Changes in society are most sustainable when they come from within. It's more organic, addresses issues that truly matter and affects changes in a way that the society in question can relate to and absorb.
I have often stumbled upon political and social discussions about how the Muslim community in India needed to open up. For the uninitiated, on social issues such as marriages, Muslims in India --- as are Christians and Hindus -- are governed by a separate body, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Some people have called for a uniform civil code in India. Whether we finally have one or or not, the will to change or progress has to come from the communities themselves.
Which is why I find the efforts of this group of Muslim women extraordinary and fundamental. A madrassa (Islamic school) for women in the district of Kishanganj of Bihar -- one of India's most economically backward states -- has introduced sex education for its students. The course deals with changes a woman's body goes through during puberty, and ways to protect oneself from sexually transmitted diseases, which includes the use of condoms. The village, says a student, has seen several cases of HIV in the recent years.
Sex education in schools is tricky in India. The struggle has always been between providing necessary information to stay safe, and the fear of turning a traditional culture into a promiscuous one.
The only sex education I recall having (in the early '90s) was a biology class on how babies are conceived and a presentation by a sanitary products company. Sex education has been part of the curriculum for a while now, but has struggled to change with the times.
With HIV cases on the rise and the growth of a more sexually accommodating society, sex education is back on the table. But not without its share of naysayers. Last year four of India's largest states put the brakes on sex education programs in state-run schools, saying the material was unacceptable for Indian children. To get a sense of how our leaders have been thinking on this issue, here are a few quotes from the article:
The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, wrote in a letter of protest to the Central Education Ministry that the "government has devaluated Indian culture and its values."
"Instead, the younger generation should be taught about yoga, Indian culture and its values," he concluded.
The education minister in Rajasthan, Ghansyam Tiwari, justified his decision by describing the course material as "disgraceful and capable of corrupting the minds of the young."
Announcing a decision to suspend the course in Karnataka, Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy said at a news conference: "Sex education may be necessary in Western countries, but not in India, which has rich culture. It will have adverse effect on young minds, if implemented."
The federal government has reportedly toned down the sex education manual, stripping it of all educational models and pictures of the human anatomy that the states found so "culturally insensitive".
Now view the madrassa's decision to introduce sex education in this context. Not only are they dealing with the sticky subject of sex education, they are doing so in a conservative Muslim set-up. No surprise that they have met with some serious opposition from members of their own families as well as the Muslim clergy. One Muslim cleric has denounced sex education in all schools, regular or madrassas. Watch this news clip to see what these women are up against.
So far, the women have stood their ground.
Parts of the Muslim leadership in India have ruled sex education to be unIslamic. Recently, the Islamic Fiqh Academy in India, which interprets the Islamic law, reportedly ruled that sex education was incompatible with Islam.
But so have some rightist Hindu groups, leaving the moderates and the intelligentsia from both communities to impress upon the government and society at large the import of sexual health and literacy.
Muslim women who have talked about safe sex -- popular South Indian actress Khushboo (she was born Muslim) and tennis sensation Sania Mirza -- have found themselves in hot water. The brickbats have come from conservatives of both religions.
No matter what cultural or religious groups we talk about, someone needs to educate children about their bodies and how to handle them. Most parents are prudish or uncomfortable discussing such issues with children.
If educating children is a problem, let us make sex education for parents compulsory, so they know how to talk about it to their children.
But then, who will ensure that the parents do their job of making their children aware of the pleasures and pitfalls of sex and related issues? After all, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, female sexual health, illegal abortions, are not just personal or family issues. They affect entire societies.
Sexual awareness and activities are on the rise in Indian society. As Nita points out in her posts at A Wide Angle View of India, there's more sexual activity among the youth than we want to know. And our children are "learning" about sex from friends, films, random reading material, the Internet and, of course, pornography.
Anita Ratnam at Ultra Violet rightly argues that reducing sex education to education about sex can be dangerous in a country where sexual abuse is painfully present, with a lot of children clueless about how they are being abused by friends and family. As is obvious from the previous quote, we are fighting a undefined demon called "cultural invasion" -- a fear of irresponsible sexual behavior that we usually attribute to the West:
Another fear is that sex education will provoke children to become sexually active. The truth however is that children too (not just adolescents) are sexual beings. Their explorations of their own bodies and childhood sexual play with friends and siblings has been recognised as normal and not dysfunctional behaviour. In a society where we squirm to openly acknowledge even adult sexuality, childhood sexuality has remained a taboo and an enigma.
At the same time, the sexual abuse of children by adults is now recognised as endemic.
The study by Samvada, Bangalore in 1994 and National Study conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, UNICEF, and Save the Children in 2007, both note that child sexual abuse in India begins as early as age five, increases dramatically during pre-pubescence and peaks at 12 to 16 years. Twenty-one percent of respondents reported severe sexual abuse like rape, sodomy, fondling or exposure to pornographic material and 53% acknowledged other forms of sexual abuse with over 50% of the abusers being known and trusted adults.
Most of those abused emphasize that they did not understand what was being done to them. A misplaced trust in “family” or respected elders and the abusers’ confidence that the child will not be able to comprehend or disclose the abuse, have set the stage for such abuse and trauma. By not providing sex education that is age-appropriate and sensitive to social structures, governments are compromising the safety and mental health of our precious children.
Today, attempts by our own government to address real problems caused by sexual ignorance are once again seen by these ideologues as “western” invasion that threatens our cultural identity and morality. Are we willing to place the honour of an imagined community before basic human rights, desires and safety of our children and youth? Is this morality?
It's time our leaders did a reality check and brought these issues out in the open.
Let's talk about sex.
Also heard in the blogosphere and some places else...:
I found Nurmarifah's Weblog discussing sex and sexuality in the Islamic context. I am not quite sure who the blogger is: This discussion, or interview, probably took place in Nigeria. The gist of the discussion seems to be that theoretical sex education is essential since children need to know what is permitted and what is not in their religion.
Muslim Woman Gives Sex Advice on Arab TV
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