- To Write of the Conjugal Act:Intimacy and Sexuality in Muslim Women’s Autobiographical Writing in South Asia
In Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, Princess Abida Sultaan of Bhopal wrote frankly of the first night in 1933 of her brief married life with the man who had been her childhood friend, Nawab Sarwar Ali Khan of Kurwai:
Immediately after my wedding, I entered the world of conjugal trauma. I had not realized that the consummation that followed would leave me so horrified, numbed and feeling unchaste. The fact that this trauma was being perpetuated by a person whom I genuinely cared for filled me with greater revulsion. Due to our pristine, religious upbringing I could not bring myself to accept marital relations between husband and wife and considered the conjugal act unchaste, dirty and vulgar. My revulsion for marital sex produced an equally frustrating and damning reaction from my husband. He soon showed his bitterness and insensitivity towards me by doing what I despised most in men: he became slothful, gambling with his own domestic servants and leading a life of idle leisure. We soon had separate bedrooms and within a few weeks, our marriage was on the rocks, existing only on paper and for the sake of appearances.1
Reflecting on this passage on the occasion of the memoirs’ publication in Pakistan in 2004—sadly, after the author’s death—I interpreted this emotional disclosure as evidence of the memoirs’ location “only on the periphery of the long tradition of biography and autobiography in Islam.”2 [End Page 155] Islamic life stories, other scholars had argued, would not reveal an author’s feelings so completely, particularly on a sexual theme.3 Introspection and individuality were the purview of the Western autobiographical tradition.
My intellectual response to these intimacies was, I would expect, not entirely surprising. Popular perception would suggest that, beyond the “kiss and tell” memoirs of the super-rich, Muslim women simply do not write about intimate relations nor express their sexuality in an explicit way. In South Asia especially, the cultural codes of modesty defined by sharam and ‘izzat, shame and honor, may be presumed to militate against such public revelations of love, lust, and the conjugal act. Indeed, a recent article in the popular Indian press, revealingly titled “Internal Affairs,” seemed to suggest that this reticence to “confess” all was not something particularly female or Muslim but actually a feature of Indian memoirs generally, even in the contemporary context.4 In support, several authors were quoted who had recounted some deeply personal moments in their life stories but not those connected with an “ex-husband” or a “girl he loved.”5 As one author justified his omissions, “I have been selective in terms of ethics here.”6 The only exception to this sexual silencing mentioned in the article was Padma Desai’s Breaking Out, in which she recounted her “violation by a man following a deliberate seduction” and the way in which “marital relations had infected [her] with venereal disease.”7 But it seems significant that Desai has been living and writing in the United States since the 1950s and thus constructs herself, even in the subtitle of her book, as being on an “American journey.” Americans, this would seem to suggest, not only tolerate sexual revelation but seem to expect it, while Indians, in the main, remain deeply uncomfortable with the “confessional”—the unmentionable “C word,” according to the article.8
The idea of Muslim women being desexualized in public discourse is not one that has always held true. Scholars of Orientalism have written at length on the centrality of the sexualized “Oriental woman”—beautiful, sensuous, but captured in the gilded cage of her harem—to Western conceptions of “the Orient” from the eighteenth century onward.9 For evidence, one need look no further than those highly celebrated paintings by European artists of the [End Page 156] nineteenth century, a prime example being Eugène Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers (in Their Apartment) (1834), with its languorous concubines reclining with their opium pipes. The political purpose of these eroticized images, whether visual or literary, is captured by Reina Lewis: “For...