Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gender Interaction in Islam and Muslim Homosexuals

I've often wondered what the Islamic injunctions are on lesbian Muslims' interactions with other (Muslim) women. When around female homosexuals, can heterosexual Muslim females show their hair and other body parts that're allowed to be seen by other women? What exactly is their legal status in Islamic thought? I know they're not "supposed to exist," so no discussion of female homosexuality exists in early/medieval scholarship, but what about today? Would they be treated as "males" (God, this sounds so wrong to say! But I promise I have a point. Just read on. Thankz.), since they, like heterosexual males, can be attracted to females, or are they still treated as females? But speaking of attraction ... actually, turns out, Islamic scholarship allows people to be attracted to or to desire someone of the same sex--just don't act upon that desire. We'll talk about this in another blog entry, though. For now, dear qrratu, please just stick to this issue of homosexuality among Muslims and how they are to "behave" around others, especially of members of the same sex and/or gender.

According to the Islamic rules on gender interaction, women are required to cover only from navel to knee when around other women. Men have to cover from navel to knee wherever they are, whether around women or men. But the idea behind the women's ruling is that they may have to nurse a child in the company of other women, so to forbid them from showing their chests, too, would cause them unease in such situations. They therefore do not have to cover their chest even when not breastfeeding.

A teacher of mine once shared something very interesting with her students in a class on Islamic Law, during a discussion on gender interactions and how the classical/medieval rules are dealt with in contemporary times with new situations and questions, especially that of modern media (how is gender interaction supposed to work online, for example? Does a female need a chaperone when chatting with an unrelated male online? Or when emailing him? What about when Muslims seek their marriage partners online: do their online "hang-outs" need to be chaperoned, since mainstream (Sunni) Islam prohibits women and men to be alone with each other even during their meetings to determine whether they want to spend the rest of their lives with each other? Things like this.) She said that she had gone to a Muslim camp, and, of course, the males and the females had separate tents to stay in. And there was at least one lesbian Muslim there, who didn't keep her sexual identity a secret any longer. (Most of them do.) But unfortunately, there were too many questions for the other women to let her stay with them, so she had to leave. The questions included: "Can we show our hair in front of her? Should she be sleeping in the men's tent or the women's tent? How do we behave around her? Should we give the lesbian her right to stay with us and enjoy the camping experience at the expense of making every other woman here uncomfortable?" And, of course, she wouldn't be allowed in the men's tents because she's not a man or a male. They had to kick her out of the camp so that everyone could be comfortable.

Basically, how are orthodox/mainstream Islamic rules regarding gender interactions negotiated by Muslim homosexuals, especially Muslim female homosexuals? I imagine the answer(s?) might be one (some?) of the following:

1. Psssh - there's no such thing as lesbian Muslims! They don't exist, dude. [But we know they exist. Whether you approve of their sexuality or not isn't the point here; it's their interactions with other women that is of interest to me. Besides, you didn't answer the question.]

2. No, lesbian Muslims may not interact with or hug other women because they (the lesbians) have the tendency to fall in love with other women, and when people fall in love--the same way that when men and women fall in love-- it results in something called "fitna" (social chaos, disorder in society!), which is precisely why men and women are not allowed to interact with each other in "Islam" unless they are being chaperoned by some adult(s).

3. Yes, lesbians may interact with and even hug other (Muslim) women because, even if they do fall in love with the heterosexual women, it's not like they can have babies! So there'll technically be no fitna. That occurs only and only when the "lovers" are of opposite sexes. Besides, male sexuality is stronger, more dangerous than female sexuality, and the main reason women and men don't mingle--or are not supposed to--is because of men's hypersexuality. But, obviously, there's no such thing is female hypersexuality, so there's no issue here. [Yet, we know this is totally untrue, this claim about "men's sexuality being more dangerous than female sexuality." For evidence, please click here.]

