The case for comprehensive sex education for Muslim youth

As HEART continues to work with Islamic schools and educators on health education programming for their youth, we learn of many unfortunate anecdotes about the lack of information (or the abundance of misinformation) regarding sexual health that is present among Muslim youth. In our conversations with educators, we learned of a 5th grade girl who began menstruating and missed three weeks of school. She refused to confide in anyone, afraid she was dying. Another girl who was pressured to “try everything but sex,” unaware that while pregnancy may not be a direct consequence, she was exposing herself to sexually transmitted diseases.
We also learned of a girl who didn’t know the details of reproduction and how babies were conceived until college because her parents repeatedly pulled her out of sex education classes.

HEART has discovered that too many Islamic schools are not offering sex education at all, except in the context of the legalities surrounding ghusl and wudu. As for the Muslim children who attend public schools, too many parents remove them from sex education classes, afraid that the information might lead to promiscuity and believing such information is irrelevant for them because “our girls just don’t do that.”

It is high time that we change this attitude, and start thinking seriously about providing our children with both culturally-appropriate and comprehensive education on reproductive and sexual health. In offering our youth this information, we should not automatically assume that they will then put it into practice. In fact, providing kids with information about their bodies equips them to make responsible decisions when faced with difficult situations. Whether or not we would like to acknowledge it, our kids do, in fact, face difficult situations in which they feel pressured to explore sexuality with their peers. If we continue to keep our kids in the dark about their bodies and sexuality, they will turn to other, often equally ignorant, sources to fill that knowledge gap. Why then are we so opposed to having a responsible, knowledgeable adult provide this knowledge and place it in an Islamic context for them?

The controversy of bringing comprehensive sex education curriculum into the schools is not specific to the Muslim community, but rather American society at large. One of the major arguments against comprehensive sex education is that the information on safe sex, STDs and pregnancy will be counterproductive, encouraging young people to become promiscuous and experiment with sexual activity. Yet, according to the Guttmacher Institute, “evidence shows that comprehensive sex education programs that provide information about both abstinence and contraception can help delay the onset of sexual activity among teens, reduce their number of sexual partners and increase contraceptive use when they become sexually active.”

Advocates for Youth continue to argue that “evaluations of comprehensive sex education and HIV/ STI prevention programs show that they do not increase rates of sexual initiation, do not lower the age at which youth initiate sex, and do not increase the frequency of sex or the number of sex partners among sexually active youth.” While these conclusions are generalized over the entire population, they are applicable to Muslim youth – increased knowledge of ones reproductive and sexual health will not necessarily lead to increased sexual activity among Muslim youth, especially if we discuss sex in a culturally-appropriate context.

The Muslim community’s, and in particular the South Asian community’s, consistent refusal to discuss sex, is detrimental to the future of our daughters’, sisters’, and friends’ marriages. Young women often enter into marriage unfamiliar with their bodies and sexuality. It can take months, even years, for them to become comfortable with sexuality being a part of their lives, and not feel ashamed about it. As a result, they are labeled “prudes,” when in fact the problem really is that sexuality was never portrayed as a natural part of life to them, but rather something that one should feel embarrassed about and conceal.

It is time we talk about sex openly with our youth as a natural part of life. We should not shy away from addressing their curiosity, and must be aware that low self-esteem and peer pressure often directly contribute to young people’s poor choices regarding their sexual activity. If we can move past the shock that our youth are, in fact, making decisions regarding their bodies, and instead focus on why they feel compelled to make these choices, we will be better equipped to address their needs. We can then facilitate the confidence Muslim youth need to understand the wisdom in delaying such behaviors until their Islamic values allow them.

