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In conservative societies in the MENA region there are a whole set of tools devoted to keeping a girl a ‘virgin’ – not just sexually, but in all aspects of life. Young girls must not open their eyes to anything here. Many girls still struggle to access education, employment and independence. There is a specific mould that every family forces their girls into. Their girls have to keep the ‘virgin’ status until they grow up into a woman and get married. The earlier they do that the better.
These tools are designed to create the image of the perfect ‘housewife’. This picture is only completed by the addition of a male saviour. (Although, in many cases, the ‘saviour’ might be an enslaver instead.) Many girls aim for that perfect image as their goal in life. Sexuality is largely portrayed as entirely unacceptable before marriage. Men prefer a virgin bride so that they do not feel threatened by a woman who has more experience than they have!
Thinking about this drew me to consider the taboos around sexuality, and our right to have and express sexual desires. Sex education is very limited in my region. We don’t get accurate or appropriate education on sexual and reproductive health. The subject is limited to marriage. Women should not have any prior knowledge of sexuality, in accordance with male desires.
I discovered my own, female, desires in my early twenties. Before that, I never thought about sexuality. I didn’t think it was important. But usually, about a week before I had my period, I would feel that something was off. I became more needy. I believe that this is the case for many women. I didn’t connect it to the possibility of having higher sexual desires during that time. It was an uncomfortable feeling when I made that connection. I felt guilty for even feeling sexual desire. It was as if I was seeing myself through a different lens and had to acclimatise to the new vision of myself.
I took it on myself to read and learn about what was happening to me. I had never had a proper sexual education. Just the basics. I had to embark on a journey of reading in order to find out the answers on my own.
Education around sex is important. It should not be limited to married women. Unmarried women must learn what happens to our bodies so we know how we can stay healthy. We must be informed about STDs and their impacts. Also, we must understand the menstrual cycle and have regular check-ups with a gynaecologist. We have to erase the notion that sexual and reproductive health is only important to married women. We have to address this long before marriage on health grounds – as well as to develop healthy sexualities.
I have observed that women in the region do not talk about sex and sexual desires openly; only married women can open the subject if they choose to do so. And, if an unmarried woman tries to bring up the topic of sexuality, people will assume that she wants to have sex before marriage, which might well not be the case! There is no open space to have a discussion about sex in a healthy way, nor to understand reproductive health. Am I only allowed to understand and talk about sexuality and reproduction after I am married? Also, am I only allowed to feel desire after marriage? It is important for women to understand our desires; and it is not wrong to experience desire, whether or not we express our desires sexually. We should not be judged for this. It is normal to have desires and it is normal to ask questions. Women need to understand their own bodies long before marriage, and not merely in the context of their fertility, but also in the context of a healthy sexual life.
Malak Altaeb is an Environmental Policy Masters student at Sciences Po University in Paris, France. She has a bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering from University of Tripoli in Libya. She participated in two exchange programs in the United States of America; the first one was Space Camp 2010, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative MEPI 2015. She has participated in civic society projects in different fields, such as youth and women’s empowerment, climate change, and art. She is now a member of the Libyan Youth Climate Movement LYCM. She is a blogger and has written for different domains and magazines. She has written for sister-hood magazine, climate tracker, Libya's Herald, Libyan Express and Libya investment. She is an advocate for women’s empowerment, youth, education and climate change.