We can all be a little guilty of this, right? Society has made it so taboo to talk about our bodies that we’ve resorted to symbols and synonyms as references to different parts of our bodies, especially the parts we’re taught to be ashamed of. Whether that’s referring to the size of our breasts as peaches or melons, the shape of our bodies as apples or pears, or just being afraid to say the word “vagina.” Apparently, it can make men, women, and children drop dead upon hearing it aloud, so we have dozens upon dozens of slang terms for it! We’ve been conditioned to be uncomfortable talking about topics related to the human body and we have been doing a disservice to generations and generations when it comes to education on the important subject of our bodies.
Like many, I take major issue with the nonsense I see on the Internet. What takes the cake is when people use manipulative and half-assed attempts at educating the masses on controversial topics as part of a ruse to break through the conservative bubbles that they’ve often built around themselves. It is beyond irresponsible to use informative and educational efforts – tailored to audiences that are not typically given the opportunity to engage in dialogue on taboo topics – to further your own convoluted personal agenda – whatever that may be.
When I was in college, I needed to take a random elective to fulfill credit requirements – we’ve all been there – so I looked at what was offered within convenient time slots, since I also worked part-time and had an internship, and landed on Human Reproduction. How hard could that be? I paid attention during health class in high school. And I’m a woman, so I have a pretty good idea what goes on with my body. I could not have been more wrong! The course took us through every phase of the cycle of human reproduction – the good, the bad, and the what’s-supposed-to-be-naturally-beautiful-but-is-pretty-damn-ugly. I learned so much more than I ever wanted to know about how to bring babies into this world that I am still mortified to this day almost ten years later. I guess watching twelve live births will do that to anyone who hasn’t actually signed up for that job.
…It’s near the top of my list of most rewarding work experiences of my life.
You know in high school and college when you ask your teachers when you’ll ever actually use the information you’re learning “in real life?” I wondered about that too. But I wasn’t even out of grad school the first time I had to tap into what I thought would be an unnecessary resource I carried in my back pocket. During grad school, my internship consisted of working with middle school girls in the inner-city, teaching them the importance of healthy and active lifestyles through an after-school program. One afternoon, during an off-hand conversation about menstrual cycles, I found out that these girls, who were at the junior high level, never learned why they get a period every month. They knew it was a normal part of life, but they had no idea what it meant and what was happening to their bodies. I remembered being taught that when I was ten or eleven. One of the girls bravely and innocently asked that question among the group of 20-25 others, who all looked at me curiously to find out the answer as well. We canceled the floor hockey lesson we were supposed to teach that day and ended up doing a Q&A about things every pre-teen and teenage girl should be taught in school about their bodies. We couldn’t possibly get through everything they wanted to know in that 2 hour session, but we did our best to provide them with information they needed. Even my supervisor commended me for taking initiative to utilize that knowledge that I thought would be useless to support these girls.
…These girls, who were at the junior high level, never learned why they get a period every month.
When I was 23, I took a job doing outreach in the inner-city as well. This time, I would be working with high school students and I learned early on that part of the curriculum we used included a sexual health component. Now, I don’t know that anyone who has ever known me would describe me as bashful or reserved. I can talk about pretty much any topic, especially taboos, with anyone who will engage in that dialogue with me. But it definitely wasn’t my first choice to walk into co-ed classrooms of ninth and tenth grade students to talk about pregnancy prevention and STD protection – complete with hand drawn diagrams and pictures that I had to pass around, pointing out the specifics of male and female anatomy and genitalia. But I did, for two years actually. And it’s near the top of my list of most rewarding work experiences of my life.
You learn that once you get past the shock value of topics like this with young people, you develop a deeper level of a respectful, safe space you’ve created with them, providing them with the opportunity to truly learn and understand information that immediately and directly impacts their lives. With that knowledge, there is no way I could ever think twice about being responsible in the way I presented the information we were educating these students on. Regardless of my own personal thoughts, feelings, or choice of topics I would prefer to talk about besides this, I made a commitment and it would be much more shameful to fall back on that by manipulating the situation and finding ways to make this endeavor less uncomfortable for myself.
