For many in the Arab world, Western values include homosexuality, sex before marriage, mixing of the sexes, women’s liberation and pornography. They’re believed to undermine Islam and traditional Arab values, observed Shereen El Feki. She spent two years interviewing Arabs about sex for her book Sex and the Citadel.[i] The irony, she adds, is that discussion of sexual pleasure and “so much of what they brand as dangerous foreign ideas were features of the Arab-Islamic world long before they were embraced by Western liberalism.”[ii] She notes the fear of Western ideas was coupled with a feeling of inferiority that followed Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the British occupation from 1882 to 1952. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s, Hassan al-Banna taught that part of the reason for loss of political power was Egyptian’s sexual immorality and that the solution was to follow Shaira law. (Surveys indicate about a third of Arab young men are sexually active before marriage, compared to about 20% of young women).[iii]
Most Egyptian young women now cover their hair, while their mothers and grandmothers didn’t and could wear short skirts without being harassed. In the 1960s and ‘70s sex was an accepted aspect of films until the rise of Islamic conservatism and official censorship. A return to Islamic fundamentalism was a form of protest against dictatorship, the most extreme form taught by the Salafi movement. Soon after Mubarak was dethroned, Salafi squads of morality police—similar to those in Saudi Arabia—correcting hand-holding couples, etc.
She found a general lack of sex education by either family or schools, leading to many complaints about sexual satisfaction, supported by larger surveys of Egyptians.[iv] Widespread female genital mutilation doesn’t help. A Population Council survey of more than 15,0000 young people under age 30 found that 82% of female respondents are circumcised, with a declining rate for younger girls, although most respondents (64%) think it’s a necessary custom.[v] It’s considered necessary to cool women’s sexual desire so she won’t want sex before marriage or be too demanding of her husband. Most young people don’t discuss puberty and sex with their parents.
El Feki suggests that authoritarian government requires the same kind of patriarchal family life where the father rules and sex before marriage is controlled and prohibited. Although the nation overthrew its father figure, “the nation’s young people may find that it’s more difficulty to move away from home than it was to get Mubarak out of office.” [vi] More than three-quarters of both young men and women believe that a woman must obey her husband’s orders and two-thirds agreed that wife battery is justified in some situations. When asked about what they were looking for in a spouse, number one was “polite,” meaning well brought up, followed by being religious. Education is also valued for both sexes. Expressions of love are not common between spouses, despite being sung about in popular songs and music videos.[vii] The main focus on the first year of marriage is producing a child. El Feki reports that media—women’s magazines, TV talk shows, newspapers and the Internet—frequently talk about “the trouble with marriage. It’s hard to see how democracy can flourish in a society if its constitutional and cultural cornerstone in the family is so undemocratic.”[viii]
[i] Shereen El Feki. Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Pantheon Books, 2013, p. 6.
[ii] Ibid., p. 294.
[iii] Ibid., p. 97.
[iv] Ibid, p. 50.