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Girls and Sexuality: Understanding What Parents and Muslim Communities Can Do For Their Daughters

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By Menahal Begawala

When I became a therapist I had a vision of helping people get through hard times, communicate better with their families, and develop perspective when they felt stuck. I’ve been honored with the privilege of being allowed a glimpse into the lives of my clients with this goal in mind. My greatest privilege (and challenge) so far has been to work with adolescent girls.

When I sit across from young girls who come from Muslim families, my first challenge is to face my own apprehension. I don’t know what preconceived notions they’ll have seeing a conservatively dressed hijab wearing therapist. Thus far, I have found these young women not only open, but also happily willing to work with me. While it is not my place as a therapist to be a religious figure for my clients, I recognize that on some level they are relieved to be able to openly talk with someone who appears to embody the very facet of their backgrounds from which they feel disconnected.

I believe that the challenges young Muslim girls face in navigating their identity in today’s society are more difficult than they have ever been. Between the ongoing struggles of societal, familial, and cultural pressures, the sexualization of women, and the often negative impact of social media, young girls are often left navigating identity issues that would leave many adults in a paralyzing bind. For the sake of this article, I will limit the conversation to issues surrounding adolescent girls and sexuality.

It’s a pervasive issue that is impacting the Muslim community.

“I don’t think that any boy can ever there for me emotionally like Amani* is. And I just can’t see myself being with a boy who isn’t there for me emotionally.”

“I always crushed on Jasmine, never on Aladdin.”

Sexualization and the Loss of Identity

As an Education major, I was required to read The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman. Postman discussed the impact of media on the portrayal and loss of innocence in children. It’s safe to say that society has come a long way since 1994 when that book was published, and that we have far more sources of media input than were available in the 90’s. Whether through print, filtered photos on Instagram, or television, young girls are constantly bombarded with images of what is considered beautiful and attractive. The gap between girls and women is closing quickly as girls hit puberty and physically mature at earlier ages than ever before. Clothing and fashion for tweens and adult women are almost indistinguishable, which cause young girls to be focused on their appearance (with or without hijab) before they’ve had an opportunity to develop a deeper sense of identity.

Everyday, young girls receive constantly opposing messages about identity, freedom, having a voice, and modesty. When the exploitation of women is guised as liberation and independence, it is easy to see how one’s appearance and sexiness can be mistaken for worthiness.  On the other hand, when we drill the idea of modesty being purely about outer garments, we are sending the same damaging message: that a woman’s worth is relegated to the way she dresses. Please note that this is not a comment on the status of hijab in Islam. The intention here is to highlight how we talk to our young girls and what messages we are giving to them when we shy away from deeper more meaningful, albeit difficult, conversations.

Sexuality vs. Sexualization

Dr. Leonard Sax distinguishes between sexuality and sexualization in his book Girls on The Edge. He notes the importance of recognizing sexuality as an important and healthy part of adolescent development. Sexuality is about who one is, a part of her identity, whereas sexualization is a focus on how someone looks. Sexuality is a normal and necessary part of human development. Human sexuality is defined as “the quality of being sexual, or the way people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. This involves biological, erotic, physical, emotional, social, or spiritual feelings and behaviors.”1 Adolescence is a time when youngsters are figuring out their place in the world while navigating their changing bodies, emotions, and social lives. Sexuality is intertwined in every aspect of a young person’s both with themselves and the world around them. It’s normal, natural, and healthy. The sexualization of young girls however, is not.

Sexualization, unlike sexuality, is when the focus is on one’s appearance and sex appeal and goes hand in hand with objectification. It goes without saying that the sexualization of women leads to many negative consequences beyond the scope of this article.  However, within the Muslim community, it seems like we’ve become so scared of these consequences that we are stuck on external solutions in the name of protection/safety. Healthy and necessary conversations about sexuality are abandoned and even stigmatized. The resulting message for girls is that their sexuality, and in essence, their being, is shameful and cannot be spoken of. As a result, our young women are left to navigate the challenges of developing an identity inclusive of their entire selves on their own. One client told me, “My mom doesn’t want me to hug boys. That doesn’t matter because I’m bisexual anyway.” I can’t help but wonder how the girl may have taken it differently if her mother had a conversation about her self-worth and why she was asking her to refrain from certain behaviors. What we don’t realize is that when the adults in these adolescents’ lives don’t lovingly guide them and keep the door open for interactive conversations, social media can very easily fill the void.

It is normal for adolescents to have questions about their developing bodies and sexual awareness. We do our children and our communities a disservice when we choose to ignore the realities of their development. It was not uncommon during the time of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) for women to come to ask questions about intimate matters. They knew that modesty and openness could coexist. We see, in the following hadith, that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was clear about a woman’s response to sexual arousal and the implication that this is part and parcel of conception.

Um-Sulaim came to Allah’s Apostle ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and said, “Verily, Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. Is it necessary for a woman to take a bath after she has a wet dream (nocturnal sexual discharge?) The Prophetṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)replied, “Yes, if she notices a discharge.” Um Sulaim, then covered her face and asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! Does a woman get a discharge?” He replied, “Yes, let your right hand be in dust (An Arabic expression said light-heartedly to a person whose statement you contradict) and that is why the son resembles his mother.” Sahih Muslim 608 Chapter 3, The Book of Menstruation (Kitab Al-Haid) `

Sexual Identity

In addition to sorting through their physical, emotional, and social growth, the youth of today are living in a time where it’s almost expected that they will explore, or at least question, their sexual identity. This is another topic that the Muslim community often likes to keep behind closed doors. We assume that our children will accept the heterosexual norms of our religious and cultural communities. Many will, but it’s not something that can be taken for granted. Whether we like it or not, and irrespective of the Islamic rulings on the topic, the fact is that more and more of our young women are faced with questions regarding their sexual identity. Their lives are caught in the dichotomy of a society in which sexual exploration is encouraged and homes and communities where discussing sexuality is taboo.

