Sponsored by Penguin Canada

In her enthralling book, Halal Sex, Moroccan Canadian journalist Sheima Benembarek has given the world an astute and unprecedented glimpse into the sex lives of female and gender-expansive Muslims living across Canada and the United States. The stories are complex, eye-opening, fascinating and courageous, inspiring thought and discussion regarding patriarchal systems, female pleasure, and the role that religion plays in women’s lives.

Feeling confident and free to enjoy sex is crucial to a person’s overall health and wellbeing. We’re certain Halal Sex will help countless women and non-binary folks feel more comfortable and less alone. 

We’re grateful this book exists and connected with Benembarek to dig deeper… 

What was it that compelled you to write Halal Sex?

I started to read works by Islamic feminist scholars, like Amina Wadud and Asmaa Lamrabet, and the way that they’ve been finding different interpretations of the Quran through a feminist lens and I was blown away. Growing up in Morocco, I hadn’t been exposed to that type of thinking even though it’s not really new at all. And so that pushed me to start asking deeper questions about the role that Muslim women play in society and their human rights, especially with regards to how they live their intimate lives. I knew that I was told to preserve my virginity until I got married, and that marriage was never on my mind. So I wanted to know what it was like for Muslim women and gender-expansive people in North America where there is more sexual freedom afforded and sex outside of marriage isn’t punishable by law.

Halal Sex is a daring book. We applaud you for writing it. Did you receive a lot of pushback? What did that look like and how did you push through? 

I didn’t experience too much pushback during the reporting and writing. There were a few Muslim women who thought that this type of book isn’t necessary because good sex within the confines of a heterosexual marriage is celebrated; a duty even. But I wanted to talk to those who do not fall into the mainstream idea of a relationship in the Muslim community. I think there will be more pushback now that the book is out. And I’m okay with that. We all have the right to our beliefs. What keeps me going is the fact that social justice and compassion are big components of Islam.

You’ve interviewed such a beautifully diverse group of women and non-binary folks who have very different backgrounds and lived experiences. What would you say is the common thread that struck you most?

The common thread was feelings of shame, guilt, and not being able to be true to who you are within your family and community. There’s nothing worse, I think, than feeling rejected by your own people simply for who you are and doing what comes naturally to you.

Sheima Benembarek – Photo © Daniel Ehrenworth

What do you wish sex-ed had looked like for you growing up? And, in short, how do you think that would have impacted your life?

I think more than just sex-ed, I wonder what my life experience would have been like had I been born and grown up in a country where sexual ethics are not intertwined with the law. If it were normal and encouraged for young people to discover themselves within the scope of their desires and sexuality without fear. But yes, sex-ed is crucial, and it needs to be based on science and not fear. I mean, sex, in the right circumstances, is beautiful.

What is your greatest hope for this book…. in terms of inspiring change / a shift?

My hope is that this book provides company to the Muslim women who need it. Because, even if the only thing you have is the privacy of your room and the secrecy of your thoughts, there are six people in this book right there with you. I wish for it to help ease the burden of aloneness. And if the community can see what it can cost us to live restricted lives, what it can cost its young people, then maybe we can open up the dialogue more and avoid some needless suffering.

What feelings arose while writing Halal Sex? Was it a struggle? A liberating experience? Joyous? Enraging?

Honestly, it was all of those. It was a rollercoaster of emotions. Working on this book has been the best and the hardest thing I have ever done. Spending my time connecting with women and gender-expansive people has filled me up with warmth and hope. It’s surreal to see how many of us are out there wanting the same thing for ourselves and for other Muslims: self-determination and joy.

We’re always curious how writers write. What did writing this book look like? 

Writing this book looked like work; an all-consuming job. I love my job, but I also don’t want to romanticize it. I retreated from friends and family and often fought with my partner because he felt neglected. I wouldn’t change anything, but writing is a difficult job, and society doesn’t support writers as much as it should.

Is there anything else you’d like to share right now? Perhaps to the person who is really struggling? Who feels stuck, torn, or alone? 

To that person, I would like to say: there is nothing wrong with you and you are definitely not alone. We are in this fight together. United against the patriarchy!

Halal Sex is available now in paperback, ebook, or as an audiobook. Get your copy today at penguinrandomhouse.ca, or at all good retailers.