Sep 162016
 

sunset-801933_1920Recently, marriage and relationship advice videos by well-known and revered scholar Yasir Qadhi have been circulating the internet. Called the “On the Rocks: Common Marital & Intimacy Complaints” series, these videos are 5-10 minutes long with sensationalized titles such as:

  • It’s the #1 Thing Husbands Complain About: Watch How YQ Shuts it Down
  • What so many Men want to know will SHOCK the Ladies. It Could Also End the Engagement
  • It’s Hard to Believe there is a Solution to the in-laws Conundrum. It’s so Simple you will Cry.
  • How YQ Addresses this Common Bedroom Frustration, You’ll want to Give Him a Standing Ovation!

I subscribed to watch these videos and was sorely disappointed with how these videos not only lacked practical advice (ie I still don’t know how to solve the “in-law” problem he’s talking about), but they also were laden with gender stereotypes, shame and stigma around female sexuality, and they continue to reinforce unhealthy sexual relationships between the husband and wife.

I soon discovered I was not the only one to be sorely disappointed in this series, when I came across a post by a woman who refers to herself as the “Salafi Feminist,” and so I invited her to share her thoughts on our blog as a guest post, which you will find below.

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by Zaynab bint Younus

When one sees Muslim leaders attempt to take on serious and relevant issues to the Muslim Ummah such as sexually dysfunctional marital relationships, one truly hopes for the best. Alas, well-meaning though they may be, there becomes glaringly obvious a lack of knowledge and understanding regarding female sexuality.

A few claims that are being made and circulated en masse (and dangerously so) are the following:

  • Muslim women (especially from ‘conservative, practicing families’) do not really experience sexual arousal or any feelings of intense sexuality before marriage.
  • Women’s fitrah (natural state) is such that they are automatically less sexual than men.
  • Muslim women are intimidated and scared by even discussions about sex prior to marriage; if a Muslim man wants to discuss it with his fiancée, he shouldn’t lest she run in the opposite direction.
  • Women don’t ‘need’ to orgasm as much as men do; their sexual feelings are minimal and what they truly seek from sexual encounters is not necessary physical pleasure, but emotional connection.

Not only are all these claims inaccurate, but to perpetuate them on a massive public forum – and by an individual with significant influence over large numbers of Muslims – is extremely dangerous due to the fact that the Muslim community already suffers from a horrific lack of knowledge and awareness about sex and female sexuality.

Despite the fact that Islamic texts fully recognize women’s sexual needs and in fact protects them as a religious right, many male Muslim leaders perpetuate cultural stereotypes about the nature of female sexuality and falsely pass them off as Islamic guidance. Such ridiculous ideas include the belief that women have a lesser need and appreciation for the physical aspect of intimacy; that they do not experience intense sexual arousal prior to marriage; and that the very idea of sex is disturbing and unnatural to them, or that they are unable to comprehend the true nature of intercourse before marriage.

In all fairness, even Western cultures and scientific thought has long held faulty and inaccurate beliefs regarding female sexuality (most famously, the views of Sigmund Freud and the Victorian phenomenon of ‘hysteria’). However, it is also true that Western society has moved along with considerable speed with regards to knowledge of female sexuality than many Eastern (and Muslim) cultures have. It must still be kept in mind, though, that the amount of studies and research collected on female sexuality is dwarfed by those about men, and that there remains a great deal to be discovered about female sexuality in general.

Going back to the claims being publicly taught, there is first of all a severely erroneous conflation between the reality of culturally ingrained attitudes about sex, and the actual innate physical desires and needs that women have for sex.

While it is absolutely true that many Muslim cultures teach women unhealthy negative attitudes about sex and equate female sexual desire with being dirty or impure, this in no way actually reflects the physiological need for sex that exists in the female gender as a whole.

No matter how much cultural brainwashing women receive regarding their sexuality, most women will still inevitably experience feelings of sexual arousal at some point in their lives – and for those who do, it will generally first happen before marriage.

Furthermore, the arousal a woman feels can and does reach strong levels of intensity, including orgasm; for example, in a wet dream. This was acknowledged even by the Prophet Muhammad (God’s blessings be upon him), who confirmed Umm Sulaym’s question regarding female wet dreams.[1]

Even outside of wet dreams and masturbation however, women can and do feel intense sexual stimulation – anything from wearing a new pair of jeans or sitting on a massage chair. This is not to be crude, but simply realistic.

Nor are such experiences purely involuntary; many women are curious about their bodies and are actively aware of what stimulates them both physically and mentally (after all, the brain is the most powerful sex organ). Sexual curiosity exists in women just as it exists in men; since many girls mature physically and mentally faster than boys, they can be ahead of the game when it comes to being curious about sex.
Whether it’s reading romance novels (and anyone who thinks that girls read romance novels just for the emotional fluff is fooling themselves) or magazines like Cosmopolitan, girls crave information about both the romantic and the explicitly sexual.

Communication about sexual issues is another matter, one tied much more strongly to the aforementioned cultural brainwashing about intimacy than the idea that women have an inherent and instinctive fear or aversion to sex. Advising Muslim men to ‘just pray Istikhaarah, ya akhee’ (just pray the Prayer of Guidance, oh brother) instead of respectfully discussing or asking questions related to sex with their fiancées is harmful and, quite frankly, insulting to both the man and the woman. We should not be perpetuating attitudes of embarrassment, shame, and stigma about sexual issues but rather, encouraging men and women to approach the topic with respect, dignity, and honesty. It may be uncomfortable at first or awkward, but then, all positive growth and change is by necessity.

