On July 1, 2017 the e-book The Muslimah Sex Manual: A Halal Guide to Mindblowing Sex was released. The book, written by US-based Umm Muladhat, was picked up by different media outlets, which have described the book as the “first ever Muslim sex manual”. Media coverage of the guide resurfaced discussions on Muslim women’s sexuality and sex lives by a variety of parties (not necessarily Muslim women). Yet, this is not the first time a publication, a product, or a policy brings up such a debate. Muslim women’s sexuality and sex lives have been very much debated in the media for at least a decade. Over the years, Muslimah Media Watch has tackled media coverage of Muslim sex workers, “halal” sex shops, hymenoplasty, Muslim women’s pleasure, Muslim sexual education, “halal” sex and Muslim women’s erotica, among many other topics. Learning about a sex guide/manual written by a Muslim woman for Muslim women, sparked a lot of discussion among MMW writers. Do we really need a sex guide focused on Muslim women? Who could benefit from it? What does it mean to write a “halal” sex guide? What should its contents be? And is it really the “first” of its type?
Sarabi, Shereen, Anneke, Syahirah and Eren share their conversation in this post.
Sarabi: Perhaps I’m too young and unseasoned, but is there a need for a halal sex guide? I don’t actually understand what makes the guide “halal”? It seems to imply that other sex guides are haram by definition. I’d have to read the guide to understand how the author defines “halal.”
One of the issues I have with the way this manual is being branded is that it’s geared towards “conservative” Muslim women, which, in my opinion, conflates conservatism with ignorance. It’s very possible that a conservative Muslim woman has received sex education or has sought the information out for herself. I understand that in some areas there isn’t a lot of information available, or that people are unwilling to talk about it, but this is not the case for everyone. I have plenty of friends who consider themselves conservative, but still know about female anatomy and safe sex and such. Then again, I grew up in the US where we start learning that stuff as young as 8 in some states. My school had mandatory sex ed classes from years 3-9.
Having access to information, however, does not necessarily guarantee better sex, though having some knowledge of anatomy may help a bit. Ultimately, I believe a person’s preferred level of modesty and privacy dictates how much information they share regarding their intimate relationships. While religion is certainly one of the determining factors of those preferred levels, it is not the only factor.
My question for those who may have read the guide is: how much of this book is about the act of sex, and how much of it is about health? Considering that there is still a lot of work to be done in the way of eradicating sexually transmitted infections (even in the United States), more information about how to have safe sex is a good thing, but I don’t see how singling out a specific group helps.
Shereen: When it comes to the guide, I think it depends on the women’s personal preference for discussing or discovering their sex life as to how you feel about the book or whether you would buy it. However, I am uncomfortable with it being termed a “halal” sex guide, too. I am not sure whether explicit content is considered to be halal (but, it is a matter of interpretation). I do agree, however, that there is a need for sexual health education for women. There is an audience who want to know what is considered within the boundaries of “halal sex” but I am not sure that this book is it. By focusing on enjoyable sex and from what I have seen from the excerpts, it isn’t something I would be comfortable terming as “halal” because there are theological opinions that regard explicit sexual material and content as “haram.”
Also, I think there is a danger of naming it as a “Muslimah” sex guide as opposed to a sex guide written by a Muslim woman. After all, it is her opinion, not the representation of a large and diverse community that spans the globe. Doing this contributes to further exotization of Muslim women’s sexuality and sex lives. For instance, over the years, Muslimah Media Watch, as well as its individual writers, has been approached by journalists and scholars to ask and discuss Muslim women’s sex lives in ways that reinforce stereotypes and Orientalist narratives while assuming that a single Muslim woman’s answer to these issues represents ALL Muslim women’s opinions and experiences.
Anneke: I hear you both. However, the fact that sexual education is actually offered in most schools doesn’t mean that students are actually present. Quite a number of students are given permission by parents and teachers alike to skip these classes. I have heard multiple excuses: one girl said sex-ed made her feel sick, and another believed that discussing sex, even in a gender segregated setting, was against her religion.
