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:

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

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

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.

Nov 162015

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. Earlier this week, a young Pakistani teen girl went into labor, delivered a baby in her bedroom, and then, fearful of her mother’s disapproval, dropped the baby out of her 8th floor window. Since I found out about this horrific situation, I have carried it with me. It is likely that the community will be quick to wag their finger at her, deem her irresponsible and even evil. They will be quick to wash their hands of responsibility for this girl’s decisions, and will use her as an example when talking about the evils of sex before marriage. Yet, I carry this woman’s story with me because I believe we have failed her. We have failed her as a community, as fellow Muslims, and fellow citizens, in creating sustainable programming, resources, services, and information that empower women with what they need to  make healthy and sound decisions.

First, the stigma and shame associated with sex outside of marriage, along with our double standards in not holding our boys to the same standards, is literally breaking the mental and physical health and well being of our young women. We don’t have to change the rules of the faith – sex outside of marriage is not endorsed in Islam, but like all faiths, Islam also values repentance and healing above all. We just have to reclaim the way we talk about sexual health decision-making in a way that is less judgmental and more empowering. I hear these sentiments every time I facilitate any workshop on self-esteem, peer pressure and sex with young people. For example, when I asked young women to shout out the first words that came to mind when they heard of “Muslim teen pregnancy” 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. Moreover, it’s problematic that our boys are not held to the same standard. After all, two people are involved in conceiving a baby – why does the burden of that entire decision fall overwhelmingly on the shoulders of the girl? 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 or the young Chicago woman’s story 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 associating strong feelings of dishonor with 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 or in this most recent case, dropping the baby out of the window, 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?

Second,  we have created a community where our young people feel it necessary to carry the burden of their decisions alone. As such, this young woman was forced to carry the burden of a teen pregnancy, with no support or resources to reach out to because of the paralyzing shame she felt. As explained in this post, shame is different than guilt. Guilt essentially means “I did something bad,” while shame means “I am bad.” Guilt is healthy, and helps one reflect, change behavior and move forward. Shame, on the other hand, is paralyzing and is a direct attack on one’s self-worth and encourages one to suffer alone. And so, she likely didn’t go to prenatal care appointments. She likely didn’t reach out to anyone with questions on her pregnancy or what to expect. She likely spent many of her days living in fear and feeling alone in her situation, when she didn’t have to be.

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? And why is the landscape so much more different for our young men? 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 realities don’t just go away by ignoring them or by ostracizing those individuals.

Third, our young people need to learn to define their self-worth by values, and not by the roles they are expected to play in life, because if they do, they will undoubtedly fail. This woman likely defined her self-worth by her mother’s (and community’s) approval. This is problematic because defining oneself by the role one is expected to play, or by a person’s approval is that those are often fleeting and temporary. Put simply, if one’s entire self worth is defined by their mother’s approval, then what happens when they don’t get that approval (which is a always a likely possibility)? It’s essential to teach young people to define their self worth by everlasting values, such as kindness, justice, loyalty, courage, honesty, etc, rather than by a role or relationship in their lives, as that will help them make better and more informed decisions in high pressure circumstances.

Finally, we need to  realize that simply having access to services or information is not enough. Often times, young people who suffer alone are close to medical and social resources. In fact, this woman lived a block from the hospital. She likely even had organizations such as Planned Parenthood near her. However, one’s ability to access services and information in a way that they feel safe and empowered is dependent on a number of factors, including the environment and messages they get at home. As such, it is crucial that we have open conversations about sex, relationships and decision-making with our kids now more than ever. It is likely this young woman is a function of not having these conversations at home on pregnancy, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and decision-making, even if she had access to sex education at school. If we do not have open conversations about sex, sexuality, relationships and decision-making in our families and homes, we are putting our children at risk for some serious consequences. They will have limited understanding of sex, values, and how it relates to their worldview, and be unequipped to make time sensitive situations regarding their bodies and sexuality – even if they choose to not have sex until they get married.

