Creative writing helps young British Muslims open up about sex and relationships

  • Research using interviews and creative writing shows that young British Muslims are exploring and creating options around sex, dating and marriage
  • Three-year project saw participants open up about issues such as coming out as gay and mixed feelings around arranged marriage
  • Most young British Muslims face pressure to marry early, but some are finding ways to stay single for longer, and to marry on their own terms

Creative writing workshop with Muslim women

Young British Muslims are finding ways to talk about sex and relationships anonymously online and through creative writing, according to a new report.

Academics at the University of Sheffield have spent three years interviewing 60 British Muslim men and women aged 16-30 in Yorkshire, Glasgow and Newcastle, and holding a series of more than 20 creative reading and writing workshops with small groups.

The Storying Relationships project’s findings, released in a new report, challenge stereotypical depictions of Muslims as repressed and unhappy. The report includes samples of writing by the participants on everything from sex and dating, to arranged marriage and fighting for women’s equality.

The research found many young Muslims face cultural and religious pressure to marry, to be heterosexual, and to conform – but increasing numbers are prioritising religious convictions over cultural traditions.

Despite these pressures, some young Muslims are finding ways to postpone marriage and live as single adults. Some are also finding ways to negotiate the kinds of introductions and marriages they want, and the question of whether they should marry at all. In doing so, some are finding romantic love and sexual fulfilment.

Many young Muslims assume – or have been taught – that dating is religiously impermissible (haram) and should not be openly discussed or practiced. Some date discreetly, but the secrecy around it can be damaging. The research found that, where people feel free to speak about it, they feel more free to explore their options.

The report shows that most young British Muslims experience pressure to marry a person of the opposite sex, approved by the family, and do so before the end of their 20s and that most young Muslims equate single life with celibacy, and tend not to admit to pre-marital sex.

However, some young Muslims are seeking and finding sexual love, experimenting with sexual experiences and exploring their sexualities. These findings confound some wider stereotypes, which depict Muslims as unhappily married and sexually unfulfilled.

Dr Nafhesa Ali, lead researcher on the Storying Relationships project, said: “With this project, we wanted to deconstruct stereotypes and bring out the reality of what the lives of young Muslims are like when it comes to relationships.

“After the project, there were huge changes in the people we worked with – in their thinking, but also what they were able to write about. At the beginning they focused on the more acceptable topics like introductions and arranged marriages, but by the end we had more raunchy pieces coming out – even covering subjects as taboo as anal sex.

“If you can’t speak about things that are taboo, it’s important to engage with other platforms like creative writing. Some of the groups said they hadn’t written since they were at school, but even those who left school at 16 were able to put pen to paper and tell stories. Some people had prejudices they didn’t even realise they had, such as the role of women in marriage, and by creating a safe space through creative writing we were able to challenge those prejudices.”

Richard Phillips, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, who led the project, said: “Through animated film, scripts for stage, fiction and poetry, the young Muslim men and women who took part in Storying Relationships were able to broach some issues that are difficult to speak about in other ways.

“These stories confront stereotypes around what people think they know about Muslims’ attitudes towards sex and relationships, and issues such as homosexuality and marriage.

“Things that young Muslims can say and do around sexual relationships are shaped and sometimes constrained from within their communities, by family members, religious understandings and social and cultural norms.

“It is both important and difficult for young Muslims to speak about sex and relationships – but it can be empowering for individuals to tell their own stories and explore their own futures, as they do here.”

Mariam, one of the research participants from Glasgow, said: “Topics like this are always going to be quite restricting, quite difficult to talk about, but our words have a power that we don’t even realise.

“When these workshops were created and we could actually write out what we thought, what we felt, how we felt about it all, it was an avenue that we could explore. If these topics are not talked about, you can’t really broaden anybody’s mind.”

Mo, who helped to lead some of the workshops, said: “Now that these blog posts and stories are out there for people to read, those of us who want to find things like that to read will be able to find it. My sex education did not happen in a classroom – it happened on the internet. If this kind of content is there, that will help spark a discussion.

“These kinds of conversations are not just going to happen on the internet, they’re going to happen in Mosques and among friendship groups – so I would say religious leaders need to get into the ballgame and start changing the conversation.”

Some of the participants’ written work is due to be published in an anthology published by Hope Road Press later this year.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

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Sophie Armour
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The University of Sheffield
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