“Vulvina” creator Souzan AlSabah: Liberate your words

A new term has changed the way we talk about sexuality. But the inventor used a pseudonym for a long time to protect herself.

Pink vulva shaped cupcakes

It’s just cupcakes, baby Photo: Sven Darmer/Davids

The sex educator first dropped the word in 2009 in a workshop with young people between the ages of 10 and 23: vulvina – a mixture of the words vulva and vagina. One word for the whole genital. A word that should be quite different from previous designations such as sheath or the Latin translation of it, “vagina”. Because they symbolize: the genital as a “cover” for the penis.

Vulvina became a success story: today there are vulvina care products, a vulvina coloring book and condoms sold with the word. The neologism appears in television reports, newspaper articles and sex education books. In 2022, the participants of the lesbian reality TV show “Princess Charming” talk about it for minutes. But no one knows who invented it. Because the sex educator uses a pseudonym: “Ella Berlin”.

Twelve years later, in February 2023, the woman behind “Ella Berlin” came out: Souzan AlSabah is a Syrian nurse, therapist and supervisor – and meanwhile one of the most influential sex educators in Germany. Her third book will be published in April: “Vulvina Intersektional”. It is not only about the history of the term, but also about a sex education that is intersectional: that is, that takes racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination seriously and shows how they disrupt a positive relationship with one’s own body.

That didn’t just bring approval to AlSabah. She tells that she was criticized and hostile for her work. They even received death threats online. She also addresses these attacks in her book: the irritation of some people at the fact that an “Arabic and Muslim marked woman and mother suggests a new word at all” and criticizes the German language. Souzan AlSabah withdrew from sex education for a few years. With her book, she is now using the term “vulvina” in public for the first time.

A violent time

Getting there wasn’t easy. The computer camera shows her dark curls, black-rimmed eyes, an alert look. Souzan AlSabah grew up between Syria and Germany. She writes that she experienced a lot of racism during her school days in Germany: “It was exhausting and took a lot of strength. It was a violent time. The experience of arousing suspicion with everything my body represents.”

After graduating from high school, she trained as a psychiatric nurse. What interested her was: how do people who are discriminated against remain physically and mentally stable? The answer she gives in “Vulvina Intersectional” is that “people who have positive archetypes of physicality, sexuality, gender and their own strength are often surprisingly resilient to structural violence”.

AlSabah knows what she’s talking about. It’s the 1980s, an apartment in the center of Aleppo, in the very north of Syria. AlSabah is just 12 years old. She lives with her aunt and her cousins. Relatives, neighbors and friends come and go, and there is dancing almost every evening. Young, middle-aged and old women stand in a circle, one after the other steps into the middle and lets their hips rotate, arms and hands draw soft shapes in the air. “A pelvic-centric, joyful dance,” says Souzan AlSabah. It was the dance circles in Aleppo, she says, that gave her the feeling of “being right in this world” and building a positive feeling about her body and her sexuality.

These experiences shaped her in such a way that it became the theme of her life. She has given workshops for children, young people and adults all over Germany, commissioned by initiatives, organizations and ministries. There was not only dancing, but also education about patriarchal ideas, sexuality and the body: about orgasms, the period or the myth of the hymen. She has published two children’s books, one of which is the diversity-sensitive educational book Samira and the Babies Thing.

Rich in detail and relaxed

“Vulvina Intersectional” is about the suffering that too many people still endure in silence. AlSabah makes clear what it means to exist in a body that is marginalized by society: A black woman, for example, is discriminated against because of her blackness and her body marked as female. Building a positive, pleasurable relationship with your own body is difficult. Souzan AlSabah’s book helps here: She writes about the body in such detail, in a relaxed manner and with so much love, as is seldom the case. On almost 300 pages, she describes the anatomy of the vulvina, describes orgasms and explains why the language we use for these parts of the body often has sexist origins. This not only informs, it liberates.

For example, she explains that “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for “womb.” (hystera). But it also shows that the Arabic word for it, “Rahim,” shares the same root as a term for God and is used daily in Muslim prayer. Again and again she mentions her own experiences from working with Muslim children and young people in Germany in order to counteract racist prejudices among sex educators as well. “In my experience, no statements can be made about a person’s attitude towards physical friendliness and sexuality based on their religion, origin or roots.”

Above all, AlSabah wants to change something with her neologism. The word “sheath” is a “trigger that reproduces violence”. Because the word origin suggests a “sword” that is inserted into the scabbard. But the word still appears in many books on the subject of sex education. So vulvina is supposed to fill a gap. It’s supposed to be an offer for an empowering genital designation.

Souzan AlSabah has worked on the subject with several thousand children, adolescents and young adults. Many would have reacted enthusiastically to the word: “As if they were getting to know a term for the first time that seems pronounceable and does not cause any unpleasant physical sensations. Instead, this term gives the space to perceive, sense, feel and think about one’s own genitals.”

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