Islam and sexuality; how i learned a thing or two about it

Boys looking at girls looking at boys looking at girls – a teenage narrative

There’s nothing underneath the veil except Islam – Europe anno 2016

Cast of the veil of oppression and join the sexual liberation sister! – White women saving brown girls from brown men

 So here I am, a 33 year old man born of a Moroccan father and a Norwegian mother, the end result of a Christian woman and a Muslim man having….sex. There’s no two ways about that story, that’s how it was for me, that’s how it was for you, we are the product of that act. Now 33 years later I am sitting here trying to figure out how to write something sensible about Islam and sexuality in Oslo in 2016, but what can I say? Where should I start? With my mom and dad and their story or should I start with someone else’s story? Should I start with something academic and smart or anecdotal and polemical? Let me first start out by charting out my key points in this essay and how it relates to the question of Islam and sexuality in Oslo in 2016. My first key point that I want to touch upon is how sexuality and sex is a topic in any and every ethnic and religious group in Oslo today; it is policed and controlled by certain mechanisms and as such Islam is no different than any other religion, yes its control mechanisms are different but as any religion it has a broad range of effects, or rather there is great variety in terms of how strict and controlled sexuality is managed within the Muslim communities (communities in plural mind you!).

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Now the second point I want to briefly touch upon is the veil as fetish, a topic I myself distain but that I have to talk about in order to shed some light on how the veil, on both side of the divide,  minority and majority population alike has made this item into a mystical and strange piece of clothing. Its something that must be unveiled in order to be in synch with western sexuality, or it represents the totality of Islam, as if to be the metonym of an oppressive religion, leaving no space for sexual freedom or movement. Or it becomes a fetish of white men wanting to unveil, to see what’s underneath it and in the process mark off some sort of exotic conquest that they finally managed to check off some list in their imaginary world where Muslim women represents the last frontier of an Orientalist dream of sexuality, a theme that has historical roots way back into the colonial period.

The third point that I want to write about is the hypocrisy that is found amongst certain members of the Muslim community wherein there are different rules for sex and sexuality when it comes to men and women. Now this is true in the majority population as well, which is important to keep in mind when we talk about this, after all, the ways in which male and female sexuality has been regulated is well known by now in any cultural setting wherein men seem to enjoy more freedom, and where men are often both the agents that roam and at the same time police female sexuality. This seems to be no different in Islam, but what I want to point out is that we need to attack as a community this type of double standards wherein sexual freedom seems to be reserved for men whose rational and reasoning for allowing themselves to enjoy more sexual freedom seems very spurious.

And the last point that I want to touch upon is that to write this kind of essay, no matter how good or bad my own writings on the topic can be, is an important corrective for the debate on Islam and its compatibility with so called western norms. The majority population needs to hear that sexuality and sex is just as much a part of the everyday lives of Muslims who live in Oslo today as the often hypersexual discourse that circulates in Oslo today. Sexuality needs to be fronted as a topic where we in fact see many commonalities between religious groups. The unwillingness to talk about Islam and sexuality is in itself a symptom of this very discourse wherein Muslims are relegated to mere automatons who act according to some cultural and religious scripts and this script seems to be devoid of sexuality and when sex is debated it is always talked about in the negative; patriarchy, oppressive behaviors, etc. Now its also important to talk about this within the Muslim communities as it also acts as a way of talking about something we all know happens all the time; sex. The communities themselves need to in my view; to be more vocal about this topic as it would I think, lead to more openness and sharing of experiences that would in turn combat unfair and unjust structures within the communities themselves.

Now let me start with my high school years and what I learned there in terms of Islam and sexuality.

Muslim by Day, Disco by Night

So when you are 17 or 18 your hormones are raging, this is just a fact of life. Such is the body, the body is destiny and man or God, has instilled many a way of regulating this. But when you are in high school you feel this. I have felt it, you have felt it. You know what I am talking about, that first glance that a girl gave you, or that first comment of kindness that that guy gave you. Or that hand that caressed your hand that one day when you were 17. More explicitly, you remember that first time you felt attracted to a girl, or a boy, that first time you wanted to touch or be touched, kiss or be kissed. No matter religion, this has happened and will happen. I for one learned this when I was in high school, I also learned that a lot of the urban myths of Muslim girls and their desires where just that, myths. The same with Muslim boys, mythical notions of piety and forbidden desires fall to the wayside when you are a teenager and we are all better off for it.

Anecdote number one: I was standing at a tram stop with a white, ethnic Norwegian friend of mine. Next to us were three girls, all wearing hijab. One of them couldn’t stop looking at my friend. I said “how about you going over and saying hi?” my friend responded by both blushing (we were 17!) and saying “no I can’t do that! She has a hijab on!” I reply “So? She is beautiful!” (to be fair I said “she is hot!”). My friend never walked over and asked for her number, even though she kept looking. Why?

Anecdote number two: years later, I am talking to a friend. She tells me the story of how one of her co-workers had given her a rant about the hypocrisy of young teenaged Muslim girls at the high school where his wife worked. The rant went something like this, and I am paraphrasing here: “So my wife tells me these stories about how these Muslim girls wear the hijab but still show cleavage and dress very sexual. I think that borders on hypocrisy. I mean why wear the hijab if they are going to dress so sexual?”

