Jan 182017

by Alia Azmat

sunset-690240_1280This morning I woke up, scrolled through my social media accounts, and found this. Curious and excited by the title, I wondered what this author had to say to someone like me. Then I read it. I read about how my biological clock is running out. I read about how I need to lower my standards, to find Mr. Suitable instead of Mr. Perfect (for me). I read about how I need to give [men] a chance because they are “surprisingly lovely.” I was told to look my best. That it is unreasonable to believe a man or his family could want, or desire me, for qualities beyond my body. I was NOT told to think critically about what I’d like my life after marriage to look like. What qualities I bring to a relationship, what qualities and markers of faith I am willing to negotiate with a potential partner or spouse.

What hurts is knowing other young women and girls are reading what I consider to be a toxic article about their worth and the importance of their existence in this world. The letter below is the letter I wish I had read this morning. This is the letter I wish someone had shown me as I turned 26. Muslim or non-Muslim, Asian, Arab or another ethnicity, maybe there is an alternative way to thinking about ourselves over 25.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
You are not being “too picky,” “too proud,” “too selfish.” Life doesn’t stop once you have a ring on your finger. Life doesn’t start when you have a ring on your finger either. You are not expired. You are not unlovable. Your worth is not tied to your marital status, or ability to make babies, or keep house. Your worth is tied to your existence. Your humanity.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe this “narrow window of opportunity” is a system of oppression, one which values women’s youth, fertility, physical beauty, their ability to perform demure femininity. Maybe you do not fit that mold. Maybe you fit that mold but are not interested in sharing that with anyone. Maybe you haven’t been satisfied with suitors. Maybe some suitors did not allow you to express your version of a complete woman. Maybe some suitors were not willing to work alongside you. Maybe some suitors forgot their own humanity in engaging with you. You deserve to be yourself. You deserve someone who honors your humanity.

Maybe you fell in love, but your family didn’t accept him. Maybe you fell in love but he didn’t share your faith tradition. It is not your fault for having hope. Maybe you found someone, connected with someone, planned a life with someone, only to have his family reject you. Maybe the only place to put the pain of that rejection was within yourself. Maybe you were told it was your fault he touched you, cheated on you, stole from you, betrayed you.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
Maybe you are South Asian, maybe you are Arab, Afghan, Eritrean, Sudanese, a convert to Islam, maybe you are Christian woman, a Jewish woman, or another woman of faith who has been told by friends, family, cultural, and religious messaging that you are not enough, without a spouse. Maybe you are single because you had the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship. Maybe you are widowed and still grieving the loss of your life partner. Maybe you are managing parenthood on your own. Maybe you are 26, 30, or 36. Who decided 25 means we are unwanted?

Maybe this is how the patriarchy works. Maybe you have started to believe being alone is abnormal, or aberrant. Maybe God calls upon the lonely, maybe God calls upon, and encourages solitude.

Maybe you believe you aren’t beautiful enough. But, beauty is an edge of becoming. Maybe you sit at the edge of emerging fullness, maybe your grace and elegance and respectful, autonomous character, your desire for justice and equity, are qualities invisible to the superficial eyes of a culture which expects and thrives of solely bodily objectification. Maybe you were told you are too large, too dark, too loud, or not loud enough. Maybe you were told you make too much money or not enough money. Maybe you are too educated or not educated enough. Maybe you have hurt yourself, starved yourself, drank yourself into oblivion trying to meet unattainable, unjust cultural expectations of yourself. I am here to tell you, the drive to do more, be more, eat less, weigh less, whiten-up, dress down, are constructed to control you, not him.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN. Maybe your younger sister got married before you. Maybe your dad is upset you would rather pursue a master’s degree or a Ph.D. than “settle down” right now. Maybe your mom wants to see you happy, but doesn’t know what to tell the local aunties about your singlehood. Maybe you feel obligated to talk to suitors to reduce the tension bubbling in your family. Maybe they also fear the uncertainty. Maybe your disability has stopped suitors from coming into the door. Maybe you aren’t interested in male suitors.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,
YOU ARE BRAVE. Maybe you have been punished, instead of celebrated, in the past for using your voice. You are brave when you say, “I am worthy, I am enough, it is not my fault, I am not a burden”, silently to yourself. Maybe these whispers are new forms of dhikr. Maybe you refuse to be silenced. You are brave when you silence the self-doubt. You are brave when you invest in yourself and have the courage to say, “no” to a suitor who will suppress your dignity, your personhood. You are brave when you let yourself feel angry, feel sad, feel hurt by how much society expects from you without asking what it can do for you. You are brave when you pursue your dreams, when you reach out to help another, when you embrace the uncertainty of what being single/divorced/widowed at 25+ means for you.

You are brave when you request to talk to your family or friends on the impact #muslimgirlmicroaggressions have on your well-being. You are brave when you honor your trauma. When you reach out for help with your depression, your anxiety, your PTSD, your social nerves — all natural and appropriate responses to existing at the intersection of identities. You are brave when you make space for yourself to grieve the loss of opportunities. You are brave when you hold on to your faith identity. You are brave when you work through feelings of guilt and shame related to your single-lady existence. You are brave when you give yourself permission to be yourself. To be anything less than “perfect.” You are brave when you say “yes” to your journey towards radical self-love, self-compassion, self-acceptance. You are brave when you leave your home, though you may want to stay home, covered up.

