“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.