Sheima Benembarek’s ‘Unveiling’ a finalist for book proposal prize
Toronto writer Sheima Benembarek has been chosen as a finalist for the second annual Penguin Random House Canada Best Nonfiction Book Proposal MFA Prize. The prize is awarded for the best nonfiction book proposal by a University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction student in their graduating year, or by an alumnus. In this essay, Ms. Benembarek, who graduated with her MFA this spring, reflects one why she’s writing Unveiling—Intimate Stories of Muslim Women in North America, and why this book matters.
Sheima Benembarek is a Moroccan Canadian Toronto-based freelance writer. She writes about social justice, immigrant narratives, and intersectional feminism. Her work has appeared in print and online publications including This, Maisonneuve, Corporate Knights, Torontoist, Broadview, and the Literary Review of Canada. She was named one of the five RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writers in 2020.
Consensual sex between adults outside marriage is unlawful in Islam. It’s haram—a sin in the faith—and so punishable under Islamic law, sharia. Allah forbids it. I’ve known this ever since I was a child growing up in Morocco, a Muslim-majority country. Having an active and open sex life as a single Muslim woman in the Muslim world is treated as a crime. But what about Muslim women in North America? Though they are living in countries that separate church from state, has the restrictive culture surrounding sex immigrated along with the community?
My book, Unveiling: Intimate Stories of Muslim Women in North America investigates this question through a collection of lived personal accounts.
This book tells the stories of the sex lives of Muslim women around you—immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East; women born and raised in Canada and the United States; women living across North America from New York to San Francisco, from Ottawa to Vancouver. Their experiences range from forced abstinence and female genital cutting to liberated casual sex and healthy BDSM rapports. These are the stories of niqabi women and secular ones, young and middle-aged, successful career women and housewives, the queer and the virginal.
Award-winning Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy traveled across the Middle East and North Africa to report about Muslim women’s personal lives in these regions. She called her trailblazing non-fiction book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle-East Needs a Sexual Revolution. Unveiling tackles the same subject only its geographic focus is North America. It showcases a series of compelling stories—at times disheartening and at others empowering—that relate the personal negotiations between sex and Islam that Muslim women experience here.
What grants me privileged access to this very private community, and extensive knowledge of its internal dynamics, is the fact I am also a Muslim woman, an immigrant, a Moroccan-Canadian. I get it, and my sources get that I get it. The majority of the women I have interviewed expressed gratitude at the prospect of Unveiling. A young woman, who was born and raised in Davis, California, began her interview with me by saying, “What you’re doing is absolutely phenomenal, and much needed. I’m happy to hear that one of us is writing this type of book!” Another woman in New York City told me: “If nothing else, I feel better just telling you all of this.”
Unveiling not only offers an unparalleled look into the lives of these women but it also gives them a voice, one not often heard.
Women’s rights have, in recent years, moved to the forefront of social justice narratives, even within the Islamic faith itself. A wave of Muslim feminist scholars has been pushing back against the patriarchy with progressive and ground-breaking interpretations of the Qur’an. They are challenging the traditional views of Muslim women’s place both in the political and social spheres through new ways of looking at scripture—the very tool that has traditionally been used against us. Allah, it seems, is not the source of oppression after all.
This then is the time for honest accounts about the sexual lives of Muslim women. Critical mass has impact.
Unveiling tells the stories of Muslim women living in seemingly forbidden relationships because of the misuse of religion, of Muslim women who’ve experienced generationally perpetuated pain as a result of the lack of sex education, about Muslim women who have learned to fear touching their own bodies.
While there are no laws in North America that prohibit Muslim women from openly discovering and experiencing their sexuality, many are still roped into communal and tribal interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. But there are also Muslim women finding sexual emancipation despite their conservative communities, Muslim women who have taken their sexual health into their own hands. This book is about them too.
It’s about all of us living within a constricted religio-cultural frame in a sexually liberated continent—Muslim women reconciling faith and sexual freedoms in North America.
In the ummah, the Muslim community at large, we don’t talk enough about sex. Unveiling makes this unnecessarily hushed conversation public. It makes women feel less alone when considering their desires, and how those needs so often come up against the communities they belong to.
The women I’ve chosen to feature vary in ethnicity, Islamic sect, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, and are located across the continent. All of their stories are powerful.
If you are a Muslim woman living in North America and would like to participate by sharing your story with me, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.