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Who can legitimately have a say on the topics of sex and sexuality? This is determined by one’s relationship to privilege. We know that whereas one voice may be heard, many are marginalized and never heard. Therefore, before we speak about sex and sexuality, I wish to consider those voices that are often not heard within such discussions. The challenge thus is to include these Other voices within this very important discussion.
In Pakistan, “poor women’s higher unaccompanied mobility was associated with a loss of prestige and susceptibility to sexual violence. Among richer women, such movement did not constitute a legitimate target for male exploitation, nor did it lead to a loss of status on the part of their families.”1 So we know that Pakistani women face issues of access and mobility within public space specially women belonging to the disadvantaged classes. Being seen or heard in public space can lead to violence for women who cross the threshold that delineates the home as the “private” sphere and the supposedly “safe” space for women. Public space is for men, and to cross that threshold is to break the rules that govern female bodies and for this, they are punished. Rules that create the public/private dichotomy are certainly not specific to Pakistan.
However, do the same socially-constructed rules of the public/private boundaries apply to cyberspace?. It seems, women with better educations, better access to knowledge, and access to technology and the internet have a better chance of taking part in conversations on cyber-space. Therefore, in some ways, the same rules do apply.
Another barrier to speaking openly and honestly about sex and sexuality in the Pakistani context is religion or the degree of religiosity of your family. You cannot speak about sex and sexuality if you believe that doing so is a sin or can lead to sin. Such beliefs are fed to women at an early age in order to keep them from having agency over their own bodies. “Your body does not belong to you; it belongs to your father, brother, and husband”. Therefore, you need not think of your own needs, desires, health, or anything else that makes you a whole person. In fact, women are taught to deny themselves pleasures in order to achieve piety which we are told comes with rewards in the afterlife. However, there will not be 40 virgins waiting for you women next to streams flowing with milk and honey. The Muslim male subject, however, is conceived as a whole person, with an active sexuality, and deserving of more sex and sexuality in the afterlife.
The politics of self-expression is premised on a notion of a subject who is capable of being self-reflexive, inward-looking, self-contained2, and whole subject who belongs to himself, and not to his mother, sister, or wife. Supposedly, the right to legitimately express opinions and ideas belong to only those who have agency, who own themselves and therefore can look within themselves and speak from their whole selves. Alternatively, Muslim women are taught that they do not have “right” to express themselves the same way as men. We are told that we must let our (mostly male) ‘guardians’ to decide on our behalf. For those women who believe that their sense of piety and honour is in jeopardy if they speak out about sex and sexuality, these women will not be part of the discussions here.
I do not assume that women lack agency; I believe they do have the option to believe that a sense of piety and honour is not at stake if they make claims over their own bodies and choose to speak from their bodies; I believe that honour and piety should depend on the strength of your faith in humanity and social justice; and I believe that they themselves choose to stay silent in spaces where I believe their opinions are much needed and their insights much valued. Is it not said, “speak up or be spoken for”? At the same time, I also know that patriarchy has made it so that speaking up comes with a price, one which many women are unwilling to pay; so they do not speak up in fear of punishment or loss of social capital.
The point is, when “we” as Muslim women come to the table to speak about issues of sex an sexuality, “we” are not on an equal playing field, therefore, some voices have more weight than others, and still others are silent all-together. We also have different, and at times, conflicting concerns. Once we recognize these differences between women, only then can we start to think of ways to alleviate the inequalities, if we believe that we all have the right to express and be heard.
1 Mumtaz Z, and Salway S. “I never go anywhere’: extricating the links between women’s mobility and uptake of reproductive health services in Pakistan”. SOCIAL SCIENCE & MEDICINE 60(8) (April 2005: 1751-1765.
2 Majeed, Javed. “Being Middle-Class in South Asia”. History Workshop Journal. Issue 65, Spring 2008: 247-252.