Written by Farida Farouk
Sex has been a “hot” subject of discussion in the Arab world lately. Well it’s about time! One must not forget how crucial sex is in our lives. In the first place, without sex, none of us would be in this world. Darwinian evolution would have stopped ages ago! In the Arab world today, young people’s lives are very different from previous generations. In the past, the transition from childhood to adulthood occurred abruptly through early marriage and early childbearing. In more recent days, both young men and women spend more years in school and marry later.
Young people may have sexual relations before marriage, putting them at risk for unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Without accurate information on reproductive health, young people who become sexually active, regardless of their marital status, are at risk of having unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions, and acquiring sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.
Just about a year ago, Saudi Arabia closed all local operations of a Lebanese TV station that showed an interview with a Saudi man who spoke openly about sex. Mazen Abdul-Jawad, 32 and a divorced father of four, took Lebanon’s LBC into his bedroom, showed his sex toys and shared how he had lost his virginity at the age of 14 to a neighbor. However, this is ultra conservative Saudi Arabia, where the morality police can detain a man and a woman who are found out in public together unless the two can prove they’re related. More so, Mr Abdul-Jawad’s “sex confessions” are only a series of details that the Arab world already knows: “deny it all you like and threaten to punish it, but unmarried men and women as everywhere else in the world are having sex.”
So who is talking about sex openly in the Arab world? Women! And the reasoning behind this is that it is women who suffer the most from double standards around sexuality in the region.
As Arab economies weaken along with the global recession, the age at which people can afford to marry is getting higher. Religion might teach chastity, but reality is different, and unless we talk more about sex in the Arab world, 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 not to talk about sex openly and should provide mandatory sex education in schools. The need for sex education in the region is necessary primarily for health purposes. Arabs are just as exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS and we owe it to ourselves to move sex talk beyond sensationalism and conservatism. Denial is deadly. Sex education is most effective through programs that focus on protecting young people’s health through education, skill building, health services, and supportive social networks.
We live in a hypocritical culture which stresses that sex is important yet forbids any discussions related to sex except for dirty jokes that only bring about misconceptions. Let us be honest: most parents either do not have the knowledge or, think that it is religiously wrong to discuss such issues with their children. It is actually disastrous; basic sex education could very well cut the rates of abuse and rape as well as sexual harassment.
When sex education at home and at school is introduced, people would not have as much of a problem reporting such incidents when they happened. They would not have such shame regarding their bodies. Though Arab culture stresses sensuality, and though Islam discusses the details of sexual practices openly, sex is still very much a taboo in Arab society. Some Islamists have their own oppressive agendas; they claim that sex is for reproduction, not pleasure.
There are many issues that are rarely talked about in the Arab world, including homosexuality. Yet in Arab history, we know of people such as Abu Nawwas who was known to be a homosexual was not stoned for his homosexuality. Several blogs and message boards discuss homosexuality and gay rights within the Arab and Muslim world. The internet is providing these groups with a prominent and necessary voice, as they seem to be irrelevant in the region.
Indeed, homosexuals do exist in the Arab world. The Internet has made it possible for them to declare their existence. Some Arab homosexuals have created websites to express themselves, their ideas and their burdens, and to increase society’s knowledge about them. Of course, in places like Saudi Arabia, being open about one’s homosexuality doesn’t go by without punishment. Just a few weeks ago, an unidentified 27 year old Saudi gay man posted a video on the internet and was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, a year in jail, and a fine of $1,330. The man who filmed the clip was also arrested, but his punishment has not been revealed.
The conversation about Muslim women too often revolves around what’s on their heads and what’s between their legs. When in fact there are issues that are by far more important such as protecting women from clerics who say Islam gives a husband the right to beat his wife and fighting forced marriages. In other words, it is actually getting Islam back from the men who use it against women.
In Saudi Arabia girls and women have no choice but to cover up or suffer the cruelty of the morality police who in 2002 barred girls from fleeing their burning school building because they weren’t wearing the hijab. Fifteen girls burned to death.
Education is surely the most basic right for girls and women everywhere, but again in some countries, it’s complicated. For instance, in Saudi Arabia which is recognized as one of the worst violators of women’s’ rights; women outnumber men on university campuses and yet are treated like minors who need a male guardian’s permission to do the most basic things.
On March 18, 2005, Amina Wadud, an American scholar of Islam, became the first woman on record to lead a public, mixed-gender Friday prayer. A prayer where men and women performed together, side by side, not behind the men, and not in another room, with a woman leading the prayer. Another Muslim woman scholar comes from Malaysia, Zainah Anwar who educates women about their God given rights in Islam as a way to empower them to stand up to judges, husbands and any other men who try to use Islam against them.
When European women were mere chattel, Muslim women gained the right to inherit and own property. But now the descendants of those women who envied Muslim women in the 7th century have moved far ahead. Where is that spirit of the early days of Islam?
I know the Qur’an preaches chastity for men and women, but the conservative obsession with women means only females are expected to abide by the prohibition on extramarital sex. This obsession with virginity is shallow at best and deadly at worst.
One topic that has been a huge taboo is masturbation. We know that all living creatures that reproduce do indeed masturbate. It is a fast, simple and safe way of sexual satisfaction that has been practiced ever since God created all living things. Any doctor or sex therapist would tell us that masturbation is in fact a harmless practice that would even benefit us when we are under stress!
How about females and masturbation? A study was conducted by Shere Hite on this matter. The research concluded that a majority of females who were interviewed in a study reported that they practice masturbation on a regular basis. This leads to the fact that those women who say that they have never masturbated are most likely lying. Knowing that women can orgasm whenever they want shows beyond a doubt that women know how to enjoy their bodies. Thus, it is not the female sexuality that has a problem but the culture itself that has a problem in its understanding of sex and the subordinate role that is given to women.
Being upfront about our sexuality by telling how we masturbate is a step toward bringing our sexuality out into the world and toward redefining sex and physical relations. Providing such information by a professional on sexuality only indicates the scientific findings about masturbation, which applies to both men and women sexuality.
Sexual satisfaction is the largest drive of all living things. I would say it is as important as food, where individuals actually go to great measures to satisfy their sexual appetite. I will pose a statement that will have many people up in arms, in the Quran; there is no mention of the word “masturbation”. I therefore, claim that masturbation is not haram (prohibited). However, many Muslim scholars use verse 23:5-7 to include masturbation amongst other behaviors that are considered to be sexual sins. This claim is not valid!