Thailand: New publication on sexual culture and young Thai Muslims

Amana Media Initiative
For a new AMAN book on sexual culture among young Thai Muslims, Amporn Marddent, explored everything from evolving sexual practices to views on homosexuality - with some surprising results.
Marddent, from Southern Thailand's Walailak University, undertook the research as part of a fellowship supported by AMAN and the Rockefeller Foundation. She spoke to the Amana Monthly about the study.
Amana: Why did you choose this research topic and why did you focus on the community of Ramkhamhaeng?

Amporn Marddent: It is difficult to find contemporary studies on sexuality in Muslim communities, especially Thailand. Such studies often just pick up Muslim people's sexual behavior and attitudes, as well as Islamic sexual ethics. I was interested in finding out more about changes in sexual lifestyle and views among young Thai Muslims.

As a Thai Muslim, I see many young Muslims often have limited guidance in the face of a transforming society. They are hardly to learn about Islamic sexual ethics from their own parents, the religious institutions or authority figures. As well, the body of knowledge on sexuality among Thai Muslim youth urgently needed development.

I also wanted to help provide more appropriate information on sexuality, Islamic sexual ethics and reproductive health. I chose Ramkhamhaeng, a part of Bangkok with a large Muslim community, because it is a well-known place for young Muslims who migrate to the capital to study and work.

What was the background of the people you interviewed?

There were young Muslims who migrated from the four border provinces of Thailand and the rest of the country. The major participants were five Muslim men, five Muslim women and four Muslims from the transgender community, all aged between 18 and 24. We also worked with local religious leaders, non-Muslim students in the area and others in the area.

In the introduction of your book, you write that sexuality remains a sensitive issue for many Thai Muslims. Was it difficult to get research participants to talk openly?

It was not easy to get participants to talk about sexuality openly. However, my assistant researchers, who are students at Ramkhamhaeng University, helped me a lot in collecting information. The interviewer guaranteed to keep the information obtained confidential and the respondents were informed of their right to refuse to answer specific questions or stop the interview.

What were some of the most surprising or unexpected findings of your research?

What most surprised me was how the research highlighted access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. I am thinking in particular of a young Muslim woman whom we interviewed. She revealed that she had become pregnant and had abortions twice. She had limited knowledge of contraception. She and her partner never used a condom because they did not consider themselves promiscuous. She said that she afraid to see a doctor about sexual health and worried that other people would know and would criticise her.

The study addresses issues such as sexual behaviour, homosexuality and the transgender community. How are the young Muslims you interviewed for this project reinterpreting or challenging Islamic views of sexuality?

Homosexuality and being transgender within the Muslim community are regarded as serious topics worthy of religious enquiry. What is remarkable is how young Muslims from the gay and transgender community are working to create their own identity. Some still maintain their sexual lifestyle in both the Muslim community and in the places to which they migrated. For them, it is very liberating to do anything outside of the Muslim community.

Did your research findings challenge stereotypes or even your own beliefs about young Thai Muslims and sexuality?

It challenged a narrow view of sexuality and Islam. The research showed that sexual culture among young urban migrant Muslims in Thailand is not constructed by only one discourse; rather, many discourses are playing a part in shaping attitudes and behaviours. Muslim youth are negotiating socio-cultural and Islamic principles relating to sexuality every day. In Islam, sexuality is viewed as essential and provided by God to humans, but old ideas about virginity and "good" and "bad" behaviour still colour the way in which new sexualities are treated.

At present, many young Muslims turn to new sources for their knowledge about sexuality, such as non-Muslim friends and the mass media. As a Thai Muslim woman, I would suggest that people who work on or study the issues raised in this research be more sensitive to the range of differences between Islamic principles and the dynamics of modern Muslim life.