Dear 25-year-old single girls,

Yours in solidarity,

Alia Azmat is a trainer for HEART Women & Girls and is currently also pursuing her PhD in Counseling Psychology.

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.


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.

[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

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

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 Shannon Staloch

pregnancy-466129I’m always turning off lights at births.  Sometimes, it’s comical. I’ll walk in to check on the mom, and the lights will be on, lamps, overhead lights, etc. As I leave, I shut them all off with the exception of a candle or two, or a soft lamp.  An hour or so later, I come back to check, once again, lights are blaring. Again, I leave under the cover of night.  It might seem a silly thing for a midwife to focus on, but in fact, it’s essential to the hormones of labor.

Oxytocin is the queen of labor hormones. It is secreted in the posterior pituitary gland. Due to the role it plays in orgasm, birth and breastfeeding, oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone. During orgasm, it is released and contributes to the bonding that occurs between partners after orgasm. In birth, it is the hormone that causes the uterus to contract in a strong and rhythmic fashion.  In breastfeeding it causes the milk to eject from the milk ducts.  These three acts are all acts by their nature, deeply imbued with love, hence the love hormone.

Ina May Gaskin, the famous American midwife, is famous for saying that if a woman doesn’t look beautiful in labor, someone is doing something wrong.  Indeed, the women I attend in labor glow.  To get through a natural labor, a woman must moan, sway her hips, and go deep inside. Many parallels then, can be drawn between sex and birth. Hence, why I am always turning the lights down, it is my attempt to render an intimate and cozy environment, an environment akin to sexual intimacy. Oxytocin is also produced in greater quantities in the dark, when it’s warm, and with familiar people. Some doctors and nurses, recognizing this fact, will also turn down lights and whisper when in a laboring woman’s room.

My midwifery practice is culturally, racially and religiously diverse.  It is more often (not always!) with my Muslim clients that I often see a lack of sexual health and knowledge. Sadly, it seems that in many Muslim homes, young girls are not properly educated about their bodies, nor are they taught to revel in them or celebrate their strength. The link between sexuality and birth begins early in life. It begins with educating young girls about the functions and anatomies of their bodies.  Time and again, I have conversations with women about their menstrual cycle, and am frequently left jaw agape at the utter lack of knowledge of this simple function of a women’s body. Women with college degrees, born and raised in affluent California, have no idea that they are fertile for a short time every month and that there are clear signs from their bodies, heralding that fertility.

Not only that, the lack of conversation, curiosity and knowledge about the female body and its’ functions, seems to convey a sense of shame and embarrassment at the body itself. Recently, I visited one of my clients who had had a C-section. She was just a few days postpartum, and over the phone, had expressed concerns about her baby’s breastfeeding. I am a board certified lactation consultant. I know that mothers with C-sections often have difficulties in establishing breastfeeding and time is of the essence in getting breastfeeding straightened out. When I came to visit, her shirt was buttoned to the top button and she refused to let me observe a breastfeeding session. The baby was obviously hungry, but the shame was so intense that she went against her motherly instincts in order not to expose herself.

In contrast, I recently attended the birth of a fifth time mother. During labor, she was free to move around and change positions. She moaned softly with each contraction, and her face was soft and flushed. Her husband was by her side, holding her hand, supporting her squatting, giving her a back massage, and offering her sips of water throughout the entire labor. She would occasionally look up at him and ask for a kiss. The room was dimly lit, familiar to her, and warm. The baby was born easily and smoothly not long after I arrived. Once she and baby were checked out, I tucked her in and watched as the baby found the nipple all by itself. Her older kids were anxiously waiting outside the door, and even though some of the boys were teenagers, she felt comfortable allowing them in to witness the normalcy and the brilliance of the reproductive functions of the female body.

Birth is linked to sexual health. The more a woman can get in touch with her sexuality and cultivate a positive attitude towards her sexual health, the easier it will be to accept the grand bodily changes of pregnancy, the intensity and physicality of the birth, and to then nurture and nourish her baby through breastfeeding.  Below are six ways to improve your sexual health, and therefore improve your chances of a healthy birth.

