Sex in the Arab World

Author and activist Shereen El Feki on whether the Arab Spring can produce a Summer of Love

(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?

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  • Caleb Turberville||

    An Arab Jefferson Airplane?

  • Mike M.||

    This stupid article again? I'd be embarrassed to print such laughable rubbish after the events of the last couple of years.

  • wwhorton||

    I thought she made some interesting observations, but I think she gets a little too wrapped up in her premise. Sexual mores might be an indicator of other stuff going on in the culture, but it's not a driving force, and it's not causal. In other words, all things being equal, you can't just airlift condoms and porn to Saudi Arabia and expect an Arab Enlightenment to occur the next morning any more than you could produce the same result by opening a Budweiser brewery or a comic book store.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    If you really want to know people, start by looking in their bedrooms

    Around here that'll get you arrested.

  • Almanian!||

    Thank you for the boob shot. Nice cleavage.

  • wwhorton||

    Seconded. That's absent from the print version, and I was hoping this was some sort of like subscriber reward "digital bonus" thing.

  • Sunken Idaho||

    What? Decapitations by rose stem isn't sexy to you?

  • Mike M.||

    No kidding dude. I swear, the willing ignorance of reality and suspension of disbelief that goes on with these cosmos on certain topics is fucking mind-boggling.

  • MWG||

    Drink!

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    This article again? Hard up for content are we? I refrained last time but not now: Cleavage!

  • chexsystem||

    How happy to read your post, I hope I can write the article the same wonderful as you.

  • Agammamon||

    Wait, where's the link to your blog that's nothing but a list of keywords?

    I love those things!

  • Brett L||

    Wasn't Sex and the Citadel a tell-all about buggery at the military academy?

  • Ray||

    This is rather self-parodic even by the standards of this publication. Also, don't they chop off women's clitorises in Egypt?

  • Mike M.||

    They most certainly do. The primary purpose of sex in that benighted region of the world is to produce more jihadis prepared to kill and die on behalf of "Allah".

  • mtrueman||

    "They most certainly do"

    I've said it before, the practice has been illegal since 2007. Thanks to the activism of a handful of feminists and doctors. The number of women in Egypt who have been subjected to this mutilation is declining. I'm not sure I understand your attitude - not being able to take 'yes' for an answer. I suspect that it comes from a deeper bigotry and fear which you almost certainly won't admit to or want to discuss. All the same, thanks for sharing.

  • mtrueman||

    "don't they chop off women's clitorises in Egypt?"

    No they don't. At least not legally. Due to the efforts of feminists and physicians this practice was outlawed in Egypt in 2007, I'm sure you'll be happy to learn. There's information on this at wikipedia and other places on the web.

    They were quite courageous, going against some powerful reactionary forces in society, so we should recognize their bravery and the fact that now this mutilation is on the decline in Egypt.

  • Anders||

    It is illegal in Egypt, yes.

    And it still goes on, especially in the smaller communities.

  • mtrueman||

    "And it still goes on"

    I'm sure you are right. But the practice is in decline in Egypt at long last. It is on the rise in USA in spite of its never being legal or socially acceptable.

    "Also, don't they chop off women's clitorises in Egypt?"

    Also they do, but it misses the point and it turns a blind eye to positive developments in Egypt that I would have thought Libertarians would be proud to support. What purpose is served by ignoring the 2007 law? The only one I see is to enable anti arab bigots like Ray to continue spread his talking points.

    Anti Arab bigotry trumping libertarian principles. Another proud moment at Reason magazine.

  • InlineSkate||

    I find the idea amusing, because wouldn't doing that imply that "Allah" fucked up?

  • Curmudgeon44||

    They really should reflect on the notion they disapprove of woman as God made it.

  • NK||

    All this crap about "sexual freedom" is just code for feminism, sexual libertinism, and the rest of the crap culture that has infected the West. This is cosmotarianism, libertarianism combined with advocacy for this crap liberal culture. Seriously, "sex worker?" Political correctness at its worst. Now, the way Arabs treat women is appalling and needs to end, but that doesn't mean they should adopt our culture. Look what it's done to us. And didn't we have this article, like three months ago?

  • InlineSkate||

    You do realize this is a libertarian policy group right?

    Sexual freedom is right up their alley. You want rigid conservative ideals the Heritage foundation is probably a bit more your style.

  • VoluntaryBeatdown||

    Islam is inherently misogynistic. It is also inherently anti-freedom. How in the world are these people able to claim to fight for freedom and liberty while at the same time oppressing women so extremely? The only way they are able to justify this lack of consistency is by using the Koran and Islam itself to degenerate women to sub-human status, to property. Pretty disgusting.

  • Anders||

    I was expecting this to be about man-camel carnal relations.

  • Anders||

    Was she an Arab fired for sexually assaulting a camel?

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