I hope everyone noted that all of these potential answers imply that lesbians, whether Muslims or not, are just ready to jump on any woman available to them. But unfortunately, these potential responses do actually reflect the reality of the way that answers are framed by Muslim clerics and even scholars. For more on how people always imagine homosexuals indulging in sexual activities and thoughts but basically never imagine the same when heterosexuals are in question, please click here. No, folks, homosexuals aren't always looking for opportunities to sleep around! They're normal people like you and me and other heterosexuals, and it's extremely offensive to them when we center our thoughts and responses that address them or issues about them on our false belief that they are more sexually active than heterosexuals. But this is beside the point. We should discuss this another time--do remind me, please.

The same questions can be asked about male homosexual Muslims: how are they supposed to interact with other (Muslim) men? I imagine it's not as tough, though, because a man's outer piety cannot be judged to the same extent or as badly as a woman's. (Men don't have to wear a headcovering, and men don't have most of the restrictions that women have when interacting with others or in public; so the issue of "how do I behave around this Muslim gay?" may not arise to the extent that it does and can for women.)

What is also interesting is that this discussion, these questions, would in a very important way question mainstream Islamic concepts of hijab, pardah (basically hijab, but more importantly the privatization of women's bodies and sexualities), gender segregation, and other normative practices--and, I hope, compel us to ask the deeper meaning behind these issues, why they're important and why practice them, and what they mean or how they are understood in today's constantly-changing world with new questions that are emerging on an almost-daily basis.

As of now, I haven't heard any Muslim televangelists (who often happen to be men) and preachers on this issue, but I'd be interested to hear what they have to say. Not so I can follow their rules and shun my homosexual Muslim friends from my life or treat them like they're something beyond this world, but because I'm interested in the discussions about Muslim homosexuals and the sort of questions being asked and the way they are being answered. I imagine it's pretty bad, though, and my heart goes out to any gay and lesbian Muslims out there. I'm sorry that we don't treat you like real humans....

I was supposed to write on this issue of Islam and homosexuality years ago! And I'm SO sorry I haven't done that yet, y'all. But coming up on this subject: a discussion of this amazing book called Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 by Khaled El-Rouyaheb. There is SO much information here, all of it so fascinating, much of it so shocking to the Muslim mind who was taught one thing about Islam but then some of the same Muslim scholars (all of whom are males) who developed Islamic law, all these rules on how we're supposed to be around other people and what a woman can and cannot do, are saying other things too ... it's just too interesting not to read, y'all. So, yeah, inshaAllah, the next post on homosexuality among Muslims or in Islam will be on this.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Quran's Audience as Essentially Male

Last year, I blogged on the issue of the Quran’s “audience,” which I argued was males only, women are never directly addressed in there, women are only talked “about” never “to,” and when a guideline/message is being given to women, men are asked to convey it to them. 

So for the past several months, I’ve been trying to find some Muslim scholars who address this issue, and someone recommended Farid Esack in a discussion on a different topic, and so I decided to read him. I was so, SO delighted and relieved to see that he brings up this problem of audience (he argues that the Qur’an’s “essential audience is male”), although he only mentions it and doesn’t discuss what all it actually means, or what it could mean for Muslim female readers of the Qur’an.

