This article originally appeared in The Islamic Monthly on February 26, 2013 Item #66 on a list of ways that mosques could better connect with Muslim youth: Sex Education. The list was generated by UnMosqued, a documentary film project that examines decreasing mosque attendance among young American Muslims and highlights ways that mosques fail to meet youth needs. It is no no surprise that Muslims have questions about health and sexuality and that they’re not getting answers from older Muslims in the mosque (or at home, or anywhere in between).
Whether or not they receive “Sex Ed” or reproductive health education classes at school—that is, if their parents allow them to attend—Muslim youth are bombarded with confusing messages about sexuality. Quite simply, pre-marital sex is the norm in American society, where seven out of ten teens will have sex by age 19. 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 in pornography. Instead, we can create safe, culturally sensitive spaces for young Muslims to ask questions and get information that is consistent with Islamic beliefs.
In her study of sexuality education among young Australian Muslims, Fida Sanjakdar surveys common misconceptions about sexual health. These include confusion as to how, when, and where in the body pregnancy takes place, a lack of knowledge of basic Islamic regulations for how and when to perform ghusl or bodily cleansing (nearly half of girls surveyed were not aware that they needed to make ghusl following menstruation), a lack of awareness around sexual consent between partners, a belief that contraception is categorically forbidden in Islam, and that young people sometimes confuse all permissible sexual activity with zina or fornication, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and denial around their own thoughts. By staying silent, Muslim communities continue to perpetuate these and other myths. This is inconsistent with the Islamic tradition, which exhorts us not to be shy when it comes to seeking knowledge.
This may come as a surprise to some readers, but Islam is a sex-positive religion. Islam is a religion of foreplay, sex for pleasure’s sake, and mutually satisfying sexual relationships, a bounty which falls within the boundaries of marriage. Young people preparing for marriage will be better prepared by knowing more about not only sexuality and Islamic legal norms, but also communication and conflict resolution skills. Pre-marital counseling in the Orthodox Jewish community offers us an interesting model for what pre-marital education could look like.
Teens should have basic body literacy including age-appropriate information on how pregnancy occurs, and all men and women should have an understanding of their anatomy and health. We should know what a healthy menstrual cycle looks like, and what symptoms women should take to a care provider. We also need to understand and internalize menstruation as a normal process and not something to be ashamed of. Beyond that, we need better education on the Islamic understanding of menstruation and the practices that go along with it; I have yet to meet a Muslim woman—who isn’t a fiqh scholar herself—who feels completely comfortable in her knowledge of these issues.
And it doesn’t stop there. What about workshops for Muslim parents who want to better understand sexual health, so that they can be resources for their children? What role could “big brothers” and “big sisters” have in coaching teens on Islamic values regarding sexuality? What kinds of discussions can we have to separate out cultural beliefs from authentic Islamic principles when it comes to questions of sex and sexuality?
Some conversations need to be held in a safe and private setting, so it is critical that religious and community leaders receive appropriate training in order to address complicated concerns with sensitivity, compassion, and to make referrals when needed. If qualified counseling is not available, communities need to invest in developing these resources such that individuals don’t ever have to struggle alone, feel unsafe, or feel so conflicted that they find no place for themselves in Islam.
We must also cultivate communities that welcome young Muslims who inevitably engage with questions around sexuality. This includes acknowledging the reality that some Muslims do engage in pre-marital sexual activity. As valued members of our shared community, we want to ensure that—whether married or single—we have the good sense to protect our health and avoid unwanted pregnancies. The Centers for Disease Control reports that of the 50% of high school students who have had intercourse, 30% claim not to have used a condom the last time they had sex.
When looking at our communities, we must consider how Muslims struggling with issues around sexual health and identity are received in the mosque, and make changes to ensure that our shared spaces sustain—not condemn—those who need support. Instead of denying that sexuality is a normal part of our development as human beings, we can accept it as normal. In doing so, we will learn to create safe spaces for young men and women where they can reach out for advice, learn about their health, prepare for loving and rewarding marriages, and ultimately gain greater knowledge of their faith.