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Is the Arab World Able to Deal With Sex Education?

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Saturday 24 March 201801:16 pm
Do we educate children and teenagers about sex in schools or at home, or do we think it is inappropriate? Sex education has become compulsory in British schools, among other countries; even religious schools teach sexual issues in line with their beliefs. Thus, children learn about healthy relationships as early as the age of four. This development is the fruit of persistent efforts to protect children from new media such as porn websites. Apart from its long-term effect, sex education at an early age shields minors from sexual harassment. How can sex education be applied in the Arab world? For decades, explicit sexual awareness has represented a red line in many Arab households and schools, particularly those in conservative or religious environments. However, religious education has touched on sexual issues one way or another. Many of the Quran verses define and set rules for sexual relationships, and so does the "Hadith" -- accounts of the sayings, actions or habits of the Prophet (pbuh) that are used as complementary teachings on all aspects of life. "There is no embarrassment in seeking knowledge, and what adolescents won't find in a reliable source they will find in one thousand unreliable sources," said Dina, a mother of two, when asked about sex education. With her son and daughter young teenagers, she is convinced that properly educating adolescents about their physiological changes is a no-brainer. Rana agrees with Dina in principle, yet she wonders what kind of topics would be tackled by a sex educating curriculum and what would be the appropriate teaching methodology. She believes that not all sex-related issues can be tackled in such a course. These queries and more are usually posed by many mothers in Arab countries, which have been witnessing many social changes and transitions with a myriad of taboos broken and longstanding notions brought into discussion. Sex education in schools is one of the topics that have been mulled over in educational and social circles across the Arab world. No doubt that prohibiting such discussions or pretending to be naive like what previous generations did for years is not a valid option. Turning a blind eye to such issues will not make youngsters quit asking, it will actually increase their curiosity. For this reason, there is either obsession with sex or fear of it in Arab societies these days.

Conservative Sex Education?

Discussions over sex education raise a frequently asked question: how can sex be taught in a way that would be compatible with the conservative Arab culture? Marwan bin Al-Arabi, a Y Peer instructor in Morocco, believes that sex is a basic need for adults. He said that male and female youngsters usually get their information on sexual relationships through word-of-mouth communication, which results in misperceptions and faulty impressions. Bin Al-Arabi said that sex education does not necessarily have to contradict the Arab conservative culture; the suitable terminology in such an educational program will not violate public decency, he believes. He stressed that sex education is a matter of utmost importance, saying it only needs a bit of flexibility in the Arab world. Sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund, Y Peer is a youth peer education network working in the field of sexual and reproductive health and conducting relevant workshops.

Sex Remains a Taboo

There are two main avenues to approach sex education in the Arab world: chastity and abstinence from sex. The concept of chastity frames abstinence from sex as the best precaution against sexually transmitted diseases (STD) -- such as AIDS -- as well as unintended pregnancies. On the other hand, others would argue that abstinence from sex is important until one is ready physically and psychologically. They would also concentrate on STD and unplanned pregnancies while referring to couples who decided to have sex outside wedlock. In the Arab world, sex remains a taboo. There are some young people who do not know enough about their bodies and their sexual health, which could take a toll on their reproductive capability later on. Bin Al-Arabi explains that in Morocco there are programs about human reproduction and physiological changes that male and female youngsters experience when they hit puberty. He said the taught materials are scientific and designed for sixth grade. However, classes that are biological in nature do not cover all aspects of sex education, especially the psychological aspect, Bin Al-Arabi highlights, adding that there are some initiatives and awareness campaigns organized by civil society organizations to serve that purpose in coordination with schools. Samar Abdo, a sex education specialist, believes that teaching anatomy and doctrinal instructions in schools with regard to sex provides students with important information. However, she stressed that sex education must start at home and develop as children grow older. She says sex education is primarily the responsibility of parents who better supervise it as much as possible. "The circumstances in which we educate our children are more important than the content itself," Abdo explained. "When the father or the mother talks about sex with their children in the context of sanctity, love and intimacy, and without any feelings of guilt, the right message will be conveyed." Meanwhile, sex education is not mandatory in public and private schools in the UAE, according to Ibrahim Baraka, the principal of Al-Shola School in Sharjah who was quoted as saying by The National. In Lebanon, a curriculum related to AIDS was developed in 2005, yet social pressure kept it from spreading on a national level.

Studies on Arabs and Sex Education

Perhaps it did not stir controversy in the media, yet it has interested Arab academics. An Al-Azhar University researcher as part of his study surveyed 15,000 Egyptians aged 10 to 29. The results show that 15 percent of male participants received information on puberty in schools against only 5 percent of female participants. In Lebanon, around 80 percent of 5,000 people aged 13 to 15 have never discussed such issues with their school teachers. The same study indicates that accurate information on reproductive health is available in official curricula for high school and university students in Tunisia, Morocco and Bahrain. Another study conducted at the University of Kirkuk in 2012 shows that avoiding discussions about sex- related issues in middle schools for girls is common among students and teachers alike. Fear and discomfiture comprise a barrier to such discussions, even in an educational context. When asked about the most serious challenges they face in relation to sexual issues and whether there was a certain dominant trend, girls refrained from answering out of fear, according to the study. Female students in middle schools' second grade said there were no problems with this regard, stressing that they have been educated about sex. In Lebanon, a researcher at the Lebanese University conducted a study in 2011, analyzing how Lebanese teachers differentiate between sexual concepts and sex education compared to their French counterparts. She surveyed 1454 teachers overall. The results indicate that 71.2 percent of French teachers thought sexual issues -- such as incest and sexual assaults -- have to be taught to children at an early age, while 60.8 percent of Lebanese teachers said such topics would be suitable for students who are older than 15. Regardless of the diversified religious sects in Lebanon, the majority of the Lebanese teachers shared the same opinions on sex education, unlike their French peers. This confirms that every country has its own perception of sex education based on its location, history, culture and economic circumstances.

Ignoring Sex Education, Then What?

What might further complicate the situation is that the average age to walk down the aisle has increased. Also, some consider marriage more of a sexual relationship than a sacred lifelong commitment; for some people, the wedlock is the legitimate pass to have sex under tough economic circumstances. This kind of marriages makes youth more prone to STD, unintended pregnancies, rape, molestation and gender identity disorder, which could lead to suicidal tendencies. The lack of sex education as well as sexual violence are the reasons for many divorces; being ignorant of issues like intimacy and how hymens break in different ways makes marriage life difficult. In most cases, such problems are not discussed, which leads to frustration that could later take a toll on troubled couples' children. To bridge this gap, experts conduct awareness workshops for teenagers, mothers and those who are about to tie the knot. Abdo, who has been a sex instructor for 15 years, says the training program does not only aim to raise mothers' awareness over different phases of sex education, but also to help them overcome barriers preventing them from educating their children about sex. "We explain the needs behind sexual problems and how we know that children have psychologically and sexually grown," she said. "We also talk about the most common problems and normal behavior, irrespective of what the religion or the society's morals and principles say. We also explain sexually depraved acts and how to deal with different situations. We try to answer questions and [help the participants] conquer their fears." In light of a conservative environment in the Arab region amid a fast-changing world, almost everyone agrees on the importance of sex education. However, it remains a point of contention, with its legitimacy and usefulness constantly questioned.
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