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Sex and the Freethinker

Young schoolgirls in Tehran neither victims nor escapees (Photos courtesy Nayer Khazeni)

“Talk terroristic to me, baby,” she said, all her alert levels soft and rising . . .

“Want to go for another baby before they drag me away to Gitmo?” he growled in her ear.

God she loved the FBI; it was better than Viagra.

These are exactly the kinds of words that have gotten Mohja Kahf into trouble with ultraconservative Muslims. They’re also what her growing Muslim fan base has come to expect from her writing, which ranges from the recently published coming-of-age novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, to scholarly papers as part of her work as a professor at the University of Arkansas, to a volume of poetry called E-Mails From Scheherazad. And, of course, there is her online column, “Sex and the Umma” — advice and short fiction with sexual themes for Muslim sensibilities — which runs infrequently on the Muslim Wake Up! Web site. “Talk Terroristic to Me” is one of the column installments that has brought Kahf more and more attention.

“My Islamic education included positive teachings about sex from the beginning,” Kahf wrote when she introduced her column. “We also learned that a Muslim can talk about sex without shame, that sex can be a form of ibada [worship] like any other human act, and that sex is not tolerated just for the purpose of procreation the way it is in some other religions (or so we learned), but as a good and natural act that God made humans love to do.”

Kahf’s column reflects the way Muslims broke with the Judeo-Christian tendency to describe sex in the most reprehensible, shameful, only-if-you-must colors. As she so frankly puts it, “To whom else but a readership versed in the Quran does a question [in one of her short stories] such as ‘Do we get dick in heaven? Men get pussy. Do we get dick?’ make perfect sense?”

Certainly her column lets uninitiated Westerners in on the secret that healthy Muslims can be sexually free. But as her readership grows and the column continues to gain both positive and negative attention, Kahf feels the need to distinguish her sex project from sex as we commonly know it — to cast it in more of an Islamic mold and reiterate the sexual comfort and health preached at Islam’s formation.

“My sexually themed stories spring from my Islamic values and my particular experience of Arab culture,” she says. “Far from being Western-inspired, my stories come from a sensibility that is aghast at the often casual, crass and soulless attitudes toward sex portrayed in the mass media, including on the program Sex and the City, whose name nevertheless helped name the column — and whose storylines I raptly watched, of course, darling, with the prurient fascination of an amateur Occidentalist.”

Kahf is also firmly against premarital intercourse, “on the grounds that sex is sacred; our bodies, including our sexual organs, should be treated with respect.” Even so, her column speaks not only to Muslim women, but to some of Kahf’s “non-Muslim, 1970s cluster-fuck friends” who “expressed to me the need for a sexual ethics.” Her project is like a search for morals within the sometimes brutally insensitive world of sex: “[I look for] a framework of ethical sexuality that people can take joy in, and I try to find out how that would be expressed in Muslim inflection.”

Kahf works to reconcile spirituality and sexuality, which have been estranged as part of the neo-puritanism that has seized certain segments of the Islamic Umma (community). Many Muslims suffering from sex complexes and anxieties, so foreign to early Muslims’ sexual uninhibitedness, could use a reminder of the good old days centuries ago. In front of a Muslim audience at a Michigan public library, Kahf read a retelling of the romance of Khadijah (the prophet Muhammad’s first wife), to which she gave the nickname “How Khadijah Got Her Groove Back.” “She was a successful businesswoman. It’s a story of a woman and a much younger man,” says Kahf. “They loved it.”

Kahf, who was born in Damascus, Syria, says that Muslims in the Middle East cannot and should not try to escape from a literary past animated by incredibly vivid and humorous sexuality, from the “racy, multicultural, secular” Thousand and One Nights to “our rich heritage of Sufi poetry,” where the “inseparability of eros and spirituality is inescapable.” Kahf gathered enough material to teach a course called “Love and Eros in Literature,” during which she examines “seven or eight Arabic treatises on erotic love from the ninth to the 17th century, many of them by religious scholars.”

With her sexuality excavation work, Kahf has reopened the fragrant box of Muslim love, which leads many to try to label Kahf as a progressive or liberal. But she rejects these labels and even published a list on the Muslim Wake Up! Web site called “Why I Am Not a Progressive Muslim.” At the top of the list: “Labels suck. They don’t do us complex humans justice.” Later in the list she writes, “I hate U.S. foreign policy. I love Islamic traditions.”

 

Among the other complaints on her list about Muslims who call themselves progressive: “Ditzy cheerleader McMuslims who think they are oh-so-rad bad girls but whose feminist rebellion consists of shopping at the mega-mall for Victoria’s Secret underwear.” “All they seem to know about shariah is stoning, just like the mainstream U.S. press.”“The lazier among the progressives in the U.S. and Canada tend to act like House Slave Muslims. Too much reliance on what is P.C. in left-liberal Western discourse and what is au courant in postmodern thought as the basis for their critique rather than a truly independent grounding in alternative spiritual paths.”

