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Sexual Rights in Muslim Societies

Liz Erçevik Amado, Pınar İlkkaracan, Şehnaz Kıymaz Bahçeci
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Sexual Rights in Muslim Societies

Sexuality, sexual rights, and religion continue to be a perpetual fault line and major site of contestation well into the twenty-first century. Like many other religions, Islam has interacted with sociopolitical and economic conditions at particular times and in specific geographic locations to ensure its survival and power. As such, it has not only absorbed the practices and traditions of the two other monotheistic religions in the area where it was born—Judaism and Christianity—but also the pre-Islamic practices and traditions of the geography in which it strove to survive and establish itself as a cultural and political system. Thus, it is very difficult to define what is intrinsic to Islam in organizing sexual behavior. The issue becomes even more complicated when we attempt to explore the diversity between various schools of Islamic thought, which can exist in parallel even within the same community. It extends well beyond the scope of this entry to explore the historical evolution, or more precisely the flux, of the ever-conflicting approaches to sexualities and sexual rights across Muslim societies. However, in discussing the issue, it is worthwhile to mention that the subject can neither be treated in a sociopolitical vacuum isolated from the global context nor detached from the patriarchal interpretations of Islam throughout the ages.

Religions, particularly monotheistic religions, have been (mis)used as powerful tools of oppression of women and people of nonconforming sexualities throughout history, and across all geographies, to establish and maintain a patriarchal social order and perpetuate gender inequalities. The construction and regulation of sexualities have been a most crucial instrument in this regard, serving to define discriminatory gender roles and notions of morality in the family and society. Among others, this mechanism of control has led to legitimization of rights violations, restrictions of the use of public space, limitation of economic participation, and discriminatory population policies.

Like its predecessors, the Qurʾān has historically been interpreted through the lens of a male-dominated society. However, as many scholars have argued, inequality between the sexes is not enshrined in the Qurʾān, but the text rather embodies a recognition of the rights of both sexes, and a spirit of equality and mutuality that extends to sexuality. Furthermore, the Qurʾān recognizes the right to sexual pleasure of both men and women, taking an affirmative approach to sexuality and pleasure (Barlas, 2002; Boudhiba, 1998; Hassan, 1990; İlkkaracan, 2002; Mir-Hussaini, 2012). There are scholars who argue that this equality and confirmation of sexuality and sexual pleasure also allows for a more accepting approach toward different sexual orientations (Al-Haqq Kugle, 2003).

Customary Practices Contrary to Sacred Texts

Existing discourses on sexuality and Islam often fail to consider the diversity of practice among Muslim communities. They also tend to overlook the areas of negotiability created by social taboos and silences related to sexual behavior. There is a diverse range of practices geared toward the control of sexualities in different parts of the Muslim world. Some such practices violating human rights, including sexual rights, in various Muslim societies are: forced marriages; female genital mutilation (FGM); honor crimes; temporary marriages; and virginity tests, which are all contrary to the sacred texts in Islam. In effect, the local cultural and social origins of such practices often predate the arrival of Islam in that particular community and these practices deemed “Islamic” vary from context to context. For instance, while in many countries in the Middle East like Jordan, Turkey, and Palestine or in South Asia (Pakistan and Bangladesh), crimes committed in the name of “honor” and femicides, disguised under the term “honor killings,” continue to either be legitimized or receive lighter sentences, they are almost nonexistent in Indonesia and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Female genital mutilation, still widely prevalent in numerous African communities including in Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan, does not exist in Jordan, Tunisia, or Malaysia, among other places. The practice of polygamy ranges from cases where it is outlawed (Tunisia and Turkey), subject to numerous restrictions and rarely practiced (Algeria, Pakistan, and Lebanon, among others), to some West African countries where it is rather prevalent. Sexual practices also differ from context to context: while transgenderism has traditionally been a part of the culture in many South and Southeast Asian countries, tolerated and considerably visible for centuries, transgender people have been subject to severe discrimination and violence in most societies in the Middle East (Imam, 2000; İlkkaracan, 2013).

An Ongoing Site of Contestation

Not only patriarchal interpretations of the Qurʾān and Islamic jurisprudence and customary practices, but also the tendency to essentialize Islam and by extension Muslim societies have contributed to the obstruction of sexual rights and the legitimization of rights violations over the centuries. With overarching disregard for their plurality, the discourse of colonialism marked the East/South/Muslim as an “uncivilized,” “backward” whole, while introducing laws and policies that would continue to hinder sexual rights. For instance: homosexuality in colonized countries was criminalized in this period through sodomy laws; discriminatory population policies were introduced; and penal codes legitimizing sexual rights violations such as rape, honor killings, etc. were instated (Kligerman, 2007). The French “suppression of homosexuality” in Morocco and in British common law, taken up by many of its colonies, exempting husbands from prosecution for raping their wives, are two of many of such provisions (Dunne, 1990; Hart, 2014).

