Our Exclusive Interview With The Sexual Health Educator Zina Malas
Meet Zina Malas, a passionate and dedicated sexual health educator based in the Middle East. With a deep understanding of the unique cultural dynamic and challenges present in the region, Zina is committed to empowering families, youth, and individuals through comprehensive sexual education.
Zina recognizes that sexual health is a crucial aspect of overall well-being, yet it remains a sensitive and often taboo topic in many Middle Eastern societies. Equipped with a wealth of knowledge and experience she strives to break down barriers and promote dialogue around sexual health, fostering a safe and inclusive environment for discussions.
CIIN was able to speak to Zina and obtain a better understanding of how she addresses sexual health in our society.
What is sexual health?
Sexual health is a big umbrella that includes so many topics like puberty, how to talk to your children about their bodies and how babies are made, when and how to get tested for STIs (Sexually transmitted infections), pleasure, body safety, consent, respect, what check-ups people need to do, communication with your partner, what do healthy relationships look like, family planning and many, many other more topics.
What inspired me?
My kids. My daughter was diagnosed with precocious puberty at 6.5 (early on-set puberty) and I had to figure out an age-appropriate way to teach her about the changes her body was going through and why? Also, at 11yr old, my stepson had so many questions about his body, and I realized I would need to have open and honest conversations about these topics. I knew I couldn’t be the only parent who was struggling to find a way to talk to my kids in an appropriate and culturally relevant way that included my values as well.
What does my typical client look like?
I usually educate people during private consultations, people from all walks of life and all ages. I see parents who need help on how to talk to their children and what is considered age-appropriate, I see couples who are dealing with something specific in their relationship, and I also educate men, women, teens, and elderly people. I have also helped some youth counselors with specific topics. My work also involves conducting workshops for companies, and parents, and I have even spoken to groups of Drs. about my experiences. Previous workshops have included Menopause, female pleasure, how to talk to your teens and a guide to sexual health for your family.
How have you addressed the stigma and taboo…/ comprehensive education to youth.
I understand that these conversations can make some people uncomfortable, but when they talk to me for a few minutes they realize that my job is more than just educating people on how babies are made.
I get two typical reactions when I tell people what I do. One is they get very giggly and shy and the other is a very shocked reaction but with both reactions, there is a very common theme and that is curiosity.
They want to know who I help; how did I end up in this line of work, and most of all they want to know about the interesting cases I have encountered in my profession.
To be honest I try not to listen to any of the negative noise surrounding what I do. I am trying to approach these topics in a biological, factual, and educational manner. I remind everyone that we do not have sex education in schools and yet we have access to information at our fingertips. The world is changing, and our kids are exposed to so much more than we were, so I remind people that this is coming from a place of trying to help our young people navigate this new landscape.
How do you provide accurate and comprehensive sexual education considering cultural sensitivities?
I know that some content on my Instagram might be met with resistance, but I always make sure that all the information is medically correct, I work with a few Drs. in the region and have a huge database of therapists and educators from around the world. I never enforce my values on anyone, I’m not here to shame anyone or to judge anyone.
What are some of the common misconceptions about sexual health that you frequently encounter, and how do you address them?
My workshops also include a Q&A at the end, so I tackle a lot of common misconceptions.
I also can deal with common misconceptions through my videos on Instagram that target them, a sort of sexual myth-busting.
Parents think their kids are too young for “the talks” – I hate to break it to you: half of young people learn about sexual health through social media.
Parents think that talking about these subjects will put ideas into their kids’ heads. This has been proven to be wrong. Young people who receive more information delay their first sexual experience because they are aware of the risks involved. They make better and more informed decisions.
Men and women think that men’s sexual desire should be higher than women’s. This is false, each person regardless of gender has a different “drive.”
How do you promote gender equality and empower women?
I think most women don’t know their bodies. They have a fake reality of what it looks like because all they know is judgment. Some women I work with completely avoid looking at their bodies, so you can only imagine how uncomfortable they feel. Their bodies are a huge source of shame for them because of the messages society tells women. It’s a lot of pressure: “Be thin but not too thin, be successful but not too successful where it scares off men, be assertive but not bossy because no one likes a bossy woman.” It’s exhausting.
