Sex education in my school consisted of experimenting with putting a condom on a cucumber and watching a video of a woman giving birth. This was met with embarrassed giggling from my peers and awkward glances. At home, we would never dream of discussing sex or relationships. My parents were old school Asian, Muslim folk. For them, sex took place in the confines of a marriage, preferably arranged, and exploring sexual desire seemed an anathema in that environment. In both instances, there was no mention of consent in relationships, bodily autonomy or enjoyment.
I actually found out about the mechanics of sex through one of my peers at the mosque I attended after school – so much for good little Muslim girls.
It is encouraging to see the increase in support for compulsory sex education in schools and today Scotland’s government discusses demands by pressure groups for compulsory relationship education too. But this is only one part of a larger picture if schools and society want to give young people the tools to live emotionally healthy lives. It is interesting that the ethos behind non-vocational education throughout my academic life encouraged the development of my critical facilities, whereas sex education seemed far removed from this.
As a survivor of a forced marriage I often wonder what would have helped me to leave before the marriage. Each person leaves an abusive relationship for very different reasons; for me, it became intolerable when I was being asked to sacrifice my emotional, intellectual and physical health.
I realise now that ten years ago I wasn’t aware of my right to autonomy. There was something very wrong about being forced into a marriage but up until my final departure, the status of my family and their feelings took precedence over my wellbeing. They had very exacting moral standards and as part of that they had drilled into me the idea of shame and to be “besharam”, i.e. without shame, was to be fallen – these people were cast aside by the community.
For a young Asian, Muslim girl growing up in this environment, I needed to properly understand the notions of consent and how it related to me. I needed something then to make me realise that I did not have to stay in an abusive relationship (with my family) with coercion and a threat to my life. Perhaps even if I was armed with notions of consent, I would not have left immediately – there are no guarantees – but perhaps I would have understood that my “no” should have been enough.
Any teaching should also take into account wider cultural influences on young people. At a time when cyber bulling and sexting is on the increase, young peoples are ever more vulnerable. In a Freedom of Information request made by the BBC, it was revealed that children as young as 10 are being reported to police for sharing explicit photos of each other over mobile phones and social media.
These issues along with issues such as forced marriage, honour based violence and FGM should be part of a holistic approach to teaching about consent, intimacy, sex and relationships. It is disjointed and blinkered to not understand that all this issues are inherently linked. We need to do more to protect all young people, no matter what their background and pressures.
It is only in my 30s that I properly understand notions of consent. I would hope young people are given much more support, advice and confidence to make healthy choices and know how to exercise their right to say “no” to protect themselves.
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Huma Munshi is a writer and poet. She is passionate about addressing inequality through her writing. She writes about feminism, tackling honour based violence, forced marriage, mental illness, culture and activism, She is a regular contributor at the F-Word, Open Democracy and Time to Change. You can follow her on twitter at @Huma101. She sees writing as a mechanism to overcome trauma and connect with others.
- #WhyILeft Reflections on Leaving an Abusive Relationship (mediadiversified.org)
- In fear of dishonour – when the perpetrators are family (mediadiversified.org)