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Sex & Relationships

Why This Muslim Author Wants Us To Talk More About Sex

In the Muslim community at large, we don’t talk openly about sex enough. Telling stories like my own is meant to make public this unnecessarily hushed conversation.
By Sheima Benembarek
Sheima Benembarek (Photo: Daniel Ehrenworth)

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.

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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.

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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 56 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.

Cover of Sheima Benembarek’s book Halal Sex (Photo: Viking Canada)

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.

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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.

In the Muslim community at large, the ummah, we don’t talk openly about sex enough. Telling stories like my own is meant to make public this unnecessarily hushed conversation, to help ease the burden of aloneness so that we may feel more connected to one another when thinking about our many different desires.

Excerpted from Halal Sex by Sheima Benembarek. Copyright © 2023 Sheima Benembarek. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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