20 OCTOBER 2011
It sounds like pulp fiction: The Obedient Wives Club. Cue a bright paperback cover with angular drawings of high heels, and pink cursive font.
But no, this club is very real: an international conservative clique, with chapters in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Jordan, committed to wifely duty, compliance and discipline.
The Malaysian chapter of the Club made headlines recently with its manual Islamic Sex, which hopes to kill two birds with one carnal stone: helping Muslim marriages, and struggling against the evils of Judaism. The plan for conquering rogue Zionists is not clear – at first blush, it reads like a hoax. But perhaps the Club sees sex as a force of community, under threat from You-Know-Who. Subtitled Fighting Jews to Return Islamic Sex to the World, the manual recommends on-demand sex for Muslim husbands. And according to The Malaysian Insider, it gives its blessing for the husband to enjoy "simultaneous sex with all his wives". This is supposed to keep the family together, and to stop anti-social behaviour. The vice-president of the Club, Dr Rohaya Mohamad, has said that pliant wives can stop "social ills like prostitution, domestic violence, human trafficking and abandoned babies", by gratifying their husbands' sexual desires.
Progressive and more traditional Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia have attacked the Club and its manual. Akmal Zulkifli from the group Sisters In Islam described the ideas as an "affront": blaming women for men's infidelity. Mufti Datuk Mohamad Shukri Mohamad was more critical of the manual's candid treatment of intimacy. He told the Malaysian daily newspaper Berita Harianthat "Islam touches on sex in a civilised, polite and non-lewd manner". Clearly, the Club's alleged message – old-fashioned patriarchy plus orgies, all with explicit instructions – is unlikely to find support with liberal or conservative Muslims.
Nonetheless, this call for wives to be like "first-class prostitutes" prompts a question: How can religion encourage this kind of thinking?
Now, before religious readers begin praying for my children – yes, I have received emails like this – this is not a rant against faith. I have written about the beauty and value of religion elsewhere, and I stand by my claims. Instead, this is a caution, from a well-meaning atheist: beware of using your gods as rugs, under which you sweep your very human instincts.
Like so many official representatives of faith, the author of Islamic Sex knows his or her lord intimately. The author addresses God:
"You have said that all these acts are halal, pure, beautiful and like a prayer."
In other words, this is not an interpretation or suggestion. God, the primordial author of the cosmic story, has recommended polygamy, orgies and so on. And more important still is the message of duty: good wives will be good Muslims by pleasuring their husbands – how they want it, when they want it. God is endorsing the power relations between men and women; is ordering wives to be like a "first-class whore".
Perhaps this reads reasonably for a small group of believers. But humour me for a moment, and imagine this: there is no God. There is no great ontological referee of your sex sessions, no divine carnal umpire. If this is true, the Islamic Sex manual is not about obeying God, but about obeying men. This is not worship of divinity, but biological and psychological satisfaction (for one partner at least): human, all too human lust, in other words. And it is even more human for its familiar combination of selfishness and self-righteousness: craving sexual subservience, but dressing it up as a religious crusade. This seems depressingly plausible: very worldly desire is given the unlikely euphemism, "God".
One might object: Dr Rohaya Mohamad is a woman, clearly she is being selfless, not selfish. I do not pretend to understand Dr Mohamad's motives. But this kind of inequality often works precisely because both genders submit to it. It is an unwritten compact – and written, in some countries – to give up human self-creation and self-knowledge in favour of a fantasy: that the world has a pre-given plan, drawn up by some invisible but omnipotent architect. For men and women alike, this plan is psychologically comforting and existentially relaxing – it eases the pain of thought, the discomfort of difference. Couples need not negotiate, on equal terms – their roles are already defined. This can even be a kind of power: I humbly exemplify this cosmic order, and you will bow to me. The Realpolitik of a Salem "Goody".
In both cases, there is a metaphysical sleight-of hand: one's personal quirks are smuggled away. They are exported out of the natural world, and imported into an untouchable realm. This realm cannot be questioned because it is invisible, inviolable, unimpeachable. But the smuggler just knows what's in the cache, and uses it cannily. In this, the problem is not faith, strictly speaking. It is bad faith: denying what one is. And all under the cover of the Almighty.
Yes, the Obedient Wives Club is a small group, criticised by moderates and progressives alike. But it suggests a caution for all the faithful. Not simply that their divinities are untrue, unlikely, or simply unconvincing – this is another debate altogether. It is that their gods can become proxies for their own weakness or biases, and make a mockery of their nobility. "God" becomes a name for all they cannot admit to in themselves. We rightly expect more of reverence than escapist fiction.