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Sex and the Ummah

Sex & the Ummah: Innocence Lost

girlsgonemild.jpgWalk into the toy store, and you’ll find “baby” dolls dressed in clothing reminiscent of prostitutes’ outfits. Walk into the clothing store, and prepubescent girls are already being introduced to tank tops, mini skirts, and items of clothing that were once reserved for mature women.

But hey, this is nothing new. It’s been around for a while… and I think that many of us – including myself! – have become somewhat desensitized to this. There are times that we’ll remember how bad it is, but what usually happens is that we cluck over it for a bit and then get distracted by the many other problems we’re facing.

Now, however, I’d like to take the time to address this issue from a couple different angles – both a psychosocial and religious point of view.

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In Wendy Shalit’s book “Girls Gone Mild,” she discusses the culture of hypersexualization: how it’s being promoted, through both media and consumerism, how it’s permeated society, and how it has so dangerously affected our lives and mentalities. This article (hat-tip to Nasim Choudhury) makes similar points – the psychosocial ramifications of hypersexualized culture are already evident and recognized even by non-Muslims.

Awareness of sexuality is occurring at a much earlier age today, and almost always with a confused or warped understanding of it. Girls and boys are both growing up insensitively exposed to sights and concepts about the human body that were once discovered at a much slower rate that accommodated their level of mental and emotional maturity.

It doesn’t exist only amongst non-Muslims. Even Muslims are infected with the disease of hypersexualization, and its effects are far-reaching. Girls who wear hijaab still obsess over their weight and their image and try to look older than they are… without the maturity or understanding of what ‘older’ really means.

In addition to general psychological and social effects of hypersexualization, as Muslims there is another dimension that makes the issue even more important for us to be aware of.

The concept of hayaa’ – of modesty and shyness – is one that we Muslims should all be aware of, and prize highly, and do our best to cultivate within ourselves. There are many different kinds of hayaa’, but in this context we’ll deal specifically with modesty relating to our bodies.

In Islam, we have something which we call the ‘awra: the part of our bodies that we try to keep covered as much as possible. In general, although of course it differs with women in respect to the hijaab and so on, the ‘awra can be described as what is between the navel and the knees.

Sheikh Hisham al-Awadhi mentions in his series about Children Around the Messenger that sex education and awareness is supposed to begin at an early age for Muslim children – starting with the understanding that there are certain times and places that they cannot enter without permission. Hopefully this is something that Muslim parents are implementing with their children… but then there’s another kind of sex education that must be addressed. That is, teaching our children how to have respect and modesty regarding their own body, and others.’

It’s not enough to just give kids “the birds and the bees” talk and to make girls start wearing hijaab – indeed, I find that there are far too many girls out there who wear hijaab without even fully understanding the many wisdoms behind it, including that of respect, modesty, and self-esteem. Rather, we have to cultivate within them an understanding that whatever they see outside, whatever they hear from others about their bodies and self-image, there is something far more important to keep in mind: to have taqwa not just in matters of “dos” and “don’ts” but also about our attitude towards our bodies.

Respect your body and have self-confidence. Know that first of all, we don’t cover our bodies because we’re ashamed of it – rather, we’re proud of it and respect it. Allah created us in the best of ways, with body parts that both look good (well… mostly!) and perform neccessary functions. However, just ‘cuz we look good doesn’t mean that we should be showing it off to the whole world! (BTW, this goes for men also – please, no Speedos! Those don’t even look good.)

I think it’s of especial importance to get this message across to young girls: hijaabi or not, most girls have issues with their self-esteem and self-image, especially in this society where so much emphasis is placed on making oneself physically attractive. In addition to making them realize that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, we can’t forget that it’s human nature to want to be beautiful – in the same series, Hesham al-Awadhi reminds parents to make their daughters feel good by complimenting her on her beauty inside the house. Notice when she’s wearing a new outfit, tell her how the colour looks great with her eyes, how lovely she is, etc. In this way, by knowing that others – who are allowed to see her beauty(i.e. her mahaarim) – think she’s beautiful, there’ll be less of a need for her to desire others’ approval of her attractiveness.

