I was browsing through a report I had found in the dusty library of the human rights studies center where I was interning at, in Amman, Jordan. The director had asked me to label some files and, while browsing the books and documents in the aisles, I stumbled upon a report describing the situation of sexual education in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from only a few years back. As an enthusiast of reproductive health studies I started flipping through it, cringed, and really hoped I was just reading a badly written comedy novel. Not really though. The report described how over 50 percent of Jordanian young women admitted to having experienced shock when menstruating for the first time, not knowing what was happening to their body.
Being Muslim and half Arab, I was of course very much aware that practically all things that are even slightly sexuality-related big time seem ‘haram’ to talk about. This was somewhat surprising to me, as being aware of the fact that you might start bleeding heavily out of your lady-parts at some point in your young life, does seem like an important piece of information.
Conception and misconception
Sex is taboo in modern day Muslim society. It is however remarkable how everything used to be different centuries ago in the medieval Islamic world: erotic literature and books describing sexual techniques were commonplace. One of these literary works was ‘The Encyclopedia of Pleasure’ written by Ali Ibn Nasr Al-Katib in the 10th century which, amongst many other things, described erotic gay and lesbian love. Ibn Muhammad Al-Nafzawi’s ‘The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight’ written in the 15th century is another example, including information and warnings on sexual health, advice on sexual techniques and recipes for remedies against sexual diseases. And let’s also not forget about the large amounts of erotic content in the tales of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ that were compiled during the Islamic Golden Age.
However, times have changed and so has the conception of sexuality in the Muslim world. Sexual education in Muslim-majority countries is currently virtually non-existent, with the exception of a very basic and scientific approach of the female and male body in biology classes (if anything at all). Anything surrounding sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is very much ‘3ayb’ (shame) and thus many Muslim youth are left on their own to figure out what is happening to their bodies. Parents and teachers are usually reluctant to disclosing any information on this sensitive subject as they fear that talking about sex will make young people think about sex and subsequently, make them want to engage in premarital sexual activity. And thus, sexual desire is continuously and systematically denied, minimized and shamed in many modern day Muslim communities. However, assuming that humans are some kind of ethereal beings lacking any form of sexual desire, is plain wrong. Noting that as humans, we have been given sexual instinct to ensure we reproduce fertile offspring as a species.
In the Arab world there’s the saying ‘kullu mamnu3 marghub’, meaning ‘what is forbidden, is desired’. And of course, there is always some truth in expressions like these. A growing number of Muslims are engaging in premarital sexual activities and statistics show that the lack of sexual education is getting more and more problematic as there is an alarming disproportion in the rates of sexual activity and knowledge of sexual and reproductive health.
Many Muslims engaging in premarital (but also extramarital and marital) intercourse are often not aware of the dangers of sexually transmittable infections (STI’s) or properly informed about contraception methods. Statistics in Facts of Life: Youth Sexuality and Reproductive Health in MENA by Roudi Fahimi and Shereen El-Feki, show that only 3 percent of young, unmarried, sexually active women in Morocco uses contraception and how over half of all cases of STI in Egypt are attributed to unmarried, young adults. Not being able to talk about sexuality-related subjects also leads to many misconceptions such as believing one cannot contract any STI’s through oral or anal sex and that a woman that is truly a virgin should without a doubt bleed when having sex for the first time. The most shocking misconception I ever came across was when a Jordanian student of medicine (!) told me that rape is a ‘myth’ as the female pelvic muscles are some of the strongest muscles in the human body and thus, a woman is able to prevent a man from penetrating her if she really does not want him to.
Sexual education for social change
It should become clear that limiting access to sexual education is counter-productive as with the topic of sex being taboo in modern Muslim society and the difficulties in discussing sexual matters, people will often resort to other sources anyway. And in our current society, in which access to the internet is available to nearly everyone, pornography and any kind of sexually explicit material is only a mouse click away.
Looking at online pornography statistics, it is remarkable how Muslim-majority countries are amongst the largest consumers of online porn. Data released by Google have shown how a whopping number of 6 Muslim-majority countries are featured in the global top 10 of biggest consumers of online porn. The Islamic republic of Pakistan has the dubious honor of taking first place, followed by the largest Arab country in the world Egypt in second place. The Islamic Republic of Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey place at fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth place respectively. A quick glance at these statistics, and it should become clear that avoiding talking about sexuality might not be that of an effective strategy to preserve chastity.
A growing number of online sexually explicit content is also coercive in nature and research conducted by the Kinsey Institute of the University of Indiana claims that 40 percent of pornography depicts acts of violence against women. By resorting to porn as a substitute for proper sexual education, young (and not so young) Muslims may create a distorted conception of sexuality and male-female relationships that normalizes the idea of sex without mutual consent and/or respect.
Talking about violence against women and lack of mutual consent brings us to another major issue: sexual harassment, a pervasive phenomenon and significant social problem in the Muslim world. In 2013 UN Women Egypt conducted a survey that revealed 99% of women in Egypt has experienced some form of sexual harassment and that the vast majority of self-identified harassers admitted to harassing women to “fulfill a sexual need”. Sexual assault and rape are also major issues. Honor crimes in response to a sexual assault is also a factor of sexual violence and while honor killings do not exclusively occur within Muslim communities, Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Jordan top the charts of honor killing rates globally. Studies however, have shown that sexual harassment and gender-based and sexual violence can be prevented by comprehensive sexual education.
Sex-ed shouldn’t wait until marriage
It is important to stress that sexual education is not about promoting premarital sexual activity or promiscuous behavior in any way. On the contrary, it has been proven that well-crafted sexual education programs can significantly delay engaging in sexual acts for the first time.
I remember having my first sexual education class when I attended a catholic primary school in Belgium when I was about 11 years old. I learnt about how our bodies were changing, what kind of emotions we might start experiencing and love and relationships. Because it was a catholic school, everything was given in a pro-abstinence until marriage framework, emphasizing the importance of love, commitment and mutual respect before engaging in sexual activity. So, it is absolutely possible to provide proper sexual education adapted to local contexts without necessarily having to promote sexual intercourse and experimentation before marriage.
I am delighted to see that more and more Muslims are launching initiatives to try to make sexuality open for discussion in their communities and to address issues that result from the lack of sexual education. There is however still a long, long way to go. It is obvious that not providing proper sexual education and burking the topics of sex and sexuality works counter productive. So, moral of the story: Let’s talk about sex, baby.
This article was written by Yasmine Al-Akhdar.