The Sex Conversation: Sameera Qureshi on Tackling the Burning Issues Affecting Women's Sexuality
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The Sex Conversation: Sameera Qureshi on Tackling the Burning Issues Affecting Women’s Sexuality

Often times, I see a lot of cutting and pasting of hadiths and misuse. One thing I recommend is that if couples are in a place where the husband is using Islam to gain sexual rights, then there’s a problem beyond intimacy. If your marriage is in a place where threatening or forcing of sexual intimacy is happening, I would ask the person what the deeper issue is?

– Sameera Qureshi

Welcome to our bi-monthly sex conversations which aim to tackle the difficult topics and burning issues affecting Muslim women’s sexuality in today’s world. For each conversation, our feature team – the brilliant minds behind The Muslim Women Times community – are joined by a special guest Muslim sex educator to focus on a specific topic and talk it out. No taboos, no stigma, no shame: just the power of straight- forward honest words and shared experiences to make the world a better place for every woman, one conversation at a time.

In this instalment, we had a chat with Sameera Qureshi, the founder of ‘Sexual Health for Muslims‘. Sameera has been working with Muslim communities and those who serve them in the field of sexual health for twelve years. She holds a degree in Occupational Therapy and spent her professional career working with children with special needs before transitioning to a community development role. From 2011 – 2015, Sameera led a school-based team in Calgary, Canada to integrate Islamic sexual and mental health curricula within Islamic schools, mosques, and for professionals working with Muslims. She joined HEART in 2013 where she was the Programming Strategy Director.

Understanding the challenges faced by Muslim women in getting the sexual health information that they need, Sameera Qureshi transitioned out of HEART in August 2020 and started Sexual Health for Muslims, to provide spiritually-grounded sexual health education for Muslims – from the comfort of their home (and hers!) – all through online platforms. She also offers professional development training and consultation for service providers/organisations who work with Muslim clients in the sexual and/or mental health field. Sameera is also a registered yoga teacher and regularly facilitates online classes, including trauma-informed yoga for Muslim women.

To find out more about how Sameera Qureshi is tackling the taboo issues affecting Muslim women’s sexuality, TMWT had a chat with her and here’s everything she had to say:

Sameera Qureshi

TMWT: Growing Up, What was sex education like for you and how did that evolve over the years?

Sameera Qureshi: Growing up, I would say that I received limited information that was focused mostly on menstruation, like what happens when you start puberty? when you go through changes, what menstruation is and just how to take care of it and a quick list of what we can’t do as Muslims when we menstruate. It wasn’t detailed and I was left with not having a lot of knowledge. I was told to use sanitary pads and that was it.

However, as I grew up and went to graduate school and started working in the field, I started learning a lot about sexual health in my twenties. I was developing lots of programmes for Muslim girls and I thought about everything I wish I knew when I was eleven or twelve and began to add a lot more details into what I was teaching the girls and also encouraged them to ask questions. When I taught in Islamic schools, we’d usually have at least two classes just about menstruation and more information about managing emotions and dealing with peer pressure, so my experiences growing up really informed me about the gap in knowledge and I’m still learning to this day.

TMWT: We’re aware that you’re very passionate about sex education and you’re doing a very good job helping Muslim women reclaim their sexual power. What would you say inspired you towards this path?

Sameera Qureshi: As I mentioned, some of it was my lack of education growing up and really wanting to ensure that Muslims have access to this information ahead of time. We are very reactive sometimes and we don’t really give all the information before something happens, so we might be in trouble, we might be dealing with issues with our body and then, we suddenly want more information. Another reason is that, on my own part as a Muslim, I began to explore my relationship with God and on that journey, I realised from working with many Muslim organizations that we don’t often have this relationship with God.

It’s hard to talk about sexual health and not talk about our spirituality as Muslims. Moreover, in listening to people who have gone through trauma, who have been in unhealthy marriages, through domestic violence, I’m quick to discover that they don’t have enough information about their bodies. When sex education is rooted in God-consciousness, it creates a whole new level of understanding and helps to facilitate an understanding of how God created you. So spirituality and God-consciousness are my main motivations now.

I’m not just giving information about sexual health by adding a few Qur’an verses or hadiths in there. This really helps Muslims ground themselves in keeping God in their hearts and then understanding that sexual health is from the inside out. So we ground ourselves in being Muslims, in being spiritual and then we combine that with sexual health information as well as mental and physical health information. So these are what motivate my work today.

TMWT: Okay, so if we get you correctly, getting to know yourself. your body and your sexuality are intricately tied to getting to have a connection with God. However, in a lot of Muslim communities, we have found that sexuality is repressed for spirituality. Do you think Muslim women are especially challenged when it comes to understanding the importance of sexual gratification and healthy sexual conversations and what do you think could be the cause of this?

