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.

May 042016
 

By Anonymous

For the past few years, I have struggled with pain associated with vaginal intercourse. I visited doctors but none could provide me with the answers I was looking for. “Have more sex, it’ll open up…it is supposed to hurt…try different angles.” The advice was never helpful and only reinforced my worry that there was something wrong with me. I was unable to find help or an escape, but I wasn’t necessarily looking for one. I was content not having my vaginal issues resolved because I wasn’t in a hurry to have children. I was able to enjoy other sexual activities and had a patient and loving partner. I knew I would have to figure it out eventually and waited until I had the emotional and financial capacity to dig deeper for the answers I was looking for.

A few weeks ago I visited a new doctor. She had me hold a mirror as she took a look down there and pointed out the problem. “Now sit still, does that hurt? Hmm have you ever touched yourself before, you are pretty fidgety. Oh there it is – I see what the problem is. Can you see that – you have two tiny holes instead of one big one.” A septate hymen. Clear and visible to me and the doctor – a nostril in my vagina.

As the doctor typed on her computer, I sat uncomfortably still trying to process what she was saying. “We’ll need to see what’s going on through an MRI and given how difficult it is for you to be touched, we’ll have to knock you out for the procedure.” I nodded in agreement. There was no way in hell I wanted to be awake for this.

My doctor recommended me for physical therapy. The physical therapist took me in at around 8:20am. She had me walk, sit, lay down, move around until the big reveal moment when she herself poked around. I was watching her face as she observed my pelvic muscles and knew in an instant that this was complicated. I asked her what was wrong and to just tell me what she thinks honestly. “Honestly, my patients with just a septate hymen do not react like this. My patients with vaginismus do. Go through with the surgery and then talk to your doctor. We may have to bring you back for regular sessions. In the meantime, here’s a list of exercises I want you to do twice a day.” I thanked her and walked out.

As the weeks passed, I visited the hospital for various appointments. Each time I got back to my car, I sat in silence taking deep breathes, then drove to work in tears while jamming to Adele on blast to get all my emotions out of my system. You see, you can’t talk vag in the office. Sure, you can talk about how you caught a cold, or need to get a root canal – that’s all work appropriate. But to bring up your vag problems is awkward to discuss with anyone really.

Being that I’ve been married for a few years, I often get asked if I want to have children or if I am planning to have kids soon. You can plan all you want, but the reality is that nothing is in your hands. Even after all the treatment, surgeries, therapy and healing – Will I be able to have kids? Will I be able to experience vaginal intercourse without the pain? Only Allah knows. All I know is that this is so freaking hard and I can only try my best. I am exhausted and emotionally drained and want it all to be over. I want to not have to worry about missing work for my medical appointments or budget a portion of my salary for medical expenses. I want to not have to hold back tears whenever anyone asks me if I like kids. I want to let myself be vulnerable with the ones I love and not have to show that I have everything under control. I can’t wait for the day when I can finally be excited about the possibility of being pregnant. About the possibility of painless sex! And surprise my patient partner with the news of our own little one. I want a lot of things in life. But I’ll make do with what I have for right now. My story, this space to share it and your duaas, iA.

The author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous.

 

Dec 112015
 

by Sobia Ali-Faisal

If the recent controversy in Ontario over the new sex education curriculum has demonstrated anything, it’s that many Muslim parents are VERY passionate about their children’s sexual education, or preferable lack thereof. For those who may not be aware, the province of Ontario introduced a new health education curriculum to be implemented for all grades, which includes a sexual health component at each grade level. It’s a well-researched, age-appropriate curriculum but many parents, including many Muslim parents, protested when it first was introduced in the spring. In the new school year nearly 700 hundred children were kept out of Thorncliffe Park Public School (almost half their population) on the first day of school and their parents have vowed to keep their children out of school until the new sex-ed curriculum is changed (I’m not sure if that happened but I have heard, anecdotally, that many parents have pulled their children out of public schools and put them in private Islamic schools, which, for their part, have been offering discounted tuition). Other Muslim groups, however, have come out in favour of the curriculum as have a group of local imams.

It’s obvious that many Muslim parents are fearful of what it will mean for their children to learn about sexuality and sexual issues but by denying their children sexual health education, for whatever reason, they are doing their children a huge disservice.

