Virtue, and other non-existent commodities

It’s a funny thing, a woman’s virtue. If she clings tightly to it, she’s frigid and a prude. If she doesn’t care to preserve it, she’s a whore.  If she thinks the concept is outdated, she’s dangerous. A woman cannot decide for herself whether or not she is virtuous – whatever her actions, her virtue will ultimately be judged by men. A woman’s virtue is kept for men, not for herself – without it, she is worthless not to herself, but to men who might wish to sleep with her or take ownership of her.

Every culture has their own ideas about how to preserve a woman’s virtue – segregate schools by gender, force women into separate communities where they are restricted contact from men, place restrictions on the amount of sex a woman can have, and with whom she can have it. In the culture in which I grew up, the method of choice – amongst others – was the hijab.

I started covering my hair when I was twelve years old. I did not want to do it, but I wanted to please my parents. I had no conception of sexual desire or sex appeal. I did not think of myself as a sexual object, nor did I think of other people as sexual objects. But I covered my hair because people thought it made me – a twelve-year-old girl – virtuous. I wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts that hid my figure. I didn’t have male friends. All of this was meant to preserve me so that one day, another man might find me worth owning.

Many girls younger than me cover their hair, or even their entire bodies. Why a child needs to be dressed in a way that is meant to render them non-sexual objects is beyond me. In which situation would a child of eight or nine need to cover herself so as to deflect the attention of men?

I do not have anything against women who choose to cover their hair. In fact, I do not even have a problem with them deciding to do so because they wish to preserve their virtue (whatever that means) – as long as it’s their choice. We all make choices about what we’ll show to the world and what we wish to hide. There are things we don’t tell strangers, to it makes sense that there might be things we choose not to show strangers. I take no issue with this.

But it has to be a choice – and to me, not covering my hair does not make me any less virtuous or worthy than a woman who does. And even if it did, I wouldn’t care, because my worth as a woman is not based on whether or not a man thinks I’m pure enough to make his wife.

That’s the problem with the idea of protecting our virtue – we’re being asked to safeguard something only men value. We are not devalued by choosing to show hair or skin, nor by engaging in sexual activity – it is men who have decided for us that these things lower us, devalue us, debase us. It is men who have decided that we need to cover up, be meek and quiet and non-threatening so that they might contradictorily find us more desirable.

I do not care whether or not men find me desirable based on how much of my skin they can see. I do not care whether they see my uncovered hair and judge me not Muslim enough, because my faith is between God and me and God can see into my heart no matter what I try to cover. Before God, I am utterly exposed. Why, then, would God care about my clothing? And I do not believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to safeguard something only men find valuable.

If men want women not to be ogled, not to be used as sexual objects, to be treated with dignity and respect, then the onus on them is to do so. A woman who covers her hair is not making herself less of a sexual being – she is simply making a choice not to show a part of herself to the world. Men will still look at her and objectify her, not because of how she dresses, but because they think they have that right. She could be swathed in cloth from head to toe and they would still objectify her as much as they would if she were walking down the street stark naked. Objectification is an act removed from a woman’s state of dress – it is a choice a man makes, and if he wishes so fervently to preserve a woman’s virtue, it is up to him not to make it.

Personally, I don’t give a damn whether or not men consider me virtuous, but I do not wish to be seen as an object, regardless of how I dress. I was seen as one when I covered my hair and I am seen as one now. This is not because of the way I dress, but because there are men who believe they have the right to decide my body’s value as though it is a commodity. This is their doing, not mine. They believe that I exist for them, and that as such, I must preserve myself in a condition they find suitable. But as I have said time and time again, my existence is not for them. So to hell with their ideas of virtue. I am not any more of an object because I choose not to cover my hair. I am human, and my value is self-determined, not calculated based on what I wear or how many people I’ve slept with. I should not need to wear a hijab in order to broadcast to the world that there is more to me than what a man thinks I’m worth.

Virtue is a false commodity, created by men to control and judge women. By whatever standards it is judged, by whomever it is judged, it is meaningless and worthless, because no woman is merely an object onto which male desire can be projected. Wear what you like. Cover your hair or don’t. But do it because you are choosing for yourself what you wish to show the world, not because you think you need to preserve something that doesn’t exist. You are worth more than what your sex life and your clothing choices say you are. You are worth what you say you are. You do not need to prove that to anyone.

The Gay/Religious Paradox

One of the many questions people like to ask me repeatedly is as follows: how is it possible to be both bisexual and Muslim?

I am not sure what they expect me to say. I do not know if they believe themselves the first to ask such a thing of me. Perhaps they think they will lead me towards some kind of epiphany. Or perhaps they are just being rude, in the way that people often unintentionally are, by probing into my personal life and expecting that I will be forthcoming to strangers. Whatever the reason, this is a question I am asked at least once a week, sometimes more often, almost always by people who don’t know me at all. None of them are owed an answer – both my sexuality and my faith are, after all, personal. But for the sake of saving myself the time of repeatedly telling people to mind their own business, I suppose I can satisfy their curiosity once and for all.