Sameera Qureshi: This is a really big question and it’s something that I think about a lot. So I would say yes to that. A lot but not all Muslim women are challenged in this area and I think it goes back to what most of them have been exposed to while growing up or what they hadn’t been taught. So as you were saying, a lot of conversations about sexual health are paltry and focus on the gratification and rights of the husband and completely erasing the Islamic tradition about the sexual rights of the wife and the mutuality of marriage.

Another big issue I’ve seen is the way Muslims are learning about sexual intimacy from unhealthy sources like social media, movies and unfortunately, pornography. So there is a lot of people getting married who think that what they see online is the reality and don’t understand the science behind sex, how everyone is different and what people need to feel ready for intimacy. The fact that intimacy is not just about sex means that there needs to be a great level of trust, emotional and spiritual connection. Muslims lack knowledge, have all the wrong information and don’t know how to talk about sex. A lot of research has shown that if you can’t speak about sex and intimacy with your spouse, it can be really challenging to work through having pleasurable sex with your spouse. So lack of language and knowledge really hinder pleasurable intimacy and all of these collide together in marriage.

The way to fix this is through education. We also haven’t talked about the trauma that people have faced before coming to marriage and as you said, expression of sexuality is repressive and people just switch it on like a light which is difficult to do. It’s almost like you have to unlearn almost twenty years of something and then you’re supposed to be intimate with your spouse in marriage. Also, all of these things create a very challenging environment for intimacy during marriage.

TMWT: Do you think that these challenges are global and the same for lots of Muslim women around the world? Moreover, is there an improvement in the way that Muslim women globally are coming to terms with their sexuality now?

Sameera Qureshi: I can’t speak for Muslim women around the world because we know how diverse our Muslim Ummah is. And I think, for example, that the colonisation of Muslims has played a large role in what we’re seeing and some Muslim civilisations were not impacted as much as others. I’m an immigrant Muslim, half south-Asian, half-Persian and I speak a lot about immigrants because that’s my reality of shame, lack of education and a lot of fear and misunderstanding of sexuality being a taboo topic.

When I’ve spoken with a lot of African-Americans and black Muslims in the United States, I discovered that they don’t face the same challenges because their upbringing relating to sexual health and sex was much more spiritual and holistic with Islam, so even within the United States and Canada and within subsets of Islamic traditions and cultures, there’s a lot of difference. So, I’m very hesitant to say “globally”, but I see that there’s a lot more conversations happening now. There are people; women and men who are speaking up about healthy sexuality and Islam and teaching women how to embrace their sexuality and embrace it in line with who they are as Muslims. So I see more hope and conversations and I think a lot of us struggle with the same issues; not feeling confident, self-worth and stunted expression being just three examples of these.

TMWT: Alhamdulillah, this was well explained. So considering the barriers to healthy sexual conversations, what are some ways that Muslim women can open productive sexual dialogue before and after marriage with their prospective spouses or spouses? What would be the starting point of these conversations?

Sameera Qureshi: I’ve been asked this question a lot! I think the first important thing would be for Muslim women to acquire knowledge themselves, ideally when they’re single. Also, I would say that if they’re speaking to someone for marriage, it’s better to start now. Because what happens sometimes is that Muslim women would want to talk to their prospective spouses about sex and intimacy but they don’t have the language and the knowledge for it. So they may become either misled by their spouse who may also not be informed or they may not be able to assertively say that ‘this is what I believe in’ or ‘this is what I’m looking for’. So I would say, empower yourself with knowledge first.

Secondly, a good place to start when you’re talking to a prospective spouse for marriage is to share what your values are around sex. For example, saying that ‘I would not like to have sex until I’m married.’ This sets a boundary right away since we know from research studies that Muslims are engaging in premarital sex. I know that people might be physically seeing each other, either with a chaperon or in public, but a good place to start is by sharing your values and seeing if the other person respects them. And then the conversation can progress to the future in marriage around topics like expectations on the wedding night and the reality of the wedding night, that sex on the wedding night is not a sunnah and isn’t required. Then they can talk about ‘how are we going to get comfortable with being intimate with each other? How are we going to communicate it?’ These are good stepping stones.

Also, women who are already in marriage can also use these strategies to talk about how they’re currently doing with intimacy with each other. Saying things like ‘It really felt good when you did this’ or ‘can we try this instead’ or ‘I’m struggling with this’. It can be so hard for a lot of women to be vulnerable enough to talk about intimacy with their spouses, But I think both partners being open, having each other as support and having the right language to communicate their feelings is crucial.

TMWT: Thank you so much for these tips! So can you share some of your successes as a sex-educator and how has your work changed the lives of Muslim women who have Issues with their sexuality?

