Jun 252014

By Kristina Friedlander

originally published in barakabirth.com

If it were not for God’s beautiful veiling, if it were not for God covering you beautifully, no deed you do would be worthy of acceptance.

Hikam 131 of Ibn Ata’illah

As Muslims we’re encouraged to have the right amount of shyness, or haya. Haya is a desirable trait, but a quick search will reveal that haya is frequently translated as “shame.” Shame is a fraught term, associated with dishonor and disgrace, of doing something wrong. When thinking about bodies, modesty, and haya, what becomes problematic for me is the notion that our bodies should be covered because they are shameful. Shame, to me, has more to do with humiliation and judgment than, for example, embarrassment. We are embarrassed or feel guilty when we have done something wrong or bad–however defined–but we are ashamed when we judge that what we have done makes us wrong or bad, or is a reflection of our wrongness or badness.

With few exceptions, we humans wear clothing. But the parts of our bodies that we cover vary from culture to culture and even within cultures. As Muslim women and men, we cover (to varying degrees) parts of our bodies but we also cover private spaces within the home and even spaces of increasing privacy as one moves through the home, such as bedrooms. We also think of covering as pertaining metaphorically to deeds–we hope that our bad deeds will remain covered, and consider it laudable when one Muslim ‘covers’ the bad deeds of another by not talking about them. It also applies to good deeds, as in giving charity anonymously. Spouses are referred to as ‘garments’ in the Qur’an, covering one another, providing a sense of mutual comfort and safety.

But does Islam mandate that we cover our bodies because our bodies are themselves a material source of shame? To what extent does the religious tradition deviate from cultural understandings of the body as shameful, especially women’s bodies? How do notions of purity and impurity with regard to what comes out of bodies influence perceptions of the places where they exit? How do certain deeply-rooted western discourses of the shamefulness of women’s bodies influence our understandings in ways that are actually contradictory to our faith tradition (though perhaps not cultural traditions)? And how do Muslims’ cultural lenses teach men and women that their bodies are shameful or disgusting?

Our bodies are not “bad.” We are absolutely meant to celebrate our bodies in the spaces that we define as comfortable, private, and safe, and Islamic mores encourage spouses to mutually enjoy one another’s bodies. I suggest that covering our bodies is not about shame, but rather serves a way that we set and protect our boundaries in public spaces. By covering my body—which in my case includes my arms, legs, and hair—I set boundaries that are informed by what I feel comfortable and safe with but also by my understanding of religious law as it applies directly to me. For me, modesty is the embodied practice of deciding which parts of my body and which behaviors are meant for public spaces and which for private, decisions which draw on my faith, and has nothing to do with any part of me being bad or shameful. In fact, I prefer to go with Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s translation of haya as the earnest desire to do what is right.

A major challenge today, and not just for Muslim women but for all women, is to explore, question, and challenge discourses that promote our bodies as inherently shameful or dirty. This isn’t just a philosophical or even a feminist project but a human rights necessity; in so many places around the world (including the United States) bodily shame is an impediment to women’s access of health care resources. It can also be a major obstacle to a healthy and satisfying sex life, as Nadiah Mohajir pointed out in a recent blog post on vaginismus.

For Muslims, having a clear understanding of the vocabulary which is used to describe bodies and how we should feel about our bodies–and especially where Arabic terms and their English translations carry different implications–is a critical component of this process. A deeper exploration of Islamic conceptions of what it means to have a body and of our sexuality, including ideas of pleasure and ideas of emotional safety, are so important. Men need to be involved in this process as well, questioning their own assumptions and exploring what marriage, partnership, emotional safety, and pleasure mean to them. Thankfully, we have a great deal of material within the Islamic text and tradition itself to stimulate discussion and to question our cultural understandings of shame, as long as we can overcome the cultural beliefs that these discussions are in themselves shameful.

Krystina Friedlander is a professional childbirth doula and works at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also serves on the Health Committee at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. She regularly blogs at http://barakabirth.com/

May 212014

by Nadiah Mohajir

In the short four years HEART has been working to raise awareness about the importance of reproductive health education in the Muslim community, too many young women have confided in me – both personally and professionally – about intimacy issues in their marriages. Many have shared with me their struggles to embrace their sexuality and sexual desire, while others have struggled with having little knowledge of their bodies. What is becoming increasingly common but still remains unheard of are the stories of those women who can’t consummate their marriages – many days, months, even years go by, as the couple remains unable to have intercourse. While it may seem shocking or unimaginable to some, the situation is unfortunately far too common, and there are numerous reasons for why this part of their marriage is not being fulfilled, including, but not limited to:

  • lack of knowledge about one’s body
  • unhealthy attitudes and feelings of intense shame and guilt related to sexuality
  • past history of sexual abuse or sexual trauma,
  • pornography addiction, and
  • a physiological and psychological condition called vaginsimus, among other sexual dysfunction conditions.

Vaginismus is the condition that affects a woman’s ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration, including sexual intercourse, insertion of tampons and/or menstrual cups and the penetration involved in gynecological exams. While the causes of this condition are not fully understood, “it is usually associated with anxiety and fear of having sex….though it is unclear whether the anxiety is a cause or a consequence of the condition.” Primary vaginismus can occur when a woman has never been able to have sexual intercourse while secondary vaginismus can occur later in life, due to childbirth or a traumatic event. Numerous factors can contribute to vaginismus, such as sexual abuse and rape, urinary tract and yeast infections, anxiety or stress, and general domestic violence or witnessing domestic violence. The condition is highly treatable and full recovery is possible, with the assistance of treatment including physical therapy and psychological therapy.

This brave woman, Tasniya, a Muslim American, has come forward and shared her story of identifying and addressing vaginismus in her marriage. (youtube link below) She struggled for many years before she successfully found help at the Women’s Therapy Center in New York. Here is her story, and you will see that there are many similar stories and testimonials in the Women’s Therapy Center’s youtube channel. What is most interesting is upon initial review of the various stories, there are numerous themes that are present, despite the race/religion of these women, such as,

  • all the women were virgins when they married. In other words, they came from communities and families that valued abstinence and therefore had very little, if not at all, sexual experience when they got married. Many of the husbands were also virgins or had little sexual experience.
  • they did not know who to reach out to for help because no one understood and they feared stigma and social isolation
  • they also believed they were the “only ones” having such experiences, and that no one would understand them.
  • they did not have pleasant experiences with tampons and ob/gyn visits, which could have alerted them of future intimacy issues
  • there was much guilt and shame associated with having the condition
  • the physical therapy and mental health therapy required involvement on both spouse’s parts, not just the wife seeking treatment

There are many important lessons to be learned from Tasniya’s story, including the following:

1) Parents must help their child(ren) understand their bodies from an early age. Tasniya attributes many of her anxieties and discomfort to not knowing the basic anatomy of her body and not having had those conversations with the adults in her family. She stresses that education and awareness is the first step to developing a healthy attitude towards one’s body and sexuality.