Many Muslim parents are genuinely fearful of the impacts sexual education may have on their children. Perhaps they worry that their children will be more likely to engage in sexual activities if they learn about sexual health. Perhaps they believe that their children will view sex and sexuality differently than they do which may result in cultural and worldview conflicts. For many parents, this may mean they do not understand their children, or worse, that their children will differ from them on fundamental values. So how do we allay their fears? How do we convince parents that sexual health education is nothing to fear?

First, and possibly most important, is the understanding and acceptance of the fact that parents and their children may indeed differ in their values as children get older. Children growing up in North America will have social experiences that will differ in many ways from those of their parents who grew up elsewhere, and these experiences will inevitably influence the ways in which said children view the world.  The key is to not view this difference as a negative development and for parents to understand that these differences, which could include cultural differences, can actually enrich the relationship as long as they are not ignored or denied and are explicitly acknowledged.

Second, parents should not be in any denial that that their children WILL face sex and sexuality related decisions, and most likely sooner than later. From body exploration at a young age to school friends having two dads or two moms to peer pressure in their teens, sexuality issues will be an inevitable part of their lives beginning early in life. When it comes to sex itself my research demonstrated that young Muslims are no different than any other young people. Very often this information conflicts with what many parents expect, believe, or teach their children. Many take an abstinence-only approach, expecting that their children will only engage in sexual activity once married. But that is not the reality for many young Muslims.

Third, parents need to know that all the evidence suggests their children will be much better off, and healthier, being educated about sexual health, relationships, inclusivity, and consent (all of which are included in the Ontario curriculum). Research further suggests that providing sexual health education to young people actually will often result in young people delaying their first sexual experience. Education is a tool that helps us navigate the world. Just as children need to learn the basics of math, science, literature, and history to understand their world, they need to learn the basics of their sexual health to understand themselves, their bodies, their relationships with others, and their boundaries. We cannot place less importance on the health of our children than we do on math, science, and literature. All youth need to be armed with sexual education so that they are able to make healthy sexual decisions, which they will most certainly be confronted with throughout their entire lives.

Finally, Islamically, it is absolutely appropriate to provide sexual health education to children. Islam encourages education and views regarding sex have been relatively progressive. Even the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) spoke about sexual relations openly and advised his ummah on the issue. The various hadith on this point demonstrate he did not shy away.

In summary, children of Muslim immigrant parents will experience growing up differently than their parents. These children WILL be faced with sexuality and sexuality-related decisions throughout their entire lives. Providing them with sexual health education will provide them with the tools needed for them to make healthy decisions, whether it be the ability to recognize an abusive and dangerous situation, to respect those of sexual orientations or genders different than their own, or to delay sexual activity until they are completely prepared and comfortable. Islam does not forbid learning or talking about sex. This is often a restriction we place on ourselves. The fears that parents face regarding this topic is real and should not be discounted, but there are ways to allay those fears. Indeed, educating parents and decreasing their fears and anxiety around issues of sex and sexuality needs to be a part of the sexual health education of young Muslims.

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

Dec 112015
 

by Amber Khan

In the presence of his wife Umm Salamah, Umm Sulaym asked the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him):  “Messenger of Allah, if a woman has a wet dream must she bathe when she wakes up?”

“What shame!” Umm Salamah remarked. “Do you slander women like this in front of Allah’s Messenger?”

Umm Sualym replied: “Allah is not ashamed of the truth. It is better that we ask about what we do not understand than to continue in ignorance about it.”

The Prophet (pbuh) said to Umm Salamah: “Indeed, you should be ashamed. The best of you are those who ask about what concerns them.” He then turned to Umm Sulaym and said: “Yes, Umm Sulaym, you should take a bath if you see a discharge.”

Umm Salamah then asked: “Do women have a sexual discharge as well?”

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Indeed, how else does the child bear a resemblance to the mother? Women are the full sisters of men.” (Reported by Umm Salamah; related by al-Bukhari, Muslim and others.)

In today’s time, to ask such a question to anyone, let alone a knowledgeable figure, would undeniably evoke an immediate discomfort.  Yet despite its sensitivity, Umm Sulaym had pure conviction that the answer to her question was her deserving right.  So she asked with a balance of decency and directness.  And when Umm Salamah expressed the shock we are so familiar with today, Umm Sulaym pointed out that ignorance is worse than embarrassment.

