Meet the Muslims dismantling taboos around sex and religion
When Zoya Patel was in high school, dating wasn’t just a no-go, it was scandalous.
Her Muslim family hoped — even expected — that when Zoya reached adulthood, she’d enter into a consensual arranged marriage.
“Your match would have to meet certain criteria,” explains the 30-year-old writer.
“You would absolutely need to be with a Muslim, preferably one from the same culture — so, preferably Indian and … ideally from the same part of India, or Fijian-Indian, which is my family’s particular background.”
Arranged marriage went hand-in-hand with another expectation: that sex was reserved for marriage. Because of this, Zoya never received a proper “sex education” at home.
Teen magazines with sex ed sections weren’t allowed, either — her parents deemed them “crass and inappropriate” — so Zoya derived her understanding of intimacy from Bollywood films.
“Back then you didn’t even kiss in a Bollywood movie, and any implication of sex was just like a fade to black,” she recalls.
“I didn’t know how to imagine what sex would be like, because I didn’t have any knowledge.”
Fears around sex education
Sex education isn’t banned in Islam.
In fact, Fida Sanjakdar, a senior lecturer with Monash University, says it’s quite the opposite.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that [sex] can’t be spoken of … and I think that’s still quite detrimental to people involved,” she says.
Dr Sanjakdar points to the Islamic texts known as the Hadith, which advocates for Muslims to be knowledgeable about all areas of life, including sex.
“Ignorance is certainly not endorsed,” she says.
But according to Dr Sanjakdar, who has researched the perceptions of parents from ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds, cultural taboos often hinder these discussions.
She says many parents fear that greater sex education could “corrupt” teenagers, and lead to sexual activity outside of marriage — which is “haram” or forbidden in Islam.
Pleasure and permissibility
But within an Islamic marriage, sexual pleasure is encouraged by the Hadith and the Qur’an, says Dr Sanjakdar.
“There are lots of Hadith … on how to approach your wife, how to approach your husband … give them words of comfort, you know, lots of cuddling, lots of kissing.”
According to Dr Sanjakdar, foreplay, fellatio and mutual masturbation are permitted, provided they are consensual.
“I think a lot of Muslims and non-Muslims alike don’t know that there are lots of things that can happen within a marriage, that are permissible,” she says.
“It’s cultural shyness that sometimes interferes with that, so it’s really helpful to go back to those core books … because you’ll find all your answers in them.”
When sex is an act of worship
For 32-year-old Steven, a designer and Islamic lecturer who works with Muslim youth, sexuality and spirituality are innately linked.
“It’s going to sound funny [but sex] is considered an act of worship,” he says.
“And so, how you behave and approach it is important.”
The lead-up to intimacy between a husband and wife may also be steeped in religiosity.
Steven says there are Islamic narrations that recommend spouses to perform an ablution, or cleansing, before engaging in the act.
“[One should also] say: ‘Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim’ — in the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful — before you enter the bedroom,” he adds.
He says, under Islamic law, the only person allowed to see you in fully exposed is your married partner.
“It’s a naked relationship; there should be no barriers, emotionally or physically, and that’s one of the wisdoms I see in that law,” he says.
Grounds for divorce
According to Dr Sanjakdar, sex is so important in an Islamic marriage that if one partner is not satisfied, it can be legitimate grounds for divorce.
Of course, sex — or lack thereof — isn’t the only reason for divorce. Dr Sanjakdar notes that physical, emotional and mental factors also come into play.
She says that like Australian law, Islamic law advocates for a period of separation before a divorce. This offers an opportunity for mediation or reconciliation, particularly if there are children involved.
Judgment and mercy
Having been through a divorce of his own, Steven says the Islamic separation period — usually two to three months — is unique.
“[If the husband] says, ‘Please come back,’ or she says, ‘I’m sorry,’ and they see each other again, they are technically remarried automatically, and the divorce is nullified,” he says.
“So, even in times of divorce, it’s geared toward bringing them back together.”
His own experience of divorce was not clear-cut.
“[But] it’s not sinful; there’s no prohibition on divorce. However, God says that he dislikes it very much.”
Now happily remarried and a first-time father, Steven says he was also shown kindness during his divorce.
“It’s like a death in the family when someone divorces. People rally around and … try to get help you get through your feelings,” he says.
“Our religion is pegged in mercy. Imam Ali [a central figure in Shia Islam] says, for example, that you must give your brother or sister 70 excuses before you judge them.
“So, with that spirit, you can’t really judge anyone.”
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