Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Consenting to a kiss

Sexual problems are legion in contemporary Egypt, sometimes ruining marital relationships, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

“When you see a person, do you just concentrate on their looks? It’s just a first impression. Then there’s someone who doesn’t catch your eye immediately, but you talk to them and they become the most beautiful thing in the world.” – Brad Pitt

“Sex is a taboo subject in Egypt. Mothers do not discuss sexual matters with their daughters, nor do fathers talk with their sons. On the day of the dukhla [literally “entry” in Arabic], the day when newlyweds consummate their marriage, it is all reduced to a question of trial and error,” Madiha Al-Safti, a lecturer in sociology at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Youngsters get whatever little they know by discussions with their friends, classmates or, these days, via the Internet.”

The almost ubiquitous assumption that a bride is supposed to be a virgin is still pervasive in contemporary Egypt.

“It all boils down to the stifling traditions of yesteryear and a reluctance to introduce sex education,” Al-Safti says. The venerable tradition that the bride be a virgin was adjudged to survive to eternity. A virgin may consent to kiss, but no further venturesome behaviour is permitted before marriage. In more ways than one, Egypt is still very Victorian.

“Ernestina wanted a husband, wanted Charles to be that husband, wanted children; but the payment she vaguely divined she would have to make for them seemed excessive,” wrote John Fowles in his 1969 bestseller, the Victorian-era romance The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

A character in Fowles celebrated novel, Ernestina, is used as a metaphor representing a sexually repressed, and sexually ignorant, Victorian woman. There are many Egyptian Ernestinas.

When I first read Fowles’s novel years ago, Egypt came to mind. “Young men, often the sons of the affluent elite, engage in pre-marital sex by sleeping with prostitutes. However, like Ernestina, their wives invariably have never had sex and do not know what exactly is expected of them. Virgins are not on the verge of extinction. They are ‘good girls’ in the traditional sense, and hence cannot please a man the way a prostitute does,” Al-Safti says.

“The husbands often expect their brides to know how to please a man. And some men do not know how to arouse a woman. They only think about themselves in a selfish fashion, not taking the bride’s desires and fears into consideration. It is a very sensitive matter.

“Neither bride nor groom really knows how to cope with the challenging experience. Brides are often intimidated by the experience, but grooms too often have bouts of self-doubt,” she adds.

“Husbands must listen more attentively to the complaints of their wives, and especially when it comes to sex, a topic that in a conservative country like Egypt is a taboo subject,” says Heba Kotb, perhaps Egypt’s most controversial and sought-after sex therapist.

Kotb is host of the popular “The Big Talk”, a sexual advice show that is broadcast on the Egyptian satellite television channel Al-Mehwar. She is the first licenced sexologist in the country. Women’s sexual rights in Islam is a subject that often crops up on her talk shows, being the inspiration behind her understanding of human sexuality.

Kotb has no qualms about discussing prickly sexual subjects, and for this reason she has come under fire from several distinguished Muslim clerics, including Sheikh Youssef Al-Badri, a strong supporter of female genital mutilation (FGM), which he insists is needed to protect a woman’s chastity.

Women subjected to FGM sometimes lose interest in sex altogether and do not enjoy it, leading to marital problems. “Even though I have been married for a decade and have three children I have never experienced orgasm,” complains Mariam.

Kotb asserts that Islam in general and the Quran in particular are very tolerant of sex. A woman is entitled to enjoy sex in Islam, she says. Foreplay is recommended in many schools of Sunni Islam, but many men ignore such injunctions.

“She is my cousin, but I want to divorce her even though we have two children together. She is like a dead fish in bed,” Mahmoud, whose wife was subjected to FGM, lamented.

FGM is a practice prevalent in much of sub-Saharan Africa, Muslim and even non-Muslim.

FGM is traditionally restricted to removal of the clitoris. It occurs in 27 African countries, including Egypt, but is also common in Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan. It is shunned in the Arabian Peninsula, with the notable exception of Yemen.

The excision of the inner and outer labia and the sewing up of the vulva is the most severe type of FGM and is practiced in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The custom still survives to this day, even though FGM has been officially outlawed in Egypt.

The sexual connotations and innuendo surrounding the practice are hard to eradicate from the collective folk psyche. Some men do not trust women who have not been subjected to FGM. The mother-in-law or an elderly aunt traditionally “inspects” the bride.

In numerous recorded cases the bride is returned to her family home if she is found not to have undergone FGM. “It is an attempt to control female sexuality,” Al-Safti argues.

But it is not only women who may have sexual problems. In a recently aired television interview, Kotb described how young Egyptian men are increasingly resorting to the use of drugs to enhance their sexual performance, including Viagra.

Such drugs are supposed to treat erectile dysfunction, and this problem may be especially prevalent in rural areas in Egypt due to the prevalence of bilharzia, or schistosomiasis, a disease spread by water contaminated with parasites. Men suffering from such diseases may be incapable of accomplishing normal intercourse.

The bride often feels it is her fault, believing she is not attractive enough for her groom, even though the problem has nothing to do with her. Several contemporary Egyptian video clips hint at this difficult topic. Homosexuality may also be the cause of erectile dysfunction in men obliged by tradition to marry and not daring to openly declare their sexual preference.

Kotb describes homosexuality as a “disorder” and likens it to “alcoholism and drug addiction.” The sex guru claims that she has a cure for homosexuality and that some of her “patients” have been “cured” in four or five sessions. “Others take up to 20 sessions,” she says.

Sex education is not presently part of the school curriculum in Egypt, like in most other predominantly Muslim or Arab countries. “I am all for sex education. I have campaigned for its inclusion in the school curricula,” Al-Safti says.

When it was suggested a few years ago that it ought to be introduced, however, all hell was let loose. The argument was that sex education in the schools would encourage debauchery.

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