We have to work together to come up with a way to address these issues. One of these ways is making a commitment to open conversations about sex in a way that is accurate and culturally-sensitive. Speaking openly about sex to Muslim youth is not giving them permission to have sex or endorsing sex before marriage. In fact, research shows the opposite: that those who speak to their children about sex openly, are more likely to have children who delay having sex, and make more responsible decisions for when they do ultimately have sex. More importantly, prevention of problems such as teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and the like 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 it to become a reality for 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.

We can no longer afford to let our young women rely on abortion or making horrific decisions for their babies 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 infections 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.

Oct 272015

originally published on

by Nadiah Mohajir

When thinking about Islamic values around sex and sexuality, two that are often emphasized are modesty and privacy. We are encouraged in Islam to embody modesty – both with respect to external appearance as well as our thoughts, behavior and interactions with others – and we are encouraged to be private about our bodies and our sexuality. Intimacy and sex are seen as enjoyable, but sacred experiences between two people, most often in the context of marriage.

While modesty and privacy are excellent values to honor and uphold, historically, faith communities haven’t done a very good job. More often than not, in efforts to uphold privacy and modesty, communities actually instill shame and promote silence around these issues. Specifically, speaking openly about these issues – especially but not only if – you are not married, is deemed immodest and no longer private. Yet, associating these feelings of shame with sexual health is actually more damaging than beneficial -whether you are a young adolescent girl or boy navigating the many physical and emotional changes of puberty or an adult navigating relationships and sex.

The best example to demonstrate this distinction is to compare menstruation – a natural, monthly, bodily process that most women and girls experience after they reach puberty – to urination and defecation, a natural, daily, bodily process that ALL people experience. We have guidelines in using the bathroom – we close the door, we practice a certain level of privacy and modesty with respect to using the bathroom. For example, we don’t speak about using the bathroom graphically, or at the dinner table.

There is a stigma and shame associated with menstruation that is not comparable to the other bodily functions. Specifically in the Muslim community, this shame and stigma leads many young girls to hide the fact that they are menstruating from the men in their lives, sometimes even being encouraged (or expected) to “fake” pray and “fake” fast, despite being lawfully excused from observing those rituals. For example, a 12 year old who may have her period in Ramadan may be asked by her mother to continue waking up for the pre-dawn meal to eat and to pretend to join in morning prayer as to avoid her father and brothers from knowing she’s on her period.  Similarly, a young mother on her period may lie to her son about why she didn’t pray, rather than just being honest. The result of this approach is two-fold.  First, we are more likely to lie than just be straightforward by saying, “I’m excused from praying and fasting today,” out of fear that our male relatives will feel uncomfortable.  Second, we are teaching our daughters a sense of shame and our sons ignorance towards something that should be approached as a natural part of life for females.

Yet, this same shame does not exist with other bodily processes such as urination and defecation.  So why the shame with menstruation, which also, is just as natural a bodily process as having to use the bathroom?

Before we can talk about how to begin working toward eliminating shame and normalizing conversations on our bodies, reproductive processes, and sex, let’s first understand why using a shame-based approach to speak about puberty and sex is so problematic.

Shame is different than guilt. Guilt can be a healthy emotion, as it makes one feel bad about something they did, whereas shame is unhealthy: shame means you feel bad about who you are, that you are blameworthy for what is happening. The definition of shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” The very definition of shame involves being aware of “wrong or foolish” behavior, when in reality, puberty, menstruation, and sex are all natural, bodily processes and desires, and not something anyone should be blamed for experiencing.

Shame leads to silence, and not reaching out when you need help or have questions. Often times, when girls or women reach out to me about a reproductive health issue they have been struggling with for a while, I’ve asked them why they hesitated initially from reaching out to a trusted adult or professional for help. Their response, almost always, is that they felt ashamed to be struggling with the issue and therefore decided to keep it to themselves.

Shame makes you feel paralyzed and not move forward. Shame is the very emotion that impedes one from dealing with the issue at hand. For example, many survivors of sexual assault are paralyzed by the shame they feel and unable to seek help from professionals trained to serve them. A woman struggling to consummate her marriage due to a easily treatable condition called vaginismus may hesitate to seek professional help because of the shame she feels when talking about sex.

