Sex education 'stirs instincts'

Cairo, Egypt - Egypt's most senior Islamic cleric rejected any attempts to introduce sex education that discusses safe sex and abortions in the country's classrooms, a religious newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar, one of the oldest and most prominent Muslim scholarly institutions, told a regular meeting of al-Azhar clerics that Islam teachings deal with sexual education issues in a way that doesn't propagate sin or corrupt youth.

Students in al-Azhar institutes already learn about sex "in a way that doesn't stir instincts, or offend public morality," he said, according to Al-Lewaa al-Islami, or "The Islamic Banner," a weekly run by Egypt's ruling party.

"It is better than teaching sex to school students and permitting the so-called safe abortion and calling for equality between man and woman through gender culture," Tantawi said.

The comments came amid attempts to revive long dormant plans to revamp reproductive health education in schools, which has prompted widespread debate on Egyptian media on the subject.

Discussing issues related to sex is a taboo in conservative Egypt. Premarital sex and homosexual relations are considered a sin in Islam, the state's official religion.

Maher al-Haddad, general director of al-Azhar's research centre, said Tantawi was responding to questions from non-government organisations about whether sexual education is permitted.

Government ministries and civil groups in Egypt have been trying to find ways to teach reproductive health and HIV/Aids prevention without raising religious objections, particularly by treating it as an issue of health rather than sex.

Soha Abdel Qader - an official at the government-affiliated National Centre for Childhood and Motherhood, which is adopting a programme to increase awareness among adolescents about safe practices and diseases -said the term "sex education" might push clerics against the programme.

Reproductive health issues are already included in science classes, but some teachers simply don't teach them "because they are shy," Abdel Qader said.

Tantawi said Islam recognises only one way of making a family, through marriage between man and woman - a way that avoids issues of premarital sex and the providing of contraceptives to young people and the need for abortion.

Last month, Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa rejected any teaching children safe sex and how to avoid pregnancy and disease on the grounds that it would promote sexual activity.

Abdel Qader, whose centre has held seminars on reproductive health in high schools, said young girls and boys have a lot of appetite for knowledge about such issues. "It is their families that don't want them to know."

"The girls and boys wanted to know," she said. "They had a lot of questions."