Social Science Human Sexuality)
The Intimate Lives of Muslim Women in North America
- Penguin Group Canada
- Initial publish date
- Mar 2023
- Human Sexuality), History, Women
Paperback / softback
- Publish Date
- Mar 2023
- List Price
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An unprecedented glimpse into the sex lives of female and gender-expansive Muslims living across Canada and the United States.
In the Muslim world, sex is permissible (or halal) only within the confines of marriage. Outside of wedlock, the act is considered haram, a sin of the faith. Girls are taught to protect their virginity; their mothers, if not forgoing “the talk” altogether, obscure the facts with elliptical language and metaphors.
So, what happens when immigrants and the children of immigrants set about pursuing an open and active sex life on a more sexually liberated continent, amid western peers and attitudes? The six deeply personal stories in Halal Sex attempt to answer this question, bringing a hushed conversation out into the open.
Within these pages you’ll meet Azar, a non-binary trans Sufi; Bunmi, a Nigerian navigating shame and Tinder; Eman, a lesbian stand-up comic in an interfaith marriage; Taslim, a virgin in her forties struggling to erect healthy boundaries; and Khadijah, an exotic dancer and sex worker.
With great empathy, Sheima Benembarek makes space for the honesty and vulnerability of each participant and handles their stories with gentleness and care. What emerges is a tapestry of a diverse Islam—encompassing a wide variety of cultural and religious and socioeconomic backgrounds—and a frank, feminist contribution to the advancement of Muslim sexual education and pleasure.
About the authors
SHEIMA BENEMBAREK is a Moroccan Canadian journalist who’s written for The Walrus, Broadview, Maisonneuve, and the Literary Review of Canada. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of King’s College, where she was a finalist for the Penguin Random House Canada Best Nonfiction Book Proposal Prize. In 2020, she was chosen as one of the five RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writers of the year. She's currently a senior editor at Toronto Life.
Excerpt: Halal Sex: The Intimate Lives of Muslim Women in North America (by (author) Sheima Benembarek; foreword by Mona Eltahawy)
The evening I lost my virginity—almost two decades ago in Morocco at my high school boyfriend’s house—I called my religious mother over the phone to get her permission first. I have to be clear: seeking permission from a parent to have sex for the first time isn’t a customary act in Islam. But throughout my formative years, my mother had made sure to teach me the value of my hymen. She told me that my vulva is like a secret garden and that the only person who should ever have access to it is my future husband—the husband who, as I write this, still does not exist. My mother and I were particularly close. I felt I needed her to consent before I could give away my most prized possession to a boyfriend.
She knew the boyfriend and his “good people” parents. To her, this relationship seemed like it had respectable long-term prospects. We could someday get married. She approved.
The boyfriend and I went to the same high school in our hometown, Rabat. We were inseparable and talked about sex often; he was a virgin too. Between the two of us, we knew very little about sex. No one around us ever talked about it—certainly not in any way that mattered to young people.
When conversations do occur between mothers, aunts, or grandmothers and young Muslim women about sex, they’re usually filled with warnings cloaked in poetic metaphors. My mother opted for the secret garden; others speak of the virtues of concealing your jar of valuable honey or protecting your sacred temple. There is, generally, one simple unwritten rule: you should have a hymen for the man who is to be your husband.
After I managed to break through the guilt of not waiting for a husband—guilt that at that point not even my mother’s go-ahead could completely eliminate—the boyfriend and I felt things out. Very clumsily.
I knew that there would be pain and that there would be blood. And so, after a few awkward and sore thrusts, we were done. It would be many years, and another partner, before I knew enough to even consider an orgasm. But that evening, puzzled, I spent a long time in the washroom inspecting my underwear and thinking about my virginity. There were only a couple of drops of blood. Maybe it hadn’t worked? I hadn’t a clue, and no one to ask.
A few years after the boyfriend and I moved to Montreal for university, I accidentally became pregnant. Although I certainly knew I could get pregnant if I were sexually active and not using any sort of birth control, it had never really occurred to me to worry about the possibility. It was all so theoretical—bits of remnant information I’d learned in high school. A physical education teacher had rushed through that discussion, flipping through projector slides of the reproductive system, trying to keep things moving.
Birth control wasn’t something my other sexually active Muslim girlfriends discussed openly either. The pill was a central part of a conversation only once in my memory, when my best friend—who was also pursuing post-secondary studies abroad—and I were back in Rabat visiting our families for winter break. She called me one afternoon in tears, frantically asking me to pick her up from the streets of her neighbourhood. Her mother had rifled through her suitcase behind her back, found her pill pack, and kicked her out of the house indefinitely for it. We were both shaken up and heartbroken. My best friend cut her visit short and went back to university. She was never able to mend her relationship with her mother.
The truth is that I was largely uneducated about my own sexuality. I felt emotionally safe with the boyfriend and was lulled into complacency; I didn’t protect myself. And for me, the only reasonable option then was to have an abortion. The fear of having a child at that stage in my life felt almost suffocating. I didn’t want a baby; I wanted a writing career. So, I told the boyfriend and then called a clinic and made the appointment. It wasn’t lost on me how catastrophic this would have been had it happened in Morocco, where abortion is still illegal, except in cases of incest, rape, birth defects, or if the mother’s life is in danger. For a long time, I felt both relief and guilt for my privileged circumstances.
Two weeks later, I found myself in the clinic’s minimalist waiting room, my sister—the only other person who knew—by my side. The boyfriend and I agreed that it was best he go to his economics exam. My sister and I wondered if we’d be able to go out for all-you-can-eat sushi after I was done. Neither of us knew anything about post-abortion care or recovery time.
A nurse briefed me on the procedure, ostensibly trying to prepare me intellectually for the experience. She mentioned the sound the suction machine was going to make and how I shouldn’t be frightened by it. My mind clung to a particular word: extract. It would come back to me a few days later while I was in bed recuperating. To pull something out from a source by separating it out from other material, often using force. It was just a bunch of cells, not an actual baby yet, so any amount of force had to have only hurt me. But I wouldn’t ask the nurse, or the doctor, or the gynecologist who’d give me a checkup three weeks later, whether the fetus knew it was being extracted or whether it felt any pain. I knew that my mother and other devout Muslims believed it did and that there were severe consequences for such things, but I was already starting to question their understanding of Islam. Why would an all-knowing entity that was supposedly responsible for all the beautiful things in the universe—love, the Helix Nebula, ice cream, the ocean breeze—want to have a harsh and punitive relationship with me? It was becoming more and more difficult to accept.
The doctor walked into the small procedure room, sat down on her low stool in front of me, and introduced herself. I couldn’t help watching her big grey curls gently bounce as she spoke and looked up at me from between my thighs.
Many years later, I’d remember only her hair and its movement and that she was white. I found her name on a medical attestation buried with old insurance papers and learned, through a cursory Google search, that she died in 2014 at age fifty-six from cancer. She had continued helping people seeking abortions at the Morgentaler Clinic until a month before her death, inspiring a 2021 campaign to rename a park in downtown Montreal in her honour. But, of course, in 2007 I knew none of that. I just needed to get things over with.
The procedure was completed under a soothing blanket of anaesthesia. My sister held my hand, squeezing it intermittently as though she worried that I would somehow slip away from her if she let go of me while we did this thing in secret. She’s three years younger than me, and in retrospect, that was an unreasonable amount of responsibility to put on her at that age.
But I never really thought back to that day until years later. My mother was visiting me in Montreal and we were strolling down Sainte-Catherine Street shopping when, in a moment of carefree intimacy, I told her about it. She stopped—her face turning pale—and looked at me. With concern for my fate in the afterlife, she said, “Oh, no. You killed a soul.” Her words stung, and I didn’t know what to say.
Nowadays, my mother is much more understanding and respectful of my personal life and choices. She also knows more. She’s grown angry about the historical oppression of Muslim women and has over time developed the language to discuss it, and she’s been a source of support while I wrote this book.