It is necessary to say here that a great deal of work needs to be done in training Muslim men and women on how to discuss matters related to sex and marriage in a respectful, dignified, and mature manner.

There is one final issue – the idea that women are innately ‘less sexual’ than men. While there is no denying the biological differences between men and women, including sexually, there is a big difference between recognizing the difference, and claiming that women simply aren’t as sexual.[2] More accurate would be to state that what men and women find sexually appealing and arousing, how they react to such stimuli, and the levels at which they respond to such urges differ greatly – but do not take away from the inherent sexuality of women.

It is also a fallacy to say that the sole or primary benefit or reason that women engage in sex is for an emotional connection; rather, while some women do enjoy sex more because of the emotional connection, it is not a necessary component of their actual satisfaction or orgasm. In fact, the vagina – specifically the clitoris – has thousands more nerve endings than the penis, which means that its orgasm can be correspondingly much, much more intense than the male orgasm, and contradicts the belief of those men who are convinced that women don’t really ‘feel it.’ [3] (Not to mention that women are capable of different types of orgasm[4] [5] [6] [7] [8]and multiple orgasms.)

It is worth noting that, once sexually aroused, women have a much stronger need to orgasm than men do. If they are stimulated and left unsatisfied, it causes extreme emotional upset (and significant physical discomfort). Should this become a recurring pattern, where husbands reach climax but make no effort to ensure their wives’ satisfaction, women often end up angry and resistant to being sexually available.

Psychologist Haleh Banani mentions as well that women who are emotionally unsatisfied in their marriages yet are sexually fulfilled have higher rates of remaining within that marriage than the other way around. If that doesn’t underscore the point well enough, I don’t know what will.

The claim that women have fewer or less intense desires, or a somehow less important need for orgasm, is in fact an unhealthy way of minimizing female sexuality and its priority in a relationship. This takes place both amongst Muslims and non-Muslims and is a sign of how misogyny permeates our attitudes such that we automatically do not consider women to be of equal footing even in bed (and God help any woman who shows any sign of initiating sexual interest or contact!).

While the argument may go on to rage over who is ‘more’ sexual (keeping in mind that new studies continue to emerge on the topic, with sometimes paradoxical results), there is no benefit to be gained from pushing the view that women are simply less sexual beings.

In fact, it does the opposite, by telling men that they do not have to consider their wives’ sexual needs to be as important or necessary (the caveat that ‘a woman’s right to sexual satisfaction is guaranteed in Islam’ does nothing to change the final message). It is also implying to women that they should give up hope of true sexual satisfaction because it’s unrealistic and biologically unnecessary for them to experience it (but hey, all women really want are snuggles and warm fuzzy cuddles, right?).

It is high time that we begin to provide qualified individuals in the Muslim community who can discuss sex – and especially female sexuality – from a more nuanced and accurate perspective. Otherwise, Muslim leaders who take it upon themselves to talk about the subject are simply contributing to the already terrible state of Muslim intimacy, and the continued struggles of Muslim women seeking satisfaction and fulfillment in their own marriages.

What truly needs to be encouraged, emphasized, and taught is the importance of men and women alike to improve communication with their spouses about matters of intimacy. From there, it should become much easier for husbands and wives to become comfortable with their own and each others’ bodies; and for husbands to understand the various factors affecting women that may be significantly responsible for obstacles to sexual fulfillment. Just as men have their own unique preferences, levels of libido, and so on, so too are the tastes and desires of women varied and vast.

To truly seek an improvement to the sex lives of married Muslims, the first step should not be to make sweeping generalizations of female sexuality that are based on androcentric perspectives. Rather, it must be recognized that championing outdated ideas causes a great deal of harm to both men and women. A more nuanced and accurate understanding of female sexuality must be collectively pursued in order to see significant positive change in Muslim marriages.

Zainab Bint Younus (aka The Salafi Feminist) is a Canadian Muslimah who believes strongly in reclaiming the rights of women through the Shari’ah, and empowering ourselves through the Qur’an and Sunnah.

references:
[1] Umm Salama (Allah be pleased with her) relates that Umm Sulaym (Allah be pleased with her) came to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) and said, “O Messenger of Allah, Surely, Allah is not shy of the truth. Is it necessary for a woman to take a ritual bath after she has a wet dream?” The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) replied: “Yes, if she notices a discharge.” Umm Salama covered her face and asked, “O Messenger of Allah! Does a woman have a discharge?” He replied: “Yes, let your right hand be in dust [an Arabic expression said light-heartedly to someone whose statement you contradict], how does the son resemble his mother?” (Sahih al-Bukhari 130)
[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/06/turns-out-women-have-really-really-strong-sex-drives-can-men-handle-it/276598/
[3] http://www.science20.com/science_amp_supermodels/would_female_orgasms_kill_men
[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/women-do-experience-two-different-types-of-orgasm-study-reveals-9191884.html
[5] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/seriouslyscience/2014/03/12/really-two-kinds-female-orgasm-science-weighs/#.VPYF33zF84c
[6] https://monicasbox.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/11-different-types-of-orgasms/
[7] http://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-relationships/types-of-female-orgasm
[8] http://www.buzzfeed.com/alisoncaporimo/different-types-of-orgasms

