Jan 182017
 

*This is the written text of a recent speech given at an MLK Shabbat

passport-315266_1280by Nadiah Mohajir

I wanted to begin by sharing the story of the grandmother I inherited more than nineteen years ago. I met her when I was just seventeen years old at my friend Tariq’s home. I had imagined meeting a traditionally dressed, Urdu speaking, Pakistani elderly woman, – you know, the picture of a Pakistani grandmother. Instead, I met an outspoken, English speaking, cheerful, energetic vibrant career woman. She was simply known to all of us as Amma, a term of endearment in Urdu typically given to the matriarch of the family. Unable to contain my excitement, all I could remember saying to Tariq, in typical 17-year old bubbliness was “OMG, your grandmother even wears PANTS!”

I eventually married Tariq, we spent many days and nights with Amma, listening to her tell childhood stories of my husband and his brother. I watched her beam with pride as she met each of her great grandchildren, three of whom are my own children. But what I will remember most about Amma is her ability to make you her own the minute she met you. Our Amma was never stingy with her love and affection – no matter what your identity, gender, race, social class. Amma always connected with you on shared humanity. I remember the first time she met my own grandmother, she embraced her tightly and told her they were sisters.

Two years ago, at the age of 83, our beloved Amma returned to her Creator. In the days leading up to her death, we as a family convened around her, remembering her in all the ways she impacted us. It was during those precious conversations that I learned the details of her incredible journey to America.

Amma was born into a generation and in a country where education and career opportunities were limited for women – marriage and family were prioritized. Despite this, she never complained but rather quietly pushed through with her own feminism.

In 1974, Amma excitedly approached her husband with a wild dream – “We are going to America.” Her husband, our Pappa, bless his heart, chuckled at her – this was an inconceivable idea. Pappa asked her to return to reality – preferably in time for dinner. Kindly ignoring him, Amma persevered with critical hope – dreaming of this unfamiliar land, this promise of opportunity, and requested her brother to sponsor her. Mere months later, Amma was on a plane headed to Chicago, Pappa and her children to follow soon after she settled, secured employment and was able to sponsor them. She landed on a snowy day in Chicago, and our beloved Amma was just as determined as before.

After arriving at her brother’s house, she immediately asked him to teach her how to use the el train, so she could look for work the next day. For a second time, Amma was teased for being naive. “It doesn’t work that way,” she was told. “You can’t just learn the transit system just like that, let alone get a job the day you land.” This didn’t stop our Amma. She was on the brown line the next day, navigating the Chicago transit systems with just a map and limited English skills. That night, she came home and proudly declared that she had secured her first job in America, a mere 24 hours after she landed. Amma’s American dream was becoming a reality sooner than anyone anticipated. This American dream, that many others have also come searching for, including my own father, had been made possible by the struggles, the hard work, the many “firsts” of our American ancestors such as Dr. Martin Luther King.

Today we are gathered to commemorate the legacy of Dr. King. While we all know that Dr. King’s legacy is much more than his infamous “I have a dream speech” speech, these words are repeated over and over to our children as a cornerstone of American history and represent much of what he was fighting for, during a time when many believed it all to be inconceivable.

Dr. King had a dream that America would be a certain way: that a little black boy or girl could one day have the same opportunities as their white neighbor, attend the same schools and sit on the same buses. This dream inspired many around him: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, Mahalia Jackson, and many others to continue to push to demand equality, dissolve segregation, and build the America we know today. From civil rights to medicine to even going to the moon, many of the advancements that we know of in America today are because of our African American brothers and sisters and the foundation they laid for all of us.

And, more personally for me, Dr. King’s vision also facilitated that a woman, our Amma, could also dare to dream an inconceivable dream. It enabled her to come from a highly patriarchal society with limited opportunity, and instead be emboldened by her own conviction and belief in a better life for her own family, and with hard work and determination – actually achieve it – singlehandedly mind you.

And so, my family is the children of immigrants. We are doctors and lawyers and engineers and teachers and activists and entrepreneurs. We are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices and struggles made by our grandmothers, who came in the 1960s and 70s in search of opportunity. The promise of opportunity that their Muslim, brown skinned, headscarf wearing grandchildren and great grand children would have the same opportunities as their White peers. But we must never forget that we are also indebted to the struggles and resistance of the many Black slaves and civil rights activists – many of them also Muslim – that paved the way for our immigrant grandmothers to seek these very opportunities. It was through their fight for civil rights that America became the America that our Amma came searching for.

