The glossy revolution: 'Cosmopolitan' launches in the Middle East

Women are the same around the world – well, that's what the publishers of the new Middle East 'Cosmopolitan' hope. The magazine is famous for its lipstick-and-sex-tips format, but Joan Smith argues that despite appearances, it has also been an enduring engine for social change
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The Independent Online

Over the past couple of months, a wave of popular protest has shaken the Middle East. Regimes have been overthrown, towns have been seized from dictators and repressive regimes have reacted with escalating violence. In the midst of such tumult, it might not seem the ideal moment to launch a Middle East edition of one of the most instantly recognisable symbols of Western sexual freedom. But in an extraordinary accident of timing – and, presumably, with much holding of breath – Cosmopolitan will go on sale in half-a-dozen Middle Eastern countries next month.

At first glance, it's not easy to see the relevance of an American-based magazine full of fashion and sex tips on the streets of Manama or Riyadh. Some Western commentators have poured scorn on the idea, with The New York Observer recently dismissing Cosmopolitan as a "recycled sex-tip repository". That hasn't stopped the magazine's publishers preparing to sell a new edition in Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Lebanon, as well as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Long before this year's wave of revolts against corrupt and sclerotic dictatorships, it wasn't difficult to imagine Cosmopolitan finding an audience in Beirut, where billboards advertising perfume and swimwear have co-existed for years with huge images of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah.

But it's an under-statement to suggest that the Saudi authorities would find the British edition of Cosmopolitan a challenge. A recent cover offered "Explosive Sex Secrets!" and an interview with a transsexual who has the same name as Prince William's fiancée.

Cosmopolitan's publisher insists that the magazine's format varies from country to country to take account of local sensibilities. But the cover of the Turkish edition looks like a clone of the parent magazine, featuring blondes in tight dresses, and you don't need to be fluent in the language to guess the meaning of the word "SEKS" in screaming capitals. If the Middle East seems a potentially tricky market, especially in the light of unfolding events, it's worth recording that Cosmopolitan has long been an international brand, launching its 61st edition in Mongolia last year. The deciding factor, I suspect, isn't a mission to sell Western ideas about sex and fashion, but the publisher's judgement that there's a sufficiently large middle class with similar aspirations to women in Europe and the US.

At the same time, it's undeniable that the issues which persuaded Western women to buy Cosmopolitan, Ms magazine and The Female Eunuch four decades ago are rising to the surface in the Middle East. Earlier this month, demonstrations to mark International Women's Day were marred by violence in several countries. Women demanding gender equality and an end to sexual harassment were attacked in Tahrir Square by angry men who trampled their banners underfoot. "Not now," they shouted, telling the women to go home. In Khartoum, riot police waded in and arrested more than 40 women minutes after they began a protest against discriminatory laws and sexual violence; according to witnesses, some of the women were beaten with sticks.

The demonstrations are a reminder of the huge numbers of women who've taken part in a wave of popular protest in Africa and the Middle East, but also of the deep divisions in the aspirations of men and women that exist not far below the surface. In Tunisia and Egypt, women formed common cause with male protesters when the aim was to get rid of tyrannical regimes, but in both countries fault lines have started to emerge. The women's demonstration in Tahrir Square follows similar protests in Tunis, where women have complained that they aren't properly represented in the new governments and fear the influence of Islamists on their secular country.

As women around the world have discovered to their cost, freedom means different things to different people. Gender is often the battleground as men who've thrown themselves into political revolutions turn out to be intensely conservative when it comes to the family and the role of women. In an ominous development, a CBS correspondent was attacked and suffered a brutal sexual assault in Tahrir Square last month, while local and foreign women who've been harassed by men in Egyptian cities won't have been remotely surprised by the eruption of misogynist violence on International Women's Day.

In some respects, the presence of women among the demonstrators who forced the resignation of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, is misleading; behind the scenes, most Egyptian women are still subjected to female genital mutilation – 91 per cent of 15 to 49-year-olds, according to a 2008 survey – and the government didn't outlaw the practice until three years ago. And while a Western magazine based on the premise of total sexual freedom might have little to say to working-class women in poor districts of Middle Eastern cities, middle-class women are a different story. Indeed the sad thing, from a feminist point of view, is that Cosmopolitan's brash present-day incarnation doesn't have the seriousness and campaigning zeal of 40 years ago; it used to be feminist standard bearer, encouraging women to talk about taboo subjects such as abortion, but the current British edition reflects the celebrity-obsessed culture we're all too familiar with. The small ads at the back offer cosmetic surgery and "live sex chat!" and the magazine is obsessed with fame: "I won't let cancer stop me from interviewing celebrities," was a choice recent headline.