Sep 162016
 

magnifying-glass-633057_1920One of HEART‘s activities is to help design research studies to collect data specific to Muslim communities. Our hope is to be able to have a deeper understanding of the reproductive needs of Muslim women in order to be able to offer:

  • more targeted and enhance programming
  • recommendations to medical professionals on how to make their services more culturally competent
  • recommendations and tips to Muslim women on how to effectively navigate health services and advocate for themselves

HEART, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is conducting a study to explore the knowledge of Muslim women on reproductive health, and their perceptions and experiences of visiting a physician or women’s health care provider for reproductive care services. If you are a Muslim woman who lives in the United States, and are between the ages of 18 and 45, please participate in this study today by filling out a brief anonymous survey that should take 5-10 minutes of your time.

Take the survey today!

Sep 162016
 

desk-1148994_1920by Alia Azmat

This Ramadan I made a pact with myself, to take care of myself. I stretched myself, I have been challenging myself, but perhaps not in the way you might imagine. I have not attended taraweeh every night. A few days I did not wake up to reap the rewards of suhoor, the predawn meal. One day I even made the conscious choice to listen to music instead of Quran on a long drive home. This Ramadan, I asked myself to be realistic, to be present, to be honest with myself about the mental habits I engage in which destroy my body and spirit. I asked myself to be honest with myself about the habits which prevent me from connecting to my Lord sincerely.

Early in the month, I was added to a WhatsApp group where I was asked to introduce myself and share something I consider beautiful others may not. Silence, particularly those “pregnant pauses” and the silence we do not afford ourselves during our busy days and packed schedules, is beautiful to me. Silence, when we are present enough with ourselves and our loved ones to ask “how is your haal (condition) today?” Silence, gives us permission to mess up as we answer the calls of our hearts. It gives others an opportunity to reach out, kindly, softly, either with their gaze, their touch, a smile, or statement, saying “it is okay” to stumble and fall through the fear of becoming.  Silence, when I allow myself to check in with myself in the morning (or in mourning), the late afternoon, right before Iftar, meal to break the fast — silently praying – “it was a difficult day today, but tomorrow I will try again for you my Lord.” Silence, when I am able to tell culturally constructed demons named self-loathing, perfectionism, the push for “productivity,” to take a back seat as I finish my final rakah (unit of prayer) or a particularly gluttonous dinner.

Still, silence, at times, can be scary.

When I am alone with these thoughts, reflecting on how and why these “basic” Ramadan tasks are difficult for me, I confront the devils God didn’t lock up.

I am single. Why do I not think God is enough for me?
Instead, how I can be useful and supportive to other sisters like me?
I am studying. I resent summer school and sweltering through summer humidity.
But consider what opportunities God has given me (even through grad school poverty).
I am safe. What does it mean for me to show solidarity?
What do I do with the privilege of emotional safety. How can I accept I may never know  another’s   experience intimately?

This Ramadan, I asked myself to sit with my guilt. For not praying more, for not observing more traditionally, for not being better to my parents. For me, these are true moments of reflection, of growth, of rebirth; but they are painful and uneasy.

This Ramadan I made a pact with myself, to take care of myself. God has given me the gift of intellect, of opportunity, of sincerity and concern for my community. What good am I to others if I push myself unrealistically, instead of reflecting and taking accountability? What do I lose in my relationship with Rabbul Alameen, Lord of the Worlds, when I reject spiritual sustenance, spiritual self-care, spiritual sustainability?

God is forgiving. But God is not only Forgiving in Ramadan. While we believe Allah’s mercy is multiplied 70x in this Holy month, I want to believe His mercy could also be extended towards myself this month.

My fast will not look like your fast. And there are many ways to fast in this holy month. What would it mean for you to be honest with yourself this Ramadan? What is required of you to continue talking with Allah after the month is over? Kindness, self-acceptance, a prayer buddy, maybe one less (or more post-taraweeh) coffee? Spiritual self-care is not about overextending. Meet yourself this month where you need to be. Forgive yourself if it is not where you used to be.

So what does spiritual self-care look like? I implore you to figure it out with me this month and beyond–here are just a few reflections on what it could mean:

  • God says “I am as my slave expects Me to be.” When you give yourself permission to make mistakes, you are humbling yourself — God is the only flawless, perfect Being. Giving permission to yourself to “mess up” in and outside of this month implies you trust God and choose to believe in His Mercy over His wrath.
  • Self-care can often sound “selfish.” Explore the stigma surrounding this word. In writing this I had to address how uncomfortable it was to write about “me, me, me.” It feels egotistical, it feels self-centered, at times it feels spoiled and indulgent. But when everyone around us is telling us not to celebrate ourselves and our achievements, maybe a radical Ramadan is simply saying “thank you God, for shaping me, for blowing ruh into me, for taking the time to fashion me individually.” And yet “to know yourself is to know your Lord.” Perhaps our “selfish” reflections can be reframed as acts of self-assessment. Since we are asked “to call yourselves to account before you are called to account.”
  • On that note, there may not be one right or wrong way to reflect and call ourselves to account. I want so desperately for someone to tell me “THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT. THIS IS HOW YOU TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.” My challenges will look different than a mother taking care of her children, different than someone who just had, or lost a child — negotiating grief, roles, and expectations in the family. My struggles as a student in the Midwest, look very different than those working 9-5 jobs outside, or even inside, in the blazing Phoenix heat. Finally, for those who are unable to fast, for those managing visible and invisible conditions, such as PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic pain, or other medical conditions the collective Ramadan experience can be trying.

