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Jun 22, 2022
According to the founders of Mauj, a sex education platform by and for Arab women, there is precious little information about sex (not to mention pleasure) available to girls and women across the Arab world. But that is changing. In today’s Daily Dose we bring you the changemakers, and the challenges, of a new and growing movement.
– with reporting by Abeer Ayyoub from Istanbul, Turkey
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“Knowledge is the first step towards bringing about change,” say the founders ofMauj, one of a growing number of online platforms about sexual health awareness established by Arab women for Arab women. The founders of Mauj, who prefer to remain anonymous, speak frankly in the digital sphere about the challenges and injustices they’ve faced as women, which led them to become sexual educators online. They cite pervasive misinformation, shame and stigma as the impetus for their activism. “We are policed at every marker of womanhood,” reads the front page of their website. In a recent interview with OZY, they described how their experiences are common to women across the Arab world.
“We knew that we weren’t alone in this and that our journey of learning about our bodies and selves was not unique to us,” they said. In 2020, they launched Mauj.
Sex ed in Arabic, on Instagram
Talking about sex is considered taboo in the Arab world, and this has served as powerful motivation for the launch of an increasing number of digital Arabic sexual and reproductive wellness platforms. Users have access to information grounded in science and can ask experts questions. The founders of Mauj believe that nothing about a woman’s sexual or reproductive health should come as a surprise to her. Neither, as the website says, as a mystery nor misery.
On Instagram,Mauj regularly posts about sexual terminology, sexual pleasure, sexually transmitted diseases and many other issues on which schools and families in the Arab world typically remain silent. “The little information available that is culturally relevant or in Arabic is either hard to access, perpetuating the stigma around women’s sexual and reproductive health or, at worst, incorrect,” Mauj’s founders explained.
Mauj seeks to de-stigmatize the conversation around women’s bodies and, in so doing, normalize sexual and reproductive health. They hope to spark the conditions that will eventually enable all Arab women to make informed decisions for themselves.
“The more we know about something, the less we fear it, and the less taboo it becomes,” they said.
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Most of these digital platforms are designed for women, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that men in the Arab world have better information. Lebanese psychosexologist Sandrine Atallah says that men are not more educated about sex and sexuality than women but they are privileged enough to be satisfied with the status quo. Many men feel threatened by the idea of women showing interest in their body and rights. “Some of my male clients come and say that their female partners are not good enough in bed, but the truth is that it’s the man’s role to know about his partner[’s] preferences and try to satisfy them.”
Unequal by law
Gender inequality is often enshrined in the penal codes of Arab countries. Sexual harassment, assault and abuse may not only be legal but culturally accepted in some places. Just eight years ago, in 2014, Morocco repealed a law that allowed rapists to avoid prosecution for their crime by marrying their victim. This change only came about after the well-publicized suicide of a victim of rape who was forced to marry her assailant. Jordan repealed its version of the same law in 2017. So-called honor killings, in which a woman is slain by a male relative because she is believed to have brought dishonor to the family through a sexual relationship, persist today in Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere. And female genital mutilation (FGM) remains in practice in Egypt and Sudan, although in 2020 Sudan ratified a law that criminalized it.
Yasmine Madkhour, 32, is a somatic experiencing practitioner, which means she seeks to help people feel good in their bodies and approaches mental health from the perspective of the nervous system. She is on a mission to raise awareness about the importance of working with the physical body as part of mental health, although she acknowledges that such therapy is still new to her Arabic — and non-Arabic — audience. Having previously benefited from this type of therapy, Madkhour took a bold step and moved to the U.S. to study and specialize in it, before returning to Egypt to practice.
Today, Madkhour works primarily with victims of FGM, couples facing sexual intimacy challenges and clients who identify as sexual minorities. “So many women in Egypt still suffer from the negative effects of FGM, it’s very important to work with these women to heal from the traumas this immoral surgery can cause,” she said.
On Instagram, Madkhour tries to educate her audience about what somatic therapy is and how to take care of their bodies to be mentally well. She also tries to avoid controversial posts that would create a backlash. “I try to inform as many people as I can without going through hectic arguments. I give more information upon request to my clients,” she said. To her, what really matters is “to expand people’s access to knowledge about their bodies.”
Lebanese sexologist: Parents should talk to their kids about sex
Psychosexologist Sandrine Atallah started talking about sexual health in 2007 on TV programming produced by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. “It was very surprising for the Arab audience to have such content on television, but they were still interested and curious to know more about their bodies and sexualities,” she told OZY in a video interview.
Atallah explained that social media gave her the opportunity to reach her viewers directly, and she has shifted her focus from television to app: She now broadcasts on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok, where her videos have gained a combined 678 million views. She notes that not everyone is a fan of her work. “Many men report my content on YouTube and TikTok because they are not interested in seeing content that encourages women to know about their bodies and rights,” she said.
Asked whether adding sex education to school curricula would address the lack of information and subsequent disempowerment she sees among Arab women, Atallah said that merely amending school education would be insufficient. She argues that families must help create greater awareness by talking to their children about sex and sexuality.
“Sexual education is not only about sexually transmitted diseases or how reproduction happens, but also about people accepting their bodies and knowing how to fulfil their sexual needs — especially women,” she told OZY.
Besides working closely with clients in her sexology clinic in Beirut, Atallah is keen to keep creating content online. She says she can tell her audience has really started to understand her by the comments they leave. Expanding awareness about sexual health is key, she says, to developing a larger community in which women and children are empowered and men are more aware of women’s sexual needs.
Atallah points out that education about their bodies will help protect children from sexual abuse and harassment, as they will have a clearer understanding of what’s appropriate. And she envisions a time when Arab women say no to sexual interaction that doesn’t make them feel safe or satisfied.
What constitutes healthy sex education for young people?
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