Feb 192014

by Nadiah Mohajir

As the Muslim community begins to see a growing number of single men and women, several issues need to be addressed. What can we do as a community, as well as institutionally, to support this growing group of individuals, particularly with respect to their reproductive health and mental health needs? Have we created a space for them in our communities where they can feel safe, free of judgement, to honestly share the struggles of being unmarried and navigating two extremely distinct, often contradictory worlds: the hypersexualized culture that is impossible to avoid, that bombards young people as early as toddler age, and the religious community that expects unmarried individuals, especially women, to remain chaste and unaffected by the pressures around them, and their natural desires, with the intention of honoring a religious tradition that reveres chastity and does not permit sexual relationships outside of marriage. Have we created a space for this growing group of individuals that does not attach their self-worth to their marital status and ability to bear children?

Author Zahra Noorbakhsh tells her story about losing her virginity before marriage in Love, Inshallah and explores these contradictory worlds. By Iranian standards, she explained, speaking of virginity so publicly is shameful and embarrassing. By islamic standards, she imagined the response to be very unforgiving, referring to herself as a “whore.” By American standards, she finally explains, a typical response would try to find reasons to explain why she lost her virginity so “late.” She explains how she spent all of her adolescence and early twenties fearful of sex, only to realize that she did not want to save her virginity for marriage. “I hadn’t yet been in love,” she explained. “But didn’t want to be in a relationship defined by the status of my “hole.”

A similar theme emerged in a conversation I recently had with a friend – who describes herself as a 35-year-old virgin – she asked the question of whether our community is sanctifying sex to an unhealthy degree. She discussed this in regard of her own struggles of remaining abstinent, and how she is beginning to view preserving her virginity as a burden, having much power over her, almost defining her worth, loaded with much shame and embarrassment if she ever pursued a sexual relationship while remaining single. When I asked her why she chose to remain abstinent, her answer was multi-layered: she identified as a Muslim and wanted to honor God’s command to remain abstinent until married. Furthermore, she admitted she was afraid of her mother; that somehow, her mother would know if she had sex and that was enough to keep her from doing it.

Haroon Moghul poignantly reflects on the pressures men face in his essay in Salaam, Love, stating that “my religion says a man should not be alone with a woman. But somebody should have told me a man should not feel so alone that being with a woman is the only way he can feel life is worth living.” This summed up an underlying theme in many of the stories in this anthology: that it is hard to be unmarried, and Muslim, ESPECIALLY if one is trying to honor the guidelines of the Islamic faith. A number of the men in the stories of Salaam, Love mention turning to masturbation, and more disturbingly, pornography, as the alternative to committing fornication or having sex outside of marriage.

Being immersed in such a hypersexualized society, while simultaneously delaying the age of marriage is an emerging public health that we need to think about addressing as a community. While we obviously cannot change Islamic legal rulings regarding the impermissibility of premarital sex, which is sound and wise for its own reasons, we have to consider how we will support this growing group of Muslims – because turning to porn and other coping mechanisms may seem in the short term, a better option than zina (fornication), but in the long term, is contributing to many serious issues threatening the health of the Muslim community’s marriages.

The first step to starting this dialogue is reclaiming the terms shame and modesty. In my understanding, there is a difference – and a pretty huge one – between shame and modesty. Islamic tradition and teachings encourage individuals to be modest with respect to their bodies and their sexuality. Muslims are encouraged to keep their sexual encounters private and between the spouses. That being said, Muslims are not, however, expected to feel shame or embarrassed about their bodies or sexual desire, provided that they commit to exercising those desires within the confines of a marital relationship. The unfortunate reality is that the Muslim community has repeatedly fused the words modesty and shame into one. It has been deemed immodest and shameful to speak about sex, let alone express sexual desire. We have associated shame with sex – which in some ways may in fact have a “protective” factor for unmarried individuals. In other words, individuals, especially women, may be hesitant to engage in premarital sex because it is deemed to be shameful. However, HEART’s work in the community has indicated that that often times, women carry these feelings of shame with them into their marriages – despite the fact that Islam permits sexual intimacy between the spouses. As such, this is both not surprising and extremely fascinating in terms of what we need to think about changing the discourse. Currently, we live in a society that has socialized women to feel shameful to have sex – whether they are single or married. Even if that “shame” may work in the favor of protecting single women from engaging in premarital sex, it is problematic that that same sentiment/attitude is carried with them into their married lives. And so I ask again: does the Muslim community sanctify sexuality to an unhealthy degree? If so, how do we change the discourse? It is time to take back the discourse and engage in abstinence because of a motivation besides just shame. How do we facilitate that conversation to begin to encourage abstinence without attaching a lens colored with shame to it?

Another step may be to change the discourse around sexuality and virginity. Laci Green, a young, and some would say controversial, sex educator challenges the current language around virginity. She argues that phrases such as “she lost her virginity,” and “he took her virginity” are disempowering and reinforce gender roles, where the man is the aggressor who has something to gain while the female is passive. ¬†Rather, she suggests that young women and men adopt more positive language around sexuality, such as making one’s “sexual debut” when referring to the first time they have sex, arguing that it makes for more empowered decision-making.

While Laci Green’s sex education techniques may not be exactly appropriate or culturally-sensitive to the Muslim community, she raises an important point that may be worth exploring. Is making a radical change such as the one suggested above a step to empowering young women with respect to their sexuality – even if, or rather, ESPECIALLY IF, they choose to abstain? Will it lend to healthier sexual attitudes before and during marriage? Will it take back the overwhelming power associated with virginity and make women feel content with their decisions regarding sexuality – particularly if they choose to abstain?

Finally, it’s important to see what other faith and cultural communities have done to address these issues. There are a number of religious communities that value abstinence until marriage. What have they done to engage the discourse around abstinence? Are there feelings of shame associated with sexuality in those communities?

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