But first, let me ask you a question:

Knowing what we know about the mechanics of pregnancy, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the dangers of HIV/AIDS, would you consider it a healthy choice to have unprotected sex of any kind with a complete stranger?

Perhaps it’s the former medical student in me, but I’d consider such an act quite foolish. Unprotected sex – including anal and oral sex – carries with it the risk of many complications. We know this because we have discovered through scientific research how sperm fertilises an egg to create the cluster of cells that will eventually become a baby, how bacterial and viral diseases can spread through sexual contact, how certain kinds of sex carry with them higher risks of injury and disease transmission. This is knowledge accumulated over hundreds of years. In response to this knowledge, we’ve developed barrier prophylactics and chemical contraception, so that we may engage in sex safely, responsibly and without fear of unwanted consequences.

Fifteen hundred years ago, we had neither the knowledge of the risks sex entailed, nor the means of mitigating them.

My thesis, then, is this – that in an age before science, when we didn’t know how diseases were caused or spread, when we were unclear of the mechanics of conception and pregnancy, when we were unable to reliably prevent the consequences of sexual encounters, it made perfect sense to regulate sex. By restricting sex to an act between married partners, disease transmission could be kept down to a minimum, even completely stopped. By prohibiting sex acts with greater inherent risks, such as anal sex, the consequent injuries and damage could be avoided. By framing sex as an act to be engaged in only between monogamous, married partners, people could be kept relatively safe from the consequences of unprotected sex in an age before contraception, condoms and antibiotics.

I believe in God, and I believe that God wants the human race to better itself. It is not such a logical leap for me to believe that the prohibitions against sex outside of marriage of sex between people of the same gender were designed to keep a pre-science civilisation safe and healthy. After all, the Qur’an also contains instructions about personal hygiene despite the fact that the people to whom it was revealed had no conception of germs, bacteria or parasites. In fact, much of the Qur’an only strengthens my belief in scientific principles, and vice versa. It is quite remarkable that a society pre-Semmelweis knew that washing one’s hands with running water was a way of warding off disease thanks to instructions in a book they believed was revealed to them by their creator. The simplest and most rational explanation is that whoever was instructing them knew something they didn’t.

You do not have to believe in God in order to agree with my basic point – that in a society without access to contraception and antibiotics, restricting sexual activity was the best possible way of ensuring good sexual health amongst the population. You also do not have to believe in God to agree with the point that follows – that in today’s society, where we have access to antibiotics, condoms, dental dams, the oral contraceptive pill, contraceptive implants and so much more, those same restrictions are no longer necessary. It is possible to have sex with multiple partners – including oral and anal sex, between partners of any gender – in a way that does not endanger the health of those involved. It is possible to have sex before marriage without falling pregnant and being stuck with a child one does not have the means to care for. (Indeed, it is now possible to safely terminate the pregnancy if the mother finds herself unable to deal with the demands of having a baby.) Society has advanced. We have new ways of protecting ourselves; the old ways have become obsolete.

I am, for the most part, a rational person. I do not believe that God would ask anything of me that it is not reasonable to ask. And in the time and place in which I live, it is not reasonable to ask that I restrict my sexual activity or my sexuality for the sake of my health and well-being. I am lucky enough to live in a point in time where access to safe and affordable contraception means I can engage in sex safely, healthily and with whomever I choose. I believe religion is meant to be permissive, not restricting. My faith frees me; it does not confine me. And given that it is possible for me to express myself sexually in a safe way, I do not see the need to pointlessly restrict myself.

Yes, I am both Muslim and bisexual, and I do not see any inherent contradiction. God is my guide, but my faith is also my path to freedom and peace. It is not a set of shackles – it is a pair of wings, designed to allow me to achieve greater heights than I could on my own. God is not, in my experience, a harsh master, but rather a loving mentor – a light by which I might find my way through life. I have been created as I am – a sexual being who is attracted to more than one gender. I do not believe I was created this way only to be forced to live a half-life, unfulfilled and unsatisfied. That is not what God means to me. That is not what my faith means to me. My faith means freedom to live and to love – safely, healthily and happily.

There is no paradox inherent in my being. I am as I am, and I live according to the rules of the universe as I am able to discern them. My sexuality is not sinful or shameful – it simply is. I simply am. And I am perfectly at peace with that.

Labels on my soul: “Muslim”

I thought twice about discussing this. Sometimes, people seem offended when I talk about my faith, as though I might try to spring a conversion talk on them at any moment. Some people are apatheists or anti-theists and view all faith talk as unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. This post is not for them. (In fact, none of these posts are for them – I’m writing all of these posts for myself.)

