originally published on loveinshallah.com
by Nashwa Khan
T E N
I’m about ten-years-old, and have an unwavering love for books. I devour the Harry Potter series,The Magic Treehouse, and tons of chapter books. We can’t afford them and can’t justify purchasing them, so my mom drives my sister and me to the public library every week, where I get to use a computer and roam the bookshelves for hours.
Once I’ve read all the books for my age group, I become adventurous. I wander through the aisles and find a book out of place. It intrigues me. When I open it, there it is a magnified black-and-white image of sperm that was taken under a microscope. I shut the book immediately. Now I have the image of swimming sperm seared into my memory.
I slump back to my mother. I feel guilty, but unsure of why I feel guilty. I confess to her that I opened a scientific book and it had a photo of sperm. My mom does not flinch, but neither does she seem to know how to handle it. We walk out, my basket empty of books, my shoulders burdened with guilt, my heart heavy. I felt awkward but cannot find the source of my discomfort.
This is my sex education, for now.
T H I R T E E N
I’m a high school freshman. The condom stretched over the banana during gym class does not entirely click for me as the demonstration is interrupted by giggles. We all know that the white girl who volunteered to demonstrate is sexually active, so it’s time to laugh at our awkwardness. Even more awkward is the video about female “hygiene” products – narrated by a guy with an Australian accent, dressed in safari gear.
My basic sex education: putting a condom on a banana is somehow comical. I laugh along because, as a brown girl, I need to fit into the sea of sexually active whiteness to survive the next four years.
This is my sex education, for now.
F O U R T E E N
I am fourteen. School, clothes and rotating friends are what keep me going. A trip to Morocco to see my grandparents over the summer, and a cousin’s wedding in Toronto are my priorities. Sex and sexual health education are in my life’s periphery; they will not be taught in gym class again. The condom on banana performance is where my knowledge remains.
Sex may be far away from my mind, but it creeps in slowly. We are sitting at my cousin’s new in-law’s house the day after the wedding. Sitting squished on couches, eating chat masala, drinking chai, gorging on roti, I am much younger than my cousin’s friends, but I am included in their sitting space.
My cousin walks down the stairs to the living room, limping. Her friends begin giggling. I am out of the loop, annoyed by their telepathic communication and understanding. I grab an aloo kabab and munch away. She joins our circle.
Everyone starts whispering, “How was it?”
I begin to understand their giggling. At 26, their giggling is just slightly advanced from the condom-banana awkward giggling of my age cohort. Again, to fit in, I giggle, but I feel even more awkward than I did in gym class.
I do not understand why I am giggling. My cousin came limping down the stairs and looked hurt. Why laugh at someone who is hurt? My mom taught me that that was not respectful. TV taught me that sex was romantic and didn’t hurt. I’d flip the channel in shame when a sex scene came on with my siblings or parents in the room, but I caught enough to know that consensual sex shouldn’t result in limping.
My cousin whispers to her best friend about the pain. I stop laughing. Her friends look concerned, but say that it is her obligation and “that just happens the first time.”
I realize that what we need in Muslim youth communities is sexual health education based on the Qur’an and consent. But I cannot articulate my new learnings.
This is my sex education, for now.
I am studying for my MCAT, discussing the menstrual cycle, and how in high school I learned a bit about a healthy ovulation cycle.
My mom tells me that my paternal aunt was not allowed to take science classes in high school. My dad’s family were new immigrants to Canada. In Pakistan, they did not educate girls or boys on reproductive organs so of course they would not learn here either.
At twenty-two, as an aspiring healthcare worker, I learn that my aunts did not have basic knowledge of reproductive health, of their own bodies, and the beauty of these bodies given to us by Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala.
I wonder now as they praise me for studying whether they understand what I am studying.
I am twenty-two. University has taught me a lot, both academically and experientially. I am full of self-awareness.
I am the first of over twenty cousins in my extended family to move out on my own before being married. I am careful to “be good” and not hazard my parents having “I told you so’s” flung at them by every auntie from Lahore to Karachi.
I identify as a feminist. Feminism brought me closer to my faith. I volunteer with a student health education center on campus and other groups in the community. In these roles I teach people about consent, conduct pregnancy tests, and do peer-to-peer supports.
