Addressing Muslim Women’s Sexual Behaviors

by Sarah Hasan
I think about sex all the time. Not in a nasty sort of way. But it’s definitely up there, in my head- All the time.

When I was younger my thoughts were associated more with a fear of the unknown than curiosity. As I grew older and learned more about it from friends, magazines, movies and my sisters (not in any particular order) I was perplexed by the intensity of my curiosity…see, like most girls brought up in a traditional Pakistani household that places hefty value on an indistinct and questionably unadulterated cultural value system, I thought I was kinda weird to have all these questions about sex. Like many others in my social circle, I learned more about it first as something shameful, then taught to accept it as a fact of life and later delved into viewing it through the many psychological, biological, and socio-religious lenses.

Whether or not you think about it as much I do is a totally different topic of discussion (feminist intellectual schmoozing is my absolute favorite…preferably discussions with my girls in dimly lit coffee shops) but no one should deny the importance of starting A discussion. There is a pervasive silence on the topic in traditional Muslim communities (and I say this in a very general way, since Muslim communities worldwide are so diverse not just geographically, but also rich with the culture they dwell in). So it was interesting to come across Organica’s survey of Muslim Women’s Sexual Behaviors, as this is exactly why Cindy, a lovely Arab-American Muslim Feminist blogger has set out to spark a conversation about. She writes it best when she writes “Muslim women are often portrayed as passive beings with little control over their sexual behavior”.

While this is by no means a scientific study, it does serve as an impressive cursor to the conversation which currently highlights one side – the male side – of the story. Quick overviews of parts that blew my mind:

-Based on the variety of definitions provided for ‘sexual behaviors’, 59% of respondents admitted to having extra- (or pre-) marital experiences.

-Sexual Foreplay [with a man/woman] and Self-Pleasure are cited equally as the most common types of sexual behaviors respondents have engaged in.

-How they learned about sex. And here is a prime example of a conversation-sparker: If girls are learning more from friends, internet and sex ed at school- it is so very important that they have the right, comprehensive information that is also culturally and religiously sensitive, so that it applies to them and isn’t just a distant, objective brand of knowledge.

-The high percentage of respondents who would want to engage in oral sex. Engaging in anal sex however is not as widely received.

Indeed, the survey brings to light the fact that Muslim women too “have strong sexual urges, opinions, needs and preferences”. Generally, the participants seem to be a confident group of women with open communication styles, a whopping 93% of whom recognize that as a woman their sexual needs are equally as important as men’s. It goes on to shed light on how respondents’ culture and upbringing has affected their views on sex and virginity, as well as experiences of sexual abuse.

Check it out for yourself- what are your thoughts on how we can begin to address the situation?

You can follow Cindy’s tweets at @Organica_ or holler at her through her blog

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The need for Comprehensive Sex Ed for Muslim Youth

Originally printed in altmuslimah.com

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.

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