I think the first step to empowering women is to make them feel safe in their bodies and in love with who they are. Their first love story should be with themselves. Women are beautiful and capable of so many things and I think we need to be reminded of that. It starts with changing the language in your head. Figure what you like and don’t like, have boundaries, and speak up when something isn’t working for you instead of putting up with it. I think a lot of women end up doing that just to keep the peace or not to seem like trouble-makers. I’ve seen plenty of women neglect their health as well and avoid seeing a gyno until something is wrong or until they get married, and I think this is one of the first things that we need to focus on with women. Your sexual health is a part of your general health. You wouldn’t neglect another part of your body, would you?
Another aspect I think we need to focus on with women is their pleasure, plenty of times intimacy for them is performative and so focused on what they think the other person is expecting of them and there is no focus on themselves. Once they learn to focus on themselves and their own pleasure there is a lot of power in that.
What strategies do you employ to get your patients comfortable with discussing their sexuality?
Honestly, a lot of people are very open to talking about their sexuality with me only because there is no one else they feel they can talk to. It’s a great relief for them. I obviously sign an NDA to make everyone feel a bit more comfortable, and once that’s out of the way it feels like they have a green light to say whatever they need. Trust me I’ve heard everything under the sun. I assure them that nothing they say can shock me. I approach all my clients with a lot of empathy and validate each and every one of their experiences.
What challenges did you face when engaging parents and caregivers in conversations about sexual health and how did you overcome them?
I think the greatest challenge for parents is overcoming their fear, awkwardness, and their own sexual shame. Once I deal with that the rest becomes easy. It is also making sure that all the information they receive is based in biology and is factual. That gives them a lot more confidence when dealing with their children.
I always prefer to deal with parents than with kids. I believe education starts at home and so I remind the parents of the important role they play in shaping their children and all the information they receive.
The first step in dealing with parents is getting over the stigma and shame to challenge yourself and your beliefs and question why it is I believe XYZ. Where did these messages come from? Is it from religion, society, family, media, friends, etc? I always ask them what they wish someone had told them about, to imagine themselves as teens, and what they wish their parents had told them. Once they have that figured out, I guide them through some conversation starters based on the ages of their children and we take it from there.
So, in theory, I am not just educating the youth I am also educating their parents, because a lot of times even the adults don’t know the actual biological information or how to put it together.
I also remind parents that if they leave the conversations for when the kids are older, the likelihood that they will know about all this information from other sources is very high. And the information might not always be right or healthy. These conversations can be so special and create such a bonding experience but so many times parents are worried about it being awkward or worried that they will say something wrong or misleading and that they end up not having these important conversations with their kids and the kids end up learning false information or information that doesn’t include the families’ values.
How can open inclusive dialogue about sexual health be encouraged within families?
Having open conversations where your kids feel comfortable enough to ask you questions is so important. Parents need to be the first source of information for their kids, the kids need to know “I can ask mom or dad anything and I know they will answer me honestly”. We are so fixated sometimes on answering the question correctly that we lose sight of the fact that answering questions involves so much more than just the content. We are building a relationship to ensure we are their go-to person. If we react to their questions with shame or fear or awkwardness and are so focused on our own needs instead of theirs, they aren’t going to come back to us with their next question. Be honest, validate their questions (there is no such thing as a stupid question), Thank them for coming to you.
What are the strategies that can be employed to ensure that the youth receive accurate, age-appropriate sexual health information?
Ideally, a comprehensive sex education curriculum in schools would be ideal but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Until then, parents need to keep having open conversations with their kids. I think every parent/teen needs to attend a workshop on their sexual health. Modeling the behavior we would like to see in our children is also very important. Show your children what healthy relationships look like, and what boundaries look like, and explore what are green/ red flags.
What measures can be taken to ensure the sustainability and long-term impact of sexual health education initiatives in the Middle East?
My dream would be a sex education curriculum in schools that focus not just on reproductive health as part of biology class, but a separate subject that starts at a very young age. The topics would all be age-appropriate, and they would focus on consent, safety (online and in person), bullying, peer pressure, where babies come from, etc. We are at a very pivotal moment in history, most young people are going to learn life lessons now online, through peers and the media, whereas in the past the family had a greater influence. I believe the family can still be the greatest influence but not unless the family unit also changes a little bit with the times.