Within Islam, sex outside of heterosexual wedlock might be haram, or forbidden – but trying to curtail a natural function will always have middling results. In Halal Sex, Moroccan-Canadian journalist Sheima Benembarek sketches out an intimate portrait of the variable sex lives of female and gender-expansive Muslims across North America. Through a series of six real-life stories, we’re introduced to people including Khadijah, an exotic dancer living in British Columbia; Bunmi, a Nigerian Muslim in Texas trying to rid her sex life of shame; and Azar, whose Sufi spirituality and non-binary identity are of equal importance to who they are. With colourful, detailed storytelling and deep empathy, Benembarek brings Muslim sexuality into the open and onto the page.
What was interesting to you about the specific experiences of Muslim women and gender-non-conforming people in North America?
I was born in Saudi Arabia, and then grew up in Morocco. I felt like we often hear about what it’s like over there, and that here in North America, things are different and more open; that you have freedom in terms of gender and sexuality. I was wondering what it was like for Muslim women and gender-non-confirming people who grew up here. I had this notion that immigrants tend to double-down on their beliefs that they bring with them, more so than even people back in their countries of origin; it feels like holding on to your culture, right?
Or, like some of my Lebanese family, you push your culture away entirely, rebelling against it.
I kind of did that too. But a lot do hold on to their culture, and to the restrictions of their faith, out of fear that their girls will be “lost in Westernized culture.” I was curious how their children managed things; they belong to a religion that’s very specific in the restrictions it applies to sexuality, but they live in a relatively sexually liberated country.
Was there a defining experience when you realized we really need to hear stories about people’s experiences with sex?
In the prologue of the book, I talk about my mom’s harsh reaction when I told her I’d had an abortion. It felt like I wasn’t the only one that was having these things happen to me – my best friend was kicked out of her house because her mom found a birth control pill. I’ve often felt like I didn’t have the right resources. If, when I was younger, I had a book where I could read about other women like me when I had questions, it could have showed me that there are other ways to be a Muslim woman.