Shame leads to feeling unworthy, less than another. Those who experience shame typically embody lower self-esteem and are less confident, and feel that they are less worthy than others. Moreover, they are more likely to tie that self-worth to certain milestones, like being successful professionally or getting married.

So how can we begin eliminating shame from the discussion while still honoring our faith values of modesty and privacy?

1) Use correct anatomical terms when talking to children about their bodies. There are many who come from faith-based or cultural communities that do not have a tradition of using correct anatomical terms for private parts. Rather, families refer to the general area or use code words to refer to those body parts. This is problematic because it inherently instills shame: the message that children are getting is that it is immodest or shameful to use correct anatomical terms. Using correct terminology in conversation not only normalizes these terms, but also equips your child with the correct language and tools they may need to communicate with you or their doctor should they be experiencing a problem.

2) Commit to having ongoing conversations about puberty and sex with children. Using a developmental approach to talking about sex can be beneficial in building a foundation for an important life skill. When children attend school, they learn academic subjects like Math, Science, and English, and as they grow older, the concepts build off 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 the information and skills they need to fully process the big picture and figure out how they fit into it.

3) Create safe spaces and an open door policy. Children should feel safe to ask any question they may have about their bodies and sex, without being shamed or reprimanded for thinking about such things. If you create a loving, open and safe space for them early on, they will continue to come to you as they get older and begin  navigating more complicated and nuanced situations.

4) Validate and affirm what your child may be feeling. Simple statements such as “it is normal and not surprising that you have this question” or “you’re doing the responsible thing by speaking with someone, and know you are not alone. Most kids your age have similar questions” can seem like insignificant gestures on your part, but are incredibly important for a teen trying to make sense of the many social emotional and physical changes they are experiencing.

5) Encourage father-daughter and mother-son conversations. Historically, conversations about puberty and sex are gender segregated: mothers speak to their daughters, and fathers speak to their sons. While sex may be an uncomfortable topic for dads to broach with their daughters, or mothers to broach with their sons, it is crucial now more than ever for dads and moms to engage in candid, two-way conversations about sex with all their children as a way of modeling healthy communication about sensitive topics as well as encouraging safe, and healthy relationships. Perhaps a father may not feel comfortable starting a face-to-face conversation, but would be open to journal writing with his daughter, as a way to open up the lines of communication.

As the world continues to become increasingly hypersexualized, it is crucial that we work with our children to avoid mixed messaging so that we can ultimately instill positive attitudes toward reproductive and sexual health issues. Puberty and sex are natural, healthy aspects of everyone’s lives and historically, Islamic tradition has approached them as just that. Yet, our cultural expectations and mixed messaging have led to lacing these issues with much shame and stigma. It is time we reclaim our values for what they were always meant to be: tools of empowerment to facilitate healthy sexual lives and families.

Share with us: What have you found helpful in speaking to your kids about puberty and sex? How do you work to instill a healthy attitude toward sex and our bodies?

Oct 112015
Everyday Messages that Excuse Bad Behavior and Promote Rape Culture and What we Can do About it

by Nadiah Mohajir

In the last week, I have had two parents reach out to me about incidents at their childrens’ schools. Both were young girls not even yet in upper elementary school, at two different schools, yet both situations were eerily similar. In the case of one girl, the male classmate made a series of extremely graphic comments to her. The other girl had the unfortunate experience of her male classmate poking her repeatedly in her private parts.

Both of these girls are blessed with incredible proactive and concerned parents and teachers, who did all the right things by informing the right people and are looking into effective disciplinary action. In the case of both boys, their parents’ response was less than ideal. In one case, the mother wasn’t able to attend a meeting with school officials with the level of urgency she should have given the situation. In the case of the other, the parent’s justified their son’s behavior as “bratty behavior” and “he didn’t mean it THAT way”

The frequency with which these incidents are happening, and with such young children, has a number of considerations. First, our tendency in society is to take a “boys will be boys” attitude, which has normalized violence against women and girls. Second, how we (as parents, as administrators, etc) respond to such situations can inform future attitudes and behaviors. Finally, we must start and continue to have conversations with our children of all ages about sexual abuse, about consent, about boundaries. Both about how we should protect ourselves, but more importantly, about how we have a responsibility to respect other people’s boundaries.