    1. Become aware of your pregnant body.  The pregnant body is a thing of wonder, constantly changing, growing, expanding, all the while, growing another life. It’s easy to wax poetic about it. It’s also easy to feel uncomfortable while living inside it. For some women, the burgeoning belly is an announcement of their sex life, and they aren’t comfortable with that.  Because there is so much in the body that calls our attention during pregnancy, it’s an opportune time to get in touch with your body, if you aren’t already in the habit. To the best of your ability, embrace the changes your body is undergoing. Take the time each day to stretch, move, swim, and just marvel at the wonder of your body.
    2. Pay attention to your sexuality.  Does your desire increase or decrease during pregnancy? Because of the changes that occur during pregnancy, many women find arousal and desire increased during this time.  And many don’t!  Where do you fall on that scale?  Are there ways to express your sexuality other than intercourse?  Simply becoming aware of your desire is a huge step in connecting to your sexuality.
    3. Think about the messaging. What messages have you been given about your female body?  When you first menstruated, was it celebrated or shunned?  Were you told to pretend you weren’t on your menstrual cycle?  Were you taught it was dirty?  Or were you lovingly guided to embrace and accept the changes of adolescence?  Although it may not seem like it, these messages can have an impact on your birthing and breastfeeding. Journal some things that stand out, and if necessary, reframe the messaging.
    4. Move your hips! It is said that belly dancing originated in the Arabian Peninsula during births.  Women would surround the birthing women and move and sway their hips rhythmically, in order to show the birthing women how to move through her contractions.  Getting comfortable with this sensual movement is indeed helpful during the pain of labor contractions.  Circling the hips releases tension, and helps to send the contractions straight to the cervix, right where they need to be in order for labor to progress!
    5. Get the straight talk on vaginal exams.  For many women, the thought of vaginal exams makes them squeeze their knees together.  Talk with your doctor or midwife before hand about how you would like them performed, if at all!  Vaginal exams are not always necessary and can be triggering for women who have had unsolicited sexual experiences in the past.  They can also be uncomfortable.  You can request that your provider go slow, allow you to breathe and center yourself before the exam, and talk you through each step.  Prenatally, you can ask your provider under what circumstances exams are necessary.
    6. Baring it all.  You’ve made it through the birth, but now there’s all this breastfeeding! In the West, we live in a society that has sexualized breasts.  I traveled to Senegal when my oldest was a baby.  Even if they were covered head to toe, I was surprised at how easily women breastfed in public. These women weren’t worried about whether or not a square inch of their breast might be exposed; they were more concerned with taking care of their babies needs. Indeed, walking the streets of Senegal, I rarely heard a baby cry despite there being babies everywhere!  Think of ways in which breastfeeding, possibly needing to show your nipples and breasts to a healthcare professional, might affect you.  If it seems difficult, brainstorm ways in which you can get comfortable with this function of the female anatomy.

Female sexuality and healthy birth are linked in a complex and intricate manner; there cannot be one without the other. Let’s stop shunning the relationship between the two and strengthening its connection. The future of birth and babies depends on it.

Shannon Staloch is a mother of three. She has been serving families in the Bay Area as a licensed midwife and lactation consultant for nearly a decade. She also supports families through workshops in holistic health and nutrition. Her website is www.homemadefamilies.com.

May 042016

by Henna Khawja, M.S.W.



*Trigger warning: Following article includes the topic of sexual abuse and sexual assault

I have often found myself wondering, “Why don’t people love their children just the way they are?” Individuals spend a lot of time thinking about conceiving, trying to conceive, getting fertility tests, being pregnant, giving birth, fostering and/or adopting. The baby arrives and they are perfect – healthy and alive, soft and all theirs. At what point does that perfect child become “not enough?” Too dark, too fair. Too skinny, too curvy. Too lean, too muscular. Too feminine, too masculine. Hair product. Diets. Fair and lovely. Copious amounts of tutoring. Shaming. Neglect. Abuse.

In my eight years outside of university working as a Social Worker and Counsellor, I have seen pain and trauma in many, many forms. Women who have been physically and sexually abused by their husbands, children who have been molested by their family members, young men and women who have been forced into marriage at a young age – these individuals often come into counselling with one common denominator: they feel at fault, they feel wronged, but ultimately, they feel that they are to be blamed for their experience. They feel like helpless victims.

Now, as a mother to a beautiful baby girl, I wonder how my child – who I gracefully carried in my womb for thirty-seven and a half weeks – could ever be “not enough.” I want her to experience nothing but positivity in life – boundless self-love, unconditional love from family and friends, unbreakable self-confidence, admirable self-respect, compassionate faith, innate leadership skills, and merciful romantic love, when the time is right. I want my daughter to become a strong-willed, graceful, intelligent and opinionated woman – perhaps an academic, an artist, an athlete, a writer, perhaps a Social Worker like me, but most definitely whatever she defines as her calling. That said, why would I ever want her to feel like a victim? It is the role of a parent to uplift and empower their child, just as it is the role of the Counsellor to uplift and empower the folks that they work with.

On the topic of women’s rights, the debate of politically correct discourse is often relentless, often ignorant, sometimes inspiring, but rarely empowering. A common discussion within the topic of sexual abuse or assault is “Survivor” versus “Victim.” As an advocate for individuals who have experiences of violence in their lives, I am unapologetically an advocate for the former category. It is my strong opinion that any individual – male, female, cisgender, transgender or transitioning – who has had an act of violence committed against them is undoubtedly a Survivor (insert all of the positive emojis and Beyonce .gifs here).

From a theoretical perspective, there are many academic frameworks and counselling approaches that support using the phrase survivor – Strengths-Based Perspective, Client-Centered Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Anti-Oppressive Practice, Empowerment Theory – to name a few. When an individual has experienced a form of violence, they are made to feel powerless, betrayed, out of control and perhaps hopeless. Using a negative phrase such as “victim,” a word borrowed from Western legal discourse, only further disempowers them. In many cases of violence, individuals find themselves amongst the mess of the legal system – a process that inherently deems a person a victim to their circumstances. The legal process then proceeds to shame, demonize, question, doubt, slut-shame and discount the individual’s narrative, all in the name of due process and “justice.” Imagine going into such a lengthy, nuanced process already feeling like a victim? Now imagine beginning that same process by saying to yourself, “I am a Survivor.” Which scenario would be more gentle on your heart?

