In Moroccan Canadian journalist Sheima Benembarek’s Halal Sex: The Intimate Lives of Muslim Womxn in North America something precious is presented to readers. More complex, textured, and irreverent than a simple representation of marginalized voices, this book is alive with the voices of Muslim womxn performing the revolutionary work of not only – and merely – existing in the Western world, but living according to their own will, and, moreover, finding that will to begin with.
The book is instructive and inviting, showing the way to community that many, myself included, may not have realized we needed. Through the rebellious act of sharing stories, it illustrates how contradictory and enervated some traditional notions of good are within Islam.
Each word of Halal Sex is a kind of transgression. In Islam, sex is permissible, or halal, and encouraged only when it is performed within the bounds of a heterosexual marriage. Benembarek, instead, provides portraits of women and a nonbinary transgender person reckoning with what it means to be Muslim and to have sex out of traditional, heterosexual wedlock. Six individuals – Hind, Azar, Bunmi, Eman, Taslim, and Khadijah – as well as Benembarek herself share stories of consensual sex, and in doing so interrogate and reframe what it means to be halal. “I believe all consensual sex between adults is halal sex,” Benembarek writes in the introduction; she then tenderly and equitably relays the musings, discernments, and apprehensions – and full lives – of her Muslim subjects (many of whom are queer) as they relate to sex and Islam.
“Halal Sex is meant to make public this unnecessarily hushed conversation, to help ease the burden of aloneness,” Benembarek writes. Her project challenges both subjects and readers to distinguish biases from fact, and so refashion our understanding of sex, fulfillment, and spirituality.
The roiling public and private lives of the interviewees are vividly captured in each chapter: Hind, a woman with a deep understanding of the tenets of Islam, who teaches others about the joys of sex; Azar, a nonbinary transgender individual working within themselves, and with their parents and partner, to expand the understanding of what it means and looks like to be a trans Muslim; Bunmi, a recent college grad working through familial and religious trauma as she comes to terms with her queerness; Eman, a Palestinian comedian who, through her work and personal life, challenges notions of virginity and queerness in the face of misogynistic readings of Islam; Taslim, a hard-working Pakistani woman, alienated from her domineering and conservative parents, who is trying to understand her relationship to sex; and Khadijah, a sex worker and exotic dancer who loves both her job and her religion.
What connects all of these individuals is their faith, and their either solid or nascent awareness that the patriarchy has mangled Islam in order to police the bodies of women and nonbinary folks – with dire consequences. What is made clear over the course of the book is the glaring and galling dichotomy between cultural Islam (the communal values that are deeply embedded in patriarchal thinking, initially articulated by medieval male scholars, that continue to constrain and asphyxiate the thinking and behaviour of Muslim womxn), and the enlightened religion at its core – which is now being reinterpreted by contemporary feminist scholars.
Each interviewee is given the space to lay out their understanding of Islam and the role sex plays in their lives. There is minimal editorializing; Benembarek’s writing beautifully communicates the complex personalities of each of her subjects, including their sense of humour. She respectfully and lovingly paints the womxn in this book as growing, fallible human beings shaking off preconceived notions and fears as they come to terms with their own desires. Despite the misogynistic culture in which they may have been raised, the importance of their faith persists. For this reason, Benembarek’s work is all the more trenchant and urgent, working to dispel isolation and to create a space that cherishes guilt-free sharing of the good, the bad, and sometimes the unfamiliar.
Though the prose could benefit from a bit of tightening – certain sentiments and ideas tend to be repeated – much of Halal Sex is a revelation. The strength of this important book lies in the incisive interviews that cut to the core of the subjects, the care the author shows for each individual, and the intentionality of collecting and presenting the various truths of a diverse group of voices. Benembarek’s goal of fostering a safe community wherein knowledge through storytelling can be shared, so that self-confidence and self-determination in relation to sex and Islam can thrive, is brilliantly accomplished.