In a culture where 1) girl-girl sexual intimacy is no longer taboo, 2) fluidity of sexual orientation, especially for females, is normalized, 3) where emotionally unengaged parenting can leave girls with an emotional void to fill, and 4) where young men are less mature than they used to be, it’s no surprise that more and more young girls are turning to the same sex for comfort during these formative and difficult years2. When girls are battling the normal developmental challenges of adolescence, while living in homes where they feel ignored, criticized, or misunderstood, it can translate into low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and/or rebellion.

Peers easily become the primary support system, and emotional intimacy can translate into physical intimacy. When I asked one of my clients about her feelings towards her family ignoring her, she said “I don’t care. My friends are my world. They’re my everything! Actually, and don’t tell my mother this, my best friend and I just started going out a few weeks ago.” I’ve worked with this client long enough to know that she isn’t unaffected by her family’s dismissal towards her, but that she is coping through her friendships— which can end up becoming romantic as well.

Dr. Sax posits that the “girls themselves may not understand what’s happening because the girls aren’t in touch with their own sexuality.” (p 33) According to Dr. Sax, the number of young women who identify as lesbian or bisexual may be somewhere between 15 to 23%. We have to stop assuming that Muslim adolescent girls and young women don’t fall into this range. We also have to recognize that superficial conversations about modesty and hijab and exhortations to “have taqwa” with threats of hell are not a viable solution. The issues are a lot deeper and require us to move out of our comfort zones and look in the mirror as parents, adults, and as a community.

The Issue with External Solutions

Hijab. It’s the first thing that comes to mind for many people. Questions of whether there should or shouldn’t be partitions in masajid are still being hotly debated. In defending our positions on the physical barriers between men and women, we lose sight of the fact that our young girls are struggling; regardless of whether or not they wear hijab. When it comes to Muslim girls, we become so hung up on the topic of external appearances that we end up overlooking conversations on what it means to create a healthy sense of identity, sexuality, and self-worth. The underlying issue is not the presence or absence of the physical barrier, hijab, clothing type, or make-up, as much as it is our girls’ identities becoming defined by and limited to these things. I am not arguing that discussing or talking about hijab with our girls should be abandoned. I do believe however, that these conversations need to happen within a larger context that makes them more meaningful.

On one extreme, religiosity becomes imposed on girls. They are taught what is halal, what is haram, and often overly cautioned about actions that will take them to hell. Girls are taught that hijab is important due to them being analogous to sweets that have to be covered from flies. What is this teaching girls?  I can’t get over how many young people I meet who are turned away from Islam because they’ve been given such a dark and ignorant perspective. At best, they begrudgingly oblige. At worst, they begin to identify as “in the closet atheist.” When we don’t treat those younger than us with compassion and mercy, they begin to believe that the God —whose teachings we’re imparting —also doesn’t have Compassion and Mercy.

Ibn Majah narrates on the authority of Jundab ibn ‘Abdallah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) who said: “We were with the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) – a group of youngsters close to the age of maturity. We learnt what was iman before we could learn the Quran. Thereafter we learnt the Quran. In so doing, we increased our iman.”

This hadith shows us that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) began his teaching of youngsters by developing a relationship with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). There’s no denying that hijab is a command from Allah. However, when we reduce religious teachings only to lessons on halal/haram, the relationship with Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) doesn’t have a chance to develop.

The other extreme is when conversations about modesty and proper hijab are scoffed at and deemed judgmental and/or cultural. During the second wave of feminism, popular notions of women’s roles in society, their sexuality and reproductive rights were debated, and modesty was posited as a byproduct of the male patriarchy. Many of these notions have become entrenched within the Muslim community and any questions or criticisms of modern hijab and fashion trends are considered politically incorrect. It has become increasingly common to meet young Muslim “feminists”. I use quotes around feminist because I believe that many young women don’t actually know the history of feminism, or how it impacts them beyond giving them more rights than what are afforded to them within their families.

The problem with both of these approaches is that they take away from healthy conversations on sexuality and identity. We become so busy imposing or defending external factors that deeper discussions fall to the wayside.  It also doesn’t help that the widespread use of social media is forcing girls to always be “camera ready” lest an unflattering picture of them make it onto someone else’s Snap story.

What Can We Do?

The issues presented here are part of a much bigger picture and definitely don’t exist in a vacuum. Here are suggestions of what parents and communities can do  for their daughters.

Be curious. Ask her what she’s feeling. Acknowledge that it’s difficult. Acknowledge that you may not understand, but that you want to. Don’t assume you know what your daughter is going through. Also, don’t diminish her sadness or other emotion that makes you uncomfortable as “dramatic.” We have too many adult women who have lived their lives being told they are drama queens and in turn, that their emotions are not valid. We perpetuate this injustice on our daughters when we ignore their pain or tell them what they should or should not be feeling.

Empathize. You may not know what it feels like to be in your daughter’s shoes. You may not understand why she feels the way she feels, whether sad, anxious, lonely, or excited. But you do know what these feelings are. You’ve undoubtedly felt them. Let your daughters (and sons for that matter) know that you have also felt this way at some point in your life, and still experience these feelings. Normalize these feelings for your children. Recognize and verbalize their existence.

When we don’t empathize with children, it can come across as indifference or shaming. Too often I see parents telling their kids not to cry or not to feel a certain way. This minimizes real and often difficult emotions and doesn’t actually teach young people about how to navigate the circumstances causing them. It just teaches them to shut their feelings off. The problem is that we cannot selectively turn off emotions. When we choose to shut down our capacity to feel pain and grief, we inadvertently also shut off our ability to feel joy and excitement.

Pay attention. Notice changes in your daughter’s mood. Is she isolating herself? Is she constantly on social media? While it’s normal for adolescents to push away from their parents, it is not normal for them to shut them out completely. Paying attention requires spending time with our children and getting to know who they are. It means looking beyond their grades and whether they know how to make chai to their interests, their passions, and their struggles.

Stop comparing. Not to your struggles, not to a sibling’s successes, not to another cousin/friend/random person’s goodness. Comparing doesn’t positively motivate anyone. Our girls have enough damaging comparisons with airbrushed models being the standard of beauty. Let’s not make them believe that they aren’t good enough by telling them that so-and-so handled the same struggle or passed the same test with flying colors. Comparing sends a message that we don’t love who they are. Instead of making comparisons with the good behaviors of others, learn to notice and compliment the efforts that are being made.

Be willing to be the mean parent. It is possible to show love, compassion, and acceptance to children while also setting healthy boundaries. I encourage everyone who is a parent, or works with young girls in any capacity to read Girls on The Edge to better understand the implications of social media, sexual identity, and other factors on the development of girls. It won’t be easy to go against the grain of many popular norms, but it’ll be healthier for our girls in the long run.

This is especially important when it comes to social media. Research has shown a correlation between the usage of social media and depression. Being constantly connected can have a detrimental effect on young women, and it’s up to parents to regulate and teach their children how to be responsible and balanced in their use of social media.

Be more positive more often. After having worked with a number of young girls as a counselor, I’ve come to notice a pattern. Every single one of them, without exception, feels criticized and/or ignored by their parents. When I meet with the parents, I can see genuine love and concern for their daughters. However, this gets voiced in the form of complaints or suggestions for improvement while appreciation and genuine compliments have to be probed for. Even when it comes to adult relationships, Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert has found that successful marriages have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. As adults, we need to be validated and acknowledged positively in our relationships. Yet in the hustle and bustle of daily life and getting tasks done, we forget to do this for our children. The most important component of our children’s healthy development is for them to know that they are loved. Don’t assume that your children know that you love them. Tell them frequently that you do.

Create opportunities. This is where the community comes in. We need to create avenues for girls to explore their interests and develop their sense of self in the context of a community. Dr. Sax discusses the importance of girls engaging with a community of women of various ages as well as giving girls the opportunity to explore their spirituality. Our masajid are ideal places for women, old and young, to come together and develop a multidimensional sense of self.

Seek help. Life is hard. At some point we developed the expectation that we should know it all or somehow be able to figure it out. This just isn’t true. We need to develop the ability to ask for help when we need it on an individual, familial, and communal level. This can take the form of seeking therapy or counseling, leaning on a friend for support, or getting professional consultation of some kind. When we aren’t willing to ask for help, we also often end up being unable to be helpful.

Be a role model. Not just in terms of religious or vocational success. Struggle and failure are a part of life. These visitors come in and out of our lives at every stage. They don’t make us less than nor do they diminish our worth. When we learn to be honest about our limitations and are willing to face our own emotions, we show the youngsters around us that it is not only okay, but also safe, to do so. Be willing to grapple with the challenges that are uncomfortable.  Our children do it every single day.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy of the client.

  1. Jerrold S. Greenberg, Clint E. Bruess, Sara B. Oswalt (2016). Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. pp. 4–10. ISBN 1284081540. Retrieved June 21, 2017. Human sexuality is a part of your total personality. It involves the interrelationship of biological, psychological, and sociocultural dimensions. […] It is the total of our physical, emotional, and spiritual responses, thoughts, and feelings.
  2. Researchers at Cornell University, examining data collected from a representative sampling of young Americans that included more than 20,000 individuals across the United States, found that 14.5 percent of women were categorized as lesibians, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” Among young men, 5.6 percent were categorized as gay, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” See Ritch Savin-Williams and Geoffrey L. Ream, “Prevalence and Stability of sexual orientation components during adolescence and young adulthood,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, volume 36 (2007), pp. 385-394. The proportions in the United States might be even lower than in some European countries. For example, in Norway, more than 20 percent of girls and young women were categorized as lesbian or bisexual: see L. Wichstrom and K. Hegna, “Sexual orientation and suicide attempt: a longitudinal study of the general Norwegian adolescent population,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, volume 112 (2003), pp. 141-151. In another study, 23 percent of girls and young women in New Zealand – nearly one in four – were sexually attracted to other girls and young women: see N. Dickson and colleagues, “Same sex attraction in a birth cohort: prevalence and persistence in early childhood,” Social Science and Medicine, volume 56 (2003), pp 1607-1615

Menahal grew up in Queens, New York. She’s a graduate of the Al-Huda Institute and has a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Menahal works with individuals, families, and couples covering a client base with a broad range of mental health issues, including substance abuse disorders. Most notably Menahal has completed Levels 1-3 of marriage counseling via the Gottman Institute, world renowned for its work on marriage stability and divorce prediction. Thereafter, she worked with the Gottman Institute to author the Islamic Reference Guide to the Gottman Method. She is now pursuing training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a modality to treat trauma. Menahal can be contacted for speaking or workshop requests, or therapy related inquiries at menahal.begawala@gmail.com.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Usman

    February 20, 2018 at 6:50 PM

    “where young men are less mature than they used to be, it’s no surprise that more and more young girls are turning to the same sex”

    Copied here for preservation

  2. Avatar

    Ibrahim Mohammad

    February 21, 2018 at 7:19 AM

    Assalamu alaykum warahmatullaah wabarkaatuh.
    Maa sha Allaah, this is indeed a great piece.May Allaah preserve her for us so she can mentor many more to help tackle the problems and empower the Ummah. Jazaakumullaahu khayr.

