Thursday 3 October 2013

Discussing the Birds and the Bees - Part 2: Honesty, Modesty and Humour

I while back I wrote about why I withdrew my daughter from sex education at her primary school (Discussing the Birds and the Bees - Part 1: Setting Limits).  This was one of the most visited posts I have ever written and brought home to me very clearly that I am not the only parent who is thinking about how to deal with this in an appropriate way for a Muslim child.

I mentioned at the end of that post that I would share how I tackled the subject with my daughter.  I have always thought that sex education doesn't just begin when a child is close to puberty or consist of one conversation never to be mentioned again.  I have taken the approach that sex education with my child would begin with self care.  So fairly early on as Muslim mothers we teach our children about cleanliness and purifying ourselves.   This includes the correct way to bathe and to make ablutions for prayer and also about keeping our clothing and body clean and the making sure the water we use is pure.

With my daughter, we started off by reading a book called Beheshti Zever (Heavenly Ornaments) by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi  which is the book given by parents to their daughters before marriage in South Asia and which goes through all of these things in detail.

This means that as my daughter changes and grows, it is a natural thing for her to react to puberty and periods with the practical steps of washing and bathing that are stipulated in Islam.

As she begins to ask questions, it is important for me to create a “safe space” as one sister who commented on the original article called it.  This means that we have time together alone whether that’s doing crafts together, going shopping or having hot chocolate and cake together on a trip out on a Saturday morning.  It can take time for a child to muster up the courage to ask a question or for the right time to present itself and I find that it’s important to create those opportunities regularly.

Little Lady mentioned some of the things that she picked up at school and I used this as a trigger to tell her some of the basic facts about what changes happen and what happens when you get a period.  If there’s one thing that’s universal, it’s that kids tell each other things and part of those will be right and part will be guesswork and incorrect (Little Lady thought you only ever get one period and that’s it!).

We also used some books to help support our discussions.  The two we used were Muslim Teenagers Coping by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood and A Muslim Girls Guide to Life’s Big Changes by Rayhana Khan.  Both are clear and factual but with an Islamic perspective.  The latter for instance starts with Iman (faith), before going onto what we wear, how we behave and how we should spend our  time before explaining the changes to the body that occur.  The first book is longer and in depth and the second is a short easy read.

If I found it hard to talk about these things, Little Lady certainly didn't.  I had to ask her to be discreet and mindful of who she discussed these things with.  I thought she would be embarrassed and shy.  Instead, she has turned the whole thing into a running joke and has been very irreverent.   During one evening halaqa (study circle) with the kids at home, my husband was explaining the fardh and sunnah of wudhu (ablutions for prayer) and mentioned having to do hilalah (or running your fingers through your beard).  A little while later she was giggling like crazy as she asked me if people would have to do hilalah of their armpits.  I had to try and keep a straight face as I told her not to be silly.  She’s still teasing me about it.

Many parents may think that ten years old is too young to talk about these things, but there are girls in Little Lady’s class who have now already started puberty.  Not only will they mention what is happening to them but it will make the rest of the children reflect on what is happening to them.  After all, the changes don’t just start on the day you start puberty, but months and months before. 

Thankfully her humour has made it easier for both of us to handle this topic, but there is the additional dimension of the emotions that we can go through at this time.  Little Lady has taken it in her stride, excited at the prospect of growing up and asking me when she can start waxing her legs and wearing a bra (“not yet” has been my only response so far).  For me the process has been sad.  The thought of her growing up and going through this change is painful to me.  As a mother I want to protect her for as long as I can and these changes will effectively bring some of the responsibilities of an adult into her life – such as prayer and covering her body.  It helps that I have taught all of my children these things from a young age and so I hope the transition will be more natural.

As she is my first child, this is a work in progress.   I am feeling my way through this and trying to trust my intuition about when the time is right to share information.  I suspect that it will be a different process in some ways with the boys and I will have to push my husband to take the lead.  I suspect I will have all of the answers and be really good at this when it’s too late, after all of the kids have been through it and I have learned what worked and what didn’t.  In the meantime, I am watching Little Lady change and grow with a mixture of pride and sadness.

For anyone in a similar position, a sister commented on the previous post and left a link to this resource which I found useful: Muslimah’s Guide to Puberty: How to talk to your daughter about Adolescence

I would also love to hear from other sisters about what worked for them when discussing puberty and sex education as mothers, siblings, daughters etc. 


  1. Umm Shareef23 October, 2013

    Assalam aleikum sister,

    JazakAllah Khayr for this. I think you are right - honesty, modesty and humour are key!

    I can share my experience with my boys. I must admit that like you I was rather hoping that my husband would take the lead, but I think I have probably done more! What has worked well was some advice given at Islamic parenting class which was to make sure that every explanation is backed up with evidence from Qu'ran and Sunnah. So for example, when explaining why things like free-mixing are forbidden, have the relevant texts available, so that they don't just think it is us parents being a pain and understand that it is a direct commandment of Allah subhana wa ta'alaa that we are passing on. Be clear what is right and what is wrong according to the Shariah.

    We were also advised not to shy away from awkward topics such as masturbation - be clear from an early age that it is haram, explain why Allah has forbidden it, that He watches over each and every one of us 24/7, and that they will be punished if caught - consistency is key. And be alert about it - teenage boys can be very furtive!

    Finally, a big emphasis was placed on the importance of the Islamic dress code as our kids enter puberty - dressing as Muslims will help them to understand that they are different from other kids, and insha'Allah it will be easier for them to accept and embrace the norms of Islamic behaviour. And as with all things our example as parents is key here - if we dress modestly insha'Allah our sons and daughters will follow suit (literally!).

    1. Walaikam-assalam Sister,
      Jazkh'Allah-khairun, I found this really helpful alhamdulillah

  2. Salaam, this is something that I think a ton about. In addition to being a doula (and inspiring midwife, insh'Allah!) I also provide workshops for young Muslim women where first we create that safe space and then we have great discussions. I'm always impressed at how forthcoming the women are in their questions and stories. One thing that strikes me is how many of them received incorrect information from their parents, or misinformation that was meant to scare them off from having sex. I'm sure that their moms intended well, and wanted to protect them, but the legacy of that information has been frightening for some of these women (and sometimes just so, so incorrect). It just impresses upon me the importance of presenting this information honestly, openly, grounded in our tradition, and where moms themselves have the correct info.

    Jazakallah kheyr for thinking out loud on this topic, I think it's a really important one.