A Life’s Work: Ask Mohja

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"Do we get dick in heaven?" Aunt Maryam whispers to me during the ladies’ Quran study halaqa at the Jersey City Mosque. We are doing ‘The Merciful,’ the chapter of the Quran where all the sexy virgin babes are promised to men in paradise. "Men get pussy. Do we get dick?" — Mohja Kahf, writing on

On "Sex and the Umma," a column on the progressive Islamic website Muslim Wakeup, Mohja Kahf gives advice on premarital sex and oral technique in an unusual format: short stories. On a break from the University of Arkansas, where she teaches a class on eros in Middle Eastern literature, Kahf spoke to us about homosexuality in the eighth century and what really lies beneath the full-body covering (a miniskirt!). — Sarah Harrison

How did you come to write this column?
The editor-in-chief of Muslim Wakeup was fantasizing aloud about what he’d want me to do for his website. He said, kind of teasingly, "You could be our sex columnist." I said that wouldn’t be a bad idea, actually.

What audience do you have in mind?
Some stories are drawn straight from girl talk with friends of mine. People used to say that such conversations would never happen among American Muslim women. But it has, and not just among hypersexualized girls. Average women are beginning to express themselves in a late-night-venting kind of moment. It’s not like they walk around all day on the verge of jumping a guy who’s cute.

"This story will probably piss off the progressives."

The format isn’t like your usual sex column.
It’s mostly fiction. One story I have coming up is about a young couple in Missouri. She’s fifteen and he’s seventeen, and they want to do it, but they’re recent immigrants from Iraq, and they’re observant, so they want to do it right, which means getting married first. The parents object to them getting married that early. Plus it’s illegal, and their friends think it’s weird. This story will probably piss off the progressives, because it seems pro-early marriage.

Are most Muslims virgins when they marry?
Well, they’re supposed to be! (laughs) They’re supposed to be in all the religions, if I recall correctly. Of course, there’s a lot more pressure for girls than boys. There are a lot of people who are quite secular and don’t really care about religion, but then when they’re about to get married, something springs back — you know, BOING! — and they want to be real traditional. There’s this whole fetish with the hymen that Muslims still have more than other communities. I know a girl whose little sister had a tricycle accident, and the parents were all worried, like, "Does that mean she’s not a virgin anymore?"

You have one column about a couple, Hamudy and Maryam, who don’t know very much about sex even though they’re eighteen and twenty-one. Hamudy thinks women are incapable of sexual desire before intercourse. Is that realistic?
Yeah. There are various books given to young people when they approach marriage, but not before.

What is the Muslim attitude towards masturbation?
Well, that depends on what part of the Muslim world you’re from. If you’re from the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent, it’s totally abhorred. But if you’re from the Arab world, it’s not so bad. There are four or five major schools of thought in Islam, and they each have a slightly different take on the law. The ones that are more common in the Arab part of the world have scholars that talk about masturbation as a recourse for "lonely young men." Of course they never put it in female terms.

"Scholars talk about masturbation as a recourse for ‘lonely young men.’"

What about homosexuality?
In contemporary Muslim culture, there is pretty much no space for that range of experience. What many Muslims don’t understand is that the contemporary take on Islam is so much more intolerant than it was in previous eras of Islamic history. In the eighth century, an openly omnisexual poet wrote very explicit poetry and was given a place in court. In the eleventh century, Iben Hazm in Islamic Spain wrote got a love treatise that goes on and on about kinds of love, including same-sex.

It’s been said that Muhammad did not endorse the subjugation of women at all and that the practice has developed over time, contrary to his teachings.
Obviously, these are topics that are being hotly contested. Some people would say that’s not true. But you know how Christian feminists have suggested Paul invented all that subjugation-of-the-wives stuff, not Jesus? There is that line in Muslim feminism too. It’s the idea that Muhammad was trying to give women their rights, but society was resistant to it, so when people reported his teachings they removed all trace of it, because no one could believe that that’s what he could really mean. That’s my read on it.

So when did women’s rights begin to erode?
The superpowers were Byzantium and the Persians, and that’s where the cultural civilization was: palaces, libraries, everything. Concubines were a huge part of this other culture, and polygamy was a high-status thing to do. Right after the Prophet’s death, Islam started to spread in those areas, like in the middle of the 640s, 650s. According to Leila Ahmed, they moved into the palaces and got a lot of good things from this other culture: literature, flourishing of arts and so on, but those things came with a price — this sense of women as chattel.

What’s the potential for reform?
There is an egalitarian voice in Islam as clearly as there is a hierarchical voice. They’ve both been there right from the beginning. And most women who are Muslim hear that egalitarian voice in Islam. But most outsiders just hear the hierarchical.

Do Muslim women seek to change their role?
Well, I don’t claim to speak for all Muslim women, but I think huge numbers of Muslim women feel that the problem is not Islam but how men have interpreted and practiced it. But there are even larger numbers of conservative Muslim women who want to live in a world where Islam is practiced conventionally. The main proponents of barriers in mosques are women.

Because they just feel more comfortable back there, behind them. We can lie down, we can breast-feed our children, and we don’t have to be seen by the men. Conservative women are very comfortable with where Islam is. They feel that Islam gives them a lot of authority and respect. It’s like if you go to a church and everyone knows who you are. You don’t want to rock the boat. You get a lot of respect wearing the hijab [headscarf], for example.

Do you wear one?
I’ve worn one since I was twelve. But starting about five years ago, I wear it and I don’t wear it. I wear it out of pride in my heritage, but I don’t wear it in the required Islamic way anymore.

Do women feel sexier when they take it off ?
Women who are covered up feel very sexy, let me tell you.

(laughs) Yes! There is such a sense of feeling enveloped and private, like sitting by a cozy fire. Like no one else has access to this warmth, no one else can see you. No one can see your thong underwear hiking up your back! (laughs) There are boundaries clearly demarcated between inside and outside, private and public, and for many women and men that is more conducive to a healthy sex life.

Covering up gives you a sense like no one else has access to this warmth.

It’s the opposite in American culture.
Uh-huh. How do mainstream Americans get off thinking Muslims don’t have a healthy sex life? There was this stupid ad for a perfume once, ten or twelve years ago, and it showed an American woman on one side of the page, a Muslim woman on the other, and a list of adjectives for each. The American woman had a baseball cap on backward, and she was all crazy and nutty looking. She was free and playful, and that’s what the perfume wanted you to be. And the opposite was this Arab woman, who was wearing black and was serious and dour.

And that image is wrong?
I went over to a friend’s house the other day for a women’s luncheon. She was completely made up with a beautiful hairdo, gold, jewels and an exquisitely tailored suit with a very short skirt. I said, "You look lovely!" and she said, "Yeah I know. We don’t get as much a chance to do this in America as we do back home, do we?" She’s from Palestine, and there you have your inside wardrobe and your outside wardrobe. And inside you dress to the nines!

I never would have known.
Yeah. In a lot of Arab countries, you go out like that. But if you do cover, then you would put that on at the door and go out, and if you go to your friend’s luncheon, you take it off at the door and hang it up on the coat rack. And you enter in full bloom — like you came off the society pages here.

Have you gotten flak from the Muslim community?
Actually, I think I’ve gotten two or three times more positive comments than negative. And several of the positive comments are from prominent Muslim leaders. So that was heartening. I think the biggest resistance is to using fiction. Talking about it with an absolute poker face — in the most joyless way possible, scientifically, medically —no one would object to that at all. Talking about it with a smile and through art, playfully exploring it, that’s what seems to be raising people’s rile.

Are things changing?
There was this sort of sexual mini-revolution that happened in the Arab world in the ’60s. People said sex was good, and you didn’t need to fear or repress women’s sexuality or attach shame to women exposing their bodies. Now there’s a big gap between conservative and progressive. And some of your most conservative Muslims are younger, oddly enough. Muslims who are about ten or fifteen years younger than me are so much more conservative than my age group. You see that among Christian Americans too. These are conservative times.  

©2004 Sarah Harrison and