  3. Avatar

    Muhammad Ibrahim

    February 22, 2018 at 4:55 AM

    So much food for thought. Everything that is wrong with the Muslim Community is beautifully summarised for us here in this one article. But will we take heed and start to change our ways, or will we just continue to wilfully damage our children by forcing an alien culture onto them without explaining why, and then go complaining to our relatives when our children decide to abandon Islam completely in favour of Western values, whilst at the same time still dressing up in hijab in order to please us?

  4. Avatar

    Faheera

    February 22, 2018 at 11:08 AM

    I keep on hearing or reading articles on what Muslim girls are facing in USA No one wants to talk about what Muslim Boys are facing here. Please try to empower Men here to its not easy for them here either!

  5. Avatar

    Ikram Hawramani

    February 26, 2018 at 5:05 PM

    As someone who has written a detailed and explicit book about sexuality in a Western context, I have some important points to make. I hope you forgive the length of the comment. I will focus on the writer’s suggestion that the taboo surrounding sexuality is a negative influence.

    No discussion of sexuality can be complete without the mention of obscenity (see the book Sexual Desire by the British philosopher Roger Scruton). It is right and correct that sexuality is something we do not talk about openly and casually. The reason for this is the same as why we do not like to talk about defecation in polite company (I know it may sound ignorant to compare the two, but bear with me). A discussion of defecation is “obscene” because it focuses attention on humans as if they were animals; it reveals us to ourselves in our bare physicality, and this is not something we like, enjoy or appreciate in a human society.

    Civilized societies develop dress codes that hide the body, helping us interact with each other without our bodies getting in the way. A business meeting can go more smoothly if people are dressed properly compared to if everyone were to be naked. It is common though shortsighted to only think of women when dress codes are mentioned, when civilized societies have equally stringent requirements upon men. In cosmopolitan Iran, Japan or Egypt, men are not allowed to be topless or to wear shorts in polite society. We don’t need a men’s rights movement to “liberate” these men from these oppressive dress codes because common sense tells us that it is a good thing that men should be restricted by dress codes.

    Dress codes (and taboos) help reduce the incidence of obscenity by restricting our behavior. A naked man is far more likely to attract lustful glances from the opposite sex than a man dressed properly. Lust is obscene sexual desire, desire that is detached from appreciation of the person as a human. A lustful gaze is obscene because when a person engages in it, they go from humans to animals. They sink from the human world into the animal world, treating other humans as things, as objects and instruments of pleasure, rather than seeing them as humans of infinite worth.

    One of the most obscene things a person can experience in civilized society is to be lustfully groped against their will. A person who honors the people around him and sees them as humans of infinite worth would never grope a woman regardless of his desires and opportunities for doing so, since such an act dehumanizes the woman. The act is traumatic, it causes her to sink from the warmth of the human world into a cold and harsh animal world where she is no longer honored or respected as an individual, where she is just an object.

    The reason we do not like to talk about sexuality in polite society is not that we are backward, ignorant or narrow-minded. The reason is that anything that focuses our attention on our animal nature threatens to cause us to sink into obscenity. In a family gathering, we are all honored individuals. We do not see each other as animal bodies, but as persons. If everyone takes their clothes off and starts to talk about the workings of their bowels and sexual organs, with one member of the family deeply inspecting another (if you forgive the graphic imagery), this does not increase knowledge and it does not cause enlightenment. It rather causes disgust and makes everyone feel reduced and dishonored, because they have engaged in obscenity, in treating one another as animals rather than individuals. Focusing on our sexuality is always associated with a focus on our physicality, it takes us away from being individuals and toward being animals. There is no way to avoid this, because sexuality is a bodily function, similar to defecation. There is no way to talk about defecation in polite society, taking the taboo out of it, because the taboo is caused by the fact of defecation being associated with our physical side, rather than our spiritual side. Sexuality, too, belongs to the same physical category.

    Much of Islam’s restrictions on behavior are focused on the prevention of obscenity in order to ensure that we always treat each other as honored individuals rather than as animals. When women wear hijab and men dress modestly, this helps civilize our public spheres, reducing the opportunities and temptations for objectifying the opposite sex through lustful gazes. In this way, the public sphere is ‘cleaned up’ of sexuality, we can have large family gatherings with men and women all happily interacting together and honoring one another without anyone engaging in obscenely objectifying others, whether through gazing, groping, obscene speech or otherwise. In a genuinely warm and wholesome human gathering, we forget our bodies entirely, we feel as if it is our hearts interacting rather than our bodies. And this is exactly the type of atmosphere that Islam wants to create.

    Many Muslim writers working in the field of social work end up concluding that we need to ‘talk more’ about sexuality, that we need to ‘break the taboo’, that somehow the hijab causes ‘issues’ for women. But I believe this is caused by a sampling bias. Writers focus on a minority of problematic cases and ignore the 95% of teenage Muslim girls who are doing just fine, who are intelligent enough to find out everything they need about sexuality from the internet and their friends, and who understand the purpose of hijab and are comfortable with it.

    The idea that talking more openly about sexuality in polite society will do good is a very, very tenuous idea that requires a great deal of evidence to back it up. Considering the case of a young Muslim woman who considers choosing a lesbian lifestyle, would it really have made difference if her family were more open about sexuality? If you look deeply into the matter, you may find out that the issue is that this young woman has a cruel and distant father. Would it have made a difference if this cruel and distant father talked to her about sexuality? I highly doubt it.

