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An analysis of the discursive representations of women’s sexual agency in online fatwas : a case study of

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Combining a feminist post-structural methodology with a legal interpretive framework located in classical texts, this study analysed six fatwas on South Africanbased Mufti Ebrahim Desai’s online fatwa platform,, to provide insights into the discursive representations of women’s sexual agency. By virtue of their potential to provide data on lived experiences of sex and intimacy in modern contexts, and the legal interpretive reasoning they prompt, the analysis of these fatwas revealed competing and complementary discourses on women’s sexual agency. Petitioners grapple with the dissonance created by their pietistic loyalty to the legal tradition of marriage, and expectations of mutuality within contemporary marriage. They rely on varying dimensions of health to argue for women’s choices in the sexual arena. In their responses, some muftis accommodate women’s sexual refusals and desires using an ethical framework, and they support mutuality using strategies of sexual communication and benevolent masculinity. Unlike other facets of health, which are managed in the juristic space as spiritual concerns, physical health concerns related to sex are managed within a biomedical ethical paradigm, thus linking sexual rights to physical health. The study shows the potential for muftis to link sexual rights to psychological and emotional facets of health and the possibilities to adopt an ethical paradigm that includes other medical and allied therapies. Amongst the fatwas produced by Desai and his students, Desai’s own fatwa, in the context of reform inclinations on his website, suggests this possibility. Although the online fatwas of do not diverge substantially from the legal logic of Muslim marriage, they provide a glimpse into how Deoband muftis are thinking about the model of marriage, through an emphasis on mutuality and health and well-being, in order to preserve the marriage and maintain the stability of the contemporary Muslim family. The study proceeds to analyse how foundational sources, Qur’an and hadith, are utilised in this regard, and concludes with an analysis of how the online space is gradually reformulating traditional concepts and norms, thus facilitating new prospects for reconfiguring gender relations.


Master of Art in Gender and Religion. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2015.