Let us pray for women's sexual freedom

Simon Tearack

As this correspondent was in mid-boink with a stunning Javanese girl encountered the previous evening in a restaurant-bar in Jakarta's Jaksa Street, the haunting cry of a muezzin burst through the hotel window. This was my first intimate encounter with a naked Muslim, and I was at a bit of a loss what to do. Is it correct interfaith behavior to experience mutual orgasms in the midst of the morning call to prayer?

If my comely companion was having similar thoughts, they did not interrupt her rhythm; later on, as I got to know Santy and her friends, it became apparent that their way of dealing with their religion's renowned failure to accommodate female sexuality was simply to ignore it.

To be sure, despite the ongoing efforts of male clergy to spoil the fun of as many people as possible during their short earthly existence (in order, ironically, to enjoy in the afterlife the very same pleasures they wish to deny everyone else), Southeast Asian women seem to put up stronger resistance to attempts to stifle their sexuality than the oppressed females of other lands, including the West. Catholic Filipina maids in Hong Kong, Thai girls kneeling before the Buddha dressed in short shorts and flimsy tops, stern-faced Confucians in classy miniskirts strolling the malls of Kuala Lumpur - Asian women exude sex just by being Asian women, and we're not even talking here of the torrid bars of Bangkok, Angeles City and Phnom Penh.
Still, all modern religions pale in comparison with Islam in the oppression of women. Fuddy-duddy politicians in India may attempt to stamp out the dance-bar industry that has been a hallmark of Mumbai entertainment for ages; Thailand languishes under Victorianesque censorship and nanny-state bar-closing hours; Filipino priests wring their hands as young girls crowd into Internet cafes to flash their nubile breasts via webcam at would-be boyfriends across town, or across the world. But barbarities such as the flogging, even murder, of wayward women is all but unknown outside of Islam.

Yet religion is important to people of every age, race and gender, regardless of the efforts of one sector or other to usurp it. Whether the unbending patriarchalism of mainstream Islam is supported by the Koran is a matter of scholarly debate beyond the ken of a mere contributor to Asian Sex Gazette, but what is important to Muslim women is how to make their religion relevant to themselves, regardless of how self-styled mullahs, madrassas, and possibly even the Holy Book itself try to push them outside the circle of the blessed.

And it is a fact, however much the preachers wish to pretend it is not so, that women are sexual creatures as much as or more than men. If God hated sex as much as his self-appointed servants claim to do, he would not have created Angelina Jolie.

But sexuality is more than the sex act; it demands to be expressed. In free Asian societies such as modern Thailand, women express their sexuality casually, almost thoughtlessly. There are probably some Bangkok office girls who wear flimsy dresses to gain some favor from the boss, or university girls who wear tight blouses and miniskirts slit to mid-thigh to impress their boyfriends, or maybe they're just trying to beat the heat. But the way women dress in Bangkok cannot be fully explained by these factors; obviously, they enjoy showing off their beauty at least as much as men enjoy watching them. (Taking this point to its logical extreme, next time you're in a Bangkok or Pattaya go-go bar, notice how many of the girls spend their whole time onstage not scanning the audience for potential customers, but admiring themselves in the mirrors.)

But that's Thailand, whose animist-Buddhist culture puts little or no effort into suppressing sexuality. Muslim Indonesia is another story. Or is it?

In the first place, sexuality is not dependent merely on how many square centimeters of flesh is exposed to the open air. Even those of us who enjoy female nudity gain great pleasure, for example, from the above-mentioned Thai university uniforms; in fact, a tastefully cut skirt can be more stimulating that one that garishly exposes a lass's thigh nearly up to her pelvis. There is also the phenomenon of the illicit flash, the forbidden peek: which is more fun, watching a bored bargirl prancing stark naked on a Patpong stage, or getting an unplanned peek down a blouse or up a dress on the Bangkok Skytrain?

In most Muslim societies in Southeast Asia, interpretation of the hejab (dress code) tends to be women's choice, and therefore tends to be far less stifling - and far sexier - than common practice in the Middle East. In Thailand for example, especially Bangkok, it is common to see women wearing the headscarf, a stylish blouse modestly buttoned high on the neck, and a long skirt slit to show rather more ankle and shapely calf than one might expect Abu Bakr Ba'ashir approving. Even more common, even in the more devoutly Muslim south of Thailand, tight jeans are the order of the day - these expose no flesh and therefore supposedly conform to the letter of sharia, while leaving little to the imagination about the fineness of the curves that grace the wearer's legs, bottom and . other bits.

But even in Java and Malaysia, where Muslim women seem generally more modest than their counterparts in Thailand, loveliness abounds. Their robes reveal nothing, but sport attractive materials and lively colors. The headscarf, when it is not encumbered by a veil (and it almost never is in Southeast Asia), actually enhances the soft, round face, the dark almond eyes, and the sensuous, quick-to-smile lips of the average Asian female. And since many women, at least in well-traveled parts of Indonesia, don't bother with taboos against talking to male strangers, enjoyable encounters with them can easily be had by the non-Muslim tourist.

Santy, of course, the beauty I introduced at the top of this article, did not bother with the hejab at all, at least not in my presence; shorts, miniskirts and sexy tops were her garb of choice. I never discussed Islam with her, but I can deduce her story. Her religion was too focused on the afterlife to be relevant to this one; she had to support herself and probably members of her family in a society hit hard by a dysfunctional economy wrecked by political corruption, corporate greed and International Monetary Fund inanities after the 1997-98 financial crash. And she used her beauty and her body to grapple with the lot life had dealt her. For many, the cleric-imposed fantasy of hell after death is not as scary as the hellish realities of life.

For now, at least, women like Santy can live as they choose, practice their faith (or not) as they see fit, and use their bodies to earn a living or to give themselves and their companions pleasure (a footnote: months after our encounter, Santy e-mailed me to tell me she had married and was living happily in Europe). But even in the much more severely repressed Muslim societies of the Middle East, one occasionally sees feminine sexuality muscling its way to the surface.

Many years ago, I was standing in the main bus station in Beersheba, the main city of Israel's Negev region, waiting for transport north. Across the way, awaiting a different bus, was a group of Palestinian women dressed in full, oppressively black, Islamic garb. Some wore veils. One who did not was a young woman, in her early 20s or late teens, carrying a newborn child.

The girl caught my eye and smiled; even from several meters away I was struck by her beauty. Without breaking eye contact, she slipped the loveliest breast I had ever seen (okay, I was pretty young and hadn't seen that many yet) from under her ugly garment and suckled her kid.

Decades later, I remember the eroticism of that fleeting moment with vivid clarity, and with the hope that the human spirit everywhere will some day fight its way free of the dark cloak of oppression.

Simon Tearack is a journalist based in Thailand.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: