And so I can’t help but do a double take when I see the O word used colloquially by female Muslim personalities on social media. A post on @villageauntie’s Instagram states: "My orgasm is not optional." "Orgasm is one part of a spectrum of sexual pleasure that Allah has created our bodies to experience," reads a caption by @sexualhealthformuslims. Both platforms are treasure troves of advice, insight and tips tailored for Muslims – invitations to not-so-secret social media networks that work to remove stigma and democratize faith-based discussions about sex.
An Instagram poll of 615 Muslims revealed that growing up, only 9% had any sort of sex ed from a religious framework. Yemeni-British musician Noha Al-Maghafi, known as Intibint, recalls living in Yemen and being instructed to rip out the pages on reproduction from her science book in Grade 6. In Grade 9, her biology teacher gave her girls’ class a covert lesson on sex ahead of some students’ impending weddings. For other Muslim women, sex ed may amount to a whisper from their mother ahead of their wedding night, reminding them to shower afterwards to purify themselves. What happens in between is often pieced together from gossip, magazines, movies and television shows.
Intentions to shelter young Muslims from education about sex might be well-meaning – an extension of protecting their chastity and overall naivety – but there are far-reaching consequences to promoting this sort of ignorance. Lack of awareness and education about sex can lead to a fear of intimacy, unbalanced sexual roles, unenjoyable sex and, in extreme cases, marital rape. Thankfully, there is a movement brewing to demystify sexual education for Muslims, driven largely by women on social media who are speaking openly about sex. Discussing topics like consent, fertility, ejaculation and orgasms, their guidance is imbued with religious language and emphasizes the equality of genders in sexual intimacy.
Sameera Qureshi of @sexualhealthformuslims is an occupational therapist and sexual health educator whose teachings are grounded in Islamic spirituality. A decade ago she was helping Muslim immigrants to acclimatize to Canadian society. Upon realizing that sexual health wasn’t being addressed in Islamic schools, she helped to develop and facilitate an "Islamically oriented curriculum" for sexual health. "I just thought, How can we not bring Islam into this, it’s a part of our life," she explains. Fast-forward to 2021 and Qureshi now offers consultation services, teaches courses and provides free, informative content through her platform. "There are just too many restrictions for Muslims to get this information, and what better way to do it [than] through social media and online courses? Nothing like this exists in terms of there being a journey in sex ed for Muslims – everything is very scattered and piecemeal," she says.
Angelica Lindsey-Ali (known by her social media moniker, Village Auntie) is an intimacy and relationships expert in America who began discussing sex with groups of Muslim women while living in Saudi Arabia and now offers courses through her Village Auntie Institute. "My work lies at the intersection of the sacred and the sacral – so I like to talk about spirituality while using sex as a framework to have those discussions," she explains. "Everything I do is focused on women. I’m not really interested in male perspectives just because I think that we’ve been overwrought with male perceptions about sexuality and the female body."
Orthodox Muslim positions on sex have been interpreted and passed down primarily by men, so seeing Muslim spokeswomen striving to change the narratives around sex in Muslim communities is quite revolutionary. However it isn’t only women who are lifting the veil on sexual awareness and empowerment. Habeeb Akande is a UK-based Muslim historian, sex educator and author of seven books, including A Taste of Honey: Sexuality and Erotology in Islam. To celebrate International Female Orgasm Day on 8th August, he hosted a webinar for men to learn about female pleasure. "I'm passionate about female sensuality and aim to close the gender orgasm gap," he says. "I believe every man should know how to help a woman climax until she is truly satisfied, and that every woman should understand her body and feel entitled to pleasure from her man."
Exuding charisma and approachability, these educators are in stark contrast to the often fear-based 'religious' sexual discourse, rife with foreboding words like 'impure' and 'haram' (forbidden), which can perpetuate a cycle of shame. The little information that does seep through the cracks of censorship is often patriarchal, emphasizing men’s active role and women’s passivity. "A lot of Muslim scholars incorrectly understand sexual response," says Qureshi. "They often talk about males having 'really strong, sexual drives' and unfortunately this gets relegated to mean that men have no control over their sexual desire, that when they’re aroused, they need sex and that it’s the role of the woman to satisfy that in marriage – not vice versa. This creates an environment that’s very inequitable for sexual pleasure in marriage."
Conversely, many Muslims emphasize the egalitarianism of the Quran’s message, which refers to spouses as 'garments' for one another. Akande points out that in several of his sermons, the Prophet Muhammad urged men to treat women well, which includes being affectionate and providing financial support, sexual fulfilment and emotional security. "Sadly, many women have been raised to believe their body belongs to their father or husband," he says. "Some even incorrectly believe that Islam permits a man to force himself on his wife and that 'good women' do not initiate intimacy with their husbands." The misconception that sex is just for men needs to be dispelled, believes Akande; in Islam, women have just as much right as men to sexual pleasure. "It is also important to debunk myths regarding male sexual entitlement as some Muslims erroneously believe consent does not exist in marriage," he adds, explaining that these attitudes stem from cultural understandings and are not aligned with Islamic values. "Oftentimes people conflate Islam with culture, and Islamic teachings with Muslim practices."
When Akande travelled to Egypt to study Arabic and Islamic law at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, he came across numerous 'sex manuals' written by male Islamic scholars – findings that he believes would surprise many Muslims today. "Erotic texts such as Encyclopaedia of Pleasure by Jawami' Al-Ladhdha and The Perfumed Garden by Al-Rawd Al-Atir emphasised the sexual needs of women and female romantic fulfilment for a pleasurable marital relationship," he explains, adding that "sexually empowered women have long existed in Islam but their stories are often untold."
Lifting the lid on this suppression of perspectives is the groundbreaking work of these Muslim 'sexperts' and social media has been instrumental in spreading their messages. "It has been one of my best tools for community generation because I can reach those women who live in places where I may never actually get a chance to visit," says Lindsey-Ali. Muslims can turn to these educators with questions that they feel unable to ask their parents, teachers or spouses and will be met with refreshing responses presented in relatable Instagram posts – from Qureshi’s "Debunking myths about the hymen" and "Muslims and masturbation: a 'touchy' subject" to Lindsey-Ali’s "How to improve your stroke game" and "Tips for husbands maximizing the possibility of female ejaculation".
Because these educators’ approaches are rooted in religious beliefs, their teachings are intended for sex within marriage. Akande, however, offers advice for non-married Muslims struggling with desire and lists questions for them to ask potential spouses about sexual compatibility. Qureshi, meanwhile, plans on launching a pre-marital workshop about intimacy later this summer. She also believes that unmarried Muslims can benefit from following her platform. "I'm well aware that there are Muslims engaging in sex before marriage and they're not doing so with best practices," she says, adding that she follows a "harm reduction-based" approach which aims to minimize the health and social impacts of a practice without necessarily requiring one to abstain from it. "I'm not here to tell you what to believe, I'm someone who wants to expand the conversation and bring forward perspectives that we haven't been exposed to, because Allah gave us intellect and we’re ultimately responsible for our decisions," says Qureshi.
Using their public platforms to discuss topics traditionally relegated to the private sphere has brought some backlash from more conservative critics. Lindsey-Ali has a handful of messages from "creeps" in her inbox and has been told that she will "go to Hell" and Akande has been told that his work is "very inappropriate". Nonetheless, the increasing number of clients, subscribers, readers and followers is testament to the high demand for their services, and these experts hope this is the beginning of a collective revival of candour when it comes to Muslims and sex. Female sex educator Dr. Shaakira Abdullah, who goes by @thehalalsexpert on Instagram, is targeting future generations of Muslims and offers 'halal sex talks' courses for parents seeking to discuss sex openly with their children while "keeping them connected to God".
Sexually empowered women have long existed in Islam but their stories are often untold.
From a truly religious standpoint, the work of these educators is hardly radical or rebellious – they are calling for Muslims to return to the foundations of the faith and distinguish religious ethics and values from the patriarchal cultures which have clouded them. Qureshi points out that Islam, as a religion, has been colonized over the past couple of hundred years and that many Muslims have reacted with very purist interpretations. "Going back to our tradition, if we learn about the nature of what it means to be a Muslim and we really expand that to an internal journey, I think the remedy is there," she says. "Sexual education to some folks seems really minute but if you look at our scripture, it's a huge topic with so much sacredness."
The sacredness of womanhood remains a focal point for Lindsey-Ali, who believes that a profound confidence in their faith is driving Muslim women’s spiritual reawakening to their rights in the bedroom. "I think women are going back and looking at the Quran and Islamic texts and saying, 'Does it really say that?' and trying to unearth the true teachings of Islam," she says. In the process they’re learning some valuable lessons, like "My pleasure is just as important as his".