A jihad for sexual health and education

“Do not bring shame to the family,” warned Elham Mahdi al Assi’s mother before Elham died from internal bleeding due to days of sexual torment by her new husband. Abed al Hikmi had taken his new bride to Dr. Fathiya Haidar, who advised the groom to stay away from his bride for several days in order for her to heal. Instead of following the doctor’s orders, al Hikmi continued his assault, assuming his wife’s screams had to do with spiritual possession and not because of the pain or torment that he was inflicting on her.
While Elham Mahdi al Assi’s case may seem extreme, it is not rare. Muslim societies attach great importance to male virility and even more to the virginity of young women and girls. The focus often leads to ignorance and hardship, mainly for females whose virginity rules even their earliest years. From not participating in sports or using certain kinds of feminine hygiene products to securing their virginity by opting for a surgical procedure that ensures tearing and bleeding on the wedding night, females bear the brunt of this sort of patriarchal traditionalism.

The very same traditionalism also limits the development of educational curriculum that answers questions about the basic anatomy and physiology of both males and females. Although the governments of some Muslim countries, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Bahrain, have approved of basic sexual health education curriculum, most teachers shy away from providing this education due to lack of understanding coupled with embarrassment about the subject at hand (PDF). The teachers’ inhibitions are understandable and beg the question why don’t these governments facilitate the training of teachers expected to educate intermediate aged students on their bodies.

Some Muslim countries deserve credit for having taken the lead on sex education. The Indonesian government designed a sex education program after witnessing a rapid increase of teen pregnancies. Plus, the government discovered that the youth are eager to have their questions answered. Turkey has also permitted a limited educational program in response to teachers noting that girls wanted information about their bodies and how they function.

Sex education should not be seen as corrupting youth, but rather instrumental in building a healthy society; such honest dialogue was certainly a part of the early Muslim community. Critics often cite the perceived hedonistic societies of the United States and Western Europe as the failed models of sex education. Though most of these critics have little background in biological or reproductive health, they continue to guide the discussion. Often citing sexually deviant behaviors, they claim the need to protect the family unit and its morals. Ironically enough, many of the societal ills that these detractors fear—teen pregnancies for one—could, in fact, be resolved through kids making informed choices and decisions.

Early Islam, whether through the study of Qur’anic verses or the Hadith, taught Muslims about menses, sexual etiquette, fluids, discharges, and relationship problems that could lead to a miserable sex life. Muslims found it natural to educate themselves about healthy sexual practices and relationships because intimacy was seen as a beautiful gift from the Almighty. This gift was also the subject of Muslim literature, both allegorical and scholarly, for centuries, as sexuality was not seen as heretical or shameful.

Although this liberal attitude toward sexuality may have been the norm centuries ago, it is no longer part of the Muslim social fabric. Al Azhar University Professor Dr. Ahmed Ragab published a study (PDF) which examined the attitudes in Egypt and North Africa toward HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and general sexual knowledge. According to the findings, Egyptian adolescents knew very little about the maturation of their bodies, even though some had already begun the awkward transition from childhood into puberty. In Tunisia, over 50% of male students and over 70% of female students believed that varying birth control methods caused serious health risks. Even more worrisome was the lack of testing for HIV/AIDS and STI’s, as most did not understand how they are contracted or prevented.

In 2007,the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) released a comprehensive report (PDF) entitled Young People’s Sexual and Reproductive Health in the Middle East and North Africa. The report painted a picture that is rarely seen due to the louder, although less informed, voices of the critics of sex education. Across the board, younger people wanted more information about anatomical and physiological functioning, along with the prevention of AIDS and STI’s. Approximately 73% of female respondents wanted information about menses, physiological development, and reproductive health. Most felt that they could not talk to their mothers or were encouraged to not ask questions.

Although sexual education should be made available to both males and females, teaching girls/women about their bodies often stirs up more suspicion and opposition than does educating young men. This is likely due to the idea that a woman’s body and virginity are tantamount to her family’s honor. As a result of many governments’ and families’ stubborn refusal to offer sex education to Muslim women, we find a disturbing number of women suffering from reproductive health problems. Over 70% of Saudi Arabian women who are diagnosed as having breast cancer die because they could not seek treatment or the cancer went undetected in its early stages, due to lack of female-only services. Fifty-six percent of Egyptian women surveyed had some sort of reproductive tract infection (UTI, PID, etc) but assumed pain and discomfort were a normal part of the female experience and failed to visit the doctor.