What I can share is what taking care of myself has looked like in the past: I’ve called friends, baked and shared sweet treats, let myself cry, writing poetry and taking time off social media to reengage with myself meaningfully. Others have told me spiritual self-care sometimes looks like not bringing a home baked item to an iftar party (GASP!), saying no to additional responsibilities at work, and not attending taraweeh in exchange for a good night’s sleep. The test here in my opinion is to accept ourselves and others when we make these decisions.

  • Spiritual self-care acknowledges burnout. Therapist, psychologists, social workers, activists and others in the “helping fields” are told at the start of their work/programs, “to take care of yourself.” We need to be nourished. Ramadan in many ways reminds us we cannot do it ourselves. We must allow others to lend us a hand. This can be particularly difficult for women I think. We are socialized to believe we can do it all. Without struggling or silencing ourselves and our suffering. Although we accept food from neighbors; we make efforts to eat and share together, we must similarly, trust and allow God and the other beloveds in our life to help us take care of ourselves.

As a woman, asking and accepting help is challenging for me. I wonder why I can’t do it all (and have a killer Instagram account…). Implicitly I’ve been told “this is your job,” “if you can’t do it all, you are doing it wrong.” This Ramadan I was reminded I have many people in my life I can trust to help me. But I realize not everyone has had similar experiences in their family or in their community. In being kind to ourselves we also allow space for us to be kind to others. To act with softness instead of shaming or humiliating individuals when they bravely reach out for assistance or worship differently.  As community members, sisters, friends, husbands, brothers, and spouses I think we need to be asking, “how can I help my loved ones take care of themselves?”

You are probably already asking God to forgive you during these last 10 nights. I wonder what it would be like to give yourself a moment of silence in moments of frustration…and forgive yourself. To reflect on yourself. I wonder what it would be like to ask God,

“What do I need to learn about myself to make my relationship [with you, with my parents, with my spouse, with my family, with your Holy Book, with myself, with humanity] BETTER – kinder, softer, more forgiving, more loving, more understanding?”

Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful (39:53).”

May God keep our hearts firm on the truth and allow us to fight for justice even if it is against ourselves, Ameen.

Alia is an Educator for HEART Women & Girls and is currently pursuing her PhD in counseling psychology.

Jun 242016
 

originally published on patheos.com

By Sameera Qureshi

Woman hygiene protection, close-up“Raise your hand if you’ve ever faked fasting when you’re on your period.”

I posed the question and then looked around the room of 25 seventh grade girls and saw that 80 percent of them had their hands raised. Some were looking directly at me, perhaps hoping that I’d understand why, while others had their gazes directed down towards the floor.

I was not shocked by the results of this particular group or the many others I’ve run on sexual health education with Muslim girls and women. There is a great amount of shame and stigma around many topics related to sexual health, especially that of menstruation. For something that has been endowed to girls and women as a blessing — the ability to create and sustain life within our own bodies — it’s shocking how often this topic is shunned from discussion circles within our communities and not to mention in our homes.

Speaking from my own experiences, growing up as an only female sibling with two brothers, I too have been guilty of acting shamefully during menstruation. To use the term shamefully is to mean that someone looks down upon themselves as lesser than, unworthy, and even dirty for menstruating. For many years during my menstrual cycle, I would wake up for suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) and fajr prayer, pretend to pray and breakfast with my family — despite the fact that I was absolved from fasting due to my period.

There were times when my mom would vouch for me not being at the suhoor table by saying that I was sick or had a headache. I’d go to the basement to eat food during the day. As an adult, I’d head out of the house to eat while running errands or at work. While some of these practices may be seen as maintaining modesty during menstruation, they were all done under the auspices of shame rather than empowered decision making.

Had I known that menstruation is empowering, indicative of a new spiritual layer as an adult from an Islamic perspective, and that there were many ways to still connect with God — my experiences would have been quite different. I could have chosen to act differently than in the shameful fake-fasting way.
During the girls group, we dove into the religious perspectives of menstruation — namely, the rights that have been given to women during their monthly cycle. Girls and women who are menstruating are absolved of the obligation to pray and fast. What many girls especially don’t understand is that they can and should continue to worship in other ways during their menstrual cycle.

Generally speaking, when girls are taught about menstruation (typically from family members or friends), the “do’s and don’ts” are emphasized more so than “here are your other options.” Having spoken with and taught many teenage girls, it would be safe to say that a vast majority of them feel uncomfortable approaching their mothers and families members about menstruation.

If this topic is not spoken about or broached by parents, it is unfair to expect that girls will initiate the conversation themselves. Parents not talking about a subject often implies that it’s not to be spoken about. And thus, many of these girls learn by osmosis through their peers, the Internet or trial and error about physical, emotional and spiritual self-care during their menstrual cycle.

However, this information is not always accurate nor complete, to say the least. Nor does it afford them the opportunity to ask questions after they have digested the information.

