Sex education has always been considered as a great taboo to the Arab females mostly because, in those male-dominated societies, sexual necessities of females were greatly ignored or considered as sin. But things have started changing. When Nour Emam decided to devote herself to educating Arab women about their bodies, the subject was so taboo that one of her first challenges was figuring out how to pronounce the word “clitoris” in Arabic.
“I had never heard it”, said Emam, 29, a women’s health activist from Cairo. “No one uses it, so there’s nowhere to find the right way to say it”.
After careful research, now she knows, and so do her hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, where she hosts one of the leading platforms for sex education in the Arab world.
With formal schooling on sexuality minimal to nonexistent in much of the Middle East, and a patriarchal culture that has left many Arab women ignorant and ashamed of their own bodies, Emam and a growing number of activists have built online platforms to try to fill the gap.
Using the internet to circumvent social taboos and government censorship, they are educating Arab women about their bodies, shattering myths and misinformation, and in some cases changing women’s lives.
In Cairo, Emam, known by the web handle “motherbeing,” has posted hundreds of videos on Instagram and TikTok in which she discusses intimate subjects in a deliberately casual manner, sometimes while she’s cooking. She started a podcast on sexual and reproductive health in March; the first episode, on orgasms, drew tens of thousands of listeners.
The website Mauj — a pan-Arab project run by women in several countries — publishes educational posts on sexual and reproductive health and sells mail-order vibrators, which are banned in many Arab countries.
“Sex Talk in Arabic,” produced by a group of Arab women in the Middle East and expatriates, has drawn tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and Facebook for its sex ed graphics and videos and LGBTQ advocacy. “Our main goal is to break down taboos and break down myths,” says its founder, Fatma Ibrahim, 32.
Physicians like Dr. Sandrine Atallah, a sexologist in Beirut, and Dr. Deemah Salem, an OB-GYN in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, are taking to YouTube and Instagram to debunk myths and stereotypes about sexuality that are common throughout the region, like the belief that using a tampon takes away a woman’s virginity.
“It’s a moment,” said Nancy Ali, a research associate at Sorbonne University in Paris who specializes in the study of gender and memory in the Middle East and North Africa. “Our culture and our language regarding sex is extremely euphemistic, so the idea of discussing sexual body parts in this direct way is new to us, let alone the fact that women are doing it”.
Perhaps the biggest difference with previous iterations of Arabic sex advice columns and TV programs is that the new platforms prize openness. They are without exception blunter and more explicit.
For Emam, speaking openly about women’s sexuality — including getting women accustomed to hearing the word clitoris — is part of a broader mission to break what she described as an intergenerational cycle of trauma that has led many Arab women to feel like “our existence is wrong and shameful and sinful”.
Not saying the word, she said, “was another way of distancing ourselves from truly connecting to our bodies, our heritage and our roots”.
Emam was a full-time techno music DJ before she became a mother and developed postpartum depression, which led her to train as a doula, a professional who supports women giving birth, and from there to focus on reproductive health and sex education.
She is based in Egypt, but said that about 25 percent of her social media followers come from other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco.
The effort appears to have filled a need.
Sarah el-Setouhy, 30, a petroleum economist in Cairo who attended Emam’s “Mastering Your Cycle” class via Zoom, said she had suffered from painful periods. She said she had been taught “to just live with it” and, a common myth, that the pain would subside when she got married and had children.
Emam told her that the pain could be caused by a number of factors and encouraged her to see a doctor.
“She gives you the confidence to understand your body,” el-Setouhy said. “I have worked a lot on myself since then”.
Bit by bit, such exchanges will transform society, Emam contends.
“I think women have started to wake up,” she said. “And we’ve amplified each other’s voices”.
As if to illustrate the connectedness among the various efforts across the region, she jumped up to fetch a gift she had received in the mail: a vibrator from Mauj.
Mauj (“waves” in Arabic) was founded last year by two 32-year-old women who asked not to be identified over fears of repercussions over their work. When they were growing up, the founders said, neither of them received sex education beyond a quick word on menstruation and warnings not to get pregnant.
In an effort to create “a judgment-free space” to talk about topics long suppressed, Mauj has a video series inviting women to share their experiences anonymously with issues like sex, body shaming and sexual harassment.
Unlike the other platforms, Mauj has also developed a product, a vibrator designed for Arab women who value modesty as much as sexual desire. For the sake of discretion, it resembles a tear drop and it fits in the palm of a hand.
Vibrators are not openly sold in Arab countries, and some nations strictly forbid them. The United Arab Emirates, for one, prohibits them under the ban on “items that contradict Islamic faith and public morals”.
The Mauj founders see their vibrator as an extension of their educational mission: They created it to inspire women to become more curious about their bodies, they said, and to puncture the common notion that male pleasure trumps female pleasure.
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