Badr Afaf* is a young woman of the Muslim faith. For her, it is important to know about her body and sexual health, but it can be difficult to speak about this in her community. The shame attached to speaking about personal sexual health as an umarried Muslim woman makes going to the doctor daunting – especially if it is a male doctor. Like many young women in her community, social media and Google have been important in learning more about sexual health. It has also enabled her to be able to share the correct information with those around her.
Not too long ago, Badr Afaf felt unfamiliar with her body and ‘what it does’. When she noticed some changes around her private parts, her natural instinct was to ask her mother about it. ‘I thought she would be the best person to show this to. When I showed my mother, she asked me ‘what is this?’ Badr Afaf’s mother ‘accused’ her of being sexually active. Badr Afaf explains that – in her mom’s mind, ‘the only reason I could have this was because I was having sex.’
Even though this was not the case, Badr Afaf felt ashamed. ‘There could have been something wrong with my body and I couldn’t even go to my mother about it, nevermind a doctor.’ She goes on to explain that ‘sex in the Muslim community is taboo’.
In her experience, young people who are sexually active are talking about sexual health amongst one another. ‘I feel like they are more open than people who are not sexually active.’
Badr Afaf explains that because the young people who are not sexually active are not speaking about sexual health, there is shame and stigma surrounding things that can happen naturally – bladders infections, UTI’s, yeast infections etc – as they can be related to being sexually active.
Because of the fear and stigma surrounding these infections, going to the doctor can be viewed as a last resort. ‘I don’t want people to think that I am having sex the way that my mother thought I was. It is a sin, because I am not married.’
Once the women in her community are married and having children, accessing medical professionals and advice becomes easier. ‘Once you are having children, it makes more sense to have these conversations.’
For Badr Afaf, going to the doctor for a bladder infection was daunting, but once she found that the infection was recurring, she made the decision to go.
As a Muslim woman, going to the doctor for such a personal matter and being shown to the room of a male doctor was mortifying. ‘I was really shy and uncomfortable.’ She advocates that women should be able to request being seen by a woman doctor without feeling like they are being disrespectful.
Experiences like the ones Badr Afaf has had, have led many young women like her to online spaces; for example The Village Auntie. These online pages are run by other Muslim women and they provide information around sexual health and sexuality in what Badr Afaf calls, ‘a muslim context’. ‘They really offer a type of sisterhood,’ she says.
‘Me wanting to know about my body is seen as me wanting to be sexually active.’ Many young Muslim women are turning to these online spaces for information on topics that are considered taboo. Online spaces provide them with the anonymity to freely find the information and community that they are looking for.
‘It is important to know your body. If my mother understood sexual health, she could have advised me better. She could have said something better, without shaming me. No one wants to feel ashamed, whether they are sexually active or not…These are important things to know about – not because you want to do something, but to be able to teach your daughters, nieces, sisters and friends.’
Badr Afaf encourages other women to use Google, social media and their ability to access information online to find out more information and empower themselves.