Menstruation is not only physical in nature, despite this aspect being focused upon the most — it has a spiritual and emotional dimension as well. Girls and women need to learn self-care strategies around all three aspects of menstruation, especially during Ramadan, the holiest month of the year.

Body image, self-worth and having a healthy sexual identity are impacted by how a girl understands menstruation. Understanding one’s monthly cycle is empowering and leads girls and women to feel as though they are in control. This can trickle over to additional areas of sexual health self-care — understanding the importance of regular gynecological check-ups, seeking information about safe and healthy intimacy, exploring the concept of healthy relationships and so forth.

If young girls do not feel empowered or confident enough to seek information about a normal biological cycle in their body, it will be challenging for them to reach out in other realms of sexual health.

Not to mention, many Muslim women suffer silently from menstrual and/or sexual dysfunction and aren’t quite sure who to turn to for support. If we empower girls from a young age and arm them with a plethora of information and resources, we are creating pathways that makes it more than permissible to discuss any sexual health related matter with trusted adults.

The shame that girls and women feel around menstruation is not solely limited to this segment of sexual health. Speaking of sexual health, our communities are in a dire state on this topic. Apart from menstruation, we also don’t speak about sexual violence, creating safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ community members, what healthy relationships consist of, consent-based education and ensuring that our institutions and mosques have policies and protocols in place to protect survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.

While it is not incumbent on us to all be doing this work at the community level, it is our responsibility to become educated on these topics and at least practice creating safe spaces within our own family and friends circle. This includes men as well as women.

It’s time that both men and women place aside any shame related to menstruation and sexual health topics. Our faith tradition is rich in stories about honest and detailed questions that Muslims would ask of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). We’ve definitely lost this within our own communities, and our faith tradition has been overshadowed by cultural stigma and shame.

So let’s use this Ramadan to become empowered to seek sexual health information as a means to enhance our spiritual, physical and emotional well being. Let’s not fake fasting anymore.

Sameera Qureshi is the Director of Education, Canada for HEART Women & Girls. For the last several years she led sexual health and sexual assault awareness programming for the Muslim community in Calgary and other Canadian communities. Most recently, she has moved to Washington, DC, where she hopes to continue similar programming.

Jun 242016
 

By Amanda Quraishi

breakthrough-460889_1280In the face of the kind of tragic loss of human life such as the massacre that took place in Orlando last weekend, I am increasingly frustrated by the immediate response by groups to reject, deflect, and remove any and all nuance from the conversation – simply because they don’t want to be implicated as part of the problem.

But Omar Mateen didn’t come out of a vacuum.

I see people arguing about what his REAL motive was. Was it that he was Muslim? Gay and closeted? From a strictly patriarchal family? Mentally ill? Was it the fault of gun rights activists? Donald Trump? Who has blood on their hands? There is an eagerness to pin this crime on another group that I fear has less to do with preventing future such incidents, and more about covering our own backsides.
Well you know, it might be all those things working in confluence. Maybe his inherent homosexuality was repressed by his patriarchal upbringing and a religious community that rejected and oppressed his identity as a gay man. Maybe he felt that the only way to heaven was to take out his self-loathing on a bunch of other gay people. Maybe in his identity crisis he was easily swayed by the religious rhetoric of violent extremists who preached a way for sure salvation through killing. And maybe the culture he lived in was one that made access to weapons of warfare available to anyone and everyone who desires to use them for evil purposes.

From the Muslim community I see statements like: “Ok so can we talk about homophobia (or gun laws or mental illness) since we are clear now that Islam isn’t the motive?”

No. No we cannot. But we CAN talk about how gay Muslims are repeatedly dehumanized and oppressed in Muslim spaces using holy texts, and how cultural trappings and family hierarchy reinforces feelings of shame, self-loathing and desperation for homosexuals– and in fact for any free expression of natural sexuality. And how this environment breeds unchecked homophobia. We can talk about the absolute failure of leadership in the Muslim communities to INSIST on welcoming and affirming LBGTQ Muslims.

We can talk about how easy it is to ignore warning signs of violent behavior and religious radicalization. We can talk about how successful religious extremists are at messaging online to exactly the kinds of Muslims who are disenfranchised and/or dealing with an identity crisis here in the west. We can talk about how the Muslims who do try to address violent extremism within the community are demonized and ostracized themselves.

I know it’s hard to politicize nuance, but let’s go ahead and set our agendas down for five seconds and get real.  As Muslims, when we see a member of our Ummah (community) perpetuate something as ghastly as murdering 50 innocent people in the holy month of Ramadan, it is time to stop and reflect on what part we had in failing him.

As a Muslim, I am truly concerned about the way violence done by Muslims is being used to implicate our entire faith tradition. But in an effort to defend our religion, we can’t gloss over the ways we’re failing members of our own communities. There’s a marked difference between saying “this is radical Islam” and saying “these are Muslims committing terrorism”. The former is meant to demonize Muslims in general for a political agenda and create distrust of those who follow Islam. The latter is the truth. If we refuse to acknowledge the reality of what is happening to young Muslim men and women under our noses, we are going to lose any moral authority we have in the public sphere.

Religion is more than just holy texts. It’s community – Ummah. Mateen came from our Ummah. The fact that Muslims’ immediate public responses are to deflect certainly does nothing to add to our credibility—individually or collectively.