Until now, most people never knew the extent of what I taught those kids during my time in that program. There was a community service component to the program, which I would highlight, and typically gave the general description that it was about “healthy behaviors and lifestyles.” The truth is, I said the words sex, penis, vagina, erection, intercourse, fertilization, sexually transmitted disease/infection, pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, masturbation, birth control, condoms, etc. etc. etc., more in those two years than I think I ever will in my entire life. And that’s OK. Because it helped me get over the shock and awe that many conservative communities have associated with these words for so long that people feel more comfortable saying swear words. It’s kind of sad, actually. One of the schools was located in a very conservative Latino community. The Principal of the school told us there would be limitations placed on our sessions because the parents wouldn’t approve of some of the lessons in the curriculum (no condom demonstrations, for example). Though the number of girls who were already pregnant prior to the start of our program illustrated the need for them to learn those things, we had to oblige. Growing up in a conservative Arab Muslim community, I’ve become adept at navigating unnecessary cultural restrictions placed on us, so we made it work. We didn’t cut corners and we certainly didn’t do a disservice to our students by perpetuating the taboos and shame already placed upon them while claiming to be open-minded and accepting of the personal stories they shared too.
What appalls me about what I’m seeing on the Internet is people who consider themselves mature, educated adults using pictures of fruits and slang terminology as representations of body parts in their attempts to talk “openly” about these topics. It feels like middle school all over again. Are we really doing this? Are we really continuing the objectification of women’s bodies and perpetuating the shame of the natural human body, along with its natural functions, by using pictures of fruits and other food objects to get what might otherwise be well-researched and informed points across? Because I want no part in that. You cannot teach a woman about the anatomy of her reproductive system using pictures of sliced open melons, cantaloupes, figs, strawberries, oranges, or grapefruits. We deserve better than to be reduced to that – especially by other women.
I don’t know if I can make it any more simple to understand. When you use food to represent women and women’s bodies, you continue to perpetuate taboos and the distorted mentality associated with the belief that learning about how our bodies function is somehow shameful and needs to be masked or sugarcoated in order to be discussed. You make us believe we should be ashamed of the bodies God gave us! This behavior also perpetuates the sexual objectification of women and their bodies in general, making it so women literally cannot do anything without it being misconstrued as something sexual – you can’t not wear hijab because then you’re a bug infested, uncovered lollipop who is unable to fend off men’s advances. Therefore, you must be a slut; you can’t eat an ice cream cone (or any other food that involves licking) as a hijabi without hearing about how indecent and inappropriate your behavior is for someone who should uphold a higher level of decorum; and worst of all, you can’t ever discuss sex or pregnancy, even as it relates to your health, outside of the context of marriage because it’s “3aib.“
This has actually ended up being a detriment to many young women I know, personally, who suffered numerous infections in the first few weeks or months of marriage due to being uneducated about how to care for their bodies before, during, and after sexual activity – I’ve heard horror stories.
…Sex, penis, vagina, erection, intercourse, fertilization, sexually transmitted disease/infection, pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, masturbation, birth control, condoms, etc. etc. etc.,
When you choose to take on the role of an educator, you are taking on an amanah, meaning you are taking on the moral responsibility of fulfilling one’s obligations due to Allah SWT and His servants. Part of that amanah, or trust, is to fulfill that duty properly and accurately (to the best of your ability). Just as you would not teach Algebra or Geometry without providing the formulas needed to solve problems, you cannot teach women about their bodies without proper diagrams and accurate representations and expect them to figure things out on their own. Please discontinue behaviors like these that hold the Muslim community back, especially when we’ve worked so hard to make strides in our efforts to become a more well-informed and less taboo- and shame-guided people.