    When it is suggested that Muslims should be more ‘open’ about sexuality what is really being suggested is that we should be kinder, more attentive and more sympathetic toward those around us (and the writer above mentioned these things). It is assumed that by talking more openly about sexuality these other things will also automatically take place, when these things have nothing to do with each other. A woman who wants to be a lesbian because of the cruelty and distance of her father would be the way she is regardless of whether her father talked to her a lot or little about sexuality.

    The problem appears to me to have absolutely nothing to do with how much we talk about sexuality and everything to do with the love and kindness we have for our family members. It is no surprise that a woman brought up in a cruel or broken family will have identity issues later on. But the question to ask, if we want to judge the issue of talking about sex, is whether a woman brought up in a kind and loving family will suffer identity issues due to the family not talking openly about sexuality. I very much doubt this.

    It is love and kindness that are at issue here. A woman who is brought up in a healthy family is going to have a healthy feminine identity even if she never talks with her parents about sexuality. In fact, some of the most self-confident, happy and outgoing women I have met come from conservative (but loving) religious families who would never openly talk about sex.

    I do not advocate for silence about sexuality. As I mentioned, I have written a book about sexuality (Sex and Purpose, available on Amazon). But if we are to suggest cures for the edge cases where people have sexual identity issues, we should act like scientists. Any cure we suggest should be tested to see whether it actually does any good or whether it is merely empty sloganizing. After years of studying sexuality, it seems highly doubtful to me that talking more about sexuality will do any good. What matters is the love, kindness and honor that we have toward our family members. Parents can buy a few Islamic sex education books and have them in their homes for their teenage children to discover in private, they can even encourage them to ask any questions they have, and perhaps this will do some good in preventing misconceptions. But whether this will have any benefit toward preventing identity issues is quite doubtful and requires much statistical data to prove it one way or another.

    When it comes to something like lesbianism, it seems to be caused by having a distant and unloving family, rather than being caused by having a loving family who never talk about sex. To me the maintenance of a sex taboo is as necessary as the maintenance of a taboo against swearing. Having your children talk about the details of sex in a family gathering is very much obscene rather than enlightened, it does not do anyone any good, and it causes everyone who listens to it to feel degraded, since obscenity always focuses our attention on our physicality rather than on our transcendent spirituality. And as for encouraging a daughter to talk to her parents more about sexuality, in reality many teenage girls will find this deeply awkward and humiliating, because all humans find it degrading when their bodies (rather than their transcendent selves) are the focus of attention.

    I am in agreement with the writer’s suggestions regarding treating children with more sympathy and respect (and this applies equally to boys). My point in this comment is to say that breaking the taboo on sex is a mirage, it promises to bring us into a new utopia of understanding when in reality it will only degrade us to converse casually about sex. The taboo is there for a very good reason, it helps us forget our bodies in polite society, so that our social interactions end up being a meeting of hearts and minds. As for conversing about sex in an educational book or in a therapeutic session, that can be justified, the way that it can be justified to see a stranger’s private parts when treating a wound in that area. But I would hazard a guess that the majority of teenagers will not enjoy or benefit from talking about sex with their parents. What they will enjoy and benefit from is love, kindness and being treated as honored humans.

    • Avatar

      B'K

      February 27, 2018 at 1:19 PM

      Sex is a bodily function, you say.
      Totally disagree. That’s a super shallow view of it.

      It’s an act of worship, therefore is spiritual in nature.

      • Avatar

        Ikram Hawramani

        February 27, 2018 at 5:17 PM

        @B’K: It appears that you missed the major point of my comment. Obscene sexual desire (lust) treats the other person as merely a body and treats sexuality as a bodily function. Wholesome sexual desire never loses sight of the other person as an individual. Sexually admiring another person without being in love with them is obscene because it reduces a human to an instrument of pleasure. Sexual desire is only wholesome when it is within the framework of love for the person (rather than mere attraction to their body).

        Talking about sex with a parent feels wrong and awkward because it is like talking about any other intimate bodily function. It is only in the company of a rightful lover that sex acquires a spiritual dimension. Everywhere else it feels wrong and out of place. And because of these facts, Islam makes an important distinction between public versus private manners when it comes to sexuality.

  6. Avatar

    Shaharyar Hadi

    March 9, 2018 at 9:13 PM

    Thank you Ikram Hawramani for your comment. Read it fully and really enjoyed it. I agree with the assertions you made.

  7. Avatar

    Mimo

    March 12, 2018 at 3:39 PM

    Thank you so much for this article!! Really. I, myself, am a teen Muslim girl, and have struggled with some of these issues. But alhamdulilah, I believe I have it better than most.
    Thank you so much Ms Menahal everything you said is so true. This article is beautiful. I believe Muslim teen girls, most probably even non-Muslim, could relate to this.
    I just can’t get over how much I love this article. Its like you truly understand me, and I’m just overwhelmed right now. I want to become a therapist too, so I really admire you. Especially that you talk about such topics. It is my dream to be like that. Thank you so much :D
    This really means a lot to me. Jazaki Allah Khairan. May Allah bless you and continue to make you a blessing <3
    :D

  8. Avatar

    YM

    July 16, 2019 at 2:22 PM

    JazakAllah Khair for the article! Among the things to do that Sister Menahal mentioned, ‘Being a role model’ is one of the hardest yet most important in my opinion. How we behave (walk, talk,interact etc) casts a shadow on those around us. May Allah give us the taufeeq to act upon what is learned. Ameen

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Our Struggles – Mental Health And Muslim Communities | The Family and Youth Institute

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By Elham Saif, Sarrah AbuLughod and Wahida Abaza

Fariha just started her freshman year at university. Overnight, she was separated from her support system of family and friends and thrust into a foreign environment. She was facing many new challenges, including a heavier workload, new friends, student clubs and organizational responsibilities. She was drowning in endless assignments, exams, and meetings.

