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Samir Ben-Layashi
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.


Muslim women's sexuality is typically debated, in academic literature, either with respect to family honor and shame or in a lesbian context. Women are seldom given the opportunity to speak or write trivially about their bodies, sexuality, and physical pleasures in candid and banal ways. It has been only recently that some exceptions to this discursive tradition began to emerge, especially in the field of fine literature and other creative artistic writings, for example, the writings of Ahlam Moustaghanimi and Joumana Haddad.

In the mid-1970s, academic literature began to take interest in “Muslim sexuality” in general, with a clear emphasis on Muslim women's sexuality. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba showed how women in Muslim societies practiced their sexuality with relative freedom in the “Golden Age” of Islam. In a similar way, Fatima Mernissi explained, based on her experience in a bourgeois household in the city of Fez, how Moroccan women try frequently to transgress the sexualized boundaries and challenge the gender segregation and control over women and their sexualities imposed by tradition and some false aḥādīth. Both authors call for a return to the origins of Islam to look for some essence of “Islamic feminism,” as Mernissi called it, while Bouhdiba termed the same period the age of “sublimed sexuality.” Both approaches tend to a certain essentialism.

Islamic canonical texts, in general, promote licensed sex within marriage and recognize that the purpose of sex is not restricted to procreation, as conjugal pleasure is also taken into account. There is almost no Islamic canonical text that deals with female sexual pleasure as a value in and of itself outside the framework of marriage or independently from the tutorship of a man, whether father, husband, elder brother, or other male guardian. Polygyny in the sunnah and zawaj al-mutʿa (literally, marriage of pleasure) in the Shīʿī tradition are the only licit conjugal institutions that allow some “sexual mobility” in which men have more opportunity than women to have sex without being committed to procreation. To allow sex without the restraint of procreation, contraception has been always tolerated in Islam, both in its more primitive forms, such as coitus interruptus, (ʿazl) and its scientific medical forms, for example, birth control pills, male and female condoms, vaginal ring, the cap or diaphragm, and other methods, including abortion.

For men as for women, zinah (sexual activity outside of marriage, whether fornication or adultery) is categorically forbidden and severely punished, at least de jure. Lesbianism is not regarded as zinah, as it is outside the equation of licit/illicit. There is a flagrant similitude between the canonical Islamic sources and popular discourse concerning the silence that enveloped the subject of sexuality. In practice, as with homosexuals, hermaphrodites (Khuntha), and effeminate men, lesbians are tacitly tolerated on society's margins.

A woman's virginity is a major consideration for marriage, and early marriage is encouraged to avoid zinah and illicit relationships. Teenage girls are not encouraged to engage in romantic relationships because of the risk that it would lead them to sexual and/or romantic relations that could cause them to lose their virginity. Regardless, the practices of everyday life in a given Muslim society are far from the puritan regulations prescribed by Sharīʿah texts, the burden of tradition, and the authority of men. In the 1990s, several academic monographs, aware of the dissymmetry between the religious statutes and Muslim women's sexuality as it was practiced in everyday life, tried to bridge this gap. In addition, Judith Tucker's study, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, showed the darker aspects of the modernization process and how the introduction of new technologies in Egypt exposed women to slavery (including sexual exploitation), rather than liberating them from it.

Sexuality, Gender, and Islamic Feminism.

Women's status and their sexuality in Muslim societies are determined by several factors: (1) how space, time, labor, and capital are divided and gendered; (2) the factuality of biology that men are physically stronger than women; (3) the banality of the practices of everyday life; and, only then, (4) what God and other Islamic texts say. The last factor becomes significant when women have recourse to justice, religious authority, or the state in general, as arbiter in issues related to Personal Status or Family Law, including divorce, child custody, adultery, rape, conjugal betrayal, marital rape, and other domestic conflicts.

Women in Muslim societies face many difficulties in speaking out about their sexual practices outside private feminine space. Usually, symbolism and metaphors replace straightforward language, which is qualified as shameful. The sexual linguistic limits concerning sexuality may be illustrated in the North African tradition, which survived until the mid-twentieth century: A woman who had been forced into sodomy by her husband would go to a qāḍī, take off her shoes, and put one shoe on the other on the floor, displayed before the court, the jury, and the audience, providing a symbolic gesture to replace the “rude” and “choking” words that a woman could not pronounce in public.

The language of sexuality in Arab-Muslim societies is more masculine than feminine, rendering sexuality as gendered as the language itself. There are some words, expressions, sentences, and phrases that are specific to men and others that can be pronounced only by women. Usually, when the sexual semantic field is evoked and sexuality is spoken about in proper terms, it is to designate subjects other than sexuality itself. Anthropologists and ethnologists who have tried to focus on sexual practices in Arab-Muslim societies find it very difficult to have people (especially women) speak in a direct way about their sexual practices, including favorite positions, oral sex, masturbation, orgasm, and other aspects. The same difficulty is confronted by women ethnologists working on women's sexuality, even when these ethnologists are originally from the same societies under study, such as in the case of the contributors of L’Année du Maghreb, 2010, which was devoted entirely to sexual practices in cotemporary North African societies. The conclusions and deductions that the scholars reached in this study were achieved in indirect ways, either by observations or interpretations of some acts, words, and behaviors. This does not mean that the language is lacking words, terms, and adjectives to describe sexual acts and practices, but that what is needed in Arab-Muslim societies is something to enable men and women to speak of their sexual practices in medical terms or in a clinical way.

