As a child of the 80’s, I distinctly recall a popular song that we were forbidden to listen to. The song was called “Let’s talk about (substitute a three letter word here that starts with an s and ends with x).” The lyrics which somehow leaked out to our young ears continued in the vein of “Let’s talk about you and me baby. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.” Of course this was a catchy tune that tried to explore the benefits and drawbacks of the act of intimacy itself, but in doing so with such in-your-face language the message was lost somewhere along the way.
That three letter word itself was enough to set alarms ringing and shivers of fear coursing down the spines of all the aunties and uncles in our community. Even with all the restrictions in place, during Qur’an class in our Sunday school, many of the pre-teens and tweens could quote the lyrics of this song by heart with more accuracy than they could recite the Qur’an. As we learned the meaning of ayahs in the Qur’an lauding the importance of modesty and guarding one’s chastity, this song was hummed, mumbled, and murmured, shaping the undercurrent of a slight buzz that reverberated throughout the classroom. This song was the ultimate form of muffled rebellion and defiance by the Muslim youth of that era. This song symbolized many of the “no’s” that we grew up with and seemed to encourage us to speak out loud the unspeakable. But we never actually spoke the word itself. There was always a pause and a slight hum in place of the outlawed word that we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to utter.
Now let’s fast forward to today. Many of these 80’s children are all grown up and raising children of their own. And these children of today no longer flinch when the three letter word (that I still can’t bring myself to write) is thrown around casually in songs or in movies. Yet, we the parents, who were so carefully shielded from this word still struggle with verbalizing and vocalizing the term. I cannot tell you how many times I deleted the opening paragraph of this piece and then retyped it after mentally succumbing to the fact that I could not write this article without mentioning the song.
Why the struggle over a three letter word? Why encourage a repressive mentality by suggesting we NOT sing songs and swap stories with such sexual themes? Why, you ask? Because this three letter word reduces the act of intimacy to a commodity, to a catch phrase sung in songs and used in article titles—repeated by young and old alike. This three letter word, used callously in popular culture, encompasses so much of what we struggle with today in terms of gender relations and modesty in interactions and actions among our youth.
We can’t deny that what we say has a huge impact on how we act. The theory of socio-linguistic relativity states that our language shapes our realities. For example, the Inuit language has several hundred word variations to describe snow. In the English language, however, we only have a few words that we use when discussing snow. Does this mean that we don’t experience those different types of snow or does it mean that the variations of snow don’t have the same importance to us? Of course it is the latter. If you name a concept, you validate it; you give it a reason for being. It’s not to say the concept didn’t exist before, but it just did not have the type of validation to enter the common sphere of thought-sharing that language affords.
This brings us back to the problem of labeling and naming topics that once would never have been seen as adequate dinner conversation or subjects of disclosure and discussion. Sexual terms have entered our language in a very open way, and in doing so have entered our subconscious in a similar way. We’ve sacrificed our sense of hayaa’ or modesty and the only way to “be noticed” or to get Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets” in today’s social media obsessed world seems to be by buying into the popular notion that this three letter word sells. From middle-school aged children using subversive language to describe the act of intimacy to adults openly chatting about these topics, we have left no taboo topic unturned today.
The problem with such openness arises when we as Muslims begin advocating such candidness regarding stories of seduction and sexual themes. The belief that there is liberation in self-disclosure and that discussing these topics in open aired arenas takes us on a slippery slope that crosses the line between speaking up and speaking out. Swapping stories of seduction and succumbing to society’s view of overt discussion of intimacy outside of marriage is often a self-serving exercise in unmasking sins and inflating the ego.
The popular argument today is that by unveiling a sin or the desire to sin, others will learn from this mistake and the sinner can follow a path of redemption, self-forgiveness, and self-fulfillment. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that there is no therapy in openly unveiling the satr (covering) that Allah (swt) has provided a sinner with. Others will not learn from an advertisement of shared mistakes and sins. They will look at what someone has done and say “I’m not so bad” at least I haven’t done THAT. Or even worse, an eventual acceptance of normalization of certain actions will creep into our collective consciousness.
Our deen (religion) is one that does not require an intermediary to whom you should confess your sins. The act of taubah (repentence) is a deeply personal one in which the sinner asks Allah (swt) for forgiveness for him or herself with no middleman needed. We are all humans who need taubah and should seek repentance constantly and consistently for the sins that are overt and for the ones for which we are blessed with satr.
Another unfortunate consequence to this overt dialogue that has arisen about taboo topics is that in breaking the taboo in language, we have also broken the taboo in actions. Inappropriate premarital relations and infidelity are rampant in our Muslim communities today. Marriages are falling apart because of individualists seeking self-affirmation and succumbing to desires outside the marriage relationship that are perpetuated and encouraged by the prevalent themes in popular culture, media, movies, songs, and the stories we share.
As a community, we need to stop patting people on the back and encouraging them to find themselves by sharing mistakes from their past, disguised as a gift of warning to the world. We need to remind ourselves of the importance of hayaa’ and take back our own narratives in our own tongue. Ignoring taboo topics won’t make them go away and by no means will they disappear if we don’t talk about them. But there is a fine line between using crude language that encourages a bragging of sorts and using modest language that explains and warns in an age-appropriate way. Gone are the days when delectable language was used to refer to acts of intimacy. Now crudeness has crept into our linguistic terminology and is a clear reflection of what is happening in our societies today. We’ve lost the sense of shame that used to keep our sins covered and have embarked on a showcasing binge instead.
We keep feeding our bodies and our egos instead of feeding our souls and we think that by doing this we will someday be satisfied. The truth is that we will never be spiritually satiated this way because this type of filling consists of stuffing a gaping hole that gets deeper and emptier the more you pile in. Opening the door to a discussion of intimate matters in an inappropriate and unfettered way is like opening Pandora’s Box. You need to talk to someone? Find a counselor, a trusted friend, an imam from the community. Not someone who will give you a “thumbs up” and exclaim you did a great job in opening up about your weaknesses.
It’s easy to get sucked into the shock-value type of talk that happens often among friends. In a public forum, however, every writer and speaker has to take responsibility for the words that he or she lets loose. Words are powerful and while we can’t be responsible for all the actions they induce, we do have to be responsible for the many modes of interpretation that can be unleashed by double-checking the intention with which we’ve opened up the wound.
Before writing, before speaking, before bringing to life words about intimacy and seduction, think twice about the impact of your words and recheck your intentions. What are you looking for when sending those words out into the world? Is it validation, encouragement, a soap box to vent or a chance to give nasiha to yourself and to anyone who might benefit? Weigh your words carefully and understand that once shared with the world they are likely to be written in ink. Take risks and write and speak and share but be prepared to do so with modesty in mind.
As the song that this piece opened with states “I don't think we should talk about this….People might misunderstand what we're trying to say.” Let’s watch our choice of words and understand the effect they can have before articulating. Words have the power to build and the power to destroy. Choose your words wisely and be cognizant of the consequences. Let’s talk about life while maintaining our modesty for a change.
By Suzy Ismail , 12 May 2014