Survival for Survivors is diverse, complex and beautiful. It occurs on the daily in the most mundane of ways for the average person, but there have also been noteworthy, inspirational cases which are worth mentioning. When Anita Hill was repeatedly sexually harassed by her supervisor, who was a Judge at the Supreme Court of America, she survived by seeking justice and ultimately opened a nation-wide, if not international, discussion on workplace sexual harassment. Jane Doe was raped by the notorious and serial “Balcony Rapist,” and she survived by launching a lawsuit against the Toronto Police, arguing that investigators were negligent for not making the public aware of the rapist. These women not only sought justice and healing for themselves, but they went above and beyond by ensuring safety and protection for the general public. Male students at Brown University brought their campus sexual assaults to the attention of the administration, and they survived by advocating for themselves, raising awareness about male sexual assault, and bravely continuing their studies on the very campus where their traumas occurred. The good people at FORGE noticed that more than half of the attendees of their monthly meetings had disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused as children, so they promoted survivor-hood in various transgender communities by conducting nationwide research, organizing conferences and providing nationwide training to social service providers. When individuals from various faith communities disclosed that they had been sexually abused by a religious authority, they survived by seeking assistance, justice and ensuring protection for their fellow brothers and sisters in faith. Individuals who are differently abled experience sexual assault and confide in a trusted individual or reach out for help from a worker, they survive through self-advocacy by allowing themselves to ask for help.

As you see, survival comes in many different forms – it is not always graceful, or loud, or even visible to most. With this particular form of violence, survival can look like:

  • Simply waking up in the morning
  • Getting out of bed and starting your day
  • Disclosing your experience to a loved one, a Counsellor, a Lawyer, a Teacher, or your own journal
  • Learning and identifying your triggers
  • Engaging in self care
  • Seeking counselling
  • Pursuing an order of protection
  • Writing about your experience
  • Returning to a place that reminds you of your experience, or alternatively, deciding to finally avoid said place
  • Creating art about your experience
  • Meditating
  • Praying

When working with Survivors, I want for them what I want for my daughter – to feel nothing but positivity; to heal and to mourn in a healthy manner, to feel supported, to be loved, to feel safe, to seek and hopefully obtain justice in light of the injustice(s) that occurred during their life’s journey. I want Survivors to know that they did not choose to be abused, that the abuse occurred to them. I want Survivors to know that they are not their circumstances, and with (a lot of) hard heart work, they can rise above their pain. I want Survivors to value their worth, and to undoubtedly know that they are “enough.” I want Survivors to know that they are not to be blamed for what happened to them. Individuals who have experienced child abuse, incest, sexual assault, molestation, forced marriage, rape, secret marriage, cyberbullying or have been forced to hide their identity in any way – know that you have survived your circumstances, you have not fallen victim to what was done to you, and I see you as a Survivor – even if you are not ready to do so yet.

Henna Khawja is a Registered Social Worker with years of training and practice from Toronto, Canada. Henna joined the HEART team in 2014 as Consultant and Facilitator. After completing her Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) at Ryerson University, Henna transitioned to the University of Toronto to pursue her Master in Social Work (M.S.W.) specializing in Social Justice and Diversity with a Collaborative Degree in South Asian Studies. Since graduating, Henna has focused her practice on both clinical counselling and grassroots advocacy in Toronto, Canada; Islamabad, Pakistani and Zanzibar, Tanzania with a variety of community-based and corporate organizations. Henna’s expertise thrive in working with women and youth on the topics of anti-oppression, crisis intervention, trauma therapy, expressive arts therapy, domestic violence, honour-related violence, forced marriage, interfaith dialogue and narrative therapy. You can email Henna at henna@heartwomenandgirls.org or follow her on Twitter @mskhawja.

May 042016

by Sahar Pirzada

*Content Note: Post discusses rape and marital rape


credit: familyplanning.org.nz

It is common practice to ask before touching something that is not yours. The same rule applies to bodies. A husband does not own his wife or her body and must ask before touching it. She is the sole owner of her body and has the right to decide who can touch it, how, when and for how long.

This concept seems to have been lost on not only some Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir in Malaysia, but some Muslim people in general who do not believe that marital rape exists in Islam. Rape is rape. Whether it is between strangers, friends, a dating couple or a married couple – the action of forcing a person have sex with them without their consent (or forced consent due to emotional coercion) is rape.

As a Muslim woman, I believe the rights granted to me by my religion are just and fair. I, therefore, have a vested interest in proving marital rape is forbidden in Islam because if it weren’t, then what does that mean about the worth of my sexual agency in a marriage? My passion to educate women about their sexual and reproductive rights became much more important to me several months back, when I conducted a workshop for Muslim women in Singapore.

One of the aunties approached me after my talk and asked “Can I really say no if he wants to have sex? Won’t the angels curse at me if I say no?” My heart broke as she went on to explain to me how she would ask her husband every night before going to bed if he wanted anything from her sexually, but she was rarely in the mood and was asking merely out of obligation as his wife. The conversation raised many questions about physical intimacy, sexual rights and consent in the context of Muslim marriages. The assumption in the room was that by signing the Islamic marriage contract, a woman has legally consented to engaging in sexual activity with her partner any time he demanded it. In the case of the aunty, she consented, even when she did not want to have sex, out of fear of a spiritual punishment. The question then remains- is this willful and informed consent? Making sense of this situation requires us to take a closer look at interpretations of religious texts and judgements about the expectation of women to have sex with their husbands.

First, there are certain hadiths one can refer to that are used to justify the requirement for women to say yes to her husband’s sexual requests. In Sahih Muslim, The Book of Marriage (Kitab al-Nikah), 3368, Abu Huraira (may Allah pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying:

When a man invites his wife to his bed and she does not come, and he (the husband) spends the sight being angry with her, the angels curse her until morning.];

Secondly, there are influential figures such as Ustaz Abdul Hakim Othman of HTM, who believe and openly decree that marriage legalises a Muslim to have sexual relations with a woman. “Your body is to be used by your husband, to put it crudely. When you marry a woman, there’s no need to get consent [for sex], no need at all,” he said.

It is easy to see how these messages can be read negatively by both men and women. For men, they may believe their wives should submit to their sexual requests. For women, they may believe that it is their religious obligation as wives to say yes.

There are, however, alternative understandings of Islam that support a woman’s right to consent to all forms of sexual activity within a marriage. Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front is one such individual who is speaking out against the patriarchal interpretations of Islam. He is quoted in MalayMail Online having said “Any imposition without her consent is basically an assault on her rights as an independent human being. If this imposition without consent is termed marital rape, then marital rape it is.”

Shaykh Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes during a lecture for Sacred Path of Love explicitly denounced marital rape and also noted that the hadith about angels cursing women was in reference to women who use sex as a tool to manipulate and control their husbands.

After finding less than satisfying interpretations of the angels cursing hadith online, I consulted with local Indonesian scholar Dr. Nur Rofiah who explained how the hadith can not be understood in a vaccuum. It should be understood as a part of a collection of verses from the Quran and other hadiths that discuss marital relations. In the Quran, you have a verse that notes husbands and wives being garments of each other – this indicates an equal relationship between them. She went on to explain that the hadith about the angels cursing women refers to instances where the husband is inviting the wife politely but the wife refuses arrogantly to have sex with him. Marriage allows men and women to have sex with each other but forbids cruel treatment and consent should be obtained actively and not assumed.

Another shaykha from the US provided me with a similar explanation of the hadith:

“It is her legal right to refuse and accept any physical relationship. If she uses her right abusively ( to manipulate him and use his sexual needs as a tool against him to get what she wants or out of a desire to punish him) the husband still has no right to force her. Rather, the hadith admonishes her and warns her of her punishment with Allah and His angels. If a woman is tired or sick or just doesn’t want to engage in relations  and she is not using her refusal as a means to hurt her husband, there is no negative spiritual consequence to her refusal. Such a woman would refuse in a kind way (as opposed to abusive) and whether her husband understands or not, is not on her once she has communicated to him with ihsan. The hadith is meant for women who cheapen the marital bond and relations to a weapon they can use against their husbands. Even then, the hadith reminds them that they may have the worldly right to refuse in an abusive way, but they don’t have the ethical right.”

Her explanation presents a far more nuanced understanding of the hadith, as opposed to the literal reading that people are so keen to adopt, and therein lies the key difference.

In understanding any religious obligation, we are often confronted with numerous conflicting passages of the Quran and hadith, all of which are rooted in very specific contexts. We must constantly challenge ourselves to think the best of our religion and question interpretations of religious texts that promote injustice. If there is ever a situation where an individual is being physically, emotionally or spiritually harmed in the name of Islam, we need to not just brush it off as “those aren’t Muslims who say that” but work to understand their perspective and offer positive alternative perspectives. When in doubt – refer back to the character of the Prophet (S) and the core teachings of Islam that simply put, ask us all to do good in this world. In my Islam, emotional blackmail, coercion and rape are not part of those teachings.

originally published on beyondhijabsg.wordpress.com

Sahar Pirzada is Lead Trainer, West Coast for HEART Women & Girls.

May 042016

by Eman Hassaballa Aly



I have a vessel in me. I don’t know where it’s housed or how big it is, but I know when it’s full, because that’s when I get the urge to write.  Maybe it’s my inner pen, and it gets full of ink. Whatever it is, it’s full now and I’m ready to write.

I’d like it to be a rant, but rants are boring. Rants don’t do anything but stir people’s emotions and make them say “hell ya!” When I write, I want to empower people, and inspire people to find it in within themselves to make their situation better. I always tell my clients, that my job is to equip them with the tools to be able handle whatever is dealt to them.  Tools that I wasn’t fortunate enough to be given when I was more malleable and younger. It’s harder to change the older I get, but I still try.

I am a true believer of the right time and the right place for everything. Whether it’s people I meet, places I go, or things that happen to me, they always seem to happen at the perfect time for me.  Don’t think that I’m saying that there’s a unicorn in the sky somewhere sprinkling some magic dust on everything. But I do though believe that God is behind everything, and I am grateful when things work out perfectly and neatly. God and my jugular vein are like this *fingers crossed*. But I learned to not try to read the stars or signs too closely, or else it will drive me crazy.  Ultimately, what I’m trying to say it’s not a miracle that my belief has become my reality, because it was a gradual change in the perception that allowed it to happen.

So speaking of perfect timing, in the fall of 2015, I took an Islam and gender class at the American Islamic College, where I’m studying to be a chaplain. And it could not have come at a better time. Just like back in the spring and summer of 2014, I got through the Millennium Trilogy, which oddly enough primed me for one big test in my life, which was also a primer for the class. But that’s for another time and place. As usual, I digress. So this class was taught brilliantly by Dr. Shabana Mir, who was midway through her first semester at AIC. And I almost took this class my first semester, but that was neither the right time, nor the right teacher for me. Plus it was on the wrong day for me. I’m more aware of the subtleties surrounding issues of gender.  I’m not talking about space in mosques or on boards. I’m talking about the bits of patriarchy here and there that have crept into our books of law, the wolf of sexism that’s dressed in the sheep’s clothing of piety and the misogyny that is (ill) supported by the Text and Tradition that is either inauthentic, misinterpreted or taken completely out of context.

Even in my own maturity and development, I drank the patrichool-aid, and used to advocate some of these nonsensical (at least to me) ideas about what a wife should be according to Islam. In my defense though, I thought that would make me more marketable as a wife, since my weight was something that I was told would work against me. Thankfully, as I got older these, ideas were slowly getting replaced with ones that I think more accurately reflect the tradition I have grown to love. And with that life happening the tools I needed started to fill a mostly empty toolbox of life skills.

Misogyny, Sexism and patriarchy isn’t a Muslim problem, but it’s a problem for Muslims because it’s something that affects all humans, and believe it or not Muslims are humans too. Women still make 22 cents less to every dollar that a man makes. And there are countless articles about how women are forced to dumb themselves down, or put themselves down and so on and so forth. Recently, the Internet cracked a bit when Jennifer Lawrence asked why she makes less than her male co-stars? And this hilarious, but also sad blog post that really made me think about the way that I talk to people. I have become militantly intolerant of that kind of language from my girlfriends, and I’ve stopped saying sorry to people about things I’m not sorry for #sorrynotsorry. But here’s something else I stopped doing, I have stopped allowing people to mistreat me.

I’m not saying I get mistreated because I’m a woman, but I do carry three potential strikes with me all the time. I’m a fat Muslim woman.  These are three categories that are marks for discrimination. But again, I’m not saying that I get mistreated because of those either.

The reason I continue to get mistreated is because of my silence. I’ve learned in therapy why I become silent when someone harms me, much of it has to do with past trauma. My silence was the way I protected myself. It also silenced my ability to express myself, and that was also a protection for me. It was my way of showing people that whatever they said didn’t hurt me. Even though I may have been dying inside, my face wasn’t going to show any pain and I didn’t  even wince.  I attribute the lack of affect in my face that I have sometimes to that, and I feel like my facial expressions lack sophistication and nuance. So what the heck do I do about that?

So far it’s been a work in progress for me.  There’s been a lot of internal heart and soul work. It’s like gutting out and rehabbing a house. As soon as the floors are pulled up, it’s clear that there are some structural issues and something that’s central to the stability of the home has to be fixed. I watch a lot of HGTV. But the same thing applies to the self. I can treat the anxiety, and teach someone how to manage it on a surface level, but I have to get to the core of what causes the anxiety, or else when additional trauma occurs, the anxiety could potentially come back stronger.  I could not have come to realization that my silence was harming me, without all the previous work done before.

And to the one causing the harm, my silence somehow communicates that it is okay to continue the harm. Most people don’t intend to harm people. God protect us from those people.  Well-intentioned advice, a comment, an inquiry, an innocent suggestion or even a compliment can cause harm.  People sometimes project their own issues on others, and many people see the world through the lens of their own trauma or baggage. It’s not my quote, but hurt people hurt people.  And to understand that, I had to understand who I was and through what lens I saw the world.

And my heart-work continues. I know I said that I wanted to give you tools you can use to progress, and I just want to get the conversation going. The easiest way is for me to share my struggles and triumphs. I want to share my regression, too. It’s inevitable.  I also want to hear from you.  This kind of trauma won’t be healed in one post, not even in ten posts. Please leave a comment below.

Eman Hassaballa Aly works for the Health Media Collaboratory (HMC) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) as Director of Communications. Additionally, she works part-time for the Heartspeak Institute, a private practice that serves the Chicago Muslim community. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree in Islamic Studies at the American Islamic College and hopes to serve as a chaplain in the university setting.

May 042016

By Nadiah Mohajir and Hannah El-Amin

Breast pump and bottle of milk on the windowsillTo breast feed or bottle feed? Perhaps one of the most emotional – external and internal – dilemmas facing new mothers these days. Every few decades, new research comes out promoting the benefits of one or the other. I was born to a generation of mothers who were told that bottle feeding was superior to breast feeding, while my daughters were born to a generation of mothers who were told the opposite: that breast is best. In fact, we now live in a time during which workplaces, public spaces, and society in general are being encouraged to not only embrace breastfeeding, but enable and make it accessible and easier for all mothers who want to commit to the practice.

While there is always room for improvement for breastfeeding to be even more accessible and acceptable, it is hard to deny that it’s a great time for breastfeeding moms. One cannot also deny the benefits of breastfeeding: research shows that babies who are breastfed have greater immunity, decreased risk of obesity, increased IQ scores, along with benefits to the mother with decreased rates of certain cancers. Additionally, breastfeeding is highly encouraged in Islam and has spiritual and religious benefits as well. It is indeed true, breast is best. But what many breastfeeding advocates forget to add to that well known slogan, is that breast may only be best, under ideal circumstances. In other words, is breast really best if it comes at the expense of mom’s mental health? Moreover, has breastfeeding become the standard for what defines a “good mother?”

Despite the increased accommodations many work and public places are making for breastfeeding moms, keeping up with pumping can be exhausting. Add in work and home obligations, other older children the mother may have in addition to the baby, sleep deprivation, unsolicited advice from others implying that the baby is not getting enough, and anxiety and depression, not being able to keep up with breastfeeding often adds to a mother’s feelings of inadequacy, and pushing moms to great lengths to keep up with what is “best” for their baby. What results, more often than not, is that mothers – who already have this enormous responsibility to love and care and raise their baby to the best of their ability – conflate the pressure with keeping up with breastfeeding to being a good mother.

Motherhood and all that comes with it is not meant to be easy. Yet, doctors are seeing too frequently mothers who are coming in not only sleep deprived, but those dealing with chronic nipple pain, around the clock pumping, and severe anxiety and depression. A number of women have shared with me – both in my personal capacity and professional capacity – the guilt they are carrying with them when they realize their bodies (and sanity) can literally not sustain breastfeeding. Many have shared that they question the return on investment – despite continuous pumping, their bodies are not producing enough to sustain their baby. As told in this article, many also shared their regrets: that perhaps the hours spent pumping may have been better spent bonding or playing with their babies.

And so it is important to consider the following question: While breast is indeed best, does this theory consider the realities of being a new mother, especially if the mother is juggling multiple obligations such as work, home, and other children? My experiences with breastfeeding were different with each of  my children:

  • My oldest was born when I was just 23. I left my job and focused on being a mom. I exclusively breastfed her for a whole year. She hated breast milk through a bottle.
  • My second was born four years later, as I was finishing up graduate school. I began breastfeeding her and bottle feeding her breast milk. She went back and forth from bottle to breast beautifully, with no issues. Yet, we quickly discovered she had a milk allergy, and so her pediatricians gave me two options: special formula, or eliminating dairy from my diet. I decided to introduce her to the formula to get her used to the taste, while eliminating dairy from my diet. That dairy-free diet resulted in me losing so much weight I was under 100 pounds and had no energy by the time she was 6 months old, due to the dairy-free diet and my excessive pumping. I eventually gave in and switched her to formula full time.
  • My third was born when I was 31. He had horrible acid reflux and therefore cried most nights, and I had two older children in two different schools therefore was spending a lot of time in city traffic, and was also working close to full time. He was on breastmilk and formula from the beginning, and weaned himself when he was close to six months.

While anecdotal, these experiences demonstrate that it’s important to consider the unique circumstances with with each baby. It is no surprise that what I was able to offer at 23 as a stay at home mom was different than when I was older and had additional responsibilities. Often times, when mothers come to me and share their guilt of not being able to keep up with  breastfeeding, I encourage them to reflect on the following questions:

  • What are the other obligations I am juggling along with breastfeeding (work, other children, housework, volunteer obligations, family obligations etc)
  • Is my baby loved? Is my baby safe and happy and healthy? Am I bonding with my baby in other ways?
  • Is keeping up with breastfeeding/pumping interfering with my physical and mental health?
  • Is keeping up with breastfeeding/pumping interfering with my baby’s physical health (not gaining enough weight, etc)
  • Is keeping up with breastfeeding/pumping interfering with  my ability to meet the needs of my other loved ones, such as my husband or other children?

Many times, the answers to these questions lead to the mother asking: is breastfeeding worth it? The science is clear: the benefits of breastfeeding are incredible and doctors and public health campaigns should definitely promote it to increase the numbers of breastfeeding moms. Yet, it’s important to also remember that often times, these messages are promoted in such a way that breastfeeding becomes synonymous with good mothering. And while there are many benefits to breastfeeding, the most important one being nutrition, let’s remember that at the end of the day, nutrition is just one aspect of good mothering, and there are many options available to nourish an infant and many ways to bond. It’s important for health care providers, nutritionists, lactation consultants and mothers to work together to find the balance that is best for the baby – and mom – at hand.