Fariha never thought much about mental health issues beyond the few “mindfulness” posts that she’d scroll through on her Instagram feed, but recently she was starting to feel out of sorts. She started to feel anxious as a hijab-wearing woman on campus especially after hearing about anti-Muslim incidents on the news. All of the possibilities of what could go wrong played over and over again in her head–and kept her up at night. Everything was beginning to feel overwhelming. She started having trouble getting out of bed in the morning and was losing motivation to complete her assignments. She felt confused and at times, even afraid. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, close to 50 million Americans suffered from mental health issues in 2017. One in 5 adults in America is living with a mental health illness at this very moment. American Muslims are not an exception to these statistics. According to different studies, like Fariha, 15-25% of American Muslims report suffering from anxiety disorders and 9-30% report mood disorders. Many of these mental health issues in the Muslim population go unaddressed and unresolved because of lack of knowledge, stigma and shame experienced in many Muslim households and communities. 

When these issues go unaddressed, people report that the pain and suffering they experience rises and that overall their problems tend to get worse. Sadly, their struggles can snowball into additional illnesses that were not present before, such as self-harm or addiction. According to the research, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are sometimes not considered to be “real” illnesses. Community members often see mental illness as a sign of weakness, a mark of poor faith, or something that doesn’t affect Muslims. They may also see it either as a “test from God” or sometimes as possession by evil spirits. Even when there is an awareness, many of these illnesses and issues are culturally stigmatized as shameful and kept hidden within the person or family. People may be concerned about the reputation of their family or their marital prospects should a psychiatric diagnosis be disclosed. 

The irony is that Islam ought to be more of a protective factor given how intertwined Islamic history is with the fields of psychiatry and psychology. The contribution of Islamic scholarship to the field of psychology is documented in our history and legacy from health promotion in the Quran and Sunnah, to early scholarly diagnosis, treatment, and intervention. Alaa Mohammad, FYI researcher and co-author of the chapter “Mental Health in the Islamic Golden Era: The Historical Roots of Modern Psychiatry” in Islamophobia and Psychiatry points out that,

“there was a lot of focus on concepts like ‘sanity’ and the significance of mental capacity as well as the general mental/emotional state in many of the early Islamic texts especially in regards to Islamic rules and law.”

Early Islamic scholars described the “cognitive components of depression and sadness, anxiety and fear, obsessions, and anger in detail and suggested a variety of therapies and treatments.” Learning more about this rich history and pulling from these stories in the Prophet’s (SAW) seerah is a key step towards opening the way for people to get the help they need and learning how to support one another. 

Fariha knows that she needs help. She was considering seeing one of the mental health workers on campus, but she’s afraid of what her parents would say if they found out she shared so much with a stranger, especially one that is not a Muslim.

What can parents do?

Research has found that in the face of rising Islamophobia, supportive parenting serves as a protective factor and helps strengthen young Muslims’ sense of identity while unsupportive parents who don’t help their children navigate their experiences end up weakening their identity, which then increases their chances of participating in more risky behavior. 

When Fariha finally shared her fears and anxieties with her parents, she was surprised and relieved to hear that they took her seriously. They listened to her and she didn’t feel like they were ashamed of her, only concerned for her well being. They were eager to find her the help she needed to feel like herself again. 

As Muslims, we need to shift our mindset around mental illness and the effects of Islamophobia. Like Fariha’s parents, it is imperative that we listen carefully and look more deeply at the issues facing our youth. It is through this openness that we can reduce the stigma and encourage more people to seek help. 

The Family and Youth Institute recently released an infographic that talks about some of the struggles facing our American Muslim communities. They teamed up with Islamic Relief USA to get this infographic printed as a poster and will be sending them to over 500 masajid/community centers around the United States in the coming months. 

What can you do to help?

  • Reduce the stigma by sharing this article and infographic and starting a conversation with your friends and family members. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize and destigmatize mental illness and move towards mental health. 
  • Organize a community conversation around the issue of mental health. Invite a mental health specialist to come speak to your mosque youth group or parent group. 
  • Seek therapy when needed. Connect with SEEMA and the Institute of Muslim Mental Health for a list of Muslim therapists. If you are seeing a clinician who is not Muslim, share this book Counseling Muslims: Handbook of Mental Health Issues and Interventions with them to give them a better sense of the specific religious and cultural needs of their Muslim clients. 
  • Educate yourself – There is a plethora of information out there about mental wellness and wellbeing. For help navigating through it all, sign up for The FYI’s daily article share to receive vetted infographics, articles and videos on this topic. Mental health affects our whole life. Whether you are struggling with bullying, helping a loved one with depression, living with and caring for an elder or wanting to build the best environment for your new baby, we have a resource for you! 

These steps are just small ways we can begin to shift the conversation away from shame and stigma and towards help and healing. Mental illness and mental health issues can be scary, but they do not need to be faced alone and in isolation. As the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)said, “The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.” Together, we can fight the existing stigma and misconceptions, provide support, educate the community and advocate for our brothers and sisters suffering with mental illness and their families. 

Sources:

Aftab A., & Khandai, C. (2018). Mental Health Facts for Muslim Americans. APA Division of Diversity and Health Equity, Washington, DC. 

Basit A, & Hamid M. (2006). Mental health issues of Muslim Americans. The Journal of Islamic Medical Association of North America, 42(3), 106-110.

Ciftci A., Jones N., & Corrigan, P.W. (2013) Mental health stigma in the Muslim community. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 7(1), 17-32.