This same America, where today, my children learn Quran and about their faith in a beautiful mosque built by Muhammad Ali, on the South side of Chicago, the very roads that giants like Muhammad ali, Malcolm X, and Dr. King himself – led their movements. And it is on these same roads, where my house sits, that inspired me seven years ago to have my own version of daring to dream as I embarked on my social justice journey: building a nonprofit called HEART Women & Girls, which creates spaces for Muslims to learn about their bodies, sex, and sexual assault, in a way that is safe, accurate, free of shame, but also inspired by our faith tradition. We work alongside Jewish and Christian communities to build alliances, and address sexual violence together. We dream of a world where women and girls are valued for their character, and not for their skin color, body type, or what they wear. We dream of a world that women are free of guilt, shame, oppression, and violence, so they are able to make informed and empowered decisions about their sexual health in a way that aligns with their values.

And as with any social justice work, there are hard days. There are days when this work seems impossible, and just simply exhausting. Yet, the meaning of my social justice journey beginning on the very same roads these great Americans walked is not lost on me. To be surrounded by their histories and legacies, the institutions they built and movements they ignited, is nothing short of God’s plan for me: my family came here in search of opportunity, for a better life, but also as God’s greater plan for us to continue this search for Truth and Justice.

Dr. King’s search for Truth and Justice were founded on a simple principle that many faith traditions share: that all men and women are created equal, despite differences in the color of their skin, religious identity, social class, or gender and that we all have a right to belong. His entire movement was founded on this concept of shared humanity, and he once wrote, “As brothers in the fight for equality…. Our struggles are really one: a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson he taught me is about compassion, which also happens to be a core value in Islam. Compassion that I believe, goes hand in hand with Justice, another core value in our faith traditions.

You see, compassion isn’t just about being kind. It’s about seeing the other person’s shared humanity, something that both Dr. King and Amma modeled effortlessly. And when you see that shared humanity, calling out for justice when you see oppression comes naturally. And so, compassion and justice are fundamentally linked – without compassion, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no compassion.

These values sit at the core of both our faith identities and our American identities. And while our unique identities might be different from our neighbor, it is our diversity that gives us strength collectively. God tells us in the Quran: “We have created you into many nations and tribes so you may know one another.” Likewise, an important theme in the Hebrew Bible is hospitality, and caring for others, as is noted in the Hebrew Bible: [God] loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothing. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners.

We must look past skin color, the headscarf, and the yarmulke, and build deep relationships based on our shared humanity, hope, and determination. We live in a time where xenophobia, islamophobia, anti Semitism, and racism are at peaks that they haven’t been in many years, but giving into these fear and threats is giving up our privilege of daring to dream: I for one, am not ready to do that. Not as Amma’s granddaughter.  Not as a Muslim woman. And certainly not as an American.

So let us know one another and come together – on this blessed day and those that we will have together in our future – in critical hope, in compassion, and in justice. I ask you to join me as we stand together in solidarity, and continue to fight for the dreams that our grandmothers dared to have and our forefathers died protecting.

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

Nov 202016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

Words written sex education in the notepad.Recently, many loud voices have been critiquing HEART’s work and misrepresenting our positions on sexual health and sexual violence. While we absolutely do not expect everyone to be on board or even comfortable with our approach, we are strongly opposed to the tactics that have recently been used on social media. Perhaps, the biggest irony of the situation is that the individuals that have criticized  us for our lack of Islamic ethics, have chosen to denigrate our work in a way that also is the antithesis to Islamic ethics and the Prophetic example: through bullying, intimidation, namecalling, and most importantly, spreading untrue information. This type of religious shaming and hateful rhetoric is exactly what we have been speaking out against. We are not interested in engaging in a game of internet bullying. However, we do believe it is necessary to correct the misinformation that is spreading about our work.

The Quran instructs us to be maintainers of justice, even if it means we have to speak up and challenge our own communities. For years, we have heard Muslim women and girls share their struggles with body image, depression, unhealthy relationships, sex, and all too often, sexual violence. They spoke of not having access to culturally­-sensitive information and resources, and being afraid of seeking them because of the stigma and shame associated with sex and sexual violence in Muslim communities. Read more.

Nov 182016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

wedding-964415_1920Sex is described as many things: it can be an act of passion for some, physical gratification for others, a necessity for procreation, an act of worship for people of faith, or some combination thereof. It is also a word and experience that is often loaded with many emotions: joy, love, and all too often, fear, shame, and stigma.

One of the challenges of beginning this conversation is that historically, sex and sexuality have been seen as uncomfortable subjects across most racial, ethnic, and religious communities. In Muslim communities, the strong notions of privacy and modesty are often conflated with the shaming of feeling sexual desire, which creates an environment hostile to open discourse, let alone operating outside of religious code. This lack of open, nuanced conversation has long-term consequences: it instills shame and unhealthy attitudes toward sex, which many women carry into their sexual relationships, both within the framework of marriage and outside of it. Read more here.

Jun 242016
 

originally published on patheos.com

By Sameera Qureshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 242016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS SEX?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 242016
 

by Amber Khan

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

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

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

As two women recounted from their childhood:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certainly, the lessons behind this tradition are astoundingly beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one similar young woman recounts:

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

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

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

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

Jun 242016
 

By Nadiah Mohajir

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

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

May 042016
 

by Sameera Qureshi

Relationship“Well, how do you know if you and your future spouse are sexually compatible if you don’t have sex before marriage? What if he’s a dud in bed?”

I did a double take at the text message, let out a sigh of exasperation, and tucked my phone away.

Abstinence. Islam, and many other faith traditions, preach “no-sex-before-marriage” as the ideal. Yet the reality is that the majority of non-married individuals will engage in pre-marital sex. The statistics related to Muslim communities are no different: research by Sobia Ali-Faisal indicated that of over 400 17-35 year old Muslims surveyed, 2/3 had engaged in pre-marital sex. And of the 1/3 who didn’t, 50% had seriously considered it.

At this point, I’d like to clarify that this post is not about the fiqh (i.e. religious law) related to pre-marital sex. I’m sure at one point or another as Muslims that we have either received the “sex is haraam (impermissible)” line during our 5-minute pre-puberty sex talk, and/or our parents made us close our eyes during kissing scenes on TV, and this was enough to shame us into not asking anything about intimacy and sex.

Hopefully, reading through this post won’t be that embarrassing.

Most articles and blog entries written about abstinence focus on telling Muslims what we already know: that sex before marriage (i.e. zina in Arabic) is haraam (i.e. religiously impermissible). I am not here to regurgitate this or to convince you of this fact. Rather, my goal is to dissect this notion of abstinence into its myriad of layers that we tend to overly simplify, without much success, and then not talk about.

As Muslims, we are not born with the abstinence switch turned on (no pun intended). Too many of us wrongly believe that abstinence is automatically assumed among all followers of our faith tradition (followed by the fallacy of us therefore not needing information about sex until the night before the wedding). Yet we tend to forget that Muslims are diverse in nature, and like any other religious belief under the umbrella of Islam, abstinence is a choice.

Having worked with teen girls around the notion of values-based abstinence, I’ve come to realize how complicated making a decision around sexual intimacy can be, at any age. The girls that I’ve worked with have opened my eyes to what many struggle with: feeling strong emotions and desires for someone and wanting to express this through intimacy and sex; the difficulty with delaying gratification until an unknown point in the future; the pressures girls feel in relationships, because unfortunately, Muslim youth aren’t educated about healthy relationships before they start dating; the promise from their partner that “sex is OK because our intention is to get married, Inshallah (God willing).” I could go on and on about how complicated of a decision it is to choose to abstain from sex or to not. I would even argue that the decision to abstain is easier to make when you’re single and not in a relationship, and takes much more “willpower” to stick to when you’re getting to know someone and are obviously attracted to them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Which leads me to define what abstinence means. While the traditional definition focuses on sex, I’ve come to learn through my work and research that we all have different takes on abstinence that depends on a myriad of factors including values, sexual health education exposure, experiences, etc. We each tend to define abstinence differently in terms of what we’re “comfortable with” in a relationship. For example, some Muslims will say absolutely no touching of any sort (i.e. even a handshake) is permissible before marriage. Some Muslims are fine with public displays of affection but draw the line at anything in isolation from others. Some Muslims are fine with everything up to and including sex. Some Muslims may try different forms of physical intimacy with their partner and will change their definition of abstinence – which is absolutely healthy and brings to this discussion the notion of consent. Just because someone consents to sex with their partner (or any form of physical intimacy for that matter) one time does not mean that consent is automatically present for future intimacy. Sex without consent is rape. Abstinence is also not something set in stone – our definition of it can change over time and within the context of a relationship.

