Interview with the Sex Talk Arabic

The Sex Talk Arabic is a ground-breaking and award-winning intersectional feminist platform tackling issues of sexual violence in Arabic-speaking societies. We sat with Fatma Ibrahim from the Sex Talk Arabic team to learn more about their work and visions for the future!

Fatma is an Egyptian feminist, PhD researcher in Feminist Political Economy, examining the financial livelihood of refugee women in the United Kingdom, and an associate fellow of the British Higher Education Academy. She is also the Founder and Executive Director of The Sex Talk Arabic initiative.

MARA: So Fatma, what took you to The Sex Talk Arabic? Why do you think this work is important? What do you want to achieve with it?

Fatma: In many Arab societies, a culture of silence still exists around the topic of diverse gender and sexual identities and sexual health and rights. This culture, combined with many harmful traditional practices and beliefs toward body rights, creates great challenges for women’s, girls, and LGBTQI+ individuals’ health, violates their human rights and, in many cases, costs them their lives. These harmful practices are often protected by patriarchal and misogynistic laws, policies and ideologies, allowing it to reinvent itself generation after generation and continue to be embedded in the culture. Innovative and unapologetic responses are needed for such deeply-rooted issues.

The Sex Talk Arabic works to challenge and dismantle these deeply-rooted harmful norms, ideologies, and structures that contribute to the continuation of gender and sexual violence towards Arab women, girls and LGBTQI+ individuals. 

Arabic for sex talk?

MARA: Language shapes the way we think and understand the world, and you insist on producing knowledge and content in Arabic in your work. Can you tell us why this is important?

Fatma: In the fields of sexuality and sexual health and rights, knowledge production in Arabic is recent and rare, and most of the available content on these topics still largely depends on the direct translation of terminology and concepts from other languages or the use of English terms written in Arabic letters. This approach often results in complicated words/ phrases that lack clarity and are not relatable or accessible to the wider population in the Arab world.  At The Sex Talk Arabic, we insist on using the Arabic language, with various dialects in all our content as well as aim to adapt the Arabic language to make knowledge related to diverse sexualities, sexual rights and body literacy easier to understand and more accessible in Arabic-speaking societies. This strategy supports our objective of normalising The Talk around these topics as part of mainstream cultures in the Arab world, and therefore breaking the taboos surrounding body and sexual rights.

MARA: Can you tell us about your outreach, where do you work and who do you reach broadly? (as in demographics, age, etc.)

Fatma: The geographical scope for activities, projects and collaborations covers Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia (among other Arabic-speaking countries and Arabic-speaking communities in the diaspora).

We prioritise women, girls and queer individuals as a focus population of our work and work to support young feminist voices and encourage their participation. The age groups of ‘beneficiaries’ of our work start from 13 years old to 59 years old Arab women, girls/ queer individuals (85% of our audience/ beneficiaries are between the ages of 13 and 36).

MARA: Sex talk largely remains a taboo in the Arab world. Breaking this taboo through your work, has there been anything particular that surprised you? Perhaps you experienced something you did not experience? 

Fatma: Our work is perceived differently by different people but in general, it is perceived very positively among women and young people (men and women from the age of 17 to 29). We receive a huge number of messages daily from people letting us know how important the initiative is for them, how much they appreciate that the content is in Arabic and that it is accessible and how much the content we share changed their lives. We also get a large number of questions showing how much people are eager to learn and be part of the conversation.  This level of support and engagement was surprising yet it is inspiring as it shows us the kind of impact the initiative is creating and encourages us to continue working hard to achieve our aim. 

On the other hand, we do also face challenges, especially when we attempt to debunk myths that are deeply rooted in the culture such as issues related to diverse sexualities or myths related to women’s bodies. One surprising issue that we learned during our work is the huge role played by workers in the medical field, in many Arab countries, in the enforcement of traditional harmful taboos and practices on women and queer bodies. Something we aim to address through our work. 

Sexual and reproductive health and rights

MARA: Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are matters that are not much discussed in the Arab world.  What is the place of SRHR in your work?

Fatma: SRHR is at the core of our work. All our activities are designed to support Sexual Health and Rights education and services in the Arab world.

MARA: Although SRHR is rarely part of public discourse, it is addressed by governments and civil society from time to time. How do you see and evaluate the dominant discourses around SRHR in the Arab world?

Fatma: The fact remains that religious discourses are dominant in many cultures of the Arab world; people refer to religion to find answers about everyday life and practices. In the mainstream religious discourse, women are still considered domestic beings, encouraged to fulfil their reproductive roles and social roles of serving males in the family. Women’s bodies are considered as properties of the males in the family, therefore when we try to educate people about women’s body rights, their right to occupy public and private spaces, and their right to safety, privacy and free choice, we are often faced with these traditional/ religious arguments. 

The SRHR discourse in the Arab world is also largely monopolised by governmental organizations and organisations that are in alignment with governmental approaches, with a lack of support and attention paid to young and feminist initiatives working in the field. The dominant discourse, therefore, continues to be conservative, religious, exclusionary and lacks positivity. These approaches are often described as “culturally-sensitive”  which ignores the fact that the dominant culture to which we are expected to be sensitive is one of the main issues that is affecting the development in the field of SRHR in the region.

MARA: Abortion is largely restricted in the Arab world, which renders induced abortions often less safe or even unsafe. Does abortion ever come up in your work, and if yes, how?

Fatma: Yes, some of the most common questions we receive are about abortion and access to abortion services. People’s questions are often about safe and trustworthy places where they can get abortion pills, how to use the pills, what to expect after using the pills, side effects of the pills and where to go if the pills did not work. There is an issue with the availability of abortion services/resources in many of the countries in which we work and there is an issue of exploitation, harassment and violence that women experience in the medical field when attempting to access abortion services.  

Activism and feminism in the Arab world

MARA: How do you see the landscape and prospects of SRHR activism in the Arab world? What are the main challenges and threats, and how do you see the power of activists and civil society in battling with these?

Fatma: While the feminist sexual health and rights movement in the Arab world seems to be new and emerging, we believe that women before us have made enormous efforts in different capacities toward making sexual rights and sexuality education and resources available for other women. It is just not well-documented.  We see The Sex Talk Arabic as part of a movement rather than an individual initiative, and we acknowledge the feminist and queer efforts made in different capacities, scopes and locations, toward enriching this movement. These efforts are becoming more visible now with the widespread use of popular social media tools to amplify our activism and widen the reach. There are of course many challenges such as the social and legal threats that we experience due to our work as well as lack of resources and support to young feminist groups and activists. 

MARA: In doing this work, do you observe any particular opportunities and future prospects for sex talk in Arabic, including SRHR in the Arab world?

Fatma: There is so much to be done in the field of SRHR in the Arab world. Research is much needed in this area to identify priorities and move beyond the western approaches imposed by international organisations which control funding and resources.  Support is also needed for community based initiatives and activist groups. We are currently prioritising facilitating access to SRHR services and resources as we identified it as one of the most pressing needs for people in the region, especially young women. 

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