Culture and Identity: My Own Decisions

I am a 19 year old Muslim girl raised in a family that identifies itself with its culture and religion. I’m very proud of and grateful for my family. However, I do realize that sometimes my culture is the primary decider of my family’s perception of individuality. I’ve lived by our religion and culture’s rules of no drinking, intimate relationships, and any other activities that are “normal” for American teens. I’d like to believe that I make own decisions by my own morals as opposed to what my culture requires. However, this becomes harder when my family stresses the fact that I do or do not do things because it is how my culture guides me. I was having dinner with my aunt’s family when my uncle said that his boss, Ashley (whom I had met before), and he were discussing my education and career plans when she asked him if I had a boyfriend (I still don’t understand why that is something they would talk about!). Then my aunt added, “You should have told her ‘No, we do not find that acceptable in our family and culture. Our girls aren’t like girls here. They care about education before anything else.'” When I heard this, it finally hit me that it seemed as though the way I would live my life had already been decided for me. Could I go behind my family’s back and do the things that they wouldn’t allow me to do? Yes, I definitely could. Would I do it? Most definitely not. I like my lifestyle, but I do not appreciate that it seems as though I’m restricted to certain things or as though someone else is telling me what to do or not to do. I realize that everyone’s culture influences their personalities to a certain point, but I don’t think it’s right when culture seems to define an individual rather than enhance her character.
Middle Eastern cultures seem to be the most strict when it comes to raising children mostly because of the religion associated with those cultures: Islam. Muslim parents tend to be more controlling of their family lives in order to drive their children in the right direction in terms of religious and cultural guidelines. I don’t believe that famillies or cultures should make the decision for individuals. I hope we can work together as members of HEART to not only educate young women in sex education, but also in taking control of their individuality and identities.

Understanding how Interpretation of Islam Affects Sexuality By Yasmeen Shaban

Although there is a need for sex education for youth and adults in Muslim communities to understand their bodies and sexuality, I believe the lack of it stems from a system of sexism and patriarchy that exists in Muslim communities. There is a need to have an open and critical dialogue about the way sexism and patriarchy operates within Muslim communities and culture. The fact that women and girls are still being pressured and forced into marriages shows how they have lost their right to choose. I do not blame Islam for this. The problem lies in sexist cultural standards that are given to the public as Islamic law. The problem also lies in who is interpreting Islamic law as well as how is it being interpreted. Religion has been used as a tool of oppression against women not only in Islam but in other religions as well.

Muslim communities have given women messages about sexuality and gender. A woman’s worth is not inherent; it is equated to her submission to the rules of a male dominated world. If she does not uphold standards of Muslim defined femininity, she is worthless. She must cook, clean, “cover up”, take care of the children, and first obey her father then her husband. She must not be strong, intelligent, opinionated, and independent. She must be the ideal notion of modesty or else the consequences are severe. It will compromise her family’s honor. She is denied the right to her body in order to please her community and family. Men must prove their masculinity as the family leader who must control these women. Some who may be reading this may have the reaction of my mother leads our family and my father respects all the women in my family. I argue that you are lucky. This is a social structural problem where women are expected to live by these standards. If the community values equality of women, then these standards of femininity and masculinity must change.
Lily Zakiyah Munir’s “‘He Is Your Garment and You Are His …’: Religious Precepts, Interpretations, and Power Relations in Marital Sexuality among Javanese Muslim Women” is a published article in the Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. Munir did a qualitative study of Javanese women in Indonesia. Munir argues that the way Muslims understand and interpret their religion affects their experiences of sexuality. The Muslim women’s experiences displayed the lack power women have in their relationships with their husbands. One woman, Lisa, described her sexual experience with her husband as “savage, insensitive, inhuman, exploitative, oppressive, and humiliating” (Munir 203).

Munir says:
Lisa’s husband used a Qur’anic verse (Q.S. al-Nisa’ 4:34) to justify his patriarchal attitude. This confused Lisa because her father had interpreted and implemented this same verse very differently. She said: My father perceived men’s family leadership as empowering, supporting, and liberating. That’s why men have been given certain privileges to enable them to “bring blessings” to women, the oppressed group, not the other way round. My husband was different. He perceived leadership as monopolizing, controlling, demanding rather than giving, and even repressing and exploiting, like in the case of our sexuality (Munir 203).
This is an example of how interpretation of Islamic text has an impact on women’s lives. One Muslim man interpreted the ayah as means of treating his wife and daughters in equal way whereas another man felt it was his privilege and duty to control his wife.

Although this was done in Java, Indonesia, I would argue that this study is very important for Muslim women and men to understand since patriarchy and sexism still exist in Muslim communities. If we want to have a community dedicated to gender equality then we need to start understanding how Qur‘an and hadith has been interpreted, who has the power to interpret and speak about it, and socio-historical context. Munir says that Islam is about the equality of all oppressed people. This reminds me of how Prophet Muhammad (s) was really persecuted for his faith in Islam. We need to start sending healthier messages to our youth and adults as well about sexuality.

The need for Comprehensive Sex Ed for Muslim Youth

Originally printed in

by Nadiah Mohajir
As HEART continues to work with Islamic schools and educators on health education programming for their youth, we learn of many unfortunate anecdotes about the lack of information (or the abundance of misinformation) regarding sexual health that is present among Muslim youth. In our conversations with educators, we learned of a 5th grade girl who began menstruating and missed three weeks of school. She refused to confide in anyone, afraid she was dying. Another girl who was pressured to “try everything but sex,” unaware that while pregnancy may not be a direct consequence, she was exposing herself to sexually transmitted diseases. We also learned of a girl who didn’t know the details of reproduction and how babies were conceived until college because her parents repeatedly pulled her out of sex education classes.

HEART has discovered that too many Islamic schools are not offering sex education at all, except in the context of the legalities surrounding ghusl and wudu. As for the Muslim children who attend public schools, too many parents remove them from sex education classes, afraid that the information might lead to promiscuity and believing such information is irrelevant for them because “our girls just don’t do that.”It is high time that we change this attitude, and start thinking seriously about providing our children with both culturally-appropriate and comprehensive education on reproductive and sexual health. In offering our youth this information, we should not automatically assume that they will then put it into practice. In fact, providing kids with information about their bodies equips them to make responsible decisions when faced with difficult situations. Whether or not we would like to acknowledge it, our kids do, in fact, face difficult situations in which they feel pressured to explore sexuality with their peers. If we continue to keep our kids in the dark about their bodies and sexuality, they will turn to other, often equally ignorant, sources to fill that knowledge gap. Why then are we so opposed to having a responsible, knowledgeable adult provide this knowledge and place it in an Islamic context for them?

The controversy of bringing comprehensive sex education curriculum into the schools is not specific to the Muslim community, but rather American society at large. One of the major arguments against comprehensive sex education is that the information on safe sex, STDs and pregnancy will be counterproductive, encouraging young people to become promiscuous and experiment with sexual activity. Yet, according to the Guttmacher Institute, “evidence shows that comprehensive sex education programs that provide information about both abstinence and contraception can help delay the onset of sexual activity among teens, reduce their number of sexual partners and increase contraceptive use when they become sexually active.”

Advocates for Youth continue to argue that “evaluations of comprehensive sex education and HIV/ STI prevention programs show that they do not increase rates of sexual initiation, do not lower the age at which youth initiate sex, and do not increase the frequency of sex or the number of sex partners among sexually active youth.” While these conclusions are generalized over the entire population, they are applicable to Muslim youth – increased knowledge of ones reproductive and sexual health will not necessarily lead to increased sexual activity among Muslim youth, especially if we discuss sex in a culturally-appropriate context.

The Muslim community’s, and in particular the South Asian community’s, consistent refusal to discuss sex, is detrimental to the future of our daughters’, sisters’, and friends’ marriages. Young women often enter into marriage unfamiliar with their bodies and sexuality. It can take months, even years, for them to become comfortable with sexuality being a part of their lives, and not feel ashamed about it. As a result, they are labeled “prudes,” when in fact the problem really is that sexuality was never portrayed as a natural part of life to them, but rather something that one should feel embarrassed about and conceal.

It is time we talk about sex openly with our youth as a natural part of life. We should not shy away from addressing their curiosity, and must be aware that low self-esteem and peer pressure often directly contribute to young people’s poor choices regarding their sexual activity. If we can move past the shock that our youth are, in fact, making decisions regarding their bodies, and instead focus on why they feel compelled to make these choices, we will be better equipped to address their needs. We can then facilitate the confidence Muslim youth need to understand the wisdom in delaying such behaviors until their Islamic values allow them.

A Mission to Break Barriers

Welcome to the Sisters Breaking Barriers blog! We are a diverse group of women with unique experiences; what brings us together is our faith. Part of a program called HEART Peers, this blog will chronicle our leadership and peer education training.

This blog is about us sharing our experiences and insights as Muslim women on sexual and reproductive health. This blog is about us raising awareness about the sexual and reproductive health issues that Muslim women face because of cultural taboos. About the need for sex education for Muslim youth. About the need to address the sexual violence that is present in our community. This blog is about us breaking barriers. And we hope that you will join us in this important endeavor.

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