2) Most women do not come forward because they do not know where to seek help and fear being  judged. When asked about why young women don’t come forward and seek help, the responses are the same, across culture and other demographic characteristics: no one knows this exists, and often people respond with much disbelief and judgment. As one woman said “When someone asks you about how your marriage is going, you can’t exactly just come out and say that you can’t have sex. People don’t even know this condition exists, let alone how to respond to it.”

3) There are certain things we can avoid as a community to create safer, more respectful spaces. When a couple is struggling with something as serious as vaginismus, there are certain questions that can have a tremendous impact on one’s self-worth and mental well-being. The first, as Tasniya explains in her story, is the question that many people love to ask newly weds (and not so newly-weds): when will you have children? This question can be highly disturbing to one struggling with vaginismus, as it is extremely frustrating to not be able co have intercourse, therefore making the prospect of having children impossible. The second question is when people respond in disbelief – asking if such a condition is even real, and not self-imposed. “That’s like asking if the cancer that someone has is real,” Tasniya explains.

4) Imams, other leaders of religious and cultural institutions, and medical professionals need to be aware that vaginismus exists and where to send couples for help and resources. Tasniya explains how she sought the counsel of several imams, counselors and doctors without any luck. Awareness trainings are essential for those in leadership positions in the religious and cultural communities so that they can be properly equipped to counsel a married couple who may seek guidance. On the flip side, cultural competency trainings are essential for medical professionals and mental health professionals so that they have a comprehensive understanding of the cultural nuance and attitudes toward sexuality and marriage in the Muslim community and how that may influence the ability to have healthy sexual lives.

5) It is essential to instill a healthy, positive sexuality in our youth to prepare them for when they are in sexual relationships. Tasniya explains how she was never taught that Islam is a sex positive religion, and that sex is seen as a pleasurable and desirable act, within the framework of marriage. She explained how instead, she viewed sex and sexuality as dirty, shameful, and embarrassing, and she always associated pain and disgust with intercourse, which ultimately led to her inability to consummate her marriage. To read more about how to instill a healthy sexuality in youth, please click here. More importantly, it is really essential to speak with young women before marriage to prepare them for what to expect, where to seek help should they need it, and to make them feel like even if things don’t go as expected, they are not alone, and they have a support system.

It is essential that we start raising awareness about this increasingly common condition and seeking proper resources. The health of our marriages and communities depends on it. A recent article in India found that “vaginismus is emerging as a major cause of divorce in Kerala.” Quoted in the article is leading gynecologist Dr P A Lalitha, of Malabar Hospital, who says “Fear is the main reason behind this condition. Added to that, early marriages and lack of proper sex education add more oil to the fire.” Dr. Lalitha confirms a finding that HEART’s fieldwork has also uncovered – that the way society approaches sexuality – with fear – combined with a general lack of sexual education can lead to numerous intimacy issues. Furthermore, just listening to the numerous testimonials on the Women’s Therapy Center channel, I notice that despite the incredible diversity of the women, they all came from families that upheld abstinence. While abstinence in and of itself is a praiseworthy value, I do pose the following question: Are abstinence messages being relayed in a manner that lead to developing unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality and instill a general fear of sexuality instead of a positive outlook on sexuality?

As Wajahat Ali explains how often the “sex talk” is limited to a simple “don’t do it”, with the “it” not even being defined, he highlights why this is not only confusing for our young people, who develop and undergo the same adolescent changes as the rest of their peers, but it also creates a challenge for them to understand, find, and maintain healthy relationships. Using a driving metaphor, he explains “Muslim youth are expected to go from 0 to 60 mph with a spouse, 2.3 kids, and a suburban home without being taught how to start the engine and how to maintain the vehicle on its journey.”

As such, it is crucial now more than ever to begin having conversations about sex and sexuality – within an Islamic framework while being cognizant of the hypersexualized society we live in – with Muslim youth.The sheer amount of fear of intimacy, clash of expectations between spouses and sexual tension that is all too familiar to many Muslim newlyweds is contributing to years, if not a lifetime of marital discord and unhealthy relationships in our community. Moreover, the lack of culturally-appropriate sex education for our youth is leading to much confusion, risky sexual experimentation, and unhealthy attitudes toward sex.

May 062014

by Krystina Friedlander

originally published in islamicmonthly.com

Let’s Talk about Sex(ED)

Item #66 on a list of ways that mosques could better connect with Muslim youth: Sex Education. The list was generated by UnMosqued, a documentary film project that examines decreasing mosque attendance among young American Muslims and highlights ways that mosques fail to meet youth needs. It is no no surprise that Muslims have questions about health and sexuality and that they’re not getting answers from older Muslims in the mosque (or at home, or anywhere in between).

Whether or not they receive “Sex Ed” or reproductive health education classes at school—that is, if their parents allow them to attend—Muslim youth are bombarded with confusing messages about sexuality. Quite simply, pre-marital sex is the norm in American society, where seven out of ten teens will have sex by age 19. 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 in pornography. Instead, we can create safe, culturally sensitive spaces for young Muslims to ask questions and get information that is consistent with Islamic beliefs.

In her study of sexuality education among young Australian Muslims, Fida Sanjakdar surveys common misconceptions about sexual health. These include confusion as to how, when, and where in the body pregnancy takes place, a lack of knowledge of basic Islamic regulations for how and when to perform ghusl or bodily cleansing (nearly half of girls surveyed were not aware that they needed to make ghusl following menstruation), a lack of awareness around sexual consent between partners, a belief that contraception is categorically forbidden in Islam, and that young people sometimes confuse all permissible sexual activity with zina or fornication, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and denial around their own thoughts. By staying silent, Muslim communities continue to perpetuate these and other myths. This is inconsistent with the Islamic tradition, which exhorts us not to be shy when it comes to seeking knowledge.

This may come as a surprise to some readers, but Islam is a sex-positive religion. Islam is a religion of foreplay, sex for pleasure’s sake, and mutually satisfying sexual relationships, a bounty which falls within the boundaries of marriage. Young people preparing for marriage will be better prepared by knowing more about not only sexuality and Islamic legal norms, but also communication and conflict resolution skills. Pre-marital counseling in the Orthodox Jewish community offers us an interesting model for what pre-marital education could look like.

Teens should have basic body literacy including age-appropriate information on how pregnancy occurs, and all men and women should have an understanding of their anatomy and health. We should know what a healthy menstrual cycle looks like, and what symptoms women should take to a care provider. We also need to understand and internalize menstruation as a normal process and not something to be ashamed of. Beyond that, we need better education on the Islamic understanding of menstruation and the practices that go along with it; I have yet to meet a Muslim woman—who isn’t a fiqh scholar herself—who feels completely comfortable in her knowledge of these issues.

