The Arab Spring's greatest success?

People in Arab countries have been talking more openly about sex and sexuality for some time now, especially on social media. And for the first time ever, they have the vocabulary to discuss these topics. By Lena Bopp

By Lena Bopp

Sandrine Atallah was invited to appear on the Lebanese talk show "A gheir kawkab". It was supposed to be on sex education. This is her area of expertise, because Atallah is one of the first women, if not the first woman ever in the Arab world, to have made imparting knowledge about sexuality her profession. She was firmly convinced that it would be possible to talk about sex on television, without taboos and without bias, because that is what she is used to. But that she would be continuously interrupted and ridiculed on the show, that she would be alternately accused of her vocabulary being too scientific, but her voice too provocative – 'mehen', as they say in Lebanon, which is a nasty insult – was something she wasn't expecting.

Nor, however, did she expect what happened after the broadcast. There was uproar on social media – not directed at her, however, but at the host of the show, Pierre Rabat, whose misogynistic behaviour drew so much criticism that he finally asked for forgiveness, albeit somewhat half-heartedly, on Twitter. The discussion had got out of hand, he wrote. Apology received, but rejected, Atallah replied to him, also on Twitter. "You should have been able to inform yourself, not spread false news about my own programmes; what's more you should have put a stop to the other guests." Days later, Sandrine Atallah was still reeling.

Threatened by religious groups

The events prove that something has changed in dealing with a topic that has been taboo in the Arab world for generations, but which has been increasingly coming to the public's attention in recent years. It is predominantly women who are speaking out on social media and filling a void with their posts, videos, photos and interviews on all kinds of questions about sexuality, a void that is huge due to the lack of institutionalised sex education in almost all countries in the region.

Shereen El Feki, who surveyed the love lives of Arabs years ago in her book "Sex and the Citadel" (2013), observes today that many questions are coming to the fore on the Internet that would have been unspeakable just ten years ago. Some others, like the Egyptian writer and feminist Mona Eltahawy, see these changes as a remarkable consequence, even "the greatest success" of the Arab Spring.

Author Shereen El Feki grew up in Canada as the daughter of a Welsh woman and an Egyptian man; today she lives in London and Cairo (photo: Guillem Lopez/Photoshot/B540/picture alliance)
No change in the Arab world without sex education: author and journalist Shereen El Feki emphasised in her book "Sex and the Citadel. Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World" that Islam is actually distinguished by a positive attitude towards sexuality, but at the same time argues that without freer, more open attitudes, socio-political development in Arab societies will continue to stagnate

The uprising against age-old regimes allowed many people to experience for the first time that it was possible to protest loudly about circumstances that had been endured for decades – those of a political nature, naturally, but also more private concerns. Moreover, the Arab Spring was accompanied by the rise of social media, in which conversations about sexuality have since found a privileged space.

On websites such as, and, people discuss all kinds of aspects of sexuality. Likewise on pioneer Sandrine Atallah's social media channels. She talks about sex in public with a naturalness that one is not used to from Arab women. More than ten years ago, she already had her own programme on Lebanese television, which repeatedly dealt with sexuality. "When we started, I received threats from half the country, from all the religious groups," she says.

She then disappeared from the scene for a while. She set up a practice in Beirut, offering medical advice for sexual problems. She launched a podcast in which she talks every week in Arabic about female desire, the effects of COVID-19 on male sexuality or premature ejaculation. And she started spreading her knowledge as a physician and sexologist via Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter, where she enjoys a following of almost half a million people.

Virginity concerns

Most followers come from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, many from Egypt and Iraq, some from Yemen and Sudan. Sandrine Atallah opens her comment columns to them for anonymously asked questions. Mostly it's about normativity, she says. "Online I am often asked: Am I normal? With my needs, my body, my feelings."

 Staff at other websites such as Love Matters Arabic, the Arabic offshoot of an initiative originating in the Netherlands, also report basic questions coming in daily through all sorts of channels, including most frequently, "My penis is so-and-so centimetres long, is that normal?" Meanwhile, women are mostly plagued by concerns about their virginity: "Can the hymen get damaged in the shower? Those are the two top questions," says Ramy Metwali, who heads the project.


These days, twelve people work at "Love Matters Arabic", which began with just two employees in Holland after the Arabellion, grew over the years and finally moved to Cairo. With the change of location, the focus shifted from more general topics such as sexual positions, abortion and marriage, to issues that are particularly virulent in Egyptian society. Since then, it has been about female genital mutilation, which has been prohibited by law since 2008 but is still widespread. And about sexual harassment, something women suffer particularly severely from in Egypt, as can be seen from the linguistic circumstance that shameless stalking and groping in the open street was long called "flirting".

Some believe that only the great international outcry after the "virginity tests" with which the military tortured about twenty female demonstrators arrested from Tahrir Square after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 sharpened public perception of latent violence against women. This is how the term "harassment" was able to spread in the first place.

New words for taboo things

Other words also found their way out of the taboo zones of the unspeakable and into the public domain. Ramy Metwali remembers how he was told by a former employer to talk about "reproduction" rather than "sexuality" because that was not appropriate for Egyptians. "Today we say 'sexuality'," he says. And in Arabic, not English, because the slow de-tabooing of the terms is increasingly accompanied by their linguistic appropriation. "It is true that many people working in sexual counselling are working to translate the terms. For example, years ago there was no word for the LGBTQ community, today we call them mujtamaa el-meem."

Metwali and his team have also created their own terms or contacted other organisations to agree on a particular Arabic word together. "We then used these words normally, and today many people do, whether they are for it or against it. The terms are there now."

That's a significant step, because without words, the things they refer to don't exist either – the female body in particular, the vagina, the clitoris. Also trans, bi and non-binary. But once the Arabic terms are in the world, they are not only used to appropriate things, but also to throw out the age-old objection of conservative forces that sexuality is a Western concept that has no place in Arab society.

Schoolgirls wearing face masks form a queue outside a school in the Egyptian capital Cairo on 10 October 2021 (photo: Ahmed Gomaa / Xinhua News Agency/ picture alliance)
No longer tongue-tied, thanks to the Arabellion: the terms are there now, anyway. Young girls in the Arab world are growing up for the first time with a language that knows words for homosexuality or vagina. Many issues are also coming to the fore on the Internet that were unspeakable just ten years ago. Some feminists, such as Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy, see these changes as a remarkable development, possibly "the greatest success" of the Arab Spring

Nevertheless, Sandrine Atallah's recent experience on the Lebanese talk show, when one of the guests said in disgust that her use of the word mahbal ("vagina") made him want to run away, reveals how far there is still to go before talking about sexuality is considered normal.

Employees of the relevant online platforms also report that they adjust their choice of words depending on the audience they are addressing. It is often still easier to talk about "married life" than about "sex". And about heterosexuality more easily than about homosexuality.

Ongoing disputes

As in most countries in the region, this is also true in Egypt, where last summer not only six young women were sentenced to prison for "inciting fornication" after posting short dance videos on TikTok. And also where Sarah Hegazy lived, who fled to Canada after waving a rainbow flag at a concert by Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila in Cairo in 2017, was subsequently arrested and severely tortured in prison. Last June, she committed suicide. The article she had published some time before, in which she wrote about interrogations where she was asked what distinguished sex with a same-sex person from sex with an animal, went around the world.

The rock band Mashrou' Leila, whose singer Hamed Sinno is openly homosexual, was banned from performing in Egypt after the concert. Likewise in Jordan. And even in supposedly liberal Lebanon, the band had to cancel a planned gig in 2019 after homophobic attacks. The second edition of the "Gay Pride" in Beirut had already been cancelled a year earlier. Its organiser was imprisoned for a short time.

The dating portal "Grindr", reserved for gay men, has been officially banned for the last year or two. Fake accounts attempting to fly under the radar of Lebanon's official monitors appeared on the Internet. However, surveillance there is not quite as consistent as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, in these two countries, where "Clubhouse" chats are in the ascendant, it is possible to observe how quickly all kinds of taboos are broken as soon as a (still) uncontrolled space opens up online.

Recently, discussions about a controversial bill were reported from the Egyptian "Clubhouse", which is feared to further restrict the few women's rights. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality, feminism and atheism have apparently even been discussed.

In one room, dedicated to the recently released women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, chaos erupted, reminding some of the good old days, when Twitter, popular among Saudis, was still new, free of trolls, misinformation and surveillance. And full of arguments about things that just can't be ignored.

Lena Bopp

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / 2021


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