As many may know, Ontario has introduced a new sexual education curriculum. To be specific it is called The Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum and will include many issues related to health, including sexual issues. A copy of the grades 1 – 8 curriculum can be read here and the 9 – 12 curriculum can be read here. As many may also know this new curriculum has caused a lot of controversy. There has been a lot of misinformation being spread about the curriculum and various attempts have been made to clarify some myths floating around. This week parents against the curriculum have been protesting it by keeping their children out of school for the week. Unfortunately, it seems that Muslim parents are at the forefront of these protests (though they are certainly not the only ones against it). As a Muslim, this upsets me. As a Muslim who grew up in Canada, went through the Canadian school system, and had to negotiate with and navigate my way through Canadian experiences it saddens and angers me. It upsets me to see Muslim parents wanting to deny their children, what I see as, the educational tools that will help them navigate their lives in healthier, safer, and more respectful ways.
I get it. Being an immigrant parent in Canada is NOT easy. That’s why I am not interested in demonizing these parents nor calling names. Being a parent is a scary thing at the best of times. Parents want what they think is best for their child. And, of course, all parents use their own experiences as a reference point for informing their own parental practices and deciding what is best. Being an immigrant parent and raising children in a cultural context very different from the one in which the parents grew up has to be incredibly scary. Many parents may fear that their children will grow up to be people they don’t recognize, people they can’t relate to, people they don’t understand. I’m not even a parent yet, but even the thought of my (hopefully) future children not being able to at least understand Urdu or Punjabi (my mother tongues) freaks me out! So I empathize with these parents because I recognize that they are fearful.
BUT that does not justify keeping children ignorant, because, and let’s be very clear here, children will face sexual and relationship decisions their WHOLE lives. And I mean whole lives. Because sexual education is not just about sexual intercourse. (And the fact that many parents appear to believe that shows how much sexual education is needed!) It is about issues that we face our whole lives.
Let’s take the very important issue of consent. Have you ever picked up someone else’s child only to have them start crying hysterically? Well, that child was telling you that they do not give you their consent to be picked up. That child needs to have their request (as loud as it may be) respected because when you respect that request you teach that child their consent is required for you to touch them. (If you have a chance please check out the cutest protest ever (video) on the issue of consent and bodily autonomy of children.)
Or how about children’s natural curiosity and learning processes? Children begin to have a curiosity of their own and others’ bodies well before they even begin school. They begin to explore their bodies at very young ages. They may see body parts on others that don’t match their own. They may see them at home or at school. And they are curious and rightly so. Curiosity leads to learning. When we reprimand children for being curious about their own bodies, we are teaching them bodily shame. Instead, children need to have a healthy relationship with their own bodies and respect for the autonomy of others’ bodies.
These are just two, out of many, examples of why sexual education is relevant to all age groups.
In the end, my message to Muslim parents who oppose this curriculum is this: Remember that your children may be under your care for now, but they are individuals who will have their own lives to live, insha’Allah. They will face difficult relationship and sexual situations and decisions in life, both while they are children and as adults, which you will not have any control over nor will you be present for. These may be at school, at a friend’s home, online, at the mosque (as this awful case from Chicago demonstrates can happen), etc. But you can be sure they will face them. This sexual health curriculum will provide them with the tools needed to make healthy decisions that feel right to them or negotiate the situation with some confidence. Please don’t deny them that education, those resources, and those tools.