And it doesn’t stop there. What about workshops for Muslim parents who want to better understand sexual health, so that they can be resources for their children? What role could “big brothers” and “big sisters” have in coaching teens on Islamic values regarding sexuality? What kinds of discussions can we have to separate out cultural beliefs from authentic Islamic principles when it comes to questions of sex and sexuality?

Some conversations need to be held in a safe and private setting, so it is critical that religious and community leaders receive appropriate training in order to address complicated concerns with sensitivity, compassion, and to make referrals when needed. If qualified counseling is not available, communities need to invest in developing these resources such that individuals don’t ever have to struggle alone, feel unsafe, or feel so conflicted that they find no place for themselves in Islam.

We must also cultivate communities that welcome young Muslims who inevitably engage with questions around sexuality.  This includes acknowledging the reality that some Muslims do engage in pre-marital sexual activity. As valued members of our shared community, we want to ensure that—whether married or single—we have the good sense to protect our health and avoid unwanted pregnancies. The Centers for Disease Control reports that of the 50% of high school students who have had intercourse, 30% claim not to have used a condom the last time they had sex.

When looking at our communities, we must consider how Muslims struggling with issues around sexual health and identity are received in the mosque, and make changes to ensure that our shared spaces sustain—not condemn—those who need support. Instead of denying that sexuality is a normal part of our development as human beings, we can accept it as normal. In doing so, we will learn to create safe spaces for young men and women where they can reach out for advice, learn about their health, prepare for loving and rewarding marriages, and ultimately gain greater knowledge of their faith.

Krystina Friedlander is a professional childbirth doula and works at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also serves on the Health Committee at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. She regularly blogs at http://barakabirth.com/

Mar 252014

by Nadiah Mohajir

As we’ve collected stories for the past four years, we have met countless women who struggled with some aspect of their sexuality. We met Farah*, a young woman who had been married a couple of years, struggling to consummate her marriage due to a treatable condition called vaginismus, but too embarrassed to seek help for it. We met Asiya, a newlywed and newly pregnant, who did not receive any contraception counseling before she got married, and did not express her wishes to delay pregnancy to her husband due to shame. We met Sumbul, a young woman in high school, struggling to find a way to leave her unhealthy and abusive relationship, unable to out of fear of exposing her own religious transgressions of being in a premarital relationship. We met Suzan, a young adolescent paralyzed by a recent forced intimate encounter by a man who she once saw as her loving uncle. We met Tania, who is a closeted lesbian, afraid to come out and become an outcast in her Muslim community. And we met Layla, a single woman in her thirties, depressed and frustrated with the reality that her faith does not permit sex outside of marriage, yet facing the reality that she just engaged in intimate activity with three different men without protection. For each of these stories we heard, we met numerous women who could relate to and attest to having similar experiences, and numerous others who had their own unique stories. And so, we gathered many themes:

  • These stories belong to a diverse group of women – some of these women were not educated at all, while others had graduate degrees. In other words, level of education did not impact the likelihood of a woman struggling with her sexuality, nor was it an indication of how much (accurate) sexual health knowledge she had.
  • These womens’ backgrounds ranged from conservative, sheltered upbringings to traditional immigrant families to some of the most open, progressive and liberal upbringings.  As such, we ask, how ingrained are the Muslim community’s attitudes and beliefs toward sexuality that even those from the most open and honest families are struggling with some aspect of their sexuality?
  • When asked why these women did not reach out for help as they struggled with these experiences, ALL of them had the same response: that they did not know who to reach out to, and they did not have a safe space in which they could share their struggles without being judged, reprimanded, blamed, or shamed. 

A few posts ago, I explored the following question: have we confused sexuality with sexualization? The post explored the need to make an important distinction. Using Dr. Leonard Sax’s thesis, I explored how sexuality is about an individual’s identity, while sexualization is about being an object of display for others.

While this is an extremely crucial distinction to make, HEART’s work in the Muslim community has brought to the surface a common mistake that communities make: that in our efforts to push back on the sexualization of women and girls, we have created the notion that women and girls are asexual beings. In other words, our response to the hypersexualized society we live in has been to close the door on any conversation regarding sexuality and to discourage our women and girls to feel sexual desire, eventually inhibiting the development of a healthy attitude toward their sexuality.

The aforementioned stories paint a grave picture of the dangers of not instilling a healthy sexuality in our young people, and why we must begin creating programs that do so. These are attitudes and skills they will carry with them throughout their adulthood, and informs many of the decisions they make regarding their sexual and reproductive health. As such, it is crucial that we begin talking about sexuality so that they understand it is a healthy part of them, but not the only part of them, and definitely not what defines them. Additionally, it is no longer satisfying or effective to tell Muslim youth not to have sex and just end the discussion there. Offering context, allowing them to critically think through why the faith upholds those values, and emphasizing that sexuality is both normal and healthy, but that Islam has prescribed guidelines around when it is permissible to express it offers a more effective strategy. Finally, instilling healthy sexuality in young people gives them the necessary skills to be able to identify a healthy sexual relationship from an unhealthy sexual relationship. While there is no data specific to the Muslim community about the frequency of sexual violence, anecdotal evidence reveals that it is a significant problem that continues to remain unaddressed.

So how do we start instilling a healthy sexuality in our young men and women? Here are a few tips:

