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I was too old when I learned that sex between a married couple is, in fact, also an act of worship in Islam. And I was too far into my twenties when I found out that pleasure for Muslim women is an Islamic right and, if not satisfied, can be grounds for immediate divorce. Rather than growing up with any of this knowledge, I had to discover it myself by leafing through the pages of Dr Asma Barlas Reading Women in Islam. I had never been taught to appreciate the nuances that Islam offers when it comes to women’s bodies and our sexual pleasure.
But how could I have known? Like many other Muslim women, I rarely heard the “S” word at home; not when I had started puberty and not when I was becoming a young woman. Even when I moved away and became more independent, the topic of sex was rarely discussed. Instead, I received warnings about what not to do and how not to “shame” as a daughter from a Desi, Diasporic home. Like many young Muslim women, I was unprepared for anything about my body and notions of modesty got mixed up with ideas of shame. Women’s bodies were treated as if they were elephants in the room – if we were never to talk about sex, then maybe sin would never contaminate our world.
Muslim women open up about what sex means to them
I’m not alone. My experiences of being brought up with a lack of knowledge about sex – and even confusion around my Islamic rights as a Muslim woman – are not uncommon. Poet, BBC radio presenter and author of These impossible things Salma El Wardany was raised in an Egyptian, Irish and South Asian household and shares this; “I grew up in a family that changed the channel as soon as a kissing scene appeared in a movie. Or if we were at the cinema when it happened, my dad would loudly laugh and tell me not to watch. Physical intimacy was like this huge, hidden thing that was ultimately bad, filthy, filthy, and forbidden.
Searching for answers, Salma searched for information about her body and gender by scouring the depths of the internet and porn. Now, through the prism of adulthood and in hindsight, she knows that these resources are also unreliable teachers. But what was she going to do? Where else was she supposed to go as a Muslim girl with questions about what is natural?
“Not talking about sex is incredibly dangerous. It means people are pushed out of faith and do things in dangerous ways,” says Salma. “The level of shame applied to people who have sex or who are physical in any way is debilitating and means some people don’t want to be part of the faith because why would they when they felt so bad about their sexuality.
“Muslim women are just starting to talk about the importance of touching ourselves, exploring ourselves and knowing what we like and how important it is so that we can then enjoy it with other people,” says Alya Mooreauthor of The greatest freedom: Middle Eastern women outside the stereotypes. Above all, Alya wants to have a good relationship with our body. She thinks it should be encouraged from an early age and that having a curiosity about one’s anatomy shouldn’t be considered sexual.
“We should know what our bodies look like and what the different parts are doing so that we can really appreciate them and not feel fear and shame around them. That way we can take ownership of our right to pleasure.
For the comedian and author of sex bomb, Sadia Azmat, sex is just sex. “I don’t think I should have a specific relationship with sex just because I’m a Muslim woman, especially not in terms of the boxes society puts me in.” There is a presumption that being a Muslim woman must come with certain struggles or narratives, which Sadia’s very existence debunks. “I always thought sex was just a nice thing. I never felt any shame around sex. As soon as I can figure out how to pick up someone of the opposite sex, then that’s it.
But, as we know, sex is rarely about sex. A large part of our identities, our self-esteem can be linked to gender. “The moment that changed how I felt about sex was when I realized I deserved love. [Growing up] it’s not something that I think has been highlighted. And I think that’s what was missing because if you don’t prioritize your sexual satisfaction to some degree, then why would anyone else?
For Salma, Alya and Sadia, as well as many other young Muslim women, sex is a journey they have had to travel on their own. Yet while they all follow a unique path, the common destination they have reached is the understanding that their sexuality is theirs and pleasure is their right. “I worked very hard to train myself to demand pleasure from my sexual interactions instead of being a vessel for male pleasure,” Salma explains. “It has been a really long and difficult journey. Imagine how different it might have been had we been able to have open and honest conversations about sex growing up. If we had had older members of the community to guide us. For Sadia, it’s also about being able to feel and embrace desirability; “I just want Muslim women to know they’re sexy.”
Fortunately, there is a new wave of educators making noise in the sexual wellness space to spare younger generations a silence around sexuality. Among them is Angelica Lindsey-Ali, a certified sexual health educator and wellness coach with over 50,000 Instagram followers. Known to her followers as ‘the village aunt’, Angelica strives to ensure Muslim women have the best sexual experiences and leaves no subject untouched. Likewise, Sexual Wellness Expert Sameera Qureshi uses its thousands of social media followers to help Muslims eliminate the negative stigma surrounding sex and improve their sex lives. With sexual wellness resources accessible for Muslim women, as Muslim women become more available, the future looks bright. Now, Muslim women are more likely to find information that speaks directly to them and their needs, rather than being left out of much-needed conversation.