In many countries of the Arab world, sex is a taboo subject. However, Arab men will discuss it when the occasion is appropriate, when the human race is in danger of extinction. They will condemn the use of sexual references in books and movies and condemn the behavior of young people who engage in illicit activity. But, in the end, these men will get married and exchange hands with their mistresses or wives.
For researchers and policymakers, Arab sex culture is terra incognito. But a Canadian-Egyptian immunologist and award-winning journalist, Shereen El Feki, has tried to map this aspect of the region’s social life. During five years, she took the temperature of bedrooms in 22 countries across the region. The population of Arab countries, at nearly 350 million people, is divided into roughly one third and only accepts marriage if it is state-registered or family-approved. Anything else is considered haram.
The BBC has been touring the Arab world to make short films about how to re-write the rules in the bedroom. The landscape of Arab sex may be bleak, with strict rules about female virginity, crackdowns on the LGBTQ population, and media censorship of online pornography. However, women are now speaking up on social media, filling this void and revealing a world largely untouched by sex education.
To help women navigate this complex landscape, activists are using social media to educate Arab women about the nuances of their bodies and sex. Their aim is a cultural awakening, and they are using free apps to do so. One such app, Audm, educates Arab women on their bodies and their sex habits. She has also learned the Arabic pronunciation of the word “clitoris” and has created the largest platform for sex education in the Arab world.
The Arab spring was an opportunity for people to protest their long-term conditions, and social media has opened up new channels for discussions of sexuality. In fact, the Arab sex revolution has helped to bring more sexual freedom to the region. The social media platforms have become a privileged place for these discussions. But despite the newfound openness to sexuality, the Arab world is still far from a land of freedom. The only way to change this is by changing the laws and attitudes regarding sex.
According to Islamic traditions, women were believed to have an instinctive tendency to cheat. A story from the Caliph al-Ma’mun’s era tells of a fool who had an affair with Hamdouna, his daughter and grand vizier. When he asked her why she had an affair with a stranger, Hamdouna replied, “Because she loved him.”
While the Arab world has a long history of sexual violence and apprehension, a recent study by an Egyptian feminist group has found a way to change the way Arab women think about their bodies. A series of articles by El Feki reveals how the recent 9/11 attacks have created a new environment for women to express their sexuality without shame and embarrassment. Shereen El Feki’s work is a pioneer in addressing sexual abuse, and she aims to change the culture of Arab men and women.
In addition to the sexual stigma, Arab women and men are not educated enough to discuss their experiences with partners. This stigma hinders their access to proper sexual health care. Similarly, the Arab world has moved away from its former identity as a place of loose morals, mystery, and sensuality. Lack of education and awareness about sex in the Arab world leaves people vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
In late 2019, Tunisia launched a sex education pilot program in public schools. The program was a joint effort of the Arab Institute for Human Rights and the UN Population Fund. Tunisian public schools have since adopted a curriculum containing sex education. Abdelaal said the Tunisian sex education initiative is not a revolution but merely a step in the right direction. But the need for such a program cannot be denied.