Expressing support for the legalization of pre-marital sex in Morocco can get you killed. That’s what the editor of Morocco’s Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia daily newspaper discovered when he expressed this support during a televised debate. Article 490 of Morocco’s penal code, based on Islamic law, criminalizes sex outside of marriage, with a man and women recently being jailed for six weeks for having sexual relations.
Under a new constitution unveiled last year, it has become clear that pre-marital sex is still considered an affront on Islamic law and the decency of the person. As stated by the Justice Minister: “Legalizing sex outside of marriage is an initiative to promote debauchery.” A prominent Imam in the capital Casablanca added, “If the code is removed, we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster.”
Religious fundamentalism often creates a moral code for women, limiting their actions, rights and sexual behaviors, and restricting them to the confines of traditional ‘female’ roles: that of mother, wife, caregiver. In this way, a woman’s cultural and social identity becomes linked to her religion. This can be predominant in Islamic nations where Shari’a law is subject to interpretation by a patriarchal political system. Moral ills are resolved through adherence to a radically interpreted religious code, and family men and male authorities ‘protect’ women in the roles assigned to them. Think of the Moroccan judge who ordered a 16-yr old girl, Amina Filali, to marry her rapist in order to preserve her family’s honor (also enshrined as Article 475 of the Criminal Code). She later committed suicide after being horribly beaten by her husband. Pre-marital sexual relations are a part of these ills: they represent a supposed desecration not only of the traditional ‘nuclear’ family, not only of a woman’s ‘purity’ but also of a society’s entire identity: a woman’s moral baseness is a reflection on society as a whole.
This fundamentalist approach is increasingly seen as a reaction to Western influence, where the preservation of tradition and culture seek to also safeguard the unequal male-dominant power relations. Because of a woman’s supposed dual burden of being at once sexually weak (and in need of protection) and a representation of temptation (while men’s bodies are normalized, a woman’s is sexualized), she must act as dictated by religious law, and only in her performed inferiority to men can she ‘properly’ exist in both the public and private spheres thereby also inculcating men with an additional superiority and power. By allowing a woman to engage in pre-marital sex, she is given a choice over her sexuality, over her body and a way to engage with a man on a (supposedly) equal playing field (although it is not always so). She is also given a way in which to challenge her inferior sexual portrayal in society: suddenly she might be able to command her own pleasure, she might be able to have sex for reasons other than procreation.
Can you think of a bigger sin? What about adding contraception to that mix?
Religion has always concerned itself with the preservation of sex until marriage. But when it occurs in countries like Morocco, we in the West take solace in these examples of ’horrifying’ foreign cultural religious interpretations. We comfort ourselves through our progressive behavior in contrast to this ‘other’. However, with the numerous legal assaults brought by religious politicians in the US on women’s sexual activity, her body and her reproductive system, it is clear that religious fundamentalism polices a woman’s sexuality in a multitude of contexts. Somehow, in the US, it is justified – morality and God, preservation of family mores, tradition and chasteness, all take precendence over a woman’s health and rights, and are somehow more justified than the same decrees in other countries. These ‘third world women’ are seen as constant ‘victims’, while here, women who want to control the rights over their bodies are labeled as whores. Sluts.
It’s like we can’t decide. Are women victims? Or are they temptresses? Do we need to protect them from sex? Or protect ourselves from their sexuality? I can’t figure it out.
But what I do know is that this has very little to do with God or religion, but rather the systemic control that powerful men seek to exert over women’s bodies, and thus also over their actions, opportunities and abilities to progress within society. But the religious interpretations are now actually really hurting women all over the States. Contraception was the miracle pill that finally gave woman some measure of control over her reproductive system – enabling her to become more than a mother, and giving her choice and agency over the children she did wish to have. We see continuously in developing nations that women with access and use of contraception have fewer children and that not only are these children are healthier but the family has greater savings and more economic weight in their communities. Abortions are the extension of this right over our bodies, and our right to make our own choices. We do not need another round of politicians invoking morals and religion in order to take this away.
Unfortunately this is happening again. The Republicans have just adopted a new conservative party platform which puts contraception at jeopardy, pushes for abstinence-only sex education plans, and allows for sweeping bans on abortion. Both Republicans and their female representatives do not want to discuss these issues, stating that the economy and job creation is far more important. But for women, contraception and legal abortions are ALL about their access to that economy.
Women are obtaining university degrees at a higer rate than men (in some disciplines) and now represent 50% of the workforce. But 3 in 10 who do not work say its because of family duties and a full third cite family as the key reason for not breaking through the glass ceiling. So with all that education, access to the workforce is still hampered by the cost and time of raising a child (which is why a lot of educated women are having their first child later in life, or not at all) – as having children is extremely costly. For families (and often, single mothers) that cost extends into the decreased opportunities and time that the children will then receive from their parents, as stay at home moms have markedly lower incomes than working mothers do. Now, in this economy, more than ever before, women are becoming the bread winners of their families and are rising to the financial challenges facing them, as working class men are laid off. And you’re telling me access to contraception and legal abortion doesn’t matter? Do you need more proof? Read Soraya’s excellent article here. And on that abstinence-only sex ed push the Republicans are gung-ho about? Teen pregnancies are higher in states that only have those policies…
Apart from staying away from policing women’s sexuality, we may wish to accept that neither a society’s credibility or honor are based on a woman’s purity. While not wishing to offend different cultures in which this continues to be the case (as clearly, the West thinks the same way), I would argue that this will only hamper economic, social and cultural development in the long term, by keeping women in subjugated and unequal roles. I know it’s a revolutionary idea to think that sex might be had for reasons other than procreation and might also include pleasure for a woman. But if equality is going to start somewhere, it seems like the bedroom might be a good place.
The repression of women is not inherent to religion, but the radical interpretation of religious beliefs seeks to preserve the patriarchal structures in which it can dominate. Resistance to change and a backlash against those who instigate it is common, but through de-linking the patriarchal power relationships between religion, culture and politics, the subordination of women can be restructured. The importance of streamlined political and cultural agendas for the proliferation of fundamentalism is paramount: without them, traditional values are subject to re-examination in the quest to advance women’s rights and are, ultimately, also subject to change – demonstrating that there is no place for a woman’s oppression in any religious society.
With that, have a great labor day weekend.
Photo via Google Images Creative Commons.