Working under the assumption that most Muslims are not abstinent from sex before marriage leaves me wondering how many are fully informed about safe sex? The work that needs to be done is around harm reduction:

  • Do sexually active Muslims have the knowledge they need to keep themselves and their partners safe from STIs?
  • Are they aware of contraceptive methods?
  • Do both partners feel comfortable taking about their sexual experiences and boundaries, and do they gain consent?
  • Are there elements of abuse or coercion in the relationship – emotionally, physically, spiritually and sexually?
  • How often do they communicate with one another about their needs – sexual and otherwise?
  • Do they know where to go for resources and support if they struggle with any form of intimacy? (i.e. trauma-related, vaginismus, etc)

I’ve heard many Muslims speak about the fact that by teaching the above information (which is essentially what comprehensive sexual health education is), people are essentially being led to experiment with sex. What many Muslims fail to realize is that research actually shows the opposite – that teaching values-based sexual health education that is comprehensive delays first time sexual activity and leads youth to make decisions about sex that are more in line with their values.

Go figure – knowledge leads to empowerment.

My decision to remain abstinent from sex before re-marriage has been met with a few dubious comments from people who know I’m divorced. And unfortunately, it’s mostly men who don’t seem to understand how personal of a decision abstinence is and it having nothing to do with being previously married. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe my decision process for choosing abstinence, since again, no one talks about their decision either way. Because as much as we try to tell youth and young adults “just don’t do it,” this simplistic type of approach doesn’t work.

We cannot tell our youth to choose abstinence. They need to reach this conclusion on their own.

Shocking, I know.

While I haven’t created a model around “abstinence,” I do like to use a holistic approach in thinking about this concept. We tend to over-emphasize the physical aspect – “Don’t give into your sexual desires,” “It’s wrong to have sexual desires,” “Control your urges,” etc. Comments and thought processes such as these are not helpful. God created us with attraction and desires and we cannot shame people into abstinence. As a community, we have done this for years to Muslim girls and women, and the consequences are many.

Which leads me to bring up a very important point. Culturally speaking, I’ve seen many families and communities place all the pressure on girls and women to be abstinent while not endorsing (to say the least) the same for boys and men. From an Islamic perspective, the notion of abstinence applies equally to both sexes. Boys and men do not get a free pass – nor should they be permitted to expect abstinence from women when they themselves do not practice it. This dichotomy and double standard is dangerous and unfair. I do not for one second buy it when boys and men so confidently state, “Well, you know, I’m a man and I have needs” as a valid reason for their choice to be sexually active.

Because, so do women.

At the same time, we cannot endorse abstinence from a solely emotional/fear-based perspective“You might regret having sex,” “What if you don’t get married?,” and “Sex is painful” is just a few of the erroneous and harmful statements that Muslims are often told. Statements such as these add to the emotional stress an individual is facing when it comes to deciding to be abstinent and/or following through with their decision. Not only that, but these false beliefs turn into shame that may follow individuals even into their marital life.

The path that people who choose to be abstinent take varies. My own decision-making around abstinence revolves around learning from past relationships, including my marriage; my values around gender interactions; my desire to build an incredibly strong spiritual and emotional connection first with my partner, which will ultimately lead to and encompass a physical connection; and my spiritual journey and goals. Again, I want to re-iterate that I am not sharing this as a means to shame or exclude those who define abstinence differently from me. My goal is to hopefully encourage everyone to think about abstinence from a more nuanced lens rather than a simplistic one, and to ensure that any decision they make is free of shame. And this takes an incredible amount of self-reflection, knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Our communities need more discussions and resources around abstinence and healthy/safe sex. And by this, I don’t mean to “change people’s minds” about their decision to be intimate. The unfortunate part is that many individuals believe that by talking about relationships, dating, and sex, they’re essentially “outing” themselves to the community about their sexual decision making. And since pre-marital sex is religiously frowned upon, there’s a notion that talking about it is essentially telling other people about your sins. Hence why I think it’s incredibly important that these discussions be facilitated by individuals who know what they’re talking about and doing, rather than those who have the intention of helping but know nothing more than that.

And to be honest, the best way to support our community is through early and comprehensive sexual health education. Give all the information, focus on critical thinking and communication skills, and allow plenty of time for self-reflection and decision making from a healthy, informed and empowered place.

We have a lot of work to do around supporting individuals along all points of contact with this notion of abstinence. I think we need to first come to a place where we are less concerned about shaming those who engage in sex before marriage, and focus on ensuring that everyone is equipped with what they need to make any sort of decision.

For those who want a quick read about abstinence, this document is quite well done: http://adph.org/FamilyPlanning/assets/FHS2712015.pdf.

For anyone needing more specific information, resources or support, please feel free to “Ask A Question” to a virtual peer educator at www.heartwomenandgirls.org.

I hope I’ve at least been able to start the tricky conversation on abstinence. Please forgive me if I have said anything that is offensive, it wasn’t at all my intention.

I, like you, am learning.

Sameera Qureshi is the Director of Education, Canada for HEART Women & Girls. For the last several years she led sexual health and sexual assault awareness programming for the Muslim community in Calgary and other Canadian communities. Most recently, she has moved to Washington, DC, where she hopes to continue similar programming. If anyone is interested in hosting an workshop or training in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) for Muslims around sexual violence (i.e. across the lifespan and for any audience), please contact HEART at the web address above or comment on this post.

originally published on http://muslimsistah-sq.blogspot.com/

Jan 142016
 

by Nadiah Mohajir

In her guest blog piece, Sobia Ali-Faisal boldly claimed that Muslim youth need sex education. Why? Because Muslim youth are having sex. According to her research more than half of those she surveyed reported having sex before marriage. The Family & Youth Institute has found similar percentages, with 53.8% of never-married Muslim college students reported having sex.

The data is loud and clear. It’s time for us to make a serious commitment to offering Muslim youth sex education programming that addresses their needs. Muslim girls and boys are expected to abstain from premarital sex and alcohol and substance consumption, without any additional context or preparing them with decision-making skills. In other words, there is often no emphasis on developing critical thinking and decision-making skills or a healthy self-concept in relation to the body, sexuality, and spirituality. Outside of the home, in addition to their natural curiosity, these same young people are constantly bombarded with sexual images, peer pressure, and messages encouraging them to have sex, and actively partake in romantic relationships.

These cultural factors are unavoidable, but when we avoid having conversations about sexuality, young people will go elsewhere to find out about sexual health. The idea that talking about sexuality or body literacy is immodest or that it should take place only between married couples leads young men and women to find out about sexuality from friends, magazines, online, or even pornography. Instead, we should create safe, culturally sensitive spaces for young people of faith to ask questions and get information that is consistent with their beliefs. We are pleased to introduce to you our latest guide, “Let’s Talk about Sex: A Muslim Parent’s Guide to Having “the Talk” with their Kids,” a resource for parents who want to begin these important conversations with their children. A must read for all parents, this guide offers the latest research, background information, tips, conversation starters, and even scripts that parents can use when bringing up these sensitive topics with their kids. Below, I address some concerns and FAQs that I have received from parents about letting their kids have access to sex education and why this guide will be so useful to them as they think about this next phase of their child’s life. 

But doesn’t sex education encourage teens to have sex and be promiscuous?

There is a common misunderstood notion that teaching youth about sexuality, in a comprehensive way that includes information on contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy may lead to increased promiscuity and premature sexual activity. Research actually shows the opposite. A 2010 Guttmacher Policy Review states that there is no evidence that comprehensive sex education programs lead to increased rates of sexual activity and earlier initiation. Rather, it may have the opposite effect: empowering young people with the tools to delay sex and make more informed decisions. Perhaps the most compelling reasons for parents to talk to their kids about sex is that it is actually protective in nature. Recent research shows that parents have a great influence on their teens’ sexual behaviors when they talk to their teens about sex: teens are more likely to use condoms and birth control when they have sex. Additionally, other studies indicate that children who are comfortable talking about sex are actually more likely to delay sexual activity and be older when they first have intercourse. In fact, a 2012 survey by the Office of Adolescent Health at the Department of Health and Human Services indicated that “almost 9 in 10 teens (87) said that it would be much easier to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents.”

What about current sex education programs? Aren’t those enough?

Current efforts in sex education are missing the mark. A 2004 study indicates that Muslim youth feel frustrated with sex education programming at public schools because it does not take into account their cultural and religious worldview, and instead speaks to students as if sexual activity is predetermined. At the same time, they expressed religious programming does the exact opposite: it assumes that information about sex and sexuality is not relevant to youth because sexual activity shouldn’t be taking place anyway. 
As such, typically programming at religious institutions exclude a great deal of important information – both on anatomy and other aspects of sexual relationships. For example, the programming barely focus on topics such as pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), self-esteem, healthy relationships, and decision-making.

But I don’t want the school to teach my kid values and morality about sex.

Most school-based programs are not values-based. They may cover topics such as masturbation, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT), and premarital sex that often causes many religious and conservative parents discomfort. Despite parents’ beliefs otherwise, however, these topics are objectively and to facilitate inclusivity and tolerance. As such, because of the sheer diversity of racial, ethnic and religious background in schools, values and morality about sex and sexuality are not usually taught within the school sex education program. If these are important conversations for parents to have, which they should be, it is encouraged to continue the conversation at home.

What happens if youth do not get sex education?

A limited focus on sexual education is disconcerting from both a public health and faith-based perspective: Muslim youth are left unprepared to deal with issues of reproductive and sexual health, and consequently, may:

  • Be unprepared for the major changes their bodies are undergoing, which can lead to confusion, curiosity and/or exploration;
  • Be unequipped to make informed decisions without better understanding of sexual health, sexual experimentation, and its consequences;
  • Seek out (mis)information in pornographic magazines, internet sites, and erotic visual programs, or to rely on information picked up from peers at school or work, or from obscene jokes, ultimately perpetuating myths, misinformation, and misunderstandings as well as unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sexuality;
  • Rely on debunked cultural traditions, myths, and practices;
  • Be unequipped to identify abuse and how to seek help;
  • have unhealthy sex in life/marriage; and
  • Giving in to pressures to engage in sexual activity in order to fit in, even if one is not ready. 


The lack of open dialogue and education about sexual health in the Muslim community leads to negative health outcomes, sexual experimentation, sexual violence and marital challenges in the community. If young people are not informed about their bodies and healthy relationships, they are not equipped to identify sexual health problems or when they are being abused,
 and they don’t know where to get help.

But I’m still not comfortable with the school teaching my kid this information. I want to teach him/her myself. Is this possible?

Parents should absolutely be involved in their children’s sex education. Most schools have parent sessions before beginning the unit so that parents can be familiar with what their child will be learning. Additionally, because of time constraints, schools may not have enough time to cover important topics such as peer pressure, decision-making, values, and ethics. They may simply introduce these topics. This is the perfect opportunity for parents to continue the conversation and talk about expectations, decision making, values and peer pressure.

While parents can absolutely opt-out of school-based sex education programs and replace that education with their own information, it is something that we do not recommend. The reality is many parents don’t have the adequate resources to do so: they may not have a solid, accurate foundation of sexual health information themselves, or they may not have the time or training to navigate the difficult and sensitive topics our youth are dealing with today. The ideal sex education program is that which students attend through school, and continue that education at home with their parents. This will ensure that they are getting the solid foundation of accurate sexual health information they need, as well as the opportunity to relate that information to their specific cultural and religious context.

Sex education for ALL Muslim youth is long overdue. There are many great programs already out there, so we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We just have use those programs as a foundation to create something that fits the needs of our diverse community. Additionally, there is no time like the present to begin these conversations at home, and we hope that you find our parent’s guide useful in guiding that discussion.