  1. Teach them the difference between shame and modesty. As I explain in an earlier post,  “there is a difference – and a pretty huge one – between shame and modesty. Islamic tradition and teachings encourage individuals to be modest with respect to their bodies and their sexuality. Muslims are encouraged to keep their sexual encounters private and between the spouses. That being said, Muslims are not, however, expected to feel shame or embarrassed about their bodies or sexual desire, provided that they commit to exercising those desires within the confines of a marital relationship. The unfortunate reality is that the Muslim community has repeatedly fused the words modesty and shame into one. It has been deemed immodest and shameful to speak about sex, let alone express sexual desire.” For more on this, please read here.
  2. Start having open and honest conversations from a young age. The earlier you begin having these conversations, the easier and more natural these conversations will feel and the more comfortable they will feel asking questions or sharing concerns with you. Many professionals recommend having age-appropriate conversations about anatomy, safe and unsafe touch, as early as the age of two.  
  3. Teach them about what the religious texts say about sex and intimacy. Because of the general discomfort around these topics in the community, young people often are surprised to learn that these topics are addressed quite openly and in much detail in Islam’s religious texts – the Quran, hadith, and scholarly works such as those by Imam al-Ghazali. It is very empowering to know that the religious texts have addressed these very issues and allow for a greater appreciation of the faith’s approach to these topics. Explore questions together such as: what does it mean that sex is sacred and an act of worship?
  4. Create a safe space so your children can come to you with sexual health questions, concerns, or even a problem without the fear of being judged or punished. The reality is that our children will find themselves in situations where they will have to make decisions about their sexual health. They may even make a decision (or two or three!) that are not in line with the Islamic values you uphold. Not being approachable to them, however, should they experience an issue or concern, further alienates them from your family, the faith, and most importantly, puts them at risk for continued poor decision-making – exposing them to unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, dating violence, and the like. Too many of our youth have expressed the fear of being disowned if they reach out to their parents for help with an issue that involves them violating some of the tenets of their faith or family values. For more detail on how to establish this safe space, please check out our toolkit on starting these conversations with youth here
  5. Teach them to challenge gender stereotypes. The gender roles that are continuously reinforced by society and media messaging have a big impact on how men and women interact in a sexual relationship. If women are raised with the notion that certain behaviors are unladylike or if men are raised to believe that men should be aggressive and strong and that women should not express sexual desire, we are feeding into some serious gender stereotyping. Challenge them to think critically of their female and male role models and how they are portrayed in film and media. Try to demonstrate how these gender roles are reinforced, and what longterm impact that has on promoting violence against women, the objectification of women, and unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sexuality.
  6. Teach your children how to navigate the internet and other sources for health information. There is a ton of misinformation, as well as pornography, out there which can contribute greatly to both myths around sexual and reproductive health as well as developing unhealthy attitudes and expectations toward sex and sexuality. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of 7th-12th graders say they have looked up health information online in order to learn more about an issue affecting themselves or someone they know. More importantly, the websites they are turning to often have inaccurate information. A recent study examined 177 sexual health web sites and found that 46% of of those addressing contraception and 35% of those addressing abortion contained inaccurate information.
  7. Similarly, teach them everything they need to know to be safe should they be in a situation where they need to make a decision about their sexual health (and they will be!). Teach them about contraception and pregnancy. Teach them about sexually transmitted diseases. Talk to them about about sexual identity.  And most importantly, teach them how to identify and address acts of sexual violence committed towards them or their peers. Having these conversations and offering this vital information will not increase their likelihood to engage in sexual activity. In fact, research shows the exact opposite: there is no evidence that providing this information leads to increased rates of sexual activity; instead, providing this information allows young people to have the tools and skills to delay sex and make more responsible decisions.
  8. Teach your children to be a resource of this information for others. Even if you make a commitment to having these conversations with your children, other parents may not be doing the same thing. Equipping your children with accurate information and teaching them to be resourceful can be a great skill when they are supporting a friend through some difficult situations.
  9. Teach them the distinction between sexuality and sexualization. For more on this, see my earlier post here.
  10. Say no to porn and other media that objectifies the woman and creates unhealthy sexual expectations. Numerous studies have shown the negative impact that prolonged exposure to pornography has. What’s more shocking are the statistics about exposure to pornography. 93% of boys and 62% of girls have been exposed to internet porn before the age of 18. Put another way, only 3% of boys and only 17% of girls have never seen internet pornography. A good percentage of pornography includes sex acts involving bondage, sexual violence, rape, and bestiality.  Exposure to pornography, long term, and during such an important developmental stage has extremely serious implications for forming unhealthy attitudes and expectations toward sexuality. For example, studies have shown that early exposure to pornography is related to greater involvement in deviant sexual practice, such as rape. Additionally, pornography has been shown to re-wire the male brain to be aroused by making real sex and the real world boring in comparison. The effects of pornography on our youth can be discussed in great detail, and we do hope to, in upcoming posts.

These are just a few tips on how to begin nurturing a healthy sexuality in our youth in a way that acknowledges the challenges of growing up in a hypersexualized society and honoring the faith’s traditions and values of modesty and sanctity. What have you done to help promote a healthy sexuality in the youth in your life? We’d love to hear from you!

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Mar 172014

By Sameera Qureshi

“Because girls are dirty”, was one response a grade five girl gave to my question.

We were talking about menstruation and praying, and that Muslim females are excused from performing the five daily prayers and fasting when they are menstruating. But hearing a young girl call herself “dirty” was heartbreaking. Even more heartbreaking was the fact that this young girl most likely formed this attitude because of messaging she received from her family and cultural context.

I took this opportunity to speak with the entire class and challenge the idea that girls are dirty when they menstruate. The Quran uses the term “impure” and I had to explain what that meant. So I took the positive approach. I told the girls that God did not give periods to women to then treat them as dirty. Rather, when they menstruate, it may be a tough time physically if they have pain or are not feeling like themselves.  Despite the fact that they cannot perform their prayers, I reminded them that they can still be mindful of God while they are menstruating. A girl’s period is a powerful sign that she will someday in the future be able to bring life into this world…what’s so dirty about that?

Another of my students showed me that her mother had slipped something into her backpack and she didn’t know what it was or how to use it. She pulled out the pad her mother had placed in her backpack, and I was surprised that her mom had not taken the steps to educate her daughter and instead just put it in her backpack. When I explained to her that it was for when she would get her period, she seemed confused. It seemed too abstract when we spoke about hormones from the brain and puberty and the myriad of changes she would soon experience. So I sat down with her and drew it out…yes, I drew what a period was and what happened, and she understood it! Especially when I whipped her pad out and showed her how to place it on her underwear, her face lit up because she now had nothing to worry out when she first saw a red spot on her underwear in the future.

And thus began my journey educating Muslim youth about their reproductive health. It will be three years this September that I came across a colleague, Val Barr, from the Calgary Sexual Health Center and  we started talking about the lack of sexual health education in schools with Muslim students. The schools didn’t even cover curriculum material that was mandated by the province for health class. The boys and girls were not learning about their sexual and reproductive health, and it was obvious from the incidences arising that parents weren’t filling that void either. And so, we decided that it was time to seek out an Islamic-friendly curriculum for these schools.

Except there was one problem – there wasn’t such a curriculum publicly available anywhere. We contacted other Islamic schools in the area, researched online and spoke to staff and the Islamic school in our city. Nothing had been formalized and the staff each did their “own thing” with students, mostly basing the information they provided on questions that the students had. This did not prove to be effective as it could be since classes didn’t receive consistent information and there were a lot of important topics such as self-esteem, identity, values, and media critiquing skills being left out.

It took about a year and many meetings with the Islamic school staff to re-work the provincial curriculum into something that had an Islamic framework. The result was a five-lesson curriculum based on physical, spiritual, and social/emotional changes, and we called it the “Gender Education Curriculum.” This initial curriculum focused heavily on educating girls about the physical changes, since we realized that the vast majority had not received this information before. And so in the spring of 2013, we ran this version of the curriculum across all grades and developed a version for the boys, which was implemented by the male (Muslim) physical education teacher. The feedback from students was great and we were surprised at the 75% consented enrollment rate across all grades. While there were a few parents who were concerned about which topics we would cover and not cover, the majority were very supportive and we were incredibly transparent about what the students were learning.

Not surprisingly, I have spent much of my time debunking myths during these sexual health education sessions with Muslim girls. What’s even more challenging is the amount of time it takes for girls to shift their thinking. I find it quite interesting that while most mothers admit to spending only a few minutes to talk to their daughters about menstruation and how to use a pad, should a girl be so lucky, the strength it takes to break these myths makes me wonder how many times they’ve been exposed to this misinformation. Among the myths I have heard are the following:

  • Hygiene-related: taking a bath/shower when menstruating will slow down the flow and therefore lengthen the overall menstrual cycle for the month
  • Religious-themed: girls should pretend to fast and pray so that the males in their house aren’t aware they are menstruating
  • Relationship-related: It is improper for a Muslim girl to feel attracted to a boy
  • Virginity-related: tampons are haram – impermissible – because using them makes one lose her virginity.

Even upon explaining to girls how these myths are false and have been circulating for many generations prior to theirs, it takes a while for them to come to terms with the fact that what they’ve been learning from their families and cultural context is inaccurate. The work around myth busting will always continue. I have found it useful to refer to religious texts to overcome these cultural myths, but that’s a whole other blog entry in itself.

The more I work with grade five students especially, who are learning about their “private parts” for the first time, the more I am validated in my belief that this information is long overdue. The girls already have so much shame and embarrassment around their reproductive system, and I suspect this shame would not be quite as strong if girls were learning about ALL of their body parts from a much younger age. Children should be learning this important information as early as the age of two, which is what many professionals recommend, especially for child sexual abuse education. Some girls can be quite vulgar and crude when they talk about their bodies, which may deter parents from letting their girls begin learning this information so early. Girls need to be matter of fact about their sexual health, the same way they are when they get a cold or a nosebleed: there’s a process on how to seek support if needed, but there’s also a simple process that will help girls understand what’s going on with their bodies, why, and what they need to do.

And so, for those of you reading this entry, what can you do? The first step, whether you do or do not have children, is to assess your comfort level and knowledge of your own bodies and to seek out information you’re missing:

  • Do you know the scientific anatomical names for our external and internal reproductive system structures? And their functions?
  • Do you know the stages of the menstrual cycle?
  • Do you know why some women get cramps while others don’t, and where those cramps originate from?
  • Do you know how to determine when a woman is ovulating?
  • Do you know why and how to track a menstrual cycle?
  • Do you know healthy and unhealthy signs of menstrual cycles?
  • Do you know how to identify common medical conditions such as urinary tract infection and yeast infections?
  • Do you know the importance of women seeing a gynecologist, regardless of whether they are sexually active or not?

For myself, it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I understood what the menstrual cycle was, in all its amazing intricate details and stages! We can’t expect to teach our children about something that we are not comfortable with. I strongly recommend the resource Menstrupedia and a book by the Boston Women’s Collective called Our Bodies, Ourselves. Both are reliable and evidence-based, and written from a sensitive and easy to understand approach.

While there may be initial discomfort in learning about our reproductive systems, the more you learn, the more this feeling will subside. With the girls I teach, I remind them over and over again that God created them in His perfect image, and menstruation is something to feel empowered about, not stifled by. The more we learn and talk openly about a natural and powerful process that women have gone through well before our own time, the more we will break down the walls of shame and embarrassment around ourselves and other girls and women in our lives.

And if you’re wondering how to talk with your children (boys and girls) about puberty from an Islamic perspective…stay tuned for this discussion in my next blog post.

Sameera Qureshi, MScOT (c) is an Occupational Therapist and currently manages a mental health promotion project that is school and community based, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Her work over the past six years has been primarily with Muslim populated schools and their families. Since 2011, Sameera has been working to implement Islam-oriented sexual health education programs both within these schools and the greater Muslim community. Her work includes developing the curriculum for both genders and teaching the curriculum to girls in grades 5-9, running parent sessions, collaborating with multiple Calgary agencies around sexual health, and making her work available to interested community member and professionals. She also maintains a blog called Muslim Sistah and can be found on Twitter @muslimsistah 

Mar 122014

by Nadiah Mohajir

Is there a difference between sexuality and sexualization? How can we determine if our young girls want to dress sexually because they feel empowered, or because they feel pressured to fit in?  The age at which girls are expected to dress sexually has become younger and younger, and if we don’t teach young girls to push back on those pressures, we will not be preparing them for when they will need to make decisions regarding their sexual behaviors.

The recent uproar and controversy surrounding the Made in Bangladesh American Apparel ad featuring a topless Bengali woman illustrates that many, including the model herself, can no longer distinguish when an expression of sexuality is healthy, and when that expression is actually an object of sexualization. Tanzila Ahmed writes a thought provoking letter to Maks, the model featured in this ad, exploring the balance between being expressive and “exotified and commodified.” She continues to explore this, writing

“You think you chose to be creative —  but in actuality you were plucked by your employer to sell an object. I believe the object you are selling is high-waisted pants, but it’s unclear from the photo. They are rolled down so suggestively. What American Apparel is selling is sex, and in this case, by having “Made in Bangladesh” across your bare breasts, you are selling fetishized sex. One where the brown woman is objectified.”

So how do we distinguish when a young person is displaying a healthy expression of their sexuality versus being an object of sexualization? Dr. Leonard Sax explains offers one distinction in his book, Girls on the Edge:

“Girls today are bombarded with the notion that revealing your body is a valid means of self-expression, even a manifestation of ‘girl power.’ As parents, we must reject the notion that girls have to reveal their bodies in order to empower themselves. Boys don’t have to take of their clothes to empower themselves. Girls shouldn’t either.

Sexuality is good, but sexualization is bad. Sexuality is about your identity as a woman or a man, about feeling sexual. Thats a healthy part of being human, a healthy part of becoming an adult. But sexualization is about being an object for the pleasure of others, about being on display for others. Sexuality is about who you are. Sexualization is about how you look.”

He continues to explain that younger girls are being pressured to dress sexually, and often times, before they even are aware of their own sexuality. So, in other words, they are socialized into thinking that dressing that way is the norm, and to dress that way is pleasing to others, and an empowering and healthy way to express one’s sexuality. This desensitization leads to a “no big deal” type attitude toward anything sexual, ultimately desensitizing girls, and making them more accepting of partaking in sexual activity to gain boys’ pleasure and popularity, not because they feel empowered. The pressures to dress a certain way are very strong and embedded in subtle and not so subtle messaging in music, videos, and advertising. Even a simple stroll through the girls’ clothing section in any department store is enough to see our young girls are expected to dress sexually well before they are even aware of their sexual desire. So what can we do to help our girls feel better about themselves and not feel inadequate when they do not give in to the pressures of dressing sexually? Here are a few tips.

