International Women's Day: In the Arab world, women aren't supposed to talk about sex - let alone enjoy it. But that might be changing

The drive to control female sexuality is alive and well in the modern Arab world


A millennium ago, a writer in Baghdad by the name of ‘Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib produced a good sex guide called the Encyclopedia of Pleasure. Among his top tips: “Conversation and kissing are particularly important when the sexual union is over because they are indicative of a lovers’ kindness, where as silence, besides creating an embarrassing situation, would make the woman regret what she has done.”

Fast-forward to the 21 century, and such sexual etiquette is in short supply--at least according to my female friends in Cairo. Azza, a forty-something middle class mother of three, summed up their experience: “Five minutes, and it’s only his pleasure.” Forget French-kissing, forget foreplay. “He kisses her et cetera? That’s not true—it’s one minute only. After kissing, it’s straight to sex, then he sleeps, then he watches TV.”

Azza is not alone. I’ve heard her story time and again over the past five years as I travelled across the Arab region, talking to men and women about sex: what they do, what they don’t, what they think and why. Sexuality might seem a strange focus in these tumultuous political times in the Arab world. It is, in fact, a powerful lens with which to study a society because it offers a view not just into intimate life, but also of the bigger picture: politics and economics, religion and tradition, gender and generations that shape sexual attitudes and behaviours. If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms. 

In today’s Arab world, the only socially-accepted context for sex is heterosexual, family-sanctioned, religiously-approved, state-registered marriage—a social citadel. Anything else is “ forbidden”, or “shameful” or “impolite”. The fact that large segments of the population in most countries are having hard time fitting inside the fortress—especially the legions of young people, who can’t find jobs and therefore can’t afford to marry—is widely recognized, but there is also widespread resistance to any alternative. Even within marriage, sex is something to do, not to discuss. And when sex is broached in public—in the media, for example—it is most often as a crisis or a scandal or a tragedy.

Even within marriage, sex is something to do, not to discuss.

On the face of it, there is plenty of bad news about—especially when it comes to women. The drive to control female sexuality is an age-old feature of patriarchy, and is alive and well in the modern Arab world, given new impetus by the rise of Islamic conservatives in the wake of the Arab Spring. It’s reflected in statistics: in Egypt alone, 80 per cent of 15-17 year olds women are circumcised, in large part to tame their sex drive by cutting the clitoris, so the thinking goes; and less than 5 per cent of young women get any sort of sexual education from schools, routinely sent out of the classroom in the rare event that teachers indeed willing to teach the lesson. It’s reflected in laws which, for example, allow rapists off the hook if they marry their victims, or lesser punishment for “honour crimes” (more often than not against women who are thought to have impugned their family’s reputation through some sort of sexual infraction) or in higher burdens of proof for adultery by men than women.

And it weaves throughout the countless stories I heard of sexual double standards: young women, so fearful of losing their virginity and therefore their chances of marriage, that they engage in anal sex to preserve their hymens without the power to ask for condoms,  thereby leaving themselves wide open to HIV. Or wives wanting more in the bedroom, but afraid to ask for satisfaction or show any initiative, lest they displease their husbands and get a reputation for having a past. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen may have got rid of the father of the nation, but patriarchal attitudes still run deep—including among women, young and old, educated and less learned, who endorse, say, female genital mutilation or condone a husband divorcing his wife if she sexually strays or refuses to put out.

Sexual violence, in and out of marriage, is one of these tools of control. Its elimination is the theme of this week’s negotiations at the United Nations in New York on the status of women and today’s International Women’s Day celebrations. As with anywhere else in the world, sexual violence is a regrettable fact of life in the Arab region. Just ask the more than half of young Egyptian women who experience sexual harassment on city streets, or the third of Tunisian women who have been abused by their nearest and dearest—including sexual violence—over the past year, or the women who are on the receiving end of rape as a weapon of mass destruction in the Syrian civil war.

Speaking out

Fortunately, women are proving themselves more than just victims. In Egypt, for example, the recent spate of sexual attacks on women in Tahrir Square, combined with a resistance to the Islamic conservatives’ views of a woman’s “rightful” place , are encouraging a growing number of women—and, thankfully, men as well—to stand their ground and speak out against sexual violence and a woman’s right to the public space. This is a sign of the times, and part of a greater freedom of expression, and action, millions are now emboldened to exercise.  

That being said, many women’s rights groups in the region have been reluctant to address issues of sexuality beyond negative rights—freedom from coercion or discrimination or violence, for example. A woman’s right to a sexual pleasure, for example, or to access sexual information or to express her sexual feelings and ideas, or her right to have children how and when she chooses (or not all) or her right to the tools to control her own body, such as abortion, or to keep the status of her hymen to herself, is not something most groups have wanted to touch with a bargepole—in part because of the social stigma around sex.

However, there is a new generation of women leaders and NGOs, like Nasawiya in Lebanon, or Muntada Jensenaya, which works with Palestinians, which are prepared to tackle these issues head-on. It isn’t easy though; one of the region’s leading new feminist groups, which is busy fighting for women’s political engagement, both as voters and representatives (women occupy less than 10 per cent of parliamentary seats across the region) and economic empowerment (less than a quarter of women have jobs) —vital to achieving sexual rights, for sure—keeps its own youth sexuality education and empowerment programmes under wraps.

Politics, religion and sex are the three “red lines” of the Arab world: subjects you’re not supposed to tackle in word or deed. But just as people in countries across the region are busy contesting received wisdoms in politics, and are starting to challenge of the role of religion in public policy, I hope they will start asking them same hard questions of sexual life. Critics who say that to talk of such matters is “un-Islamic” and a sell-out to the West, need to be reminded that theirs is not the only reading of the past and present, and that Islam—including the Prophet Muhammad himself—and Arab culture has a long history of celebrating sexual pleasure, for men and women. Achieving justice, freedom, dignity and equality in the bedroom, is an important part of realizing these goals in public life, and vice versa: the political and sexual are natural bedfellows.

Shereen El Feki is the author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World , published this week by Chatto & Windus

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Time travel: Thomas Cook has been trading since 1841  

A horror show from Thomas Cook that tells you all you need to know about ethical consumerism

Janet Street-Porter
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable