A woman walks past a mural in Islamabad depicting women whose faces and hands were blackened by Muslim extremists. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The recent viral video of a sermon on the concept of Hoor (Houri) and statement correlating the Covid-19 pandemic with “women’s immodesty” in a live telethon address by the famous Pakistani preacher and Islamic scholar Tariq Jameel has generated an interesting debate and backlash on the sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies in Islam as it is practiced in Pakistan.

It is not an easy topic to argue about, as interpretations of Islam’s teachings on gender and sex are based on a variety of discourses. The groundbreaking work of Laila Ahmed, Lila Abu-Lughod and Saba Mahmood in this field is very important. However, there are numerous other discourses on the subject.

Given the broad theoretical paradigms and work of the above-mentioned scholars, the Dutch anthropologist Karin van Nieuwkerk has derived two types of discourses or frameworks. First is the orthodox discourse on gender and sexuality, which can be also termed as explicit theory. Second, the implicit theories of the sexuality as well as erotic discourses, formed around the female body and sexuality.

In the explicit religious discourses or theory the two sexes are seen as complementary. Men are the sole breadwinners and are strong, and in return women should be obedient and serve their husbands. Before marriage, they should keep their virginity intact and after marriage their loyalty, chastity and complete devotion to their husbands for social and economic security.

In the orthodox discourse, women are the weaker sex, and can be easily overpowered by men, so they need protection from men’s desires. Women’s desires are not considered as intense as those of men, therefore they cannot resist men.

Moreover, men’s sexual gratification is possible only in the legal framework of marriage, and not in zina, or illicit sexual intercourse.

Islam has defined a set of parameters and conjugal duties for women. It is mandatory for women to provide sex and reproduce and raise young. Women cannot refuse and must perform these duties to prevent their husbands from pursuing illicit sexual intercourse, immoral activities and marrying a second wife.

It must be noted that women’s powerlessness can be inverted if they manage to seduce men other than their lawful husbands. That is why orthodox scholars acknowledge the danger of the female power of seduction and urge men to avoid emotional attachments toward women.

Consequently, the implicit religious discourses or theory recognizes the disruptive potential of women that they can create fitna, or chaos due to sexual disorder in society.

Both men and women have active sexual natures and the sexual needs of females must be satisfied. According to the 11th-century Persian philosopher Al-Ghazali, the virtue of woman is the man’s duty; he has to gratify her sexual needs in order to save her virtue.

The implicit discourse about the fulfillment of sexual gratification falls under the domain of erotic discourses. Whereas explicit theory distinguishes the strong male desires and women as weaker sex, the implicit theory mentions the active nature of sexuality of both sexes. In addition, the erotic discourses describe highly aggressive female sexual behavior and insatiable sexual desires.

Importantly, we see a reversal of roles in the implicit erotic discourses, men as impotent and weak whereas women possess insatiable sexual passion and potential. However, in both discourses and theories women’s bodies are highly sexualized and reduced into sexual aspects, whether it is her legal husband or her implicit power to seduce other men.

Therefore, Laila Ahmed argues, in her work tracing the varieties of discourses in the history of Middle Eastern Arabic women, that in the Abbasid era, the term “woman” became synonymous to sexual slave, sexual object or commodity.

It is due to that fact that Islamic scholarship and Muslim scholars of that time such as Al-Ghazali defined women as sexual beings, which has had a great impact on Islamic law and its possible formulations even today.

Fatna Aït Sabbah, another notable scholar and anthropologist, holds that Muslim culture is ideologically blind to the economic dimensions of women, and that this is because women are primarily conceived and perceived as sexual objects. She argues that this happened because the woman is traditionally the object of erotic investment, which has shrouded all other economic aspects and roles of women, and their working in a public place is often considered as an act of “erotic aggression.”

In brief, women are viewed as sexual beings, so whatever women do, they are mainly seen as tantalizing and enticing bodies. Unlike men’s bodies, a woman’s body has only one sexual dimension, whereas men’s bodies contain social, political and economic dimensions, and in the presence of female also a sexual dimension.

Even if she walks or works in the male space and indulges in any productive activity, it is perceived as an erotic invasion, and they are regarded as sexual beings. However, the concept of shame, honor and modesty are often associated with the bodies of women.

Thus to counter the growing political presence of women in Pakistan, the religious student bodies and right-wing parties propelled innovative alternatives such as Haya Day, Sister Day, Haya March vis-à-vis the observance of Valentine’s Day, Women’s March and Women’s Day. Interestingly, different Pakistani universities and educational institutes have also introduced new rules and regulations about dress codes for female students, regulating male-women space, and enforcing gender segregation.

Entertainment is a sensitive field for women to work in because of the central importance given to their bodies, and in strict religious terms female singing is haram (prohibited). In addition, dancing is considered a bodily expression and a sexual activity, even if she is fully covered.

In conclusion, the sexual moving of bodies is considered shameful for women and almost identical to prostitution. Decent women hide their shame, whereas a man who dances, moves and shakes his body is not regarded as shameful in orthodox discourses.

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Zahid Ali Shah

Zahid Ali Shah is a graduate of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His research interests include Orientalism, colonialism, post-colonial theory, race, ethnicity, nationalism, subaltern studies, decolonization, and transnational feminism.