Recent investigations into the Rochdale child grooming case, in which all but one of the convicted men were found to be British Pakistanis, once again highlighted the need for Muslims to talk more openly about sex. But this is a subject which the community has always been notoriously guarded about.
The release of a book, Sex Education for Muslims by psychiatrist Dr Mobin Akhtar caused fury in Pakistan last year, despite trying to educate people about sex in accordance with Islamic instruction. The author was even accused of encouraging pornography and few bookshops were even willing to stock it. Meanwhile, the title for the Urdu version had to be toned down to Special Problems for Young People.
As Dr Mobin Akhtar points out, sexual ignorance can lead to unnecessary psychological distress. My own sex and relationship education, in Bradford during the 1980s, was based on the principle that ignorance is better than empowerment; elders feared that any talk of sex might lead to sexual initiation. I still don't know the word for it in Urdu, my mother tongue. And if sex was promoted at all, then it was the type which took place strictly within marriage, and only between a man and a woman.
It's no wonder then that I grew up completely ignorant of my own biology as well as the personal and emotional implications of sex. Even basics like puberty and menstruation were never discussed. Instead, I was left to scrape together snippets from the school playground which usually led to more confusion.
To add insult to injury, I reached the throws of puberty ahead of everyone else. But mum was determined to preserve my sexual innocence for as long as possible, and therefore keen to shelter me from my own maturing form. So, after PE and swimming, while the other girls arrogantly flaunted their training bras in the changing room, I hoped my ill-equipped vest would go unnoticed. I learnt that my blossoming body was something to be hidden, more out of shame than modesty.
I also learnt that public displays of affection were wrong. After all, I'd never seen a Pakistani couple - married, of course - holding hands or even sitting snugly on the sofa. In fact, the first time I saw someone snogging properly was on British TV, and you can bet the characters weren't Pakistani.
Moreover, since my parents had separated while I was very young, and since the idea of taking other partners was incomprehensible to them, I didn't even know that married couples share a bed. Perhaps that's why, when I was introduced to the facts of life in a science lesson, I simply dismissed it as some repugnant English method of procreation which couldn't possibly apply to Pakistanis. I reasoned that Muslims didn't need these procedures because I'd heard babies were divinely ordained.
It was my teenage frustrations, and the lack of opportunity to compare notes with other women like me, which inspired my current research - intimate conversations with three generations of Muslim women, in and around Bradford, about their experiences of love and marriage. I was heartened to find that other forty-something women also had very similar experiences. Fozia for instance, just like me, credited Indian films for offering a semblance of emotional intelligence. She was heartened to see people that looked like her and spoke a language she understand actually falling in love on screen:
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Marriage wasn't depicted in a functional way [on screen] because there was a lot of romantic love around. And Asian love was always represented as something that's really powerful and loyal and deep and all-consuming. There was that very traditional thing of loving one person for the rest of your life. I knew they were films but I did believe I might find a partner who I would then fall in love with and be together forever.
As we daydreamed about falling in love, Bollywood style, the irony was that the classic films of the 1970s and 80s were actually colluding with our parents to preserve our innocence. No wonder they were so gamely endorsed. You see, overt sexual content was still unacceptable in Indian cinema during this era, so filmmakers tended to resort to a standard lexicon of images or sequences to symbolise displays of love, which in turn helped the films to maintain glamour as well as traditional values.
My research also suggested that I wasn't the only one to sit countless times through classics like Kabhi Kabhie (1976), oblivious to the symbolism in the film's iconic title song. It features a bride and groom on their matrimonial bed as she sings him a favourite love lyric, which brings back wistful memories. Little did I know then that the bride's unravelled, long, dark, silken tresses alluded to her state of undress. Her hair also cleverly obstructed my view, in line with the unspoken "no kissing" rule that existed in the classic Bollywood films of yesteryear.
What this immortal scene actually depicted was the couple's growing intimacy through the groom's removal of the bride's jewellery, one piece at a time. Little did I know that the groom's removal of his bride's nose ring was a crude reference to her loss of virginity. I know now that the term "nath utarna" (removal of the nose ring) traditionally signified a dancing girl's initiation into the sex trade, and is still sometimes used today.
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