For most of my life, I avoided difficult questions that seemed to pit my gender against my religion. I could not truly wrap my head around everything from the permissibility of marrying four wives to the concept of “what the right hand possesses.” I knew in my heart of hearts that my love for Islam was stronger than any question that I had.
And so I chose not to ask, and to follow devotedly. After all – I would tell others haughtily – that is the very definition of faith (Deen).
I could not have been further from the truth. As Jeffrey Lang reminded us in the title of his book – “Even Angels Ask.” And as I struggled with my deen, I realized that I hit a religious plateau. I could not enhance my spirituality without going back to the questions that plagued me.
It was time to ask the difficult questions. It was time to have faith – in my faith.
The questions centered around the overall treatment of women – but specifically – around women’s sexuality.
The challenge has been that most of our Islamic scholars in the U.S. are completely focused on external relations. Despite having direct access to and openly admitting I am struggling with my faith, none of the scholars had the time for spiritual counseling. I discovered that there is a real threat of us mistaking outreach, interfaith and activism for spiritual growth. I found myself exploring these difficult, yet basic questions, alone. The primary support I received were from religious scholars based in Nigeria, Jordan, Morocco and UAE.
Repeatedly, it became clear to me: for me to truly be the Muslim woman I so desperately strived to be, I need to look at the shadows within our societies. And for me – the shadows centered around Islam’s view of a woman’s sexuality.
And so in the midst of working in conflict zones with a focus on conflict resolution and peacebuilding, I began to devour every book out there around both Islamic jurisprudence, as well as women’s sexuality overall.
And I was not disappointed. If anything, I was rewarded with the knowledge I knew instinctively from birth: any message from the Divine is going to be enlightened and transformative.
And such Islam has proven to be.
As Habeeb Akande, demonstrates in his book “A Taste of Honey,” a book that explores the art of lovemaking from a religious perspective, “Islam is a sexually enlightened religion which teaches that sensuality should not be devoid of spirituality.”
Through Akande’s book, I learned of the Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, who has studied this topic in depth. In his book, “La Sexualite en Islam (Sexuality in Islam),” he advises that it is within the duty of a pious Muslim “to help all other members of the ummah to become aware of the art of pleasure, to use it consciously, to benefit from it…to assume their bodies.”
The reality is that many Muslim-majority countries are embarking on these conversations. From Dr. Rohaya Mohammed in Malaysia to Dr. Heba Kotb in Egypt to Wedad Lootah in the United Arab Emirates — the question of Muslim women in sexuality is finding its way into public discourse.
Yet crickets are chirping on this topic for the mature Muslim woman in the American-Muslim public square.
Don’t get me wrong. We have our powerful women pioneers. I am not shy to admit I am standing on their shoulders and have benefitted from direct access to them at a very young age, clearly shaping my own path. We have been fortunate to have Karamah, founded by Azizah Al Hibri, lead the charge on Muslim women legal interpretations of Islamic knowledge. There have been pioneer organizations like the Peaceful Families Project founded by the late Shareefah Al Khateeb, and later under the leadership of Salma Abugideiri. Who knows who I would be without the access I had to these women, who at the end of the day were the ones to encourage me not to shy away from the difficult conversations. They gave me permission to question when my religion seemed to contradict me living an authentic life.
More recently HEART Women & Girls has taken on a pioneer role towards promoting sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities. All these are truly ground-breaking initiatives. As a proud board member of AltMuslimah, founded by Asma Uddin, I know that resources and funding remain limited. More is needed directly from the community to support these initiatives, as well as to replicate many many more.
The silence is for good reason. Whether it is the threat of violent extremism or the consistent barrage of Islamophobia attacks, there is a temptation to sideline this topic until better times. There is a legitimate fear that any criticism of the Muslim community will be fodder for more hate crimes, increased division and attacks.
It is a real predicament. Nonetheless, we cannot afford to ignore the most important parts of growth within our own society, especially around social justice issues. Maryum Saifee, a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting, activist and pillar of the American Muslim women’s movement explained to me, “Promoting sex positive education in our homes, and in our mosques demonstrates the power of being proactive, versus stuck in reaction. It also allows us as a community to focus on prevention. In a heightened context of anti-Muslim backlash, it is more important than ever for Muslims to be driving narratives promoting social justice from within our communities.” According to her, “This means speaking out against gender-based violence.” The recent controversy that led dozens of Muslims, Muslim leaders and influencers to condemn a Virginia Imam promoting female genital mutilation is a prime example. Not only did they speak out against the absurdity, but the community also issued an official statement and called for a nationwide education campaign. “If we don’t lead the narrative, others will,” Saifee says. “We need to be proactive by breaking the culture of silence on FGM and violence overall. And if we establish sex positive norms, the path for social justice does not have to be so treacherous.”
I could not agree more. In fact, 20 years in humanitarian work and peacebuilding brings me to the same conclusion – better times cannot be upon us until we talk about women’s sexuality.
And for women like me, it must be done within an Islamic framework, or there simply is no traction in how it applies to my daily life.
So I hope you will join me, as I continue to explore this topic, and I invite you to come Across Red Lines with me.
Manal Omar is Muslim Girl’s resident sex expert, and the CEO and founder of AcrossRedLines. Her column, Sex & The Divine, looks at comprehensive analysis intersecting religion, sexual education & research in order to provide resources specifically for Muslim women.