Starting in the late twentieth century the issues related to sexuality and sexual rights have increasingly become sites of political contestation in Muslim societies due to the contradictory impacts of social, economic, and political developments. The post-9/11 context has led to growing Islamophobia fueling this essentialization and demonizing of Islam, only to be countered with growing conservatism in Islamic countries. Several factors have tightened the existing space for liberal reforms in Muslim-majority countries. These include the rise of the Islamic religious right and increasing mass support for such ideologies, as well as increased militarization and the ebbing of new wars between the West and Muslim countries.

In their efforts to out-Islamicize one another and consolidate political power, the rising Islamic religious right uses sexuality as a battleground. Escalating nationalisms and militarism silence all forms of opposition and marginalize or curtail sexual rights, while the divide and dichotomy of the West versus Islam, or the Muslim, serves as a pretext for imposing conservative values. Morality is often positioned at the core of these attempts, such as the increasing moral policing in countries like Malaysia and Egypt, among others. The crackdowns on LGBTQI organizations and peoples in countries like Egypt, Indonesia, and Turkey have become widespread. Despite broad protests, the adoption of an anti-pornography law in Indonesia leaves room for criminalizing any sexual behavior falling outside patriarchal notions of morality. There have been attempts to restrict or ban abortion in Tunisia and Turkey, where it is legal, and the provision of family planning is being hindered in Bangladesh and Morocco. Furthermore, like human rights defenders, sexual rights activists and advocates, as well as organizations, are being persecuted in various forms such as imprisonment, travel bans, and closure of associations in many countries (Athar and İlkkaracan, 2017; İlkkaracan, 2013; Observatory on the Universality of Rights, 2017).

Sexual Rights, Progress and Activism in Muslim Societies

On the other hand, the rise of new feminist and civil movements, globalization, and the increasing influence of the global human rights discourse, have led to the emergence of new discourses, demands, and patterns regarding sexual behavior, and the growing push for change from below. Consequently, recent decades have also witnessed landmark developments both in terms of legal change and in advocacy, activism, and the production of progressive discourses in sexual rights. These have ranged from legal reforms to an integration of sexual rights discourses into women’s movements’ agendas; from the emergence and growth of LGBTQI movements to the promotion of sexual and reproductive health; from broad participation in awareness-raising and advocacy campaigns to research and a growing literature on previously understudied, taboo topics and progressive interpretations of religious texts (Athar and İlkkaracan, 2017; Kelly and Breslin, 2010; Musawah for equality in the family website).

Take for example, the reform of the family code (Mudawanna) in Morocco in 2004, which, after two decades of activism, abolished the supremacy of men in marriage, granting women and men equal rights in the family; raised the marriage age for women to eighteen; restricted polygamy; and removed degrading language against women, among other amendments. Another example includes the adoption of a domestic violence bill in Indonesia in that same year, which introduced important measures against sexual violence, including the criminalization of marital rape and sexual harassment. Also in 2004, a new penal code was adopted in Turkey, which contained over thirty-five groundbreaking amendments pertaining to sexual rights, transforming the discriminatory patriarchal approach of the law, eliminating articles that legitimized violations of sexual rights, removing references to chastity, morality, and shame, and adopting progressive definitions of sexual crimes (Amado, 2006; İlkkaracan, 2007). Following the new constitution in Tunisia, granting women and men equal rights in 2014, a law against sexual harassment was adopted in 2016 and a new comprehensive law against violence against women was adopted in 2017, including provisions on rape, domestic abuse, and harassment in public spaces (Houili and Levine-Spound, 2017). In the first half of the 2010s, hijras and transgender people were legally recognized as a third gender in South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Legal provisions allowing rapists to escape punishment in the event that they marry their victims have recently been abolished in Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia as well.

Backlash and the Continuing Struggle for Sexual Rights

While promising, most of these legislative reforms have shortcomings and fail to completely safeguard sexual rights and the implementation of laws remains a major challenge. Furthermore, in numerous cases, the reformed laws have met not just resistance but threats of backlash, undermined by conservative governments, discriminatory court rulings, and attempts to counter such advancements with new legislative or procedural measures. A recent example of such a backlash is from Turkey, where the same political party in government that repealed the Penal Code article allowing a rapist to marry his victim in 2004, tried to bring back a similar amendment to the Penal Code in 2016. The amendment was repealed after widespread protests and opposition from all parts of society (BBC News, 2016). Another significant example is from Indonesia, traditionally a very tolerant Muslim country for LGBTQI people, where threats against LGBTQI individuals and organizations have increased drastically (Human Rights Watch, 2016, 2018).

The Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR)

Activists and scholars from all around Muslim societies have been engaging at local, national, regional, and global levels not just to eliminate sexual rights violations, but also to proactively promote these rights. One illustrative example of such an initiative is the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR). CSBR is committed to linking all these levels as an international network working explicitly on the issue. The solidarity network comprised of NGOs and academic institutions in the Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Central Asia undertakes research, advocacy, and activism to promote sexual and bodily rights with a holistic and affirmative approach, employing an innovative discourse, rejecting both patriarchal, oppressive, and hegemonic discourses within Muslim societies and reductionist or Islamophobic views of the West.

CSBR was initiated in 2001, only a few weeks after 9/11, at a landmark symposium titled “Women, Sexuality and Social Change in the Middle East and the Mediterranean,” organized by Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR)—New Ways. Participants at this first meeting on the issue in the region included NGO representatives and academicians in the Middle East and North Africa working on sexuality, who agreed on the need for solidarity and joint efforts to challenge the intricate mechanisms of control and break the taboos around sexuality, and to promote sexual rights. In 2004 CSBR expanded to South and Southeast Asia to become a bi-regional network, also working on the international level. With member organizations from sixteen countries to date, CSBR continues to be unique in its scope, multidisciplinary character, and holistic approach. The coalition organized the first international high-level meetings on sexual rights in countries like Turkey, Indonesia, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Malaysia, and its members have spearheaded or participated in all national advocacy efforts for furthering sexual rights with the support of the coalition. In an effort to build knowledge and extend advocacy in the field, since 2008 the coalition has organized the CSBR Sexuality Institute, most recently held in Central Asia, with a holistic curriculum combining religious, historical, theoretical, and conceptual frameworks of sexuality with emerging issues, contemporary discourses, and field experiences. On the annual 9 November CSBR “One Day One Struggle” (ODOS) campaign, member organizations and supporters hold simultaneous demonstrations and activities relevant to sexual rights issues on their national and local agendas, ranging for instance in 2017 from harassment in public spaces in Malaysia, UN Sustainable Development Goals and LGBTIQI rights in Turkey, media coverage on gender issues in Bangladesh, experiences of transgender individuals in Indonesia, and bodily autonomy and self-expression in Kyrgyzstan (CSBR, 2010; CSBR website; CSBR, 2017).

CSBR has also engaged in groundbreaking advocacy efforts at the United Nations (UN) in alliance with the global women’s and sexual rights movements. It was the first group from Muslim societies to call for the recognition of sexual rights as human rights at the Arab Population Forum in 2004; urge governments to take necessary measures to ensure gender equality, including the right to sexual and bodily integrity, at Beijing+10; and underline how taboos and the politicization of issues around sexuality are major hindrances to the prevention of HIV/AIDS at the 2006 UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS.

But perhaps beyond all these activities, the discourse of CSBR has been even more vital and transformative in promoting a new affirmative, interdisciplinary, cross-movement understanding of sexual rights in Muslim-majority countries. CSBR adopts an inclusive approach to sexuality, including the rights of all nonconforming sexualities—LGBTQI or people who fall outside the patriarchal social order—taking into consideration all social constructs and norms, as well as the political and economic forces regulating sexuality. Positioning itself beyond the sexual and reproductive health paradigm and underscoring the centrality of a rights-based approach, the coalition works for the recognition, protection, and respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms related to sexual and bodily rights in the political, economic, social, cultural, and civil—or any other—fields, for all peoples (Amado, 2006; İlkkaracan, 2012; CSBR website).


Sexuality remains central to the broader political and social struggles in Muslim societies. The religious right and the ideologues of political Islam, in their bids to gain political legitimacy and power have placed the construction of an “Islamic” sexual identity at the top of their agendas. They employ various methods to construct the “Islamic” version of sexuality, leading to an escalation of sexually repressive practices and discourses in many Muslim societies. The rise of the religious right has also increased the threat to individual women, and the women’s and LGBTQI groups’ demands for sexual autonomy.

Thus, the struggle for sexual rights in Muslim societies, as throughout the globe, is far from over. However, as many scholars have demonstrated, Islam is open to positive interpretations of sexual rights and does not sanction discrimination. Work of activists throughout the last decades reveals that creating intrinsic and inclusive discourses and sustaining advocacy efforts contributes to a wider acceptance and affirmation of sexual rights of all individuals including women and nonconforming sexualities in Muslim societies.


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