Friday, 13 July 2007

Sex and the medina

Khaled Diab
The time is ripe for a Middle Eastern sexual revolution and there are signs that a quiet one is in progress. But will young Arabs openly stand up for their right to get laid?

Arab societies are in desperate need of a sexual revolution. This idea may shock religious conservatives who believe that a righteous stance (moral erectitude, if you like) is the only thing standing between society and all-out anarchy, decadence and HIV/AIDS. But I believe that a love liberation is a great way to cure Arab society’s sexually transmitted dis-ease.

Every time I go back to visit Egypt, I’m struck by how much more conservative the country has grown in the mean time. Along with the increasingly overt religiosity has come American-style out-of-town mall culture and Muslim-style televangelism in the form of the apparently charismatic Amr Khaled.
In fact, the number of people I know wanting to make a decent Muslim out of me is so sobering that I sometimes find I need a drink as an antidote and we head off to one of the city’s fine watering holes.

On Cairo’s streets, the sexual, economic and political frustration is almost palatable. The discerning eye can pick out naked sexual desire pursuing young people like a lead shadow in the hot and sticky metropolis. With polite society being what it is, female desire cannot strut around as starkly as its male counterpart but must veil itself demurely in a telling fluttering of the eyes or seductive smile.

It is a tribute to Egypt’s power of social cohesion that, despite the pent-up rage of unemployment, sexual frustration and overcrowding, Cairo is still one of the safest cities on the planet.

But isn’t it about time that Egyptian youth cast off the shackles of restrictive tradition and idiotic, counterproductive attitudes?

I’ve always had trouble understanding why society views sex with such suspicion. Why is physical intimacy seen as so destructive? Perhaps the underlying reason is that, by controlling access to sexual gratification, the elders of society can better control the young.

If the religious brigades are to be believed, society’s stealthiest enemies have stockpiles of sex bombs which they use to incapacitate legions of unsuspecting youth. But it is sexual frustration that is a ticking time bomb, as people marry later and society comes under greater religious scrutiny.

At uni, I was baffled by those macho guys who gave themselves full sexual licence but branded any girl who would sleep with them ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and said they would never marry a girl like that. Why not? If it’s okay for you, why not for her? These were questions I found myself regularly ask to that sort of lad.

Why is virginity – particularly amongst women – such a coveted condition, not just in Muslim countries, but in all traditional settings? Is it the ultimate sign of youth? Purity? Innocence? Shouldn’t experience be its own reward, too?

A sexual devolution
This Arab ‘sexual devolution’ raises the interesting question of why it is that the secular societies of the Middle East which had about the same level of sexual freedom as the west in the 1950s and 1960s have regressed in subsequent decades. Part of the issue is economic. The western sexual revolution was a by-product of wealth and the increased financial independence of young people.

In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, most young people do not enjoy the same level of financial independence and often rely on their families for some support – which has made a distinctive youth culture less forthcoming. I’ve always believed that a crucial factor in my quest for personal emancipation was financial self-reliance – something I strove to achieve at an early age. If no one ‘owns’ you, no one can dictate your life.

After money, comes family. The majority of Arab youth – particularly women – are exceedingly reluctant to rebel against their families and the extended support network it provides. Many is the friend I’ve had who has kept certain fundamental aspects of their lives concealed from their loved ones or, worse, abandoned their dearest dreams to keep in line with their parents’ expectations.

At a more collective level is the issue of conflict and trauma. In Europe and the west, the value systems of the old world were buried under the rubble of Two World Wars. The ‘baby boomers’ of the post-WWII years grew up with an instinctive rejection of the staid values of their forebears – and they had the economic wealth to act on this and create a counterculture.

In 1967, while the West was mellowing out in its summer of love, the Arab world came face to face with the trauma of conclusive and humiliating military defeat. Although secularists continued to call the shots for the next few years, the trouncing had turned the tide and more and more people began to believe the Islamist claim that it was our moral transgressions which were behind our weakness.

In addition, Anwar al-Sadat, in a cynical attempt to sideline his political opponents started portraying himself as the ‘pious president’ and openly embraced the Islamists. This was a move he lived to regret, but the genie was out of the bottle and his attempts to force it back in through repression only backfired. Add to that, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s earlier systematic persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and the hundreds of thousands of expatriate Egyptians exposed to ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam in the Gulf.

With discredited secularists who never recovered from 1967 and highly motivated and hardened religious conservatives determined to set the tone, society has drifted towards increasing conservatism over the last three decades.

All through this time, a sizeable minority counting in the millions have maintained and upheld liberal values. However, faced with the ire and unwavering conviction of the religious fanatics, many have been intimidated and go about their liberal lifestyles increasingly discretely.

But in Egypt and across the region there are growing signs that the young are restive. Islam has always been open to the recreational aspects of sex and a quiet, Islamic sexual revolution is occurring. Egypt has been hit by a tidal wave of urfi or informal marriages, often entered into between boyfriends and girlfriends to give their sexual relationships a sheen of legitimacy. There has also been the gradual emergence or re-emergence of temporary marriages. The Shia’a have mut’a, a time-limited marriage contract, and zawaj al-misyar (‘marriage in transit’) is emerging in some Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia.

Of course, many of these mechanisms are an attempt to give outward social legitimacy to something people still, ultimately, regard as ‘wrong’. The next step is for society to drop the hypocritical devices and be honest about its sexuality.

©Khaled Diab.

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