But this book isn’t about me. Or at least not only about me. This book is about the many others like me, the woman-identifying and nonbinary Muslims living in relationships that are seemingly forbidden because of a misuse of our religion. It’s about those who’ve experienced generationally perpetuated pain or violence stemming from a lack of sex education. About those who fear the pleasure that their own bodies can provide because they were told it’s haram, a sin. Although in North America there are no laws that prohibit us from openly discovering and experiencing our sexuality, many are still roped into communal and tribal interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. Many live in its echoes.
And, of course, there are also many of us who have stories of comfortably finding sexual emancipation despite our conservative families. Those who have found ways to develop exciting, liberated sex lives undeterred by community restrictions. Those who push against the misunderstandings of religion and claim their orgasms as their right. This book is about them too. It’s about all of us living within a constricted religio-cultural framework in a sexually liberated continent—Muslims negotiating and reconciling faith and sexual freedom in North America.
In the Muslim community at large, the ummah, we don’t talk openly about sex enough. Halal Sex is meant to make public this unnecessarily hushed conversation, to help ease the burden of aloneness. I have written this book so that we may feel more connected to one another when thinking about our many different desires. And I have chosen Halal Sex as the title of this book for a reason. As a social construct in Islam, marriage enables heterosexual couples alone to freely participate in and enjoy sexual activity—known as halal sex. I believe all consensual sex between adults is halal sex.
What grants me privileged access to this community, and extensive knowledge of its internal dynamics, is the fact that these are my people. I get it, and they get that I get it. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the dozens of interviewees expressed gratitude at the prospect of Halal Sex.
When I first set about finding participants for this project, I wondered if I was perhaps one of the few Muslim women on this continent consumed by frustration over what I was taught about my body and sexuality. But after sending out calls for participants through Facebook groups, Reddit forums, and Instagram stories, as well as through different Muslim organizations that shared my request with their members, I quickly understood I was far from alone. Within weeks, I was being contacted through all those avenues with requests to chat. Not everyone, of course, had the courage to participate, but almost all shared with me some variation on this sentiment from a Toronto resident: “I must say, the book you are looking to write is so important for our community. It’s a conversation I have been having frequently lately with my girlfriends!” Soon I had scores of friends, and family members of friends, emailing me to talk about their intimate lives and how they wanted better for other women and gender-expansive Muslims.
The individuals in this book are a small selection of the many I have spoken with about sex, sexuality, and Islam. In the name of inclusivity and relatability, those I’ve chosen to feature here vary in ethnicity, Islamic sect, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and education, and are located across the continent. And while I tried to include more trans Muslims—a limitation of the diversity here—only one out of the six is not a cis woman. Most have chosen to use pseudonyms for themselves and the people in their lives in order to protect their privacy and safety. Certain extraneous identifying elements have also been withheld. The facts, however, remain unchanged. These are their memories.
“About halfway through this extraordinary book, one participant reflects on what it was like growing up in a traditional and religious household, where topics such as sexuality, desire, and her changing body were never discussed. ‘Imagine if we talked about it rather than me having to Google things,’ she says. Through these six often hilarious and always inspiring stories, Halal Sex does just that: it pulls these vital conversations into the open. I loved every minute I spent reading this book.”
—Robyn Doolittle, author of Had It Coming
“Halal Sex is an inspiring portrait of intimacy built on a remarkably intimate process. Through empathetic reportage and meticulously cultivated trust, Sheima Benembarek has made possible a frank, generous conversation about the pursuit of pleasure. The many voices in this book––including Benembarek’s own personal reflections––emerge distinctively, playfully, and joyfully as they name their desires. Halal Sex is a thrilling collaboration between writer and subject and a testament to the liberatory power of listening.”
—Tajja Isen, author of Some of My Best Friends
“Sheima Benembarek’s Halal Sex gives voice to engaging and rarely divulged stories from diverse Muslim women about their fantasies, fears, and desires. It is a brave book, and a feat of reporting considering the sensitive nature of topics covered. Each tale is riveting and earns the reader’s complete attention.”
—Zarqa Nawaz, creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie