The Sex Talk: The feminist platform smashing Egypt’s taboos to promote women’s rights
"The group changed my life... It rebuilt my confidence".
What's the story behind the feminist, Arabic-language Facebook group discussing sex with women in Egypt?
After joining a number of women's groups on Facebook, feminist PhD student and researcher Fatima Ibrahim found that not only did women in these groups ask a lot of questions about sex – the greatest taboo in Egypt – but most of the responses were decidedly male, conservative and religious in tone and the bottom line basically boiled down to: "Women should please their husbands".
"Many women know nothing about safe sex, how to stop themselves getting STIs, or even much about periods. They don’t know how much period pain is normal, and when they should be seeking medical advice," says Fatima Ibrahim, the founder of The Sex Talk in an interview with The New Arab.
"Many women know nothing about safe sex, how to stop themselves getting STIs, or even much about periods. They don’t know how much period pain is normal, and when they should be seeking medical advice"
The launch of The Sex Talk
"Is it true there's 'No sex in Egypt?' and 'No sex in Muslim communities?'" asks Syrian author Salwa Al Neimi in her erotic novel Burhan al-Asal (The Proof of the Honey).
Fatima discovered that regardless of whether society approves or not, many young women enter relationships outside of marriage and they need to know about sexual health, as do all women. Moreover, that should encompass much more than just facts around pregnancy and childbirth.
And so, The Sex Talk was born. She aimed to provide a space for sexual health education, which used scientific research to raise awareness on women's issues from a female perspective, free from any of the constraints which tend to be imposed by religious or traditional viewpoints.
During the initiatives nearly four years of existence, it has posted dozens of articles and videos about women's sexual health. These have been posted on its Facebook and Instagram pages as well as on an electronic blog. However, these platforms have occasionally been shut down due to complainants who accuse the platforms of posting pornography and violating social norms.
"Facebook's community standards aren't impartial and don’t consider women's needs, it only cares about profit. Therefore, we use the electronic site as back-up – so when it closes our pages our content isn't deleted," says Fatima.
I was lucky enough to join The Sex Talk's closed Facebook group. I avidly followed the women's questions and doctors' answers. It was a safe space for almost 1,000 members. The site administrators respected diversity and never issued medical advice themselves – instead they invited medical professionals to do so.
"The group changed my relationship with my body and increased my confidence. Through the support and the stories posted I learned not to please anyone at the expense of my body"
The Sex Talk has over 38,000 followers on Instagram and 16,000 on Facebook. This is a remarkable achievement bearing in mind the unique role it is playing in raising awareness on sex among women in Egypt and the Arab world, which makes it a target of regular harassment and complaints.
"We receive a lot of aggressive and sexist comments which is unsurprising: we live in a sexist, patriarchal society, and are women posting material on sex-related issues. However, we do occasionally receive support from people who realise we are offering content which can help them educate their children," Fatima says.
Shaimaa (not her real name) is a member of the private Facebook group. She tells The New Arab, "I knew hardly anything about sex, and my ex-husband used to hurt me. He was always insulting the way I looked and my small chest. I remember when I joined the group the way I viewed my body changed – he couldn't stand this. But today, I enjoy having sex with my boyfriend – the group has changed my life. Joining the group introduced me to new things; I have tried giving blowjobs, masturbation for the first time, and also for the first time have started having orgasms."
Shakira is a workshop facilitator and member of the group. She recalls, "The group changed my relationship with my body and made me more confident. Through the support and the stories posted, I learned not to please anyone at the expense of my body, and what safe sex is. The group made a huge difference to me."
Periods, safe sex and abortion
There are several socially contentious issues tangled up with women's sexual health in Egypt, some of which are encroached on by certain religious interpretations that pose an obstacle to a societal change in attitude and therefore to women's safety.
A case in point is the right to abortion, which is criminalised and considered taboo in Egypt. Safe sex between unmarried partners is viewed similarly, and then there are periods – another topic that is rarely broached.
"Women have got used to period pain. They don't know when pain levels are actually abnormal and when they should go to a doctor. In addition to this, the medical establishment dismisses women's pain, with doctors frequently advising it as normal. What could potentially indicate a dangerous illness is just overlooked with women having to endure excruciating pain. We also get a lot of questions about painkillers for period pain."
"Women have got used to period pain. They don't know when pain levels are actually abnormal and when they should go to a doctor"
Fatima believes the concept of 'safe sex' covers more than just using contraception – it means sex mutually consented to by both partners who have agreed on everything that will happen between them and who are fully aware of any possible repercussions. It also covers how all sexual activity can have consequences and can lead to unwanted pregnancy.
On abortion, she says, "We have repeatedly written about this. For us it's a human rights issue – everyone should have the right to decide whether to be a parent. Therefore the state should provide a safe way for women to do this." She points out that criminalising abortion doesn't stop it, and in fact effectively licenses the killing of women.
"According to the WHO, in the developing world, 25 million abortions are carried out yearly in unsafe conditions. Moreover, 13 percent of deaths among mothers are the result of unsafe abortions."
Fatima believes that the first step of sex education should be teaching people their rights. "Some parents think when we talk about the need for sex education for children we just want to teach them about sex. Even though that's an important part of what we do, it's not the whole picture.
"Children need to know their gender-based rights and that their bodies are their own. Likewise, women own their bodies – not their fathers, husbands or other male relatives. Learning all this can help protect children from sexual harassment and exploitation, and women from sexual assault."
Although the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) urges states to commit to providing sex education in schools, Egyptian schools lack a broad sex education programme. The standard curriculum in state schools covers areas like the development and function of the reproductive organs, the fertilisation process, and pregnancy.
"Children need to know their gender-based rights and that their bodies are their own. Likewise, women own their bodies - not their fathers, husbands or other male relatives. Learning all this can help protect children from sexual harassment and exploitation, and women from sexual assault"
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 62 percent of the Egyptian population is under 29-years-old. According to a 2015 report from the Ministry of Health and Population, most Egyptian youth lack knowledge on reproductive and sexual health as well as on human development, the functioning of the reproductive organs, puberty, STIs and how to protect against HIV/AIDS.
Furthermore, 34 percent of teenagers say that they have discussed puberty with their parents, while only half of them have heard of STIs, while 41 percent of young people said they learned about puberty from friends, neighbours and relatives. Only 26.5 percent said their immediate family talked about these things with them.
"You don’t need a vagina to be a woman or a penis to be a man, which is sometimes confusing when writing about sexual health," says Fatima. "Scientifically speaking, there are more than just the categories of 'male' and 'female': some people are hermaphrodites, some are born with a male body but with female hormones and vice versa. There are also people who are bisexual or transgender.
"At The Sex Talk, we believe humans are diverse and that should be celebrated. Our volunteers are diverse in their gender identities and sexual orientations, so our writing doesn't just reinforce the socially-accepted conventional definitions (male and female). Therefore when we talk about the sexes we say 'owners (both male and female) of a penis' and 'owners (both male and female) of vaginas'. We produce varied content for people of different sexual orientations and discuss issues concerning them."
Enas Kamal is a freelance journalist in Egypt who has written about women's issues for Raseef22.
Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko