Jan 182017

Screen Shot 2016-12-29 at 7.41.45 PMAs Co-Founder and Executive Director of HEART Women & Girls, I am pleased to share our growth and impact over the years through our annual report. Through this report, you will see just how exponentially we have grown in the last three years, with a primarily virtual and volunteer staff.

With your support, we have had an incredible year and have accomplished so much, including:

  • Expanded our programming to college campuses across the country, reaching five times as many participants than previous years,
  • Developed publications, toolkits, and fact sheets which have been downloaded more than 25,000 times,
  • Presented at eight national conferences,
  • Offered one on one support and advocacy to dozens and dozens of survivors,
  • Provided professional development training to approximately 120 professionals representing numerous organizations, including Planned Parenthood, Rape Victim Advocates, and Title IX coordinators at local Universities,
  • Built a national staff of accomplished, diverse Muslim women who are experts in public health, medicine, mental health, and reproductive justice,
  • Attended two White House events, and
  • Raised over $60,000 just this year alone.

Our work plays an integral part in offering the community accurate sexual health information and in supporting survivors on their journey toward healing and justice. But, we need your continued help. Given the political climate, our work is more important than ever. Unless we take action together, it is likely we will see less federal support for reproductive and sexual health education and sexual assault awareness. For the last seven years, we have been working to dismantle the shame and stigma around sex and sexual violence, and we have made incredible inroads despite a small budget and limited resources.

In the next three years, we hope to:

  • Expand our programming to reach up to  five additional cities
  • Train 250 leaders and reach 3,000 more participants
  • Double our number of publications
  • Hire our first paid, full-time staff members

We remain more motivated now than ever to continue this work, promote gender equity, and advocate for reproductive justice for all. We invite you to join us in this timely effort. Please browse our annual report, learn about our work, and make your gift today.

With Eternal Gratitude,

Nadiah Mohajir, MPH
Co-founder & Executive Director
HEART Women & Girls

Sep 162016

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

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

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

Take the survey today!

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.

Jan 052014
by Nadiah Mohajir
originally published on altmuslimah.com
Umm Reem, the author of the article “The Reality of Sex Education in Public Schools,” contends that Muslim parents should be wary of the sex education curriculum in the American public school system, and claims that it is not merely biology lessons, but rather, a value-laden program correlated with an increase in promiscuity, teen pregnancies and STIs, and homosexuality in society. She contends that sex-ed curricula in the US are based on three organizations: Advocates for Youth, SIECUS, and Planned Parenthood.

This claim in and of itself is inaccurate, as there is no standard of sex education curricula in the US, leading to hundreds of sex education programs throughout America, ranging from inaccurate, biology-limited curriculum to abstinence only curriculum, to comprehensive sex curriculum. As a public health professional, I maintain that the empirical data does not support Umm Reem’s claims, and in fact, she is gravely mistaken. Her unfounded claims and the platform they are given are doing a serious disservice to the rising generation of American Muslim youth in America.

First, the research shows the opposite of Umm Reem’s claims: there is no evidence that increased access to sex education leads to increased promiscuity or earlier initiation of sexual intercourse. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute:

“strong evidence suggests that comprehensive approaches to sex education help young people both withstand the pressures to have sex too soon, and to have healthy, responsible, mutually protective relationships when they do become sexually active…. Two-thirds of the forty-eight comprehensive programs that supported both abstinence and use of contraceptives for sexually active teens had positive behavioral effects… Many either delayed or reduced sexual activity, reduced the number of sexual partners, or increased use of contraceptives.”

In other words, youth who receive comprehensive sex education actually prove to be more responsible than their peers who receive limited/no sex education.

Second, let us address the high pregnancy and STI rates in the U.S., and Umm Reem’s assumed reason for this increase in “promiscuity.” While STI rates and the teen pregnancy rate in the U.S. are still some of the highest in the developed world, teen pregnancies have actually been steadily declining, with many researchers attributing this to increased access to comprehensive, accurate sexual education. In 2009, the teen pregnancy rate reached a historic low, at 39.1 births per 1000 women ages 15-19. Furthermore, Umm Reem carelessly proclaims that American public school sexual education programs are responsible for the high STI rate, claiming the “sex-ed industry is dedicated to promot[ing] radical, social ideologies that value unconditional sexual freedom above any health, science, or parental authority. The aim is to encourage promiscuity experimentation and unrestricted sexual behavior.” As a public health professional trained to appreciate the importance of empirical data, I ask Umm Reem for any evidence supporting such an outrageous claim. The very purpose of sexual education is to prevent disease and keep youth safe and responsible, and to ultimately reduce STIs and teen pregnancies – not encourage them.