And the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, defended her.  He clearly expressed that the best of people are those who ask.  It is they who will benefit not just for themselves but also for others who fear to ask.  It is they who will achieve knowledge.  Achieve success.

This caused Umm Salamah to immediately change her demeanor.  It led to herself asking a similar question.

Let’s now compare the above with today’s time.  The following anecdotes are based on real women who came directly to HEART Women & Girls to share their stories.

  • A child gets her period.  She has no idea what it is.  She feels scared.  Confused. She doesn’t know who to turn to, not even her own mother out of fear of what she will think.
  • A young girl discovers that her intimate relationship with her uncle is actually a form of sexual abuse.  She feels violated, ashamed, and guilty.  She fears her parents won’t believe her; that the abuse will continue.
  • A newly married woman feels sexually frustrated.  She didn’t expect intimacy to be so hard and in her case, impossible due to an easily treatable condition called vaginismus.  “What is wrong with me?  Why is this so painful?  My husband doesn’t understand.  Will he divorce me?”

All three women above were denied a basic Islamic right – access to sexual health information.  They lacked available resources, a safe space to ask questions, and a supportive network to guide them with comfort and protection.

Sexual health education is a lifelong journey of acquiring information that shapes our beliefs, attitudes, and values on sex.  It encompasses physical development, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, intimacy, body image, gender roles, and signs of abuse. Ideally, it should begin at a young age and be taught by the primary caregivers on an ongoing basis.

However, when someone goes through life without proper sexual health education they are left with a void during their transition from child to adult.  They lack the necessary decision-making skills and critical thinking process needed for all major adult life stages. They grow up feeling confused, naïve and vulnerable.

The women of Madinah were considered quite bold in character; they were not shy to seek advice and inquire about women’s health issues.  Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said: “How good were the women of the Ansar that they did not shy away from learning and understanding religious matters.” (Muslim, Kitab al-Hayd; 168/649).  They recognized that learning about women’s health had a strong influence on their relationship with Allah.

The books of Islamic jurisprudence include several topics promoting sexual awareness such as:

  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy
  • Postpartum health
  • Breastfeeding
  • Intimacy
  • Family planning
  • Ghusl (bath)
  • Nocturnal emissions
  • Body Image
  • Self-Esteem
  • Abuse

These matters are essential to our faith and can be learned in a decent and respectable way whilst also upholding an appropriate element of shyness.  When one suppresses a person’s right to learn these topics, expecting them to rely solely on cultural practices and societal standards, the effects can be spiritually, physically, and psychologically damaging.

Through Umm Sulaym’s inquiry, Umm Salamah learned something that she had assumed was impossible for women.  Despite her apparent uneasiness to the question, it gave her added insight to her body and its relation to the deen.

To the child unaware of menstruation, to the girl who was unaware of her sexual abuse, and to the woman suffering from vaginismus: ask as Umm Sulaym asked. “Allah is not ashamed of the truth. It is better that we ask about what we do not understand than to continue in ignorance about it.”

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

Nov 202015
 

by Amber Khan

In the presence of his wife Umm Salamah, Umm Sulaym asked the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him):  “Messenger of Allah, if a woman has a wet dream must she bathe when she wakes up?”

“What shame!” Umm Salamah remarked. “Do you slander women like this in front of Allah’s Messenger?”

Umm Sualym replied: “Allah is not ashamed of the truth. It is better that we ask about what we do not understand than to continue in ignorance about it.”

The Prophet (pbuh) said to Umm Salamah: “Indeed, you should be ashamed. The best of you are those who ask about what concerns them.” He then turned to Umm Sulaym and said: “Yes, Umm Sulaym, you should take a bath if you see a discharge.”

Umm Salamah then asked: “Do women have a sexual discharge as well?”

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “Indeed, how else does the child bear a resemblance to the mother? Women are the full sisters of men.” (Reported by Umm Salamah; related by al-Bukhari, Muslim and others.)

In today’s time, to ask such a question to anyone, let alone a knowledgeable figure, would undeniably evoke an immediate discomfort.  Yet despite its sensitivity, Umm Sulaym had pure conviction that the answer to her question was her deserving right.  So she asked with a balance of decency and directness.  And when Umm Salamah expressed the shock we are so familiar with today, Umm Sulaym pointed out that ignorance is worse than embarrassment.

And the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, defended her.  He clearly expressed that the best of people are those who ask.  It is they who will benefit not just for themselves but also for others who fear to ask.  It is they who will achieve knowledge.  Achieve success.

This caused Umm Salamah to immediately change her demeanor.  It led to herself asking a similar question.

Let’s now compare the above with today’s time.  The following anecdotes are based on real women who came directly to HEART Women & Girls to share their stories.

  • A child gets her period.  She has no idea what it is.  She feels scared.  Confused. She doesn’t know who to turn to, not even her own mother out of fear of what she will think.
  • A young girl discovers that her intimate relationship with her uncle is actually a form of sexual abuse.  She feels violated, ashamed, and guilty.  She fears her parents won’t believe her; that the abuse will continue.
  • A newly married woman feels sexually frustrated.  She didn’t expect intimacy to be so hard and in her case, impossible due to an easily treatable condition called vaginismus.  “What is wrong with me?  Why is this so painful?  My husband doesn’t understand.  Will he divorce me?”

All three women above were denied a basic Islamic right – access to sexual health information.  They lacked available resources, a safe space to ask questions, and a supportive network to guide them with comfort and protection.

Sexual health education is a lifelong journey of acquiring information that shapes our beliefs, attitudes, and values on sex.  It encompasses physical development, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, intimacy, body image, gender roles, and signs of abuse. Ideally, it should begin at a young age and be taught by the primary caregivers on an ongoing basis.

However, when someone goes through life without proper sexual health education they are left with a void during their transition from child to adult.  They lack the necessary decision-making skills and critical thinking process needed for all major adult life stages. They grow up feeling confused, naïve and vulnerable.

The women of Madinah were considered quite bold in character; they were not shy to seek advice and inquire about women’s health issues.  Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said: “How good were the women of the Ansar that they did not shy away from learning and understanding religious matters.” (Muslim, Kitab al-Hayd; 168/649).  They recognized that learning about women’s health had a strong influence on their relationship with Allah.

The books of Islamic jurisprudence include several topics promoting sexual awareness such as:

  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy
  • Postpartum health
  • Breastfeeding
  • Intimacy
  • Family planning
  • Ghusl (bath)
  • Nocturnal emissions
  • Body Image
  • Self-Esteem
  • Abuse

These matters are essential to our faith and can be learned in a decent and respectable way whilst also upholding an appropriate element of shyness.  When one suppresses a person’s right to learn these topics, expecting them to rely solely on cultural practices and societal standards, the effects can be spiritually, physically, and psychologically damaging.

Through Umm Sulaym’s inquiry, Umm Salamah learned something that she had assumed was impossible for women.  Despite her apparent uneasiness to the question, it gave her added insight to her body and its relation to the deen.

To the child unaware of menstruation, to the girl who was unaware of her sexual abuse, and to the woman suffering from vaginismus: ask as Umm Sulaym asked. “Allah is not ashamed of the truth. It is better that we ask about what we do not understand than to continue in ignorance about it.”

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

Nov 112015
 

*Trigger warning for sexual abuse

by Aya Khalil

Five. I was sexually abused at an age where I didn’t even have enough life experience to properly process and identify what was going on. Not by a random stranger. Not by a family member. But by someone whom the community trusted: someone who taught children how to read and memorize Quran, God’s holy book. Someone who abused his power and religious authority to hurt children. As an imam and a sheikh, he had a wealth of Islamic knowledge and an entire community turned to him for spiritual guidance. A Muslim. A teacher. A role model.

**

Twenty-eight. I’m a teacher, a journalist, a mother, and a wife. I had forgotten about the incident for twenty years, until I had a child myself. And then I remembered.

I have been teaching my almost three-year-old daughter the proper terms for private parts since she was two. I remind her that her body is hers and that nobody can force her to hug or kiss if she didn’t want to. Even if that meant offending a relative or going against cultural etiquette and expectations. “If you don’t want to hug someone, it’s okay,” I tell her. “You can say no. You are strong. Your body is yours. Never keep secrets from mom or dad. We trust you. We won’t get angry at you. We are here to keep you safe. We will always believe you.”