Respect others’ bodies. Whether it’s a kaafir or a Muslim, a man or a woman, covered or naked… have respect and shyness for their bodies. Don’t look at what’s not permissable to look at; don’t behave in a manner that’s contrary to the entire concept of hayaa’. Lower your gaze and have good manners. Far too often have I seen hijaabi girls giggling over a model, actor, or even a brother at a community function; similarly, stories about men ogling hijaabis or drooling over non-Muslim women disgust me because that’s NOT how a Muslim is supposed to act at any time, towards anyone.

Just as girls need a bit of help with the first point, I think parents need to spend more time teaching boys about the second. Part of chivalry is to have respect for women and treat them decently no matter how they’re dressed – to truly lower the gaze and behave as the Prophet (sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) did towards women. It needs to start when they’re young, and reinforced as preteens and young teens, so that it will stick with them as adult men who have to deal with women in many different kinds of situations. An example of this are my brothers – although they’re only 12 and 13, they feel shy whenever they pass by a woman (or a picture of a woman) who is indecently dressed. They’ll make a point of averting their gaze, but still treat whoever it is with respect by speaking politely. Sadly, there aren’t many kids like that these days – may Allah them and keep them strong upon Islam, ameen!

Another problem that I know many parents struggle with is trying to teach their kids that the pictures of half-naked men and women on advertisements, billboards, TV, etc. are not acceptable Islamically. I believe that this issue is related to the point above: having respect for other people’s bodies. A somewhat uncomfortable question that younger kids might bring up (usually at most inopportune moments!) is something along the lines of, “Mama, why is that lady not wearing any clothes?” or “Baba, why is that man in his underwear?”

This is when, instead of cringing or hissing at them to be quiet or ignoring them, you explain to them about how there are many people who don’t protect their bodies the way we do. Insha’Allah, if you handle it the right way – open, matter-of-factly, but pressing the concept of hayaa’ – your children will grow up knowing that while the human body isn’t something to be ashamed of, it IS something to be cared for, protected, and respected.

Innocence is an endangered species. Instead of ignoring the repercussions of the situation, complaining about it, and not doing anything about it, we have to be proactive in dealing with it. Recognize how it affects our children, and take the necessary measures to address it in an Islamic and psychologically healthy manner.

May Allah protect us all from the fitnah, fasaad, and faahishah that is all around us, ameen!

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Zainab bint Younus is a Canadian Muslim woman who writes on Muslim women's issues, gender related injustice in the Muslim community, and Muslim women in Islamic history. She holds a diploma in Islamic Studies from Arees University, a diploma in History of Female Scholarship from Cambridge Islamic College, and has spent the last fifteen years involved in grassroots da'wah. She was also an original founder of MuslimMatters.org.

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    Say, “Oh My servants who have transgressed against themselves, do not despair of the mercy of Allah . Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” (39:53)

    Embarrassment. Defeat. A lack of self-worth.

    In the eyes of the young porn addict, the man or woman who got married but still couldn’t quit, the spouse who got caught and feels like they will forever live under a cloud of shame and suspicion, or the spouse who caught their partner yet doesn’t know how to confront them or assess their own value in light of the discovery.

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    The child who was caught by their parents, or even worse, the parent who was caught by their child. The young person who attends halaqas and grows in religious knowledge, yet only feels like a bigger hypocrite because they can’t seem to hold to any resolution to quit, no matter what admonishing lecture they hear or self-inflicted punishment they endure.

    The confessions of strange sexual cravings and impulses, and the inability to see people except as sexual objects. The dehumanization of the consumer and the consumed.

    As an Imam, I can think of very few things that have wreaked havoc on pretty much every demographic in the community as pornography has. Yet how many Khutbahs have you heard about it? How much attention do we devote to helping people see the harms of it, see their own self-worth as they feel trapped by it, and find the resolve and practical program to overcome it?

