When I was in third grade, my then best friend–who was in fifth grade–came running home after school, pulling me into my room, shutting the door, and exclaiming out of breath, “You will NOT believe what I learned today.”
And then, complete with diagrams of x’s and y’s, my friend told me all about her sex education class. I listened intently, not interrupting her a single time. When she was finally done, she looked up and said, “So? What do you think? Can you believe it?”
Calmly, I looked right back at her and confidently said, “Well, that’s nice. But, I just want you to know, Muslims don’t do that. So I really don’t know what you just learned.” And she looked right back at me, with the same confidence, and said, “They do. I asked my teacher.” And that, friends, is how I came to know about the birds and the bees.
As I grew up, my mother was proactive enough to send me to sex education classes at every grade they offered them. Yet, I paid attention only to pass the exams. After all, I was a Muslim, and that stuff didn’t apply to me—I would wait until I was married and so would my future spouse.
Yet, what I didn’t know is that I would quickly become a confidant and resource for all my friends, who were beginning to navigate dating, relationships, and sex. They shared with me many of their experiences, their stories, their joys, and their heartbreaks. Yet I never once asked them some of the most crucial questions as they told me about their experiences: “Are you being safe? Do you feel safe?” I didn’t cross that territory for so many reasons. First, asking those questions meant admitting that dating and sex were happening, and well, you know, we were Muslim. Second, asking those questions was irrelevant, because again, we were Muslim. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy, and dating violence? Not Muslim problems. And finally, perhaps part of me didn’t want to know any more than they offered me, for fear of having information that may take us into territory I only considered for “adults” much earlier than I was ready for.
I wish my story was unique, but since I’ve founded HEART, a national nonprofit that works to promote sexual health, uproot gendered violence, and advance reproductive justice, this story is more common than I thought. And while now more than thirty years later I can look back and laugh about my reaction, many others have shared with me the impact of not having access to safe, accessible, and culturally relevant sex education has had on their lives. From not having the information to identify common medical problems such as a yeast infection, to struggling to leave unhealthy or abusive relationships, many of the Muslims I spoke with navigated these common life experiences alone. Others shared their frustrations of being shamed and judged by their providers or alienated by their faith communities for their lived experiences.
No matter what the dominant messaging within and outside Muslim communities, there is actually no one way of being Muslim.
For more than a decade, HEART has been this space for Muslims all over the United States and Canada. As we collected stories over the years, we realized the importance of being able to offer access to accurate, judgment free, and culturally sensitive health information in a way that also allowed people to learn independently and anonymously if they desired, and also, in community with each other. We wrote The Sex Talk: A Muslim’s Guide to Healthy Sex and Relationships to do just that.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that I learned in doing this work was that no matter what the dominant messaging within and outside Muslim communities, there is actually no one way of being Muslim. People from all sides have a critique of Muslim women and femmes and their lived experiences; community members feel obligated to share their unsolicited advice on how their religious practice is wrong, while those outside our communities make unfair assumptions that Muslim women are inherently oppressed and cannot have sexual liberation. Muslim women are always fighting battles on multiple fronts simultaneously: within the community to advocate for change, and from external forces that see us as caricatures of the biases and stories they have created about us.
“The Sex Talk” is the book we wished we had growing up. Serving as an introduction to talking about sex, reproductive health, and sexual violence in Muslim communities, it addresses the emotional, physical, and spiritual side of sexuality. The advice offered inside goes beyond first-time sex and covers other issues—particularly, healthy sexual relationships—that may be helpful whether it is your first time having sex or not.
This book is more than just a book, it’s a culture shift.
Ultimately, this book is more than just a book. It is a culture shift. It is a tool for conversation for communities that struggle to find the language to talk about deeply personal, nuanced issues, especially when there might be a risk of disagreement. We also built this book for self- reflection, with its reflection prompts and self-guided activities. It’s a book to gift to your friends, talk about with your partner, or do alongside your children. It’s a tool for starting college, your first relationship, entering marriage, or reclaiming your relationship with your body. “The Sex Talk” challenges our ideas on what healthy and liberatory sex and relationships can look like. Moving beyond white-feminist frameworks for sexual liberation, “The Sex Talk” invites Muslims and non-Muslims to bring in their full selves when making decisions about their body.
It is for that reason, this book is a form of reproductive justice; a modality to relearn, repair, and reclaim your body and your faith. Given the ongoing attacks on our bodily autonomy, this book is more timely than ever. Rooted in Islamic principles like compassion, fullness of choice, and justice, this book unapologetically offers the following message: there is no one way of being Muslim, and Muslims have always practiced reproductive justice.
Nadiah Mohajir is a lifelong Chicagoan, Pakistani-American-Muslim, mother of three, public health professional, reproductive justice activist, and anti-sexual assault advocate. She is an Interfaith America Sacred Journey Fellow.