Until recently, it was assumed in the Christian Occident that men and women experience sex differently. The male was seen as actively undertaking the hunt, seduction, and violation, while the female was thought not to enjoy sex but only to endure it. Only lately, as the West moved further from Christian culture, did the idea gain currency that women too have active sexual desires. When one considers the Muslim reputation for backwardness, it is ironic to note that Islamicate civilization not only portrays the woman as sexually desirous, but sees her as more passionate than the man. Indeed, this understanding determined the place of women in traditional Islamdom.
In the Islamicate view, men and women are seen as partaking of the same sexuality. Both desire intercourse, during which their bodies undergo similar processes, bringing similar pleasures and similar physical climaxes. Unlike traditional Western views of the sexual act, as a battleground where the male exerts his supremacy over the female, Muslims see it as a tender, shared pleasure. Sexual gratification was celebrated by Abu'l-Hamid al-Ghazali (1050– 1111), whom many consider the key thinker of Islamicate civilization, as "a foretaste of the delights secured for men in Paradise" and as "a powerful motivation to incite men . . . to adore God so as to reach heaven." Sexual satisfaction leads to a harmonious social order and a flourishing civilization.
Unlike the traditional Western view that women do not enjoy sex, Muslims believe female desires to be yet greater than those of the male. Muslims often see "the woman as the hunter and the man as the passive victim" of her ardor; indeed, sexual needs make her the "symbol of unreason, disorder, the anti-divine force of nature and disciple of the devil." This view may derive from the woman's greater physical capacity for sex or it may go back to Muhammad's experiences. But whatever its origin, female sexuality is thought of as being so powerful that it constitutes a real danger to society. At the same time that Islamicate civilization encourages sexual satisfaction, it also considers unrestrained females the most dangerous challenge facing males trying to carry out God's commands (for it is the men who have the far heavier religious burden). In combination, their rampant desires and their irresistible attractiveness give women a power over men which rivals God's.
Left to themselves, then, men might well fall victim to women and abandon God. Fitna would result, that is, civil disorder among believers. Just as distress over the fitna between Muslim rulers characterized Muslim attitudes to politics, so did the fear of fitna dominate private life. "There is no tension between Islam and sexuality as long as that sexuality is expressed harmoniously and is not frustrated. What Islam views as negative and anti-social is the woman and her power to create fitna. " Revealingly, in Arabic, fitna is also the term for a beautiful woman, for "whenever a man is faced with a woman, fitna might occur." Muslim fears that female lusts would bring on anarchy leads Fatima Mernissi to put women on a par with harbis: "The Muslim order faces two threats: the infidel without and the woman within." If believers feel little distress about sex acts as such, they are obsessed with the dangers posed by women. "The whole Muslim social structure can be seen as an attack on, and a defense against, the disruptive power of female sexuality."
Two points follow from this, both crucial for modern times. First, Islamicate restraints on sexual activity are motivated more by a concern to preserve the social fabric than by moral considerations. Second, Islamicate society developed an array of institutional mechanisms for repressing female sexuality, a "whole system . . . based on the assumption that the woman is a powerful and dangerous being." Its principal elements were keeping women away from men, obstructing romantic love, and rendering females powerless. Islamicate civilization begins with the assumption that women will seduce any available men, and it structures society in such a manner as to prevent this from happening by creating separate spaces and reducing contact between the sexes. According to the Shari'a, a man and woman who are left alone together in private must be assumed to have engaged in sexual relations; therefore, everything must be done to prevent such situations from occurring. (These expectations are self-fulfilling, of course; Muslims who think they cannot control their sexuality may not even try to.) A physical separation of the sexes thus characterizes daily life in Islamdom; any man and woman considered potentially attractive to each other sexually are kept apart.
Islamicate civilization encourages women to stay indoors and holds up as an ideal the woman who has the servants, home facilities, and social stature so that she need not step outside for decades at a time. Any man who can afford to do so, keeps his women at home. The house itself is structured to keep women out of the way of unrelated men. Islamicate houses have walls on the outside and windows on inner courtyards, thus increasing privacy. Within the house, the harem separates the woman from male areas in the building into which unrelated men may enter.
