Everything You Need to Know About Sexual Consent in Islam

According to UN Women, one out of every three women across the world is subject to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.

According to UN Women, one out of every three women across the world is subject to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner.

The fight for women’s bodily rights has been going on for ages. The United States Supreme court on June 24 overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 judgment that made abortion a constitutional right and since then, women’s rights over their bodies and their right to privacy have become a hot topic triggering debates and discussions all over the globe.

Keeping aside the ban on abortions and the related discourses on how it is going to transform the lives of American women from now on, which is anyway, all over the media and the internet, what drew me to the matter in question was how even the basic rights of women everywhere, are infringed upon, consequently affecting their lives in the long run.

The right to when or whether to have children, the right to privacy, the right to work, the right to choose a partner, the right to live life on one’s own terms, the right to healthcare, the right to property, to vote, to earn an equal wage, the right to say NO to a spouse for sex… the list is endless. Anyone and everyone seem to take it as their right to dictate the lives of women about what to do, what to say, or what to wear.  

Women all over the world are still discriminated against based on their gender despite decades of movements to address this inequality and respect their rights. Instances of gender-based violence, sexual harassment at the workplace and in the streets, and domestic violence are on a rise, particularly after the pandemic struck. A gender-egalitarian society can only be materialised when men and women enjoy the same rights, roles, and responsibilities. This equality is what bothers a patriarchal society and its proponents. And this mentality is reflected in the attitude towards women in society. 

Is saying ‘NO’ against the concept of an ideal wife?

Gender-specific roles laid down by society since the dawn of human civilization restrict women to the stereotypical social role of a nurturing and softness-oozing wife, mother, and homemaker – one that meets the cultural expectations of the society. A deviation from the norm is usually not easily acceptable and is frowned upon.

When it comes to marriage, things are no different. Women are conditioned to be submissive and an all-giver who is expected to give their hundred percent to the relationship, please their spouse, and to take care of their family day and night without any complaints.

To say a NO or to voice displeasure is considered an unpleasant departure from the tenets of an ideal wife particularly, in conservative societies. 

Seeking consent from one’s spouse

That being the case, a woman is expected to behave submissively in the bedroom as well. Her emotions are taken for granted most of the time let alone her consent.

Yes, a woman’s consent is of utmost priority, something that falls within the category of sexual etiquette. Asking permission from one’s partner for making love may be unfathomable for many. The question as to why a husband should seek a wife’s consent for sex might most probably invite eyerolls. This is because it is considered a woman’s duty to keep her husband happy.

Statements such as the above which stems from a narrow mentality make sexual intercourse between a husband and wife purely about male satisfaction where the wife is reduced to a mere object of pleasure. There is also no dearth of unsolicited guidance from the self-appointed guardians of Islam, who back their statements by citing religious scriptures, warnings of hellfire, and cursing of angels. 

Hadith about the cursing of angels

The Hadith about the cursing of the angels is the commonly cited one. This narration in Bukhari says that if a man calls his wife to bed and she refuses him without any good reason, then the angels will curse her until morning.

Mistranslation of Hadiths occurs often and this is one such. The above Hadith refers to somebody who deliberately fakes excuses, and uses alienation of affection to punish her spouse which is wrong. According to Islamic scholars, this is equally applicable to the husband as well. It is sinful if a husband uses alienation of affection to punish his wife. 

Respecting the rights of your spouse

While men believe that their spouses should give in to their sexual requests, women believe that it is their religious obligation to submit to their husbands. Whether a woman consents to sex or not is a very relevant question even if she is a wife.

Pause for a moment and give it a think. Whether she is in a state or position to not want it, if she is either on her mensural period or in the fasting hours of Ramadan or she simply doesn’t feel like it, the decision should be totally up to her. This is because it is about being considerate of her feelings; respecting her views and stances and most importantly, respecting her fundamental right as an individual.  

