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

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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

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