Sameera Qureshi: As for the second question, Allah knows best. I really don’t know because this is something that’s hard to quantify. It might show up later in life that it’s being of benefit, so I rely on what people tell me as feedback.

What I often hear from most people is that the spaces I created, are the first time they’ve had to learn about sexual health in a comfortable, comprehensive, non-shameful way. And I think that if this makes me feel happy, it also makes me feel sad, that a lot of women have not had empathy and compassion and information that empowers them to think and learn about their bodies. The second thing I hear is ‘Oh, I now have the language to talk about what I’m feeling‘. So a lot of women, as you said would be going through issues as simple as menstrual cycle issues or intimacy in marriage, and they don’t know how to talk about it. So it feels like ‘I must be the only one facing this. I hear a lot that language has been empowering to people.

The third thing I’m noticing now with spirituality is that if Muslims have forgotten about sexual health education, it means that Islam has been misused or sometimes narrowly used. So we often talk about religious rulings a lot, which are important and we know that Islam is more than a bunch of haraam and halaal. There’s so much more information to live as a Muslim. I’ve also often heard from women that “You’re showing a different side of Islam where I now feel empowered to go read about religious rulings and learn about spirituality and my body“. There are so many hadiths that we can look to. These are the three things that I hear from women about my work.

TMWT: Talking about hadiths, how do Muslim Women deal with men who think that sex is men’s exclusive right in marriage and they can call upon their wives to have sex even when she is not in the mood or not feeling well enough to want to have sex, bearing in mind the hadith that talks about the angels cursing the woman who refuses her husband’s call to sexual intercourse?

Sameera Qureshi: I’m really glad that you brought up this hadith in particular. There’s actually been some scholarly research on that hadith and it’s been shown to have a weak chain of transmission and lacking a lot of context.

Often times, I see a lot of cutting and pasting of hadiths and misuse. One thing I recommend is that if couples are in a place where the husband is using Islam to gain sexual rights, then there’s a problem beyond intimacy. If your marriage is in a place where threatening or forcing of sexual intimacy is happening, I would ask the person what the deeper issue is? Why do they need to place control and power over their wives to gain sexual rights? I would also say to their husband “No one has died from not having sexual intimacy in one night“. So if you’re actually feeling such a strong desire, you’re not going to die” (laughs).

It’s fascinating to me that we talk about sex as if it’s this thing that if men don’t get at a particular time, they would die and suffer. And that’s not true. Intimacy has to reflect rahmah, compassion and everything we have talked about with spouses being garments for each other. You can’t have your sexual intimacy going against the sunnah of marriage. We have plenty of examples from our Prophet (PBUH) where force was never used. There was always compassion and mutuality. So if this scenario where force is being used is happening to any woman, I would say, explore what’s happening in your marriage, get professional counselling support and also remember that every human being can control their sexual desires because it’s in the brain, even though it’s felt in the body.

TMWT: Thank you so much for this analysis. This brings us to ask “What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your work as a Sex Educator?”

Sameera Qureshi: I started this work in very conservative Muslim spaces like Islamic schools and mosques. So a lot of the challenges I faced were from people who were uncomfortable with the idea of sexual health and Islam being discussed together. They would often project their unease onto me. They would say things like ‘No, we can’t talk about this. We can’t hold this programme.’ Sometimes, they would say something similar to ‘We need to see everything you’re going to say so that we can make sure that it’s alright. So they wanted lots of control over my work.

Then there were some people who would see me not wearing a hijab and say ‘Oh, look at this secular Muslim woman. She’s teaching young Muslim kids how to have sex‘. They would say this without even seeing any of the work that I do. That, Alhamdulillah, has not happened a lot recently. It happened so much in my early days and now I think I’m better able to handle challenges. So I tell people ‘I’m not going to be somebody that everyone agrees with. If you’re ready, though, this information is right here. Ask other people as well. I don’t speak for all Muslims and I don’t represent all Muslims. I’m just putting information out. Take what works and leave the rest.’

I always tell Muslims that ‘If you’re uncomfortable, it’s alright. Please don’t project that unto me though. I’m not here to take your discomfort.’ Also, I think this is something we all have to work through. Alhamdulillah, I haven’t faced many challenges recently because I think I’m able to say these things and distance myself emotionally from the work, so I don’t get impacted like I used to.

TMWT: Okay this might be our last question. What is your advice for any young Muslim woman who wants to follow your path as as sex educator or try to bring awareness to sexuality from a place of spirituality in her community.

Sameera Qureshi: Hmm! Maa Shaa Allah, If young Muslim women want to do this, it will make me really happy. We need more people, so I would say that one thing that helped me is grounding myself in knowledge first. I didn’t start facilitating sexual health education with young girls until I felt secure in my knowledge as a Muslim. This meant a couple of years of me doing a lot of reading and learning and being very intentional about what I was putting out. It’s very easy to create content that resonates with us but we also have to be mindful of creating content that other people can see themselves in as well. So, everyone has different personal beliefs as Muslims and it’s important to see if that’s coming into your work as well. I would also say ‘Ground yourself spiritually.’

