The most rewarding thing about sharing your personal story with the world is that, in return, people are excited to share their stories with you. Intimate, strong, courageous stories are detailed to you by amazing, everyday people. Sometimes, these stories are shared in private. Other times, these amazing people courageously go on to spread their stories publicly. Either way, a piece of wood is chopped out of someone’s forest and adds fuel to my fire. I love it.
I sat down earlier this year with an inspirational person, one who has crossed paths with me quietly on multiple occasions, but had never revealed the treasures she bears. I read a quick story about her in her university paper and immediately went out to find her. To my surprise, her son went to my daughter’s school and I was able to connect with her right away. After an hour long conversation of questions and serious #LadyBoss, #SingleMom vibes, I had fallen in love with a human being I never could have imagined existed in my own mind.
Her story is simple. She overcame every challenge thrown her way and had an attitude of gratitude, humbleness, and grace. Shaakira, a devout African-American Muslim became a single mother at 18, during her first year of nursing school. Born into a faith and culture that does not accept premarital sex, children born outside of marriage, or non-Muslim partners of Muslim females, the cards were stacked against her. The daughter of active community members had a choice: give in to society and her struggles or move on stronger than before. Some may call her pregnancy a “mistake” (she even did), but I strongly believe it was only God’s way of creating an angel, a soldier for other women. “I made a big mistake” she said, “and I asked Allah (God) to forgive me and Allah helped me through this.”
Shaakira, like most young American Muslims, was dating without her parent’s knowledge, so the pregnancy and relationship were a complete shock to them. Although they were hurt and in denial, her mother encouraged Shaakira to finish nursing school. When Nasir was born, her parents helped her every step of the way. Working full time, raising a child, and working towards her doctoral nursing degree (also full time) is no easy feat. Shaakira busied herself in repentance, hard work, and devotion to her son, family, faith, and career. For her last year of study, Shaakira chose to put what she learned in real life and what she learned in school to the test, literally.
In order to graduate, Shaakira must complete a study to graduate from the doctor of nursing practice program. With two partners on her team, “Sex Education in the Mosque,” was born out of passion and personal experience. In Chicago, Shaakira had attended an HIV conference and met a doctor who had created a curriculum to be taught in unconventional places like barber shops and churches. This gave Shaakira the idea to tailor a curriculum for Muslim American teenagers to be taught at the mosque. A place where sex education is usually a topic avoided or skimmed over in the mosque, but a place where it is needed now more than ever before. According to TheFYI.org, a surprising 67% of Canadian and U.S. Muslims engaged in pre-marital sex, and of the remaining – half of them considered it.*
This curriculum isn’t your usual, “Don’t have sex before marriage/Use a condom/HIV, STDs and unwanted pregnancy” lectures you hear in health classes and religious institutions. Shaakira gave me a sneak peak into the curriculum and her vision for it. The curriculum teaches young Muslim women how to self-love, self-empower, and recognize their life goals. The curriculum encourages students to use their intellect to make appropriate decisions based on their faith and self-worth. Shaakira and her partners put this curriculum to the test with a group of young women whose parents chose to enroll them into the program at NIA masjid in Newark. The workshop was less of a class and more of an open forum where the girls felt safe, spoke confidentially, and had a leader they could relate to. The 2-day workshop explored life goals, career aspirations, marriage, children, etc. There were role plays with possible real life scenarios, workbooks, and fun ice breakers. The curriculum also focused on their relationship with God, and how to focus on strengthening this relationship.
A place where sex education is usually a topic avoided or skimmed over in the mosque, but a place where it is needed now more than ever before.
The study is still pending follow-up surveys from attendees, but Shaakira and her partners discovered multiple other factors that would need to be included in future versions of the curriculum. They discovered things like the pains of the double standard put on females vs. males when it came to abstinence enforcement in the Muslim community, and the need to also educate parents on how to have these discussions with their children. They also ran the curriculum by an esteemed Imam to ensure Islamic guidelines were met and references to Islamic law were accurate.
Shaakira passionately spoke to me about how important this study and curriculum were to her and how she hopes to make this her life’s work. During our talk, Shaakira said something to me when explaining that abstinence was more than avoiding pregnancy or STDs that I will never forget, “You can’t put a condom on your heart.” Premarital sex, she explained, was more than just a violation of a law ordained by our Creator, it was a violation of one’s relationship with themselves as they create physical and emotional attachments to people they are not Islamically committed to.
Shaakira completes her study this semester and graduates as a Family Nurse Practitioner this May 2017. As her curriculum is finalized, Imams across the country have asked her to run her program out of their mosques. “Sex Education in the Mosque” has and will continue to catch the attention of Muslims across the country as second generation Muslims grapple with sex education from the media versus education (or lack thereof) from their parents and religious leaders. It is about time our youth had a sex education curriculum tailored to them, including their spiritual, medical, and emotional needs. Who better to teach than one who has all the professional and personal experience to educate?