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Battle of the Sexualities - Researchers Talk of a Schizophrenic Attitude to Sex

By Nick Pelham, BBC
June 27, 2000

Forty sexologists from the Arab world have met at Oxford University for what organisers say is the first pan-Arab conference on sex in the Middle East. The three-day conference heard that sexuality in the Middle East has less to do with the fantasies of a "Thousand and One Nights" and more to do with sex crimes. Funded by the US think-tank, the Ford Foundation, the conference was jointly hosted by St Anthony's College, Oxford and the American University in Beirut.

'Honour killings'

Researchers portrayed Arab societies as muzzled by religious traditionalists who condone male domination, child marriages, polygamy and honour killings - the practice where men kill female relatives for suspected sexual activity outside marriage. According to the UN agency for children, Unicef, Jordan faces an average of 23 "honour killings" a year. In 1999, says Unicef, more than two-thirds of all murders in Gaza Strip and West Bank were "honour killings". In Yemen as many as 400 "honour killings" took place in 1997. And in Egypt there were 52 reported "honour crimes" in 1997. But while participants were unanimous in treating sexuality as a problem, they also revealed a world where sexual practice falls far short of the religious ideal. Researchers claimed 50% of Lebanese women lost their virginity before marriage. In Morocco, Professor Abdessamd Dialimi said his surveys showed the figure was more than 70%. And homosexuality, it seemed, was largely a taboo only in name - especially in the sex-segregated Gulf. "In prison, same-sex sex is the norm," said one researcher from the Gulf. "Saudi Arabia is just a large prison." Repeatedly, speakers contrasted the religious-based laws of the Arab world with their citizens' sex lives.

Eroticism

Despite widespread promiscuity, sex before marriage in Morocco is illegal. Women who give birth out of wedlock can be condemned in court as prostitutes, fined and sentenced to six months in prison. Similarly, abortion in Lebanon is prohibited by law, but common in practice. So too is surgery to restore the hymen. According to participants, the cleavage between the licit ideal and the illicit norm lies at the core of Arab eroticism. In Lebanon, the law explicitly provides for extenuating circumstances for men who kill female relatives for losing their virginity before marriage. And yet according to a survey of Lebanese women carried out by Marie Therese Khair Badawi of Saint Joseph University in Beirut, single women have better sex lives than their married counterparts.

Few events have done more to expose the gap between the official and the unofficial attitudes to sex in the Middle East than Lebanon's Friday-night chat show, "Al Shater Yahki". For three years it topped the ratings with its live debates on anything from masturbation to incest. Homosexuals - albeit behind white face-masks - talked on air about their love lives. And wives rang in live to complain about the diminutive size of their husbands' penises.

Thriving gay scene

In fact, participants portrayed Middle Eastern society as far removed from the monochrome picture of religious orthodoxy. In Lebanon homosexuality is illegal. But Lebanon also plays host to a thriving gay scene - replete with clubs and an association to "out" alleged homosexuals in parliament. And in North Africa, the numbers of single women living by themselves is fast on the rise. Speakers at the Oxford conference cited exposure to the sexual mores of the West as the cause. They said it penetrated the Arab world in myriad forms: Lebanese war-exiles returning with European lifestyles; Palestinians partying in Israeli clubs, and Western-funded Aids programmes, where condoms are distributed free of charge. Researchers said free-to-air satellite TV channels - such as Venus - broadcasting hard-core porn 24-hours-a-day had become a prime vehicle of sex education for women and men alike. The result is a startling change in sex lives across the Middle East.

In the mid-60s, women in Tunisia spent an average of 18 years child-bearing. Today they spend six years.
And, as in the West, the spread of contraception is also giving women increasing control of their sex lives. Critics argue that Arab sexologists have a highly-politised agenda. They say that byy constantly citing the problems, the sexologists seek to apply Western concepts of sexuality, and liberate sex from religious authority. But some traditionalists are not yet ready to succumb. Citing the Islamic world's own traditions of erotica, Shi'a leaders in Lebanon are sanctioning the re-emergence of the traditional "muta", or pleasure marriage - as a form of legalised promiscuity.

The battle of the sexualities as well as the sexes looks likely to run and run.