by Nadiah Mohajir
In the short four years HEART has been working to raise awareness about the importance of reproductive health education in the Muslim community, too many young women have confided in me – both personally and professionally – about intimacy issues in their marriages. Many have shared with me their struggles to embrace their sexuality and sexual desire, while others have struggled with having little knowledge of their bodies. What is becoming increasingly common but still remains unheard of are the stories of those women who can’t consummate their marriages – many days, months, even years go by, as the couple remains unable to have intercourse. While it may seem shocking or unimaginable to some, the situation is unfortunately far too common, and there are numerous reasons for why this part of their marriage is not being fulfilled, including, but not limited to:
- lack of knowledge about one’s body
- unhealthy attitudes and feelings of intense shame and guilt related to sexuality
- past history of sexual abuse or sexual trauma,
- pornography addiction, and
- a physiological and psychological condition called vaginsimus, among other sexual dysfunction conditions.
Vaginismus is the condition that affects a woman’s ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration, including sexual intercourse, insertion of tampons and/or menstrual cups and the penetration involved in gynecological exams. While the causes of this condition are not fully understood, “it is usually associated with anxiety and fear of having sex….though it is unclear whether the anxiety is a cause or a consequence of the condition.” Primary vaginismus can occur when a woman has never been able to have sexual intercourse while secondary vaginismus can occur later in life, due to childbirth or a traumatic event. Numerous factors can contribute to vaginismus, such as sexual abuse and rape, urinary tract and yeast infections, anxiety or stress, and general domestic violence or witnessing domestic violence. The condition is highly treatable and full recovery is possible, with the assistance of treatment including physical therapy and psychological therapy.
This brave woman, Tasniya, a Muslim American, has come forward and shared her story of identifying and addressing vaginismus in her marriage. (youtube link below) She struggled for many years before she successfully found help at the Women’s Therapy Center in New York. Here is her story, and you will see that there are many similar stories and testimonials in the Women’s Therapy Center’s youtube channel. What is most interesting is upon initial review of the various stories, there are numerous themes that are present, despite the race/religion of these women, such as,
- all the women were virgins when they married. In other words, they came from communities and families that valued abstinence and therefore had very little, if not at all, sexual experience when they got married. Many of the husbands were also virgins or had little sexual experience.
- they did not know who to reach out to for help because no one understood and they feared stigma and social isolation
- they also believed they were the “only ones” having such experiences, and that no one would understand them.
- they did not have pleasant experiences with tampons and ob/gyn visits, which could have alerted them of future intimacy issues
- there was much guilt and shame associated with having the condition
- the physical therapy and mental health therapy required involvement on both spouse’s parts, not just the wife seeking treatment
There are many important lessons to be learned from Tasniya’s story, including the following:
1) Parents must help their child(ren) understand their bodies from an early age. Tasniya attributes many of her anxieties and discomfort to not knowing the basic anatomy of her body and not having had those conversations with the adults in her family. She stresses that education and awareness is the first step to developing a healthy attitude towards one’s body and sexuality.
2) Most women do not come forward because they do not know where to seek help and fear being judged. When asked about why young women don’t come forward and seek help, the responses are the same, across culture and other demographic characteristics: no one knows this exists, and often people respond with much disbelief and judgment. As one woman said “When someone asks you about how your marriage is going, you can’t exactly just come out and say that you can’t have sex. People don’t even know this condition exists, let alone how to respond to it.”
3) There are certain things we can avoid as a community to create safer, more respectful spaces. When a couple is struggling with something as serious as vaginismus, there are certain questions that can have a tremendous impact on one’s self-worth and mental well-being. The first, as Tasniya explains in her story, is the question that many people love to ask newly weds (and not so newly-weds): when will you have children? This question can be highly disturbing to one struggling with vaginismus, as it is extremely frustrating to not be able co have intercourse, therefore making the prospect of having children impossible. The second question is when people respond in disbelief – asking if such a condition is even real, and not self-imposed. “That’s like asking if the cancer that someone has is real,” Tasniya explains.
4) Imams, other leaders of religious and cultural institutions, and medical professionals need to be aware that vaginismus exists and where to send couples for help and resources. Tasniya explains how she sought the counsel of several imams, counselors and doctors without any luck. Awareness trainings are essential for those in leadership positions in the religious and cultural communities so that they can be properly equipped to counsel a married couple who may seek guidance. On the flip side, cultural competency trainings are essential for medical professionals and mental health professionals so that they have a comprehensive understanding of the cultural nuance and attitudes toward sexuality and marriage in the Muslim community and how that may influence the ability to have healthy sexual lives.
5) It is essential to instill a healthy, positive sexuality in our youth to prepare them for when they are in sexual relationships. Tasniya explains how she was never taught that Islam is a sex positive religion, and that sex is seen as a pleasurable and desirable act, within the framework of marriage. She explained how instead, she viewed sex and sexuality as dirty, shameful, and embarrassing, and she always associated pain and disgust with intercourse, which ultimately led to her inability to consummate her marriage. To read more about how to instill a healthy sexuality in youth, please click here. More importantly, it is really essential to speak with young women before marriage to prepare them for what to expect, where to seek help should they need it, and to make them feel like even if things don’t go as expected, they are not alone, and they have a support system.
It is essential that we start raising awareness about this increasingly common condition and seeking proper resources. The health of our marriages and communities depends on it. A recent article in India found that “vaginismus is emerging as a major cause of divorce in Kerala.” Quoted in the article is leading gynecologist Dr P A Lalitha, of Malabar Hospital, who says “Fear is the main reason behind this condition. Added to that, early marriages and lack of proper sex education add more oil to the fire.” Dr. Lalitha confirms a finding that HEART’s fieldwork has also uncovered – that the way society approaches sexuality – with fear – combined with a general lack of sexual education can lead to numerous intimacy issues. Furthermore, just listening to the numerous testimonials on the Women’s Therapy Center channel, I notice that despite the incredible diversity of the women, they all came from families that upheld abstinence. While abstinence in and of itself is a praiseworthy value, I do pose the following question: Are abstinence messages being relayed in a manner that lead to developing unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality and instill a general fear of sexuality instead of a positive outlook on sexuality?
As Wajahat Ali explains how often the “sex talk” is limited to a simple “don’t do it”, with the “it” not even being defined, he highlights why this is not only confusing for our young people, who develop and undergo the same adolescent changes as the rest of their peers, but it also creates a challenge for them to understand, find, and maintain healthy relationships. Using a driving metaphor, he explains “Muslim youth are expected to go from 0 to 60 mph with a spouse, 2.3 kids, and a suburban home without being taught how to start the engine and how to maintain the vehicle on its journey.”
As such, it is crucial now more than ever to begin having conversations about sex and sexuality – within an Islamic framework while being cognizant of the hypersexualized society we live in – with Muslim youth.The sheer amount of fear of intimacy, clash of expectations between spouses and sexual tension that is all too familiar to many Muslim newlyweds is contributing to years, if not a lifetime of marital discord and unhealthy relationships in our community. Moreover, the lack of culturally-appropriate sex education for our youth is leading to much confusion, risky sexual experimentation, and unhealthy attitudes toward sex.