Amanda Quraishi is a writer, activist & technology professional from Austin, TX. amandaquraishi.com

Jun 242016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

courthouse-1223279_1920In January 2015, a Stanford undergraduate student sexually assaulted a young woman. The woman, unconscious at the time, was assaulted behind a dumpster. Two graduate students riding past the scene were able to stop the assault and detain the perpetrator – Stanford champion swimmer Brock Turner – until the police came. A little over a year later, the jury found Turner guilty on three counts of sexual assault, with a maximum of 14 years in prison.

But last week, Turner was sentenced to a mere six months in county jail and three years probation because the judge feared the “severe impact” a longer sentence would have on the star swimmer.

How’s that for your daily dose of justice?

This case brings up many important reminders. I call them reminders, and not lessons, because they are not new findings; rather, they are what most anti-sexual assault activists, experts, and advocates have been saying for decades…Read more.

Jun 242016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

Father and daughter with glasses watching a video on the moile phone while traveling in train

Father and daughter with glasses watching a video on the moile phone while traveling in train

It happens to every parent: yesterday you were holding them in your arms, protecting them and their innocence. Yet, you quickly realize that even as young as 2 or 3, children are curious, intelligent little beings that are looking for answers about the way life works: including, of course, their bodies and how they came into the world. Like many of your peers, you are so. not. ready. The time has come for you to have “the talk” with them.

Some of you may want to start young and have conversations throughout childhood and adolescence, others may want to wait until the later elementary school years. Many of you want to have this conversation, but hesitate with embarrassment or confusion: is having an open, honest conversation about sex while still setting values or expectations possible? At HEART Women & Girls, we believe that it is, and hope to offer you some tips on how to begin this important conversation. Please do refer to our recent guide for Muslim parents on having these conversations with their kids.

Start Early. While most parents delay this conversation until just before puberty, it is crucial to begin these conversations as early as 3. There are many ways to have these conversations in age appropriate ways, so as to build off the knowledge as the child gets older.Ongoing, developmentally appropriate conversations have a few more advantages. For example, it normalizes topics related to sex and sexuality so that it is not seen as a shameful or embarrassing topic. Introducing these concepts throughout the elementary and adolescent years lays a foundation for lifelong critical decision-making and healthy relationships. And perhaps most importantly, as mentioned earlier, these conversations allow you to talk openly about your family’s values and expectations about sex and sexuality.

Keep the conversation going. The most important component of “the talk” for parents to remember is that it should be ongoing, throughout a child’s elementary and adolescent years. Though historically these conversations have been portrayed as being only a one-time lecture from parent to child, it is hard to imagine that one conversation will suffice. Even if you are well-prepared for this talk, one conversation cannot adequately equip a child with the information and skills they need for a lifelong set of experiences. Put another way, when children attend school, they learn academic subjects like math, science, and English, and as they grow older, the concepts build on each other and get more complicated, which ultimately provides them with a comprehensive understanding of the subject. In the same way, repeated, age-appropriate conversations about puberty and sex are crucial to give them information they need to fully process the big picture and figure out how they fit in it.

Encourage Questions. Giving kids permission to ask you questions openly and answering them honestly builds trust and creates a safe space for them to come to you in the future with questions as well.

Provide Information. Where can your child go for more information? Of course, he/she always has you to come to, but teaching your child to identify other trustworthy sources of information – both people in their lives as well as internet sources – is a very important skill to help them develop. They will then be able to ascertain the differences between legitimate websites and not so accurate websites, as well as will know which adults – in addition to you – they can seek help from should they need it.

Emphasize consent. Unfortunately, we live in a time when sexual violence is rampant. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 4 girls and 1 and 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse or assault before the age of 18. There is no racial, ethnic, or religious community immune to sexual violence. It is crucial that you explore situations involving boundaries and consent, as they are useful skills to have when thinking about sexual violence and healthy relationships. This information can help lay the foundation for healthy relationships in the future, and can also prepare your child to be that resource for their friends and peers if they are ever bystanders in a situation.

Be honest about family values and expectations. Many parents have asked me if it’s possible to be sex positive while still letting their kids know what they expect from them regarding sex. In other words, is setting a framework or guidelines by which young people can abide by conflicting with sex positive, autonomous decision making? It is perfectly ok for parents to lay down their expectations, while acknowledging that their child is old enough to make his/her own choices.

So once the actual biology of sex and reproduction is explained, what does a conversation about how it all plays out in real life and family values look like? We offer just one approach below.

WHAT IS SEX?

Age 12 and under: Sex is an act between two consenting people. Consent means that both people have agreed to what is happening and can stop at any time they want. In Islam, most believe that sex is only permissible when those two people are married and it is considered an act of worship. Of course, there are many people—Muslim or not—who choose not to wait until marriage because the decision to have sex is different for everyone and requires both parties to think about what factors need to be present to move forward.

While sex can and should bring much pleasure, sex is also an act of great responsibility. People choose to have sex for many reasons, including: to express their love and desire for someone, to fulfill a physical need, or to have children. It is an act that makes you responsible for yourself and your partner.