The “genderfication” of the sexual semantic field in Arab-Muslim societies is accompanied by another gendered division of space and time that is also dictated by societal “logic.” Thus, the indoors are reserved for women, outdoors for men, housework for women, outside work for men, public space for men, private space for women; nighttime is not for women, and both daytime and nighttime are for men. These divisions are always challenged, contested, and transgressed by the conditions of the societal milieu (urban/rural, agrarian/industrial), ecological factors (nomadic/sedentary/transhumance), the necessities of modern life, and the will of women to emancipate their “Self.”

The 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed the emergence of several feminist activist voices, from outside as well as from within Muslim societies, which asked for parity between men and women, equality between sexes, and political recognition of “deviant” identities that stem from “illicit” sexual relations, for example, male and female homosexuality. Thus, several studies have tried to understand the impact of these movements on their societies, while others turned directly to study societal phenomena that were regarded as deviant and taboo. The trend took advantage of the fact that the 1990s were the heyday of the American academic and ideological movements of feminism, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, subaltern studies, and postcolonial theory. Many of these methodologies and theories were imported into the field of Middle Eastern Studies, granting the researchers and scholars, foreign and locals who ventured into the field, a sophisticated analytic arsenal. The latter was/is an efficient method to argue for liberating bodies and freeing identities that were born from all kinds of “deviant” or “illicit” sexual relationships.

The 1990s feminist wave also opened up venues for sensitive topics and subjects that were and still are considered as taboo (e.g., homosexuality, masturbation, oral sex, eroticism, pornography, sadomasochism, virginity, women's sexual desire), not only in academic literature, but also in the popular press, mass culture, yellow press, digital communications technologies, and social networks. Thus, several daily newspapers in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon, added supplements of “sexual education” where youngsters could ask questions about their sexualities and have them answered by professional sexologists and psychotherapists, a trend that witnessed a large popularity, not only among youth, but also among their parents who felt the need, like their children, to understand their sexuality. This sociopsychological situation reached its apogee with the emergence in 2008 in Beirut, Lebanon, of the first erotic magazine Jasad. Jasad was founded by a young intellectual Lebanese woman, Joumana Haddad. The articles, which bear the real names of the authors—no pseudonyms are allowed—are in Arabic because sex and sexuality are typically debated in today's Arab-Muslim societies in foreign languages, namely English and French.

In this vein, on the level of academic discourse, several interesting studies on women's sexuality—not necessarily on lesbianism, shame and honor, or prostitution—have been published. The aim behind them is to understand women's sexuality and the place, in private and public space, of women's bodies in contemporary modern Arab-Muslim societies. One of these studies was Sexuality in the Arab World. Based on a conference held at the American University of Beirut, some chapters of the book attempt to address the subject with an anthropological approach, for example, how women live, practice, and talk about their sexual practices in everyday life.


  • Abu-Lughod, Lila, ed. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • L’ Année du Maghreb. “Dossier: Sexe et sexualités au Maghreb.” Essais d’Ethnographies Contemporaines.” 6 (2010).
  • Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Baron, Beth. “Women, Honour and the State: Evidence From Egypt.” Middle Eastern Studies 42, no. 1 (2006): 1–20.
  • Beaumont, Valérie, Corinne Cauvin Verner, and François Pouillon. “Sexualité au Maghreb.” L’ Annee de Maghren 6 (2010): 3–14.
  • Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. Sexuality in Islam. Translated by Alain Sheridan. London: Saqi Books, [1975] 1998.
  • Charrad, Mounira M. States and Women's Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: California University Press, 2001.
  • Haddad, Joumana. I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. London: Saqi Books, 2011.
  • Jasad Magazine. www.jasadmag.com.
  • Khalaf, Samir, and John Gagnon. Sexuality in the Arab World. London: Saqi Books, 2006.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Shenkman, 1975.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Sex, Idéologie, Islam. Casablanca: Edition Tierce, Le Fennec, 1984–1985.
  • Mosteghanemi, Ahlam. Memory in the Flesh. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2003.
  • Mussalem, Basim F. Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control before the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Naamane-Gessous, Soumaya. Au-delà de toute pudeur: La sexualité feminine au Maroc. Casablanca: Edition Eddif, 1991.
  • Najmabadi, Afsaneh, ed. Women's Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.
  • Omnia, El Shakry. “Barren Land and Fecund Bodies: The Emergence of Population Discourse in Interwar Egypt.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37 (2005): 360–361.
  • Paidar, Parvin. Women and Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Saad Khalaf, Roseanne. “Breaking the Silence: What AUB Students Really Think about Sex.” In Sexuality in the Arab World, edited by Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon, p. 187. London: Saqi Books: 2006.
  • Tucker, Judith E. Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, pp. 164–193. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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