Within the Muslim community, sexual health education is one of those hot button topics. Most individuals tend to be on either side of this debated spectrum – those strongly supporting sexual health education and those who are vehemently against it. Given my work in the sexual health field within Muslim communities over the last six years through HEART (www.heartwomenandgirls.org), and having developed and taught curricula to youth, parents and community leaders, the following points highlight why parents must play the role of sexual health educator to their children.
If you’re going to not allow them to attend sexual health classes at school, you have to teach them the information yourself. There are a few reasons why. First and foremost, kids talk with one another, and your child is bound to hear something about the topic – but it’s likely not going to be accurate. Second, sexual health education is child sexual abuse prevention. If children don’t learn about their bodies, boundaries, etc, they aren’t going to be able to tell you if someone tried to harm them. Thank you, Sidrah Ahmad, (she writes, speaks and leads community-based education and engagement work to end gender-based violence and Islamophobic violence) for sharing your story:
Fear-based abstinence techniques do not work by themselves (i.e. “sex before marriage is haram, you’ll go to hell”). Given that sexual health education needs to be comprehensive, use Islamic principles to teach about sex from a spiritually-positive perspective rather than fear-based; provide information about reproductive health; discuss healthy relationships. Youth ultimately need to CHOOSE abstinence as a deeply held value rather than abstaining from sex because their parents said so. Beliefs such as “no premarital sex” are not followed through upon until youth integrate this as a lived value, have insights and tools to set boundaries, communicate this to others, and understand how this choice is the best for them. See this article for evidence-based research on comprehensive sex education.
Furthermore, many young Muslims have Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) as a result of engaging in premarital sex without protecting themselves or partners. I have seen many Muslim parents in denial about this, using statement such as “not within our family” or other justifications based on how they limit their children from socializing, they attend an Islamic school, etc. Parents first must avoid thinking that their children, for any reason, are immune from this. Second, being Muslim is not a shield unless beliefs become values are lived experiences, not just thoughts in our heads. Third, education is prevention, and this is Islamically reinforced through the first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), which was “read!” Education is empowerment and prevention.
As much as parents want to complete sexual health education in one sitting with their children at the dinner table, this is not possible. Just as any other topic, teaching children sexual health information needs to be developmentally appropriate, given in small and understandable doses, and within natural learning moments. I encourage parents to not sit their kids down in the living room to have a chat about their changing bodies! This will be awkward for everyone involved. Rather, I recommend placing certain books around the house or in your children’s reading library; watching a brief YouTube cartoon video about sexual abuse (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkY0xqtw6W8&t=1s); or using activity-based check-ins after school to bring up certain topics (i.e. asking about friendships, bringing up your own struggles growing up, etc).
and do not understand the breadth of this topic. The World Health Organization has a great description of sexual health: “Sexual health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” Adults need to remember that we have more sexual health information in our minds than children do. So we perhaps need to not panic when children ask questions, immediately assuming it’s related to what they’re doing/wanting to do. We also need to broaden the definition of sexual health to use a holistic approach when educating our children. Sexual health education is not solely teaching about sex. It’s about values, body image, communication, establishing boundaries, self-development, creating healthy living habits, etc. Sexual health also comprises mental and physical health.
Acquiring information about our God-given and divine creation of the sexual and reproductive systems is not a crime, nor should it even be taboo. There is nothing within the Quran or Hadiths that states “thou shall not seek sexual health information until the night before your wedding.” Why do we, therefore, extrapolate this tendency and refute the link between knowing and understanding bodies and being a whole and fully-informed spiritual being? There is no shame or immodesty with seeking information about sexual health, including looking at anatomical diagrams, reading about the physiology of the reproductive system, learning about healthy relationships by exploring information in the Quran and Hadith, etc. Seeking information about sexual health is spiritually empowering. It’s unfortunate to hear people say otherwise. Have we gone back to pre-Islamic times? Or are we going to educate ourselves without shame, as the women of the Ansar did, when they frankly asked Aisha (RA) about when they were able to pray post-menstruation by showing cotton cloth samples of vaginal discharge?
Practically speaking then, what steps can parents take to enhance their role as sexual health educators?
Sameera Qureshi is Canadian but currently calls the Washington, DC area her home. She holds a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy from Tufts University in Boston. She started her professional career as a direct service provider in school-based Occupational Therapy working with children with special needs. Her passion for universal and systems-based mental health education led her to transition into the school-based team to develop and facilitate Islamic sexual and mental health curricula in Islamic schools, mosques, community centers, and collaborating agencies. Sameera joined HEART Women and Girls in 2012 and is the Director of Sexuality Education and Training. The only national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities.