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 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.