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May 08, 2006

Is Al-Qaeda motivated by a fear of female sexuality? Shere Hite think this is an important factor - Lilian Pizzichini finds out why

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Shere Hite - the feminist made famous in the 1970s by her studies of female sexuality - argues that the fear of female sexuality is at the route of the rise of religious extremism in general and Islamist terrorism in particular. Lilian Pizzichini finds out why.

In Arabic, the word fitna means both civil disorder and beautiful woman.

Female sexuality has always been a fearsome thing to men. Why, I don't know: I'm not a man. Perhaps some male readers can enlighten me. I suspect it has something to do with paternity, property and primogeniture, and also perhaps because sexual passion can wreak havoc in an otherwise well-ordered life. Although that loss of control can apply to both men and women, I understand that women can be more circumspect because they bear the consequences of sexual passion.

On 3rd May at the ICA, Shere Hite gave a talk on Sexual Purity and the New Global Terrorism. Hite was a headline-making feminist in the 1970s. Her researches revealed that women did not ordinarily reach orgasm through penetrative sex but through stimulation of the clitoris. Furthermore, that they felt "frigid" or dysfunctional for not being able to reach climax through copulation. This was all very shocking stuff in the 1970s. But it is information that is taken for granted now.

More recently, she has conducted research that reveals men feel under constant pressure to achieve "large" erections, and that on entering puberty they feel obliged to separate from their mothers in such a way that feels like a repudiation of female values. Sexuality is still shrouded in doubt, stigma and mystery. But it is female bodies that she came to the ICA to discuss.

For some unclear reason, she states, to do with female sexuality, the female body is central to global conflict. Photographs of grieving women in chadors dominate our newspapers alongside Page Three girls, but any discussion to do with women and their mode of dress is absent from the post-9/11 political discourse.

I remember western governments being quite vocal in their condemnation of the Taliban's wholesale oppression of women. And Muslim culture generally is oppressive of women's rights. But silence has descended on the subject. I would conjecture that political correctness lies at the root of that particular silence. If this is the case, it seems to me that Hite's argument is timely.

According to more research, this time conducted by psychoanalyst Dr Nancy Kobrin for her forthcoming book, The Sheik's New Clothes: the Psychoanalytic Roots of Islamic Suicide Terrorism:

The little girl [in Islamic society] lives her life under a communal death threat – the honor killing.
She argues that women are routinely treated as second-class citizens within the home, and both male and female children are brought up by mothers who are debased as individual human beings. If women are treated as inferiors, this makes children feel even more psychologically "contaminated" by the humiliated yet all-powerful mother. Because this is where women's power base traditionally resides: over children.

Hite made the specific point that 97% of the world's illiterate are women and yet governments are saying nothing about women's rights in conjunction with global conflict. The Gulf war was not fought in order to enable Iraq's women to become Page Three girls. But most of these conflicts are between the secular west and fundamentalist Islamists whose cultures display divergent approaches to the female form. Fundamentalist Muslims see the West as decadent. They've been reading the Sun newspaper. They have seen the sexualisation of our culture, and how we use women's bodies as commodities. Increasingly, they will see that women themselves are keen to use their bodies as commodities. Perhaps this "provocation" is an attempt to incite unrest amongst the male species. If so, it has worked.

And maybe that is why Muslims make women cover up. Nancy Kobrin makes an interesting point about Arab and Muslim boys that I think backs up Hite's arguments that sexual purity is at the heart of Jihad. Muslim boys must disassociate themselves from their mothers in "spectacularly savage" ways. Mothers can be sexual objects for their sons, too. This is taboo in most cultures. In Islamic cultures, where women's bodies are deemed too threatening to be viewed in public, a mother's body has even more power to disturb. Unconsciously, Kobrin is suggesting, young Muslim males may:

wish to remain merged with the source of contamination – a conflict that suicide bombers both act out and resolve when they manfully kill but also merge their blood eternally with that of their presumably most hated enemies, the Israeli Jews.
It is a point worth considering. Hite's talk raised a few more: that the separation of sex from politics has led to hysteria around sexuality. She claimed that the sexual revolution that took place in the 1960s did not demand sexual freedom for women as such. Equality in pay, yes, but not necessarily the equality to shag around. That just wasn't an issue. And we still have not reached full equality. The economics of that, she suggested, would be too destabilising for governments seriously to contemplate.

And societies all over the world still fear female sexuality. Pat Buchanan blamed the demise of family on feminism. Just say NO clubs proliferate in America. Saudi Arabia demands purity in its women. It can surely be no coincidence that the Saudi secret service discovered that 25,000 young Saudi men had channelled their energies into Jihadist training camps. What else are they going to do with all that testosterone?

Her main point, however, was that religious extremism, whether it's the American variety or the Islamic, is posited on the fear of rampant females.

Hite had no answers to the issues she was raising, just suggestions. That's how she works. She leaves you pondering and wanting to find out more. Where her work is valuable is that she makes her interlocutor question themselves. This is what we need to do, as individuals and as a society. We need to understand ourselves and our responses to our sexuality. It doesn't have to be all about erections and climax, she said. There are other ways in which to express sexuality. Until we question our attitudes towards this heated area, we are left with no room to debate what female sexuality means to us. By the end of her talk it was obvious that the mystery with which female bodies are shrouded is oppressive to men and women all over the world.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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Hmmm .... Once again we see politically correct moral equivalence at work:

"Her main point, however, was that religious extremism, whether it's the American variety or the Islamic, is posited on the fear of rampant females."

Frankly, the so-called "American variety" of "religious extremism" is annoying and silly but not to be compared with Islam. Wanting Creationism taught in schools is preposterous; suicide-bombing is evil.

