Sunday, December 27, 2009

Egypt + Sex Education — Really NOT!

There is a fascinating and important opinion/editorial appearing at Bikya Masr that describes sex education – or the lack of it – in today's Egypt.

The author, Baher Ibrahim, notes that even doctor’s do not have correct or adequate sex education, nor do many men and women understand the correct usage of condoms.

Masturbation is absolutely verboten, and women, who are expected to remain virginal until marriage, are not supposed to have any specific knowledge about self-pleasure.

Ibrahim urges the country to confront its sexual conservatism, and advances a compelling argument that it must provide real, contemporary sex education.

The editorial appears in its entirety below, or read it directly at Bikya Masr.

By Baher Ibrahim
27 December 2009
in Health

“It may sound striking that in the 21st century; there are highly educated people, even doctors, who have highly inaccurate information about reproductive health. But in Egypt, that is the reality.

Starting from school pupils and reaching all the way to medical faculties, there is an astonishing lack of basic information on sex and reproductive diseases. Misconceptions and old wives’ tales are reinforced in young peoples’ minds by the insistence of medical professors on ignoring such basic information.

Egyptian society is by nature a conservative one, making sex a taboo subject. Thus, it has become absolutely normal and expected that an entire body system be practically ignored in science curricula all over the country. Everyone in Egypt has memories of the bizarre class on the reproductive system. What usually happens is that the teacher maintains a stern face and monotonous voice to deter students from making lousy jokes. If it’s a co-ed school, there is no place for a constructive detailed discussion. Likewise, if a male teacher is standing before a girl only class or vice versa, the lesson is finished off at lightning speed. Girls would be unwilling and embarrassed to listen to a man explain the anatomy of the female genitalia, and boys will almost certainly make an inappropriate comment that will deter their teacher.

In today’s age, sex is aggressively marketed through advertising, movies and music videos. With widespread Internet access, pornography is instantly available at the click of a mouse. That there is no kind of proper sex ed in our schools is preposterous. Fast forward to high school, and the situation is not any different. The reproductive process is explained in terms of spermatogenesis and fertilization, leaving numerous girls wondering (and this is not an exaggeration) how the spermatozoa happened to reach the ovum. In addition, it prompts teenage boys, who will stop at nothing to find out about sex, to get their information from their friends, who are just as misinformed as them, or from pornographic movies.

The only time when sex is formally discussed in school is in a religious context, where the (inexperienced) religious studies teacher offers the students more misinformation as fact. Examples of these are 'masturbation is strictly forbidden in religion, and the punishment of he who masturbates is equal to that of he who engages in sexual relations with his mother.' Another popular one is that 'one mustn’t masturbate because God has given each man a store of semen that will finish if you abuse it.'

These claims are laughable to many, but are widely accepted as fact, as well as the infamous 'masturbation ruins your eyesight.' Fast forward once again to university, and the unwillingness to discuss sex in even a medical context is absurd.

Khalid, a dentistry student at Alexandria University, recalls one of his experiences. He says 'It was in our first year during a Zoology lecture. The professor (a woman) happened to mention the word ‘vagina’. A colleague of mine, who’s English was very poor, asked the professor after the lecture about the meaning of ‘vagina’. Suddenly the professor started stuttering and launched into a prolonged English-Arabic explanation interspersed with medical terminology. While he was looking at her with blank eyes, I whispered in his ear the Arabic slang (and offensive) word for ‘vagina.’'

The country’s medical students, and future doctors, fare no better. Many still believe the common “masturbation ruins your eyesight” myth, while others believe it causes infertility. A medical student at Alexandria University laughs as he tells about one of his funnier experiences. “It was during our second year, and we were attending a psychology lecture where the topic of discussion was IQ. A student passed over a folded paper to the doctor with a question on it. (Note: this is how questions are commonly asked due to the massive number of students in the auditoriums) The question was ‘Excuse me doctor, but does masturbation affect your IQ?’ Many students burst out laughing but most of the girls seemed not to understand since they didn’t get the English term. The doctor was very professional, explaining that there was no harm at all in the act, unless it became an obsession or compulsive behavior. He also mentioned statistics that 99.9% of males and 70 percent of females masturbate.'

Naturally, the latter part of the statistic did not sit well with many. The student goes on to say 'My male friends were astonished that he mentioned such a statistic so openly in front of girls, and most believed it to be a lie. Some went on to say that only a whore would do such a thing and one also wondered if by doing so, a girl could lose her virginity. A few were also astonished at the prospect that girls even thought about sex.'

