by Umbreen Bhatti
Sex. Here's the thing, you can talk about it like a giggling pre-teen, or you can talk about it like a grownup. In his Foreign Policy piece titled “Sex and the Single Mullah” – great title, right? It definitely got my attention! – Joshua Keating covered questions answered and fatwas issued by Islamic scholars on a wide range of issues, all creepy. In Morocco, for example, Imam Abdelbari Zamzami's fatwa was about female masturbation,
which he said was permissible for women who are widowed, divorced, or had lost hope that they would ever have sexual relations with a man.
“A woman can get much benefit from these vegetables and other elongated objects,” the imam said, listing pestles, bottles, and root vegetables among other suggested implements.
In Egypt in 2006, Rashad Hassan Khalil, former dean of Islamic law at Cairo's al-Azhar University, “ruled that being completely naked during sex would invalidate a couple's marriage.”
And way over in Indonesia, it seems Cholil Ridwan, of the Indonesia Council of Ulema, prefers to focus on pop culture. While it's not clear from the piece that he was issuing a fatwa, he did have the following to say about Lady Gaga prior to her visit to the country:
“She is from the West, and she often shows her aurat [genitalia] when performing,” Ridwan said, taking offense to the “Bad Romance” singer's “revealing outfits and sexualized dance moves.”
What to make of all of the above? Truthfully, I don't know. It seems the message is that Muslims can just be so weird when it comes to sex. But what I can't tell from Keating's piece is what a fatwa is, which might have raised his work from the merely salacious into the realm of the analytical. He might have asked, for example, under what circumstances are fatwas issued? Who is bound by them? Who are the people issuing them? What is the Indonesia Council of Ulema, or India's Sunni Ulema Board, which is also mentioned in the article? While we're at it, what does Ulema even mean? Without this kind of attention to detail and context, it's hard to make sense of the piece. Keating does suggest that the opinions he cites are outliers and not mainstream, yet there's little concrete information or resources for a reader who actually wants to learn something.
Why does this matter? As Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi write on Jadaliyya,
It is commendable that Foreign Policy highlights the all too common silence about sex and gender politics in its own pages. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a serious and continued engagement, rather than a one-off matter. Despite the editors' good intentions, however, Foreign Policy disturbingly reproduces much of the dominant and sensationalist discourse about sex in the Middle East. The “Sex Issue” leaves much to be desired.
Fortunately, other publications have managed to avoid that dominant and sensationalist discourse, and for that, they deserve commendation. In its weekly roundup of news about Islamic law, islawmix highlights two pieces by Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor that offer good, nuanced coverage of another sex-related story that spread rapidly across the Internet last week – the claim that the Egyptian parliament was considering a law that would allow men to have sex with their wives up to six hours after their deaths. The claim stems from an op-ed penned by Mubarak supporter Amr Abdel Samea in the Egyptian state newspaper Al-Ahram. That commentary was subsequently translated into English for Al Arabiya, then reported in the Huffington Post and elsewhere. Murphy wrote two pieces about the claim for the Christian Science Monitor, as islawmix's Krystina Friedlander notes:
Murphy writes in the original piece:
There's of course one problem: The chances of any such legislation being considered by the Egyptian parliament for a vote is zero. And the chance of it ever passing is less than that. In fact, color me highly skeptical that anyone is even trying to advance a piece of legislation like this through Egypt's parliament. I'm willing to be proven wrong. It's possible that there's one or two lawmakers completely out of step with the rest of parliament. Maybe.
But in responsible journalism, extreme — not to mention inflammatory — claims need at minimum some evidence (and I've read my share of utter nonsense in Al Ahram over the years). The evidence right now for the Egyptian legislation? Zero.
Murphy's follow-up piece looks at the political context surrounding Al-Ahram:
Ahram's reporting should be seen within its traditional framework – serving the interests of those in power. That was Mr. Mubarak for decades. Now, it's the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that has run Egypt since Mubarak's ouster last February.
Thanks, Dan. The folks at Foreign Policy could learn a thing or two from you.
Umbreen Bhatti is a lawyer with experience in civil rights and constitutional law, as well as the co-founder of islawmix.org, a service for news readers, media producers and legal scholars seeking credible, authoritative information about Islamic law.