    As one young addict lamented to me years ago, “It seems like we censor discussion on porn instead of porn itself.” I never forgot those words, yet admittedly have often felt it difficult to address the subject. What is the right forum to discuss it? Is it appropriate from the pulpit? Should I be the one discussing it at all? Who are the experts we can turn to?

    Allah’s command in the Quran to restrict the gaze precedes guarding one’s chastity because what enters the eyes regularly is bound to find a place in one’s heart and mind. But what happens when it has already settled in both of those places?

    And while there have been a handful of noble efforts in the community to provide safe spaces to help people through their addictions, there are multiple ways in which we’ve become increasingly desensitized to pornographic content that have not been adequately addressed.

    When the term “Pornography” is typically used, it refers to very specific genres and spaces. But in reality, it’s made its way into sitcoms and dramas that are casually referenced without reservation or acknowledgment of pornographic elements in the same way that people would reference any other shows. Just because it’s in an HBO or Hulu series doesn’t make it any less detrimental. For some, it’s the accidental glances on social media feeds that eventually turn into addictions. And the shame of being a porn addict in private, despite the growing shamelessness of consuming and referencing pornographic laced content in public spaces, makes it difficult for people to get help. Sadly, it’s usually not until devastating spiritual or social consequences occur that any steps are taken to address it. And then those mediums which offer hardcore premium content become the “drug dealers” so to speak.

    Which brings me to the industry side of this. Not only does pornography wreak havoc on the viewer emotionally and psychologically completely altering their view of themselves and the world around them, but it tragically exploits some of our most vulnerable populations to feed that dependent viewer. “Barely legal” is in fact often outright illegal, yet very few efforts have come about to shed light on what is becoming the new normal.

    As I was writing this, a new Netflix special, Cuties, which pompously is centered around 11-year-old girls twerking rightfully sparked global outrage. And while some retorted back that the film was actually meant to shed light on the sexualizing of children, to depict children in this fashion in the name of art or social commentary only further endangers them and normalizes the reprehensible behaviors that continue to put them at risk. A good read on this is an article written by Alan Jacobs in 2013 about an HBO show that unconcernedly includes a fantasy about an 11-year-old heroin addict.

    Again, not only is it disturbing and in violation of basic human decency, but it’s also dangerous. The porn industry is driven by the demands of consumers, and those demands are unsurprisingly surging with regards to children. A recent article by NBC points to how Child sexual abuse images and online exploitation have specifically surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of sexual child content have more than doubled this year, from 983,734 reports in March 2019 to 2,027,520 reports this March.

    Is this not enough to warrant universal concern? Article 34 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children states that:

    “States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:

    (a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;

    (b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;

    (c) The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.”

    This treaty was ratified with global consensus, yet is violated regularly with impunity. So how do we start to fight back against this beyond continuing to highlight the immorality of pornographic content as a whole, and doing everything we can to protect our families from it?

    A few months ago, I came across a video about the work of Exodus Cry, a faith-based campaign against Porn Hub which it appropriately deems #Traffickinghub. Led by Laila Mickelwait, the campaign is seeking to shut down Mindgeek, the parent company of Pornhub, for its disproportionate role in perpetuating global child sex trafficking. 70 to 90 percent of mainstream pornography is owned by Mindgeek. With the money and access to power the company holds, it has sought to minimize exposure to its criminal activities as well as the overall harms of pornography through sponsoring and propagating false research much like the tobacco lobbies of the 90s. Imagine the implications of shutting down the world’s largest porn stakeholder.

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    And while most of those who organize against the commercial sex industry would be considered political conservatives, that should not in any way stop us from working together with them on this issue of urgent importance. To some, the issue of pornography is solely centered on harm. To others, it is solely centered on morality. To Muslims, it must be both. We must care for both the children in front of the screen, and those behind it. And so while we work to guard ourselves against the harms of this industry by being mindful of what we allow into our homes, by coming up with programs and safe spaces for those dealing with addictions, and by designing and uplifting alternative mediums that aren’t plagued by porn, we should also join hands with anti-trafficking and faith groups to fight the industry itself that shamelessly preys on the world’s most vulnerable population.

     

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