(Page 2 of 4)
A: The book largely focuses on middle-class voices, but there are certainly people from all elements of the social spectrum. One of the reasons there’s mainly middle-class voices is that I wanted in the book to not just focus on problems. We know there’re lots of sexual problems in the Arab world. They’re in the news all the time. One of the things I tried to do in relation to the problems is to assemble the evidence—what do we know empirically, in real serious research terms about sexual life in the Arab world? But what I tend to focus on in the book are solutions, people who are trying to find their way out of these constraints. And those innovators tend to come from the educated classes, the middle classes.
Certainly I was, for example, meeting with sex workers across the region. These are often desperately poor women. This is not a lifestyle choice for them. They have no other economic choice, and this gets to your point.
Economics is a real driver of sexual behavior anywhere in the world. It can take very explicit forms. For example, there is a type of prostitution in Egypt—it’s known as summer marriage—in which wealthy visitors from the Gulf States will come. They do a lot of shopping in Egypt, great for the economy. One of the things these male tourists often buy is a girl, and there are particular villages near Cairo in which girls are supplied for summer marriage and in Islam.
Sex outside of marriage is adultery and it is haram, it’s forbidden, so they give this form of sex work an Islamic cover. They write a contract which sort of checks all the boxes in terms of marriage, dubious intent aside, and they enter into these affairs. The girls spend maybe two weeks with the men. The men go home and the girls go back to their families. It is a source of tremendous angst for many of these women. That’s driven by economics and their parents are essentially prostituting their girls for the money.
Q: The girls or the women who do summer marriages don’t call themselves prostitutes?
A: No. Even frank sex workers would never self-identify as sex workers, in my experience, in the Arab region.
Q: What word would you use?
A: You wouldn’t refer to it.
As a side story, in Arabic, we have now sort of come down to quite a restricted vocabulary around sex, which is one of the problems, because most of the language people use is from the street. This is really inhibiting for women because the language is considered to be vulgar. Women have a lot of trouble talking about sexuality because the burden of the stigma and the taboo falls on them, then you add to that they don’t even have a language to speak about sex in a respectful manner.
What’s interesting is that a thousand years ago we used to have whole dictionaries of sex in Arabic. One of these medieval dictionaries—imaginatively entitled, forgive me, The Language of Fucking—included over a thousand verbs for “to have sex.” Now we’re so restricted, people don’t even want to talk about it! Many people in the Arab region actually feel more comfortable speaking about sex in English or in French—or in Hebrew, if they’re Palestinians in Israel—than they do in Arabic. So often these women, they’ll call themselves workers, for example, but they won’t actively identify as sex workers.
Q: What about men?
A: It’s a whole spectrum of sexuality there. Some men in the region most certainly do self-identify as gay, and yet a lot of men who have sex with other men would completely reject those labels. They just don’t feel that they apply to them. Their sexual identity is much more fluid in the Arab region.
As one very cogent and really articulate queer activist in Lebanon told me: “What are you talking about, Shereen, about sexual identities in the Arab region? We don’t even have individual identities.” She said: “I am on the record of the government as the daughter of my father and if I were to marry, I would become the wife of my husband. I don’t exist as an individual. How do you expect me to have a sexual identity?”
It really comes to the core of the difficulty of achieving the essence of sexual rights, which is a happy, satisfying, pleasurable sexual life free of coercion and discrimination and violence. If you don’t have those individual freedoms recognized and respected by the state, it’s very difficult to achieve them in the context of a patriarchal family. We have miles to go before any of this is conceivable in most of the Arab world.
Q: A lot of sex workers here in the States come from other countries to work. They’ll send money back home, and the family becomes dependent on the sex worker. She or he has a little power. Does that scenario exist yet in Egypt or in other parts of the Arab world?