It is also an error to assume that Judaeo-Christian sexual morality - or, indeed, post-Christian morals (because some of us still have some scruples, you know) - must somehow have the same functionality (and hence, perhaps, psychological roots) as attitudes to sexuality in islam simply because sex is the point of reference in all cases.

I felt offended when Piers Paul Read used the term Judaeo-Christian-Islamic sexual morality in the Spectator the other day. This is a result of ignorance.

The sharia permits adult males to have sexual relations with children and livestock. In Iran the age of marriage for girls is nine (for an obvious reason). This is not morality in any sense in which a Christian or a Jew would understand the term.

I suggest that the "function" of sexual morality in Western society is to protect the psychological health - and indeed the sexual experience itself (that it be fulfilling not degrading) - for the individual. Because sexual desire is inherently destabilizing and threatens the personality it must of necessity be somewhat hedged around with taboo and guided in appropriate directions. It should be a meeting of mature equals in a fully personal act. I think such a view could be defended in the terms in which Roger Scruton does in Sexual desire. And there is nothing in the gospels to contradict such a view. At the same time, "sexual purity" is not to be made too much of - as the parable of the wise and foolish virgins makes clear.

The "function" of sexual morality (or what passes for such) in Islamic societies seems to be quite different. Islam is not about the individual. It is about the collective. "Morality" has a different function for collectives. (See Sir Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 1. ch. 6). Unsurprisingly, sexual morality here seems to serve the collective (the umma): what is "moral" is whatever serves its interests. Secondarily, it reaffirms hierarchies - for example, according to the Koran a wife never has the right to say "no" to sex - which is also a defining feature of collective moralities as readers of Popper will recall. (One might also speculate that by quite rigidly controlling access to women, but by offering plenty of sex to those who toe the line - "tomcatting rights over four women" in V. S. Naipaul's words and much else besides - Islam also appropriates some of the emotions associated with sexuality.)

This may be "morality" in some technical sense. It's nothing we would recognize as such.

I'm not sure what to make of the speculations of Kobrin and others on the psychoanalytic connections between sex and Islamic terrorism. This is partly because I am not inclined to take psychoanalysis too seriously. However, it has to be said that there is something odd going on here. For more, see the following three short online articles:

1. An article entitled "The Psychoanalytic Roots of Islamic Terrorism".

2. This symposium is also a must-read.

3. The following short article is interesting, too: The Sexual Rage Behind Islamic Terror.

Posted by: Damian at May 8, 2006 06:37 PM

Sex has occurred to me to be an instrument of social development. Western civilization, as opposed to other civilizations, notably Islam, has cultivated it as such. Sex is imbued with contradiction. The reality of the world is contradiction and functions because of it. The West has used contradiction to it advantage itself. It has harness its creative tension like no other group.

The Western world has not denied the contradictions that sex holds but has cultivated and worked with them. The Islamic world has denied and thwarted the contradictions of life, and sex. That is one major reason I theorize that the Islamic world is far behind in its development, because it has denied and not embraced or employed the sexual contradictions that exist between men and women. In the West, that contradiction, allowed to do its thing, has been one of the dynamos that has perpetuated and heightened our civilization.

Posted by: David Airth at May 9, 2006 02:11 AM

Ritual scarification, especially on female faces, and the placing of brass rings about the neck and the insertion of large objects into a woman's lower lip, is said by anthropologists to have originated in a desire to make women less attractive to other tribes that might otherwise kidnap them. Most of those examples are performed by non-Muslim societies. I have often wondered if purdah, chadri and the burqa stem from similar pre-Islamic practices. Hindu sati, the self-immolation of widows, is similarly ancient and derives, they believe, from pastoral days when old and barren women were unwelcome and unproductive mouths to feed.

Certainly here in Afghanistan, women are the strongest proponents of all forms of chadri and purdah. The elder women feel that they have 'paid their dues' and have earned their years being waited upon by the younger women in the extended families. This culture is so strong that little girls clomp about in mother's burqa as little Western girls used to totter about in mommie's high heeled shoes. Poor women, whose husbands come unto money, celebrate their arrival by retreating into purdah -- no demeaning daytime jobs for them. This is complex stuff and not unique to Islam.

But I suppose that research is too arduous for Miss Hite and her kind, sitting in air conditioned rooms concocting their tosh and others parrotting it.

Posted by: s masty at May 9, 2006 05:47 PM

"Female sexuality has always been a fearsome thing to men. Why, I don't know: I'm not a man. Perhaps some male readers can enlighten me."

I wish I could answer that question. I never had a problem with female sexuality.

Posted by: David Airth at May 10, 2006 03:28 AM

Martial wrote an epigram about a certain critic:

Tongilianus has a nose – I know, I don’t deny it;
But then – Tongilianus has nothing but a nose!

It seems much the same could be said about the sexuality of certain authors. There are in Nature certain creatures also, which are practically nothing but sexuality. Darwin discovered this in working on a barnacle which he called Arthrobalanus, followed by other species

in which the male was similarly dwarfed in relation to the female and lived . . . as "mere bags of spermatozoa" attached to the female ( Living Cirripedia (1854): 23).

But there is a similar barnacle called Sacculina, a parasite of crabs, where this time it is the female which becomes little more than a reproductive sac.

The face of Western society is now grotesquely over-sexed, so a few Muslims going off the rail over the issue is nothing to be wondered at. But strange thing, this sexuality seems counter-reproductive, and threatens to doom Western Man and his culture to extinction. It would have had Darwin pulling out his beard in horror!

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 10, 2006 01:52 PM
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