A well-intentioned relative or friend will repeatedly ask her “can I have a hug?” I smile, and say, politely, but firmly, “Aw, it’s okay, she’s not really in the mood.” That friend or relative will probably get offended. But that’s okay. I would rather have everyone get offended by my daughter not forcibly kissing or hugging someone than the horrifying experience I went through when I was five.

**

Five. It was at an Islamic school in New Jersey. I was in kindergarten. I had recently immigrated with my parents a couple of years back. We wore cute little white and grey uniforms with a white hijab. He sat at his desk in front of the class and recited Quran and we would all repeat. Then he would call a student, one-by-one, up to his desk. And it would happen right there, behind his desk, where the other students couldn’t see. He would continue reciting and have us repeat. But we knew what he was doing, yet nobody said anything to him or anyone else. We were just five.

**

Twenty-eight. I’ve been teaching preschool at an Islamic school. Sometimes I pause in the middle of a lesson when I call on a student to come up to write on the board, remembering what that was like when I was their age. I hope and pray none of my 23 students ever experience what I endured. I never ask my students for hugs, although other teachers often do. A high five will suffice. If a child does get too close to me, I take a step back. If a child wants to hug me, I let them, but no clinging. Just a quick hug and let go.

**

Five. I was always taught to tell my parents everything and not to lie. And so, when I told my parents what happened, they believed me. As should all parents when their child says they were abused. Yet, when my parents called another student’s parent, she denied it. My parents believed me and called the police.

I vividly remember police cars and shining, bright lights in the dark of the night. My parents drove to the Islamic School and he was arrested. They wanted me to see that and know that they took what I said seriously. Five-year-olds should not have to watch an Imam, a man of great respect in the community, being handcuffed and put away in the police car for abusing children. For abusing me. But I watched, confused, betrayed, and in disbelief. Why? This was a man who parents trusted him with their children. This was a man who the community looked up to for spiritual guidance and to uphold morality and goodness and our faith that we so treasured. This was a man who should have instilled the love of the Quran in children. Yet he used the most beautiful words – the words of God – as an accomplice to commit the most horrid of acts to those who did not yet have the agency to even understand it.

**

Twenty-eight. A couple of months ago we searched for a preschool for my daughter. Male teacher? Male coach? Male music teacher? Islamic school? Quran school? Why did it all make me feel uncomfortable? “One of the lead teachers will always be with the kids when they play soccer with the coach,” another teacher assured me.

I had already declined a top-notch school because the music teacher was a male. Trust no one, I thought. Should I just say no to preschool and enroll her in full-time elementary school in a couple of years?. Yet, I wondered how would I let my daughter interact and socialize without me being there. I just need to help prevent it. And that starts with me.

**

Five. My parents took my brother and me out of the Islamic school and enrolled us in a private school. We later moved out of New Jersey and attended both public schools and Islamic schools. They often brought Quran and Arabic teachers at home, and stayed with us during the lesson. My parents were also probably the only ones who wouldn’t let us sleep over at friends’ houses. In fact, they wouldn’t let us spend the night at the Mosque when they had Qiyam El Layl (Night prayers) for high school students Ramadan. I remember envying my friends who brought their sleeping bags and snacks to the Mosque during Ramadan and my dad would come pick me up at midnight. But now I understand why they did that. And it’s what I will do with my own kids.

**

Twenty-eight. A couple of years ago when I was in high school, Hajj season came during winter break. I had the honor of performing Hajj with my sister, mom, and older brother. I felt safe. Well, at least I thought I was safe. I was sexually harassed in front of the Kabah, while making tawaf.

Safe spaces. Holy places. Schools. Mosques. Mecca. Kabah. It doesn’t matter. No matter how safe and inviting these places might seem to be, one needs to be prepared and mindful of what’s happening around them. I’m writing this to remind everyone that sexual abuse is real in the Muslim community. I’m tired of making it a taboo topic and hiding it and pretending it will never happen. I’m tired of blaming the victim and shaming Muslim women. And I’m so tired of believing that imams or religious scholars are perfect and the community siding with imams who clearly sexually abused women yet people accuse the victim of being a liar because the imam is “well-respected in the community and old.” I am a Muslim woman and I was sexually abused at two places should be safe havens in our faith. I am writing this to tell you that Muslim women, regardless of what they’re wearing (hijab or no hijab), how old they are, where they from, how they look like, can be sexually abused, even in the holiest of places by the holiest of men.

