Sex and the city
Sexuality is a complex topic, largely taboo in Egyptian society. Never mind that it is behind 59 per cent of divorces: few people are comfortable addressing it, especially in public. Kalam Kebeir (Serious Talk) -- presented by Heba Qotb, the first ever Arab sexologist and marriage counsellor -- took the nation by storm when it was launched a few weeks ago.
"This weekly programme," Qotb says, "is the first ever to discuss the issue of sexual education and culture in Egypt and the Arab world. It is not a talk show, but a scientific programme operating within the ethical and Sharia frameworks." It was shocking to some viewers, she concedes, but some of the viewers' phone calls were even more shocking. A diffident caller, pointing out that in Islam "the bedroom is as a grave" -- no information should come out of it -- took heart when Qotb told her that, in "righting a wrong" with good intentions, the programme was in fact heeding God's call. A 17-year-old called to ask whether, masturbating, she had lost her virginity. A third wanted help in dealing with the discovery that her nine-year-old son had been raped two years before...
In the latest episode of her show, Qotb pointed out that ignorance of matters sexual and misconceptions relating to them are statistically rife in Egypt, with some 68 per cent of the population suffering from them. "A person grows up to be a blank page," she says. "Any misleading information indelibly marks them. I aim to provide the right kind of database, to give people the basic skill to tell right from wrong in the ethical and religious realm. But it is less ignorance than misconception that worries me, because it is usually taken for granted. On marrying a man will often apply such misconceptions to his wife, and when they don't match her he blames it on her ignorance -- the very same ignorance that he initially saw as a blessing as it is a mark of correct morality."
But why is sex taboo? "Sex has always had bad connotations," according to Amal Abdel-Hadi, one of the founding members of the New Woman Research Centre, "because we live in such a hypocritical society which hails it as important while forbidding any discussion of it except in dirty jokes that promote misconceptions. Let's face it: most parents either do not have the knowledge or, believing that it is religiously wrong, do not share it. It's catastrophic: basic education could very well cut the rates of abuse and rape as well as harassments, because people would not have as much of a problem reporting such incidents when they happened. They would not have such shame regarding their bodies." Are tendencies changing among the young, though?
According to Nora Beheiri, 18, "around 50 per cent of my friends are sexually aware, the rest either have no clue or would come to me for answers. I had sex education classes in the States during high-school. I believe that it is quite essential and highly important to have this kind of awareness because knowledge is power, and it has nothing to do with being religious. I wear the veil but I know a lot about this topic." For her part Menna Hossam, 17, argues that, though most of her friends are sexually aware, such a TV programme can help break the taboo and rather than encouraging immoral behaviour, act to heighten awareness: "usually girls get their sex information from girlfriends, who will have got it from boyfriends who in turn get it from sex magazines and websites. I was very lucky because I was taught at high school. Ironically enough, it was a male teacher who discussed this topic in a very scientific way, unlike the lady school teacher who was too shy to discuss it."
A young man who prefers to be anonymous says sex education first comes from older peers on the school bus, while by the early teens a boy will have had access to books and porn, and older cousins are likely to start speaking with him. For my interlocutor, though he comes from a liberal background, he chose to rely on his peers; luckily they did not mislead him.
According to Riham Shebl, an independent researcher interested in female genital mutilation (FGM) and other forms of gendered violence, "there is sexual awareness among young Egyptians -- it may be false or inaccurate; sometimes it comes from suspect sources. But it exists." It is acquired, she says, through books and the Internet if not experience with foreigners. With the vast majority having only one language, they concentrate on pictures, missing such essential concepts as consent, pleasure, safety and responsibility. "Though Arab culture stresses sensuality, and though Islam discusses the details of sexual practices openly, sex is still frowned on in Arab society," Shebl goes on. "Some religious authorities have their own oppressive agendas -- they claim that sex is for reproduction, not pleasure. Yet in Arab history, Abu Nawwas was not stoned for his homosexuality nor was Imru' Al-Qays punished for describing nude bodies in his verses."
It is due to the rise of institutionalised religion -- and literalist readings -- that this is the case, Shebl believes -- crushing intellectual energy and limiting knowledge: "a decent girl in our society does not dress provocatively, and does not know much about sex. Suddenly before getting married, everybody is giving her sexual information and asking her to adopt exactly the model she's been avoiding all her life. An Arab man wants everything -- a mother (to him as well as his children), a housewife, an excellent sex partner combined with chastity and piety (hence sexual ignorance). When she learns to please him, she risks him discrediting her morally..."
FGM is a clear example of that: whether to ensure that a girl will feel no desire, hence avoiding the risk of a loss of virginity, or for fear of the genitals growing into a penis -- a surprisingly widespread grassroots belief -- it often has a negative effect on men as well as the victims, who find it more difficult to achieve sexual fulfilment. "Such ignorance leads to violence within marriages because both men and women are chained by middle-class conventions that limit sex to dogmatic practices," Shebl goes on. "Nowadays, lots of NGOs have sexual awareness programmes but they target very few, hardly touch the backdoor cult of biology teachers stapling the sex organs pages in text books and asking the students to read them at home."
Misconceptions extend to the notion of incompatibility -- according to Qotb, a common myth. "There is no such thing; rather there is a sexual print that varies according to personality, so everyone by default is different. Performance, rate, needs, frequency, duration, size -- all are elements of that print." Throughout her five years of practising as a sexologist, Qotb managed to broaden the social margin by giving sex education courses to adults, married couples and teens as well as professionals working in family health, psychologists and sociologists.
"I believe what is taught in schools is anatomy, it is not sexuality. I believe sex education in schools is a must. We are calling for a unified sex curriculum. It is like vaccine for your child -- the microbe itself, in the right amount to give immunity."