Most especially, she says, “They tend to forget who owns the surplus of the enormous imbalance of power in the world, and so they spend more of their energy excoriating those who don’t have hegemonic power.” She prefers critiques of both: “Osama bin Laden sucks big time, and the U.S. created him in the mujahedeen camps of the 1980s . . . Hijab, the way the conservatives codify it, is patriarchal and misogynistic while pretending to be liberating, and so is the Western mainstream attitude toward women’s bodies and fashion. Both suck.”

She also has a list about why she’s not a conservative Muslim. And so I reel off my own list of words that might be used to describe her — liberal, modernist, reformist, leftist, feminist, moderate — none of them will do.

“Can’t you just call me freethinking?” she asks.

Kahf also runs into stereotype issues in the U.S. publishing industry. In one of her most eye-opening essays, “Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West,” she describes the most astonishing misunderstandings:

“No matter how much a Muslim woman may want to tell a more nuanced story, by the time it goes through the ‘machine’ of the publishing industry, it is likely to come out the other end packaged as either ‘Victim Story’ or ‘Escapee Story.’ Then the Muslims yell at her for contributing to stereotypes.”

Post-9/11, well-meaning editors and publishers often scratch their heads in authentic bewilderment, asking, “Where are all the moderate/liberal/progressive Muslims? Where are the Muslims who will rock the boat?” Kahf’s experience shows how hard it can be, even in ostensibly liberal publishing circles, for voices that disturb the burka-and-bomb narrative.

She sees the plight of freethinking and progressive Muslims — who do want to criticize certain wrongs they perceive in their own Islamic midst — as plagued by a similar problem, raised by Alice Walker with her novel The Color Purple, namely “whether and how a black woman writer will address the sexism of black men in the midst of a racist mainstream climate.” There is another problem for Muslim writers (one they may not always want to acknowledge): Their audiences, the readers who are most interested in hearing alternative Muslim voices, are by and large white, liberal, internationalist, bridge-crossing people. They are the types who might also read The Kite Runner or Reading Lolita in Tehran, stories that satisfy a liberal urge for pity while also giving a platform to much-in-demand Muslim self-criticism, finally showing that “they are just like us” at the end.

In an essay on victim and escapee stereotypes, Kahf articulates a discomfort that had remained ineffable for Western Muslims, built up from years of reading such stories and feeling that something was amiss. Here are just a few of the guidelines she offers for creating palatable female “Muslim victim” heroines: “Portray her as powerless to speak, but for the Westerner speaking on her behalf. Eliminate the subculture of women from the picture, all her empowering relationships with sisters, grandmothers friends. Ignore homegrown non-Western feminisms. Include no kindly brothers or uncles and no Muslim men who champion women’s rights. Make sure there are no nice imams around. Make the mosque a nasty-smelling place. Have the adhan [the call to prayer] called while she is beaten by her husband, like in the movie Not Without My Daughter.” And the most necessary feature of all, the element that no work authored by a Muslim woman is complete without: “Jacket the book with a picture of an inscrutable niqabi [a woman wearing the full veil covering the face], or an army of identically hijabed Muslim women looking sullen. Or how about a Muslim woman staring from behind a barred window? Now that’s original.”

Kahf herself would rather talk about forced unveiling, as it happened in Turkey, Iran and Tunisia — “which is an almost unrecognized narrative moment in Western publishing.”

To show just how pervasive these victim/escapee tropes can be, Kahf cites a personal conversation she had in 2004 with a debut novelist. “[She] was offered a million dollars for her book,” Kahf says, “if she would slant it against Islam.” The woman rejected the terms and signed for a smaller sum with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Kahf says that the kind of Islamic female figure that progressive Muslim women would select as a role model — pious, moderate in demeanor but immoderate in her activism, intellect and pursuit of her rights — has no real place in the mainstream U.S. publishing world.

 

“When the time came to sign my own contract,” she says, “I asked for control over the cover. ‘No,’ came the answer. Well, so I beefed up the cover clause. Did it help? No. They still approved an offensive cover without my knowledge, featuring a ‘Muslim girl meets Britney Spears’ hijabi with, get this, a bare midriff, and her eyes cut off. I kicked and screamed . . . I wanted a cover that featured praying.” After getting lawyers involved, the two parties finally compromised: The cover would display a veiled woman, showing her entire face but no midriff. Her editor’s comments were also revelatory: “Put more sex in it.” Needless to say, Kahf insists, “I did not take his direction.”

Kahf’s philosophy of life, with its elements of conservatism and liberalism, makes it hard for Westerners to figure her out. The demarcations between right and left are much more fluid in the Islamic community than they are in the political climate of the United States. They are not so bitterly divided that they’ll refuse to engage one another. Kahf finds a certain beauty, and actually a certain strain of progressive principles, in the practices of conservatives that they have lived or grown up with.

“The conservatives are very pro-education — they encourage their children to go to college, to enter the work force, in that way they are very modern. Their solidness, dependability, modesty, humility, they’re not just monsters or people who gave birth to radical Islam,” explains Kahf. “There is a parallel in women attracted to the temperance movement at the turn of the century, because it requires a single standard of morality for men and women, unlike popular Islam or customary Islam. My parents were, from the beginning, conscious about practicing Islam, not Arab customs. There was never in my house a distinction between me and my brother about housework, never a whiff of ‘We’re gonna be more glad if it’s a boy rather than a girl.’ ”


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