By Sumbul Ali-Karamali
My 5th grade daughter just brought home from school the kind of form every parent, Muslim or not, dreads. Would I allow my daughter to attend multiple classes on "our growing and changing bodies"? Seeing my hesitation, my daughter widened her eyes and wailed, "You have to sign it or I'll have to go sit outside or in the library or somewhere by myself and I'll be the only one!"
I don't see any sort of "Islamic" problem with the schools teaching the kids about puberty. I believe that keeping the lines of communication open with our children is crucial not only to family culture but to our societal culture, in which isolation can occur all too easily. I also think it's important to teach children of both genders to respect each other and to consider personal comments about bodies unacceptable. Teachers are in a unique position to be able to do all these things.
My only hesitation about this particular form was about content, about which I have firm beliefs relating to age-appropriateness. For example, this wouldn't be sex education, would it, in 5th grade? Do boys and girls sit in the room together while learning about this highly embarrassing subject? Why does the form include information about AIDS? Surely that's not appropriate for 5th grade?
After engaging in a really forthright, slightly self-conscious, and faintly commiserating talk with my daughter's teacher, I sent in the signed form. I felt confident that the classes would indeed not introduce sex in 5th grade (a time when most girls think boys have cooties), but would be limited to age-appropriate descriptions of going through puberty. Since then, my daughter has given me numerous reports on how the "body shop" classes are going.
"We dread them," my daughter tells me. "Everybody dreads them. We giggle and don't know where to look. The teacher tells us when to look down."
At my puzzled expression, she explains, "When the teacher is going to say something really embarrassing, she warns us so that we can look down instead of at each other."
I cannot help laughing, and I'm pleased with my decision. For us Muslim Americans, it's important to be part of the fabric of American society. We don't have to compromise our religious values to be Americans. And the more comfortable we are with that, the better.
Further, the writings by pediatricians and psychologists and the schools all seem to indicate that more information is better than less. I know that, especially in Muslim culture, sometimes parents feel that their children should not learn about the opposite sex, even in a clinical way at school. If they don't know about it and don't think about it, perhaps they won't do it. Perhaps we can protect them. Right? But children find out anyway -- and do we as parents want to be the ones to educate our kids about sex, or do we want their peers to impart their (often confused) versions instead?
It's like drugs. Most people accept that parents should talk to their kids about resisting recreational drugs and those who might want to involve them in drug-related activities. Most of us don't assume that talking to kids about drugs will cause them to go experiment. We're making them aware of potential hazards.
My parents did tell me about sex in a very clinical manner that inspired disgust and disbelief and gave me absolutely no desire to further my knowledge. Besides, it was irrelevant to my life, since my parents told me that Muslim girls didn't go alone with boys. This made sense to me, too, as they told me this restriction was for my protection.
By the time my tenth grade health class included sex education (another presentation of clinical, anatomical information that didn't alter my previous views on sex), I was old enough to receive the information and disregard it as still irrelevant to where I was in life. Sex in Islam is reserved for marriage, and besides, it can ruin your life outside of marriage. Made sense to me.
But kids today face bigger challenges, I think. In our neighborhood middle school, parents have had to cope with incidents of oral sex in the parking lot at lunch time. (We're talking 12-14 year olds, here.) Elementary-aged girls are reading the Twilight series, popular books written for young adults but too mature for prepubescent girls, given that the heroine wants to throw away her education, ambition, friends, and family for a vampire who loves her but wants to suck her blood (a common metaphor for sex and domestic violence). Prime-time television bursts with sexual innuendo in a way that it didn't twenty-five years ago.