Let's talk about sex ... in the Arab world

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Let’s talk about sex in … the Arab world

Shereen El Feki thought it might be difficult to encourage women in the Arab world to speak openly about their sex lives. She was wrong.


People do not want to use condoms, so HIV infections are rising in the Arab world. (Paul Keller under a Creative Commons Licence)

Sex in the Arab world is the opposite of sport, a gynaecologist in Egypt told me. Everyone talks about football but not many people play it; but everyone is having sex but no-one wants to talk about it.

I spent five years travelling across the Arab region talking about sex, in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Lebanon. It was not a problem to get people to talk about sex, but it was a problem to get them to stop talking. People wanted to ask questions and to speak openly about their experiences. I think that was because I work in public health – I’m an immunologist –and also I’m half-Egyptian and a Muslim, but I look Western. Often women don’t speak openly because they’re afraid that other people will judge them and they thought, if I am from the West, I would not judge them.

The problem in the Arab region is the difference between what the appearance and the reality. People are doing the same as other people all over the world. But they don’t want to speak openly about it. 30 to 60 per cent of young men say they’ve had sex before marriage. But more than 80 per cent of young women say they haven’t had sex. So who are all these young men having sex with?

There are a lot of sex workers – it’s a big business in the Arab region. But also people don’t want to say they had sex before marriage because everyone expects women to be virgins on their wedding night. It’s very different for women and for men.

They say a woman is a virgin if she still has an intact hymen. So many young people have different kinds of sex: anal sex, oral sex or ‘superficial sex’. I met a woman in Morocco who went with a man once, and they had superficial sex. She went to a doctor and she had no idea she was pregnant. She kept saying to me, proudly: ‘I am still a virgin.’ But she was pregnant.

The problem is that this definition of virginity is superficial. It means young people can have very unhealthy behaviour. An NGO in Morocco was trying to stop HIV by giving condoms to young female sex workers. But they said, ‘We don’t need condoms. We are not going to get pregnant. We only have oral or anal sex because we want to get married.’ So, to stay virgins, they were in danger of getting HIV.

Many people think that there is no HIV in the Arab world, but it is one of only two regions where HIV is still increasing. If people don’t talk about sex, it is difficult to fight against this.

There is also gay sex in the Arab world. About two to three per cent of the population have gay sex. That’s about the world average. But they cannot tell their family or their community.

It’s a long road to democracy, with many problems on the way. But it is improving. In 2007, women did not speak about sexual harassment or rape. But in 2014, there are now women in Egypt who speak about their experiences.

Since the 1950s, the Arab region has been closed to a lot of politics, economic thought and cultural thought. Sex is one part of that. Islamic conservatives have taken over a lot of the arguments. People have become very conservative, not just Muslim but also Christian and Jewish conservatives. They mix sex up with religion and use it to control people. This makes everything ‘haram’ (forbidden) and ‘ayb’ (shameful).

We have a long history as Arabs of being very open about sex in the context of Islam. My biggest hope is that we can get back the spirit of our ancestors. Sex for them was not just a problem, but also a pleasure. And it was not just a pleasure for men, but also for women. If we can get back that idea, we might win the battle. That will help us with many other problems in the next generation.

Journalist, author and immunologist Shereen El Feki talked to Graeme Green.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/features/2014/03/01/middle-east-personal-politics/