Sexuality and Islam

Wedding night, umm...interactions.

That's how a blogger from the Love, InshAllah website described sex on the wedding night. It's quite fitting given that sex and sexuality is such a taboo topic yet the Quran and Hadiths address it very openly, and sometimes with more description than we imagine. I hope to explore the topic of Muslims and sexuality in this entry...because I believe it's a critically important topic that no one, including our Imams, are talking about.

I recently stumbled across an article by Wajahat Ali regarding Sex and Islam. The part that tood out to the most to me was the following: 

"During a Muslim's youth and adolescence, many elders promote repression. However, when this individual becomes a single, unmarried adult in their late 20s or 30s, they are bludgeoned with repeated commands to "settle down". Muslim youth are expected to go from 0 to 60 mph with a spouse, 2.3 kids and a suburban home without being taught how to start the engine and how to maintain the vehicle on its journey."

The same sentiment is echoed by an article on the Love, InshAllah website, written by a single mid-20s American-Muslim who is frustrated by the double standards her family has raised her with: 

"We are blessed. Our parents encourage us, our communities support us, our universities celebrate us. Then we graduate and the facade crumbles. “Why aren’t you married? Why are your priorities so out of whack? You’re getting old and all of your friends are married! Hurry up, time is running out!”

I have to agree with these sentiments. The first being that our community is quite good at repressing what we need to know until it's too late. Instead of gradually introducing the topic of sexuality (via parents to their children) following a developmentally appropriate and religiously supported manner, we delay things, and then if someone is lucky, they get a 5-minute chat before their wedding night and a "good luck". The truth is, and research empirically shows this, we need to start talking to children about their bodies from a very young age. Before a child begins preschool, they should know the proper names of their "private parts" and be able to know what a "good touch" is (i.e. from a parent helping them get dressed) versus a "bad touch". They need to know why it's important to protect themselves, and what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable, even if it's an uncle who places a hand on their knee. Children need to be taught to be in tune to their feelings. And educating a child of four-years of age does NOT mean that they will be hyper-alert to anyone who gets near them, nor will it distance them from family. This type of sexual-abuse prevention education teaches children to pay attention to their gut feelings and to teach children how to protect themselves from any adult who encroaches on their private space. The more parents openly talk about their children's bodies and teach them, the less shaming their is around sexuality. And trust me, as Muslims, we all need to be less ashamed about sexuality. Because it's human, natural, and religiously acknowledged.

The second being that Muslim women are encouraged of their high status in Islam and to pursue education and their career goals. And then reality hits when they are deemed to have expired since their marriage shelf-life has surpassed, if they are above 25 years of age (a complete stereotype!), they are chastised and looked down upon for being single. And then the larger community doesn't step in to do anything about this "marriage crisis". First of all, I think Muslims have forgotten that women can bear children in their 30s, and many are doing so quite successfully! While the biological clock may be ticking, settling on someone you're not happy with to marry and raise children is NOT the answer. Also, I think as Muslims, that we forget that while we control some of our lives, our fate is written for us. I now know that I was meant to meet my husband at the ripe old age of 29. I will be above the age of 30 when we have our first child. Am I missing the boat? You may think so, but I can't argue with how destiny played out or with what was ordained for me. So really, while I am sure many career-oriented women are looking out for a match, so much is out of their control. There's also the whole argument that Muslim men (and their families, especially their mommas!) play a huge role in this marriage "crisis", but I won't go there!

Ok, so back to sexuality. Our communities not only lack pre-marital counselling courses (which we badly need, since genders are separated from one another for most of their lives) but they also lack sexuality education. While it may seem that sex is a no-brainer, it is far more than a physical act. Having read article upon article about the percentage of Muslim married couples dissatisfied with their sex lives and the impact it plays on their overall marriage, this is a huge issue in our community, yet we do nothing to address it. Of course, Imams are not trained to deal with this. Luckily, most cities do have a sexual health centre that is accessible, but I don't know how many Muslims access this free, professional, and confidential service. These couples may be afraid that non-Muslim counsellors lack the Islamic knowledge they need to counsel on sexuality. 

But if we look closely at the Quran and Hadiths, sex within Islam is not much different than what sexual health educators know and teach. Sex is a combination of the physical, spiritual, and emotional realms. It's also sacred within Islam. I was actually quite shocked when I stumbled across this article during my research, titled "Sex, MashaAllah". Then I looked who was behind the Muslim Matters and saw that it was Yasir Qadhi, one of the few Imams in the world who is taking on the topic of sexuality within Islam head on. After reading the article, I was amazed at how much useful and relevant information there was. Especially with regards to de-bunking the myth that wives must satisfy their husbands sexual desires when he asks them to. Part of me wants to send this article to every married or getting married Muslim couple I know, but rather than doing that (since I was afraid of what people may think of me!), I'm posting the link in this blog. I highly recommend that every Muslim on the path to getting married reads this article and looks within our faith in order to be fully prepared for marriage and having a health sexual relationship with their spouse. 

