Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Nancy Khalek
Issues of gender and sexuality have produced some of the most controversial conversations within the Islamic world. In part, this is because issues of sexuality and gender roles are discussed quite openly in the Sunni community, something that was as true in the medieval period as it is in the modern world. The text of the Quran itself speaks to both differences and equality between the sexes. It specifically acknowledges differences in gender roles in matters of legal testimony, matters of inheritance, and rules governing marital relationships. It also stresses spiritual equality and identical standards for belief and practice that each individual is responsible to maintain.
But text and society are two different things, and the ways in which scriptural injunctions are manifested in particular communities across time and place vary enormously and may appear, at first, inconsistent if not haphazard. This is the case for all social manifestations of religious practice, across traditions, and is particularly poignant when it comes to differences in gender relations and attitudes toward sexuality in different parts of the Sunni world.
On the one hand, gender issues are particularly controversial in the Islamic world because the religion is traditionally perceived as patriarchal. When it comes to issues of marriage, inheritance, and legal representation, men have an apparent advantage over women. This is because they are permitted to marry more than one woman, they inherit twice as much as their female relatives, and their testimony often does not require same kind of corroboration, in some cases, as that of women.
Nevertheless, even these issues are not as simple as they may at first appear. There is quite a lot of discussion about the circumstances under which a Muslim man may be permitted to marry more than one woman, and it is entirely unclear whether this should be applied as a rule or as a matter of special circumstances. It is also often the case that provisions for male inheritance take into account social structures that were part and parcel of the world in which the Quranic text was revealed, a time in which family structures generally meant that males provided for and cared for their female relatives, especially widows. In terms of legal representation, there are certain instances where men's and women's testimonies are equitable, and the social context in which these kinds of rules were elaborated, namely the medieval world, are an enormous part of why these regulations and restrictions appear in the ways that they do.
It would be a mistake, however, to overlook some of the very real differences and inequities in gender relationships that have been a part of the Islamic world. Leila Ahmed (Women and Gender in Islam) actually argues that the Quranic ethic in the life of Muhammad himself was more equitable then the succeeding centuries of Islamic law might indicate. She traces the narrowing and increasing patriarchy of Islamic practices to the social context of the later medieval era, and to broader patterns of militarization and education.