The fact that this messaging is all around us, in the media, on the radio, and even on the clothing we buy our children makes it a much harder battle to fight. For example, among the many options for full sleeve graphic t-shirts for boys, was one with the age-old idiom “boys will be boys.” For me, this was a demonstration of how subtly interwoven gender stereotypes and rape culture is in our society: not only is this a commonly used phrase in every day language, but cute marketing and product placement strengthen this messaging by reinforcing  and normalizing it.

Before I continue to talk about why I find this messaging so problematic, let’s first talk about how its typically used. The proverb is generally to refer to the idea that boys are expected to be irresponsible or boisterous. So consider the following examples:

  • You host a playdate for your son and two of his male friends. After a couple of hours of playing in the basement, you discover the room to be a mess and several toys to be broken. The other parents laugh it off and shrug “After all, boys will be boys”
  • A teen girl suffers from being harassed at school. Often, boys catcall and whistle at her when she walks by. She complains to her neighbor, who shrugs her shoulder advising her to “lighten up. They’re just hormonal boys. Boys will be boys.”
  • Your daughter is quietly playing in the sandbox at a birthday party when her cousin charges into the yard and dumps a bucket of water on her, causing her to be greatly upset. You and your sister, the boy’s mother, try to calm her down, and your sister, with the best of intentions, explains “I’m so sorry sweetheart. He’s just, you know…being a boy. They’re just like that.”

There are countless more examples of how this idiom is used on a daily basis. The above examples likely sounded familiar to you and I encourage you to continue to think of how this idiom has been used either by you or in your presence in the past. So why is this messaging so problematic? How does it subtly contribute to gender stereotypes and rape culture?

  1. “Boys will be boys” assumes that being born male predisposes one to irresponsible or inappropriate behavior. This attitude sends the message that boys are almost expected to mess up, behave irresponsibly, or worse, aggressively. While boys may have a greater likelihood of preferring certain types of physical and active play, there is absolutely no research that shows that correlated to a greater likelihood of exhibiting aggression, cruelty towards others, or any other inappropriate behavior. By continuing to reinforce this idea, we are indirectly contributing to this misinformed belief that boys are expected to behave a certain way. In addition, as Dr. Meyer explains in this article, the expression actually “attempts to explain away aggressive behaviors that a small number of children exhibit by linking it with ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ impulses, without examining other reasons for the aggression.” The result is that we often end up ignoring other factors such as environmental, social and individual factors that are likely contributing to the aggressive behavior.
  2. It essentially excuses boys from behaving badly or hurting others and does not teach accountability, but rather, removes responsibility. Approaching normal, common situations such as the ones described above with a “boys will be boys attitude” excuses boys from behaving badly or hurting others and removes accountability. Boys are no longer expected to take true responsibility for their behaviors because such behavior is expected from them. If boys hear this messaging from a very young age, they may become accustomed to not being responsible for their bad behavior. Not only does this build bad lifelong habits where one is used to not taking ownership for any actions, it also promotes violence, especially against women. If boys are meant to be aggressive and physical, then it is okay to express their emotions in a very physical and aggressive way, and not have to answer for it, because “boys will be boys.”
  3. It reinforces gender stereotypes. Because this phrase generally sets the expectation for boys to behave a certain way, it reinforces gender stereotypes by allowing people to internalize these attitudes which ultimately shape the way people interact with each other. Girls who behave similarly are seen as “aggressive” while boys are just behaving like boys. Moreover, it also promotes gender inequality when referencing domestic expectations. A boy who chooses not to complete his chores of washing the dishes may be excused by “boys will be boys” while girls would generally not be given the same leeway.

Not pushing back on this messaging – whether by challenging media and marketing, or by challenging the way the above-mentioned situations are handled in real situations such as at school – has dire consequences and creates an environment that ultimately is ripe for violence against women.

So what can we start doing to change the status quo?