As Esack notes, this problem of the essential audience of the Qur’an should pose significant problems for scholars committed to gender justice; yet, this topic has received little to no attention from Muslim feminists/scholars [(“Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond Simplistic Apologia." In What Men Owe to Women: Men's Voices from World Religions, eds. John Raines and Daniel C. Maguire, p. 195). It is therefore important to engage this issue a little further and discuss its spiritual implications for the female reader of the Qur’an, as well as its significance for Muslim women activists. 
I, too, believe that the issue of the gender of the Qur’an’s audience has been marginalized, despite its relevance to Muslim women readers of the Qur’an and Muslim women practitioners of Islam. I want to first explain what this claim entails.
In the Qur’an, women are always addressed by the hunna (they (feminine)) pronoun while the men are addressed by the kum (you (general but often masculine, based on the textual context) pronoun. Islamic feminism has not only not attempted to answer this question, but it seems to have neglected to bring it up in any discussions of gender and the Qur’an, other than in Farid Esack’s works (discussed below). Wadud and Barlas discuss God’s gender and point out that because the Qur’an avows that ‘there is none like unto [God],’ the Qur'an establishes that God is Unique, hence beyond representation, and also beyond gender since gender is nothing but a representation of sex”(Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an, p.100). They, like other scholars, address the issue of God’s gender as being neutral, and many Islamic feminist scholars argue that even when the Qur’an seems to be addressing  only men—that is, using male pronouns—it is in fact addressing all genders, because the Arabic kum can mean “you all (masculine)” or “you all (general”) while kunna means “you all (feminine).” As Mohammad Ashrof writes, 
all the injunctions of the Qur'an are equally applicable, whenever human or people etc. are mentioned, to both men and women. Many Qur'anic verses subsume women and men in the broad terms of 'human being' or 'people' ('insan', 'nas'). Though these words take masculine pronouns in Arabic, and are often translated into English as "mankind" or "men," in Arabic they are gender-neutral and apply to/include women as well, as with the term "humankind" in English (Islam and Gender Justice p.87).
Thus, unless the Qur’an otherwise implies that it is speaking directly to men only, it can be assumed that it is addressing all Muslims. Yet, verses such as 4:19 pose a dilemma, for it reads: “O you who have believe, it is not lawful for you [kum] to inherit women [al-nisaa] by compulsion. And do not make difficulties for them [hunna] in order to take [back] part of what you [kum] gave them unless they [feminine] commit a clear immorality. And live with them [hunna] in kindness. For if you [tum] dislike them [hunna] - perhaps you [antum] dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.” Although this is not the only verse in which such a conversation between God and the (male) reader takes place, this can be seen as representative of the Qur’an’s approach at presenting guidelines: it uses men as a medium through which it conveys messages to women, never directly speaking to women but speaking to men about women. 

 Now, I will discuss two main possible reasons why the Qur’an never directly addresses women and, at the same time, explain why these reasons are problematic and are in fact not convincing.

The first reason of the Qur’an’s non-address to women may be due to the social views that the pre-Islamic Arab society held of women. However, this explanation humanizes (read: masculinizes) God: the speaker of the Qur’an is not just any male, certainly not a ghair mahram (unrelated) male [[A mahram male is anyone whom a Muslim woman is prohibited from marrying, such as her brother, father, son, grandfather; the opposite of mahram is a ghair-mahram, someone whom a woman would be able to marry, such as a cousin, a far relative, or a stranger]],  but it is God, the genderless Creator. Thus, to suggest that the Qur’an does not address women directly because it may have raised problems for Arab males, as they heard their wives, daughters, sisters being addressed directly with the pronoun “you” by a “stranger” also implies that God is a male who is not to refer to women directly. Is it really possible that the Arabs would have found this—the act of their God referring to women directly—unacceptable?

Second, the Qur'an/Islam brought many radical social changes in the Arab society not just regarding its views of women, such as the burial of daughters, but also regarding the religious ideals of the society, such as forbidding the worship of idols. It therefore begs the question of why the Qur’an did not attempt to change the idea that women can never be directly addressed by speakers. [In other words, it seems to have been selective in which views/ideals to change, and this selection was likely not arbitrary.] Additionally, such a claim destabilizes the popular Muslim claim that the Qur'an is for all times, all societies, as not all societies and certainly not in all times have societies found women to be private entities who are never to be addressed by un-related male members of the community. 

