My mom would like to believe that I’m still a virgin. The de facto understanding between us is that I’ve indeed maintained my chastity up until my current ripe age of 26.
My mom’s hints at me getting married grow less subtle with each passing year. Ironically, I still reluctantly request my friends who are girls to stay especially quiet when my mom’s caller ID appears on my phone. After years of dutiful mothering, my mother’s ears have only improved in detecting even the faintest of non-halal sounds (halal meaning permissible for Muslims).
If my mom calls me on a Friday night at the fraternity house, she’ll detect even the slightest slurring and ask: “You didn’t drink alcohol, did you?” If my girl friends fail to repress their giggles in the background, cue her inquiry: “Are there girls with you?”
Meanwhile, my floormates — the proverbial Chad and Brad — often boorishly babble to their moms on the phone while inebriated. Brad once left the call on speaker:
“Sounds like you’re having a good time, sweetie. Make sure to drink lots of water and use protection if you meet a special lady, mkay?”
I envy Brad.
In Islam, alcohol and premarital sex is forbidden. My Muslim mother would also be concerned with dehydration and safe sex, like Brad’s mom, if she wasn’t preoccupied with the prospect of my eternal damnation in hell. I certainly don’t possess the piety necessary to resist the allure of these staples of university life, or Western culture at large, for that matter.
Growing up in a Muslim and Indian family in America is an experience in social tightrope-walking. My brothers and I are tasked with checking the boxes off of a dizzying list of expectations:
- Preserve our religious identity — if not for personal conviction, then at least for the optics in our community or mosque.
- Connect to others in the Indian community, many of whom are not Muslims, and have lifestyles that include dating, sex and beer.
- Assimilate into American culture while maintaining the aforementioned features of our family’s identity.
As a teenager, I believed that I’d lose my virginity to the Indian Muslim girl I was to marry. Perhaps the seeming inevitability of this sexual destiny is one of the reasons why I’ve never had a girlfriend — even at UC Berkeley, I still subconsciously labor the notion of dating to marry. These sociocultural ideologies have affected my understanding and approach to not just my sexuality, but to women in general.
Indian culture encourages resolute chronological stages for men: degree, job, arranged marriage and babies. An Islamic lifestyle can entail all of the above, along with the sudden switch in sexual expectations once it’s time to make Muslim babies. This is the framework that pidgenholed me into thinking of sex as less than a part of my life to be enjoyed and explored, and more in the religious context of a rigid monogamous marriage.
The impermissible nature of my interactions with girls beginning from middle school rendered in me an unfortunate mystification of them. I attended mosques where spaces were highly genderized. Just like men and women sitting separately in the mosque, I felt the weight of that separation in my day-to-day life as well. This fostered a distorted perspective on having normal relationships with women — sexual or platonic.
It’s a religious injunction to “lower your gaze” when you’re with the opposite sex. Although Muslims vary in observing this, when I was younger I took it at face value that my religiosity necessitated perceiving women as a potential vehicle for the sin of lusting.
When I naturally began to indulge in intimate relationships in high school, it was characterized by uncertainty and guilt. There wasn’t a cultural apparatus to help me navigate the confusing intersection of expected biological desire and my social mores. Consequently, I didn’t develop a mature understanding of sex and all the emotional, physical and social implications that came along with it until I moved out of my parents’ house and into the world, finally freed of cultural and religious obligations.
Chad and Brad have undoubtedly received “the talk” (precluded in my household) and likely have been in multiple relationships. Before they went to prom and homecoming, they probably received advice from their jolly ol’ dad: “Listen here, kiddo, when you’re with her, you always walk on the side closer to the street.”
Meanwhile, any tips on how to treat women for me came from James Bond and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic.” Women only stopped being mystical aliens after I moved out and became sexually acculturated on my own. This is the challenge that many young bicultural and religious people face
Now as a student, albeit nontraditional, at UC Berkeley, I’ve gotten much sexier. Integral to being sexy is being knowledgeable and empowered in your sexuality. My education in the humanities has helped me to identify the social constructs operative throughout my life such as heteronormativity, patriarchy, marriage, gender binaries, gender roles, monogamy and misogyny. I feel enlightened now that I’m aware of the social forces that have dictated the development of my sexuality. Armed with this awareness, I’ve settled into a heavenly, guilt-free relationship with who I am and what I want.
For university students who have to square with unlearning cumbersome cultural or religious notions of sex and gender, knowledge can be the means to our sexual salvation. And that’s as sexy as hell.