In my Tumblr post, Islam, Patriarchy, and the Recalcitrant Asexual Wife, I analyzed orthodox Islamic discourses on marriage and how they may impact asexual Muslims who are seeking to get married but who do not wish to or who are unable to provide sex.
My analysis showed that there are two elements of Islamic discourse on marriage that may be oppressive to asexual Muslims. The first element is the idea that the purpose of marriage is the regulation of sexual desire. In the discourse, this is taken to create a right to sex on the part of each spouse, and an obligation on the part of the other spouse to provide sex. This in turn leads to conceptualizing a spouse who withholds sex as recalcitrant. Recalcitrance (nushuz) is seen as putting the marriage in danger and thus triggers a series of rights and actions for the other spouse than can ultimately lead to separation through divorce. The second element is patriarchal interpretations of Islam that severely disadvantage women and put an asexual wife in a much more vulnerable position than an asexual husband.
There is already a great deal of Islamic feminist work to dismantle patriarchal interpretations of Islam so I will not spend more time on this element here. Instead, I would like to focus on the first element, the sex-normativity of Islamic discourse on marriage.
As I argued in that Tumblr post, sex-normative discourse about marriage leads to the conceptualization of the asexual spouse as innately recalcitrant. Or, as I put it there, as an asexual woman who is unable to provide sex, I am not able to be a “good Muslim wife”. There are a variety of tools I can employ to secure rights for myself to a celibate marriage, but as long as the sex-normative framework remains in place, these can only be exceptions to the general rule or special arrangements. The state of innate recalcitrance remains in place and I would revert to it whenever the exceptions or special arrangements fell through.
This creates a situation where behavior that I engage in because of my sexual orientation (i.e., avoiding sex) becomes marked as inherently disobedient to what these discourses tell me are God’s commands. Moreover, if I attempt to avoid this inherent disobedience by choosing not to marry, I can then be stigmatized as going away from the way of the religion (I should also note that stigma for failure to marry is often much greater for women than for men because we are seen as failing to fulfill our womanly duty to be wives and mothers).
There’s no way for me to win here. Whether in or out of marriage, I am seen not only as not “normal” by not having sexual desire, but as innately disobedient to God’s commands regarding sexuality. The only way for me to avoid this would be to submit on an ongoing basis to something I would experience as oppression and trauma (i.e., unwanted sex).
It is for this reason that I consider asexuality to be queer within Islam. It is not hypervisible in the way that homosexuality is (indeed it is invisible and erased) and the stigmas are different. But it is still in some way deviant.
Asexuality is usually not seen as deviant in Western discourses. Ianna Hawkins Owen argues that this is due to the racialization of asexuality as white. I think this is true, but it is also very specific to the U.S. context and to the recent historical period.
I believe that its deeper roots are in Christianity and a perceived association of celibacy as purity. In reality, most Christian discourse is very sex-normative as well. Moreover, as much as celibacy is seen as virtuous or pure, the concept of self-restraint is central to it. Purity is achieved by overcoming desire and showing self-mastery (interestingly, Ianna Hawkins Owen argues the same thing about whiteness and sexuality). Having a lack of desire is seen as unnatural or somehow “lazy”. If asexuals are “pure”, we’re doing it wrong!
Nonetheless, this is a trend that is found to some degree in Christianity. The thing is, Islam is not Christianity. Celibacy or self-restraint from desire is not seen as the ideal in Islam. In my original post on Asexuality, Islam, and Queerness, I quoted several foundational texts in Islam that strongly discourage celibacy and encourage enjoyment of sex in marriage. 1,400 years of Muslim scholarship has followed this lead.
Even in Christianity, sex-normative discourse means that in reality asexuals are often seen as not normal or not natural. But without the countervailing factor of the idealization of celibacy that one may find in Christianity, I believe that asexuality is much more obviously deviant, and queer, in Islam.