The other teachers and I smiled knowingly as we looked toward her. We had grown accustomed to the comical stories that happened daily between teachers and students, especially in the elementary section.
“The teacher asked the second-grade girls what they want to be when they grow up,” the assistant teacher continued as she pulled out a chair and sat down at the table where we were sitting. “And one-by-one, each girl talked about what she wanted to be.”
We chuckled, anticipating that one of the students had said something the teacher hadn’t expected.
“Some girls said, ‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up,’” the assistant teacher said, mimicking the child-like voice of the students. “Some said, ‘I want to be a nurse,’ and one girl said, ‘I want to be a firefighter.’”
“And then one girl said the strangest thing,” the assistant teacher said. We grew quiet, light smiles on our faces as we awaited the punch line to the story. The assistant teacher twisted her face and raised her voice slightly to underscore the oddity of the girl’s statement: “When I grow up,’” she mocked, “’I want to be a mommy.’”
There was laughter from me and other teachers. “Aww, maashaAllah,” I said, still smiling. “That’s so cute.” Other teachers nodded in agreement and shared the same sentiment.
“Cute?” the assistant teacher repeated as she glared at me, her eyebrows furrowed in disapproval. The darkness of her expression quieted me, as it did the others, and we looked at her in confusion.
My smile faded as I met the woman’s gaze and searched my mind for what I had said wrong. “Yes,” I said tentatively, thinking perhaps the assistant teacher had misunderstood me. “That’s really cute that she wants to be like her mother.”
“No,” the assistant teacher disagreed, her face contorted at she looked pointedly at me. “That’s not cute. That’s disgusting.”
Silence fell on the staff room at the intensity of her last word. Even those who were not participating in the conversation stopped their own discussions to turn toward us.
“If she wants to be a mommy when she grows up,” the assistant teacher said, disgust still in her voice, “all she’ll do every day is think about sex.”
Though it has been nearly ten years since the discussion, I remember the conversation in the staff room as if it were yesterday. I remember how no matter how much I, as well as others, tried to explain to the woman that the little girl’s dream had nothing at all to do with sex, the woman was persistent: the poor little girl had been so corrupted by “American thinking” that her only dreams for the future lay in fantasizing about sex day after day until she could bring it into fruition by becoming a mother in real life.
At that time, I was speechless in shock. Did this woman really imagine that a seven-year-old girl’s desire to be a mother came from anything other than a pure, innocent admiration of the girl’s own mother?
“Well,” the assistant teacher said to me in frustration at the end of the conversation, “either you have hayaa’ [modesty or a sense of shame] or you don’t.”
Istared at her in disbelief. Was she saying what I thought she was?
“And if you don’t have hayaa’,” she said, “there’s no way for you to understand where I’m coming from.”
My mouth fell open, and even some of the teachers from the woman’s home country spoke up in disagreement with her.
The assistant teacher shrugged smugly. “That’s the problem with Americans. They don’t have hayaa.’”
“You can’t say that,” some teachers protested, shaking their heads emphatically in disagreement.
“Oh really?” the woman said, her voice suggesting that she would prove to all of us that Americans had absolutely no modesty or sense of shame.
“There was one American woman who was Muslim,” the assistant teacher said, “and when she was pregnant, she actually told her children!”
Some of us laughed at the ridiculousness of the assistant teacher’s perspective.
“And do you know what she did?” the assistant teacher asked, her tone suggesting that this would surely make us understand. “She let her child touch her stomach and feel the baby moving.”
Silence fell in the staff room. Was this woman serious?
“And what’s wrong with that?” I asked.
“Because now the child is going to be thinking about her parents having sex!”
Let’s Not Talk About Sex
I left the staff room that day in a daze. I could not fathom what cultural and personal experiences could lead a person to obsess about staying away from the topic of sex so much that she saw it in places where it wasn’t present at all…and then imagined that her phobia of sex was actually an indication of a high level of modesty and Islamic spirituality.
“I’m an indigenous American,” I told the woman that day, “and most of my extended family are Christians. I went to public school and heard and saw many inappropriate things,” I said. “But I’m telling you, I’ve never in my life heard of an American thinking that a little girl wanting to be a mother or parents telling their child they’re expecting a baby has anything at all to do with sex.”
I shook my head. “If anything,” I said, “it shows how your culture obsesses about sex.”
How Did We Come to This?
I wish I could say that the conversation with the assistant teacher was the last time I heard Islamic modesty connected with avoiding the topic of sex at all costs. But it wasn’t. Time after time I continued to hear about “let’s not talk about sex” so much that I felt as if I’d never heard sex talked about as much as it was from the “anti-sex” Muslim circles. In Islamic classes, in fatwas, in discussions of women’s dress—you name it—these Muslims couldn’t get enough of discussing how to not think about sex, which of course meant that they thought about it more than the average person.
I myself have left certain Muslim classes and religious gatherings to protect myself from the corruption I feared I would suffer if I remained around such immodest, inappropriate thinking in the name of “Islamic modesty.”
“My goodness! Who thinks of such things?” I found myself often saying after hearing of yet another way Muslims should dress or carry themselves [that went far beyond what Allah commanded], just to avoid inciting others to think about sex.
How did we come to this?
Only Allah knows. But my experiences in different Muslim cultures and communities in America and abroad have given me a glimpse into what might be happening to this ummah as it relates to the beautiful blessing that Allah has given the husband and wife in the form of sex and intimacy…
First published: May 2013