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A: Let me tell you a story which is not from sex but illustrates that dynamic very clearly. One of the young women I met in Egypt, her name is Imani, and she comes from the conservative south of the country. Imani is a tour guide and she makes quite a lot of money. As a consequence of that, she’s actually the main breadwinner for her entire family. Her father and her brothers and sisters are dependent upon her. One day a young man whom she had met through a friend came to the parents, brought his parents, wanted to marry Imani, and her parents said no. She’s in her late 20s and although she has all the financial power in the family in terms of the earning capacity, she has none of the control over her own life. Years passed. They kept arguing with the parents. She wanted to marry him. They said no. And one of the reasons they said no was that they didn’t want to lose her income; it would go to the new couple.
So she and her clandestine fiancé decided to take matters into their own hands. They traveled to Cairo and they had what’s known as an urfi marriage. This is a customary marriage and depending on whom you ask, it is Islamically permissible or not. There are some scholars who will say that these marriages are permissible, and that’s why she had it. Because to her, as a practicing Muslim, it was inconceivable that she would have sex outside of marriage. She needed a marriage framework. Yet when I asked her, “But Imani, you have the financial power, why do you not just get married in defiance of your parents?,” she said, “I cannot do that. It is not my reputation. It is my family’s reputation and it is my father’s reputation. He is the great man at the mosque. If I were to go against him, they would say he had an impolite, a disobedient daughter. I cannot go against my family.” That’s a very clear illustration that having the money doesn’t give you the power, especially if you’re a woman.
Q: I was wondering if you could comment about the state of political activism for gay men and lesbians in Egypt, and how it’s been affected by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
A: We have crushing homophobia in most of the Arab region. There are these extraordinary groups of young activists. They tend to be under age 40. They tend to be more educated. They speak very good English. They are connected to the wider world of LGBTQ activism. What’s really interesting about all these groups—and they are a minority of a minority—but when you talk to them, they know chapter and verse the history of the gay rights movement in the West. And they can tell you with extreme precision why they think these will not work in the Arab world.
They want something completely different. They do not accept sexual identity politics. They say, “What is the point of us fighting for the rights of a tiny minority irrespective of the crushing homophobia if we do not achieve justice and freedom and equality and dignity for everyone, not just minorities, for everyone coming out of these oppressive systems?” So it’s a very different conceptualization of how you would go about getting achieving rights and achieving space.
In my experience, most people who have sex with their own sex or are transgendered are not looking for the freedom to come out. They want the freedom to stay in, and live their lives behind closed doors and do as they choose. They are looking for privacy.
One of the interesting experiences I’ve had is working with religious leaders and men who have sex with men. I was part of a project that over the course of many years brought these two, you know, chalk and cheese groups together. We did this under the aegis of HIV. If we wanted to talk about gay rights, absolutely no way would we get religious leaders to come to the table. But this was a rich mix of Shia, Sunni, and also Christian clergy from across the denominations. At the beginning, there was huge suspicion, and particularly the religious leaders had all these extraordinary ideas about these men—that they were rapists and pedophiles and that they were indulgent and debauched. They had no idea of the reality of these men’s lives.
What was most interesting about this sort of process of accommodation is that one of the religious leaders I talk about in the book said: “Look, you know what, these men are our brothers. I want to find a way to reach out to them. I cannot tell them that their behavior is halal, that it is permitted”—although as a side point, there are some Islamic scholars now elsewhere who are actually questioning what the canonical texts are really telling us about homosexuality in Islam, but that sort of thinking isn’t catching on in the Arab world as yet—but the point of commonality was privacy.
In Islam, we have a real emphasis on your business is your business. It is a sin to spy on someone else, and if you want to accuse someone of a crime, you need to have four eyewitnesses or an uncoerced confession. So in this discussion about privacy, for example, you can think that there might be a way of accommodating men who have sex with men within the context of Islam. This goes back to the point that there are alternative interpretations within Islam. It’s not a monolith. When the conservatives give their point of view, they present it like there is no alternative, but that’s simply not the case.
Q: You said that marriage is the citadel. What is sex like inside of a typical marriage?
A: It’s a very good question and it’s hard to answer. We don’t have a Kinsey Report, we don’t have a Hite Report, we don’t really have any basis for answering that question. I call for it in my book. I can only give you anecdote.
In my experience, in talking to couples, women are frustrated. Let me turn that around actually. I don’t want to talk about it in negative terms. I want to talk about it in terms of longing. They are longing for better communication with their husbands. They’re longing for more spark in their marriage. They want romance. The men I met—and, again, these are snapshots; please don’t generalize from this or extrapolate from this—but they were frustrated. They wanted more, and yet when their wives tried to show some spark, they were horrified.
One of these instances I talk about in the book. A young woman was reading up before marriage—this was her big night—and and when she initiated some activity, her husband hauled her out of bed and made her swear on a Koran that she had never had relations before marriage. A bit of a downer for the rest of the night’s proceedings.
In my experience, there is a sort of conflict going on. People want more, but they’re not sure how to achieve more. But once we get through this very tricky transitional period—and no one’s certain how long that’s going to last—I think we are heading into a better place, because people can now start talking about these issues.
The one positive thing that’s coming out of all of this is a willingness to speak openly now about sexual violence. Ten years ago when a woman was raped, she would never speak out. Now people are coming to the fore. The key at the end of the day is switching this increasing openness about sex to talking not just about sex as a crisis or a scandal or a tragedy, but sex as something positive and sex as a real force for empowerment of men and women, for well-being. There was an ability a thousand years ago to find the fun in sex and to talk about it as a source of power for men and women, and we have lost that. I hope that we can recapture that in the decades to come.