Women are encouraged to be submissive and chaste to avoid unwanted sexual attention, men are encouraged to be outgoing and are praised for wilfully scoping out the market of women (and I say market because the construction of sexual politics positions women as desirable objects or goods that must be thoroughly examined for flaws and breakages before purchasing)… It seems that there are unspoken rules that construct and dictate how the sexual conduct of each gender is to be dealt with in the South Asian, Muslim community and thus has emerged generations upon generations of double-standards.
I can’t pretend that the stated community aren’t obsessed with the sexual behaviour of women. We are OBSESSED to the point that a self-proclaimed religious preacher even promoted a marriage course by advertising that it could help to ‘find out if she is a virgin,’
and some communities in South Asia still make women go through ‘virginity tests’ prior to marriage or report whether she felt pain and bled during the first night of marital sex. To make matters worse, these horrid rituals are perpetuated through religion even when they are wholly un-Islamic. In Islam, men are not allowed… I repeat, NOT ALLOWED to even question the sexual history of a woman or demand evidence of virginity. In Islam, an accusation or slander against a woman must be testified by four witnesses to even be considered. (Qur’an, Surah Al-Nur, 24:4)
Lest we forget that the same holy book dedicates an entire chapter to women!
But the authentic discourses of religion are overlooked. Cultural narratives still perpetuate patriarchal discourses through religion and continue to gloss over the rights that Islam enables women to have.
To ensure that the supposed requirements of chastity are met, women are threatened with cultural notions such as izzat or are spoon-fed with religious verses that have been taken out of context and skewed by misogyny. It’s almost like leaping right into 18th-century drama with all the talk of chastity and female conduct. But this is here and now. Hence, relationships, mixed interactions, sexual relationships all happen behind closed doors.
But there is a stark difference between the consequences for men and the consequences for women when their sexuality comes into public light. As a male, you can have girlfriends and parade your personal life without question. People might gossip, but the likelihood of your freedoms being revoked because of your conduct are slim. For women, well… it goes a little something like this: if you have the privilege of being born male, then you are responsible for your actions and their consequences. But, if you are a female then your actions entail consequences for your family, your future, your likelihood of retaining freedoms and finding a good spouse because you are putting your family’s izzat on the line.
Women face oppression and being ostracised from the community, men face a telling off at the most and then acceptance.
Is it there any wonder why women are chastised for the very behaviour that men are praised for in the South Asian Muslim community when we actively encourage a difference in treatment for the same actions in almost every society?
Sexual politics can be difficult to navigate in any conversation but as a South-Asian Muslim woman, it would probably be easier to swallow flames than to talk about sexuality and gender inequality. I’ve met women who are afraid to talk about cases of sexual abuse because of not being believed or simply having their problem blamed on female promiscuity. Women could say “I have been sexually assaulted”, but the community would hear “A man has offended the honour of my family” or “my daughter has dishonoured us by having sex before marriage even though it was not consensual and had nothing to do with virginity!” I’ve met women who are terrified of introducing potential suitors to the family because of the fear of community-created assumptions about the nature of their relationship. Inequality is inevitable when women are inherently treated with suspicion and men are granted a pass to freedom.
Patriarchal discourses asserting cultural practices as religious ones have a direct correlation to the concept of honour systems, and the reverberations of honour-based crime are almost unthinkable. These practices are not to be mistakenly tied to any religious or ethnic group, they are rife in many communities and are reflective of underlying misogynistic societies. Even though both men and women are affected by honour-based violence and crime, most honour victims are female and an overwhelming amount of cases involve South Asian victims.
Being South-Asian and Muslim are not to blame here, I’m merely acknowledging that as a female, South Asian Muslim, my intersecting identities have enabled me to notice gender inequality first-hand and experience the troublesome nature of sexual politics that have affected women for generations and are still affecting many of us today.
Isn’t about time we talked openly about sexual politics?
(This post was also posted on Huffington Post.)