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Online Collective Brings Sex Education to Women in the Arab World | Best Countries

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In 2018, Egyptian researcher and activist Fatma Ibrahim decided that sex education could be the difference between life and death, and there was no time to wait for someone else to bring it to Egypt. Seeking to build a safe space for Arab women to talk about their health and sexual needs without fear of shame or retribution, she started a private Facebook group.

Since then, the small group has turned into a global social media initiative that publishes information in Arabic on anything from LGBTQ+rights, to violence against women, to the variety in women’s bodies. Titled “The Sex Talk بالعربي,” the social media page aims to be exactly that: the “sex talk” parents give their children, but translated into an inclusive, relevant catalog of information in Arabic.

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Ibrahim, the founder of The Sex Talk, is currently completing her Ph.D. at Glasgow Caledonian University that is examining the financial livelihood of refugees in the United Kingdom. In a conversation with the U.S. News and World Report, Ibrahim describes her inspiration, the project’s global community, and a feminist movement growing across the Middle East.

The Sex Talk بالعربي started in 2018, but when did you start envisioning it? Is there a moment you can pinpoint as your inspiration for this project?

I wouldn’t say it’s a moment, but a mix of a personal journey in trying to understand my own body and sexuality and fighting to have agency over them. I’m an Egyptian woman. I only moved to the U.K. in 2014 to pursue my higher education. I’m from a very small village in Egypt, and I was brought up on the same sort of path as every other woman, to get married and have kids.

I never had any relationship with my body before, it was like a separate entity from me. But then I moved to the U.K., and I was for the first time independent. I needed to make decisions about my body, but I had no knowledge of how. I didn’t even know the name of my body parts; I didn’t know how to describe my feelings. And it was not a language barrier, I did not have the vocabulary even in Arabic to express how I’m feeling. What would I do about that kind of request? Am I comfortable with this touch? Am I not? How do I know? What kind of barriers can I have and who put up these barriers?

As I was learning about my own body and trying to fight for agency, I was also a part of several online women groups that try to improve the lives of Arab women. I started to notice that the issues I’m struggling with are quite common among women in the Arab world. There is this constant state of vulnerability that we’re always exposed to exploitation and violence because we don’t have knowledge. And it starts from birth to death. Like with female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual harassment, being victims of manipulative and abusive partners, without realizing that we’re being victims, because that’s the norm. Non-consensual and violent relationships and sex. Nobody’s talking about it. But it’s us women who are exposed to this crap and affected by it.

I felt that maybe an online initiative that writes about these kinds of issues, that centralizes women, and their needs and experiences could be a great step. I used to do my research in English, but there was nothing in Arabic. And most of the sex education at the time was very conservative, and about how you can please your husband. That reinforces women’s vulnerability and these kinds of harmful practices towards women’s bodies.

I thought I might use my research skills, and if I waited longer, nobody would do it. So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just do it myself.’ Every weekend I’ll write a piece of content, in everyday language, just quick information, scientific facts. And that’s when I started The Sex Talk. It was a journey of realization that made me create the initiative.

Ibrahim displays the Instagram page of “The Sex Talk,” with over 41K followers, on her laptop. The online collective emphasizes gender equality, especially in sexual health.
(Andrea Mantovani for USN&WR)

How do you choose what to focus on? How do you find the information that you want to post?

Our content is organized into three intersectional themes: sex, sexuality and sexual rights. We apply a research-based approach, not only by creating content based on the existing research, but also by creating a new culture that is based on the actual lived experiences of women and nonbinary folks in the Arab world. We aim to create educational content about sex, and to make people understand that it’s not a scary topic.

We do this primarily with tools on social media platforms. We have surveys and try to involve our followers. We know that academic research is gender biased, and dominantly white. So, we try to be critical about the kind of research we look for and use it to provide our own content and have our own voices there as well as researchers and thinkers and human rights advocates. You asked me what drives the content, it would be the people’s questions.

In those surveys or anywhere else, have you been able to see that people are being impacted by this information?

Oh, absolutely. We started four years ago as a private Facebook group. Then because the group became a safe space, we didn’t want to add more women that may threaten the safety of the existing members. So, we decided to create separate public platforms. We had a lot of attacks. But then you look at it now, and we are a part of a whole movement. There are other platforms, in Arabic, discussing sex and sexualities. That is an indication of success; that we have an impact, and the movement continues.

