Arab content creators use social media to talk about sex, sexuality and reproductive healthGlobal Voices

A screenshot from an Instagram post by Niswa, one of many social media offers to end sexual illiteracy.

In recent years, as sex education programs remain inaccessible in most Arab countries, several Arab women have taken to providing alternatives, offering sex-related information via social media to an increasingly curious youth. .

From now on, Tunisia remains the only Arab country with a sexuality education program, introduced through a pilot program in the public school system in 2020. Lebanon and Morocco have witnessed debates around the inclusion of sexuality education , with Lebanon going until the introduction of a school curriculum in 1995. A few years later, it was abolished following growing criticism from religious and political institutions.

In the rest of the Arab world, sex education is confined within the conservative confines of religion and biology classes, limited to carefully selected topics such as puberty, the reproductive system, and sexually transmitted diseases. Meanwhile, conversations about sexuality, fertility, sexual abuse and safer sex, or concepts like consent and gender diversity are reduced to whispers among students in school hallways, often based on unscientific or pornographic online content, or even completely hushed up.

Nowadays that void is filled by homegrown ccivil society organizations and independent educators. Social media, which once helped millions break political taboos in the region, is creating a space to educate young people, organize debates and break the stigma around sex.

“Persistent trauma”

One of these initiatives is Niswa (“Women” in Arabic), a popular Instagram page founded by Saudi Arabian Zainab Alradhi. In responses emailed to Global Voices, Zainab stated that she had started Niswa because of her own experience growing up.

I grew up – like most girls of my generation – without body literacy. I had little information about my body, my menstrual cycle, and what it meant to be born in a woman’s body.

It wasn’t until she read the book Take charge of your fertility that she was able to find the vocabulary and the passion to connect with an important part of herself, her body. She then became a fertility awareness educator. Through her website and Instagram page, with nearly 56,000 subscribers, she offers courses that teach reproductive health and fertility awareness as not only a method of birth control, but also a tool of self-awareness.

“To harm the proteges”

Mauj (“waves” in Arabic) is run by women from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Created less than a year ago, the Instagram page, which focuses on sexual and reproductive well-being, already has more than 50,000 subscribers.

Mauj strongly believes in the importance of integrating sex education into school curricula, including conversations about consent, pleasure and female orgasm. They told GV via email that although sex life is often the concern of many people in Arab societies, this rarely translates into support for sex education, due to the prevailing patriarchal structure in Arab societies. Arab societies and what is considered “inappropriate” or “socially unacceptable.” “whose consequences can be serious.

If we continue to avoid these conversations and treat sex education as a taboo, we are in fact only harming those we are trying to protect. We are doing girls a huge disservice by keeping them in the dark for too long, it leaves them unprepared for relationships and can even make them more vulnerable to abuse.

Preconceived notions

Safa Tamish, of the Palestinian organization Muntada al Jensaneya (The Sexuality Forum), in Haifa, said she noticed a wide range of opinions regarding sex education for children and adolescents. The rejection of such a program, she told GV, often stems from preconceived notions, such as “sex education is imported from the West” or “it will spread immorality and detachment from local values” .

To address this, Muntada al Jensaneya developed an approach centered on personal experiences and reflection, rather than lectures or one-sided speeches. Safa explains that they respecting people’s minds and values, while encouraging critical thinking and debate. Faced with skepticism, educators raise basic questions that children ask their parents, making the discussion more accessible to parents: “Where am I from? “” How does a child get into a mother’s womb? or questions from confused teens about the difference between menstruation and masturbation. This often causes a change in people’s attitudes, triggering a willingness to engage in conversations.

A screenshot from the series “Why the animal?” by Muntada Al Jensaneya, which aims to help adults respond “logically, completely and unhindered” to children’s sexuality questions that often arise from their observation of the animals around them.

Young people remain the main target audience for these platforms. According to Mauj’s team, virginity and the hymen are the topics most frequently asked by their online community, which they see as a result of the societal norms prevalent around female virginity in the Arab world. Curiosity for sexual pleasure – whether solo or with a partner, myths around hymen and masturbation, fear of sex, body image (especially body shape, size and color) vulva) and irregular periods are also common questions. Posts that receive the most engagement and reaction tend to dispel myths, challenging what the Mauj team calls “cultural scripts” and expectations about what it means to be and behave. as an Arab woman.

Normalize the language around sexuality

When talking about sex, sexuality, and reproductive organs, Arabs usually use English terms or street slang. Civil rights organizations, educators and activists in the field therefore focus on disseminating and sometimes introducing the necessary Arabic vocabulary.

While some may presume a lacking the vocabulary to talk about their body and health in Arabic, some of the terms commonly used can also perpetuate the stigma around the body or sexuality. For example, self-pleasure or masturbation results in “secret habit ” in Arabic, while the vaginal crown or hymen is called the virginity membrane, projecting the highly emphasized role association it has in Arab culture. Subsequently, Mauj’s team deliberately used correct terminology in their content, both in English and in Arabic.

Zainab from Niswa told GV that she found 30 different words to describe vulva in Arabic, but this vocabulary and the associated euphemisms are not enough to create consciousness. So she started a series called “get your money order emphasize correct vocabulary and encourage their use.

Social media limits

While Instagram has been the primary channel where Mauj and Niswa engage with their online communities in an accessible and “edutainment” style – as Zainab calls it – the platform has its flaws. For Mauj, it is not a safe enough space for women. The team explains:

We’re doing our best to moderate engagement on posts, but it’s not a private setting – like a secret Facebook group – that would have allowed women to speak as openly as they want.

Niswa’s Zainab says her Instagram content is also subject to censorship, making it an unlikely long-term sustainable outlet. She and others in her field received warnings that their accounts or posts could be deleted for “violating community guidelines,” particularly after sharing educational images about cervical fluid / mucus, which are not sexual images. She also noticed less engagement with posts containing words like sex and orgasm..

Meanwhile, Safa de Muntada al Jensaneya – with over 30,000 subscribers on Facebooksays social media keeps her organization up to date on what’s new in raising awareness of sexual and reproductive rights. However, the forum still focuses on in-person workshops and training Palestinian and Arab educators, specialists and activists. This, explains Safa, is crucial in creating tangible transformation in Arab societies as a whole.

About Madeline Powers

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