There have been several attempts to break taboos in the Arab world with regards to sex and sexuality — a subject schools and universities seem to avoid altogether. Limited online campaigns about safe sex and a few books about sexual freedom are some of the ways Arab authors and activists have been challenging the existing norms; there is one book in particular that discusses all the reasons "why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution." The region is in need of the latter because sex happens but no one ever talks about it, not even when one gets an education. This pushes young Arabs to resort to platforms that display inaccuracies regarding sex. Violence, marital rape, no concept of consent are just a few problems that arise due to the reliance on pornography, for example, because proper sex-ed in educational systems is non-existent.
One Arab country is trying to change the game by taking the lead and introducing sex education at schools. Tunisia will become the first country in the Arab world to do so, the executive director of the Tunisian Association of Reproduction Health recently announced.
Arzak Khaneetch said sex-ed will be introduced in schools across Tunisia starting December for students above the age of five.
"It's very important for children to be introduced to sex education so they are aware of themselves and others around them," she said, according to The New Arab.
Khaneetch's organization teamed up with the United Nations Population Fund and the Arab Institute for Human Rights to bring sex-ed to schools in the North African country.
Embedding sex-ed across different parts of the curriculum, rather than have an entire course dedicated to just that, is how Tunisia will approach it. The educational plan will focus on "consent and safety" throughout the courses given, depending on the ages of the children being taught.
The lessons will be "religiously sensitive" as well, she said, to avoid the same fate as Lebanon back in 1995. Interference and pressure from religious authorities were the reason why sex education programs in Lebanon came to a halt after they were formally introduced that year; the country's Ministry of Education hasn't addressed the issue since then.
Sex-ed is practically non-existent in the region but, hopefully, other nations will follow Tunisia's lead in that regard. The lack of formal sex-ed also brings about problems with the Arabic language in addressing the topic as well.
"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," Egyptian-British author and journalist Shereen El Feki wrote in a BBC article earlier this year.
Embarrassment surrounding sex-ed is reiterated in an academic paper titled "Sex education in The Middle East: Promising or Punishing?" published in 2014. In it, Tahir talks about how aside from the political and religious opposition in the Arab world, many teachers don't give courses regarding reproductive health because they feel "embarrassed" to do so.
In fact, a survey conducted in Egypt at some point revealed that out of 15,000 people (aged 10-29), only 15 percent of boys and 5 percent of girls learned about puberty via their school education. That same study showed that in Lebanon, 80 percent of 5,000 students (aged 13-15) never talked to their teachers about such matters either.
There have been several initiatives in the Arab region aimed to challenge the stigma surrounding sexual health. There is Marsa, a sexual health center that has been spearheading this in Lebanon, Muntada Al-Jensaneya in Palestine, and Hemayaa in Egypt. These organizations are some of the exceptions working towards better sexual health among youth in the region; in reality, they should be the norm.
It's time institutions in the Arab region address sexual health and sexuality in the same way math, science, and history are taught without question. Why should something that affects our lives on a daily basis be kept hidden in the dark?