At twenty-two, I realize why I am an anomaly in my South Asian Muslim family. I may be unmarried, but I know that sex should not hurt. And, if it does, it should stop.
I realize that my upbringing- filled with love and joy – is not a rare narrative among Muslim youth. I realize that as sheltered as I felt in my Muslim community, I was blessed with progressive, mixed-race parents. I realize that though they avoided some awkward conversations along the way, my mother explained certain aspects of growing up more than the parents of my Muslim peers did. I appreciate that, but I also had to do a lot of self-study. I love my parents for the freedom and values they gave me.
At twenty-two I grasped all of this at once, because of an encounter while volunteering. A young woman came into a clinic I volunteered at. I saw myself in her, the brownness, her discomfort in asking strangers for a pregnancy test. I volunteered to administer the test and counseling right away because I felt like she was my sister. I thought I could ease her out of the invisible cloud of shame she was constrained in.
I dipped the stick into the pee cup and began to softly ask her questions. As the timer ticked, I emphasized how common and unshameful it was for young women to come in for testing and counseling. I let her know where she could be privately tested for sexually transmitted diseases, as per protocol.
Then, she asked me what a pap smear was. Her question knocked the wind out of me.
The memory of the day after my cousin’s wedding came flooding back. The reality is that young Muslims are becoming sexually active and embarking upon lifelong sexual journeys without even basic knowledge about their bodies. The fact is that being sexually active is part of our religion, yet this complexity and knowledge is left out.
How are women meant to make informed consensual decisions while missing critical pieces of this complex puzzle? To be sexually active in the 21st century without understanding that sex is not supposed to leave you in pain, or without knowing what a pap smear is?
This is abhorrent, but it is not the fault of young women.
I felt overwhelmed with pain and anger after this realization. Islam is sex positive as a religion, within the bounds of marriage. The shame we feel in our communities due to cultural taboos hurts so many people, especially the women that I see myself and my loved ones reflected in. This is where the gap exists in our Ummah: basic health discourse is non-existent in most Muslim families.
As a community, we tend to ignore sexual health education until marriage, and then expect the couple to consummate their union immediately. By doing this, we ignore basic health and consent education. The shame I felt at ten is the shame that is perpetuated into adulthood, muzzling honest, knowledgeable discussions among friends, and the dissemination of sexual health education in communities. It leaves our women hurt, couples confused, and the community vulnerable to situations where women can be abused falsely in the name of Islam.
Education is a tool we cherish as Muslims, but we do not always use it to address issues that make us uncomfortable. Sex is inevitable for most, which makes early sex education a must. Sexual health education does not lead to zina. This myth needs to be dismantled. Our community needs to see more peer educators – with bodies and skins like theirs – addressing these topics, so that we do not feel ashamed of our bodies, as we do now.
Today, many Muslim women submit to non-consenual sex believing that sex is a requirement of them when that is not the case. Our girls need to be able to defend themselves and feel dignified in their feelings and choices. Many women are complicit in perpetuating this cultural shame. The Quran is a beautiful book that can guide the discussions we have with youth in our community. I’ve included resources below to help start these necessary conversations.
Nashwa Khan identifies as South Asian/African Diaspora living and learning in Hamilton, Ontario. She calls Florida home. Over her undergraduate career in Hamilton, she served on a number of councils including the City’s Status of Women Committee, as Space Allocation Chair of McMaster’s Women and Gender Equity Network, and currently chairs the city’s Youth Advisory Council. Her work has been published in a variety of places including ThoughtCatalog, Guerilla Feminism, and the HuffingtonPostBlog. She is an avid storyteller and lover of narrative medicine. Feel free to tweet her @nashwakay.
Resources: (By no means is this list exhaustive – leave your suggestions in the comments!)
Check out the Twitter hashtag #MuslimSexEd
Youth + Tech + Health digital apps & resources
Embracing Sexuality by Zainab bint Younus
Sex Ed materials by HEART Women & Girls for Muslim youth including Let’s Talk about Sex Education, Sex Ed for Muslim Youth, & Ending Sexual Exploitation
Scarlet Teen: Teen Sex Ed for the Real World
Islamic views on rape
UPDATE: Additional resources via HEART Women & Girls
Advocates for Youth
Rape Victim Advocates (Chicago)
Rape Victim Advocates hotline
Sex Education & Research
LGBTQ Muslim Retreat Resource List