- Julian Hajj
- BBC News Arabic
June 22 2022
In a small studio in east London we met young Arab men and women to talk about sex and sex education. It was not easy to reach people who would openly talk about the topic.
Hala, from Egypt, is sitting in front of a large yellow background, we ask her if she is okay and is she ready to answer our questions.
“I am fine, until my father sees this interview,” she answers with a laugh, adding: “This topic is surrounded by shame, shame and lack of manners…”
Muhammad from Syria says that there is discomfort when talking about sex, because the topic is considered taboo in the family and society.
But in the end, no matter how much we try to avoid talking about sex, it remains an important part of our formation as human beings, which makes education about it essential.
In fact, the Arab world lacks a lot of sex education, as confirmed by a report of the United Nations Population Fund issued in 2020.
This shortage is reflected in a rise in teenage pregnancies and abortions, a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, sexual violence and homophobia.
The World Health Organization confirms that the dissemination of sexuality education contributes at all these levels, and therefore its impact is beneficial to society on several levels.
sex education protection for individuals
Sex education is not an encouragement to have sex, as some might think. In fact, sexuality is present in all people, and the goal of sex education is to communicate scientific information to understand the body, desires, and partner so that the sexual experience is safe and healthy.
Sexual medicine specialist Sandrine Atallah stresses the role of sex education in protecting individuals and society. She says it increases people’s self-confidence and corrects misconceptions.
“Many people think that their penis size is abnormal or sufficient for sex, or they think that the sexual process causes a lot of pain or requires advanced physical skills,” she says.
Atallah relates these beliefs to the influence of pornographic films on our minds, and continues: “Everyone has a way of enjoying sex, and it is not a shame to ask questions and consult a doctor if we have problems, just as we do if we encounter any other physical or psychological condition.”
Gender and Curriculum
The young people we met, most of whom grew up in the Arab world before moving to Britain to work or study at university, agree that they have not received enough information about sex at school, whether in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Tunisia.
Hanna from Syria says that the teachers never mentioned the class that explained the process of childbearing, despite the students’ great curiosity.
As for Hala, she tells us about the “girls’ bathroom” where girls used to meet at school and talk about sexual matters and ask each other questions.
Ghada from Tunisia reveals that she thought the science teacher was hiding information from her. In fact, most of the young participants had at some point believed that a kiss could cause pregnancy.
In 2019, Tunisia became the only Arab country that announced the inclusion of sex education in the school curricula, but this has not yet been implemented.
Tunisian psychiatrist Anas Al-Aweni considers that parents and governments should trust medicine and psychology and rely exclusively on science to spread awareness and correct misconceptions.
Al-Aweni adds: “Science has developed a lot, and it is unfortunate that we deprive our children of this amount of valuable information.”
Adding sex education to the curricula faces another challenge, according to Al-Aweni: The number of teachers qualified to explain these topics is not enough, and therefore there is a need to hold training courses, in addition to hiring experts and volunteers to spread sexual education and monitor content.
Anas Al-Aweni considers that the responsibility in this matter lies with the state: “Governments must take bold decisions that benefit society, even if these decisions face great popular opposition. Wasn’t this the case when countries imposed measures to limit the spread of the Corona epidemic to protect their citizens? “.
Sex and the Internet
To a large extent, individual initiatives and NGOs are the only source of Arab educational sexual content. There are also many pages that we see on social media, especially in Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia, that aim to disseminate information in a scientific way.
These pages receive great attention and interaction. Comments show a diversity between serious users, between accounts with fake names and people who make fun of the content and take advantage of hiding behind screens to express what they might be afraid to say in public.
Some may think that the presence of sexual content on the Internet is sufficient and therefore those interested can search for their need, there is no need to discuss these matters with parents or in the classroom.
The therapist Anas Al-Aweni does not agree with this, because the online content often contains inaccuracies just like any other health topic, and therefore it is important to go to the pages of specialists and receive scientific and accurate information, he says.
Dr. Sandrine Atallah is active on social media, and the content she produces often causes confusion, especially since the videos she publishes receive many notifications and thus are removed from the platforms, without carefully looking at the content.
Dr. Atallah notes that videos related to men are not exposed to many reports, while those related to women and their desires are deleted after a huge number of notifications.
In this context, she says that women’s silent interest in the content they provide is very great. She explains: “Women often do not comment on content for fear of being bullied or harassed online, but they follow and interact a lot in private messages.”
Atallah also sees clear progress in the normalization of sexual narratives in society: “I see that many who have never dared to talk about sex have become curious about knowledge and accept discussing the subject in certain frameworks.”
gender and language
Language has an important role in sexual education. Young people we met in London say they have learned profanity related to sex and do not know the scientific words in Arabic. Hala says that words related to a woman’s body are “reviled”.
For Dr. Atallah, it is very important to learn the appropriate expressions: “Often we either use obscene words that suggest that sex is a dirty and vulgar thing, or we use childish and sarcastic words, which diminish the importance of sex and the seriousness of the topic.”
She continues: “There are women who, if they put a mirror in front of their genitals, do not know the name of these parts, as if they look at their face and do not know how to distinguish between the eyes and the mouth.”
Educational sexual content in the Arab world still faces several barriers: laws, religion, and general societal perception. But the young people we spoke to have a thirst for understanding more about this world.
Someone says, “I wish someone had explained to me at some point in my teenage years that it wasn’t what I thought it was.”
Another participant says: “The reason for our existence in this world is the sexual process, so why is it surrounded by all this aura of shame and prohibition?”
This article is from the “Why Not?” series. Through BBC Arabic, it is a collection of explanatory articles and videos that raise topics that arouse young people’s curiosity in the fields of education, mental health and sustainability.