This problem of the essentially male audience leads to a more profound theological, ethical, and spiritual question: what does God's non-address of women suggest about the spiritual and ethical relationship with God that the Qur’an expects of its readers in general but its female readers in particular? Can women truly attain closeness with God the way men can? This is not to insinuate that the relationship that men are theoretically able to form with God is necessarily better and should be the standard against which women’s relationship with God is measured, but it is to point to the lack of an immediate link between God and His female readers of the Qur’an. Women are not the direct audience of the Qur’an the way men are, and a message has to be conveyed to women through a medium. The Qur’an’s non-address of women may be understood as grounds for the belief that women are inherently spiritually lacking, thus explaining why the Qur’an never directly addresses them. Yet, this cannot be assumed because the Qur’an does not present women as spiritually lacking or spiritually inferior to men; it in fact insists that the only measure of superiority among people is their piety (49:13). As for Muslim women activists, the Qur’an’s non-address to women raises another issue: if a woman is not the direct recipient, the direct audience of her Creator’s Word and needs a medium (a male) through which God can communicate with her, would the Qur’an support her direct involvement in society? That is, does she need a medium for her activism as well? If they clearly need an intermediary between themselves and God, must they not have one also when making demands on society or when calling for social changes in their society per their current status?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why Muslim Women Are Re-interpreting the Qur'an (event)

How I wish I could attend this talk/book-signing! Anyone in or around San Francisco is encouraged to attend, if convenient or possible for them.
Join us at the ACCC [Arab Cultural and Community Center]  for a thought provoking presentation and discussion with Cornell University's research fellow, Nimat Hafez Barazangi on why Muslim/Arab Women are reinterpreting the Quran.
Summary: Muslim/Arab women have remained a passive force in changing the reality of the approximately 800 million Muslim/Arab women and the prevailing unjust practices in Islamic/Arabic thought. By reflecting on some historical reform movements, Nimat will use examples from contemporary events to argue that passive views and unjust practices concerning Muslim/Arab women remain because the premises and foundations of reform have not changed.
Nimat Hafez Barangi is a research fellow at Cornell University. Her forthcoming book: Woman's Identity and the Qur'an: A New Reading (The University Press of Florida, December 2004) was labeled by one of the reviewers as "the most radical book in the last 14th centuries of Islam". She edited Islamic Identity and the Struggle for Justice (University Press of Florida 1996, 2000) translated into Arabic, Dar Al Fikr, 1999) in which she also contributed "Vicegerncey and Gender Justice, and has published about thirty articles, essays, and book reviews.

Event Properties

Event date: March 29, 2012 06:00 pm
Event End Date: March 29, 2012 08:00 pm
Capacity Unlimited
Price Free
Location Arab Cultural and Community Center


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Maulvi Begum Sahib: The eunuch who found her calling as a Qur'an teacher

SUKKUR: Seventy-year-old Jameela has come a long way from playing as a child with eunuchs to teaching 450 children the Holy Quran every day.

Born a transgender in March 1941, Jameela never fit in at home or at school, so when an elderly eunuch, Pasham Fakir, offered to take her away she ultimately yielded and followed him.
She continued to live in what she later called ‘sin’ until May 1972, when her brother died in a robbery. “This proved to be a turning point in my life because I started learning the Holy Quran,” Jameela told The Express Tribune.

She was born in Syed Mohammad Yakoob Shah’s household in Pishin, Balochistan. “My father had two wives: my mother was from a Syed family, while my stepmother was from a non-Syed family,” she said. “My mother died when I was four and my aunt looked after me for two years after which my father sent me to live with my stepmother in Ranchore Lines, Karachi.”

Jameela’s stepmother sent her to an all-girl middle school near their house, but the young eunuch left school when she was in class three because she used to get teased for her “attitude and strange style of walking.”
After dropping out of school, she helped her stepmother with domestic chores. “When I was 10 years old, a eunuch named Pasham Fakir came to our house and asked my mother to hand me over to him but my mother refused.”

She said that Pasham kept coming back for her and they used to talk outside the house. “Then one day I just went him without telling my mother,” she said dolefully.

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