The Value of Historicizing Sexual Violence
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The Value of Historicizing Sexual Violence

Historicizing sexual violence requires that we ask difficult questions: Is sexual violence a timeless concept? Or is our understanding of what constitutes sexual violence a product of a particular cultural and historical moment? Disconcerting as it may be, asking questions like these is a way to bring students’ own expectations surrounding sexual culture, including but not limited to sexual violence, into relief. Freed from the weight of contemporary controversies, students are able to dig into difficult questions without as much fear of appearing ignorant or intolerant. This is significant in my Islamic studies course on Islam, gender, and sexuality, where such fears often inhibit the learning process. With this in mind, I provide a brief overview of the trajectory of this course as it builds toward questions of sexual culture and violence before closing my roundtable contribution with more general reflections and questions for further thought.

After discussing the ethics of studying Islam and the value of gender as an analytic category, we dig into the initial sections of Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam, which historicizes and contextualizes the development of gender traditions in Muslim communities.1 Her avowed aim is to counter perceptions of Islam’s inherently oppressive nature. Despite her deeply historicizing work, Ahmed also makes a more normative argument about the egalitarian essence of Islam. This second element of Ahmed’s work helps us transition to exegetical traditions, tracing the development of Islamic interpretive modes through the emergence of feminist work in the latter part of the twentieth century.

Using selections of Aysha Hidayatullah’s Feminist Edges of the Qur’an to guide our work, we explore some very difficult questions surrounding the seemingly ahistorical nature of some Islamic feminist interpretive claims about gender and sexuality.2 A good number of Muslim feminist exegetes have argued that the cultural contexts of revelation and interpretive elaboration surrounding the Qur’an obscured God’s true egalitarian intentions regarding gender. While this analysis offers an important narrative countering many [End Page 169] of my students’ assumptions about Islamic gender traditions, the fact that God’s intentions happen to coincide with values that feminist exegetes—and many others—hold today should give us pause. These values, after all, are just as culturally and historically grounded as those that informed tenth-century exegesis.

Historicizing contemporary feminist exegetical claims is a challenging but important moment in the course, for it concretizes a larger point: asking questions about the possibility of an ahistorical essence of Islam—say, gender egalitarianism—forces us to consider how context affects practices of gender and sexuality in particular times and places. This sets the ground for a historicized consideration of sexual culture and violence in a way that opens space for students to make connections among the course contents and their own lives and communities.

Like Ahmed, Judith Tucker uses historical inquiry to counter claims about the inherently oppressive nature of Islamic traditions around gender and sexuality. Her In the House of the Law explores how gender functioned in the legal regulation of marriage and sexuality in the early modern Ottoman Empire.3 While, according to Tucker, jurisprudents in this setting tended to blunt those elements of Islamic legal traditions (fiqh) and cultural practices given to male dominance, many of my students remain deeply uncomfortable with the patriarchal nature of gender norms surrounding marriage and sexuality on display in the sources on which Tucker’s work draws. A basic formula that we see in these historical sources, and that Kecia Ali discusses at length in Sexual Ethics and Islam, is the idea that marriage is a legal institution granting men sexual access in exchange for material support of women.4 In the absence of modern notions of consent—and a foundational equality from which the importance of consent springs—does this model of marriage rise to the level of sanctioned sexual violence? Can this be the case if the sexual culture of that time and place was not predicated on a social expectation of equality?

In the process of asking such questions, students are able to clarify for themselves how they think about sexual violence and...