Monday, November 8, 2010

Realization and Sexuality

As salaam alaikum,

First, this, the translation I remember my mother reciting:

By (the token of) time (through the ages),
Verily man is in loss,
Except for such as have faith, do righteous deeds,
and (join together) in the mutual teaching of truth
and of patience and constancy.
- Al-'Asr, A. Yusuf Ali

I made a realization that I've made many times before. I can't live this life alone. I can't live Islam as I see fit without a partner at least, without a community. The Qur'an and Sunnah provided us information on how to live together as Muslims, not on how to be an isolated Musilm in a secular community and society. I've stressed so much about this and wonder why things were so hard sometimes, but this is it. The nature of our realities on this earth is that we are products of our environment arriving to Allah (swt) at the end of it all by his grace alone, but there are means and agents of this process. Why else is it important for us to build strong communities except for us to come together and help guide each other? Because looking out at the world of Muslims today, a lot of us need guidance...and I'm not talking about guidance on frivolous things on which so many of us are unfortunately fixated. There are bigger fish to fry!

I often feared that I wasn't being a proper Muslimah, that I wasn't living up to a proper moral standard within Islam, but I realize that if I'm not interacting with other Muslims, many of those standards are virtually meaningless (not before Allah (swt), of course, but in social dealings). I realized that in the Dominican Republic, when I was the only Muslim in the region I lived in. I wore hijab. When I walked down the street, it meant nothing to the men. I was cat-called or harassed as much as the women in my group who wore their capri pants and tank tops, although I was also called Maria on occasion because of the misperception that I was a nun.

This is not me resigning myself or anything, it's just a realization. Islam makes the most sense in at least a partnership or a community context, as a means of governance of human relationships. It encourages faith as a group enterprise. It's not a magical thing that jammah salat is important...praying in a community of like-minded individuals, coming together united like that takes on greater meaning than always praying alone. I know...I usually pray alone.

Where did this come from? I was reading for my Sexuality and Public Health class (hundreds of pages of reading weekly, ladies and gents!), and I just made a realization. I was reading about social constructionism, that operates on the assumption that reality is a social construct. Extrapolating that to attraction and sexual orientation as the article was, it is impossible to segregate whatever biological meanings these two elements may have because they take on distinct meanings depending on one's culture. While an evolutionary theorist (or an essentialist) would posit that there are natural forms of attraction or sexual orientation (very Platonic of them), a social constructionist would argue that these two things are influenced by social circumstance.

For example, in some cultures, romantic love does not exist. They also gave the example of a culture where males are initiated into sexual activity with men only, get married and continue sexual activity with men while having sex with their wife, but are expected to only have sex with their wife after the birth of their first child. In this culture, there is no conception of homosexuality (which I tend to shy away from such declarative statements of what does and does not exist in one culture unless I am actually a part of said culture).

Anyway, with all of this...I thought of something I often say. I often say that our reality on this earth is actually our realities, and they are subjective. Even so, I believe in a singular reality of things, which is reflected in my belief in Islam. I believe that we each live separate realities in our heads, though these realities may be close matches in certain contexts (cultural and religious), they're all unique. There is a singular reality, a singular truth to all things. Some approach this Truth with theory, some with worship, some with both. Some ignore it for the sake of the reality of this life.

The article was trying to argue that an essentialist view and a social constructionist view were mutually exclusive, but I think it depends on how you define these terms and what elements of life you apply them to. For example, I am essentialist in the sense that I believe that elements of sentiment on this earth, such as mercy, truth, etc. are reflections of the more perfect forms of these attributes that are Allah (swt). Do I apply essentialism to attraction? No. I am social constructionist when it comes to those things.

For example, for my roommate, romantic love is not romantic love but sexual desire given the name love. For me, romantic love is not romantic love but the elation of imagining oneself married to a potential spouse, spending the rest of your life with them, having children, what the children will be like, etc. My roommate has no schema for this.

My view of romantic love is a reality for me, a subjective reality but a reality. It was formed by living in a society in which romantic love exists, and I'm influenced by that. But, being a Muslimah, it is unacceptable to me to place the cognitive meaning of romantic love on sexual desire as my roommate did. I wouldn't, after all, want to marry someone if I was influenced by that type of romantic love! So instead, I placed romantic love on another cognitive attribute...the desire to marry, spend the rest of my life with, and raise children with...whomever. It is not sexual desire...I've heard Muslims before equate sexual desire with the desire to marry, which I think is just as problematic (though not inherently wrong, just problematic) as equating romantic love with sexual desire.

I think what people define as love is different. It may be a mainstream US thing to equate some part of sexual desire with romantic love. As an American Muslim, I took my two paradigms (or three paradigms, if you include my black subculture) and that is how I define romantic love. It's based on finding one who understands, who you can talk to about anything, who is caring, compassionate...basically a bunch of characteristics that would also make a good husband. Romantic love for me is this growing realization that you could marry this person and the wonder of spending the rest of your life with another person, growing to know them and fit your life with them.

Sex...I usually have a hard time imagining sex. My roommates find this perplexing. Social constructionist theory also argues that sexuality is a social construct. Since my social influence is not strictly US culture, but also draws from my upbringing and my immersion in Islam...yeah, I can see that. People in my class would see my state as unnatural (abstinence), but really, sexuality as one experiences it is not a universal experience. People are interestingly egocentric when it comes to that...but I never assumed my sexuality was universally experienced by most other women, so it's surprising to me that other people believe so...

Anyway...I'm taking this class because sexual and reproductive health are my favorite topics ever, so yes...the theory behind these things is interesting. We'll see if I'm able to apply anything back to the clinic and wards...

Time to catch the shuttle in the midst of this Nor'easter!


  1. I agree with your view that love is social constructionist to a very large extent, however I feel there is a little part of it that is essentialist and this is often repressed for the constructionist view of it. For example those cultures that don't believe in romantic love and it is the norm to enter into an arranged would easily find many individuals who have loved romantically someone and obedience to their family caused them to do away with this notion. I think someone such as your roommate and others who equate sexual desire with romantic love will also find a piece of them that wants a person who will be there always and not just their sexually. They may not be willing to admit it but surely this part of them exists. Do my ramblings make sense? I hope so...

  2. Yeah, that makes sense. I guess what's social constructionalist about it is what people choose to call romantic love, not the existence of tehe sentiments. The various feelings, from sexual desire to the desire to spend the rest of your life with one, may or may not be called love depending on the context, even if one has the feelings. My roommate doesn't have the "spend the rest of her life with you" schema of things, though, which I think may be an artifact of her personal culture in which she thinks 25 is too young to think about marriage, whereas I've been thinking about marriage for the last 6 years.