Book Review - Sexuality As A Component Of Human Rights
Jordan Times (Amman)
By Sally Bland
Posted Monday April 30, 2001

Women and Sexuality in Muslim Societies Edited by Pinar Ilkkaracan Istanbul, Women for Women's Human Rights, 2000, Pp. 455. Women For Women's Human Rights (WWHR), founded in 1993, is an autonomous human rights NGO based in Turkey. By publishing Women and Sexuality in Muslim Societies, WWHR has ventured into a field largely unresearched and still considered taboo by many, despite the growing body of literature dealing with gender.

The reasoning behind the book's focus is clearly stated in the preface: "Sexuality is an integral part of our lives, our relationships, and our communities. And whether rural or urban women, illiterate or highly educated, we all face violations of our human rights in this area.... Sexuality continues to be used as a basic tool for patriarchal control of women and for oppression of society at large." Editor Pinar Ilkkaracan is very explicit that Women and Sexuality in Muslim Societies does not claim to be the final word on the subject, nor to speak for all Muslim women. Nevertheless, the scope of the book is impressive in terms of its subject matter, the diversity of the backgrounds of the contributing authors and their styles of presentation. Topics covered range from Islam's concept of female sexuality, the question of virginity, honour crimes, female genital mutilation, sexual abuse and rape, to love, marriage and sexual fulfillment. These topics are addressed in the context of various societies, with examples drawn mainly from Turkey and Arab countries, including Jordan and Palestine, but also from Pakistan, India, Iran, Malaysia and the Muslim community in the UK.

The authors include women from all these countries and from many walks of life: academics, feminist activists, doctors, poets, writers, psychologists, journalists and lawyers. This gives a multidisciplinary perspective on the topics at hand.

Concerning Arab countries, the book includes reprints of important writings by Fatima Mernissi, Nawal Saadawi, Leila Ahmed, Evelyne Accad, Mervat F. Hatem, Alifa Rifaat, Lama Abu Odeh, Nahid Toubia and Aida Seif Al Dawla.

The contributions are a mix of historical studies and current analysis. Some are scholarly research papers; others are the results of field surveys, training programmes to empower women, or campaigns for women's rights. Still others are personal accounts, poems or cartoons. As a result, although the book appears rather dense at first glance, it is highly readable; there is never a dull moment.

A recurring theme in the book is that Islam does not have a monolithic view of the various issues related to women's sexuality; nor do harmful practices, such as honour crimes or female genital mutilation, derive from Islamic teachings.

Some of the most startling examples of variation in Muslim society are to be found in Bouthaina Shaaban's eye-opening account of visiting the Tawariqu society in Algeria southern Sahara. Here she found that men, not women, cover their heads; teenage boys and girls are encouraged to get to know each other well before marriage; marriage partners are freely chosen, and women are as likely as men to seek divorce. There is no social stigma placed on divorced women or on children born out of wedlock; wife-beating is almost unheard of; and it is totally unacceptable for a man to order his wife to cook dinner for him.

2001 Jordan Times (Amman).

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