Hodge, D.R., Zidan, T. & Husain, A. (2016). Depression among Muslims in the United States: Examining the role of discrimination and spirituality as risk and protective factors. Social Work, 61(1), 45-52.

Zong, X., Balkaya, M., Tahseen, M., & Cheah, C.S.L. (2018). Muslim-American Adolescents’ Identities Mediate the Association between Islamophobia and Adjustment: The Moderating Role of Religious Socialization. Poster session presented at the biennial meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development, Queensland, Australia. 

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Loving Muslim Marriage | Is it Haraam to Talk About Sex?

Saba Syed (Umm Reem)

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Loving Muslim Marriage

Female sexual nature and female sexual desires are often misunderstood, especially among Muslims. There are some classes and seminars by Muslim speakers that offer advice to Muslim couples about intimacy but unfortunately, the advice is not exactly aligned with correct female sexual nature.

So we decided to come together to clarify these misunderstandings and explain the sexual nature of women and their desires, so we can help build healthy intimacy within Muslim marriages leading to happier Muslim marriages.

This is going to be a series of videos that we will release every week, inshaAllah.

What should be expected out of these videos?

Each video will address a specific myth or misconception about either female sexuality, or Muslim marriage to help men better understand women. We will also explore male sexuality and other subjects.

We hope

– to help better quality marriage
– to help couples- both men and women- get a more satisfying intimate life
– to help women navigate intimate life in a manner where they are fulfilled, paving the way for involvement and desiring of intimacy; breaking the cycle of unsatisfying intimate lives for both husband and wife

Disclaimer:
Please keep in mind that these videos are for people with normal sexual desires — they are not meant to address asexuality.

The content of these videos is a mean to provide marital advice based on mainstream orthodoxy as well as best practices and relationships.

Some experts joined us in these videos to offer their expertise from an Islamic and professional perspective:

Shaikh AbdulNasir Jangda: He was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and at the age of 10 began the road to knowledge by moving to Karachi, Pakistan, and memorizing the entire Qur’an in less than one year. After graduating from high school, he continued his studies abroad at the renowned Jamia Binoria and graduated from its demanding seven-year program in 2002 at the top of his class with numerous licenses to teach in various Islamic Sciences. Along with the Alim Course he concurrently completed a B.A. and M.A. in Arabic from Karachi University. He also obtained a Masters in Islamic Studies from the University of Sindh. He taught Arabic at the University of Texas at Arlington from 2005 to 2007. He served as the Imam at the Colleyville Masjid in the Dallas area for three years. He is a founding member and chairman of Mansfield Islamic Center.

He is the founder of Qalam Institute and he has served as an instructor and curriculum advisor to various Islamic schools. His latest projects include Quran Intensive (a summer program focusing on Arabic grammar and Tafsir), Quranic analysis lectures, Khateeb Training, chronicling of the Prophetic Biography, and personally mentoring and teaching his students at the Qalam Seminary.

In these videos, Sh. Jangda helped present the Islamic rulings and corrections of various misconceptions regarding intimacy and female sexuality.

Dr. Basheer Ahmed: He is a Board Certified Psychiatrist with 18 years of teaching experience at various medical schools. He started off his career by teaching at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York as a Psychiatrist in 1971. Then he started his own private practice in 1984 till the present time. Meanwhile, he continued to teach at various universities around the U.S.
He is also the Chairman of MCC Human Services in North Texas.

In these videos, Dr. Basheer explained several psychological conditions that women may suffer through when they are sexually dissatisfied in a marriage.

Zeba Khan: She is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate.

She helped address the uncomfortable myths and misconceptions throughout these videos and helped provide the correct perspective of female and marital intimacy for Muslim couples to enjoy a better marriage.

Usman Mughni: He is a Marriage & Family Therapist and holds a Master’s of Science degree
Northern Illinois University and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Maryland, along with a degree in diagnostic medical imaging. He worked as a therapist at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in the Center for Addiction Medicine. Usman has experience providing counseling to individuals, couples, and families at Northern Illinois University’s Family Therapy Clinic along with experience working with individuals, couples, and families struggling with chemical dependency and mental health diagnoses and running psychoeducational group therapy at Centegra Specialty Hospital’s partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs.

Since Usman enjoys working with couples to help bring tranquility back into the marriage and providing premarital counseling to couples who hope to have a successful marriage at a time when divorce seems to be on the rise, he especially joined us in this series to offer his expertise. He highlighted the most common intimacy issues in Muslim marriages that he has observed throughout the years of his experience as a therapist. His insights and knowledge has helped us clarify many misconceptions not only regarding female sexual nature but also about men and marital intimacy.

Ustadha Saba Syed: She has a BA degree in Islamic Studies. She studied Arabic Language and Literature at Qatar University and at the Cairo Institute in Egypt. She also received her Ijaazah in Quranic Hafs recitation in Egypt from Shaikh Muhammad al-Hamazawi.

She’s been passionately working towards empowering Muslim women through the correct and untainted teachings of Islam. She is a pastoral counselor for marriage, family, women and youth issues. She has hosted several Islamic lectures and weekly halaqas in different communities all over U.S and overseas. SHe also hosted special workshops regarding parenting, Islamic sex-ed, female sexuality, and marital intimacy.

She took the initiative of putting together these videos because through her pastoral counseling experience she realized that there are many marital intimacy problems in Muslim marriages, mainly due to the misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding female sexuality and female sexual nature.

Hence, with the speakers above, and with these videos we hope to clarify and explain as many myths and misconceptions that we believe have become a hindrance to happiness and success in Muslim marriages. We welcome your comments and suggestions in order to make this series more successful.

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Losing Our Parents, Finding Ourselves

Hiba Masood

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losing parents

“To lose one parent is misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.” – Oscar Wilde

If I am to take Mr Wilde’s words to heart, I’ve had an extremely careless kind of year. Despite our utter devotion to our extremely beloved parents and our best efforts to hang on to them, my siblings and I still went ahead and lost them both about ten months ago.

A long-drawn-out, physically and mentally ravaging illness in which he (and us) suffered for over a decade, took my brilliant, generous, math genius of a laughing, twinkly-eyed father. Upon which, a day after his funeral, my wise, gentle, hostess in chief, caregiver-supreme of a mother promptly contracted a deathly cancer of her own and within a few rollercoaster months, went out like a shooting star.

In between, just to keep things interesting, I also unexpectedly lost a beloved khala (my maternal aunt), a dear long-time family doctor, and our pet cat, who in perfect health one day, dropped dead on our front door the next morning, without any warning whatsoever, completing what was certainly a most eventful year.

I like to think my sister, brother and I, we took all these losses with patience and resilience, in more or less stride…holding fast to the rope of Allah, understanding His qadr and accepting His will as better and wiser than anything we could’ve willed for ourselves. We did this not because we are unfeeling robots or super-mu’mins but because this is how our parents raised us. They raised us to be strong and smart and strong, smart people don’t crumble in the face of what life throws their way. Doing so would be a betrayal of who we were as a happy family and we loved each other just too much to betray.

At least, that is what I loftily tell myself during daylight hours, when the sun is shining and the business of living takes precedence over the philosophy of dying. Because at night, when the house is still and quiet, when my children are curled up in their own beds when the work is done and I put my head to pillow, it is a lot trickier to be so practical-minded.

Every night, every single night for the last 10 months, when I lie down in the dark, before I fall asleep, no matter how hard I try to not have it happen, my mind insists on playing a torturous film. First, I watch my dad die. I am catapulted, in the pitch blackness of my room, back to the night of him in his bed, his eyes closed, his chest slowly rising and falling, rising and falling. I see myself standing beside him, my hand resting on his heart. I see my mother sitting beside us, head bowed.

We are breathing with him, both willing and not willing each next breath. There is nothing different in his outward appearance to suggest the end is near, but the air in the room is holy and we know what’s coming. We don’t move from beside him for one hour, then two, then three. Somewhere past midnight, I see/feel/hear the absolutely deepest silence I have ever encountered. He is gone. So quietly, one would have missed it if they weren’t right there. I see myself exclaim through the tears, “All praise to Allah for He has rescued my Baba from pain.” and I hug my mother.

But my hug doesn’t last. Because, immediately after, it is my mother’s turn. She is in the same bed, the bright morning light flooding into the room. Everyone dear to her is assembled around her, praying and reciting, in aching disbelief that something so similar is happening so soon. Her eyes are wide open and she is breathing faster and faster. I am telling her “Allah loves you, I love you, you’re doing so great, don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine, straight to Jannah, Ma, straight to Jannah“. Suddenly, her whole face softens, relaxes, eases into a radiant smile. She recites the kalima, the room rings with Allahu Akbar and she’s gone.

Earlier, I used to always sob through this entire montage. Pity for myself, grief for who I had lost, the ache of missing them in every imaginable future that lay ahead, would fill my eyes and drench my pillow. The reality of our situation hitting me afresh in the gut: We are orphaned, the roof blown off our heads in a whirlwind of a year, wondering how exactly does one live without the people who taught them how to. Later, as a few months passed, I watched with a more grim, gritted teeth patience. I knew I had to get through this if I wanted to eventually fall asleep. More recently, and this is perhaps the evolution of grief, I have begun to watch with a tender fondness, a dawning understanding of how privileged I was to see the peaceful passing of two righteous people, how lucky I have been to be taught that to love someone, to truly love them, means to bear witness to their journey of becoming more and more human.

And is there anything, ANYTHING more essentially human than death? I bore witness to my parents’ humanity till their very last breath on earth. And because I am human, and I believe in being kind to myself, I finally know that I am not losing my mind or being weak when I keep revising and reviewing this film each night. Instead, I am taming and teaching my very human mind to accept, to submit. I know that all my mind is trying to do as it wrestles every night in the dark, is attempting to make the most beautiful sense out of a most necessary reality.

How do we love? How do we let go? How do we gracefully bear witness to the final moments of our beloveds? How do we prepare for our own final moments?

These questions will take a lifetime to answer.

Perhaps you, dear reader, are already facing these questions. If not, you will certainly face them someday. The truth is, we will all, each of us, one day lose someone we desperately love, despite our very best efforts and most valiant hopes not to. This is the reality of this world. It will not be misfortune or carelessness on our part…it will simply be Allah reminding us that we belong only to Him, that only He knows what is good for us.

If last year, for me, was the year of loss, then this year and all the years ahead are the years of making sense of this loss and deriving meaningful meaning from it. In losing my parents, I must find my self. That is the only thing that will help my parents now. Because, when they were alive, I think I tried my very best to do my due diligence in bearing witness to their humanity. Now that they are in their graves, I can only hope and pray that on the Day it really matters, I am able to bear witness for my parents again: “Oh Allah! Have mercy on them as they did on me when I was younger.”

This is what our loved ones need from us. Prayers, good works so that we may be sadaqa-jaariah, and a relentless testifying to He who listens to all aching, breaking hearts, both in day and night: They were good, Allah. They were good. Have mercy on them.

May Allah forgive our parents, elevate them and reunite us all in Jannah.

Sharing Grief: A 10 Point Primer On Condolence

Baba, The Quran and Me

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