The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tunisia launches a state-sponsored sex-education program, a rarity in the Arab world

Children wave Tunisian flags on Oct. 11 in Tunis. (Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP)

Tunisia will begin providing a sex education program for its elementary and middle school students, making it the only Arab nation to currently do so, according to health officials.

Starting this month, children as young as 5 will begin learning about their bodies in a biological and religious-based way in hopes of protecting them from sexual harassment, catcalling, rape and molestation.

The executive director of the Tunisian Association of Reproductive Health, Arzek Khenitech, made the announcement to local news media in late November about the initiative.

Under the Education Ministry’s supervision, Khenitech’s organization partnered with the U.N. Population Fund and the Arab Institute for Human Rights to create sex-education lessons that will be integrated into other subjects, such as Arabic, physical education and sciences “by opening discussions to correct concepts,” she told Mosaïque FM.

The program will launch in 12 areas around Tunis, the capital, this month, followed by another rollout in January. The project will then enter an experimental two-year period. If it proves to be successful, students throughout Tunisian schools will eventually receive sex education rooted in science and religion, according Slah Zouaghi, spokesperson for the Tunisian Embassy in Washington.

Older students will learn about pregnancy and abortion when they’ve reached an appropriate age, Zouaghi said. The details of the program are still being worked out, he said.

Lebanon, another Arab country with a large Muslim population, introduced sex education to 12- and 14-year-old students in 1995, but the program was withdrawn in 2000 over concerns of perversion, Al Jazeera reported.

Tunisia’s secular climate, along with its reverence for science, make the country suitable for an initiative, Zouaghi said.

The North African country, long touted as relatively progressive in comparison to its neighbors in the region, is ripe for allowing its youth to uncover sexuality and to create a new society of more-informed citizens in a way that’s uniquely its own, religious and regional experts say.

Teaching children about sex is a universally uncomfortable topic, even within the United States, said Zahra Ayubi, an assistant professor of religion at Dartmouth College. Western and predominantly Christian cultures, such as that of the United States, also struggle with arming children with knowledge concerning sex, she said.

In 35 states and the District of Columbia, parents can opt out of sex education on behalf of their children, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Conversations about sex are also hard to frame in regard to religion.

At least several verses in the Koran speak about sex, said Asma Barlas, professor of politics at Ithaca College and author of “Believing Women in Islam: A Brief Introduction” and “Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an.”

“The Koran forbids sex outside of marriage, and it also forbids ‘lewd’ sexual behavior on the part of husbands with their wives; it doesn’t tell wives how to behave sexually, though the idea of sexual modesty is part of the Koran’s teachings,” she said.

Sexual-health educator and online advice columnist Angelica Lindsey-Ali, who lives in Arizona and whose readers are mostly Muslim, said that from her point of view, knowing about your body can help Muslims create a sex life in keeping with the requirements of the faith.

Lindsey-Ali, also known as the Village Auntie, provides sex and intimacy counsel from an Islamic perspective to her followers, who often feel more comfortable asking her questions about sex than they do a family member.

“Islam places a priority on cleanliness and how to clean sex organs,” she said, claiming that practicing sanitation and engaging in martial intercourse is a form of worship.

In fact, the prophet Muhammad engaged in conversations with women about their menstrual cycles, she said.

Lindsey-Ali and Barlas both contend that some cultures interpret the Koran in a more conservative manner than how the religious text is written.

Lindsey-Ali taught early-elementary schoolchildren in Saudi Arabia how to have agency over their bodies because other teachers weren’t equipped to talk about it, she said.

Educators’ reluctance to teach about sex could serve as another challenge for Tunisia, said Arnaud Kurze, assistant professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Kurze cited a 2017 paper about the discrepancies between biology teachers’ expectations of sex education compared to student expectations. Many of students turned to the Internet to gain sexual knowledge, and the teachers found that they often ran out of time to answer student questions about sex, the study found.

Internet usage is relatively high in Tunisia, and censorship has declined since the Arab Spring revolt of 2011 that brought a change of government in Tunis.

Teachers also admitted to being embarrassed to discuss the topic.

Tunisian government officials have tried to introduced sex-education efforts in the past with a heavy focus on hygiene, Kurze said.

Recent events have forced the government to talk more openly about issues around sex and safety, he said.

The country, which has been a leader in women’s rights in the region, has been struggling to solve the issue of sexual harassment against women for years, and women have been asking for more government protection.

Tunisia’s #MeToo movement, known locally as #EnaZeda, has grown louder since a 19-year-old woman posted photos on social media in October that appeared to show a Tunisian politician masturbating in his car outside her high school, Reuters reported.

The man, Zouheir Makhlouf, denied the allegations and claimed that he was trying to urinate into a bottle because of his diabetes, according to Reuters. Makhlouf now has parliamentary immunity, although the case is still being investigated, according to the outlet.

Tunisian society is changing, Kurze said.

The government’s new program is a path toward addressing concerns it can no longer ignore, he said.

Linah Mohammad and Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.

Correction: This story has been updated from an earlier version that said abortion was not legal in Tunisia. It has been legal there since 1965.

Read more:

Tunisia uncovered a history of state sexual violence. Can it do anything?

As Tunisia embraces democracy, its late dictator still casts a shadow

In a world of crisis, Tunisia’s democracy marches on