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Why it’s Time to Break the Taboos Around Female Sexual Health in the Arab World

For the female founders behind a new platform redefining sexual norms for women in the Arab world, it’s time to break the taboos around sexual health and curiosity.

Photo: Elizaveta Porodina

“What does sexuality mean to you?” That isn’t a question you come across often as a woman in the Middle East. It was posed by newly launched online platform on Instagram, and provoked a host of diverse responses: “identity,” “sacred,” and “shame has no place.” Conversations around female sexuality and sexual health have long been taboo in Arab cultures. Unshrouding these discussions from the blanket of shame that they’re so often accompanied with is the groundbreaking vision behind Mauj. “We live in a region where sexual education is not taught in schools and where the topic is rarely discussed in families. 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,” explain the two co-founders of Mauj, who prefer to remain anonymous. “Mauj is the sex education we never got and wish we had. We can’t and don’t want to do it alone, so we’re inviting Arab women on our journey. Together, we can reclaim the conversation around our bodies and begin to shift our collective narrative.”

The name Mauj, which means “waves” in Arabic, was inspired by the idea of infradian rhythms (a rhythm with a cycle longer than 24 hours, for example menstruation, hibernation, and tidal ebb and flow). The platform seeks to inform women about all aspects of sexual health, starting with normalizing seeing a gynaecologist. “Unfortunately, there’s an assumption among Arab women that visits to a gynaecologist should only start after marriage. However, we should be curious about our bodies and attentive to signs that something might be wrong,” say the co-founders. Dr Sura Thamer Alwan, specialist obstetrician gynaecologist at Medcare Women & Children Hospital in Dubai, says that regular gynaecologist visits are a basic prerequisite to ensuring sexual health. “Every woman must know about the functions of the female reproductive system, what is normal and abnormal, and how to access answers to her inquiries,” she explains. Oftentimes, concerns start with menstruation irregularities. “Menstrual cycles are vital health indicators, like heart rate, body temperature, respiratory function, and blood pressure. Just like every woman is unique, every cycle is unique, and when something is off with your cycle, it’s usually an indication that something needs to be taken care of,” say Mauj’s co-founders.

A gynaecologist appointment also opens the door to screening for cervical cancer, which is one of the most common fatal cancers among women. Screening occurs through pap smears, which Dr Alwan says are harmless. The cells collected from a pap smear are examined to see if they appear abnormal or reflective of pre-cancer stages. “Early treatment can correct these changes and prevent the emergence of cancer, and it is preferable to start the examination after 21 years or two years after initiating sexual relations,” she explains. Still, many patriarchal societies discourage unmarried women from having pap smears, wrongly fearing that they can impact their virginity. “Sexual and reproductive health are intertwined, yet we continue to separate the two – almost into the holy and the unholy. Reproductive health is considered an acceptable aspect of health, but sexual health is banned from curriculums across the region,” explains the duo behind Mauj. Due to this culturally ingrained ignorance regarding sex, many women unknowingly suffer from vaginismus, a condition where involuntary spasms in the pelvic floor muscles make sexual intercourse painful or impossible, and which is particularly prevalent among young brides in the Middle East and Asia. “In conservative communities, women are almost taught to fear sex and to disconnect entirely from that part of themselves – until they have to flip the switch on their wedding night and spontaneously become these sexual beings,” say Mauj’s co-founders, emphasizing the perverse effects of this sort of conditioning. “Vaginismus comes up a lot with women who come from families where cultural norms lead to conversations around sex education being considered either taboo or completely nonexistent,” explains Angelica Lindsey-Ali, a sexual health educator who goes by the moniker Village Auntie on social media. She first started hosting workshops for Muslim women while living in Saudi Arabia and discusses sex within a religious framework. “I noticed that many of the women did not have a firm understanding of their own anatomy and how their bodies were meant to function. Some of the women also seemed to not understand the positive approach to sexuality that is inherent in our religion and how to incorporate it into their lives,” she shares. “For those who are Muslim, there is this mistaken belief that spirituality and sexuality cannot inhabit the same space.”

Patriarchal interpretations of religion influence much of the region’s outdated social norms, which often silence women’s voices, needs, and roles when it comes to the subject of sex. However, many religious sources point to the importance of love, compassion, and even foreplay between spouses. “Even the more conservative scholars of the Shariah had written about women’s right to sexual pleasure,” notes Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol in his book Islam without Extremes. “When we do not learn about our sexual rights in Islam, we are limiting an important aspect of our deen (faith), and by denying the many rights of women in the bedroom, we contribute to the rise in divorce rates, rampant depression, and constant gender divide,” Lindsey-Ali says.

The perpetuation of this misinformed gender divide has also led to sex-related crimes in some Arab communities. “The desire to suppress women’s sexuality has given way to some of the most harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation and honor killings, as well as skyrocketing incidents of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence against women,” explain the Mauj co-founders. These practices are cultural, not religious, and will only cease with proper sexual education for both women and men, beginning in the homes, and then continued through schooling. “The appropriate time to communicate sexual information is at the beginning of the stage of adulthood or puberty, when hormonal and physical changes begin,” says Dr Alwan. “A woman’s role in the family is important, especially as a mother: all mothers should ensure that they are prepared for open discussions with their children to help and answer any queries.” Lindsey-Ali emphasizes the need to teach daughters not only to know their bodies, but to love their bodies. “Normalize the usage of proper bodily terminology. Stop the shaming around menses. Demand that our men and boys respect their sisters, wives, and mothers’ right to have bodily autonomy,” she says. “We need a paradigm shift in regard to how we view the female form. The women have to take the lead.”

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Originally published in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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