Discussing Sex and Sexuality in Islam: What are we afraid of?

Have you ever tried asking your parents or elders a question pertaining to sex, sexuality, or your sexual preference? If you are cringing just thinking about being in such a scenario, what do you think is stopping you from partaking in this discussion with your elders? If you are one of the brave ones who has managed to ask, did your parents willingly and openly respond to your questions?

Well, I posed these exact questions to a focus group of five Muslim women — each of whom belonged to the following ethnic backgrounds: Pakistan, Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Throughout the discussion, I was crudely awakened to the realization that silence around sexual dialogue transcends across diverse Muslim societies. In fact, there was not a single woman in the focus group who could admit to having had an easy-going conversation with her family members around sex and sexuality. That brought me to the question of all questions around sexuality in Islam: why is it such a taboo topic? Is it the religion itself that has set limitations on this discourse, or has the ummah (ie. the followers of Islam) created these barriers on our own? The answer: we’re the problem, not the religion.

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If there is one thing the Muslim ummah does best, it’s that we often conflate culture with religion. This is especially applicable to discussions around sex and sexuality. Oftentimes, what will stop children from asking their parents personal questions is the subsequent shame they are made to feel just for being curious. While growing up in Pakistan, my mother was never free to seek advice from her mother on topics around sex and sexuality. The first time the topic ever came up in her household was when — you guessed it — my mother’s age of marriage had approached. For this reason, my mother took it upon herself to create a much more open household for her own children. Though my mother’s situation was purely a matter of inter-cultural stigmatism, the dynamic between immigrant parents and their children is unique. For instance, my mother’s version of open doesn’t exactly coincide with mine. To her, speaking about men in whatever context we please is acceptable; however, if I ever tried asking her a question around sex, I would expect one of the following reactions:

“Didn’t you get taught this in school?”

“Show some respect. Your father can probably hear you in the next room.”

“I’m busy right now, we can talk later.”

“Ask your older sister.”

In those moments of visible generational differences, I often have to stop myself from feeling frustrated by my parents’ inability to understand my mentality, having understood that they are doing the best they can given their own upbringing. As a child of immigrant parents, I don’t have a right to demand that they adapt to my own thinking — if my mother respected my grandmother regardless of their differing views, who am I to do otherwise? What I can do, however, is adopt a more open dialogue around sex and sexuality that is free from cultural stigma when I start my own family. After all, Allah reveals in Surat-Al-Bayyina how, “the Quranic revelation came to remove cultural shackles, so that you can have an easier life.”

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Putting culture aside, are sex and sexuality comfortably discussed within the confines of Islamic institutions and spaces and beyond the teachings of Islamic jurisprudence on the matter? From my own experience, the answer to that is a stark no. Reason being that matters of sex and sexuality are often taught with a fear-instilling angle: instead of celebrating sex as the physical union between a married couple, the focus is put entirely on what will happen to you if you commit adultery. I had personally experienced this teaching style in the summer of ’07 during Sunday school. During recess one day, a few of us girls were gossiping about a story a friend of mine had told us regarding her experience with a boy. Having been equal parts naive and curious, I decided to ask my teacher in private what the limitations around sexual encounters were in Islamic teachings. Without answering my question, my teacher instead asked me why I was wondering, to which I mistakenly summarized my friend’s story. At that very moment, my friend and I were asked by my teacher to step outside of the classroom. My teacher then spent the next few minutes lecturing my friend about how what she was doing was haram and for that she would be doomed to go to hell unless she repented and vowed to never sacrifice her purity again. For good measure, she also took my friend’s mother’s phone number. That was the first and last time I ever attended Sunday school.

There’s hesitancy to open the discussion of sex and sexuality within Islamic cultures out of fear of opening a pandora box of possibilities and ideas. If and when the topic of sex and sexuality is approached, however, it’s merely to highlight the religious codes of haram vs. halal within Islamic teachings, while negatively sanctioning those who have “derailed” from a path of chastisement and purity. This begs the question: is this method working? Well, according to a study published by the Express Tribune on January 18th, 2015, six of the top eight porn-searching countries in the world are Muslim countries. Pakistan topped the list. The country coming in at number two was Egypt, while Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey came in at numbers four, five, seven and eight, respectively. This is keeping in mind that the sale of pornographic material has been banned in nearly every Muslim country except Lebanon and Turkey. Clearly, the method of, “maybe if we don’t talk about it, it will go away” is counterproductive; it instead leads to sexual repression and hyper sexuality — both of which are evidently rampant within most Muslim cultures. The fact of the matter is that humans are as curious as they are sexually driven: if one’s hormones are not properly understood and regulated from a young age, they will be channeled in unhealthy ways. So, instead of pretending that younger generations aren’t progressing at a faster rate than what is preferred, we need to deal with this subject matter head on: with open and accepting communication. Otherwise, if older generations do not open all lines of communication with younger generations, the younger generations will become vulnerable to societal pressures.

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All in all, I urge parents reading this article to dispose of their, “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” mantra around sex and sexuality and replace it with dialogue that is as awkward as it is necessary. Separate your desire to follow cultural scripts when dealing with such topics and instead try to have a more open mind. As for all you youngin’s: have patience with your parents if they don’t respond to you in the way you think to be ideal and take that energy you would otherwise use to correct their parenting styles by instead working on becoming a better child. Moreover, the whole point in seeking guidance is getting it from someone who knows more than you. Learn from others’ mistakes, seek answers and communication from as many learned avenues as possible, and surround yourself with people who don’t make you uncomfortable being who you are.

Sania Khan

TMV Staff Writer

UTSU VP Equity 2015–2016

Illustrations by Seema Shafei


Originally published at tmvmagazine.tumblr.com.

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