but nonetheless, I was pleased that the subject was raised and the taboo broken.
Jenny is an Irish Muslim organising a similar two part seminar for young women only, the first on marriage, the second on intimacy. “The girls don’t know what should be happening in their intimate lives,” she explains. “The men tell them to do X or Y, and they don’t know any better.” Jenny understands that her seminar is unusual, but her primary concern is that the young women receive this education, and criticism is kept at bay. For this reason, she asks I don’t quote her real name: “I’m sticking my neck out here.”
It’s not a sex instruction class that she’ll be hosting. “We’re not telling them what goes where!” laughs Jenny. “But these girls need to know their rights in the bedroom.”
In the USA, controversial Muslim activist Asra Nomani has written an “Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Bedroom.” to ‘uphold women’s right to pleasure”. Nomani says she received negative feedback about the bill. But when I read about it I remember thinking, this is not in the least controversial or new for Islam. If anything it shows how little Muslims - even vocal ones - have knowledge about Islam's un-guilty approach to sex, or understand that Islam has always been extremely open about sexual pleasure, and in particular women’s pleasure.
Yet, it’s undeniable that to talk about sexuality, especially as a woman, is difficult, and as a consequence I’m genuinely apprehensive about publishing this piece. But push on I will.
It’s a subject that needs to be openly addressed, precisely so that these contradictions can be unravelled.
There is a lack of research about the existing levels of sexual knowledge among Muslims. How much do they know? Where do they gain their knowledge? And perhaps the most difficult to ask: what is the reality of how they conduct their sexual lives?
A new chick-lit novel about to be published in the UK is called No Sex and The City and features a Muslim heroine. And last year in the US, an anthology of true courtship stories written by Muslim women was published delightfully entitled Love, Inshallah (God willing). Amongst the narratives there were those that were sexually explicit and spoke about sex both inside and outside marriage. Whilst the book itself was extremely popular, its comparatively graphic nature drew positive feedback as well as criticism. But the more important point of both books is that Muslim women themselves are trying to open a discussion about sexuality, its role in their identity, and their fears and aspirations.
For those Muslims who want to live a chaste life, the pressures are immense. Our surroundings are notoriously sexualised. Virginity is seen as freakish. And rejection of ‘sexual liberation’ is seen as backward. For teen Muslims, these challenges must be particularly difficult.
If contextually appropriate teachings are not available – whether at home, in the mosque or in other social settings – then the taboos about sexuality become entrenched, lead to diminished knowledge, and pleasure or even negativity about sex.
So where should a young (or even old!) Muslim turn to for sexual teachings that they feel are in line with an Islamic perspective. Courses like the one being run by Jenny are few and far between. And those willing to discuss matters openly are equally rare.
And to even begin such discussions, what is needed is a healthy dose of facing up to the fact that how Muslims live their lives is not necessarily the same as the Islamic ideals they aspire to.
A famous Islamic traditional teaching about sexual pleasure says that when God created desire, He made it into ten parts. He gave nine parts to women, and just one to men. So it’s no wonder women are leaving men behind when it comes to trying to better understand their sexuality, as well as the relationship between their sexuality and their faith.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf - Muslim Woman Seeks the One. She can be found tweeting here. She is the Vice President of Ogilvy Noor, the world's first branding agency for Muslim consumers, and one of 'Britain's Future female leaders of the advertising industry' according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.