I am so glad organizations like HEART recognize and speak about important topics like sexual abuse in Muslim communities. Read more about them and check out all of the resources they have available on how to prevent sexual abuse and how to heal. If you are a victim of sexual abuse, contact them.

Aya Khalil is a freelance journalist, educator and blogger. Contact her at www.ayakhalil.blogspot.com.

Sep 032015
 
A Sexual Education Communication Project About “The Talk”

HEART Women & Girls is thrilled to host Salah Abdul-Razacq as he completes his Masters’ capstone project. Below, you will find a webinar on why having open conversation on sex and sexuality is important between parent and child, and tips on how to begin that conversation. Learn from this important webinar below, and fill out the brief survey here before watching the webinar and once again after watching the webinar.

Sep 012015
 
Reflections on Culpability, Forgiveness, and Mercy

By Ustadha Zaynab Ansari

In March 2015, Imam Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, founder of the Institute of Islamic Education (IIE) in Elgin, IL, was indicted on charges of criminal sexual abuse stemming from a series of encounters between the religious teacher and an administrative assistant employed at the school. While the woman who initially brought charges is an adult (in her early 20s), other victims came forward with allegations of abuse reaching back over decades.

In the wake of Maulana Saleem’s arrest, the Muslim communities of the greater Chicago area—understandably shocked at the allegations—offered up a range of responses. HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit that advocates for sexual health awareness in faith-based communities, published a strongly-worded statement calling for justice for Saleem’s victims and swift action to move the case forward.

Other Muslim-led organizations in Chicago, however, put out statements that attempted to find a compromise between public censure of Saleem and silence toward his victims. Puzzlingly, the statements invoked the concept of adultery, which, in my view, was a distraction from the original issue: that a prominent religious leader allegedly used his position to victimize an unsuspecting woman and children. While all of the above statements were unanimous in their recognition that sexual abuse is prohibited in Islam, the different responses highlighted the tensions inherent in the various approaches embraced by Muslim leaders in Chicago and beyond. Sherman A. Jackson, a nationally-renowned scholar, elaborated on these tensions in an article published for the ALIM Institute, wherein he reminded readers that the accused reserves the right to make tawba (repent) for his actions.

In writing this reflection for the HEART Women & Girls blog, I would like to explore the notion of tawba further. Specifically, I would like to consider whether the act of tawba absolves one of his or her responsibility to submit to the legal process, reckon with the victims’ stories, and acknowledge the harm done by one’s actions. In other words, does tawba exonerate the (alleged) abuser from additional culpability toward his or her victims? And does tawba also require a reciprocal effort from the victims to forgive their victimizer? In other words, can the victims be compelled to forgive their abuser, drop charges, and “move on” because he or she repented?

Before I consider these questions, I would like to define the concept of tawba. Per classical Islamic manuals like Reliance of the Traveller, when a human commits a sin, that sin can be categorized as major or minor. The latter category of sins can be expiated by acts of worship, such as praying and fasting. The former category—major sins—can only be expiated by performing tawba, a process of atonement in which the penitent recognizes the sinful nature of his or her act, feels remorse, and resolves not to repeat the act. Additionally, if the act involved the violation of someone else’s rights, the performer of tawba must attempt to restore the victim’s rights. Furthermore, some scholars mention that if the act was tied to a specific environment, the penitent must take measures to change his or her environment.

While Saleem certainly reserves the right to make tawba—in fact, given the nature of the accusations, he is required to make tawba—does his repentance remove additional responsibility toward the accusers? I would argue, no. Tawba is a private spiritual act intended to make things right with God. The performance of tawba, however, does not remove one’s responsibility toward those who suffered as a result of one’s actions. For example, when I wrote about the issue of “blurred lines” between religious teachers and their students and the culture of celebrity we have built up around some of our scholars, someone contacted me with the critique that I had disregarded the role of tawba when I took my position. On the contrary, I do not discount the necessity or benefit of tawba for those who have committed wrongdoing; in fact, it should be part of their rehabilitation process. However, the possibility of their tawba does not preclude the community from addressing the fallout of their actions.