Age 12 and older: Because it is a responsibility, you must be be prepared for sex. Preparing for sex often involves educating yourself on birth control and contraception options, knowing how to use them, engaging in open communication with your partner, and reflecting on and exploring your values, ideas, and desires before the heat of the moment. If you are not prepared, it may have an effect that you did not plan for. Physical consequences such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Getting pregnant as a teen can make graduating high school and college more difficult. Whenever you decide to have sex, it is your right to have sex with contraception. No one should pressure you to have sex without it. Sex may also have social consequences such as tension in your relationship or friendships. Or it may have spiritual consequences such as guilt you may feel if your family doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.

Remember you also have a responsibility to always honor and respect your own boundaries as well as your partner’s. If you are not comfortable with a particular sexual act, or your partner is not comfortable with a particular sexual act , those feelings should be respected and honored. No means no, and it is your right to not have sex or engage in any other sexual activity if you do not want to.

I hope that you wait until you are [married, 21, an adult, in a committed relationship, enter expectation, if at any, here]. I know that there will be many times you will feel like not waiting, because romantic and sexual desires are natural and sex feels good and we live in a world where the pressure to have sex is overwhelming at times. So, I hope that you will wait too, but I also know you are a very thoughtful girl/boy who will make the best decision for you and your body.

If you found this article helpful, please do check out our publication: Let’s Talk about Sex a Guide for Muslim Parents on having the Talk with their Kids. The guide includes data, useful tips, and exercises that you can do with your child as you prepare them for this important part of life.

Jun 242016
 

by Amber Khan

beads-1234666_1920Every woman remembers her first period.  It is a fateful moment as it signifies the transition from girl to woman.

For some, they are prepared for this moment.  They are even looking forward to it.  And when that day arrives, they are eager to share the news with their mothers, as they know it will be met with praise and excitement.

For others, it may be one of the scariest and most confusing times in their life.  They were never aware of this unavoidable development.  And when it arrives, they are lost as to what it means and who to tell.

As two women recounted from their childhood:

“I woke up and was covered in blood.  My clothes, my sheets, my mattress – all stained.  I screamed.  I thought I was dying.  I have never seen so much blood in my life.”

“I was playing outside, running around with my sisters.  When I came inside I saw bloodstains all over my pants.  But I never fell or got hurt – I didn’t understand where it was coming from.”

Undoubtedly, approaching this topic with our children can be challenging. For some parents, they have successfully found a balance between education and sensitivity.  However, for many others, they struggle.  The idea of celebrating this event contradicts their religious and cultural understandings of menstruation.  They prefer, instead, to shy away from the topic altogether, leaving their daughters alone and in the dark.

But one mustn’t stress over the perplexity of this situation.   We are blessed to have the example of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to show us how to do it right.

Umayyah bint Qays (may Allah be pleased with her) was a young girl who had not yet reached puberty.  She joined the Muslim army on its way to Khaybar. The Prophet (pbuh) had her sit on his she-camel, just behind his luggage and they rode for some time. When they stopped, Rasul Allah (pbuh) descended and had his camel kneel down, whereupon Umayyah got off as well. To her mortification, she noticed that the luggage she’d been sitting on was smeared with blood – her first period.

Umayyah sat back on the bag, leaning forward to try and hide the bloodstain.

Rasul Allah (pbuh) noticed both her actions and the bloodstain and said gently, “Perhaps this is menstrual blood?” Umayyah nodded in confirmation and Rasul Allah (pbuh) suggested kindly, “Attend to yourself, then take some water, put some salt in it and wash the bag, then return.”

Umayyah followed his instructions and was once again seated upon Rasul Allah’s camel.

After the Muslims were victorious at Khaybar, Rasul Allah (pbuh) chose a necklace from amongst the spoils of war and summoned Umayyah.  He placed it around her neck with his own hands. She wore that necklace until she died.
(Al-Muhaddithat; al-Tabaqat al-Kubra by Ibn Sa’d.  Nadwi, M. K. 2007. Al-Muhadithaat: The Women Scholars in Islam. London and Oxford: Interface Publications, pp. 59).

Certainly, the lessons behind this tradition are astoundingly beautiful.

    1. Despite that it was her first period, Umayyah knew where this bleeding was from, revealing that she was taught such knowledge prior to her menstruation.
    2. Shyness is a natural quality to the reproductive process. Umayyah tried to hide the stains, however, her shyness did not prevent her from learning and obeying the Prophet’s (pbuh) teachings.
    3. The Prophet’s (pbuh) reaction to the situation displayed both proper knowledge and delicacy when dealing with an impressionable, young girl.
    4. The Prophet (pbuh) recognized the significance of menarche and therefore he presented her with a special token to symbolize the mark of this occasion.

We can also learn what he (pbuh) did not do to Umayyah

  1. Ignore the situation out of her (or his) embarrassment
  2. Shame her for what had happened to the luggage.
  3. Find a woman to deal with the situation.
  4. Downplay or ignore the pivotal moment of menarche.

Sister Umayyah’s necklace, which she wore everyday until her death, was a constant reminder of that day, of that moment.  She felt proud to wear it around her neck for others to see.

How many of us can say we are proud of our menarche?  That we would want to be reminded of it?  Or do we think of it like the damaged luggage bag – ruined with attempts to hide it?

For many parents who did not grow up with a positive menstrual experience struggle with breaking that cycle for their own daughters.  Surely, it requires them to step out of their comfort zone full of cultural and social stigmas.  But if done correctly, it will leave their daughters as Umayyah was left – confident and educated in her body and her inner self.