I’ve learned a lot about Islamic spirituality recently and I would say that it has impacted my work to look the way it does. It wouldn’t have been this way two years ago because my knowledge wasn’t there. We have to really ground ourselves when we’re doing this work because it’s challenging and it can be tiring, so you have to nourish yourself spiritually. I would also say that you should find your own voice that’s authentic to you.

There’s a lot of sex educators on social media – Muslim and non-Muslim. Moreover, it can be easy to feel like we have to be like everyone else or sound like everyone else or be out there with our sexuality and ourselves and hand out information. So I would say ‘be authentic‘. Think about what your voice is. What’s your unique perspective? Ensure that the way you are as an educator is who you are as a person. So what you see is what you get. It’s hard to be this other personality. We see this happening a lot with people having a virtual personality. So when you’re home by yourself, are you that person or are you somebody else? Be open to a lot of learning and agree that you’re wrong when you need to. There is a lot of humility that comes with this work too.

TMWT: I know we said that was going to be our last question. However, a question just popped in and we’re wondering if you wouldn’t mind answering one more?

Sameera Qureshi: Sure!

TMWT: Okay, At what age do you think Muslims should start teaching their children about sex

Sameera Qureshi: That’s a good question. So, If we’re talking about sex specifically, that’s different. When I talk about sexual health, I mention how sexuality is something that grows and develops with your child from the moment they’re born to the moment they pass on. So when we think about children who are two-years-old for example and they’re potty training and teaching them how to take care of their toileting, we can start teaching them about their body parts because we know that when children know about their private parts, safety is improved, God forbid that something happens, for example, that they’re abused. So I would say that it starts young with hygiene, wudhu, cleanliness and privacy.

It’s important to tell them why they should close the door to their rooms when they’re changing their clothes or why Mummy is helping them to the toilet and how this is going to stop when they’re older. So these are all reasons to teach them. As they grow older, around the age of seven, eight, nine or ten, we know that puberty is around the corner and they may have already heard about what sex is from their friends or from the internet, so we want to introduce it to them, hopefully before they learn about it in the wrong way.

I often tell parents that kids should know what sex is before they enter puberty. This means talking about the life cycle from an Islamic conversation. There’s a verse in the Qur’an about the sperm and the egg, the embryo and the clot developing. We can use that analogy and talk about the human life cycle and the animal life cycle. Then we just explain sex in basic terms. We don’t go into detail. We can just say it in the context of marriage and parenting. As they get older, we can give them more information about a healthy relationship with friends; why we shouldn’t date until we’re ready for marriage, how we should focus on ourselves and our spirituality, how we can deal with emotions for people that we’re attracted, that emotions are not wrong because they’re given by God but we’re ultimately judged by our actions. So all these things start when they’re young. And when they grow older, the information matures with them. In Shaa Allah, by the time they’re ready to get married, they have everything they need to feel like ‘I can talk to somebody, I understand my body and I’m starting to understand sex and intimacy within marriage

TMWT: Thank you very much Sameera. We feel like this is also crucial to building trust. So in case, a child has any question to ask about sex, they can always trust their parents to give them the right answers. How then do we handle children who are hyper-curious about sexuality at a tender age and may want to know, for example, how the sperm gets to the egg?

Sameera Qureshi: One thing I tell parents is that we should always remember that children don’t have sexualised minds the way that we do as adults. So when children ask these questions, we worry that they are sexually curious because they want to explore. Most of the time, at the age of six, seven or eight, even nine, kids naturally ask a ton of questions because they just want to have more knowledge.

We know that sex education actually quenches a child’s curiosity. It doesn’t lead them to be sexually active. So if they have questions and we’re not answering them, my concern is that they’ll go somewhere else to find out. So if for example, one of your children asks “Mama, where does the sperm come from?” you can explain in very basic scientific terms like how things in our bodies are made and the cycle of production that happens within our bodies and how these things come out. There are great books that can help with this too.

Parents are scared that if they open up a lot of information, kids are going to want more. Sometimes they do, but a lot of times, they just want to know. But if your child wants information in addition to showing sexualised behaviour like touching themselves a lot, even though you’ve asked them to stop or they’re showing some kind of behaviour that’s inappropriate for their age, this may mean that they’ve been exposed to something or God forbid, that they may have been abused. It’s good to know your child and the extent of their knowledge. And if their knowledge or behaviour is inappropriate for their age, then you should reach out for support because there may be other things happening.


TMWT

TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.

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