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Question of Consent In Sexuality Discourse

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Discourse of sexuality almost procured a hegemonic status in academic as well as larger intellectual arena. Sexuality, being a regime of discourse, sidelines other power confrontations and configurations. For the last many years, Muslim women scholars have been continuously trying to articulate and locate various experiences of oppression and harassment happening in the name of Hijab and other religious practices, which always fail to qualify in the larger configuration of sexuality discourse. Foucault begins his The history of sexuality Vol.1 an introduction with a sharper observation that the assumption that sexuality is repressed allows anyone who speaks of sex to claim ‘the appearance of a deliberate transgression’. But in his later period, as observed by Benjamin Noys, Foucault changes his position and signals at the direction of sexuality developing towards a regiment form. Noys reads this change along with his position regarding Iranian revolution arguing that this marks the ascetic turn in the later Foucault. Exploring through his later works, Noys argues that Foucault in fact appears to “contest the valorization of sexuality and calls for an end of the monarchy of sex”. Noys attaches Foucault’s controversial concept of political spirituality along with this and makes a very refreshing interpretation. A new operative category in the contemporary regime of bio-politics, sexuality in fact sustains itself within the logic of exclusion. The discursive universality associated with sexuality would often fail to account for certain practices, forms of oppression, embodied belief etc. I will try to make this point clear by bringing in some of my past experience here.

During my MA period in a college (located in Kannur district, northern Malabar), we were only two Muslim girls in our class room. Because of its reigning communist politics, the campus was known as chenkotta (the red fort).  One day my (male) class teacher asked us to give shake-hand to each other as a part of developing a group feeling. But my friend (a Purdha clad Muslim) was not ready to give shake-hand to boys saying it’s her religious norm to not to do that.  Next day class teacher forced her to give shake-hand to him, but she didn’t. It triggered a furious debate in the classroom for half an hour and entire class spoke against her and said she took such a decision because of her religious conservativism/rigidness/fanaticism/fundamentalism. This eventually led others to start alienating and treating us as an ‘other’…we were almost isolated. Some of them even abused us publicly through various labels. We were branded as “uncivilised” and “terrorists” and, while trying to explain our faith-based choices, it looked to them unacceptable and “intolerant”. Several others, including teachers/professors, humiliated us with advisory questions such as: “Why do you have to carry this burden all the time? Why not expose yourself to some light and air, like do the others?” Some even suspected that we might turn out to be deaf due to our covering up.

Coming back to my friend’s experience, her consent-which was religiously constructed- for touching her body is not a matter of concern in a secular liberal space. Her refusal has been taken as ‘religious intolerance’. I used to hear abusive ‘sexual’ comments from my female teachers that, ‘do you have any ‘extra’ fitting in your body than us, if not why you are covering your whole body like this?

This waves at various accounts for how the idea of sexuality as a category of explaining certain forms of practices has been exclusive and operative only in a particular discursive tradition, namely liberal.

The notion of consent, deployed as central to the liberal feminist discourse always presupposes women outside any ‘illiberal’ discursive worlds such as religion. In other words, an ‘illiberal’ woman, Muslim women to be precise, is not entitled to make a claim of choice in public sphere since she was always already entrapped in an ‘irrational monarchy’ of Islam. I am not only arguing that the idea of choice/ consent/women is exclusive, but also it originated in a discursive history which reinstates the same enlightenment equations of religion and secular in its conceptualisation of rationality, agency etc. in the secular space choices and consents of Muslim women always read as ‘fanaticism’ or ‘backwardness’.  Not only has a discursive defect of sexuality that is proven here, but also it faced certain inconsistency at the level of its conceptual ontology.

Joseph Masad also sheds light at the inability of the category of sexuality in explaining various sexual practices/categorizations/knowledges existing among south Asian and other non-European communities. Sexuality, given that the way in which it defines itself and categorizes, is very much (ontologically) a western concept. According to him the increasing racialization of gay international and Islamophobia of sexuality movements in west have been the result of its inherent nature of western colonial hegemony. Adopting these concepts in understanding our own sexual differences, hence, will carry with it the same western tradition of enlightenment, liberalism and secular hegemony. Masad shows another form of shaming prevalent in the early modern cultural domain of Europe. To him, the European shaming of the non-Europeans on the basis of sexual desire has been closely rooted to the history of colonial encounter (Masad, 2013 empire of sexuality, Jadaliyya). This incited a discourse of assimilation into European norms of sexual identifications. Although Masad’s account is mostly related to his larger critique of gay international, his problematizing of sexuality as a conceptual ontology indeed assumes immense relevance to our context. Following Masad, it would be convinced that the shame (that is assumed to be universal and cutting across the cultural traditions) related to sex, has been originated within the colonial European tradition. Not only the categories of identification that are at work here are colonial, but also the very norm, cultural purity and knowledge associated with sex, which are by and large operative across our cultural traditions.

It’s also imperative for our understanding that shame is not culturally neutral which has been figured otherwise in the recent political discourse. It has not only a European colonial tradition as argued by Masad, but also it has its own bearings of culture, religion and tradition etc. Shame, associated to sexuality, had not taken the shape of the same in every cultural tradition. The nature of physical contact could be seen highly different and varied to different tribal/religious and other cultural communities that can’t be explained nor regulated through a certain understanding of sexuality prevalent now. Over-sexual, hyper-masculine characteristics which ‘are to be (universally) ashamed of’ have been in fact historically constructed in a context wherein sex was mediated and regulated through a particular norm of sexual practice which, according to Masad, is colonial.

The very idea of naming and shaming has been built around its pretence to create shame on culprits in public. But in my friend’s experience, we can see the ‘victim’ being shamed instead of the culprit. The entire class forced my friend to apologise to the class teacher for her being non-consenting to a male touching through shake-hand which was read as an act of ‘disrespect’ and ‘dishonour’ to him. It’s to be particularly noted that her refusal to touch is not a mere refusal coming out of her sense of liberal individuality, rather her allegiance to her faith which has a stronger root to the anti-liberal moral tradition. Hence it wasn’t qualified to the discourse of sexuality.

In contemporary sexuality discourse, the concept and grounds for shaming have already been something predetermined, and they fail to address the ‘shame’ encountered by a practicing Muslim woman in a liberal secular public sphere in the name of her religious identity.

It’s high time to interrogate the hegemonic centrality of contemporary sexuality discourse in interpreting various experiences of woman and her locations. Is it possible for the post-enlightenment secular sexual categories to address the idea of ‘consent/rejection’ of purely religious and anti-liberal nature?

References 

Michel Foucault. 1967. History of Sexuality: an introduction. Vol. 1.

Joseph Masad. 2013. Empire of Sexuality. Jadaliya.

Benjamin Noys. 2008. End of Monarchy of Sex. Sage.

(A version of this was presented in panel discussion on ‘Feminisms in Question: Naming/Shaming and the Discourse of Resistance’ held in University of Hyderabad)

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