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
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’
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
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
ã2007 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website
is the copyright of Khaled Diab.