However, in reality, marriage between two individuals in present-day society has not always been on an even keel. In a patriarchal society, men hold the power and consequently, marriage too has a power equation.

Sex and Intimacy in Islam (Podcast)

For many, sex sometimes becomes a means of exerting power and control and also curbing the wife’s dissent. In such cases, sexual intercourse becomes more about power rather than pleasure. This jeopardizes the sanctity of a marriage between two persons.

It is the right of a wife to have her physical needs taken care of. Forcing oneself on the spouse without consent, and neglecting the partner’s feelings and lack of satisfaction, are all equally damaging and will only lead to hard feelings and resentment towards the spouse, the bitterness eventually endangering the marriage.

Marital rape exists

For those still living under a rock, sexual activity without consent is termed rape. Whether it is within marriage or outside, rape is rape, period.

The term ‘marital rape’ exists and it is the non-consensual sexual intercourse within marriage. It also applies to forced consent by emotional coercion. The word may seem unfamiliar and strange especially, for the conservative-minded, because we cannot fathom a husband raping his wife. Rape is presumed to be usually committed by strangers. But it is not always.

We assume that women never get raped by family members. That is the reason why it is difficult to digest when we come across disturbing stories of rape by immediate and extended families as well as acquaintances. It is almost near impossible.

Marital rape has been criminalised in several countries. In India, the country I am from, it is yet to. According to UN Women, one out of every three women across the world is subject to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. The pandemic has only aggravated such instances.  

What Islam says about consent

The institution of marriage in Islam is based on mutual respect, trust, and understanding. In the Quran, Allah has described spouses as garments underlining the fact that a bond between a husband and a wife should be one of equality and mutuality.

At the time of marriage, which is considered a sacred contract between two individuals, the bride has the right to have a say with regard to her partner. In Islam, a marriage contract, or the nikah, cannot proceed without the consent of the woman to be married. Consent, therefore, is of utmost importance at the time of marriage and during the course of it, in all the aspects of married life including sexual intercourse. 

In Islam, sex is a recommended act, a Sunnah, and is considered equivalent to charity. A healthy sexual relationship is a mutually pleasurable act experienced by both spouses that benefit them in several ways. While there are no specific rules regarding sexual intercourse stipulated by the religion, whatever is agreeable between spouses, acceptable as well as pleasurable, is considered right.

Likewise, what is displeasing and unacceptable is not. Any form of sexual violence or assault is equivalent to harming and hurting one’s partner and is, therefore, considered wrong or unlawful in Islam. 

What the Prophet (PBUH) taught us

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: ‘The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best behaviour, and the best of you are those who are the best to their wives’. The Prophet treated his wives with kindness, mercy, and utmost respect always paying attention to them, acknowledging their efforts, spending quality time with them, and also helping them with housework. He prayed with them and prayed for them.

When the Prophet has already set such great precedence for the whole of humanity to follow in how to treat one’s spouse, how can wrongful acts such as forced sexual intercourse without the partner’s consent, which totally disregards her feelings be justified? Sexual desires cannot be and needn’t be suppressed. It can be regulated through carrying out healthy sexual relations with one’s spouse, with the intention of pleasure and reward from Allah, bearing in mind the etiquettes to be followed along the way while staying away from the evil grip of Shaitan. It is then considered one of the greatest of virtues. 

Islam is a religion that bestows equal status to man and woman with both complementing and sheltering the other at all times, sailing together in the journey of life. If men are granted more rights and abilities, they have more responsibilities as well, especially as a provider of their families.

Women too must be aware of the rights granted to them by religion and most importantly, should realise the worth of their agency including their sexual agency. Islam forbids oppression, abuse, and injustice of all forms and hence wrongful acts like emotional blackmail, coercion, and rape too.

Be aware and identify when that happens instead of feeling guilty and fearful when anybody warns you of hellfire, cursing of the angels, and punishments in the hereafter. A woman is the sole owner of her body and nobody else.