by Sobia Ali-Faisal
If the recent controversy in Ontario over the new sex education curriculum has demonstrated anything, it’s that many Muslim parents are VERY passionate about their children’s sexual education, or preferable lack thereof. For those who may not be aware, the province of Ontario introduced a new health education curriculum to be implemented for all grades, which includes a sexual health component at each grade level. It’s a well-researched, age-appropriate curriculum but many parents, including many Muslim parents, protested when it first was introduced in the spring. In the new school year nearly 700 hundred children were kept out of Thorncliffe Park Public School (almost half their population) on the first day of school and their parents have vowed to keep their children out of school until the new sex-ed curriculum is changed (I’m not sure if that happened but I have heard, anecdotally, that many parents have pulled their children out of public schools and put them in private Islamic schools, which, for their part, have been offering discounted tuition). Other Muslim groups, however, have come out in favour of the curriculum as have a group of local imams.
It’s obvious that many Muslim parents are fearful of what it will mean for their children to learn about sexuality and sexual issues but by denying their children sexual health education, for whatever reason, they are doing their children a huge disservice.
Many Muslim parents are genuinely fearful of the impacts sexual education may have on their children. Perhaps they worry that their children will be more likely to engage in sexual activities if they learn about sexual health. Perhaps they believe that their children will view sex and sexuality differently than they do which may result in cultural and worldview conflicts. For many parents, this may mean they do not understand their children, or worse, that their children will differ from them on fundamental values. So how do we allay their fears? How do we convince parents that sexual health education is nothing to fear?
First, and possibly most important, is the understanding and acceptance of the fact that parents and their children may indeed differ in their values as children get older. Children growing up in North America will have social experiences that will differ in many ways from those of their parents who grew up elsewhere, and these experiences will inevitably influence the ways in which said children view the world. The key is to not view this difference as a negative development and for parents to understand that these differences, which could include cultural differences, can actually enrich the relationship as long as they are not ignored or denied and are explicitly acknowledged.
Second, parents should not be in any denial that that their children WILL face sex and sexuality related decisions, and most likely sooner than later. From body exploration at a young age to school friends having two dads or two moms to peer pressure in their teens, sexuality issues will be an inevitable part of their lives beginning early in life. When it comes to sex itself my research demonstrated that young Muslims are no different than any other young people. Very often this information conflicts with what many parents expect, believe, or teach their children. Many take an abstinence-only approach, expecting that their children will only engage in sexual activity once married. But that is not the reality for many young Muslims.
Third, parents need to know that all the evidence suggests their children will be much better off, and healthier, being educated about sexual health, relationships, inclusivity, and consent (all of which are included in the Ontario curriculum). Research further suggests that providing sexual health education to young people actually will often result in young people delaying their first sexual experience. Education is a tool that helps us navigate the world. Just as children need to learn the basics of math, science, literature, and history to understand their world, they need to learn the basics of their sexual health to understand themselves, their bodies, their relationships with others, and their boundaries. We cannot place less importance on the health of our children than we do on math, science, and literature. All youth need to be armed with sexual education so that they are able to make healthy sexual decisions, which they will most certainly be confronted with throughout their entire lives.
Finally, Islamically, it is absolutely appropriate to provide sexual health education to children. Islam encourages education and views regarding sex have been relatively progressive. Even the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) spoke about sexual relations openly and advised his ummah on the issue. The various hadith on this point demonstrate he did not shy away.
In summary, children of Muslim immigrant parents will experience growing up differently than their parents. These children WILL be faced with sexuality and sexuality-related decisions throughout their entire lives. Providing them with sexual health education will provide them with the tools needed for them to make healthy decisions, whether it be the ability to recognize an abusive and dangerous situation, to respect those of sexual orientations or genders different than their own, or to delay sexual activity until they are completely prepared and comfortable. Islam does not forbid learning or talking about sex. This is often a restriction we place on ourselves. The fears that parents face regarding this topic is real and should not be discounted, but there are ways to allay those fears. Indeed, educating parents and decreasing their fears and anxiety around issues of sex and sexuality needs to be a part of the sexual health education of young Muslims.
Sobia Ali-Faisal received her PhD in Applied Psychology from the University of Windsor in 2014. She currently resides in Canada.