Education in Lebanon: Let’s Talk About Sex!
Conventions can change: The guests from Lebanon with their dialogue partners in Berlin (Photo: Thomas Hasel)
13 August 2012
It’s easy to talk about the weather, your job or football. But, the topic of sex can be a bit more delicate. This is true in Europe, but educators in countries like Lebanon really have work on their hands. Farah Wardani and her colleagues are familiar with the problem. By Thomas Hasel
Farah Wardani’s eyes are glowing as she leaves her meeting with the actors from the Berlin theatre Strahl. The Lebanese theatre therapist talks enthusiastically about the future collaborations that she and the German performers have agreed upon. Farah Wardani wants to invite the theatre ensemble to Beirut to organize workshops for Lebanese actors with them and preferably to send some of her own troupe, the Live Lactic Culture Theatre, to Berlin as well. It’s not yet decided who will fund these plans, but initial contact has been made.
Farah Wardani is one of four young women from Lebanon who travelled to Berlin and Munich at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut. The theme of the journey was, however, not the German theatrical scene, but sex education for young people in Germany. The fact that Wardani ended up at Theater Strahl is because the theatre has staged plays for 15 years dealing with topics like first love, pregnancy among minors and homosexuality. Farah Wardani is searching for methods of communicating the difficult subject of sexuality to Lebanese young people without offending conservative groups. It’s a challenging undertaking.
“We have hardly any sex education in the schools,” she relates. Although the educational ministry is presently working on a programme for sex education classes, it approaches the subject far too cautiously. “The topic of sexuality is practically taboo. The teachers are not really confident about speaking to their pupils about it, the families often hush it up, and both Christian and Muslim clergy are against open discussion. Their advice usually is limited to not engaging in sex before marriage.”
This advice can hardly replace crucial sex ed among the young Lebanese, therefore Farah Wardani is attempting to broach the subject with the help of the theatre. “A seminar on sexuality in school would not be accepted, but a play used to subtly bring our message across might,” says Farah Wardani, who would like to perform her plays in schools.
Many believe that homosexuality is a diseaseThe need for sex education in Lebanon is also confirmed by the physician and television host Sandrine Atallah. She has been presenting a weekly sex education show on the Lebanese station LBC since 2010. Via email or in a blog viewers can ask questions about the programme, which are answered by Sandrine Atallah and her male co-host. The most frequent questions centre on the fear of masturbation causing a loss of virginity, infertility, blindness or deafness.
Some of the concerns of older viewers are the fear of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the question of when they can resume sexual intercourse following childbirth. “We have to do a lot of educating,” says Sandrine Atallah. “For example, many people here believe that homosexuality is a disease.” A TV show offering sexual education does not have an easy time in Lebanon. “We receive sharp attacks from conservatives,” explains the presenter. Every week some newspaper reports that the show is pornographic and Atallah has received a number of threatening letters and phone calls.
Nonetheless, the host doesn’t give up, for she knows that young people in Lebanon are hungry for information and in a country in which intercourse before marriage, homosexuality and adultery are crimes, but more aesthetic surgery is done than anywhere else, the conventions are changing faster than many can imagine.
Of course, homosexuality is not uncommon even in Lebanon, but the existence of same-sex love is stubbornly condemned by dominant conservative forces as an abnormal aberration. This worries Diana Abou Abbas very much. The employee of the MARSA Sexual Health Clinic, the only clinic for sexual illness in the Middle East, therefore advocates the acceptance of homosexuality, for example through sit-ins on Beirut’s Christopher Street Day. She is therefore also particularly interested in meeting with staff from the Association of Lesbians and Gays (LSVD) in Germany.
HIV: High numbers of unreported casesThe association addresses young people of immigrant origin in particular and attempts to break down their prejudices against homosexuals, for example with sporting events like the annual Respect Gaymes. Some also learned a thing or two about their own prejudices, admits psychologist So-Rim Jung from LSVD in her talk with the Lebanese guests. “At the beginning, we thought that homophobia was particularly high among Muslims. But, that’s not true. In general, it’s about prejudice. We therefore also now use our campaigns to battle racism and Islamophobia.”
From the start, Diana Abou Abbas and her dialogue partners from LSVD could relate well to one another and she definitely wants to continue talking to them about collaborating – particularly in a field that is becoming increasingly important for the Arabic World and Lebanon: AIDS prevention and the de-stigmatization of people infected with HIV. Although the official figure of 1,500 of approximately four million Lebanese is low, a far higher number of unreported cases is presumed. The problem is that due to the fear of social ostracism, far too few Lebanese even have themselves tested, as the nurse and researcher at the American University of Beirut, Rola Yasmine, reports. “The topic of HIV and AIDS is practically taboo here. We don’t know how many people in Lebanon are really affected, it is difficult to get medications and our country would not be logistically or mentally prepared for a higher number of cases.”
Here, as well, it is important that many prejudices be eliminated. The guests learn about the relative progress made in Germany over the past 25 years in a meeting with a representative of the Berlin Aids-Hilfe group. “We never tried to generate fear of STDs,” says Thomas Wilke, youth worker at Aids-Hilfe. “Our approach has always been to demonstrate that we must deal with HIV and AIDS positively to prevent stigmatizing those affected.”
That makes sense to Diana Abou Abbas from the MARSA clinic. In future, she hopes to send interns to Aids-Hilfe in Germany to learn from experiences here. “We have a pathway ahead of us that Germany has already taken for the most part,” she says. “Yet knowing what this pathway may be like motivates me for my continued work at home.”