No disgrace: the podcast taking over the Arab world’s intercourse and gender taboos | Podcasting

Rude, fault or blemish; flaw, disgrace or shame. The word has many shades, but nearly every woman who grows up in Arabic-speaking households knows its singular weight. “Anything related to women is eib,” says Tala El-Issa, from her home in Cairo. “If they want to talk about their bodies, it’s eib, their problems – eib. Just being a woman is almost eib.”

When the team at Sowt, an Arabic podcasting network based across the Middle East, wanted to create a show that charged fearlessly into the region’s taboos around sex and gender, the title was obvious. “Eib” is now in its seventh season, the company’s longest-lasting podcast and its most popular.

It is pointed journalism couched as first-person storytelling: about getting over a bad break-up, Beirut’s drag queen scene, discovering one is gay or transgender, or becoming a widow and learning that, under Jordanian law, custody of your children can pass to their grandfather. Loose themes such as the body are used to explore topics from eating disorders to Israel’s military occupation.

“We talk about all the things in the world that are not being talked about,” says Ramsey Tesdell, Sowt’s co-founder and executive director.

Unlike podcasts such as This American Life, whose influence on a generation of programmes is unmistakable, Eib rarely uses reporters to guide stories, preferring to have the subject themselves narrate, even if names or voices are sometimes changed for privacy.

When El-Issa was asked to take over the programme in its second season, she saw a chance to challenge the silence around sexuality, identity and women in the Arab world, and the way those taboos were usually covered in foreign media.

“I was kind of bored with the whole narrative of defending women, though of course I’m with the cause. But there’s also a kind of stagnation in the way people talk about these things,” she says. “It’s not just about being politically correct, or just saying Arabs are stupid and don’t respect women. I feel like we succeeded in building a new way to talk about these things, other than [with] women as either victims or heroines. There’s this grey area where we move between the two, and it’s much more complex than traditional media make it seem.”

Analytics show most downloads come from Saudi Arabia or Egypt, though that may be as much down to the size of those markets as their appetite to hear the stories of their lives being said out loud.

“We notice it gets shared privately a lot through emails, DMs, people sharing it on WhatsApp or Telegram or Instagram messages,” Tesdell says.

When the show began in 2016, its creators understood the potential for a backlash. “Maybe we should’ve been more concerned about that but I was in the mode of no fuck’s given,” says Tesdell. It never came. Now producers say each season has hundreds of thousands of downloads.

The Eib programme logo. Photograph: Eib

“People were desperate to hear these stories,” he says. “Everybody in the Levant has had a friend or [have themselves] been in a relationship with someone they can’t marry for whatever reason. That story is so prominent.”

Even the complaints that did come felt half-hearted. “Of course, you get the Islamists, the conservatives, there was a little bit of backlash from the church on a couple of episodes,” Tesdell says. “But it’s the typical sheikh or priest saying stuff. Because the show was so relevant and in its context … they felt old-school, irrelevant.”

That is not to say there isn’t occasional friction between the programme creators’ vision and some listeners. “The red line that always, always get us into trouble is LGBTQ issues,” El-Issa says. “People say, we loved you before but we don’t know why you’re hopping on the bandwagon, hijacking the western trend … But we made a conscious decision that if we lose people over that, they’re not our audience.”

The programme’s makers situate Eib as part of a burgeoning wider discussion of gender and sexual issues in parts of the Arab world, a loosening of rigid social mores that grew stricter in some societies from the 1970s onwards, but may now be weaker than they appear.

There is no shortage of evidence that regressive attitudes persist, from Egyptian women jailed for “immoral” Tik-Tok videos, to the 2017 arrest and torture of Sarah Hegazi, a woman who raised a rainbow flag at a Cairo concert, or the recent ridicule on air of a Lebanese sexologist by the male hosts of the TV programme on which she was appearing.

But just as the internet is shattering media around the world into innumerable streams of information, across the Arab world it is making space for new conversations about topics that as recently as a decade ago were rarely canvassed outside small, trusted circles, if at all, Tesdell says.

He likens Eib’s success to the nascent #MeToo movements in Egypt and Kuwait, sparked by social media conversations that grew too quickly and became too large to be suppressed.

“People had been fighting this for generations, and a lot of pieces fit in place: the time, the technology, the people willing to talk,” Tesdell says. “All those pieces fit into place to create this moment.”

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