  1. Respond with an expectation of accountability. When a child or young person behaves inappropriately – with aggression, or cruelty or the like – we should respond in a way that says this is not ok, and we expect better from you. Not addressing such behavior creates a culture that lacks accountability and dismisses bad behavior based solely on gender.  In the most extreme circumstances, it is this very attitude that facilitates an environment that is ripe for abuse, and for such behavior to be shoved under the rug. Of course, the course of action is dependent on each unique situation, and certain disciplinary approaches may be effective in one situation but completely irrelevant in another.
  2. Stop making excuses. We have to stop making excuses for misogyny just because there aren’t any other alternatives. There aren’t any alternatives because we just haven’t worked to commit to implementing them yet. Developing long term, effective strategies to combat rape culture and violence against women requires an interdisciplinary approach. For example, to address school-based incidents, it would be important to bring together sexual violence experts, educators, administrators, and parents to work toward a strategy that makes sense for all.
  3. Teach your children about consent and boundaries. Start these conversations as early as the age of 3 and take advantage of teaching moments. Honor your child’s wishes if he/she does not want to kiss or hug a relative. At the same time, teach your child to ask for permission before hugging or rough-housing with a peer, and to respect them when/if they say no. For a more detailed discussion on how to have age-appropriate conversations with your children, please refer to this parent’s guide.

It is our collective responsibility to work toward making this change. Our children deserve better. Our communities deserve better. We can no longer can afford to keep dismissing these attitudes and behaviors simply because it’s easier and seems effective in the short term. As Jennifer Hicks, parenting blog author said, “We have to replace ‘boys will be boys’ with a much more acceptable idea: Boys will be what we expect them to be.”

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 042014

I am truly inspired after seeing so much change at the Oscars this year – from Ellen’s great job hosting, to a hijabi presenting on stage, to Cate Blanchett’s inspiring speech about women in the film industry, to the brilliance of this Oscar winner Kenyan woman, Lupita Nyong’o, and her reminder to us on what beauty truly is:

“But around me the preference for light skin prevailed, to the beholders that I thought mattered I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me you can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you and these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be. And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you…..And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside, that there is no shade in that beauty.”

Let’s challenge the unattainable standards of beauty that have been imposed upon us and create a better, kinder world to raise our daughters in.

Jan 122014

Originally published on

By Ayesha Akhtar

Over the last few years, one question HEART has repeatedly asked Muslim girls (ages 10-18) in various arenas is, “what are the top three challenges you face as an American Muslim girl?” Without fail, we receive the following responses: (1) hijab/self-esteem; (2) bullying; and (3) Islamophobia/stereotypes. Troubling? Yes. But completely understandable as these girls share the same interests, watch the same movies, and probably admire the same fashion as others; the only difference is that they are also trying to reconcile their Muslim identity with their American one.
HEART Women and Girls is thrilled to give these girls a creative safe space to discuss these issues. Conversely, when we ask their parents the corresponding question, “what are the top three challenges you think your daughter is facing as an American Muslim girl?”, we receive three completely different answers: getting into the best college, fitting into society, and finding a suitable spouse. This disconnect can imply that parents have no idea what their daughters are dealing with on a daily basis. Is it a big deal? In the short term, maybe not, but when coupled with the underworld that exists today within our Muslim youth, then yes, this disengagement between parents and their children is a significant problem.

Immigrant parents no doubt have a difficult task. I am a first generation American Muslim, and a parent, so I can say with conviction it is not easy to raise children with a deep-rooted cultural and a relatively conservative Muslim identity which flies in the face of a secular society that lives and breathes sexuality in media, music and social circles. And what makes that task even harder is parenting with eyes closed, ignorant to all of the clandestine activity and lying that youth are quite capable of these days.

Parents, you may believe the hardest challenge for your son or daughter is his/her college application, or the noble quest to find a suitable mate, but I beg to differ. Please read this carefully: you are more than likely missing the mark. Take a gander in the Q&A section of any online, instant fatwa website to find adolescents asking questions that suggest an alternate reality exists, laden with problems much greater and overwhelming than selecting a college. They want to know answers to questions ranging from whether or not ‘hugging’ is haram or halal, what officially constitutes ‘dating’, or if we call it ‘intermingling’ does that make it acceptable? They ask questions like, “Where can I get my hymen restored?, “What kind of abortion is the best?” The list goes on.

