If there’s one thing that my Islamic Sunday School and middle school sex ed had in common, it’s that they split classes by gender.
The overlap just about ends there.
While the former looped through CDs to attune our ears to the correct pronunciation of the Arabic alphabet as we labeled maps that sketched out historical borders of the Middle East, the latter greeted us with live birth delivery room videos as we labeled eight and half by eleven inch naked silhouettes for a crash course on reproductive organs.
The juncture at which religion meets anything remotely associated with “modern”–from objectively advanced technology to subjectively new attitudes (usually anything relating to feminism, sex, and womanhood)–more closely resembles a murky, muddy swamp than any sort of intersectionality between two perpendicular roads.
As a fundamental underpinning to guide a way of life as opposed to just “a religion,” Islam is a lens that guides how we view the world; it plays a pronounced, active, and relevant role in our relationship with the world around us.
And inside of us. Like inside of our bodies.
Teenagers know where babies come from; breaking news, they understand it’s not just directly “from Allah.”
Just last year, Dr. Sobia Ali Faisal from the University of Windsor published her findings of a research study to explore the relationship between North America’s Muslim youth and sex, much of which included their stance and access to sexual education.
Of her 403 participants, including of men and women ranging from 17-25 all over the States and Canada, two-thirds of those who had sex did so before marriage. Her results saw an almost equal breakdown of this response between genders.
Half of those who hadn’t had sex before marriage acknowledged that “they considered it.”
While these figures lurk in contrast to the lectured cultural norms professed in our communities, they are accompanied by a far more dangerous set of statistics.
Talk to your kids about sex, because if you don’t, someone else will.
The young Muslims surveyed ranked their “parents” as the least likely source for sexual education, with “media” being the most. “Friends” fell somewhere in between.
Frankly, perhaps such a ladder also mirrors a similar one for the rest of teens in the 21st century, but such a qualitative question was paired with a reporting that 76.2% of the youth received their sex ed from school, while only 4.2% did from their mosque.
Overall, the Muslim youth suffered from negative sexual self-judgment folds more than their non-Muslim counterparts.
As such, it’s not just one arbitrary institution of “Sunday School” to be blamed; this issue originates from a deeply rooted religious rhetoric substantiated by cultural convention.
Ali Faisal’s sample size was composed the following ethnic breakdown, at least from those who chose to disclose such information: 43.4% South Asian, 25.1% Arab, 7.4% European, 6% Black, and 5.6% multiple ethnicities. Sixty five percent of the participants were born in either the US or Canada, while 23% had moved here by age 12. In other words, almost 90% of the group spent the entirety of their teen years here, thus embodying a fair breakdown of both components that constitute the hyphen “Muslim-American”/“Muslim-Canadian.”
The driving motivation for Ali Faisal’s research was the negative sexual self-judgment that then anchors as the basis for unhealthy sexual relationships, particularly concerning major issues, such as consent and abuse.
Putting aside personal view, Quranic interpretations, and individual choices regarding premarital sex, whether you agree with it or not, it’s completely beyond necessary to foster more dialogue about sex ed, and provide our Muslim youth with quality sexual education.
Cultural taboos cannot trump the risks that come with leaving kids in the dark.
Whether or not sexual activity should be withheld for after marriage is up for debate, but sexual education should be non-negotiable; it simply cannot wait, and must not.
Such logic practically manifests into expecting a young man and woman to know basically nothing the day before marriage, but expecting them, the day after, to be an expert ready to pop out children at the nine month mark. (In other words, here also lies the myth that sex is just the dirty verb for “baby factory.”)
The underlying norms of mainstream society and lingering baggage of traditional culture overlap on telling territory; in this case, a dangerous one that much more readily objectifies, blames, and shames women.
In the context of healthy relationships, these attitudes are not casual points of misunderstanding; they are critical points of mistake.
These then catapult into the dangerous mindsets surrounding consent, abuse, and expectations. This 0-100 switch may well be the reason there is rarely acceptance of the very real notion of rape within marriage, or the indisputable right to personal agency for women in relationships.
Some organizations are trying to fill the dearth of resources currently lying at this intersection of sex ed and religious taboo. HEART Women & Girls, an organization currently working out of Chicago, Ill. and Canada, states on its website that it “promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in faith-based communities by developing culturally-sensitive health education, advocacy, research and training,” — specifically targeting Muslim communities.
A past history of its recent events include workshops such as “Sex Education for Muslim Youth: Understanding its Challenges & Opportunities” and “Creating Safe Spaces: Empowering the Muslim Woman’s Reproductive Health Experience.”
While groups like HEART are striving to make an impact via resources and workshops for Muslim youth, dismantling further ingrained mindsets regarding the role of boys and men in such scenarios remains an obligatory step to consider.
Sex after all requires two people, making both individuals equally in need of education and equally accountable in responsibility, as well as equally entitled to pleasure, comfort, and consent.
It’s easy to get lost in the debate about premarital sex versus waiting; a war with fast flying Quranic verses and hadiths, shielding traditions met with arguments about medical advancements, social practices, or historical patriarchal control (especially with delicate topics such as in times of war, i.e. sex slaves).
What simply must not be treated as complicated, though, is the actual education that promotes safe activity and healthy relationships, no matter when they occur. After all, these topics also envelope interactions beyond just the sexual. Abuse and gender-based misconduct can precipitate emotionally and psychologically, too.
As the writer Zahira Kelly included in a tweet earlier this month, it’s abuse, even if #MaybeHeDoesn’tHitYou.
Either these dialogues about healthy sex and relationships can proliferate, or the silence can succumb to the influences of often harmful, even toxic, sources that sow the seeds for catastrophic disasters. From a one-time assault to a decades-old abusive marriage, these vulgar attacks can seriously stick and haunt for life.
Sexual education isn’t just about a condom or a pill.
It isn’t inherently about telling teenagers to run wild or commanding them to be sexually active when they’re not ready, or telling them to wait. It is, however, about equipping people (even more mature folks, if they weren’t given the chance to learn when younger) to make decisions–-whether those decisions are to have sex or not to have sex, or whether those decisions are to allow them to recognize an abusive relationship when they see one.
I fully believe that cultural awareness and sensitivity are paramount pillars to any cause. Balancing advancement toward the uncertain but seemingly developed, with respect for the traditional but seemingly antiquated, might appear impossible because it is honestly difficult.
But refusing to attempt any sort of reconciliation at all is frankly the worst, weakest, and least wise consensus.
Whether or not we like it, whether or not we’re fighting it, there is no talk of Islam without talk of gender. As such, sexual education simply cannot be omitted from the discussion. Perhaps one day Islamic Sunday School and middle school sex ed will share a little more common curriculum, even if not exactly the same maps or diagrams.
Perhaps one day both will concern themselves with matters of health, wellbeing, safety, and respect–these aren’t taboo topics.
In the end, the most critical term remains “choice.” The sexual agency of a person must be left up to an individual, but no one should make any sort of decision unaware. It’s our right to be educated, and it’s our right to be sexually educated.