African Women Take On The Sex Talk

By Naomi Yane

The hijab-clad Hager Shawkat is bursting with enthusiasm and talking openly about sex being healthy and an enjoyable experience.

Because Islam emphasizes modesty, decency and privacy, there’s always a look of confusion from her students. “They don’t expect the things I’m saying to come from me,” she said, gesturing toward her headdress.

Shawkat, 30, is a Sudanese-American community wellness project manager at Sauti Yetu, a nonprofit organization for African immigrant women. Her job includes talking about sex with African adults and young adults. But in her own family, discussing sex is not common.

“I don’t tell my dad what the heck I do!” Shawkat said, laughing in a tone that implies she’s only half-joking.

Talking about sex can be a difficult topic for anyone. That’s especially true in African communities, where “the talk” can carry a stigma. Shawkat and other educators like herself are challenging cultural norms and are representative of a change in the times where Africans might become more comfortable talking to their children about sex.

As a health and wellness educator with a master’s degree in public health from Hunter College, Shawkat has built a comprehensive program at the 14-year-old organization, which offers legal services, girls empowerment programs, and health and wellness classes, in the South Bronx. Shawkat’s curriculum covers topics she felt were lacking in her own education.

Shawkat, like many Africans her age, didn’t get “the talk” at home. In the fifth grade, Shawkat said, the boys and girls received very basic sex education separately. The instruction for girls consisted of how menstruation and the reproductive system work.

“I had no introduction to what in the world was about to happen and this lady starts talking about an egg and a uterus, then she’s talking about how this egg gets fertilized and I’m sitting there like where’s the sperm coming from?” she said.

Shawkat was left confused. Around the same time, Shawkat’s weekend Islamic studies teacher, a woman who was very religious, devout and conservative, decided to teach the class about sex.

“We need to have a very important conversation and we need to have this conversation in a religious setting because our religion is really a way of life, everything is tied to the religion,” Shawkat recalled her teacher saying.

Shawkat drew on this message when she created the curriculum for her health and wellness program by putting the talk into context for her students. For her Muslim students, that meant tying her lessons to teachings from the Quran.

Shawkat wrote and produced an animated sexual education video series called Aminah & Akeem. The series follows the lives of two African Muslim 17-year-olds growing up in the U.S. and dealing with topics like dating and puberty.

Sauti Yetu conducts an annual needs assessment, which is used to determine what programming can best serve its community.

New York residents with African roots share their experiences with “the talk.”

Felicity Nduku, 54, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and moved to New York at 18. She laughs as she reminisces that the extent of “the talk” in her house was her older brothers accusing her of being sexually active, though she wasn’t.

Nduku, who was first an HIV counselor, then a risk reduction coordinator at African Services Committee in Harlem, taught people living with HIV how to prevent re-infection from other strains of the virus.

During her time at African Services Committee, Nduku’s teaching style focused on keeping the mood light, to ensure that the men and women participating in her workshop, who were all living with HIV, were comfortable. She stressed the importance of normalizing the illness and separating the person from the illness by not focusing on what brought them to her workshops.

“It was important to introduce humor and to laugh about things and to normalize a difficult topic,” she said.

Nduku decided to start each session by having two students volunteer to tell a sex joke.

At first, students were reluctant but eventually they got to the point where they would raise their hands excitedly, calling out “I got one! It’s my turn today!” Still, Nduku said, African sex jokes are tame compared to American jokes.

Through games, conversations and relaxation techniques, and seeing each other weekly, a familial bond was formed among the participants and Nduku.

“Despite the hierarchy of respect and gender differences we were able to find a formula that made them comfortable to get the training and partake in the support groups,” Nduku said.

In the group of approximately 15 to 25 people, Nduku found that women, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s, still clung to the ways of home, and were eager to pass off duties like purchasing condoms to the men.

Nduku described many of the women’s initial shyness about touching a condom. With time, their curiosity grew and they watched other participants inspect the condoms and put them on fruits.

Nduku said, “My workshops were extremely tactile, everyone opens the condom, everyone touches a condom, when you teach a woman, you teach a village.”

Sexual health courses at Sauti Yetu and African Services Committee include discussions on relationships, communication, gender power dynamics, safe sex and consent. The goal is to educate through common experiences, laughter, and games, while  focusing on culture and faith.

Shawkat equates getting through to her sexual health education students like peeling back layers, layers of cultural expectations and cultural guidelines, and the number of layers is unknown.

Shawkat said, “We have to connect the dots for people about sexual reproductive health, it’s such an integral part of your overall health and wellness.”