Such ignorance does not honor Islam or the Muslim family. Critics must stand aside or offer solutions based on facts. The Muslim obsession with child bearing and sexual pleasure can only be seen as hypocritical if the Muslim population remains uninformed. Today’s Muslim youth are bombarded with pornography, temporary marriages, and misinformation. If they continue to be ignorant, we risk both their physical health and their spiritual wellbeing.

(Photo: Ben Beiske)
Katherine Wilson is working on a BA in Justice Studies with a focus in women’s issues. In her spare time, she volunteers for a grass roots domestic violence program and is a parent volunteer. She lives in Providence, RI.


  • muqarnas says:

    Elham was only 13 years old, she died 5 days after the wedding.  The monster who killed her deserves to be tortured and executed. Period.

    I don’t know that receiving sex education would have helped anything, as this was a case of her being held prisoner by a rapist.  I think cases like that, and child marriages in general, have more to do with straight up misogyny. 

    But I agree that overall, sexual education in the Muslim world will help young people better understand their bodies and therefore take more control over their lives. I can only hope that such a change will raise a generation that refuses to allow such horrific incidences such as Elham’s to occur. May Allah grant her eternal peace and happiness in the highest heaven. Ameen.

  • katseye says:

    @muqarnas-elham’s entire soceity failed her. she was married in a haram “wife swap” transaction. a doctor could’ve hospitalized her instead of allowing her husband to carry her out of the clinic. her mother could’ve forced the husband to leave her. a tribal law system that is honored above all else that will not prosecute her husband.

    in memory of her and other females who suffer, we must try to educate them, to push education, and to not allow ignorant voices to reign supreme.

  • muqarnas says:


  • Anjum says:

    First, Elham’s case is so terrible and heartbreaking! I don’t know what kind of man thinks it is okay and even his right to inflict pain and assault on any person, let alone the woman he has married! It is just terrible.

    Second, the discussion of whether sex education leads to more informed youth or more promiscuous youth is not confined to Muslim countries and cultures, obviously. It has been raging for years here in the United States. It should not even be a discussion, really, as no peer-reviewed studies have proven the fears of abstinence-only advocates to be true – none have shown that sex education serves as a “green light” to youth, to go nuts with each other! In fact, most studies have shown that comprehensive sex ed leads to safer and more informed youth and young adults. This report has more details (http://ari.ucsf.edu/science/reports/abstinence.pdf).

    I understand that people worry about their kids. I would worry, too, as a parent. Hell, I already worry about my nephews and they’re not even 10 yet! and I can see how there would be Muslims who see sex ed as a slippery slope down to rampant promiscuity. But the truth is that ignoring sex when raising youth does not protect them from the risks involved—only education does. I can’t tell you how much I want for people to be more reasonable, less fist-clenching.

  • katseye says:

    @Anjum-You raise a really good point. I know many “conservative” Christians that are opposed to sex education for their children, regardless of their age. The opposition here in the states usually centers around promiscuity and the claim of pushing the so-called homosexual agenda.

    I am a parent as well. It’s so easy to talk to the health education teacher and ask what is the curriculum. It’s easy to learn.

  • aakhtar says:

    This is precisely the problem, which Anjum raised.  Somehow, somewhere, the Muslim community has developed the notion that talking about sex sexy and leads to evil doings because one has knowledge of sex.  Many studies have compared the sex ed policies of the Netherlands and of the US and have shown repeatedly that having more information and education lessons the burden of sexually transmitted disease.  While this example doesn’t necessarily translate directly to what the author is writing about, it proves a point. 

    We need to give our children more information, and better information.  I ask myself as a parent, do I want my 8 yo son to learn about this stuff from me, or from somewhere else?

    @Katseye, great point – it’s easy to walk in and talk with the health educator. Most of the public school teachers are familiar with parents being a little curious and cautious.  It’s the private Islamic schools that are entirely a different ballgame.  They have dismissed sex ed entirely. As a result, we have girls (and I have met them) in their late teens and early twenties who have SO MANY questions and have no one to ask but the internet, their same-sex and opposite-sex friends.

  • katseye says:

    @aakhtar, i have seen the same. when i was in the mid east, i learned that many girls and women know nothing about their bodies. i heard horror stories-from a female attacking her new husband because she thought his attempt at intercourse was against God’s laws to a girl who had not married yet but had severe bleeding and could not see a doctor because her motivation was questioned.

    i do not understand it. and i do not understand the point in honoring traditions that do not honor the Almighty or the human spirit.

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