Why this statement by this gentleman? Why this either/or attitude towards these girls? Why is there a mismatch between the hijab and dressing sensually for this Norwegian man? To me this illustrate the naïve and black and white thinking that dominates ideas of Islam and sexuality on both sides of the divide; it avoids the issues of hybridity and just plain cultural adaption. Here we have girls who are obviously navigating both Muslim norms as well as so called Western norms of dress and sexuality. And why not? They are both. And perhaps the most important issue; they are teenagers who like any other teenagers want to be desired, liked, fit in, be loved, and be cared for. Now who is unable to navigate this brave new world? Not these girls, they are cultural savvy, they navigate and know both the codes of their Muslim religion as well as the Norwegian one. The dinosaur; the Norwegian man whose attitude betrays an unwillingness to understand that hybridity is here to stay. We are here to stay and so are girls with hijabs and cleavage, so are Muslim women with body tight pants and clothing. So are Muslim boys who play on sexuality and desire. So is interethnic relationship. The hijab has become an icon on both sides of the ideological and religious debate, but don’t be fooled, there is a human underneath, it is not the hijab that constitutes the girl, it is the girl that constitutes the hijab, and there you will find love, desire, pleasure, yearnings, and care. Think about that next time you think that you see a girl walking with a hijab.

Double Standards?

The second anecdote from my own life would be what I learned both in high school and continue to encounter from time to time; the double standard that seems to circulate from time to time in terms of what is allowed sexually for Muslim men and Muslim women. Before I go on I want to remark that this in itself is not a problem that Islam alone encounters, no the hypocritical attitude that we see in terms of men’s sexual freedom is a historical fact, a cross cultural fact that allows men to have more partners, more extra marital relationships, etc. So let that be in the back of your head when you read this, but since we are talking about Islam I will focus on what I find to be one of the things that put a splinter in my eye.

Growing up on the east side of Oslo you learn that there are different rules for men and women in terms of sex and sexuality; men, no matter ethnicity, are free, even encouraged to have an aggressive or at least more exploratory sex life. This goes for ethnic Norwegians as well as Muslim men. Now let the anecdotes come flying, and I know you already know what comes next; growing up I saw Muslim boys who hooked up with non-Muslim girls, which me being mixed Muslim and Christian, don’t have the slightest problem with. In fact I could by many of my friends be described as sexually liberal. So the splinter in my eye is not the amount of partners you have or even what and who they are, no, it is the terrible injustice it is to say “there are just different rules for men and women when it comes to sex and sexuality”. Or the classic “oh its messed up if a Muslim girl has sex before marriage or even worse if she hooks up with a white dude!” Does this give you some sort of flashback? Have you heard this? I think you have. I think you know exactly what I am talking about; the double standards wherein men are allowed to have long even pretty serious relationships with non-Muslim girls while the whole community is in a state of moral panic if a Muslim girl is caught with a white guy. Now you know what I talk about, that dirty (not really dirty, its actually pretty normal and frankly cute) secret that we all partake in but no one calls the men out on their double standards. Why not? Do not Muslim girls desire? Do they not yearn for the same as their fellow brothers? I bet you know the answers to this and I also bet you that you do agree. Why are we so silent about this? Why do we not speak about this? So many of us have seen or experienced it. It cant go on, it should not go on. But its up to us, as a community to end this. And if you, boy, love and respect your fellow sisters in Islam it is you who should be the first one to stand up and give the same freedoms that you accord to yourself. If not, well then we see you.

Concluding remarks; or as Salt-n-Pepa said “Let’s Talk About Sex Baby”

So why talk about Islam and sex? Well why not? It seems that we talk about everything else, from integration, freedom of speech, forced marriages, etc. but not the one thing that most of us feel, want, do, need, and experience. There are two main things that I want to say in conclusion to this; one is that I think its important to show the majority population that there is such a thing as sexuality with Islam. It is there. It is not just oppression, genital mutilation, and men with beards. No there are spaces of freedom, of lust, and of love; I think the majority population needs this just as much as the communities themselves needs to find, in dialogue with itself and the majority population, ways of dealing with, talking about and engaging with sexuality and sex in ways that are inclusive and just.

I am not advocating a Western liberal sexual policy here, even though there is room for that as well within any community. I am not here to unveil Islamic sexuality, leave that to the Orientalist white men whose sexual fetish is to see what’s underneath the veil, nor am I here trying to lean on established white feminism that wants to cast away the hijab in the name of liberation. No I am fully aware that there is a Muslim sexual discourse, parts of it oppressive, and other parts of wonderful and sensual. The question we must ask ourselves is; how can we as a community find our way so that desire and lust, love and care, can flow to and fro, between and betwixt us all in free, and just forms of sexuality?

I think the first step towards an inclusive and just discourse of sexuality comes in the simple words of Salt-n-Pepa; Let’s Talk About It…….

Tony Sandset is phd candidate at UiO and currently based in UC Berkeley as guest researcher

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