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  • Love and Sex in Islamic Africa: Introduction
  • Corrie Decker (bio)

Groundbreaking studies on the intersections and divergences between African understandings of gender and European understandings of gender in Africa emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and have expanded greatly during the past few decades. Collaborative works such as Love in Africa (Cole and Thomas 2009), Romanic Passion (Jankowiak 1995), and Love and Globalization (Padilla et al. 2008) laid the groundwork for questioning the universality of romantic love. Recent ethnographic inroads into African sexuality, such as Re-Thinking Sexualities in Africa (Arnfred 2004), Hungochani (Epprecht 2004), and Heterosexual Africa? (Epprecht 2008), have deconstructed historical and contemporary ideas about African sexuality by pointing to the colonial origin of heteronormative frameworks. Most work on love and sex in Africa, however, has focused on predominantly Christian areas of the continent and necessarily highlights the extent to which Western missionaries and colonial officials reshaped African notions of sexuality and gender. Missing from this emergent field is a deeper investigation into shifting concepts of love, sex, and sexuality in Islamic Africa, both historically and today. This observation prompted us to organize a workshop on love and sex in Islamic Africa, held at Tulane University in September 2012. Three important conclusions emerged from the event. First, whereas European colonial officials and missionaries often blamed social problems—such as homosexuality, premarital sex, and female promiscuity—on indigenous African cultures, Muslim Africans tended to associate these and other practices that challenged the prevailing social order with colonialism and Westernization, especially in areas affected by Western tourism. Second, from the precolonial era to the present, many Muslims in Africa have had more fluid ideas about love, sex, and sexuality than popular discourses associate with either Islam or Africa. And third, campaigns to promote the acceptance of nonheteronormative approaches to love and sex in Islamic Africa stress the need to reconcile personal experiences with local articulations of Islam and, in doing so, draw on both historical traditions and current global politics.

Workshop participants explored love, sex, and sexuality within the context of Islamic Africa, which included studies of Muslims in predominantly non-Muslim regions of Africa and both Muslims and non-Muslims in predominantly Islamic regions. The workshop sparked a conversation among scholars whose work addresses these issues in historical and contemporary [End Page 1] periods and from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. The articles in this special issue of Africa Today speak to the diversity of interpretations among workshop participants and that of the communities and individuals featured in their work. They point to continuities in the Islamic experience of love and sex over time and through space and therefore add texture to scholarly debates about universal human experiences of love and sex.

Love—Divine and Romantic

By the mid-1990s, literature on love in Africa began to challenge the colonial notion that romantic love did not exist in precolonial Africa (Bell 1995; Plotnicov 1995; Regis 1995). During the colonial period, European administrators and missionaries often assumed that the social institutions of African marriages—polygamy, arranged marriages, and the exchange of a bride price—precluded the existence of romantic love. Even in the most conservative Islamic communities that systematically practiced arranged marriages, however, Africans often exhibited a great degree of freedom in making decisions based on emotional attachment. The production of philters, for example, indicates the extent to which people attempted to control their choices in marriage and love through magic (Cole 2009; Graeber 1996; Parle and Scorgie 2012; Wilson 2012). At the same time, works such as Love in Africa (Cole and Thomas 2009) challenged the universality of certain notions of romantic love. The introduction of Western cultural ideals about love and marriage, along with other factors, resulted in new forms of expression and partnership during the twentieth century, but these were not simply reproductions of European practices. In colonial Africa, young people were especially adept at reconciling familial expectations with their own “modern” ambitions and desires. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, young lovers in Zanzibar incorporated the symbolism of popular Hindi romance films into their stories of courtship (Fair 2009). Further reassessment of African tradition in the context of postcolonial globalization has provided a...


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