Sex, Religion and Culture

A beautiful and painfully honest account of navigating sex as a brown muslim woman and the culture that surrounds it…

Content warning: graphic content, blood, mentions of sexual injury

Navigating sex is hard. But trying to do it as a South Asian girl, from a religious Muslim family, is even harder.

In the religion, it’s a sin. In the culture, it’s frowned upon and taboo to even mention the word. The female body itself is seen as ‘temptation’ and shameful: we are forced to cover up and taught to be ashamed of our anatomy from birth. Sex, mixed with culture and religion, is a difficult subject to delve into. In a society so sex-positive, one that promotes sex in every message, advertisement and artistic medium, it was awkward growing up when the culture and religion I grew up with were so drowned in acts of modesty, the complete opposite of everything I saw through the media. The first time I had sex (at seventeen) was, looking back on it, hilarious, but at the same time extremely traumatic and bloody – honestly looked like a crime scene, and required a two-night stay at the hospital.

This experience resulted in me, years later, reflecting on the moments leading up to the distressing ordeal: in love with some guy who didn’t really care about me, a lack of foreplay, no real arousal and not being wet at all. The entrance was the most painful, and what I thought sex was supposed to be like. I ended up in hospital because his penis (for the record, bigger is not better, I can promise you that – personally, I’d say 6.5-7 inches is the perfect size) tore my vaginal walls on both sides, approximately one inch in length. There was blood everywhere, all over the room and the ensuite bathroom. I shit you not, it looked like a murder has just been committed.

I was always embarrassed to tell this story, but now I realise it actually needs to be told, because I’m sure other people with a vagina could have experienced the same thing, or something similar, and to tell others thinking about having sex for the first time, to be mentally prepared to actually do it, to be ready and sure that it is what you want. (And to always, always, always – I cannot stress this enough – ALWAYS make sure there’s foreplay beforehand!).

The two halves of my identity, a South Asian Bangladeshi Muslim Girl and a British Bangladeshi Woman, had constantly been at war with each other the older I got, surrounded by sexuality and openness whilst being in a completely different world within my four walls. Stepping out into a world that is, in a lot of ways, more open than my culture, was like coming across a magical realm of unashamed femininity and sisterhood. This, combined with exploring sex for the first time, and then again when I was really ready, was exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time.

As I mentioned, sex is something strictly forbidden in (my) religion prior to marriage, and when it collides with culture, it becomes an even bigger taboo. Where brown boys are the exception and expected to engage in premarital sex, brown girls are told to guard their (socially constructed) virginity with their life, taught that it is where their worth lies. Even when they don’t have sex, girls and women are slut-shamed copiously merely for being born female. Revealing even a sliver of skin is ‘slutty’. While religion does dictate the way a woman must dress, it does not apply it via force – just by the looming knowledge of what happens in the afterlife if it is not adhered to. This particular aspect of religion plays a significant role in the culture of women’s bodies being policed.

In accordance to the Quran, it states hijab is worn for modesty reasons and, subject to interpretation: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allāh Forgiving and Merciful.” However, the issue with this is that men will be abusive no matter what a woman wears, look at her lustfully whether she is wearing a niqab or sundress. Sexual harassment exists in Mecca, the holiest city, so why are women commanded to cover up when it does nothing to deter men from being trash?

Sex education in brown culture is lacking. It goes from one extreme to another: we’re told, growing up, to never have sex and then when our marriage is arranged to a complete stranger, we’re expected to just spread our legs for him on the wedding night. Please tell me, how does this make sense? In a lot of ways, this very issue can be linked to assault: where we’re not taught about what constitutes as consent or lack thereof, so it takes years of growing up and learning and unlearning to properly realise what was right and what was so, so inappropriate. Even in relation to sex, coercion falls under the category of rape: signalled by “if you really like/love me, you would…”; “but you’re my…”; “please, please, please” – also see, constant pleading until you agree; “this person (ex?) would’ve done…” (at this, DUMP THEIR ASS!) – the list can go on, really. In a culture rife with assault, victim blaming, and shaming/ostracising those (particularly women) who engage in premarital sex, it is difficult to ask questions. 

There’s an aura of embarrassment at the thought of even asking your parents about it. It was only recently I could speak to my mum about sex, about how it’s not just for procreating and for the man’s pleasure, and about a million other problems laced within our culture relating to sex and marriage. Even still, I felt a little awkward talking about it with her, because of the stigma attached to the very subject. Navigating sex for the first time, when it was sinful and frowned upon, filled me with such undeniable guilt and shame, as if I were doing something so unnatural, instead of normal. 

After my first time and the traumatic experience of it all, I felt like I would never want to have sex again, and thought this was the universe’s way of punishing me for going against religion, culture, and the very fundamental beliefs I’d been brought up with. A year later, when I felt a little more ready, I had sex again – and at the time, I thought it was great, but then I realised how utterly abysmal it was. It took trying and learning more about my body to actually enjoy sex. Sex is more than just penis-in-vagina. And it’s definitely something you should do when you’re completely ready and want to, regardless of what culture, religion or people say. Do it for yourself, make sure you’re properly ready and aroused and take it slow.

Sumaiya Ahmed