Finally, if you find yourself struggling, but want to keep with the goal of breastfeeding exclusively, consider these:

  • Know you’re not alone. Find a friend you can talk to who’s been there or local or online parent support group.
  • Find a way to break free for a bit. Even if it’s just going out for a walk, especially early on when feeding demands are highest.
  • Make feedings pleasant. Indulge in a show. Keep some treats nearby. Light a candle. Put your feet up. Listen to audiobooks or music.
  • Take care of yourself first. It’s ok to let you little one wait a couple minutes while you finish eating. Nourishing yourself means nourishing him/her.
  • A little help can go a long way. Consult with a lactation consultant if you have ANY discomfort. Breastfeeding isn’t supposed to hurt. Insurance often covers this.
  • Treat yourself. You’re saving a ton by nursing. Treat yourself to that hands free pump, or something totally unrelated to nursing. Pumping can be passive and less stressful with products like Milkies, Freemie and other cool gadgets.
  • Be proud. Know that you should feel nothing but pride for whatever amount of breastfeeding you’re able to accomplish. You’re doing a great job. Know that you can choose to ignore and advice or criticism that doesn’t come from a professional.
May 042016

by Sobia Ali Faisal

To best understand the relationship between misogyny and sexual health I’ll begin this piece with a comprehensive definition for each term.  

Misogyny: “[M]isogyny is primarily a property of social systems or environments as a whole, in which women will tend to face hostility of various kinds because they are women in a man’s world  (i.e., a patriarchy), who are held to be failing to live up to men‘s standards (i.e., tenets of patriarchal ideology which have some purchase in this environment)” (Manne, p.2). In other words, misogyny is systemic oppression of women, within patriarchal societies in which women are expected to adhere to patriarchal expectations, otherwise face punishment.   

Sexual health: Sexual health “is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled” (World Health Organization, 2006).

We all are aware that sexual health is not something which is explicitly discussed in Muslim communities. However, subtle messages and lessons regarding sexuality and sexual health are being relayed to women constantly and these messages place a heavy burden on them.

  • “Wear a long shirt when you go to the mosque. You don’t want the men to see your curves.”
  • “Don’t get too comfortable/friendly with the boys in your class.”
  • “Keep your voice down in the mosque. The men shouldn’t be able to hear you.”
  • “If a man sees your hair your wudu is invalidated.” (Yes, I was told this once.)
  • “Don’t stay out past dark. People will talk.”
  • “You don’t need to know those things until you get married. And then, your husband will teach you.” (Though this message may not be explicitly stated, there are ways in which this message is relayed.)

None of these statements mention sex or sexuality explicitly, but they all send a clear message. “You, woman, are a sexual being whose curves and voice will sexually excite and distract men, who, upon seeing your hair, will have thoughts so dirty YOUR wudu will be invalidated. Also, getting friendly with the boys in your class will inevitably lead to sexual relations and if you stay out past dark people will assume you’re out there having sex with men. Oh, and if you know about sex before you get married then your husband will assume you were out having sex with men and he won’t respect you. So just let him teach you because he knows from all the sex he was out having with women, like most guys do.”

Women’s sexuality, in Muslim communities, is too often defined in relation to men. The attitudes, views, opinions, and thoughts of men are given priority over the reality of women’s lives. Women’s behaviour is strictly regulated to the meet the patriarchal expectations laid out by men. And, as a result, women’s behaviour is often viewed in sexual terms such that women are policed to behave in ways that do not “force” men to behave in sexually “haram” ways or that ensure people know you are not engaging in “unlawful” sex. When women do not adhere to these expectations, or are assumed to not be adhering to them, they are faced with derision, disrespect, and sometimes ostracization and isolation.      

This is misogyny. And enacting this misogyny in the name of religious duty or obligation is a form of spiritual violence, in which women are denied access to religious and spiritual attainment because they fail to meet patriarchal expectations of women’s behaviour.

So how is this misogyny harmful to women’s sexual health? Because it denies women bodily autonomy, having a detrimental impact on the physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality. It denies women the choice to decide what is and isn’t sexual, safe, coercive, pleasurable, violence. It conflates non-sexual behaviours (how long our shirts are) with sexual ones and disguises sexually violent ones (coercion) as sexually healthy (sexual education) or natural (men can’t control themselves).

It places the burden of modesty and honour on the shoulders of women, consequently victim-blaming women for any sexual disrespect and sexual violence they may endure.

It assumes women to be recipients of sex placing them in danger of being abused and manipulated, or in a situation of unpleasurable and uncomfortable sex. It shames women regarding their own sexuality and their bodies, a shame which can have an impact on their self-image, including their sexual self-image, and confidence.

So how do we address this? The answer is simple, yet one that meets a lot of resistance. Stop being misogynistic. Obviously, this is much, much easier said than done. We have had centuries of misogyny built into not only our culture, but also our interpretations of religion. This will take a lot of work and will require that we challenge those very patriarchal notions that so many of our values and beliefs are premised upon. But this needs to be done, one little action, one little step at a time, if we want healthy communities.

A few steps to begin this process:

Stop sending girls and women these harmful messages and start sending boys and men messages that instill the unconditional respect of women.

Educate girls and women on sexual health and give them the tools to make their own decisions on what is and isn’t healthy for them.

Stop defining women’s sexuality in relation to men. Women do not exist to sexually please men. It seems like it should not need to be said, but women are whole and holistic people, and sexuality only one part of our being. Let women, and girls, define and decide what we want.

Recognize women’s right to bodily autonomy. A woman can choose to do with her body what she wishes. No one else has the right to decide for her nor to infringe upon her autonomy.

This is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. However, if we, as a community, begin with these few basic steps, we will be on the road to a sexually healthier community.

Sobia Ali-Faisal received her PhD in Applied Psychology from the University of Windsor in 2014. She currently resides in Canada.