Nadia El Bouga still remembers two women who helped to shape her career. Both were pregnant, and both said that, technically, they had not had sex. Both, too, happened to be Muslim.
For the young midwife, the cases were a first. None of her medical textbooks had prepared her for either experience.
“I told myself, ‘Nadia, you have to get training,’" recalls the 39-year-old mother of two.
El Bouga is speaking from the studio of French radio station Beur FM, minutes after wrapping up her latest show on sexuality that reaches audiences as far as North and sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s topic was female genital mutilation, a practice that affects roughly 200 million women and girls worldwide, including an estimated 60,000 in France.
No subject appears off limits for El Bouga, France’s rare and perhaps only veiled Muslim sexologist. Premature ejaculation, homosexuality, pedophilia and masturbation — all are fair game at her weekly Beur FM appearances and in private sessions at her Paris area clinic.
“Nadia is always ahead of the curve,” said Beur FM journalist Philippe Robichon, who invited El Bouga to join the show just more than a year ago, after meeting her through a friend.
For El Bouga, the show on female genital excision was an occasion to set the record straight.
“It’s a mutilation that’s not at all in the religious texts, the Muslim texts,” she tells her audience, delving into the physical and psychological scars of women she has treated.
“It’s a way for men to control female sexuality,” she adds, noting the practice also hurts a couple's relations, and calling on people, especially Muslim religious leaders, to “take a stand.”
Increasingly, El Bouga’s frank parlance is gaining attention. She is being solicited by other French media, and by mosques and Muslim women’s associations.
“They want to know about how to talk to their children about sexuality,” El Bouga says of a topic that some conservative Muslims still consider shameful. “They don’t know what to do.”
El Bouga learned about freewheeling exchange, as well as tolerance, from her Moroccan parents, who joined the immigration wave to France in the 1970s. Talks with her father, over cups of strong, sweet Moroccan tea, became an after-school ritual.
“He told me how he met my mother; it was a marriage of love, not an arranged marriage,” she says. “He told me about my ancestors, about philosophy. He asked my opinion about world events. It was an emotional and spiritual education.”
Like many French teens, El Bouga’s sexual education came from school, friends and magazines. Years later, working as a midwife in a northeastern French hospital, she discovered more troubling dimensions of sexuality, confronting problems that were not in her textbooks.
It was there that she confronted the pregnancies of the married woman and the teenager who had said that they hadn't had what could be considered traditional sex. Both were Muslim, and the teenager was distraught about how her conservative family would react to the news.
“During my years of study, these questions were never treated,” says El Bouga of her training as a midwife.
So it was back to university, to specialize in sexology. In 2014, El Bouga opened a private practice north of Paris.
Most of her patients are fellow Muslims, who track her down by word-of-mouth.
And while most of her clients are women, a surprising number of men turn up at her office.
“People think a Muslim man would have a hard time talking about sexuality to a female therapist,” she says, “but in fact many prefer a woman, because they don’t feel they’ll be judged on their lack of masculinity or impotence.”
Marion Schaefer of the French activist group Excision, Parlons-En (Excision, Let’s Talk About It), who appeared on Beur FM’s show about female genital mutilation, says El Bouga’s outspokenness can be a powerful weapon.
“It’s important to have a Muslim woman who confronts this problem,” she says. “People may reject the message coming from non-Muslims like me. But they may think differently when it comes from someone like Nadia."
El Bouga uses Islamic texts sparingly, where it’s “useful,” she says — to counter, for example, false assumptions that genital excision is authorized under Islam.
Some Muslims are affronted by her frank take on sexuality.
“I’ve had negative reactions on my website and Facebook page, but not many,” she adds. “Some men think sexology is some form of prostitution, and suggest I must be depraved.”