One of the hadiths that was most frequently cited in the wake of the IIE scandal was the hadith of “amr bil ma’ruf wal nahy ‘an al-munkar,” or enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong. In this hadith, the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, exhorts the Muslim community to confront wrongdoing in one of three ways: changing it with one’s hand, or with one’s tongue, or with one’s heart, the latter being the “weakest in faith.” What this means is that we have an obligation to confront wrongdoing with direct action, and, in the event such action is impossible, then at least speak out. If saying something is not an option, the least we can do is detest wrongdoing in our hearts. Lest we think these measures only apply to those witnessing abuse, they also apply to the abuser. God the Exalted says in the Qur’an, “Believers, turn to God in sincere repentance. Your Lord may well cancel your bad deeds for you and admit you into Gardens graced with flowing streams, on a Day when God will not disgrace the Prophet or those who have believed with him” (Al-Tahrim, 66:8).

The term used in the above verse, nasuh, is reminiscent of a word in another hadith: Religion is nasiha. In the Qur’an, Allah calls upon the believers to turn to Him, making their repentance sincere. In the hadith, the Prophet, peace be upon him, links the practice of good counsel, or nasiha, to religion itself. In other words, there is a dialectic between community members and leaders, a mutual process of taking ourselves to account, and requiring those in authority to uphold certain standards of conduct. In this reciprocal relationship, we expect that those who commit wrong will sincerely repent, but we also reserve the right to advise them about their conduct. Returning to the responsibility of the abuser, he or she, after making tawba, is also required to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong per the Prophet’s directive. The abuser must take direct action to stop the abuse, acknowledge the nature of his or her actions, and despise those actions on a spiritual and intellectual level. Once this multilateral approach to wrongdoing is initiated, the healing process can begin. However, there must be recognition that the victims have the right to decide when—and if—they will forgive. In the case of the plaintiffs in the Saleem case, the majority of them have carried the scars of abuse for decades. It is not appropriate for the community (or the alleged abuser and his supporters) to demand that the victims simply forgive and forget. The victims must be given the space to determine what constitutes proper justice in their case.

In the Qur’an, we read, “God commands you to return things entrusted to you to their rightful owners, and, if you judge between people, to do so with justice” (Al-Nisa, 4:58). If the restoration of trust is an imperative of justice, what then of the betrayal of the ultimate trust—the safety, sanctity, and inviolability of our children, under the guise of teaching them the word of God, no less! Yes, tawba is important, but so is the right of the plaintiffs to seek justice, speak out, and, I pray, have something of what was taken from them restored. And God knows best.

Jun 252015
 

previously published on Muslimah Media Watch

by Rana S.

I no longer feel awkward saying it out loud – some may think I’m too blunt about it. You know, like, about my period.

Menstruation is one of the factors that nullify a person’s fast (regardless if it is during the month of Ramadan or not) – it automatically “breaks” it. Every Ramadan, I get asked by at least a few people I know (and a few strangers have asked as well) about why I’m not fasting whenever I get “caught” eating or drinking a beverage. I would also get teased with “Ha! You’re cheating!” or “I caught you red-handed!” I suppose some people feel obliged to say something due to the fact that I do wear the hijab, and thus it is assumed I am also the Ramadan fasting type.  Sometimes these are people that I have already told that I fast during Ramadan, but then they suddenly see me “breaking” it.

During my high school and college years, I felt awkward confessing to guys that I was on my period. I would reply vaguely with something along the lines of “well, you know, there are circumstances in which Islam prohibits fasting, and I’m in one of those situations.” Some of the guys would look confused and simply reply with “Oh…okay.” If they inquired further, I would then explain that a person may break his/her fast for health reasons. I would lie that I had a health issue, but never say what that health issue was – I’d basically hint that I did not want to discuss the matter any further.

That changed seven years ago.  I was on the metro drinking an iced cappuccino on a Ramadan day, when a Muslim guy I knew got on. When he spotted me, he walked over and said hi. Then he stared at the iced cappuccino in my hands. “Oh, you’re not fasting?” he asked casually.

“Not today…”

“I guess you don’t feel like fasting today?”

“It’s not that. I just can’t.”

“Why?”

“You do realize that there are exceptions to the fasting rule?”

“Well I know illness is one of them. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine…”

“Then how you come you just can’t?”

“Um, I’m a woman?”

“Huh?”

“You do know, right, that the rules of fasting differ for women?”

“Really?”

“Yes…”

“Like what?”

“Like, a woman’s period. It nullifies the fast. And yes, I’m on my period. ”

“Oh…I didn’t know that.”

[silence]

“I honestly didn’t know that…”

The incident with the Muslim guy was my trigger of change. The fact that even some Muslim guys either don’t know or forget that anyone menstruating is exempt from fasting (an ignorance largely due to the taboo of “exposing” men to it) is simply…not right. To be fair, the metro guy wasn’t the only Muslim guy who asked – but he was the only one who kept asking to the point where I confessed that I was on my period.

The metro incident made me realize that the taboo of talking about menstruation or admitting that one is on her period to guys – even when it would be for educational purposes (as in the case of Ramadan) – was only because patriarchal societies devalue and censor women’s bodies whereby only some aspects are fully acknowledged while others are taboos. Menstruation is a defining symbol of womanhood for many women. It is human – yet I have always felt that I should be as secretive about it as possible, to the point as if it does not exist. I did not want to hide that unnecessarily anymore.

I have some Muslim girlfriends who would still prefer lying to guys during Ramadan than confess their menstruation status. A few even go as far as only abstaining from food and beverages in public so as to not be “caught.” A few others abstain from food and beverages only whenever they are at home, so as to fool their fathers and brothers. The taboo nature of periods, and the extent to which some Muslim women will go to hide it, is perhaps why some Muslim guys either don’t know or forget.

Fast forward six years later. I spent the next six Ramadans bluntly telling anyone who asked, man or woman, that I was on my period whenever I got “caught.” With guys, it always occurred on a one-to-one basis.  That changed one day in Ramadan 2014. I was at work, and it happened to be an employee’s birthday. After the birthday cake was divided unto plates, I casually picked one up.  One of male co-workers asked, while the kitchen was still crowded with all employees, “hey, how come you’re not fasting? I thought you were really into that.” All eyes turned towards me. I looked around the kitchen, then responded with “Okay, now that I have your utmost attention, I want to say:  I’m on my period. I can’t fast when I’m on my period.”  One of my other male co-workers laughed and said “Oh yeah! I remember last Ramadan when you told me. I knew when it started and ended!” The conversation ended thanks to a third male co-worker who cautiously said “Okay…this is getting awkward. Can we change the conversation?”

The work incident still makes me laugh. It also made me realize that I no longer feel awkward about explaining my period status during Ramadan to men, regardless of who they are or how many men are in the same room as me.

Just for the record, not every Muslim breaks his/her fast due to exceptions to the fasting rule. There are Muslims that don’t fast simply because they don’t want to.  Others choose to fast on only some Ramadan days, but not all. Then there are those that were obliged to break their fast for a number of days, but don’t make up for them before the next Ramadan – or not do them at all. Fasting is a spiritual journey – not everyone is on the same pace with it.

I procrastinate horribly when it comes to making up my period days. Every year I get lectured by my mom about why I fast them anywhere between one to four weeks before Ramadan – especially since Ramadan these past few years has been in the summer, and thus the days are long. I half-heartedly convince myself that at least I’m preparing myself for Ramadan. That’s still smart, right?…Right?

Muslim girls: Take advantage of your period days in Ramadan. Organize an outing that involves food nearly every day before you return to your fasting routine. You should especially do this with other Muslim girls that are on their period. You deserve a break! How about even a dance party?  Call it “The Period Party” and invite all your menstruating Muslim friends. That is, if you don’t think it sounds too cheesy. I have yet to try this. Or how about even a one week trip to somewhere around the world? You know like, during your period days.

Will I have any period stories this Ramadan? I probably will. Since I was 14, I’ve never fasted a whole Ramadan (one month) without getting my period and without getting “caught”!

Happy Ramadan and Happy Break-Fasting!