While many parents find discussing sex with their children difficult (I know I do!), some parents with an immigrant background find it almost impossible. They often do not share a common language to discuss these matters, or feel that their sons and daughters must know everything already, living in a “Western” society. I know multiple girls who entered marriage with a very limited understanding of sex and their own sexuality. It is therefore no surprise that quite a few found themselves pregnant almost right away, without really understanding how that could have happened so fast. Just for the record: these were educated girls, who do not necessarily identify themselves as a “conservative” Muslim women.
I have not read this book, and from what I understand it is aimed at married women only. However, I do agree that there is a need for a “halal” sex guide, even though I understand that opinions on what is “halal” will differ between different authors. Nonetheless, some Muslim women are still very hesitant to open a “secular” book on sex, out of fear that it might promote promiscuity, or something worse. A Muslimah sex guide, however flawed and limited it may be, might be their best option right now to educating their children and themselves.
I hope that in the future there will be more books on sex, sexuality and sexual health from a plethora of Islamic perspectives. I know that there are other similar books out there, but it is still rather limited. Meanwhile, I am still searching for that faith-based, LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education guide for my children and myself. I guess I have to keep looking, because this book would not be it…
Eren: Exactly, I think we need to also reframe the discussion in terms of what entails “conservative” and “halal” in media coverage of this book. Flipping through some of the pages of the guide, as well as excerpts and reviews, it is obvious that this guide is meant solely towards cisgender and heterosexual women in marital arrangements with cisgender and heterosexual men. Hence, the book is not only assuming a level “ignorance” around “how to” in sex, due to religious/cultural/social/economic taboos (which may or not be real), but also that only cis/hetero women have sex and “healthy” sexualities when in marital arrangements with cis/hetero men. While I understand that such is the way in which we tend to address sex, sexuality and relationships in several Muslim communities (not only conservative ones), it is also important to understand that a sex guide that assumes sexual and gender rigidity is not only exclusive of Queer and Trans Muslims, but also not really comprehensive of the many ways in which cis/hetero women can and may choose to experience pleasure and healthy sexual relations. Also, we know that relationships, heterosexual or not, can be incredibly unhealthy even with a marriage contract.
The other aspect of this is that although I acknowledge the importance of sex-ed and health-focused discussion on sex and sexuality, I am also wary of the over-medicalization of Muslim women’s sex lives. This book isn’t a health guide; of course it has a couple of excerpts here and there that discuss health, personal hygiene, cleanliness and ritual, etc., but it isn’t a sex-ed resource, in my opinion. That being said, that is something I appreciated about it. There are tons of resources out there focused on sex-ed and Muslim children in certain countries and regions have mandated sex-ed schools. Similarly, Muslim women have been involved in creating resources for Muslim parents to discuss sex-ed curricula with their children. Yet, sex isn’t only about STDs or no STDs, or birth control or no birth control, but also about relationshionships that nourish us in a variety of ways that condoms and the pill cannot explain or satisfy. How do we expect Muslim youth to discuss sex and sexuality (or practice it!) if we haven’t even landed on having discussions on how and why relationships (sexual or not) need to be nourishing and safe? Or when we assume that marriage leads is always a space where sex is practiced safely both physically and emotionally?
My second issue with the media coverage of this book, is the notion of the “first guide to Muslim sex”. No. Sorry. Muslims have been debating sex and sexuality since the times of Prophet Muhammad (s.w.a). Not only are hadith collections on sexual ethics and jurisprudence full of theological advice on heterosexual sex, sexuality and relationships, but Islamic scholars have been writing about these topics since forever, to the point that contemporary writers have studied in detail Islamic sexual ethics from a variety of perspectives, including feminist ones, like Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam. Further, I can guarantee you that Muslims around the world, regardless of where they live, have their own take on “how to” on sex and sexuality. Not because things are getting published in the West and in English, it makes them “the first.” Whether or not we have built taboos around these discussions it is a different story.
