“Muslims Talkin Sex” Series: Sex Education for Muslims by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

GOATMILK continues its original and exclusive month long series entitled “Muslims Talking Sex” featuring diverse Muslim  writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.


Sex Education for Muslims

Sumbul Ali-Karamali

My 5th grade daughter just brought home from school the kind of form every parent, Muslim or not, dreads. Would I allow my daughter to attend multiple classes on “our growing and changing bodies?”  Seeing my hesitation, my daughter widened her eyes and wailed, “You have to sign it or I’ll have to go sit outside or in the library or somewhere by myself and I’ll be the only one!”

I don’t see any sort of “Islamic” problem with the schools teaching the kids about puberty. I believe that keeping the lines of communication open with our children is crucial not only to family culture but to our societal culture, in which isolation can occur all too easily. I also think it’s important to teach children of both genders to respect each other and to consider personal comments about bodies unacceptable. Teachers are in a unique position to be able to do all these things.

My only hesitation about this particular form was about content, about which I have firm beliefs relating to age-appropriateness. For example, this wouldn’t be sex education, would it, in 5th grade? Do boys and girls sit in the room together while learning about this highly embarrassing subject? Why does the form include information about AIDS? Surely that’s not appropriate for 5th grade?

After engaging in a really forthright, slightly self-conscious, and faintly commiserating talk with my daughter’s teacher, I sent in the signed form. I felt confident that the classes would indeed not introduce sex in 5th grade (a time when most girls think boys have cooties), but would be limited to age-appropriate descriptions of going through puberty. Since then, my daughter has given me numerous reports on how the “body shop” classes are going.

“We dread them,” my daughter tells me. “Everybody dreads them. We giggle and don’t know where to look. The teacher tells us when to look down.”

At my puzzled expression, she explains, “When the teacher is going to say something really embarrassing, she warns us so that we can look down instead of at each other.”

I cannot help laughing, and I’m pleased with my decision. For us Muslim Americans, it’s important to be part of the fabric of American society. We don’t have to compromise our religious values to be Americans. And the more comfortable we are with that, the better.

Further, the writings by pediatricians and psychologists and the schools all seem to indicate that more information is better than less.  I know that, especially in Muslim culture, sometimes parents feel that their children should not learn about the opposite sex, even in a clinical way at school. If they don’t know about it and don’t think about it, perhaps they won’t do it. Perhaps we can protect them. Right? But children find out anyway – and do we as parents want to be the ones to educate our kids about sex, or do we want their peers to impart their (often confused) versions instead?

It’s like drugs. Most people accept that parents should talk to their kids about resisting recreational drugs and those who might want to involve them in drug-related activities. Most of us don’t assume that talking to kids about drugs will cause them to go experiment.  We’re making them aware of potential hazards.

My parents did tell me about sex in a very clinical manner that inspired disgust and disbelief and gave me absolutely no desire to further my knowledge. Besides, it was irrelevant to my life, since my parents told me that Muslim girls didn’t go alone with boys. This made sense to me, too, as they told me this restriction was for my protection.

By the time my tenth grade health class included sex education (another presentation of clinical, anatomical information that didn’t alter my previous views on sex), I was old enough to receive the information and disregard it as still irrelevant to where I was in life. Sex in Islam is reserved for marriage, and besides, it can ruin your life outside of marriage. Made sense to me.

But kids today face bigger challenges, I think. In our neighborhood middle school, parents have had to cope with incidents of oral sex in the parking lot at lunch time. (We’re talking 12-14 year olds, here.) Elementary-aged girls are reading the “Twilight” series, popular books written for young adults  but too mature for prepubescent girls, given that the heroine wants to throw away her education, ambition, friends, and family for a vampire who loves her but wants to suck her blood (a common metaphor for sex and domestic violence). Prime-time television bursts with sexual innuendo in a way that it didn’t twenty-five years ago.

So how do we protect our kids from that kind of ubiquitous peer pressure? I want my daughter and son to follow Islamic dictates and refrain from physical intimacy before marriage. I don’t believe in double standards.

My parents told me, as well as my brother, that dating was against my religion. Perhaps it isn’t that clear-cut, as what exactly constitutes dating? Some parents might consider going out to dinner in a group to be dating, and some wouldn’t. Certainly, under Islamic guidelines, a man and woman should not go behind closed doors alone.

And of course, there’s the ban on physical contact. Again, Muslims might disagree on what exactly is prohibited. Everyone agrees that, in Islam, intercourse is absolutely forbidden outside of marriage. Certainly, not dating at all makes it considerably easier to resist the slippery slope of what’s allowable and what isn’t.

I want my kids to be aware of what happens in society, where the dangers lie, what we expect of them, what Islam expects of them, and the fact that other families (both Muslim and not) might have different rules.  I understand that this might mean resisting peer pressure, but when has that been a bad thing? It builds character and strength. It will teach them to adhere to their principles while not judging others. As long as the channels of communication are open and my kids and I can have honest dialogue, then I think I’ll be doing my job.

All a parent can do is try to make the right choices. I hope  I can give my kids a good foundation for Islamic behavior. But if they do go (in my view) astray, despite my efforts, I hope I’ll have the strength to resist judging them or tying my ego and sense of success and failure to their actions.

– Sumbul Ali-Karamali, a corporate lawyer with a graduate degree in Islamic Law, is the author of The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, an academically reliable, anecdote-filled introduction to Islam and Muslims (www.muslimnextdoor.com).

10 thoughts on ““Muslims Talkin Sex” Series: Sex Education for Muslims by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

  1. It’s true – we belong to a new culture…a different society, where yesterday’s theoretical ethical lines have long been crossed.

    Believing that your children should adhere to their principles without judging others — great concept.

  2. Dear Ali,

    I feel for you as concerned father. I guess the only reason why the subject is embrassing is because we treat it as such I surely don’t want to tell you how to raise your children, but don’t you think the most important thing is that they have a ‘healthy’ relationship to their bodies and sexuality when they grow up?

  3. .you are shaking it to much stop shaking in puplic. you muslim bitch! stop it already!!!!! you are a hell for that for what are nyou even doing that for? for children???

  4. i do not know anything about your faith. i am native american/white american. i am 27 years old. i had sex the first time at age 13. when i was in 8th grade thats when the brought in sex-ed. it was too late. my parents never talked about it. my friends surely did. i was the last friend that hadn’t had sex others were 11-12. now that was 14 years ago. please talk to your children. i live in america and talk daily with young adults from countries that are predomanitly muslim. with technology today they will find out and will probably have twisted veiws on sex. i have a friend that was very sheltered she began masturbating at a very young age. she started hating herself because of a strict christain household. please talk to your kids about all aspects of sex. and please if you disagree with any of their beliefs don’t be upset. just talk it out. you want them to see your veiw so try and see their veiw. thank you

  5. I have 3 kids and am definitely concerned about this issue. But I think parents can play a more important and more active role in it than sex ed. If we have a good relationship with the kids then disasters can be averted.

  6. Just for clarification, in fifth grade you mainly learn about puberty.
    Sex isn’t embarrassing, with out it we would cease to exist! It’s important to open communication as early as possible, so you can share your views on sex and so your children have an education, if you really want them to make wise decisions, give them all the facts.

  7. I strongly agree with Ms. Ali’s desire to educate her daughter about her body and the changes it is going through and share in her conviction about open channels of communication between parents and children. However, the public school system approach is so contrary to what we try to instill in our daughters- modesty, respect for our own body. Why have the girls learn about such an intimate topic surrounded by 10 year old boys who are barely mature enough to handle their own prepubescence much less that the adolescence of the female population of class.
    I have written a guide for Muslim moms, an alternative to the public school cookie cutter approach at http://lordsfavors.wordpress.com/2010/03/18/a-muslimah-guide-to-puberty-how-to-talk-to-your-daughter-about-adolescence
    would welcome any and all feedback-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s