'Women in the Arab world are not powerless,’ says author Shereen el Feki.
The Arab Spring has taken the literary world by storm. Authors from the Arab world and some neighbouring countries like Iran and Turkey are beginning to express the angst of the hitherto-secluded zones. For long a world men decided and women abided, it is all beginning to change. Ever so slowly though, as authors and poets like Fariba Hachtroudi, Shereen el Feki and Bejan Matur cover the desert landscape with their words, new windows are opening up to the world, doors are left a little ajar. From them emanate little whispers are heard about female gender mutilation in Egypt, temporary marriages in Iran, “pre-decided” divorce, “charlatan mullahs” and, finally, little rays of hope. The LGBT movement, which has covered significant ground in many countries, is not completely absent; its founding principles are turned on the head by practitioners of alternate sexuality in the Arab world who have carved out their own model of freedom.
The most startling revelations come from Shereen el Feki, whose Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World found many takers at the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival. Shereen, who learnt Arabic spent five years researching in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen for her book. “Modern Arab women are not a satisfied lot. ‘Sexual rights’ is a modern term because there has been a regulation of women’s sexual life there. Culturally speaking, there are double standards in the Arab world. In Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, the average age of marriage for women is late 20s now. But they are prohibited from any premarital physical relations. Men often have sex before marriage but there are no issues with that. But a girl is expected to be a virgin on her wedding. Also, increasingly, career women are struggling to find a suitable partner, as there are more women than men in the universities.” Men, as far as the thought process goes, are caught in the prehistoric age; women are more liberal. They have moved ahead. So, it is very difficult to establish a marital bond.”
In smaller towns and villages with limited exposure to the world of news and Internet, women cannot even talk about their sexuality. “Men can talk, women cannot. Women know nothing about abortion, HIV, STDs, etc. This is in contrast to what Prophet Mohammed preached. He talked of foreplay and a woman’s satisfaction. There is no denial of sex in Islam; family planning is permissible. But, in the Arab world, family planning is considered a woman’s responsibility. Condoms are a strict no-no because it implies that you must be sleeping outside marriage.”
But change is happening and from unexpected quarters. Islam insists on the partners having a bath after relations between husband and wife. “Some women in Morocco and Egypt often use a condom because they don’t want to do ablution later. They feel this way there is no direct contact with their partner.”
Are women in the Arab world as powerless as they are often projected to be? Contrary to the common perception, Shereen, born to an Egyptian father and a Welsh mother, states, “Women in the Arab world are not powerless. They are the decision-makers in the family. They wear the abaya in public but, at home, they call the shots. The scriptures give them power, the men don’t. In Egypt, mothers get their daughters circumcised. Mothers get their daughters circumcised because they feel this will help them have a happier life when they grow up. Fathers are not consulted. It is a women’s world.” Almost 80 per cent Egyptian girls are circumcised. Interestingly, she feels, “Being a man there comes both as a privilege as well as pressure. They have to provide for the family, pay mehr (dower) at the time of marriage and provide protection to their spouses and children.”
Also defying the global trend, there is no LGBT movement in the region. “Same-sex relations are acknowledged. They are haram in Islam but they happen. Some homosexual people get married, as there is always social pressure. But most of them are comfortable with their life. They are not looking for gay rights or any marches. They are very clear where they are headed. They want the right to stay in, not come out. It is a different model of freedom. Islam is about the importance of privacy. There is a debate around the subject in the academic and religious circles. Women, on the other hand, don’t understand the idea of lesbian relations. They don’t go to cafés. They usually don’t own personal computers. So, women who do have such inclinations adopt a simple, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”
Islam prohibits any free mixing of genders and abhors sex outside marriage. How is it at the ground level? “They have this unofficial marriage, mut’ah. It is a short-term pleasure marriage; just for sex. It is practised by some Shias in Iran. Through this way, men and women have a religious covering for fulfilment of their desire. In Arabia, there is the misyar marriage where parents are usually not aware and always not involved. The marriage is just a piece of paper with no obligations. It ends when you tear the piece of the paper. No attendant duties or obligations on either party. The girl probably does not do Iddah after such a marriage is dissolved.” (Iddah is the compulsory period of wait after a divorce or death of the husband after which the woman is free to marry again.)
But the short-term marriage or pre-decided divorce has little or no social sanction. “There have been cases where the woman became pregnant in mut’ah but the men refused to look after the baby. Then the courts come into play. Also, after dissolution of such a marriage, many women find themselves in a spot. When they get married in the socially- or religiously-approved manner, they are expected to be untouched. Having an intact hymen is a big thing. Many women get themselves operated upon so that their husbands think they have had no physical contact earlier.”
Haven’t such practises existed for centuries? “I have studied the sexual lives of Arab women, who are largely Muslims, very closely. We have an inter-connected history with India. For long, Arabs have written on erotica and quoted the Kama Sutra as an encyclopaedia of pleasure. There was always an appreciation of sexual pleasure, women’s desire etc. Things changed down the ages. Today, it is a largely closed society. But, in that closed group, women know how to assert themselves. The changes will be felt in a generation or two,” concludes Shereen.