Sex education The Arab Spring's greatest success?
Sandrine Atallah was invited to appear on the Lebanese talk show "A gheir kawkab". It was supposed to be on sex education. This is her area of expertise, because Atallah is one of the first women, if not the first woman ever in the Arab world, to have made imparting knowledge about sexuality her profession. She was firmly convinced that it would be possible to talk about sex on television, without taboos and without bias, because that is what she is used to. But that she would be continuously interrupted and ridiculed on the show, that she would be alternately accused of her vocabulary being too scientific, but her voice too provocative – 'mehen', as they say in Lebanon, which is a nasty insult – was something she wasn't expecting.
Nor, however, did she expect what happened after the broadcast. There was uproar on social media – not directed at her, however, but at the host of the show, Pierre Rabat, whose misogynistic behaviour drew so much criticism that he finally asked for forgiveness, albeit somewhat half-heartedly, on Twitter. The discussion had got out of hand, he wrote. Apology received, but rejected, Atallah replied to him, also on Twitter. "You should have been able to inform yourself, not spread false news about my own programmes; what's more you should have put a stop to the other guests." Days later, Sandrine Atallah was still reeling.
Threatened by religious groups
The events prove that something has changed in dealing with a topic that has been taboo in the Arab world for generations, but which has been increasingly coming to the public's attention in recent years. It is predominantly women who are speaking out on social media and filling a void with their posts, videos, photos and interviews on all kinds of questions about sexuality, a void that is huge due to the lack of institutionalised sex education in almost all countries in the region.
Shereen El Feki, who surveyed the love lives of Arabs years ago in her book "Sex and the Citadel" (2013), observes today that many questions are coming to the fore on the Internet that would have been unspeakable just ten years ago. Some others, like the Egyptian writer and feminist Mona Eltahawy, see these changes as a remarkable consequence, even "the greatest success" of the Arab Spring.
The uprising against age-old regimes allowed many people to experience for the first time that it was possible to protest loudly about circumstances that had been endured for decades – those of a political nature, naturally, but also more private concerns. Moreover, the Arab Spring was accompanied by the rise of social media, in which conversations about sexuality have since found a privileged space.
On websites such as mauj.me, marsa.me and niswa.org, people discuss all kinds of aspects of sexuality. Likewise on pioneer Sandrine Atallah's social media channels. She talks about sex in public with a naturalness that one is not used to from Arab women. More than ten years ago, she already had her own programme on Lebanese television, which repeatedly dealt with sexuality. "When we started, I received threats from half the country, from all the religious groups," she says.
She then disappeared from the scene for a while. She set up a practice in Beirut, offering medical advice for sexual problems. She launched a podcast in which she talks every week in Arabic about female desire, the effects of COVID-19 on male sexuality or premature ejaculation. And she started spreading her knowledge as a physician and sexologist via Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter, where she enjoys a following of almost half a million people.
Most followers come from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, many from Egypt and Iraq, some from Yemen and Sudan. Sandrine Atallah opens her comment columns to them for anonymously asked questions. Mostly it's about normativity, she says. "Online I am often asked: Am I normal? With my needs, my body, my feelings."
Staff at other websites such as Love Matters Arabic, the Arabic offshoot of an initiative originating in the Netherlands, also report basic questions coming in daily through all sorts of channels, including most frequently, "My penis is so-and-so centimetres long, is that normal?" Meanwhile, women are mostly plagued by concerns about their virginity: "Can the hymen get damaged in the shower? Those are the two top questions," says Ramy Metwali, who heads the project.
These days, twelve people work at "Love Matters Arabic", which began with just two employees in Holland after the Arabellion, grew over the years and finally moved to Cairo. With the change of location, the focus shifted from more general topics such as sexual positions, abortion and marriage, to issues that are particularly virulent in Egyptian society. Since then, it has been about female genital mutilation, which has been prohibited by law since 2008 but is still widespread. And about sexual harassment, something women suffer particularly severely from in Egypt, as can be seen from the linguistic circumstance that shameless stalking and groping in the open street was long called "flirting".
Some believe that only the great international outcry after the "virginity tests" with which the military tortured about twenty female demonstrators arrested from Tahrir Square after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 sharpened public perception of latent violence against women. This is how the term "harassment" was able to spread in the first place.