Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Mona Eltahawy: Let's be frank: The Arab world would benefit from talking openly about sex Stifling this conversation can have deadly consequences

New York — From Monday's Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Aug. 14, 2009 5:22PM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009 3:23AM EDT

Sex has ruffled many in the Arab world lately. About time.

Just this past week, Saudi Arabia shut down all local operations of a Lebanese TV station that broadcast an interview with a Saudi man who spoke frankly about sex.

When Mazen Abdul-Jawad, 32 and a divorced father of four, took Lebanon's LBC into his bedroom to boast that “everything happens in this room,” show his sex toys, explain that he lost his virginity at the age of 14 to a neighbour, and then host a sex chat with male friends, he was providing the sensational material that has made the show Bold Red Line notorious.

But this is ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, where the morality police can detain a man and a woman out in public unless the two can prove they're related. And yet there was Mr. Abdul-Jawad explaining how he hooks up with women by using the Bluetooth technology on his phone.

And so, it comes as no surprise that Mr. Abdul-Jawad has been vilified and has had to beg in media interviews for forgiveness from Saudi society for appearing on the show, which he claims manipulated and duped him. He could face a flogging sentence

However, Mr. Abdul-Jawad's “sex confessions” have only told the Arab world what it already knows: Deny it all you like and threaten to punish it, but unmarried men and women, as everywhere else, are having sex.

So who is talking about sex openly in the Arab world? Women.

Not surprising considering that it is women who suffer the most from double standards around sexuality in the region. Women must also face Islamists' attempts to silence the relatively relaxed attitudes toward married sex in the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed that stress sexual pleasure for both husbands and wives.

Wedad Lootah, marriage counsellor in the family guidance department of Dubai Courts in the United Arab Emirates, and Heba Kotb, an Egyptian sex therapist, are proponents of such a message.

Ms. Lootah, who covers her entire body including her face, is the author of Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples , published earlier this year. Ms. Kotb, who wears a head scarf, is the host of a popular sex show broadcast widely across the Arab world.

Both women have received threats and condemnations, but they can continue their work because their conservative style of dress and their message, firmly based in Islamic teachings, give them permission and legitimacy.

But what of those who are having sex outside marriage? Who lie outside the box of husband-and-wife sex promoted by Ms. Lootah and Ms. Kotb, and who want to have a more constructive conversations about sex than shows like Bold Red Line allow?

They go online, where for the past few years young Arabs especially have migrated to express themselves in unprecedented ways. More than half of Saudi bloggers are women and they know that what is banned in the “real world” can find a place in the virtual one.

Consider the Arabic-language novel Al Akheroon ( The Others ), written under the pen name Siba al-Harz – a semi-autobiographical novel in the voice of a Shia lesbian Saudi woman. Banned in Saudi Arabia (I bought my copy in Beirut) it is available as a PDF online. Also online, you can read blogs by anonymous lesbian and gay Arabs and find support groups offering help for a minority fighting both religious and social discrimination.

As Arab economies tumble along with the global recession, the age at which people can afford to marry is getting higher. Religion might teach chastity, but the reality is otherwise, and unless we talk about sex in the Arab world more, the pitiful sex education on offer in most countries will continue to fail young people, especially women who pay the highest price for silence.

The Arab world cannot afford to stifle the conversation about sex. Arabs are just as vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS and we owe it to ourselves to move sex talk beyond sensationalism and conservatism. Denial is deadly.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues.

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