Sya: Yes, this isn’t the first ‘Islamic sex’ manual I’ve come across. In 2011 I wrote a blog post about a sex manual published by the Obedient Wives Club in Malaysia. Granted, that book had some larger visions beyond teaching wives to help their husbands enjoy ‘100% and not just 10% of their bodies’, but the main idea was the same: while sex only exists in its hetero form and is for procreation, you can have fun along the way – just no anal, period, or extramarital sex.
In regards to the guide, a review by Quartz media says, “According to Muladhat, halal sex has some key rules: avoid anal sex, penetrative sex during menstruation, and sex outside of marriage. Pornography too is forbidden—“porn is a lie,” she writes, “porn is one of the worst ways to learn about sex.”
Other than the first three guidelines as to what she considers “halal” in sex or not, the rest of the guide seems to be general, helpful sex advice that could be found in any ‘secular’ women’s magazine or sex guide. According to the excerpts on their website, anyway. Is it because women are wondering if initiating sex is slutty and therefore “haram”? Or is it because they truly have no clue what to do?
It would be useful if all the marriage and sex advice Muslim couple got were from formal sources like pre-marriage counselling. In my experience attending such counselling – which was a total disaster – the guide would give some good advice. But again, it is information I could have gotten elsewhere.
Right now my biggest peeve is that it plays into assumptions that Muslim women need to learn to please their men in bed in order to be a good wife. The ‘Obedient Wives Club’ in Malaysia and Singapore has done exactly that: remove women’s sexual agency and place the burden of domestic harmony on their sexual abilities. I wonder if there are sections in the book that focus on Muslim women enjoying sex for themselves, and tips on communicating what they want to their partners, and not just as a way to keep their men wanting them.
Sarabi: Sya, I just shuddered at the idea that “the burden of domestic harmony [lies] on their sexual abilities.” I can’t imagine how stressful that must be, and what that kind of mindset must do to women. I’ve also found that until somewhat recently in the US, women were also encouraged to be subservient to their husbands and focus on their sexual pleasure while receiving little of their own. Nowadays it’s pretty common to see guides teaching men how to please women in bed. I’m not sure whether LGBTQ* guides exist outside the realm of safe-sex guidelines, but I think the LGBTQ* community is making strides in the US in terms of destigmatization. Of course, there’s still more work to be done. The Human Rights Council actually gives a couple of suggestions for actions communities can take to further destigmatize LGBTQ* sex.
Eren: I have yet to see a Muslim LGBTQ* guide, but again it may exist elsewhere. In terms of the pleasure situation, the guide does dalve a little into things that may be pleasurable for a Muslim woman within the context of enjoying such pleasure with her husband, and that’s where things also got complicated for me because I personally feel that if we have problems finding pleasure for ourselves (masturbation is not considered “halal” by some Muslims), it is really hard to expect a second person to pleasure you when they also do not necessarily know how to pleasure themselves. So I feel this guide somehow takes the Cosmo magazine approach… You read an article (perhaps even complete one of those sex-related tests) and come up with an idea to try with your partner. If it goes well, great! If not… time to move on to better ways of satisfying your man. So I think overall, we need to do a better job in Muslim spaces to debate not only the “halal” and “harams” of sex, but relationships, safety, nourishing, etc. We also have to do a damn better job at including LGBTQ* sexuality into a “guide” for Muslims. But at the end of the day, we also need to be better at thinking what we really want out of our sex lives and be critical on how and where we get this information. This is one of a myriad of options that Muslims can access online (or in person), it will help some and be worthless to others. Some may really benefit from a guide, but again, a guide is not an all-inclusive sex and sexuality book and should not be expected to be.
Readers, what are your thoughts?