  1. Talk openly and frequently with your daughter about her thoughts on the matter. As your daughter gets older, she will become more aware of the pressures around her. She will begin to notice her friends may be dressing more provocatively, and may also feel frustrated at the perceived instant popularity some young girls are awarded, and may correlate it to the way they dress. Ask your daughter to share with you why this frustrates her, and ask her to think about what she may think are healthy ways of self-expression. What motivation do young girls have to dress sexually? What are the benefits and disadvantages? Also ask her to think about the messaging she is getting from female celebrities and the media. What standards of beauty are female celebrities setting? What gender stereotypes are they reinforcing? What makes a woman empowered? What qualities define a musician or actress’s talent?
  2. Begin helping your daughter build her sense of self well before the teenage years. The teenage years are by far the most confusing, and overwhelming, with the sudden physical, emotional, and social changes adolescents are forced to go through at once. It is very easy for young people to feel pressured to compromise on their values, or more importantly, begin questioning the values they have been taught throughout their childhood. Suddenly, what the popular girl in school is advocating seems to make more sense than the “archaic” values that parents have been advocating. Furthermore, it is very easy for a young girl to become obsessed with an ideal, and attaching her self-worth to it – whether that obsession is being thin, being fashionable, playing sports, pursuing a particular hobby, or excelling in school If a young girl’s preoccupation with a specific ideal leads to an obsession, she is risking losing her self-worth if that ideal disappears.  A strong sense of self, one that is based on values and character, and her spiritual relationship with God, rather than external capabilities or interests, protects her from losing her self-worth. So for example, a young girl who defines herself as the “smart girl” may become paralyzed if she is ever faced with a challenge that she finds difficult, one that she may not succeed at and lose her “smart girl” status. Developing a strong sense of self will also help young girls to fight off the pressures to dress a certain way to please others, as they won’t feel as strong a pressure to define themselves by how they look, but rather by the values they stand for. In addition, it will help them push back on even stronger pressures, such as participating in risky sexual activity or other risky behaviors.
  3. Exemplify the confidence you want them to embody. A young girl looks up to the older females in her life to set the tone. If the important women in her life do not exude confidence about how they look, dress and feel, they are likely to not view that kind of appearance as beautiful or appealing. Even if you find yourself being critical of how you look, try not to allow her to catch on to your lack of confidence (and try to work on raising that confidence!).
  4. Nurture your daughter’s healthy self-expressions and creativity. We all have preconceived notions of what matches, what looks good together, and how one should dress in certain occasions. The beauty of children is that they do not enter the world with these preconceived notions or expectations. Allowing them to explore their creativity and self-expression early on will foster confidence as they make decisions when they get older. Expecting them to adhere to certain fashion norms (such as no gym shoes with party dresses, etc) will only make it harder for them to push back on the more unhealthy fashion norms as they get older, like wearing makeup and dressing sexually at a young age.
  5. Help them develop a healthy body image. Teaching your daughter early on the difference between sexuality, which is about who you are as a person, and sexualization, which is objectification for the pleasure of others, will help her identify her motivations for how to express herself through dress. Teach her to think critically about the contradictory messages she gets from the media, about what society expects of women and the methods through which women are objectified. When a young girl has a positive body image, and loves her body for what it is, she is less likely to want to objectify it for others’ pleasure, but rather more likely to cherish it and give it its due respect. Her empowerment will not come from what she chooses to wear or not to wear, but rather from somewhere deeper within her self.
  6. Similarly, teach her to be media literate. Challenge her to think critically about the ads and the messaging she is seeing. Is that ad really selling cologne? Or is it selling sexuality and beauty? What techniques are advertisers using to sell their product? What feelings of inadequacy are they trying to appeal to? Teaching young people to critically think about and challenge the media’s messaging and imaging enables them to be more aware of when women are being objectified and to not fall prey to the advertising techniques.
  7. Have similar conversations with your sons. We would be missing an important part of the equation if we don’t have similar conversations with our sons. If we don’t start also challenging the norms our young boys are socialized to, we’re not making progress toward changing the discourse, we’re only creating a greater rift between the genders. It’s essential to teach our young men to challenge the messages they get, and to learn early on about how to respect women, instead of sexualizing and objectifying them, and how to honor sexuality in a healthy and respectful way.

These are just a few tips as we think about pushing back on the sexualization of girls, and objectification of women. It is crucial as to help our young girls develop a strong sense of self and positive body image, as it goes hand in hand with healthy sexuality and responsible decision making.

Mar 112014

Trigger warning for sexual abuse

I am so excited to see so much groundbreaking work coming out of India. This video made by Childline, a hotline for kids in distress in India, is a short, animated film teaching kids how to identify incidences of sexual violence, and how to reach out for help. It does a great job of developing the two main characters, a sweet young playful girl named Komal, and her family friend, a loving and playful friend of her father’s. He buys her gifts, teaches her to keep secrets, and generally behaves in a very loving and caring manner toward her. Until the one day he assaults her, leaving her to feel ashamed and confused. She reaches out to her mother and father, who decides to call Childline. The video then shows a counselor coming in to comfort Komal, and teach her and her classmates about how to identify and address child abuse. I particularly found this video to be especially great because:

  • it is respectful. There is modesty associated around the body parts in the South Asian world. It is considered disrespectful to openly use the names of male and female anatomy. In some communities, simply using the term can be enough to shut the individual out, making the lesson no longer effective. The video takes this into account, and still teaches about the four “no-touch zones” while honoring that cultural practice. The video uses diagrams and other animated images to specifically demonstrate where those private areas out, while still respecting the practice of not using those terms.
  • it offers clear and easy tips for anyone to be a resource. The second half of the video teaches what children can do to identify these situations, what they can do to help each other, and who are “safe” and “trustworthy” adults.
  • it clearly pushes back against victim blaming and shaming, which is rampant in South Asian societies. A big barrier to publicly address incidents of sexual violence in India and other South Asian societies is that often, the survivor is further victimized and blamed for the situation, rather than holding the aggressor accountable. This short film pushes back on the notion that it is the fault of the victim, and instead shows the aggressor being held responsible for his actions. It allows victims the space to come forward without feeling the stress of being blamed or judged.
  • it offers parents and teachers a way to facilitate a difficult conversation. Because of the taboo and embarrassment around these topics, in particular sexual abuse, it remains unaddressed, leaving many children unequipped to identify when they are in such situations. This video provides an excellent opportunity for parents and teachers to begin this much needed conversation.

Watch this video – also available in several Indian dialects, here, and let us know what you think!

