The control over women’s sexuality through restriction, coercion, violence or more complicated forms of political and social manipulation remains the most powerful tool of patriarchy in the majority of societies. Religion is often misused, both as an instrument of this control mechanism and as a cultural system, to legitimize the violation of women’s human rights. However, concentrating on the role of religion in constructing women’s sexuality without taking into consideration its interaction with the economic and political structures in a particular community can lead to erroneous conclusions.

Like many other religions, Islam does not have a static or monolithic tradition. Islam has interacted with sociopolitical and economic conditions at a particular time and geographic location in order to ensure its survival and power. In the process, it has not only absorbed the practices and traditions of the two other monotheistic religions born in the same territory, namely Judaism and Christianity, but also the pre-Islamic practices and traditions of the particular geographic location in which it has striven to survive and gain power as a cultural and political system. Thus, it is very difficult to define what is intrinsic to Islam in organizing sexual behavior. The issue becomes even more complicated when we look at the interaction of factors such as class and race with Islam at a particular time and place, which has led to different religious interpretations and practices. All of these factors often produce different schools of Islamic thought, some of which can exist even within the same community.

Discourses on sexuality in Islam often fail to consider differences in practices in different Muslim communities as well as the spaces of negotiability created by social taboos and silences related to sexual behavior.1 Nonetheless, even discourses based on an analysis of the Koran and the literature traditionally accepted as establishing the normative practices of Islam can lead to contradictory conclusions about the construction of women’s sexuality. On the one hand, Islam has recognized both women and men as having sexual drives and rights to sexual fulfillment. Eroticism is presented as a good in itself, both a foretaste of heaven and on earth a divinely ordained necessity for reproduction. Women, like men, are believed to experience orgasms. On the other hand, particularly in terms of sexual drives, males and females are construed as opposites, men as rational and capable of self control; women as emotional and lacking self-control. Female sexuality, if uncontrolled, is portrayed as leading to social chaos (fitna). Social order thus requires male control of women’s bodies and sexuality.2 However, the specific patriarchal mechanisms that are utilized to maintain this

1 For a more detailed critique of dominant discourses of ‘Islamic Sexuality’ in contradiction to existing practices in different Muslim communities, see Ayesha Imam’s chapter in this volume.

2 See, for example, Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society, (New York: Schenkman, 1975); Fatma A. Sabbah, Woman in the Muslim Unconscious (New York: Pergamon, 1984); Nawal El Sadaawi, The Hidden face of Eve: Women in the Arab World, 1980); Charles Lindholm, The Islamic Middle East: An Historical Anthropology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); Bruce Dunne, “Power and Sexuality in the Middle East”, Middle East Report, Vol. 28/206 (1998): 8-11.

control differ according to geographical location, time, class and race and depend on the economic and political realities of a given community.

The historical role of the interaction of Islam with specific socioeconomic and political systems in shaping women’s sexuality in different Muslim communities is still a relatively unexplored issue. Although the 1990’s witnessed a spurt of new research on women’s history and gender organization in Muslim societies, the accumulated knowledge is still too rudimentary to throw light on such a complex and sensitive issue as women’s sexuality. Even in recent decades, women’s own accounts on the issue have remained very rare. In most Muslim societies there is a striking lack of empirical data on sexual behavior, especially women’s.

In such a context, research on the official, religious and customary laws and practices that determine the organization of gender and the context of women’s sexuality in different Muslim societies could throw light on the ways religion is used to create and perpetuate the oppression and injustice women experience in these