The Question

Why are silence, immobility, and obedience the key criteria of female beauty in the Muslim society where I live and work? Imam Ghazzali, when he was explaining the Muslim theory of marriage in his famous work, The Revival of the Science of Religion, had to define the ideal woman. He described her as follows:

On the whole, regarding the proper conduct for a wife, one can say, in brief, that she must remain in her private quarters and never neglect her spindle. She must not make frequent trips to the balcony nor spend her time gazing down from there. Let her exchange but few words with her neighbors and not go to visit them.[1]

He goes on to sketch the picture of the woman that the Muslim man must absolutely avoid as a wife — that is, the woman who represents the opposite of the ideal of desirability. One of the most serious faults that she might have, according to him, is that she might be shaddaka, that is, she might talk a lot. So why are silence and immobility — the signs and manifestations of inertia — the criteria of beauty in the Muslim woman?[2] What does beauty have to do with the right to self-expression? Why, according to the canons of beauty in Islamic literature, does a woman who does not express herself excite desire in a man? Is it a fact of secondary, negligible importance, or is it a fact with a deep significance and implications that go far beyond just the sexual field and are intertwined in fields considered separate and distinct, such as the political field? Is it a secondary, superficial fact that a Muslim man's esthetic admiration and desire is for a silent woman — one deprived of power and the right to self- expression — or is this a fact that determines his choices and his political behavior at the subliminal, unconscious level? (And the more unconscious it is, the more strongly determining it is!) Is it a »purely« sexual fact that the ideal of female beauty in the Muslim cultural order specifies silence, spatial immobility (seclusion), and obedience as the qualities that are supposed to excite male desire and produce pleasure? Is this ideal unconnected with what excites the same man and produces pleasure for him in political affairs? This book attempts to throw light on these questions, not by giving an answer, but by trying to point out the elements of an answer. It undertakes to decode the messages that the Muslim cultural order has tattooed on the female body, using two discourses that have only one thing in common — the fact that they are defined as having no link to each other. These are the erotic discourse and the legal discourse. The legal discourse — that is, Islamic legality, which structures the Muslim world and its beings through its laws — is the discourse of power and legitimacy. It has a monopoly on the definition and organization of reality and on the evaluation of its component elements.
According to the Islamic legal discourse, no other discourse has the right to define reality, and this is the tragedy of the Muslim progressive movements. The Left and its discourses carry no weight as long as the Islamic legal discourse asserts and claims its monopoly on the definition of reality.
The erotic discourse, on the other hand, is distinguished from the Islamic legal discourse by its not claiming to define reality, by its eminently antipower character. The erotic discourse claims to be the discourse of pleasure, and as we shall see, pleasure in the Islamic legal system is defined as an enemy of order. For legal Islam, pleasure is the generating force of subversion, and Muslim civilization is defined as an attempt to control pleasure. This book then proposes to analyze the messages which two supposedly antithetical discourses imprint on the female body: the Islamic legal discourse, the discourse of order and civilization; and the erotic discourse, the discourse of disorder and subversion.
We will attempt to discover whether the Muslim man changes focus when he passes from »the serious« (power) to the »nonserious« (pleasure), or if he remains hopelessly embedded in the same conceptual vein. Is pleasure, the erotic, an outlook different from that of power, the political outlook? Are the laws, concepts, and bases of erotic rapport different from the laws, concepts, and bases of political rapport? When a Muslim man consciously tries to detach himself from the political sphere and its laws and to turn to a woman to indulge in the delights of pleasure, does he change focus or not? (In this book, I am limiting myself to discussing solely heterosexual relationships.) Or to put it another way, what are the relationships between the political and sexual spheres in our Muslim society? It is a question that assumes great importance for me, a woman who is living, loving, working, and aspiring to happiness in a Muslim society, not only in the present, but also for the future. What are the policies that our Muslim governments — made up exclusively of persons of the male sex — might adopt in matters concerning sex? There has to be a clarification, a searching of the Muslim conscious and unconscious in order to see what is possible and what is probable and to define the limits of the impossible and the improbable.
This book is dedicated to the youth of both sexes of the Muslim countries, not because »older« people are not interested — alas, they are the ones who make the laws and govern the countries — but because the youth of Muslim countries are filled with ambition. They believe it is possible to remake the world, and they long to do so; this is their right, and it gives them their beauty and power. Through this book, which is the fruit of many long years of a mixture of pleasure and pain — and reflections on the two of them — I would like to make my contribution to going beyond the superficialities of the sexual and political discourses in which we have been submerged for almost a hundred years, ever since Kasim Amin's book, Woman's Liberation, appeared in the full flush of the Arab nationalist movement in the late nineteenth century.
The official statements on political and sexual matters in the Muslim societies are distressing, not simply because they are meager and lack substance, but above all because they are mechanically repeated. As an adult woman, I have heard them so much, have run into them so often in my daily search for freedom, dignity, and happiness that I feel nauseated when I hear the tedious introductory phase: »Since the seventh century, Islam has given a privileged place to woman. ...« It is a phrase that is usually followed by an avalanche of Koranic surahs and hadiths that a child of eight learns in a few hours and that we adults repeat in an offhand manner throughout our whole lives without ever thinking seriously about them.
Writing this book gave me a pleasure that I discovered as a child and that I call on as an adult to defend myself against oppression and stupidity: rearranging the elements of the given adult order into another pattern that suits me better. I believe that this is a pleasure that young people indulge in more often than »older« people, not because the young are »revolutionary« by some metaphysical determinism, but simply because they have no place in the Muslim societies as they are presently structured. They find themselves with no right to work or creativity; unemployment and terrorizing oppression constitute their present and their future. It is because the young people of both sexes in the Muslim countries are not offered even the illusion of a possible »place in the sun« that they are trying to remake the world. This book is a contribution to that remodeling of the world that is our destined task and the guarantee of our survival. I would like with all due modesty to define the field and the levels of the possible and the probable in the sexual domain — a domain that this book shows to be intimately linked to, if not overwhelmed by, the political domain. I would like to say to the young men formed in our Muslim civilization that it is highly improbable that they can value liberty — by which I mean, relating to another person as an act of free will, whether it be in bed, in erotic play, or in political debates in party cells or parliament — if they are not conscious of the political import of the hatred and degradation of women in this culture. I believe human beings are capable of making and remaking their own history and that it is possible for the men and women living in Muslim societies to change the course of history, to live better, to love better. Women are not fated to live as mutilated beings.

Reflecting about what we are is a necessary step in being able to change whatever that may be. In the pages that follow we will be reflecting about how we love and what we love. As Merleau-Ponty has so well put it: »Let us try to see how a thing or a being begins to exist for us through desire or love and we shall thereby come to understand better how things and beings can exist in general.«[3]
Through a number of works selected from our traditional heritage, belonging to different disciplines and cultural areas and having different aims and pretensions, we will analyze what it is that evokes the female body as an object of love and desire in the Muslim conscious and unconscious.