Talking about sex no longer so taboo in the Arab world

By Shereen El Feki
Author and journalist

image captionSexologists, like Lebanese Sandrine Atallah, say Arab society should be more open talking about intimate issues

Over the past year, I have criss-crossed the Arab world for the BBC, making a series of short films on some of the women and men who are rewriting the rules - in and out of the bedroom.

It's easy to look at the sexual landscape of the Middle East and North Africa and see only doom and gloom, from family preoccupation with female virginity to crackdowns on LGBTQ populations to media censorship ostensibly in response to online porn.

Such hardline attitudes are reflected in opinion polls, such as the recent survey for BBC News Arabic of 10 countries in the region and the Palestinian Territories.

Carried out by the Arab Barometer research network, the survey generated a few surprises - most respondents, for instance, accepted a woman's right to lead their country - but the overall picture was conservative and closed-minded on matters of sex and gender.

Most still think the husband should have the final say on family matters, and "honour killing" is deemed more acceptable than homosexuality in six of the seven places where this question was asked.

Reclaiming identity

And yet this is not the whole picture. If you know where to look, green shoots of openness and tolerance are beginning to push their way up between the cracks.

Take Safa Tamish, co-founder of Muntada Al-Jensaneya, a non-governmental organisation. Muntada promotes sexual rights in Palestinian society and encourages rethinking sex education - not just cut-and-dried reproduction but the messiness of love and intimacy.

media captionWomen attend a workshop on sex education at Palestinian refugee camp in occupied West Bank

From its start among Arab communities living in Israel, Muntada has since branched out into the occupied West Bank.

Without formal sex education, the only Arabic words for sex that most people across the region have at their disposal is street slang which, for women in particular, compounds shame about the subject with embarrassment around the language.

As a consequence, many across the region feel more at ease talking about sex in English or French.

Helping Palestinians to feel comfortable discussing their bodies and sexual selves in the Arabic language, is key to Muntada's work.

For Safa and her circle, the ability to speak about such issues in their mother tongue has implications far beyond the personal. Since the alternative to using slang would be Hebrew (the formal, academic language of those living in Israel), the linguistic drive is also an affirmation of political identity for Palestinians living under occupation.


Across the border, in Jordan, these questions of language and identity strike a chord with Khalid Abdel-Hadi.

He's one of the few openly gay media personalities in the Middle East, and the founder of My Kali, an online magazine tackling everything from gender reassignment surgery to "honour"-related violence.

image copyrightAFP
image captionPolite society in the Arab world has long found discussions of sex awkward

When Safa talks about identity, Khalid is on the same page. He set up My Kali as a teenager more than a decade ago, to try to assert his individuality in a collective culture.

"Here in the Arab region we all refer to ourselves within communities, so it was difficult for me to express my own voice within this larger voice," he says.

This is true for young people across the region: it is hard to strike out on your own when you can't find a job, move out of your parents' place or rely on the state to guarantee your personal freedoms, let alone sexual rights.

Over in Lebanon, straight talk on sex is all in a day's work for Sandrine Atallah, one of Lebanon's best-known sex therapists.

In addition to her Beirut-based clinic, Sandrine is one of the stars of Al Hubb Thaqafa (Love is Culture), a social media platform based in Cairo.

Sandrine and her fellow "sexplainers" are following a long tradition. For much of our history, Arab cultures were famous, not for sexual reticence and intolerance as they are today, but quite the opposite.

Take, for example, The Encyclopaedia of Pleasure, written in 10-11th Century Baghdad. Its 43 chapters cover almost every sexual sexual practice and preference .

The Encyclopaedia's message is clear - sex is God's gift to mankind and we are meant to enjoy it.

Online backlash

These great works of Arabic erotica have slipped out of sight in much of the region, and with them, a frankness and freedom in talking about sex - not just its problems but also its pleasures, and not just for men but also for women.

Safa, Khalid and Sandrine are reformers, not radicals. While they question the sexual status quo, they are also trying to work along the grain of culture and tradition.

Their challenge is to move beyond the small, safe spaces that they have created to society at large.

Indeed, an online backlash to films about their work, shown on BBC Arabic's YouTube Channel, and the personal threats that these women and men have faced as a result, is a sobering reminder of just how hard it is to tackle such taboos.

In a region where conflict and corruption are never far away, tens of millions of people are out of work or displaced, more fulfilled sexual lives might seem the least of our problems.

But opening up space on sexuality is important if we are to see happier, healthier societies in the years to come.

media captionThe BBC Arabic Survey

Shereen El Feki is the author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Follow her on Twitter.