Yousra, though born a Muslim didn't really become interested in her faith until she developed a crush on a Sufi boy named Ammar when she was sixteen. It was studying her faith in order to get into this boys life that led her to a deeply personal relationship with God. It caused her to adopt hijab and abaya as well.
Her crush on Ammar eventually ended, but her faith did not. She learned more and more and became interested in different exegeses of the Qur'an. Eventually she 'de-hijabed' because of what she felt it said about Islam and sexual expression.
Like all Muslims, she was taught that sex was reserved for married people. So the struggle for young, unmarried Muslims full of hormones was to repress those natural desires until they met and married Mr/Ms Right. Though taught to repress their natural sexual feelings the idea of sex lay hidden in the shadows of Islamic etiquette. At the age of twelve, children are separated by gender at Islamic religious schools. They are segregated in mosques by heavy partitions or walls or entire rooms - sometimes even put it different buildings. 'The underlying reason for all this was that all men were assumed to be sexual animals who would not be able to concentrate on prayer if they looked at women. I always found this insulting to men. This entire system was designed so men would never fear public arousal. I also found it highly naive to think that women lacked a forceful sex drive and therefore would not ogle men at the mosque.'
'Ask the most liberal and conservative hijabi why Islam sanctions the wearing of hijab and there will surely be mention of the fact that Muslim women must be modest and unalluring so they are not seen as sex objects; they simply want to be seen as people. The problem I have always had with this reasoning is twofold. First, it is impossible to desexualize one's self - our sexuality is an integral part of who we are and a part of our humanity that Islam celebrates within the domain of marriage. Second, this reasoning takes all responsibility away from men and places it on women. Men are not taught to have self control, but women are repeatedly instructed to dress and behave modestly so as not to arouse a man.'
Yousra says that in not acknowledging their sexuality, Muslims are left not knowing how to react to it. 'In other words, when we are confronted with something we have spent so long repressing, it is difficult to have a healthy response to what is life-affirming, natural, and a gift from God: the ability to love and make love.'
At the age of nineteen, Yousra 'de-hijabed'. She had been learning more about her religion and came to believe that rather than being fard, hijab was sunnah. She says that three books were crucial to her intellectual development as a Muslim woman: Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed, The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissi and Al-Tabiri's History of Islam. 'The first taught me to reexamine assumed norms of of jahiliya society and to reassess the radicalism of the Islamic revolution in seventh-century Arabia. The latter two led me to reexamine the Qur'an and hadith regarding women, hijab, and intergender relations in Islam. What became apparent from my foray into the world of Islamic academia was that our religion had been far more liberal in its past, and that our current understanding of Islamic norms gives primacy to hadith and exegesis over the word of God.' She decided to live her life with the Qur'an as her guide, not a jurist's understanding of the Qur'an as advanced by any particular madhab.
In the summer of 2000, Yousra and her two best friends all met the men who would be their loves in very different ways.
Sarah met Michael while in Syria studying Arabic at an institute. They had a shared love of Arabic poetry that grew into a deep friendship which then grew into more. The first time Michael reached out to hold her hand she withdrew, surprised at the warmth that the contact brought to her. Despite the fact that she wore miniskirts and tank tops she was a devout Muslimah - she made all of her prayers and fasts, she never had any inappropriate contact with anyone all through her life. The feelings she felt for Michael surprised her and confused her. Wasn't this only supposed to happen with a Muslim man?
When he finally confessed his love to her in a sweeping, romantic gesture on the beaches of Latakia all she could do was lament that he wasn't a Muslim. He reached again for her hand and she hesitated. But he was patient and eventually allowed him to take her hand and they walked down the beach together. Once they returned home from Syria they kept in touch through email and hushed late night phone conversations. He wasn't Muslim. She couldn't marry him. But he could become Muslim. 'And so he did, and he came to meet her parents, who were charmed by his wit and sensitivity. He is Muslim, she told them. He is white, her father reminded her. It is love, her mother said, and so it was. And it was final. They married idyllically and Sarah, true to her beliefs, was a virgin even after her wedding night. They took it slow - the kisses, the caresses, sleeping together, and he waited patiently because this was love.'
Aisha met Omar at the gym. She was running on a treadmill - trying to get under a nine-minute mile. He was lifting weights - trying to get away from the stereotype of the skinny Indian boy. He came over and introduced himself, recognising her as doing research in the lab next to his on campus. He offered to show her around Cambridge and she accepted. They dated, going to Shakespeare on the Common for their first date. Around campus they began to be known as a power couple - perfect together and destined for marriage. Four years after they started dating Omar's mother became critically ill. Aisha and Omar's families were close and Omar's mother's illness struck Aisha hard. She went to visit the woman in the hospital, surrounded by the smell of death and ammonia. As she stood there, Omar's mother told Aisha that she knew Aisha loved her only son and that Aisha would care for him once she was gone. Aisha, of course, told her that she would be there for a long time to come. Omar's mothers response was, 'Or not.' She wanted to see Omar and Aisha married before she died, to know that they were settled before she died.
So they married there at the hospital so his mother would know peace before she passed. They had a second, larger wedding a year later, a traditional service. And a year after that they had twins.
Yousra met Abdullah at a party in Cairo. She was there because there was a musician playing at the party that she liked. She stayed on at the party long after the friends who had brought her had left - she was determined that as long as the musician was there she would remain. Abdullah ran into her out on a balcony as they both sought fresh air. They spoke for about ten minutes before a fight broke out inside the apartment. As they parted Abdullah asked for her phone number. She surprised herself by giving him her real number.
They met in group settings and got to know each other. It soon became clear to Yousra that, even though marriage was the last thing on her mind that was where they were headed. On their one month anniversary he surprised her with a special night out. They had a lovely dinner and then went to a friend's apartment that had been graciously vacated for them for the evening. The room was filled with roses, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. And Abdullah was there in the center of the room, handing her a letter. 'In the letter he said he loved me, its foolish to love someone so much so soon, but it's true and he understood if I did not feel the same way, too.' Tears in her eyes, she looked up at him and told him that she loved him too. He told her not to say it if she didn't mean it. No, no, she really meant it. They hugged, they kissed, and then, when the kiss ended Yousra told Abdullah that she was a virgin and would be so until the day she married.
'"You are?" He was incredulous. I was insulted. What do people think of us American girls? "I'm Muslim," I said, somehow forgetting that all of his lovers had been Muslim also. "No, I mean really Muslim."
'And it was funny that my American Islam would be more "real" than their Eastern Islam. He was so happy he swung me around, proclaiming that even if I begged for it, he would never have sex with me, to keep me pure. My inner feminist wanted to take back my words because I was upset that he was so delighted I was a virgin. And I was also upset that I was so upset that he was not. We kissed like we could not kiss on the streets of Cairo, we kissed like it was the beginning of a new life. And it was.'