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Why sexuality is an illness in the Arab world

Why is female sexuality called a sickness in the Arab world?

Lebanese poet and activist Joumana Haddad on cowardice and double standards

Taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused:

There are countless names for the penis and the vagina in the Arabic language. You’d think our only problem is to decide which one to use. Well, think again. Our problem is that we don’t use any of them. So much so that the majority of these words have become obsolete.

Despite this, statistics tell us that Arab countries are the most popular area for sex searches online. So when no one is watching, virtuous Arab men are surfing western porn sites and masturbating their frustrations away. People have been told so frequently that Arabic is a holy language that they have come to think that Allah only speaks Arabic. No surprise there: we are a culture of duplicity. We constantly think about sex but dare not talk about it, under the mischievous spell of religious extremism and obscurantist/repressive political regimes that force us to fight for what should be our simple rights as human beings. 
We live in a Bermuda triangle of sex, religion and politics. Our fake prudishness has reached such levels that you’d think that most Arabs are ethereal and unearthly beings that, somehow, are born and grow up without sexual organs, needs, impulses or fantasies.

We are also a culture of cowardice and double standards. For in our dear old Arab world, notions of virtue and abstinence are considered synonyms when it comes to women, as are those of freedom and depravity. It is the Casanova-vs-the-whore syndrome. Many women are still expected to be virgins until they get married; the notion of honour is tied up with what’s between a woman’s legs, and women’s bodies are considered manly acquisitions. 
A “liberated” adult woman is often seen as a slut, not a person who rightfully decides what to do with her own body, whether that means sleeping with one guy, or five, or none. 

Many readers told me when I first published my magazine, Jasad: “You would have shocked people much less if it weren’t in Arabic.” And when some people do use Arabic to discuss sexuality, many of them exploit an endless list of convoluted metaphors. Why handle the risk of saying “clitoris” when you can use your imagination to describe it as the “flower of paradise” or the “lip of heaven”, or – if you are really talented – “the volcano’s doorknob”? In a culture with such a rich erotic tradition, we have come to a tragicomic point of alienation between what we live and experience and what we say and express.


We are a culture of ostriches, determined to stick our heads in the sand. Brainwashing, manipulation and stupidity are devastating women’s lives and bodies from Beirut to Cairo, from Amman to Kuwait City, with the Arab feminine ideal that a woman must be synonymous with virtue (and that virtue strictly means chastity and abstinence). Such hypocrisy does not only lead to dissatisfaction. It also convinces women that their bodies are gifts or things, and that these bodies’ only use is to give a man (the husband) pleasure, not to satisfy themselves at the same time.

“Sick”: this is how most insecure Arab machos describe women who claim their right to a fulfilling sexuality, unable to wrap their minds around the terrorising idea of a vagina as demanding as their penises. A vagina that doesn’t just open itself but seeks, asks, takes and consumes.

Let it be: sick we are then. But until men accept and respect the fact that a woman owns her body, no real revolution will happen in the Arab world.

And a message to all the horrified Arab prudes out there: just hold on a minute before you start offering cures and pointing the way toward the spiritual enlightenment that could save us from this “sickness”. Who told you we want to be healed anyway?

Joumana Haddad is an award-winning Lebanese poet, journalist and women’s rights activist. Her most recent books in English are Superman Is an Arab  (Westbourne Press, 2012) and I Killed Scheherazade (Saqi Books, 2010)