Young people ages 17 to 26 are big fans. They tell us how much they appreciate that this content is written in Arabic, and that it’s accessible. Also, because the women who work on the initiative are from different Arab countries, they have different dialects, and they use their dialects to make it accessible for women from other Arab countries. This is something that people appreciate, and they will send us positive feedback about how much the content really changed their lives.
When you talk about this becoming a movement, how far has the project extended? Who’s a part of this community?

We have feminists, human rights advocates, researchers, gynecologists, sexual health writers, nurse practitioners, LGBTQIA activists, graphic designers, illustrators, social media managers – anything they can offer, they do. There’s Syrian women, Jordanian women, women from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco. It’s a massive team, bringing ideas and collaborating with other feminists across the Arab world. Its impact goes much wider than just an individual initiative. Diaspora, refugees, migrants in the Arab world from another Arab country, queer women. That’s our community.

Books that Ibrahim often references are seen at her apartment.(Andrea Mantovani for USN&WR)

You mentioned intersectionality a couple times, how do you incorporate LGBTQ+ health, nonbinary or transgender health information? When does that come in the project?

That’s always been there as part of the project because I believe that if we don’t provide an inclusive and positive sex education, then we are just recycling harmful traditional ideas. We can’t talk about sex without talking about different sexual orientations, preferences and identities. We speak about biological sex, but we cannot ignore the fact that our understanding of biological sex is patriarchal, colonial and exclusionary. We can’t speak about women without talking about transgender women.

All of this has been possible – to make our work accurate and positive – because the women volunteering in this initiative are from these groups. I always say that we do not defend LGBTQIA community rights, we are the LGBTQIA community. Our inspiration in this case is our own struggle.

What do you see for the next five years? Ten years? What are your goals?

I see The Sex Talk as a part of a movement rather than an individual organization, and I’m seeing the movement moving onwards and upwards. We have a vision to be that inclusive, free source of knowledge for anyone trying to access positive sex education. In five to 10 years, I’m hoping that we will have generations of educated people, and content that anyone can relate to. That’s very important for it to have context in the Arab world. Some of the struggles we have when we try to create this content, mostly with the research that was done in Western countries, would be the lack of research that focuses on people of color.

Hopefully, we’ll have that big digital platform, maybe separate from social media. Our social media accounts will continue, of course, but we’re struggling with biased community standards, because (the platforms) do not consider our context.

I want to touch on that subject, because I know that Facebook took down a post of yours related to hymens. Have you encountered that issue since then? Is that a major issue?

I think it is the biggest issue we face now. We obviously face a lot of issues through society’s lack of acceptance. We have a lot of attacks from men and threats. But funnily enough, that’s not our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is social media platforms’ biased community standards. It was not only one post; they deleted our accounts several times.

Several times we send emails to Facebook and Instagram, explaining the type of work we do. For example, one of the arguments about FGM is that some women need it. And when you ask why, they would say because they have these big things that you have to cut because otherwise it looks ugly. And the reason for this kind of ignorant argument is that they’ve never seen real vulvas. They don’t know that it comes in all shapes and colors and sizes. So, (we) created a post with illustrations that shows that, celebrates it and educates people that if your kid looks like that, don’t harm them! And don’t harm them thinking you’re doing something good for them because you’re not. So (Facebook) would still delete them and tell us that we are publishing nudity and pornography. That’s really frustrating.

Whenever we talk about (the) LGBTQ community, as well, it’s a very highly unacceptable topic to talk about in the Arab world, and people have rigid ideas about it. It’s just such a shame that these social media platforms enable this kind of hate and violence.

Left: “I just want people to understand that sex education is not only a human right, but a human need,” says Ibrahim. Right: Posters and planning notes for “The Sex Talk” hang near Ibrahim’s desk. (Andrea Mantovani for USN&WR)

Is there anything that you want to elaborate on about this project? Anything you want to make sure that people understand about sex education in the Middle East?

I just want people to understand that sex education is not only a human right, but a human need. And in some contexts, to be honest in all contexts, it could save lives. Some people think that we just want to corrupt youth. Or that we are following the West’s agenda or whatever crap that means. But these kinds of misconceptions about women’s bodies, or the LGBTQIA community, really kill people every day.

Women lose their lives because of the hymen thing. Women go to doctors that practice virginity tests, who know there’s no such thing as proof that something went through the hymen, and women could lose their lives about it. They put kids through hormonal therapy, just because they’re not as they wanted them to be. And all these things happen around the world, not only in the Arab world, but in the Arab world it is very embedded.

What we try to do is just to normalize education. We do speak about how it could be violent not to have this knowledge, and we also try to make it an easy conversation that anyone can have. And that’s it.





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