(Photo: Jayvee Mojar)
Nadiah is co-founder and director of programs for the HEART Women & Girls Project. She recently earned her Masters in Public Health from the University of Illinois at Chicago. in the past she has been a consultant for the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services working on a variety of different projects focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness, American Indian/Alaska Native Health, and improving the health of Chicago. Prior to her work at the OWH, she worked on a research project focusing on improving the pregnancy outcomes of low-income Chicago women. She earned her bachelor degree in Public Policy Studies from University of Chicago and lives in Chicago with her two children and husband. Additionally, Nadiah is the Program Manager for American Muslim Health Professionals.


  • katseye says:

    Thank you very much for this article. There is a huge misconception of what Sexual Health means. The UN along with WHO have publications out regarding the lives of women in majority Muslim countries. One of the greatest problems women/men have is lack of sexual education/promotion of good sexual health.

    I often refer to some of my trips abroad where I was asked 1000 different questions regarding sexuality and women(I guess being American makes you equivalent to Dr. Ruth?!) It made me very happy to help in anyway that I could yet made me very sad that young women and girls were afraid to go to a doctor or ask for help. A few even told me that if they told their parents/husbands about their desire to see a doctor for lower abdominal pain or irregular bleeding that the parents/husband would question them for wanting someone to look “down there”.

    It just shocks me how much importance we put on physical pleasure and marriage yet remain largely ignorant of sexual health.

  • heartwg says:

    Thank you, Katseye, for your comment. I really appreciate your support, and have had similar experiences as you. The most interesting thing is that this lack of attention to sexual health, or rather, this “shame” the community has created around the topic of sex, is so unfamiliar to Islam when you look at it from a historical aspect. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, was often approached by women and men with questions about their bodies, sex, and sexuality, and it was always in a context that was free of shame, and instead, an approach that gave it the importance and respect that it deserves.

    It is our hope that continued discussion like the one above will gradually change this attitude and lend to a society that is much more comfortable with this topic.

  • tlen says:

    a basic health class would even suffice. I never took a sex education class, but we certainly had health classes and were taught basic human anatomy and biology and learned about menstruation, ejaculation, etc…

  • Iftikhar says:

    The sexualisation of children by the government, Dept of Education, ‘pregnancy advice centres’, social workers, school nurses, media aimed at teen girls, contraceptive industry lobbyists, fashion industry and the welfare state to name just a few, is a crime against humanity.

    It is also gross hypocrisy for the police to prosecute paedophiles when the government is overseeing boy scouts being given condoms from the age 11 and girls of the same age being told it is OK to have sex if they use ‘protection’. Boys and girls at age 11 are not allowed to marry but they can have sex and produce children. Every parent is worried about his child being indoctrinated into the idea that gay and sexual promiscuity is “normal” modes of behaviour. At the same time, all parents have the right to control their children and it is their Duty to control them.

    It is an eye opening for the Muslim parents who keep on sending their children to state schools with non-Muslim monolingual teachers. Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers a s role models during their developmental periods. Muslim teachers are in a better position to teach sex education to teenagers according to Islamic perspectives. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school. State funded Muslim schools are crucial for social cohesion, religious and cultural harmony. They are preparing children and young people to face the challenges of life in modern Britain and to also contribute in a positive way to wider society. Muslim children will develop self-confidence and self-esteem. According to TES, pupils make more progress at Muslim secondary schools than anyother type of schools. They are promoting tolerance and support the spiritual, moral, social, linguistic and cultural development of pupils.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

  • Sarwar says:

    To readers, if you are also on facebook, please join Tahmena Bokhari’s fan page
    This page is how I came to know of this article.

    I totally agree with the article and Tahmena’s statement about it. We have to look at reality even when it is taboo if we want to develop ourselves. Reality is that all youth, Muslim or not, are curious and have questions about sex and their bodies, it is normal and natural. Sex education is not learning about sex, it is learning about one’s own body. I think this is why so many Pakistani women have so many illnesses that can easily be prevented or treated but because they never speak about symptoms or go for check up. Women in places like Pakistan and other poor countries probably die all the time from simple infections they have been suffering from with years only because they could not speak up or were not educated on these matter in the first place.

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