Where Does the Black Muslim Woman Fit in Discussions of Sexuality
by Iman Hussein
Carrie Bradshaw and Marilyn Monroe are two cultural icons infamous for their sexual exploration, freedom, and depiction of what mainstream media believes to be a modern woman. And when I say a "modern woman," I mean the constantly evolving modern white woman—the balance of purity and sin. As an American, I was unconsciously raised with this standard, and consciously told how incapable I was of achieving that standard because of my Blackness and Arabness. My identity and looks are subject to a harmful history that has not only orientalized, but also fetishized the Black, Muslim Female.
When you're faced with the "ideal, modern" woman, the key to their entire being, success, and culmination is whiteness. In 2007—which seems like a world away now—Dr. Edward Rhymes brought to light the different ways that Black and white women are received in society when expressing similar forms of sexual expression. Rhymes provides a wide range of examples—from popular porn stars to Pretty Woman—to showcase a clear point: "...even when the 'textbook' requirements of what constitutes being promiscuous is met, her whiteness saves the day." The "innocent, wholesome" white woman is then the opposite of the "crude, immodest, and sexually deviant" Black woman.
This depiction of Black women can be found even in the earliest form of media: art. White women have traditionally been depicted as “‘harmonious with nature’—‘peaceful and comfortable within [their] environment’—as they serve as ‘metaphors for the land,’ while white men represent the ‘masculinized culture’ in control of the ‘feminine realm.”' White women are just the extension of the natural world, and consequently, are "passive" in their own sexuality, because—like nature—they cannot escape their "natural beauty." Themes like "sleep/death...environmental distraction and...allegory" were used to reinforce the idea that white women are inherently "sexually innocent". These ideas establish the "preservation of 'innocence' of the [white] female by externalizing the orgin of the sexaul gaze." On the other hand, Black women, as seen in art pieces like the Colored Nude, are depicted as "[sellable] flesh," their bodies becoming something "other" and needing to be possessed by the right hands. Unlike white women and their sexuality, Black women are not portrayed as passive in their sexuality; they are aggressively sexual and overt. Hence, Black women are just sexual beings that deserve to be put on display, and punished for their overt sexuality (i.e. kinky hair and curvier bodily features).
When you look at the history of how female bodies are perceived, you can better understand the treatment of white bodies in comparison to bodies of color. White women are free to do as they please because their bodies are considered good and moral. White women in most societies can do no wrong, so they can take on sexually explicit professions and lifestyles and still be deemed as being part of a "sexual revolution." Yet Black women, even from childhood, are deemed as inherently dirty and overtly sexual unless they look or have stake in some sort of whiteness (i.e. biraciality or lack of curves). The ruthless sexualization of Black women and their bodies has led to the demonization and exploitation of the same actions that their white counterparts are praised for regularly.
Depictions of women in the past—all controlled and determined by a white "masculinized culture"—serve to represent all women of their race and consequently erase the individual and her experiences. These visual representations served as models of understanding how to treat and label women. While white women were also sexualized, they still had the power to be seen as positive and as the "ideal" in not only their own cultures but around the world.
The idealization of not only the white female form, but also white people and culture in general, can be defined by the concept of Occidentalism: the learned, idealized perception of what it means to be a Westerner. Occidentalism is in direct opposition to Orientalism, the western depiction of the East and its inhabitants. Europe was viewed as "essentially rational, developed, humane, superior, authentic, active, creative, and masculine, while the Orient...[was considered] irrational, aberrant, backwards, crude, despotic, inferior, inauthentic, passive, [and] sexually corrupt". The Oriental people, specifically the Oriental woman, were defined by these "western travel writers" as "lusty" and in dire need of "western/Christian heroes to satisfy their libidinous desire." Muslim/Arab women were viewed as needing to be saved from "Muslim men and Islamic patriarchy," establishing a sort of white savior complex.
Eastern women (including Black Arabs and Africans) were seen as "passive" figures in need of a guiding force to provide them with a voice. Consequently, Eastern women, like their "inferior nations," were considered to lack all of the qualities found in white women. Mahmudul Hasan summed it up perfectly by stating that "western women are conscious of their rights, while eastern women are passive, submissive recipients of patriarchal domination". Because of their 'inherent nature,' Oriental women were denied their autonomy and individuality, and were '[homogenized]' by not only white men, but also white women. White feminists were known to "depreciate the struggles of local feminist protagonists" by stripping away or ignoring Eastern women’s "rich intellectual [and cultural] heritage" to continue subjecting them to the same constraints placed upon them by white men.
On top of being subjected to an intense amount of "othering" by colonialists, women of color were treated and depicted just as harshly by those in the East. Feminist scholars often refer to this as "double colonization" as Eastern women experienced both "patriarchal oppression...[and] Orientalist manipulation." Muslim women often received the brunt of the oppressive and manipulative treatment found in the East due to a deep hatred of Islam.
The demonization of Muslims led to the literal soul-removal and dehumanization of Muslim women by Western colonialists. Western men having sex or participating in any sexual acts with Muslim women was then seen as more than justifiable by Westerners like Richard Burton due to their lack of humanity—because "Asiatic beauties [were] the most convenient women alive." Rape and sexual assault were equally as permissible because Muslim women "were so nymphomaniac and [...] so uncontrollable that, in the absence of men, they used to dally with each other." The pillaging of Muslim women's souls and humanity then allowed for colonialists to feel justified in treating them like "living rewards...they [could] reap" whenever they pleased". Muslim/Eastern women were not seen as people. As put so well by Mahmudul Hasan, they were seen in the order of "'Oriental’, woman, and Muslim."
While Muslim women were treated like sex maniacs by Westerners, they were also ironically stripped of their sexual identity by the prevalent Muslim culture. Western treatment of the female body partially solidified several ideas reiterating that "if [their bodies were] not controlled, [it] could result in social chaos and social disorder." This belief can be traced back to a time and culture prior to Islam's arrival in which women were punished just for existing. Even though the Qu'ran never discusses female sexuality, women in the Muslim faith have been exploited by their own people.
Muslim women are forced to adhere to harmful male notions regarding their womanhood, their sexuality, and their agency, all without their individuality, opinions, and consent being factored into the equation. This isn't the case for all Muslims, but there are many Muslim women who face the reality of not having autonomy over their bodies and actions. Laws and cultural practices have determined that female sexuality and identity are representative of individual families’ "purity," and if women "[violate these] codes," they're punished and "subjected to violence, forced marriage, and even killed." Consequently, women that veer from the path established by the patriarchy are made to feel evil or dirty for expressing their own desires and actions.
Now how does the Black Arab woman fit into these narratives of the Black woman and the Arab/Muslim woman? Black Arab women, like Somalis and Berbers, are excluded altogether from the conversation regarding the Black female form and Arab/Muslim female representation. Black Arab women's bodies, features, and culture reflect and embody that of the Arab World, but their location and skin color paints a different story for Westerners. The idea of Blackness and Arab-ness and womanhood existing together has been impossible to acknowledge in general—let alone on an individual basis.
The Black Arab woman is restrained by her appearance, her religion, and a misogynistic, prejudiced culture working against her. The worst part about the dichotomy is that when you’re not being seen as Black, you're being seen as either Muslim or "Other." Black Arab women are under the pressure of various outlets—from specific Muslim cultures to television—to either conform or face an immense amount of cruelty and shame in being "Other."
I say these things because my experiences in life have been dictated by these historical dynamics of gender, religion, and race. When I get catcalled or ogled by men, I can't help but be reminded of the culture that used religion to shame me for the gaze of others. When I step outside in shorts, I can't help but feel guilty for being immodest and feeling like I'm giving people permission to make comments and judgements. For the longest time, I was even ashamed for being darker skinned because it seems like the blacker you are in the Arab world, the less deserving you are of being respected and treated as an Arab, despite growing up and existing in an Arab culture all my life.
Muslim women's treatment has gone from being nymphomaniacs to being prudes incapable of sexual autonomy. The day I decided to stop wearing my headscarf, I felt like I could no longer be considered respectable. I no longer was deemed "Muslim" enough or "Arab" enough by my community and others to deserve respect. It was like my headscarf was the source of my dignity.
My body, no longer protected by a symbolic piece of cloth, was open to the world to be discussed and fetishized. It felt like the world took ownership over my body once my family stopped caring about what I did. My features, combined with my blackness, were fetishized and sexualized along with my background, especially while dating. I wasn't a person; I was an experience to enjoy because I was considered "exotic" and a "naughty Muslim."
My sexuality, and my expression of it, was never left for me to determine. If it wasn't my family warning me of my "dangerous sexuality," it was other people who felt like they could claim my sexuality based on my skin color, features, and/or religion. While white women in the media found love, had guiltless sex, and exposed themselves without shame. My body and sexuality were considered dangerous and toxic in a Western context that still manages to orientalize the Arab world.
Most importantly, this troubling history has caused millions of other Black Arab women to feel the same way I have regarding sex and sexuality. Our intersectional identities make it tough to claim our sexual autonomy because we live in a world where what it means to be Black is already determined. Because we live in a world where what it means to be Muslim and/or Arab is already determined. Because we live in a world where everyone feels like they can explain our identity, our culture, our history, and our sexuality because a deeply troubling history has made that okay.
In the future, we need to begin shedding these toxic ideas and realities so Muslim women of color—Black Arab or not—can be comfortable in their bodies and sexualities. More importantly, we need to think of Blackness and Arabness as being more than just individual identities. It's this need to create a distinction that has led to my experiences and as well as millions of other women.
Note: Footnotes can be found in the printed piece and were excluded in this transcription to ease reading.