Last month, Beyonce released her latest visual album, Lemonade. And the responses have been numerous.
On CBC’s q, Naila Keleta-Mae called it masterful and discussed the legacy that Beyonce is creating. Courtney Lee listed the lessons about Black womanhood she sees, over at Sojourner, and the presence of God and Christianity in the album, over at Women in Theology. At The Guardian, Ijeoma Oluo writes about how the album is about much more than infidelity and Jay Z. Rather, she states, the album is about “the love that black women have – the love that threatens to kill us, makes us crazy and makes us stronger than we should ever have to be” while Brentin Mock over at CityLab explains the “porch-front politics” of the album. Miriam Bale speaks of the Black feminism of the album. And Evelyn from the Internets summed up her thoughts, and the album, in this video. These were just a few responses among many.
As a non-Black Muslim woman I am not going to dissect this album. In fact, I’m not really talking about the album at all, or Beyonce even. The album was made for Black women and is for them to speak about, write about, and discuss. Here, I share and discuss some questions I have in relation to certain discourses which are common in Muslim communities when it comes to sex, sexuality, and women – questions which arise from my being both a Muslim woman and a feminist. In this piece I find myself thinking out loud about the Muslim community when it comes to issues of women’s sexuality and sexual expression.
Question 1: Are Beyonce’s music and videos too sexual and thus offensive?
It is common in Muslim communities that when it comes to women, modesty (often defined in a very particular and rigid way) in clothing and discretion and secrecy in regard to sexuality are promoted as virtues. Those assumed to be violating these virtues are judged to be poor Muslims having the same type of eye-rolling childish disgust for God that a rebellious teenager might have for their out-of-touch, oh-so-boring parents. This is why this question pops into my mind. Especially since in Beyonce’s videos the clothing of the women, the dance moves, and sometimes the scenes depicted do often have a sexualized component to them.
However, how do we, as Muslim feminists, then incorporate the feminist values of bodily autonomy, sexual independence, freedom of choice, and freedom of expression – especially for marginalized women – into the conversation? How do we challenge traditional Islamic ideas of sexualization and objectification (i.e. the more a woman covers the less she is objectified) when the traditional, Islamic definitions of these constructs are so linked to faithful practice for so many Muslims? In other words, if most Muslims view a “covered-up” woman as a good Muslim, dutifully following God’s orders, while viewing a Muslim woman in “revealing” clothing as actively defying God, then how do we change that view without also challenging tenets of faith?
But then, shouldn’t we be challenging these tenets of faith that correlate a woman’s piety and worth with her clothing? After all, such correlations are oppressive. They are misogynistic. They do feed victim-blaming. They do place the burden of morality on the shoulders of women, and only women. They do reduce a Muslim woman’s faith to the cloth covering her body, despite that fact that we know our faith is about SO MUCH MORE than that. So much more.
Public sexual expression is viewed as offensive within many, if not most, Muslim communities. Yet, being able to choose one’s own method of sexual expression can often be a form of empowerment, especially for marginalized women. How do we, then, create space, safe space, for that within our communities while respecting our traditions?
Question 2: Do we need to protect our children from the sexual images in her videos?
I get it. Parents do need to monitor what their children watch. Children are impressionable and the complexity of the many images they come across in the media will be difficult for them to comprehend appropriately. As someone who does not have children, I cannot tell parents how to parent. (Even if I had children I wouldn’t do that.) I will, however, say that considering it is very difficult to hide sexualized images from children, Muslim parents need to ask themselves, explicitly, how they will explain such images when their children see them. They should have answers prepared that will not perpetuate the objectification and dehumanization of women and girls. They should have answers prepared that will teach boys to respect women regardless of their clothing. They should have answers that will not result in children being ashamed of their genitals or curves, rather answers that will encourage them to be comfortable with and respect their bodies.
They should also have answers that will not perpetuate dangerous, racist tropes about the bodies of Black women. Considering the pervasiveness of racism among non-Black Muslims toward Black Muslims, and considering we’re talking about Beyonce’s work (and the political implications of her work for Black people) in this post, this one is really important.
Question 3: Should Beyonce should be promoted to Muslim girls as someone to admire?
Beyonce’s feminism is well known, though not everyone is convinced, including Black women. bell hooks recently criticized Lemonade as a project in which “violence is made to look sexy and eroticized” while other feminists of colour debated and discussed hooks’ argument. Although her expression of feminism has been critiqued and questioned, some young Muslim women have embraced her as feminist. Lemonade has been hailed a Black feminist album, all about and for Black women. Her recent work is political, speaking on issue of race and gender. Yet, in light of questions s 1 and 2 I wonder if many Muslims (as well as others) will not recognize her contributions to the discourses on social justice.
I understand that feminism itself is a difficult thing to define. Personally, my opinion on feminists is the same as my opinion on Muslims – if someone says they are, then they are. Others can’t kick them out of the club because others don’t agree with their beliefs. But I find myself very uncomfortable with those who dismiss her messages, and her power, because they are hung up on her sexual expression.
Female leadership and autonomy within the Muslim community face a lot of opposition and antagonism. Patriarchal interpretations of the texts have meant male leaders have always tried to control Muslim women, and the messaging Muslim women receive regarding their own roles and rights. Muslim women re-interpreting texts and/or providing guidance, leadership, and inspiration to young Muslims has disrupted that male-centric narrative, prompting a backlash at times from some Muslim men. Though, to be fair, while some women leaders have often been rejected by many Muslim men, others have been accepted.*
If Muslim women can receive a negative response, non-Muslim women who may inspire Muslim women will no doubt face opposition for their influence. More so, if they dress provocatively and challenge traditional ideas on sexual expression. But then that leaves me thinking about the kind of opposition a Muslim woman who simultaneously challenges systems of patriarchy as well as traditional ideas on sexual expression would receive. Will our Muslim communities accept those Muslim women as role models who challenge traditional dress codes by engaging in overt forms of sexual expression? Will a Muslim woman’s sexuality always be so top-of-mind that her fights for social justice and equity will be drowned out in comparison? Will a Muslim woman who wears short shorts while protesting injustice be seen as lacking inspirational character because of her clothing?
I have too many questions. How do we, or can we, incorporate sexual inclusion and safety while maintaining traditional and mainstream Islamic ideas on sexuality? Should we challenge these traditional ideas? Can we as a Muslim community work hard to stop the perpetuation of misogyny? Will our Muslim communities accept the leadership of women who challenge traditional ideas of sexuality?
And, who thought Beyonce could be a catalyst for these discussions?
*I recognize that there are racial implications in this discussion of who is an acceptable leader in the Muslim community. It was outside the scope of this piece to discuss them, and the race of who non-Black Muslims accept as leader is intertwined with gender.