Some Muslims believe that all babies are born Muslims and that some of them merely change faiths as they grow older. I am not one of these people. However, long before I had a name for God, I felt a larger presence in the universe – something bigger than me, something watchful, something kind. I did not have a name for it – indeed, I did not have names for many things yet – but I knew it was there. When I was a bit older and my parents told me that presence was called God and He created the universe, it was as though I was being told something I already knew. It was old news.

To be a Muslim means many things to many people. I cannot speak to their experiences, only mine. I cannot tell you what it means to be a Muslim in Riyadh or a Muslim in Kuala Lumpur or a Muslim in Islamabad. I can’t even tell you what it means to be a Muslim in Townsville, Queensland, Australia, unless the Muslim in question is me. There are very few concepts and beliefs that are universal to all Muslims – as a group, we are scattered, diverse, often at war with each other just as much as we are at war with the outside.

But I will start with the universal concepts. “Islam” is an Arabic word that means “peaceful surrender to Allah”; a “Muslim” is one who has surrendered. From this basic starting point we extrapolate an entire faith, one that has many faces, many voices. One thing we all believe: that there is one God, and that Muhammad was His messenger (though I object to the use of “He” for Allah, who is always rendered gender-neutrally in Arabic). “Allah” is not the name of our god but rather an Arabic word meaning “the one God” – the same God worshipped by Christians, by Jews and by others who prefer to eschew labels.

Broadly speaking, I am a kind of Muslim called a Sunni, and more specifically a member of the Hanafi school like my parents. Hanafis believe in reason over precedent, in logic over the judgements of dead scholars. That said, I doubt many Hanafis would rush to claim me as one of their own; indeed, my own family hesitates to do so sometimes, so radical are some of my views. There are people who would call me a heretic, even a blasphemer, for my acceptance of other faiths as valid pathways to eternal peace and happiness. I would question whether those people read the same Qur’an I did, where Allah explicitly stated that non-Muslims would be granted entrance into Heaven and that it was not the place of any Muslim to judge who did and did not deserve admittance. But I digress.

There was a time in my life when I thought I would not remain a Muslim. As a teenager, frustrated by the doctrinaire approach to faith I saw practiced by many around me, I felt distanced from Islam, a relative stranger to it. I wondered if there was a place in Islam for someone like me, someone who thought the spirit of the law was more important than the letter, someone who wondered about things like inheritance laws and how they could be re-interpreted in the 21st century. My teenage years were a crossroads – I found myself questioning what I’d been taught, wondering why people were so insistent on me believing what they told me to believe without thinking about it.

I did the only thing that made sense – I decided to turn to God, the presence I had always felt in my life, for answers.

I read the Qur’an in English, re-read parts of it. Then I read it in Arabic. Then I read my father’s books on religious instruction that he’d been insisting that I pick up in place of the fantasy novels I tended to favour. I read and I read and I read, and I came to my own conclusions. And mostly, what I concluded was that a lot of what I’d been taught was bullshit.

Islam wasn’t about restricting the freedoms of women – it was about protecting them, and it was a lot more permissive than I’d ever been led to believe. Islam wasn’t about doctrine and dogma – it was about living freely and happily, about willingly giving one’s life in service to God. Islam wasn’t about hatred of outsiders, but rather about accepting that God loved us all equally, in ways that transcended our understanding of the word “love”, and it was up to us to accept that love into our lives. Islam wasn’t about judgement – it was about forgiveness, leniency, mercy. The more I read, the more I found examples of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) judging others lightly and preaching forgiveness over punishment. I found that God hadn’t commanded me to live joylessly, but to live a life of love and compassion, to reach out to others and live God’s love through my actions.

My father made something of a judgemental error by commanding me to study my faith. By doing so, he hoped I would find things to reinforce what I had been taught all of my life, things that would make me a more obedient daughter, a meeker Muslim. What happened couldn’t have been further from what he planned. In Islam, I found freedom from preaching, from dogma, from rules designed to keep me quiet and subservient and unquestioning. I found a voice and a purpose, I realised that I was here, in this place, at this time, to do as much good as I could for as many people as I could, in whatever way I could – even if those ways weren’t the ways others had envisioned for me.

Islam freed me. It made me more confident in myself and my abilities. It gave me a sense of my own worth and my place in the world that I’d never had when my life consisted of following other people’s rules.

I love God, as the commandment goes, with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. I live that love every day in my interactions with my fellow human beings. That is the great gift Islam has given me – through my surrender to God, I have found love and peace and happiness.

There are many ways in which I disagree with traditional Islamic teachings. At a later date, I might talk about some of them and why I believe the Qur’an supports the way I live my life as well as the way other people choose to live theirs. But that is another talk, for another time.

I am Jay, a Muslim. I believe that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is God’s messenger. Islam has freed me and helped me become the person I am today. I am eternally grateful.