The veil—"an expression of the invisibility of women on the street"—removes the female from the male space she traverses, for the outdoors belongs to men. As such, she is a trespasser:
A woman is always trespassing in a male space because she is, by definition, a foe. A woman has no right to use male spaces. If she enters them, she is upsetting the male's order and his peace of mind. She is actually committing an act of aggression against him merely by being present where she should not be. A woman in a traditionally male space upsets Allah's order by inciting men to commit zina [fornication]. The man has everything to lose in this encounter: peace of mind, self-determination, allegiance to Allah and social prestige."
Women should venture outside only for specific reasons, such as shopping, bathing, or visiting relatives.
If casual contacts between unmarried men and women threaten fitna, the equivalent danger among married partners is that of romantic love. It is possible that a man can become so consumed by passion for his wife that he might neglect his duties to God. "Heterosexual involvement, real love, is the danger which must be overcome"; Islamicate life therefore undermines the development of strong emotional ties between husband and wife. It reduces contact between them by sharply dividing their interests: men concern themselves with religion and work, women with house and family. The wife usually does not eat with her husband, she does not accompany him outside the house, nor do they spend time with their children together. The husband's wide powers over his wife unbalances their relationship; she is often more his servant than his companion. He can repudiate (divorce) her without notice, or he can marry another woman. Polygyny reduces the probability of developing a single strong bond. Arranged marriages, especially between older men and young girls, reduces the likelihood of companionship. The strength of feeling between mother and son often obstructs relations between the son and his wife; and the latter in turn looks to her son for the fullest emotional bond. To the extent that Islam had an influence, it causes spouses to spend little time together and to reduce their emotional bonds.
Powerlessness also serves to contain a woman's ability to threaten the bases of society. A husband can divorce his wife at will; but to divorce him, she must plead her case before a male magistrate and convince him to pressure the husband to grant her a divorce, for she herself cannot undertake legal action against him. A woman acts through a male guardian, her father, husband, brother, or another relative. On her own, she may not travel or work. She even depends on her guardian to get married; in many Islamic wedding ceremonies it is not a man and a woman who make vows to each other but two men, the groom and the bride's guardian. The guardian can annul a marriage she contracts without his permission. The Shari'a values her testimony in court at about half a man's (putting her on a par with slaves and non-Muslims). Other signs of powerlessness include virilocality, the custom of having the wife move to the husband's family, where his interests overwhelm hers, and patriliny, stress on the importance of sons and on physical paternity. Thus, "all sexual institutions (polygamy, repudiation, sexual segregation, etc.) can be perceived as a strategy for containing [female] power."
On the whole, Muslims lived up to the Islamic ideals for male-female relations; and they worked. "The traditional coherence between Muslim ideology and Muslim reality" in matters sexual gave the umma a satisfaction in private matters that was lacking in the public ones. Men did devote more attention to God on the whole than to women, but this required constant vigilance; the fear always persisted that women might break out of their restrictions, lure men away from the Shari'a, and ruin the community. These fears multiplied when Islamdom fell to European control.
Western patterns of male-female relations during recent centuries nearly always conflict with the Islamicate ones, creating a gulf between Islamic ideals and Muslim realities. Westerners do not divide the world into male and female spaces: women go about visible to men, they share the entire house, and they do not shy away from windows facing on the street. Men and women mix socially and adults often find themselves alone with a member of the opposite sex. Keeping women indoors is not an ideal, but romantic love is, encouraging strong bonds between husband and wife. Monogamy, more cumbersome divorce laws, the nuclear family, and marriage between partners of about the same age also encourage the conjugal unit. Western women gradually won legal equality with men, gaining the right to live, work, travel, and marry as they wished. Recent developments in the West go even more directly contrary to Islamicate ways: female tourists traveling alone in Islamdom, mixed bathing in hotels and resorts throughout Islamdom, scanty swim suits, fashionably tight clothing, toleration of public displays of affection, sexual innuendoes in advertising, and pornography in books, movies, and video cassettes. Each side tends to see the other's practices as barbaric: if Western promiscuity appalls Muslims, King 'Abd al-'Aziz of Saudi Arabia's three hundred wives shock Westerners no less. These differences are not haphazard, but arise from a basic contrast between the Christian and Islamic religions: the stress on ethics versus the stress on laws. Controls on sexual activity directly reflect this difference.
The West restricts sex primarily by imbuing men and women with standards of morality and enforces sexual inhibitions through a "strong internalization of sexual prohibitions during the socialization process." Christians have long associated sex with wickedness. "The internalized ethics of premarital chastity and postmarital fidelity will ordinarily suffice to prevent abuse of their liberty through fornication or adultery whenever a favorable opportunity presents itself." Among Westerners for whom the old morality no longer holds, new ethical and personal considerations take its place; although more lax, these too usually restrict sexual activity to a small percentage of possible opportunities.
Muslims, in contrast, depend on "external precautionary safeguards" to restrain the sexes, "secluding their unmarried girls or providing them with duennas or other protective escorts when they go out in public, and to check adultery by such external devices as veiling, seclusion in harems, or constant surveillance." As has been seen, rather than instill internalized ethical principles, Islam establishes physical boundaries to keep the sexes apart and punishes transgressions harshly, making it extremely difficult for unmarried persons of the opposite sex to meet, especially in urban areas. Whereas Western civilization relies on private guilt to deter misdeeds, the Islamicate depends on feelings of public shame.
This difference creates problems for people who look to the sacred law for guidance in daily life, for they often lose their bearings when confronted with internalized ethical restraints. Accustomed to the innumerable regulations of the Shar'i way of life, Muslims expect to be checked by their environment. Not surprisingly, Muslims of both sexes who find themselves in Westernized circumstances often misunderstand the ground rules, interpreting the freedom there as license to do what they please; this can lead to unacceptable behavior. Thus might a Muslim man misunderstand the apparent availability of Western women and be astonished by their outraged reactions to his advances.
Western practices invariably attract some Muslims, including women who want the freedom and rights of their Western counterparts and men lured by the excitement of greater contact with women, both spatially and emotionally. (It might be noted, however, that Muslim men often expect to keep their old power intact.) Others deeply fear the effects of Western influences: for fundamentalists, bringing the sexes together threatens to undermine the male ability to keep the Shari'a; non-fundamentalists see the problem in more diffuse, Islamicate ways—yet for all, unregulated contact between men and women threatens the foundations of communal life. Resistance to Western influences has less to do with morality than with fears of unleashed forces that would destroy Islamicate society. Reluctance to accept Western ways is thus inspired mostly by political concerns and Muslims see "any change in male-female relations [as] a threat to the Umma's strength." Apprehension about the political dimension of relations between the sexes permeates Muslim life. Thus, a Moroccan man wrote in a letter to a counseling service in 1971, describing the difficulties he faced marrying the woman he loved: "I cannot conceive of my life without this girl anymore and if I try to part with her I might find myself in a situation which is dangerous not only for me but for the Muslim Umma as well, and for the Muslim religion too." When a scandal involving factory girls posing for nude pictures came to the attention of the chief minister of Selangor State in Malaysia, he responded by calling it a matter "as dangerous as communism and the threat posed by criminals."
Western influences on relations between the sexes affect much more than personal life; by undermining the Islamicate order as much as any political ideology they cause many Muslims to fear everything connected to the West and modern life. The West poses not just an external threat as the infidel; it also erodes Islamicate mechanisms for coping with the internal threat, woman.
Western antinomianism has similar effects in other areas of private life too, eroding Shar'i prohibitions on pork, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and interest. Muslims who abandon the law often do not replace it with a code of personal ethics but allow themselves unrestrained gratification. Mistaking freedom for license and personal ethics for indulgence, some lapsed Muslims then go on to disregard even more basic moral precepts, such as those concerning trust, respect, and honesty. These habits understandably give Western customs a bad name. The amorality of non-observant Muslims confirms the determination of pious Muslims to live strictly by the Shari'a, splitting Muslim societies into two factions, the fundamentalists and the Westernized, the religious and the anti-religious, the moral and the amoral, the self-controlled and the hedonistic. Only a few persons (and most of them tend to come from the upper classes) find a place in the Western-style middle niche of ethical but non-religious behavior. Unlike the political arena, where many Muslims settle in the fuzzy middle ground of reformism, private styles are polarized, dividing and destabilizing the umma.