As one similar young woman recounts:

“I was in school and had to the go to the bathroom.  It was there where I saw traces of blood.  I smiled.  My mom said this day would be coming and it finally happened. I couldn’t wait to tell her.  When I finally got home, I shared every detail.  She hugged me and said, ‘This is a special day for you and me.’  It was one of the happiest days of my life.  I felt like my mom.  I felt like a woman.”

Here are five tips on how to promote openness and gentle conversations with our daughters about menstruation:

  1. Start “the talk” early.  Waiting until your daughter has her first period is too late.  Prepare her for what’s coming so she’s not alarmed.
  2. Encourage honesty with privacy.  It’s common for parents to teach our daughters to lie about when they’re menstruating to protect their male relatives’ discomfort.  This not only encourages sinning but also enforces a negative stigma to a natural event.  Rather, brainstorm together ways on how to honestly yet privately disclose to others’ inquiries about why they aren’t fasting or praying.
  3. Teach sons about menstruation. Menstruation may directly affect females but it has an Islamic impact on males as well. Therefore, talking to your sons about menstruation will have a positive influence on all their relationships in life – as brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers.
  4. Talk less, listen more.  Puberty can be a very confusing time for any child.  Giving them a platform to share their thoughts without hearing a lecture or feeling judged will not only make them share with you more but also feel comfortable to come to you first over other sources.
  5. Don’t shy away from education. Shyness has its place.  It is our natural disposition to feel shy when near transgression.  However, it is unnatural if it prevents one from learning a topic, no matter how sensitive, that will benefit us.   Therefore, be the example to your child and proactively seek knowledge about such sensitive matters for your own education as well as to better explain it to your offspring.

Amber Khan is a trained physician and Director of Education – US for HEART Women & Girls. She lives with her husband and children in Michigan.

Jun 242016
 

By Nadiah Mohajir

two girls black silhouette and red sunsetLast week, The New York Times published a Mona Eltahawy article with a sexy headline: Sex Talk for Muslim Women. The article chronicled the author’s journey to sexual freedom: growing up in a conservative household, Ms. Eltahawy always knew that sex outside of marriage was not an option, but the older she grew, the more of this vow of abstinence began to feel like a burden. After years of struggling with the guilt and shame that accompanies many women who have sex outside of marriage, Eltahawy says she now enjoys her sexual liberation.

Mona’s story is not unfamiliar to me. I have heard countless stories of women – young and old – who find that their vow of abstinence has shifted from a spiritually motivated choice to a decision laden heavy with resentment. I fully understand and empathize with their sexual frustration. Read more…

Jun 242016
 

By Sahar Pirzada

candle-335965_1920I am sitting on an airport chair at 7:45am in Northern California. This is the 5th time I have had to travel in the span of a month. My heart is filled with all sorts of mixed emotions. I am tired. Actually not tired, but exhausted in every sense of the word, yet there is still a small bulb of energy pulsing in my heart that is keeping me going. I’ve had a knot in my chest since Wednesday and I’m waiting for an hour to myself where I can cry and release the pressure.

Yesterday, I facilitated a community forum about sexual violence for the Muslim community at a college campus. A female Muslim student of 23 years old bravely shared her story of being sexually and emotionally abused by her close friend for the span of 6 months. She shared the details, the raw emotions, the thoughts running through her head and shared her pain with a room of 100 community members in the most beautiful, vulnerable and humble way. She was not there for herself, she was there for them. She was there because her love for her community drove her to share herself with them so she could change the culture of victim-blaming, to change the cultural stigma around abuse and to uplift the story of her abuse and the stories of the 4 survivors before her who had suffered in silence at the hand of her abuser. As she spoke, I sat quietly next to her and held on to her strength with all its delicate power resonating through the room.

I sat there, yesterday, in admiration of her and of the community leaders who had made the forum a possibility. Today, I continue to marvel at how timely these young people mobilized around this issue. Earlier last week, on Wednesday one of my students called me to share this survivor’s story with me. The student wanted to support her friend in whatever way possible and so she reached out to me and asked for help. What am I currently noticing about the connection between my spiritual identity and organizing? I am noticing that I now have a purpose. That I now have influence. That I now have power to change my faith community to practice the values at the core of our religion – mercy, justice and love. After a 7 day workweek, I eagerly hopped on plane once again on Sunday evening to join the student leaders who I pray will lead my community to greatness some day. I met the survivor and we shared our stories and sat in peaceful discomfort on the grassy lawn of the college campus. We were joined by the organizers of the forum at a cafe where we mapped out the agenda: renewal of intentions, safe space guidelines, video of a survivor story, definitions, types of abuse, reasons why survivors don’t report, reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships, responding as individuals and institutions in a victim-centric way, resources and, of course, the survivor’s truth. We closed the event off with a powerful supplication. A brother wept as he asked God to open our eyes and hearts. With a stream of tears rolling down his cheek he prayed that the community show up when needed and support survivors. He asked for forgiveness from his Lord for being blind and not showing up sooner. We sat in silent prayer for another minute, we all took a deep breath and left the space realizing what we just did as a community is just the beginning.

Insha Allah (God-willing).

Sahar Pirzada is HEART Women & Girls‘ Lead Trainer on the West Coast. She actively works to promote sexual health and well-being, and advocates for victim-centric approaches and information for all sexual assault survivors.