Even so, Cosmopolitan's assumption that sex is something women should be able to talk about without shame or embarrassment harks back to the early days of the magazine. The British edition has been around for 39 years, launching with phenomenal success in March 1972. The first issue sold out its print run of 350,000 in a single morning, and the following month saw sales of 450,000. Timing and content were perfect: the magazine spoke confidently to a generation of young women who weren't quite sure what we wanted – I was one of them, eagerly waiting for the next issue – but knew we were nothing like our mothers' generation. The contraceptive pill was just becoming available, abortion had been legalised and we were discovering the pleasures of sex without the ever-present fear of an unwanted pregnancy. The first editor, Joyce Hopkirk, was savvy enough to turn the magazine into a brand, inviting readers to identify with "that Cosmopolitan girl" in the launch issue. "You're very interested in men, naturally, but think too much of yourself to live life entirely through him," she assured them. "That means you're going to make the most of yourself – your body, your face, your clothes, your hair, your job and your mind."

Hopkirk's credo was very much in line with that of Cosmopolitan's American editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley Brown, author of 1962's Sex and the Single Girl. The magazine wasn't shy about its role as "an agent for social change, encouraging women everywhere to go after what they want, whether it be in the boardroom or the bedroom". In the early days, Cosmopolitan offered financial advice – this was a moment when British banks and building societies were reluctant to lend to single women – and astonishingly frank features on subjects such as oral sex; in January 1982, it boldly offered to "take the fear out of fellatio". The magazine looked very different in those days, mixing high and popular culture in a way that's almost unthinkable in our less confident age; in the Seventies, one issue would offer fiction by Cesare Pavese, another Jilly Cooper's guide to men who would make good lovers.

Although it was ambivalent about some aspects of it, Cosmopolitan was very much a product of the sexual revolution. The baby boomers were coming of age in a period of economic optimism and social mobility, and we listened to exciting new feminist writers such as Germaine Greer who encouraged us to overthrow taboos about sexual behaviour and our bodies. Our mothers had lived in fear of getting a "reputation" or having an "illegitimate" baby, yet here were books and a hugely popular magazine telling us it was fine to enjoy sex outside marriage. But something else was happening at the same time, namely the rise of a new individualism which marked a significant break from the lives of previous generations. The transition from a society organised around patriarchal family units to one of individuals with their own aspirations is an essential step towards modernity. That's what "Cosmo girls" were doing, even if we didn't express ourselves in quite those terms.

Some of the magazine's 21st-century critics would suggest that what was once its strength has become a liability. It's certainly arguable that some of the liberating individualism of the Seventies has been replaced by self-indulgent obsessions, not least with cosmetic surgery and the cult of celebrity. But while today's women's magazines seem to feel the need to smuggle serious articles into their pages – a practice a friend describes as "stealth feminism" – I've read excellent features on female suicide bombers and "honour" crimes in the high-circulation women's weekly Grazia. A recent British issue of Cosmopolitan looked at the subject of men who pay for sex, describing it as a form of exploitation.

If Cosmopolitan's message is more mixed today than it was in the past, its arrival in the Middle East may raise fewer eyebrows than might be expected. These societies were in flux even before the popular uprisings of the past couple of months, and relations between men and women are changing along with everything else. In Bahrain last year I talked to middle-class women in smart business suits and poorer women who wear the hijab, a class divide that's replicated in shopping areas all over the Middle East; street markets in Tripoli, a Sunni city in northern Lebanon, sell traditional Muslim clothing while Western-style malls in Beirut are stuffed with high-ticket designer items. A Lebanese friend was astonished to discover a sex shop in Cairo, and even more astonished when she went inside and found a fully-veiled shop assistant behind the counter.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the lifestyle featured in Western women's magazines is unfamiliar to Middle Eastern women, or that they don't discuss intimate subjects to do with sex with sometimes startling frankness. Across the region, young people especially are being pulled in different directions, invited to embrace Islamist ideas on the one hand and globalised consumer culture on the other. The French Islamic scholar Gilles Kepel writes about this struggle in his book Bad Moon Rising, recalling that he encountered boys with beards and veiled girls standing apart from students in branded jeans at a campus in Cairo. Later, in a giant shopping mall in Qatar, Kepel saw two women in niqabs halt in front of a display of cut-price Michael Jackson CDs.

"What is being played out here is not a war of civilisations," Kepel remarks in Bad Moon Rising, "but rather an attempt to participate in a globally dominant one". The fact that Cosmopolitan is moving into the Middle East, even on a small scale, is further evidence of that process. We're all participants and observers of a global civilisation where individual aspiration – for consumer goods, democracy, affluence and sexual freedom – is increasingly difficult for autocratic regimes to resist.

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