GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive series entitled “Muslims Talking Sex” featuring diverse Muslim writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.
By Sister Barnburner
When it comes to the discussion of sex and marriage, an epidemic of smug has swept through the community of American Muslims. Marriage is a practical, social contract, we say smugly–all this fluff about romantic passion and love is unnecessary western innovation.
Marriage is half your religion, we say smugly–Islam puts the relationship between husband and wife at the center of social and religious duty.
You’d have to be an idiot not to see the contradiction between these two statements. Fortunately, we’ve got idiots to spare. Yes, marriage is half your religion: the grim, restrained half. Once you have secured your spouse, you can, and indeed should, treat him or her like a piece of expensive furniture. Keep your emotions and your physical needs under a tidy layer of plastic–much as you did while you were single–so they’ll be nice and fresh when guests come over.
And we wonder why so many young Muslims have trouble even securing a spouse.
Darling, can I interest you in a strictly pragmatic, emotionally barren halal sex contract? No? Why on earth not? I promise the sex part will be as perfunctory as possible–wait, where are you going?
What Muslims have come to call ‘practical’ is in actuality ludicrous, socially damaging and impractical in the extreme. In a marital partnership, practical means strong affection and good sex. Why? Because these things are the glue that keeps a marriage together. Anything less encourages the spouses to seek emotional and even physical fulfillment outside the marriage. Anything less is relationship suicide. Anything less is fitna waiting to happen.
Good sex and real affection can save a marriage laden with all the problems modern Muslims encounter: conflicting cultural identities, conflicting interpretations of religious duty, conflicting expectations about family and job responsibilities. Conversely, bad sex and no affection can harpoon a marriage in which both spouses appear to be on the same page about everything, right down to the foot with which one should enter and leave the bathroom. Sex and sexual love are the only things that differentiate a marriage from other family relationships. If the sex is terrible–and sex without affection is pretty harrowing–the marriage is built on sand. All the polite even-handedness and inshallahing in the world will not save it if it begins to crumble.
Which is why it is so tragic that sex in modern western Muslim communities is seen as a necessary but dubious bodily function, like taking a piss. Marital sex is a means of preventing vice and begetting children, nothing more, just as urinating has no higher purpose than to relieve one’s bladder. This brisk, efficient attitude hardly inspires the kind of passion needed to fuel a marriage through decades of life’s struggles. In fact, it seems to have had a chilling effect on the marriage market for single Muslims as well.
Having spoken to dozens of eligible young Muslim women distraught over the fact that they can’t seem to get enthusiastic about any of the men who have proposed to them, it’s clear that a large part of their indecision is not lofty standards, as has often been suggested, but sexual dread. They cannot imagine being intimate with these monkishly cerebral suitors and their furtive attitude toward physical love. Men, on the other hand, understandably have trouble feeling confident around women who have become their (sometimes ruthless) competitors. Instead of finding ways to build healthy good-humored partnerships, single Muslims of both genders test one another, bringing religious and social conflicts deep into the territory of private life.
This is not to say that single Muslims should hold out for true love. True love–the idea that there is a one-to-one perfect soulmate match for every human being, and if you fail to find that match, you are doomed to a life of incompleteness–is a myth. On this front, the Protestantized conservatives of western Islam are absolutely right.
Real love, on the other hand–nurturing the good in another person with passion, desire and dedication–is one of the greatest human experiences on God’s earth. Real love is not something you wait for, it is something you actively cultivate. It is this desire to cultivate love that is absent from the modern, western Muslim discussion about marriage. What is left is so sanitized and obsessively rational that it is almost comic, and worse, out of step with the emotional needs and flaws of real Muslims.
Marriage could indeed be half of religion, if we would only let it. We have to get out of our own way, allowing love–and lust–back into our lives.
Sister Barnburner is a practicing muslimah who occasionally writes about the ailments of the modern ummah, but always with the deepest affection
GOATMILK is taking submissions for its “Muslims Talking Sex” Series at firstname.lastname@example.org . Entries must be under 1,000 words and shall be published at the discretion of the editor.