In many Islamic cultures, sex is rarely discussed, but when it is — whether in the domestic sphere or at madrassa — it’s usually understood as something permissible only within marriage. The Moroccan Canadian journalist Sheima Benembarek takes a more expansive approach to the topic with her first book. Halal Sex explores how six people (the term “womxn” appears in the subtitle but nowhere else) negotiate the tension between their families’ conservative expectations and their own expressions of femininity, desire, and faith.
Many of the individuals Benembarek interviewed found ways to embrace Islam’s spiritual core. Azar, who is a non-binary trans person, was born in Chicago in the early 1990s and raised “in a Sufi khanqah, a centre for spiritual gatherings.” Early on, they had questions about their sexual identity and orientation. These weren’t subjects their parents, Bashir and Fehmeeda, would address. “For a long time,” Benembarek explains, Azar’s father “saw heterosexuality as the way things naturally ought to be.” And when Azar first mentioned to Fehmeeda that they might be attracted to women, the response was dismissive: “Oh, everyone does that.” Azar knows her reserved, industrious mother “would never categorize herself as anything other than a heterosexual woman,” but they wonder “whether that’s completely accurate or just by default.”
Benembarek notes that Azar “is familiar with traditional Islamic views on queerness, though they’ve never received any negative messaging from the Sufi faith itself.” Nonetheless, their family has had difficulty coming to terms, literally, with their gender identity. Bashir and Fehmeeda had worked hard to master personal pronouns in English — their native language, Farsi, uses the same word for “he” and “she”— but in Azar’s case they were asked to ignore the distinctions. Their father continues to avoid the topic, but he has found his own way to accept his child. When Azar mentioned they had purchased a men’s suit to officiate at a wedding, his response was simple yet supportive: “Elegance doesn’t have a gender.”
In another powerful example, Halal Sex explores conflicting interpretations of Islam. Khadijah, an exotic dancer and sex worker, moved to Canada from England at age seven in the early ’90s. “We were very secular,” she says of her Sunni family. But when they couldn’t find community in their new (unspecified) city, they joined the local mosque, “because that was the only social circle we really had.” For a child who knew little about the religion, the experience was not easy. “I had mixed feelings,” she says. “I was being told that if you don’t pray five times a day, and if you don’t memorize the Qur’an, you’re gonna go to hell.” She could neither keep up with the other kids nor shake her feelings of inadequacy.
Later, while studying with a private Islamic tutor, Khadijah came to see the religion as a way for others to police female sexuality. She learned “how a proper Muslim woman should behave” but decided to lean into her desires when she started to date. In her early twenties, she became pregnant and realized “she had to manage that situation without her family.” Her boyfriend at the time wasn’t much help and said abortion was the only option. “The problem wasn’t that Khadijah wanted to keep the pregnancy,” Benembarek writes. “It’s that no one supported her or gave her the opportunity to talk through other possibilities.” She couldn’t even turn to her faith, “believing that Allah, too, must have forsaken her.” It took years, but Khadijah now practises “ways of praying that allow for flexibility.” She’ll go to the mosque with her family, and at home she speaks to God through meditation. If she has children in the future, she plans to raise them as Muslims and teach them a less rigid version of the religion.
Benembarek shows how each of the people she interviewed found ways to embrace aspects of Islam that made sense for them, but she does not delve into any inherited cultural nuances, which differ according to the country or town one is from. Doing so would have added depth to the narratives. For example, Taslim, a forty-three-year-old Pakistani Canadian woman, was not allowed to socialize with boys as a child, but it’s never made clear whether the restrictions stemmed from cultural or religious beliefs. Eman, a lesbian stand-up comedian originally from Palestine, encountered similar prohibitions: she couldn’t be seen in public with her male friend, even though he was openly gay. Benembarek alludes to “conservative Arab or Muslim principles” in this case but doesn’t explore the differences between the two.
Still, the author succeeds in creating an inclusive space for those who have rarely had the chance to discuss a traditionally taboo topic. “This book,” she says, is about “all of us living within a constricted religio-cultural framework in a sexually liberated continent.” The people featured do not always conform to conventional Islamic practices, yet they are very much a part of the Muslim world — one that is, as these stories suggest, increasingly diverse.