Speaking of sex within marriage, after sitting in on junior high girls' Muslim sexual health education classes, I realized how many myths continue to perpetrate their lives. I was quite shocked to hear of a few that were continuously repeated and difficult to dismantle, even when the girls were given evidence that the opposite was true. One I kept hearing was that girls bleed upon their first sexual intercourse and there's a "pop" they feel (even though the girls couldn't identify how this would happen!). After the sexual health educator and myself explained FOUR times the truth about the hymen being a stretchable membrane that doesn't pop or break, and how bleeding is rare during initial sexual intercourse, the girls still couldn't get this myth out of their heads since it was something their mothers told them. Another myth was how Muslim couples need to have sex on their wedding night (oh please, where is this stated within Islam?). The last shocking fact was that girls didn't know their anatomy and were shocked when things were explained and broken down. Yet still, their heads couldn't wrap around their anatomy. So tell me, how are girls expected to take care of their health if they don't know how their bodies work?! Some girls didn't want to hear the anatomically correct terms, and stated they were disgusted and scared. We delved deeply into menstruation and WHY this happens, framing it from a miraculous perspective within Islam, since bearing a child is just that. Yet how they will be ready for marriage and sexual lives, and also bearing children, if they have no idea what goes on "down there"?! The same is true for men. It's now more than ever that men need information to combat the extreme female sexuality they are exposed to. Yet what do dads tell their sons? I am really curious.

So yes, I've just laid out a plethora of issues our community is facing. What can you do about these issues? Perhaps the following can help:

1. Address your own stigmas and myths about sexuality. The most common one I came across with parents is "educating my child about sexuality will encourage them to have sex". Research actually shows the opposite: educating adolescents about sexuality decreases the rate of sexual activity. There are many other myths out there and to be honest, how can parents start teaching their children if they hold these myths to be the holy grail? I do think that things are becoming better with our generation, and I have a feeling that our children will be better prepared and educated. 

2. Educate yourself before your children. There are many resources out there that can help you with this quest. The Calgary Sexual Health Centre has a plethora of free resources that are geared to be culturally sensitive. Their trainers come out for free to talk individually or to a group of interested persons. Also check out If you're looking for an Islamic perspective, read works by Dr. Fida Sanjakdar (some of her article are available online), especially her book "Living West, Facing East". I promise you'll be enlightened by her words! Also, stay tuned for workshops around Islam and Sexuality in the fall, we're in the process of planning something!

3. Seek out developmentally and religiously appropriate material to teach your children about their bodies. Include information about sexual abuse prevention, so that your child is able to defend themselves if they are ever in a situation. This education starts when children are around the age of 3. Use the proper anatomical terms, while telling your child that we only talk about this at home and with parents, never in public to friends or strangers. The less shame we create around what's "down there", the better. Our mental health project is going to be trained in the sexual abuse prevention program "Who Do You Tell?" When we are, we will be able to train any child and parent around this.

4. Adolescents (around grade 4-5) don't need "the talk". If you've been talking with your child all along, keep talking. Introduce puberty and link it to teenage brain development. Girls may need a lot of support around menstruation, so give it. Create strategies for them and share tips that have worked for you. I was shocked when I told girls during health class that menstrual flow is out of their control, unlike urine, which they can control. Such a simple differentiation makes a world of difference, since some wondered why they needed feminine hygiene products at all. I don't blame the girls at all for assuming this, since they weren't told anything different. Assume girls need a lot of information since they'll tell you if they already know!

5. In addition to addressing the physical changes during puberty, introduce the emotional, social and spiritual changes. Talk about increased accountability to Allah, independence with religious devotion, etc. It's normal for Muslim adolescents to have feelings for the opposite gender (because they too have a brain and hormones), so teach them how to deal with them rather than yelling "haram!" The days of shaming with haram are over. 

6. Educate about sex well before marriage. This is not a 5-minute talk before the wedding day, it's too traumatizing! And encourage your child and their fiance to talk about their perspectives on sex before marriage. This is important, since if both have different expectations, there will be trouble early on. Talking about sex before marriage, in my opinion, is not haram if both parties are doing so in an Islamic, well-intentioned manner. Opinions probably vary about this, but the couple should do what's best for themselves.

Lastly, I don't profess to be an expert in this topic. I've worked closely with the Calgary Sexual Health Centre and have read a lot of material, but I'm not a sexual health educator or anything close to that! I wrote this entry with the hope that you may look at sexuality within Islam a little differently, and see it not as something that is taboo, but something that needs to be addressed with children from a developmentally appropriate and religiously supported manner. We sometimes forget that Muslims are humans too. We have the same needs and desires as many others, with an additional layer of Islam infused into this. We love for the sake of Allah, and want to get married and have children for the sake of Allah.

So why don't we start educating for the sake of Allah as well? 

And Allah knows best. 


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