Ironically, STI and teen pregnancy rates have increased due to teens’ lack of information or belief in wrong information, stemming from abstinence-only sex education, or even no sex education at all. The 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth reveals that as many as 46% of sexually experienced males and 33% of sexually experienced females did not receive formal instruction about contraception before they first had sex . A 2009 study conducted by the National Campaign to End Unplanned Pregnancy indicates that among teens aged 18-19, 41% report that they know little or nothing about condoms and 75% say they know little or nothing about the contraceptive pill.

I certainly will not deny that there is an abundance of sexuality in our society. Yet empirical research and anecdotal evidence prove that this prevalence is not a consequence of youth having more access to information; rather, it is the consequence of a hyper-sexualized media, combined with low self-worth and body image. Our youth are bombarded with thousands of sexual imagery and messaging every day, through ads, magazines, music, music videos, social media, and the internet. Not surprisingly, a 2008 longitudinal study in Pediatrics is one of many studies that reveal compelling results: exposure to high levels of sexual content on television has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of initiating sexual activity, as well as a greater likelihood of involvement in teen pregnancy. Adolescents going through puberty are experiencing physical and emotional changes, and also becoming pre-occupied with one’s appearance and self conscious around others. The pressing need to fit in is a natural part of adolescence. Unfortunately, the media exploits this need to fit in, through a clear emphasis on unattainable beauty, sexuality, and power. The media thrives on feeding people’s insecurities – whether they are physical, emotional, sexual, or academic. No matter what the product, the idea portrayed is that one becomes a better person once buying that product. Most of the time, regardless of the product, sexual innuendo is used to ultimately market the product.

So when our kids don’t receive formal sex education, they learn what they can wherever they can – from the media, from similarly uninformed peers, from the Internet. As I continue to speak with educators and administrators for my work with HEART Women and Girls, I am repeatedly told that students in private Islamic schools, where sexual health education is limited to biology and the legalities of cleanliness, are still partaking in sexual activity, including experimentation with oral sex and homosexuality – only without any protection or knowledge of consequences of their actions.

Is it reasonable to expect traditional Muslim families to take on this responsibility and have such discussions at home? I don’t deny that parental involvement and communication about sexuality is important, but the truth of the matter is, it is not being done often enough. Because of our religious emphasis on modesty and on sexual matters being private, many Muslims are uncomfortable speaking of sexual matters and their role in healthy relationships. Additionally, as illustrated so effectively by Umm Reem, many Muslims fear that open discussion on sexuality inevitable leads to promiscuity. The lack of open discussion and access to sex education has two serious consequences:

  1. The spread of misinformation and unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sex: The absence of reliable sources of information leads young people to search out information in pornographic magazines, Internet sites, and erotic visual programs, or to rely on information picked up on the street, from peers at school or work, or from obscene jokes. However, these sources of information are plagued with myths, misinformation, and misunderstandings, as well as unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sexuality. In fact, more than half of 7th-12th graders look up information on the Internet; of 177 sexual health web sites examined in a recent study, 46% of those addressing contraception were inaccurate.
  2. Lack of understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship: Young women and men who are neither informed about their bodies nor educated about what constitutes a healthy relationship will remain unequipped to identify when they are being abused or who they can turn to for help. A study examining Muslim Iranian women questioned whether increased information about sexuality would have positive effects; the results showed that many believed that it would improve “the woman’s ability to avoid health compromising situations or behaviors once they were aware of them.

As stated in my previous article on sexual abuse:

“Young women who are neither informed about their bodies nor educated on what constitutes as a healthy relationship, remain ill equipped to identify when they are being abused or who they can turn to for help.”

The solution to reducing teen pregnancy and STIs is not removing your child from sex education. It is clear that experimentation, curiosity, and peer pressure get the best of many young people and sexual activity will take place. The key to reducing early sex, teen pregnancy and STIs is actually standardizing sexual health education so that every young person has access to accurate, comprehensive sexual health information. Young people also need to be equipped with decision-making skills, in combination with strong parent-child communication. Creating an emotionally safe environment for our youth is crucial; research shows that when emotional safety is not established, the need to fit in generally trumps the authentic voice . Emotional safety is created through strong parent-child communication, open dialogue, and mutual trust and respect.

On the surface, Umm Reem’s arguments may seem easy to believe; yet upon further inspection, the lack of empirical data and unsupported claims undermine its argument.