The student I spoke to is now in his fifth (second last) year. He says 'Even now, it is more of the same. We had a lecture on male infertility, and obviously, a semen sample is needed to know if a man is infertile. The professor found it too embarrassing to say that the sample is usually obtained by masturbation, despite the term being mentioned without definition in the book. He opted to say that ‘a sample is best obtained in the lab’. I don’t know what’s so embarrassing about it. I am sure many of the girls, especially the ones from rural backgrounds, didn’t understand.'

Nor are they expected to understand. Despite attempts at change, Egypt is still a largely patriarchal, male dominated society where 'respectable' girls are expected to guard their virginity and know little to nothing about sex, until they are married.

This student also says 'I was stunned when during a lecture on HIV/AIDS, the professor made very little emphasis on prevention of sexual transmission, besides mentioning the term ‘condom’ once in English. Then he made a claim I have never heard of that in 15-20 percent of proper, regular condom usage, HIV can still cross an intact condom. I’ve never heard of such a thing.'

Indeed, a fact sheet on male condom use, available on the UNAIDS website, says that after conducting studies, it has emerged that 'with regular sexual intercourse over a period of two years, partners who consistently used condoms had a near zero risk of HIV.'

Add to this the reality that most med students, even when they graduate, do not even know what a condom looks like. This is an outrageous lack of basic sex ed, especially for medical students, and steps must be taken to change it.

Ironically, in a country where extramarital sex is a big no-no, very few women know how to self induce a medical abortion or use the morning after pill to prevent pregnancy.

Most girls do not even know what their external genitalia look like, nor do they have the curiosity to know. This is part of the cultural norm that girls must guard their modesty and virginity before marriage.

For all the above stated reasons, definite steps must be taken to integrate proper sex education in school and university curricula, to be taught by certified specialists, so that we may pull our students, future doctors and the general population out of the dark.”

This editorial perfectly underscores many of the challenges that conservative countries face in our modern, technological society. Every country must determine its own mores, but when its citizens have access to broader experiences via the Internet, then sex education is even more imperative. It is also quite shocking to me that many of its doctor's do not possess this vital information, either.

It is not for me to judge the behavior of a society or government when it comes to sex, but ensuring the safety of all is everyone's responsibility.

I believe that every person must be given the tools to protect themselves from contracting AIDS and other STD's, and to have the most basic knowledge about their own bodies. That is not a religious/ideology issue, but rather a human issue. 

I would argue that women should be considered sexual equals in any society. Even in the U.S., which is a much less conservative country, that is still not the case, but is thankfully coming closer to becoming a reality.

— The Curator


  1. Dear Curator,

    Saw you new post through Twitter. Before we criticize Egypt too much we should consider what our own government is up to. Please see Rob Stein’s article from this morning’s Washington Post.

    Abstinence proponents look for aid from new health bill

    There is a move for … “$25 million for new, innovative programs that could potentially embrace those encouraging abstinence.” They never Stop!

    Is Still Here

  2. Great post. Not intended to criticize Egypt at all, since blog was written by an Egyptian. It's just important to view sex education worldwide, not just within US. Gives a perspective that, for me, underscores how much we still have to do here in America.

  3. I owe you an apology, a poor choice of words in my comment. I did not mean to imply your post was critical of Egypt. Rather I was attempting to suggest that people in the USA should not forget that we still have a significant, active element, driven by ideology, which believes that the right approach is to just tell kids to avoid sex. The fact that experience has proven that all this accomplishes is that the kids will eventually have sex but will know nothing of the risks or available protection does not matter to this element. We are not so different from Egypt. If we allow the ideological and activist elements free reign, me might find ourselves more like their current condition than we would desire.

    I truly enjoy reading your posts. Thank you for letting me comment and for taking to time to comment back.

  4. No need to apologize. I whole-heartedly agree that America has very, very long way to go. It is, however, a much deeper problem when countries are controlled by conservative religions or ideologies. You have pointed that out perfectly in terms of the U.S., and the same is true worldwide. Many countries still issue lashes to women for sexual behavior that seems to us to be very minor indeed. As I wrote in the post, each country has a perfect right to decide what path to follow, but sometimes the issue should not be relgious/ideological, but HUMAN issues of safety and even survival. Thank you for very thoughtful comments.

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  6. You do realize, don't ou, that the image above is not Egyptian but Hindu erotic carvings on the Kandariya Mahadeva temple, India, circa 1050BC.

    Just sayin...