A Candid Conversation on Sexual and Reproductive Rights in the Arab Region

Empowered Bodies, Empowered Beings

On Tuesday, June 18, the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University hosted an event on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Arab region, in collaboration with Across Red Lines, SheDecides, and UNFPA.

The event was hosted in New York, with participants in Beirut connected by video-conference. On the New York side, the panel included Manal Omar, founder of Across Red Lines and sexologist Valarie Merced, as well as a video address from Dr. Shible Sabhani of UNFPA. On the Beirut side, the discussion was led by feminist journalist and activist, Maya el Ammar, along with multiple representatives of the A Project, a Lebanese NGO devoted to expanding understanding of gender, sexuality, and reproductive justice nationwide.

Dr. Lina Abirafeh of AiW and SheDecides moderated the discussion. Audience members represented a range of communities; in New York and Beirut, participants included study abroad students, LAU students, people from local NGOs and large international NGOs, and people who just wanted to learn more about the issues at hand.

The event opened with an introduction from Dr. Abirafeh, followed by Dr. Sabhani’s address. Dr. Sabhani gave an overview of sexual and reproductive health policy in the Middle East and North Africa and discussed the range of consequences of those policies – from economic impacts to public health concerns, Dr. Sabhani made clear that full access to reproductive rights and health services are critical to the health of society overall. After the address, Dr. Abirafeh discussed the SheDecides movement, which is empowering people around the world to fight to give women and girls the right to choose what to do with their bodies and lives - a seemingly radical notion, Dr. Abirafeh noted, “but when you say he decides, people say, yeah, of course!” SheDecides has champions and hosts events around the world, and the campaign is designed to empower young people to be leaders of the movement.

Audience members and facilitators in Beirut then opened discussion with remarks about the power of religion and the state over reproductive health access in the Arab region. Manal discussed how, in many ways, colonization influenced these forces for the worse. Manal offered her thoughts on how Islam can be a positive force for women to reclaim their bodies and sexuality. Valarie furthered this point by talking about how healthy individual sexuality acts as a force for a healthier society. The conversation then shifted into what could be done to further this work in the Arab region – such as stronger sexual education programming. Important questions arose: what role should parents play? Where does the responsibility of the state end, and where do NGOs need to pick up the slack? What can we do as individuals to fight systematic oppression and expand our rights to our own bodies?

A common theme was the incredible sense of urgency surrounding sexual and reproductive health and rights’. In Beirut, Maya noted that she felt the need to step away from the NGO “bubble,” as she was tired of waiting for others to set the agenda on these critical issues - lack of information, poor access to healthcare services, among other hurdles, are widespread and systematic. As a journalist, Maya felt that it was her duty to make sure that information is accessible to the most marginalized; she had to ask herself, “how can I be mainstreaming the information that women need to know?” She started working with alternative media outlets, beyond feminist and NGO platforms, to ensure that people across the region could access health information and understand their legal rights; instead of writing long-winded op-eds, she started making shorter, informative videos that could be more easily distributed. Maya’s story was particularly interesting, as it underscored that it is on all of us to take action in our own way to spread access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, regardless of what sector we work in, as all of us have a role to play as activists and advocates.

One of the most powerful moments in the discussion was conversation surrounding the role of shame, and how shame as an emotion shapes both culture and individual experience. Valarie shared important points about how shame forces people to make assumptions about their health and bodies, and how these are consequential in so many ways - from infectious disease to emotional health. Valarie went so far as to say “shame is a public health crisis” - a powerful idea that might have been controversial to some, but the evidence supported her stance. The consensus was clear: to prevent sexual violence, to empower individuals to live healthier lives, to allow people to have fulfilling and healthy relationships, there must be a radical change regarding how and when people can access reproductive health information and services.

Manal offered a demo of one of the exercises she leads in her ARL retreats. She led the audiences in both New York and Beirut in a writing exercise, where she asked participants to write a stream-of-consciousness response to questions she asked about love and childhood. Audience members shared portions of what they wrote, and responses between one person to the next were varied – making the exercise that much more powerful. Love and sexuality are deeply individual experiences, and by giving space for women to explore these experiences safely and openly, we can create a safer world for all.

We’d love to hear your feedback, especially if you were in attendance. Please feel free to leave a note below in the comments.


Across Red Lines Related Media

Episode 1 of a multi-part series, Crossing Red Lines. A panel conversation hosted by Manal Omar discussing dating in the context of Islam. Young Muslim women and men share their thoughts and experiences around dating, family, social pressure, and feeling free to express themselves with honesty and integrity.