Originally written for MuslimMatters.org - Sex & The Ummah series.
Wendy Shalit's book "Girls Gone Mild" discusses the culture of hypersexualization - how it's being promoted, through both media and consumerism, how it's permeated society, and how it has so dangerously affected our lives and mentalities. For us as Muslims, it is imperative that we be aware of just how widespread this culture of hypersexualized is, and how our own children are seriously affected. Popular media has ensured that even Muslims fall victim to this epidemic. Girls who wear hijaab still obsess over their weight and their image and try to look older than they are... without the maturity or understanding of what 'older' really means.
Awareness of sexuality is occurring at a much earlier age today, and almost always with a confused or warped understanding of it. Girls and boys are both growing up insensitively exposed to sights and concepts about the human body that were once discovered at a much slower rate that accommodated their level of mental and emotional maturity.
The psychosocial ramifications of this phenomenon are already evident and being taken seriously even by non-Muslims - yet for us as Muslims, there is another dimension that makes the issue even more important for us to be aware of. That is, the religious aspect and how we train our children to deal with this assault on their innocence.
Doctor Hesham al-Awadhi, in his audio series titled “Children Around the Messenger”, emphasizes that sex education and awareness is supposed to begin at an early age for Muslim children – learning about what clothing and behaviour, in regards to their bodies, is appropriate and what is not. Hopefully this is something that Muslim parents are already implementing with their children; however, there is another kind of sex education that must be addressed. That is, teaching our children how to have respect and modesty regarding their own body, and others’.
It's not enough to just give kids "the birds and the bees" talk and to make girls start wearing hijaab - indeed, there are far too many girls out there who wear hijaab without even fully understanding the many wisdoms behind it, including that of respect, modesty, and self-esteem. Rather, we have to cultivate within them an understanding that whatever they see outside, whatever they hear from others about their bodies and self-image, there is something far more important to keep in mind: to have taqwa not just in matters of "dos" and "don'ts" but also about our attitude towards our bodies.
Respect your body and have self-confidence. Know that first of all, we don't cover our bodies because we're ashamed of it - rather, we're proud of it and respect it. Allah created us in the best of ways, with body parts that both look good and perform necessary functions. However, just because we look good doesn't mean that we should be showing it off to the whole world!
It is of especial importance to get this message across to young girls: hijaabi or not, most girls have issues with their self-esteem and self-image, especially in this society where so much emphasis is placed on making oneself physically attractive. In addition to making them realize that it's what's on the inside that counts, we can't forget that it's human nature to want to be beautiful. One way of fulfilling this need is for parents to make their daughters feel good by complimenting her on her beauty inside the house. Notice when she's wearing a new outfit, tell her how the colour looks great with her eyes, how lovely she is, etc. In this way, by knowing that others - who are allowed to see her beauty (i.e. her mahaarim) - think she's beautiful, there'll be less of a need for her to desire others' approval of her attractiveness.
Respect others' bodies. Whether it's a kaafir or a Muslim, a man or a woman, covered or naked... have respect and shyness for their bodies. Don't look at what's not permissable to look at; don't behave in a manner that's contrary to the entire concept of hayaa'. Lower your gaze and have good manners. Far too often have I seen hijaabi girls giggling over a model, actor, or even a brother at a community function; similarly, stories about men ogling hijaabis or drooling over non-Muslim women are unpleasantly common and a reminder of how that's NOT how a Muslim should behave at any time, towards anyone.
Just as girls need a bit of help with the first point, parents should also spend more time teaching boys about the second. Part of chivalry is to have respect for women and treat them decently no matter how they're dressed - to truly lower the gaze and behave as the Prophet (sallallaahu 'alaihi wa sallam) did towards women. It needs to start when they're young, and reinforced as preteens and young teens, so that it will stick with them as adult men who have to deal with women in many different kinds of situations.
Another problem that many parents struggle with is trying to teach their kids that the pictures of half-naked men and women on advertisements, billboards, TV, etc. are not acceptable Islamically.
Innocence is an endangered species. Instead of ignoring the repercussions of the situation or only complaining about it, we have to be proactive in dealing with it. Recognize how it affects our children, and take the necessary measures to address it in an Islamic and psychologically healthy manner.
Walk into the toy store, and you'll find "baby" dolls dressed in clothing reminiscent of prostitutes' outfits. Walk into the clothing store, and prepubescent girls are already being introduced to tank tops, mini skirts, and items of clothing that were once reserved for mature women.
The concept of hayaa' - of modesty and shyness - is one that we Muslims should all be aware of, and prize highly, and do our best to cultivate within ourselves. There are many different kinds of hayaa', but in this context we'll deal specifically with modesty relating to our bodies.
In Islam, there is something which we call the 'awra: the parts of our bodies that we try to keep covered as much as possible. In general, although of course it differs with women in respect to the hijaab and so on, the 'awra can be described as what is between the navel and the knees.
A somewhat uncomfortable question that younger kids might bring up (usually at most inopportune moments!) is something along the lines of, "Mama, why is that lady not wearing any clothes?" or "Baba, why is that man in his underwear?"
This is when, instead of cringing or hissing at them to be quiet or ignoring them, you explain to them about how there are many people who don’t protect their bodies the way we do. Insha’Allah, if you handle it the right way – openly, matter-of-factly, but pressing the concept of hayaa’ – your children will grow up knowing that while the human body isn’t something to be ashamed of, it IS something to be cared for, protected, and respected.
As Muslims, we cannot afford to remain hands-off about sexual education - rather, it is in fact necessary (and obligatory in many cases) to tackle it immediately, with a holistic Islamic understanding that encompasses the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of sexuality.
May Allah protect us all from the fitnah, fasaad, and faahishah that is all around us, ameen!