I was deeply amused by Umm Zakiyyah’s recently published article entitled ‘Good Muslims Don’t Think About Sex’. The absurd reaction shown by the assistant teacher against an innocent little girl’s dream ‘to be a mommy ‘is a good and practical reminder to us that, in reality, there are still many Muslims out there who tend to overdo things and therefore hold such views.
I encountered a more or less identical experience during my teen years. Having been naive and young at that time, I became a victim of ignorance, believing that anything to do with sex was Islam’s greatest enemy and that as good Muslims, we had to suppress as much as possible any elements that could possibly bring sex into imagination or discussion. In most of the cases, women were the easiest and most vulnerable targets and scapegoats.
After leaving high school, I joined a short pre-university course at a local institution. Since it was a transit for further studies in the Arab world, all other participants came from a so-called religious educational background or religious schools.
I was the only one from a mainstream public school and without any formal Arabic language qualification. The only reason that made me end up there was purely interest and a newly discovered passion in Islam.
At a first glance, things appeared innocent enough, with the students displaying the typical enthusiastic ‘Islamic’ appearance: girls in their long hijab (called ‘tudung’ in Bahasa) and guys mostly in their small, white hats (called ‘kopiah’), which are usually a sign of piety or religiosity in our culture. I had long dreamed of having such Godly companions in life and so was very excited in the first few weeks. I must be in the right path, I told myself and my excessive eagerness to be ‘good’ made me observe them so closely in admiration, and cling to their every word.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
A month or so passed by and I began to sense something wrong. Some of these ‘Islamic’ students, especially the guys, were overdoing things. At first, I thought I was the one with insufficient Islamic knowledge and so it was better to keep my mouth shut, but with each day, I found my natural instinct as a human rebelling against their seemingly ‘Islamic’ practices.
In the class, we were indirectly told that Muslim girls were not supposed to be too active or vocal; asking the lecturer too many questions was inappropriate because pious Muslim girls should be quiet. Voice was an ‘aurah’ and could provoke sexual thoughts and so, keeping quiet was the safest thing.
If a friend of mine stood in front to present something, some guys would boo her and mock her from behind. If one of us talked too loudly by mistake, they would send us a note, giving a short religious sermon of how a Muslim girl should behave.
Delving deep into the issue to quench my thirst for the truth, I discovered that all those absurd ideas were shared directly or indirectly by the very teachers teaching in the so-called religious schools or madrasahs.
Girls especially, were brainwashed first into believing that they were the source of all evils and sexual misconducts and therefore, they had to be under control, to salvage humankind. Few friends shared with me their awkward experience at different Islamic schools where male students were so dominant and girls were constantly suppressed; the dress code was always very strict for girls. A slightest deviation from the standard code would render a female student’s reputation and honor at stake.
In one famous school, girls were expected to dress in certain colors: black, grey, white. In short, any dull color. Other colors or colorful dresses were considered sexually arousing and so forbidden. Trousers were a taboo, for the same reason. Red trousers were especially banned because they could be tempting to male students!
This Is Not Islam
What had gotten into these people’s minds? This could not be true, I kept telling myself. Nor does Islam support such ideas.
Of course, Islam emphasizes decency and chastity, forbids excessive and unnecessary mingling between men and women, and it prescribes a decent dress code for both men and women. But to interpret everything in Islam from a sexual point of view and to think that men-women relation was all and only about sex was a sign of ignorance. To treat women in such a way that they could not even express themselves or choose what color of dress they could wear,even while following the Islamic dress code, was a sign of danger and extremism.
To treat women in such a way that they could not even express themselves or choose what color of dress they could wear,even while following the Islamic dress code, was a sign of danger and extremism.
Worse was the fact that those male students were actually in delusion and terrible deception; thinking that, as males,, they were naturally created as sexual beings and would immediately lose sanity at the very sight of women. If I were a male, I would in fact feel insulted to be perceived as sexual beasts that needed to control women in order to be in the right mind. A real Muslim man is surely higher than that!
I flew to Egypt months later and the same degree of confusion lingered around, if not worse. This time I came across a group of female students who literally put stones in their mouths while talking to men from behind the curtain. I asked why. They said the real female voice should not be heard as it could cause sexual excitement and corrupt men’s mind.
They read out a Qur’anic verse where God told the wives of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, not to speak in a soft and pleasing manner so as not to open any possible doors of evil for weak men. Some of them wore very big and loose long gowns with several layers of clothing inside in order to make sure that the body shape was not revealed.
To be more precise, it was not to conceal the body shape, but to make the body look bigger and a bit fatter than its actual size. Stories of rape and sexual harassment were commonly circulated among the female students to cause fear and hinder them from travelling without mahram or male representatives.
My multiple attempts to negotiate with myself to accept and neutralize their arguments miserably failed despite my newly-found craving for Islam. I realized most people were not thinking enough and hence, the easy inclination towards excessiveness. Living in a small community, which not only condoned but promoted those ideas, the short cut was to accept what other people had been following rather than to go against the flow.
I was no expert, but my simple understanding of the Islamic spirit and the faith I had in God somehow told me that Islam taught wisdom, simplicity, moderation and common sense. One does not have to overdo things to be pious on one hand, while over- simplifying is equally a blunder, on the other hand. It is the perfect and beautiful balance between the two that makes Islam appealing and practical for the whole of humankind.
Many ill-informed Muslims think that, by being very strict and harsh, they get closer to God. This is how negative qualities like being judgmental, overly suspicious and hatred or discrimination against women are bred.
This misconception also opens various doors to elements of extremism and subsequently, unwarranted retaliation and ill feelings, which eventually provoke enemies of Islam to ridicule the religion. While it is not true that Islam treats its women as passive, suppressed and dependent beings, there is sadly some truth in claims that some Muslim men and some ignorant Muslim communities handle women that way.
Perhaps if we can rediscover common sense, moderation and wisdom, which I believe have always been at the core of Islamic teachings, many doors of fallacy and mistaken belief about Islam will be automatically removed without us having to endlessly explain or apologize too much.
First published: June 2013