By Nurul Fadiah Johari
We live in a society that loves and hates sex at the same time. We love, desire and want to possess it, and yet, we loathe, fear and reject it all the same. And we would do what it takes to assuage our own insecurities towards it, especially through the mechanisms of religious and cultural norms.
Growing up in a predominantly Malay-Muslim society, I was taught from an early age that, as women, we should desexualize ourselves as much as possible. We are not supposed to look sexy in any way, and as much as we can, to control our sexual feelings. In other words, just kill off any semblance of sexuality from the get-go.
Young girls are taught that their body is a source of sin and that if they are not covered in proper Islamic attire, their fathers will be held accountable in the Hereafter. At the same time, we are somehow supposed to please our husbands sexually once we are married. As a woman, our self-worth is ultimately tied closely to our sexuality—how well we guard it before marriage and then how well we use it in marriage.
Women in my community are told many things in order to desexualise ourselves, and yet to sexualise ourselves within marriage. Once, a teacher told us women to not dress sexily at the workplace, because if a man were to fantasize about us, we would have to bear his sins.
And if our husbands were to think about finding a second wife, we are supposed to try harder to please him. In religious classes, having to shave one’s pubic hair is emphasised, the point being to please one’s husband. Our dignity is thus measured by our husband’s pleasure. A woman’s desirability is to be earned, while the husband merely gives.
When I was younger, I was taught by an ustazah  that women are supposed to cover their feet with socks, because men can tell by looking at their feet if they are virgins or not. I am still curious as to how men can tell the status of my “virginity” (simply understood as vaginal penetration by a penis) by looking at my feet, and why that mattered so much.
Clearly, it still does matter. After all, a woman is devalued once she loses her virginity. She is a used product. A divorcee, or janda, in the Malay community, is still viewed with suspicion and sometimes contempt. Only recently, my aunt lamented to my mum about her misfortune of having a future daughter-in-law who is a divorcee. It does not matter that she may be a good partner to my cousin; all that matters is her status as a divorced or previously married woman. I don’t know which is worse—the fact that she is divorced or that she was previously married to another man. In my observation, a divorcee is not as valued as a previously unmarried woman when it comes to entering marriage. It may seem to some that her being divorced means being a failure at marriage, while being previously married to someone else simply meant that she is not a blushing virgin anymore. Either way, it is just an unsavoury position for a woman to be in.
This fear of sex outside the legitimate boundaries of marriage means that marriage is deemed as the solution and justifier for all sexual desires. How often do we hear today of people saying “Dah halal!” to newlyweds, thereby alluding to the halal (permissible) status of their relationships? As though any form and expression of love that arises prior to the solemnisation is less legitimate and therefore less valuable.
Pre-marital romantic relationships are sometimes even touted as “haram” (forbidden) relationships. And suddenly, everything becomes okay at the point when the groom accepts the bride’s hand in marriage. The same goes for people who claim that the main aim of marriage is to legalise their relationship, and by relationship, it means sex. Sex becomes the sole purpose of marriage, and so by that, marriage is equated to sex. The binding marriage contract thus grants people sexual access to their partners, so that they would not have to feel guilty for wanting to release their sexual desires.
I remember discussing with some friends during my teens about what we would do on our wedding nights, the kinds of games we would play with our husbands. It is a form of a naïve anticipation of sex that is conditioned by a society that represses sex. The wedding night itself is viewed with so much anticipation because of the excitement about having sex, that it probably ends up quite a disappointment for many people. Perhaps, what we need to think about is not the mere act of sex per se, but the act of building love and trust, which is then expressed in various ways. Sex is just one way of expressing that love.
Thus, as an extension to this fear of sex outside of marriage, we have developed an unhealthy obsession with marriage. Our obsession with marriage is primarily rooted in our repression of sex. We seem to love marriage, especially weddings, even more than love itself.
Of course, this means that marriage and wedding planner agencies can capitalise on our unhealthy obsession with marriage. It certainly has become a multi-million dollar industry here. People are willing to scrimp and save, simply to buy into this romance of extravagant weddings. To me, one can say that you get married once, but the financial burden of a lavish wedding and other costs lasts a long time. It may even cost one’s marriage. I have heard of stories of people getting into fights and even divorcing their spouses due to financial constraints, starting from debts incurred from the wedding.
What is more worrisome, however, is when the fear of sex outside of marriage and the myopic solution of marriage is used to endorse young or early marriages. It is common to see in social media how some groups of Muslims, in response to the prevalence of young Malays having romantic relationships prior to marriage, come out with slogans such as “Bercinta selepas nikah” and “Say no to couple”.
In trying to deal with issues of sexual promiscuity and its ensuing problems amongst Malay youths, these groups, instead of talking honestly about sexual and marital responsibilities in the modern context, choose to idealise the idea of the marriage institution and romanticise the notion of “love after marriage”.
Some also glorify the idea of young marriages, as though this would easily solve the problems related to sexuality amongst Malay youths. The idea is simplistic in that it assumes that marriage, just simply because it legitimises sexual relations, would be the ideal solution to sexual promiscuity.
In seeking to preserve an idealised notion of Islamic marriage as a reaction against sexual promiscuity, these groups promote marriage rather than trying to analyse and understand the reasons for teenage sexuality and premarital relations. So instead of promoting comprehensive sexual education with an emphasis on mutual consent, trust and respect, we end up leaving youths unprepared to live with the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.
At the heart of it, marriage is used as a tool to control and police sexuality in our community. We repress our sexual desires, and in the process become obsessed with sex. Many religious classes are used as a free access to sexual discussions—where people ask the Ustaz questions on the permissibility of swallowing their husband’s semen and so on. This merely reflects a pubertal understanding of marriage, sex and intimacy. We have not moved on from this. We still fantasise about sex like teenagers and therefore romanticise love and relationships like lovelorn youths. So we rely on and succumb to legalistic and authoritarian confines of marriage in order to cope with our inability to live with our sexuality.
We need to move toward a more mature understanding of love and sex. And for that to happen, we need to challenge head on the taboos and fear surrounding sex. As Muslim women, the first step is to take ownership of our bodies, from the very core of how we dress, present and conduct ourselves in society. All talk of self-love and care comes to nought if we do not love our physicality and sexuality.
We need to move away from the idea of living to please men, and this starts with the idea of pleasing an anthropomorphic and masculinised God. We need to make that radical break, and we need it now, more than ever. Only when we stop fearing our own body and its capacity can we then stop fearing and policing sex.
*The term “zinaphobia”, or the fear of sex outside of marriage, was used in this article by Julia Suryakusuma in The Jakarta Post, “’Zinaphobia’, homophobia and the ‘bukan-bukan’ state”, 7 September 2016.
 Female religious teacher
 Fall in love after marriage
This piece was first published in Growing Up Perempuan (2018)
Fadiah co-runs Penawar, a support group for women/non- males raised in the Muslim community, dealing with negative experiences from patriarchal interpretations of religion. She has also written for local publications such as Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out (2016), Growing Up Perempuan (2018) and Budi Kritik (2018).
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu