Opinion | I was pulled from sex ed class, did not learn about my body and was abused

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I’m sitting in my elementary school library alone. I have to sit here for about an hour, until sex ed class is over. Then I can re-join my classmates.

I am too embarrassed to tell my friends that my parents won’t let me go to sex ed. I don’t want my friends to think that my family is weird – that the one girl in their class who wears hijab is weird. So I make up a story: I tell my friends that the reason I’m not going is because I got a special kind of detention. I misbehaved in class, so the teacher says I can’t go to sex ed. I have to sit in the library instead.

Sidrah Ahmad

I don’t know if my friends believe me.

When I was sexually abused later in life, the perpetrator exploited my lack of awareness about my body and about sexuality. When he crossed lines, I didn’t know the lines were supposed to be there. I didn’t have the words to name what was going on. All I knew was that something secret was happening: this was the kind of thing that you’re not supposed to speak about, that you’re supposed to be ashamed of. So I kept it to myself, even though part of me wanted to talk about it. Part of me wanted to scream.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Just like in my library “detention,” I stayed silent and alone.

My lived experience, as a Muslim who was brought up in a conservative household, serves as a reality-check for those parents who believe that removing children from sex ed, or preventing sex ed from happening, will somehow enable them to control their children’s destinies. For example, many of these parents believe that by pulling their children out of sex ed, or by stopping curriculum related to LGBTQ communities, that they will prevent their impressionable children from becoming gay. Or trans.

Read more: The naked truth about how the repealed sex ed program compares to the 1998 one that replaces it

I’m now a public educator on anti-gender based violence in immigrant and refugee communities. I also look at the impact that Islamophobia has on children who need support for abuse they are facing, but are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to bring further stigma to their community.

From my professional perspective, I’ve been deeply concerned that vocal members of the Muslim community in Ontario, such as Farina Siddiqui, who has been touring radio and television news celebrating the “victory” of the sex ed repeal, have been a central part of the anti-sex ed movement.

These voices, although loud, do not represent the entirety of the Muslim community.

Indeed, members of the Muslim community who are queer or trans, who are survivors of sexual abuse or assault, or who are passionate about empowering children with knowledge and ownership over their own bodies, have been speaking out in favour of the sex ed curriculum, and are truly alarmed by the decision to revert to the 1998 curriculum.

Our voices deserve to be heard, too – particularly so that queer, trans and otherwise vulnerable Muslim children and youth know that they’re not alone.

Here’s the reality check: I sat in the library during sex ed. I learned nothing about sexuality or my body. And I fell in love with a female classmate in Grade 6. With a hijab on my head, with no sex ed in my system, I fell in love.

Preventing sex ed will not stop your children from becoming queer or trans. That’s not how it works. It will just teach queer and trans children that you hate them. It will set them up for self-harm and suicide.

That’s all that’s being accomplished here.

Some other parents assume that if their children learn about how their bodies work and what sex is, that will make them more likely to engage in sex at younger ages. They use this anxiety to justify clamping down on their children’s access to knowledge. They try to block their children from this knowledge. But in doing so, they block their children from the most precious knowledge of all: the important teaching that your body belongs to you. It’s yours.

Throughout my time growing up, I didn’t feel like my body really belonged to me. I wasn’t allowed to learn about it. I wasn’t supposed to explore it. And so, when someone violated my body, when someone crossed boundaries with it, or hurt it, I never felt that knee-jerk reaction of Stop. I never thought You can’t do this to me. Because my body wasn’t really me; it wasn’t mine. It belonged to someone else. I was just its steward. And I was failing at that task. I was bad.

These kinds of harms can compound and last a lifetime. What we say to children matters. We need to choose our words carefully, because children across Ontario are watching and listening to our debates right now.

Even those who have to sit in the library.

Sidrah Ahmad, M.A., is the coordinator of the Immigrant and Refugee Communities Neighbours, Friends and Families Campaign, a provincial campaign against gender-based violence , at OCASI and the researcher and founder behind the Rivers of Hope Toolkit on Islamophobic violence. She writes, speaks and leads community-based education and engagement work to end gender-based violence and Islamophobic violence.