Often, parents enroll their children in an Islamic school, thinking they can assign to the school their duties to raise their kids with a proper religious and moral upbringing. Boys pick up girls after school, tell their parents a later ‘pick up’ time, or make excuses to be with friends – these lies are being told every day. In many cases, teachers are powerless, and don’t interfere because the parents will start defending their children and accuse the teachers of imparting poor “Islamic social skills” to the students!

It is alarming when this social scene takes a turn towards dating and sex. “I can show you 10 different ways we can get together and you won’t get pregnant” or “if you give me oral sex it’s not haram because I’m a hafiz,” are two different text messages a school administrator recently intercepted. The first text message reflects the sex education that our youth are either being excused from or not receiving in schools. The second text message is indicative of a young hafiz’s thought process (“I’ve memorized the Qur’an, my community adores me for it, ergo, I can do what pleases me”). When communication between parents and their children is not open and honest, this sort of alternate reality world flourishes.

It is a fact that American Muslim youth (in a post 9/11 era) are struggling with their dual identity. This struggle is exacerbated when parents do not engage in candid dialogues and offer information that is relevant to their children’s lives. This much I know from my work with young girls in both public and private school sectors. When we begin any session with a proclamation of an open and honest safe space, participants often give me a puzzled look, or challenge me with countless ‘what ifs’. The reason for this is that they have never been told before they can speak without judgment, or that their confession is ‘safe with me’.

This is precisely the problem! Tweens and adolescents absolutely need to be heard; they are at the age of experimentation and exploration. They are challenging boundaries and asserting their independence. Parents do a greater disservice by pretending that because the child is Muslim and may attend an Islamic school or youth group, he or she does not have any sexual curiosity. Rather than reward their child for asking difficult questions and capitalize on the opportunity to engage in a frank conversation, parents mistakenly reroute their child back to their rooms with the oft-repeated mandate of maintaining same-sex friends, and not attending school parties.

The lack of sex education is a perfect example of a significant challenge in a young teenager’s life, and an insidious epidemic in this country. High school students (and sometimes junior high students) receive a semester or two of sex education, but when this information is not made relevant to a young American Muslim, what good is it? That child will turn around and ask his or her friend for more information or scope the internet for details, often stumbling upon gross misinformation. Isn’t it better they learn this information from you –the parents- or from their health class at school? Unfortunately, we have found that parents are hesitant to welcome sex education, and they shut the door to the conversation at home as well. Leaving teens uninformed only perpetuates the curiosity and the risky sexual behavior that Muslim youth have embarked upon.

There are several things parents can do right away to improve communication and stop the lies, secrecy and ignorance that may take over the relationship between a child and a parent:

  • Know your child’s friends. Have them over for dinner, or for an after school snack. Girls like to go to the mall, so accompany your daughter and her school friends. Take a book or have coffee while they walk around, but at least you are there.
  • Understand your child’s worldview. When your son or daughter approaches you with a question that makes you reach for a fatwa, take a deep breath and engage in conversation with your child. What is provoking the question? What are your child’s influences? Consider the media lens (how the media tells your child to fit into society), the peer lens, and the cultural lens, all of which impact your child’s worldview individually and collectively.
  • Encourage critical thinking. Rather taking a didactic approach to parenting, consider challenging your child with the same question. If you don’t agree with prom, for example, ask your child why s/he thinks your believe it is inadvisable to go?

If there is one thing you take away from this article, it is this: Islam holds a special place for everything that is beautiful; there is no place for ignorance. While raising Muslim children in a non-Muslim society is challenging, it is an even more formidable challenge for young Muslims to turn their heads away from the sexuality, the dating, and the drugs and alcohol when this negation is not supported by their own decision making, but rather finger-pointing and a bunch of unexplained restrictions. Simply presenting Islam as a list of rules is ineffective for the children of this society. Rules are enabled to be disabled.

Ayesha Akhtar was Co-founder and Director of Policy & Research at HEART Women and Girls. Currently, she works for the Epilepsy Foundation for America.