Feb 192014

by Nadiah Mohajir

As the Muslim community begins to see a growing number of single men and women, several issues need to be addressed. What can we do as a community, as well as institutionally, to support this growing group of individuals, particularly with respect to their reproductive health and mental health needs? Have we created a space for them in our communities where they can feel safe, free of judgement, to honestly share the struggles of being unmarried and navigating two extremely distinct, often contradictory worlds: the hypersexualized culture that is impossible to avoid, that bombards young people as early as toddler age, and the religious community that expects unmarried individuals, especially women, to remain chaste and unaffected by the pressures around them, and their natural desires, with the intention of honoring a religious tradition that reveres chastity and does not permit sexual relationships outside of marriage. Have we created a space for this growing group of individuals that does not attach their self-worth to their marital status and ability to bear children?

Author Zahra Noorbakhsh tells her story about losing her virginity before marriage in Love, Inshallah and explores these contradictory worlds. By Iranian standards, she explained, speaking of virginity so publicly is shameful and embarrassing. By islamic standards, she imagined the response to be very unforgiving, referring to herself as a “whore.” By American standards, she finally explains, a typical response would try to find reasons to explain why she lost her virginity so “late.” She explains how she spent all of her adolescence and early twenties fearful of sex, only to realize that she did not want to save her virginity for marriage. “I hadn’t yet been in love,” she explained. “But didn’t want to be in a relationship defined by the status of my “hole.”

A similar theme emerged in a conversation I recently had with a friend – who describes herself as a 35-year-old virgin – she asked the question of whether our community is sanctifying sex to an unhealthy degree. She discussed this in regard of her own struggles of remaining abstinent, and how she is beginning to view preserving her virginity as a burden, having much power over her, almost defining her worth, loaded with much shame and embarrassment if she ever pursued a sexual relationship while remaining single. When I asked her why she chose to remain abstinent, her answer was multi-layered: she identified as a Muslim and wanted to honor God’s command to remain abstinent until married. Furthermore, she admitted she was afraid of her mother; that somehow, her mother would know if she had sex and that was enough to keep her from doing it.

Haroon Moghul poignantly reflects on the pressures men face in his essay in Salaam, Love, stating that “my religion says a man should not be alone with a woman. But somebody should have told me a man should not feel so alone that being with a woman is the only way he can feel life is worth living.” This summed up an underlying theme in many of the stories in this anthology: that it is hard to be unmarried, and Muslim, ESPECIALLY if one is trying to honor the guidelines of the Islamic faith. A number of the men in the stories of Salaam, Love mention turning to masturbation, and more disturbingly, pornography, as the alternative to committing fornication or having sex outside of marriage.

Being immersed in such a hypersexualized society, while simultaneously delaying the age of marriage is an emerging public health that we need to think about addressing as a community. While we obviously cannot change Islamic legal rulings regarding the impermissibility of premarital sex, which is sound and wise for its own reasons, we have to consider how we will support this growing group of Muslims – because turning to porn and other coping mechanisms may seem in the short term, a better option than zina (fornication), but in the long term, is contributing to many serious issues threatening the health of the Muslim community’s marriages.

The first step to starting this dialogue is reclaiming the terms shame and modesty. In my understanding, there is a difference – and a pretty huge one – between shame and modesty. Islamic tradition and teachings encourage individuals to be modest with respect to their bodies and their sexuality. Muslims are encouraged to keep their sexual encounters private and between the spouses. That being said, Muslims are not, however, expected to feel shame or embarrassed about their bodies or sexual desire, provided that they commit to exercising those desires within the confines of a marital relationship. The unfortunate reality is that the Muslim community has repeatedly fused the words modesty and shame into one. It has been deemed immodest and shameful to speak about sex, let alone express sexual desire. We have associated shame with sex – which in some ways may in fact have a “protective” factor for unmarried individuals. In other words, individuals, especially women, may be hesitant to engage in premarital sex because it is deemed to be shameful. However, HEART’s work in the community has indicated that that often times, women carry these feelings of shame with them into their marriages – despite the fact that Islam permits sexual intimacy between the spouses. As such, this is both not surprising and extremely fascinating in terms of what we need to think about changing the discourse. Currently, we live in a society that has socialized women to feel shameful to have sex – whether they are single or married. Even if that “shame” may work in the favor of protecting single women from engaging in premarital sex, it is problematic that that same sentiment/attitude is carried with them into their married lives. And so I ask again: does the Muslim community sanctify sexuality to an unhealthy degree? If so, how do we change the discourse? It is time to take back the discourse and engage in abstinence because of a motivation besides just shame. How do we facilitate that conversation to begin to encourage abstinence without attaching a lens colored with shame to it?

Another step may be to change the discourse around sexuality and virginity. Laci Green, a young, and some would say controversial, sex educator challenges the current language around virginity. She argues that phrases such as “she lost her virginity,” and “he took her virginity” are disempowering and reinforce gender roles, where the man is the aggressor who has something to gain while the female is passive.  Rather, she suggests that young women and men adopt more positive language around sexuality, such as making one’s “sexual debut” when referring to the first time they have sex, arguing that it makes for more empowered decision-making.

While Laci Green’s sex education techniques may not be exactly appropriate or culturally-sensitive to the Muslim community, she raises an important point that may be worth exploring. Is making a radical change such as the one suggested above a step to empowering young women with respect to their sexuality – even if, or rather, ESPECIALLY IF, they choose to abstain? Will it lend to healthier sexual attitudes before and during marriage? Will it take back the overwhelming power associated with virginity and make women feel content with their decisions regarding sexuality – particularly if they choose to abstain?

Finally, it’s important to see what other faith and cultural communities have done to address these issues. There are a number of religious communities that value abstinence until marriage. What have they done to engage the discourse around abstinence? Are there feelings of shame associated with sexuality in those communities?

Feb 112014

by Nadiah Mohajir

I recently came across Menstrupedia.com, a virtual resource developed by some individuals in India who wanted to create a guide for women and girls on staying healthy during their periods. The website offers information through different media, and aims to dispel many of the myths and misinformation that have been prevalent in India for hundreds of years, such as the common misunderstanding that women should not bathe or leave the home during their periods and that they should keep their periods a secret from men.

Sites like Menstrupedia.com are pioneering in their effort to shatter the stigma and shame around an issue that should be seen as a natural part of life. Their approach should be used as a model as we as a community start thinking about how to present these topics in a way that is both medically accurate as well as respectful of our faith’s tradition of modesty. Here are some  ways the founder of this resource has brilliantly managed to do both:

  • The site uses accurate, medical information from reputable sources, along with animated non-offensive graphics and cartoon people as visuals to explain the menstrual process, hygiene and care, and puberty.
  • The site uses a FAQ system to dispel common myths prevalent in India.
  • The site has a blog that uses storytelling, factual articles, short video clips and poetry using imagery, references, and media that are relevant to India to raise awareness about topics concerning menstruation.

This is a great website for mothers and daughters to look through together to start a dialogue about menstruation and puberty. The hush-hush nature and embarrassment that is associated with menstruation in the Muslim, particularly the South Asian, communities creates many unhealthy attitudes towards menstruation, perpetuates misinformation and myths, and serves as an obstacle for many young girls to learn about their bodies and be comfortable with them. Through HEART’s fieldwork, we have met numerous young Muslim girls and even adult women, as well as males, who did not demonstrate having adequate knowledge about menstruation. We met:

  • a fifth grader who missed three weeks of school, feigning illness because she thought she was dying when she started her period, not knowing what it was, too afraid to ask her mother or another adult.
  • adolescent girls who were not permitted to attend sex education classes, and therefore did not understand the biology of menstruation.
  • adolescent girls and adult women who did not know the fiqh of menstruation and ghusl (the Islamic process of ritual purity after menstruation is over).
  • adolescent girls and adult women  who did not know how to use a tampon.
  • adult women – both married and unmarried – who did not know their basic anatomy.
  • women and girls who carried with them many myths surrounding menstruation and other reproductive health topics, such as you can’t swim when you have your period, and you are not a virgin if you wear a tampon.
  • boys and men who had limited accurate knowledge about the biology and anatomy of menstruation, as well as many many myths surrounding menstruation.

The stories of the women (and men) above are just a few reasons we need to change the status quo and start having conversations with both males and females about menstruation and other reproductive health topics. We will not be able to facilitate systemic change or influence cultural attitudes toward menstruation if we do not actively engage in dialogue. The founders of Menstrupedia.com saw a timely opportunity and took steps to challenge the status quo. I was really pleased to see this effort and look forward to seeing many more like this.

Jan 312014
originally published on altmuslimah.com
by Nadiah Mohajir
Cultural stigmas have existed for thousands of years, yet never have I ever been more haunted by the unfortunate effect they have on mental and physical health outcomes. As a One Chicago, One Nation (OCON) Community Ambassador, I brought together a diverse group of young women and girls to talk about self-esteem, peer pressure, and its relationship with making healthy, responsible choices.
During the icebreaker, I asked the young women to shout out the first words that came to mind when they heard the term “teen pregnancy.” Responses included words like, “failure,” “no life goals,” “peer pressure,” and “money.” Then, I asked how their assumptions would change if I added the word “Muslim” in front of teen pregnancy. Not surprisingly, the conversation suddenly took an even more serious and grave tone, with the Muslim girls in the audience shouting words like, “family disownment,” “social suicide,” “actual suicide,” and even “abortion.” When asked to elaborate, one of the girls stated, “it’s hard to mess up even slightly in a Muslim household.”It is unfortunate that our young women in the Muslim community feel that it is “social suicide” for a Muslim girl to become pregnant out of wedlock, and that many even associate it with self-imposed death and abortion. What’s sad is that these feelings are actually a reality for a certain population of young women in New York City: a study in New York City following young Muslim women who are sexually active found that the abortion rate was 100% for those who became pregnant out of wedlock. The unfortunate reality is that these women would not be asked whether or not they wanted an abortion, but rather, which type of abortion they wanted.

Undoubtedly, these are social constructs our community has imposed on itself and that are further propagated by the fact that we do not have any institutionalized support systems for our young women. The assumptions on the white board during the ice breaker about teenage pregnancy are indicative of the fact that we have no systems to help our young women and that we must bring about institutional and cultural change in order to move in the right direction. The impact of the cultural stigma surrounding pregnancy out of wedlock in the Muslim community is astounding, and is leading to some very grave, but often preventable, circumstances. It’s probably most tragically telling that our young women feel that their only choice is abortion if they become pregnant out of wedlock. In this particular case, women are not making this decision because it is offered as a choice, but because they have no choice. So, in this respect, because of the way Muslim society has enforced and reinforced these stigmas for generations now, we cannot call ourselves a pro-choice or a pro-life community. How’s that for irony?

What’s going on in our community? Why do our women feel that there is no room for imperfection and there are no second chances for making the wrong (culturally or religiously unacceptable) choice? The Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) did not teach such intolerance; nor did he endorse continual denial of the problems that exist in society. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse are all realities for the Muslim community, and have been for decades. Rape and mental illness are tragic circumstances that the victim should not be blamed for. These problems don’t just go away by ignoring them or by ostracizing those individuals.

What’s more interesting is how we discuss the issue of teenage pregnancy. In a recent conversation with Sahar Ullah, co-founder of Hijabi Monologues and performer of “Light on My Face” on January 9, 2009, she explained that discussing teenage pregnancy as a “phenomenon” is much easier than personalizing the issue. In other words, on the surface, pregnancy out of wedlock is wrong and unacceptable and it is very easy for members of the Muslim community to point fingers as detached individuals from the situation. However, personalizing the story of a young woman and describing the complexity of the factors that may lead a young woman to partake in sexual activity, such as low self-esteem, the need to be loved and desired, and the pressure to not lose the man that she loves, make the story a lot easier to sympathize with and the issue a lot harder to ignore.

We must stand up and work together to come up with a solution, a way to address these issues. While some of these issues are sensitive, controversial, and many would be opposed to endorsing them, the issue is not whether or not we should (or shouldn’t) endorse them. Offering resources and support for these individuals does not equate to endorsing their decisions or lifestyle, as the community falsely believes. However, not offering them anything will further alienate them from society and push them to take extreme measures, as demonstrated by the cases described above. More importantly, prevention of these problems will not even be an option – how can we attempt to prevent problems we aren’t willing to admit even exist? We cannot wait for the problem to face our family members before wanting to make a change. Every young woman is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, or someone’s friend, and it is our collective duty to provide them with a safe space to have the option to live a healthy life and be able to receive communal support in their most difficult of times.

Changing attitudes and combating cultural stigmas that have existed for generations are not easy tasks, but we cannot keep letting our young women rely on abortion because the community finds it easier to ostracize those who become pregnant out of wedlock instead of providing them with healthy alternatives and coping strategies. We must welcome open discourse and education to raise awareness about these problems, and must work together as a society to develop long-term solutions. It is our responsibility to create a safe space for these individuals free of judgment and full of hope – whether it is through shelters, clinics, or community centers – and have a sustainable support system to give these individuals options to make healthy choices and help each other through these circumstances. Only then can we begin to think about reducing the incidence of problems such as teenage pregnancies, abortion, and sexually-transmitted diseases in our community. The power of education and open discourse cannot be overstated in its impact on changing attitudes; accepting that these issues exist in our communities is just the first stepping stone in the right direction.