Love, Lust and Passion: Sex and Taboos in the Islamic World

By Amira El Ahl and

Part 2: An 'Islamic Vagina Monologues'

The Internet is a refuge for hidden desires, even though it offers only virtual relief. Google Trends, a new service offered by the search engine, provides a way to demonstrate how difficult it is to banish forbidden yearnings from the heads of Muslims. By entering the term "sex" into Google Trends, one obtains a ranked list of cities, countries and languages in which the term was entered most frequently. According to Google Trends, the Pakistanis search for "sex" most often, followed by the Egyptians. Iran and Morocco are in fourth and fifth, Indonesia is in seventh and Saudi Arabia in eighth place. The top city for "sex" searches is Cairo. When the terms "boy sex" or "man boy sex" are entered (many Internet filters catch the word "gay"), Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the first four countries listed.

Homosexuality is more than just a taboo in the Islamic world. In fact it is considered a crime, punishable by imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an imam who lives in Qatar and has a television show on Arab network Al Jazeera, considers homosexuality as an especially decadent monster created by the West. It is against the "divine order," says the religious scholar, citing verses in the Koran that describe homosexuality as a common practice in pre-Islamic Arabia.

Homosexuals are referred to in Arabic as "Luti," or people from the city of the Lut, which is mentioned in the Koran and the Bible and is described as having been destroyed by God's wrath. The sources seem to clearly support this notion.

As a result, very few gay Muslims even attempt to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. Most, says George Assi, a spokesman of Helem, the only gay and lesbian organization in the Arab world, are in despair over the fact that they cannot be as virtuous as their religion prescribes.

Helem, a Lebanese organization that is neither completely legal nor prohibited, has its office in an Islamic business district in Beirut, a city that offers greater political and sexual freedom than any other place in the Arab world. But even here the organization faces protests and threatening phone calls, especially from the Gulf states. "Many talk about us as if we were sick people who must either be healed or abandoned," says Assi.

"Shocking, sad" stories

Unlike Lebanon, Egypt is a place where freedom of opinion is always in jeopardy. The country's once-blossoming worlds of art and literature are especially affected. This makes it all the more astonishing that a play could be produced on a Cairo stage that deals exclusively with sex. Even the play's title, "Bussy," is a provocation. It resembles the English word "pussy," but it is also a slang term Egyptian men use to tell a woman to "look here."

And this is precisely what the directors wanted: to attract attention -- to discrimination, lack of respect and mental immaturity. "We had no intention of being daring or of provoking anyone. We merely wanted to tell the truth," says director Naas Chan. The performance was created as an analogue to the famous New York play, "The Vagina Monologues." When the American production was performed at the American University in Cairo, it was met with disgust, indignation and -- enthusiastic applause. But because it had little to do with the problems of Egyptian women, a group of students decided to stage a sort of "Islamic Vagina Monologue" with amateur actors.

Ordinary women were asked to talk about love and sex. "Their stories were so shocking, so touching, sad and amusing that they needed no editing," says Chan. And that was how "Bussy" was created.

In one scene, a girl, her voice choking with tears, talks about the day her mother took her to the doctor, without telling her that he was going to circumcise her. "When I woke up I felt the pain. Something was missing … the flesh that they had stolen belonged to me!" Another woman describes her experience with an imam who, when she was 10, forced her into a closet and raped her. "When I told my mother about it, she said that I was making it up."

"I was surprised that almost all the stories we got were serious," says director Chan. The women talked about their experiences with abortions, rapes, female circumcision and plain, everyday discrimination. Each of the 50 stories submitted reflects a slice of Egyptian reality. Telling the stories required a great deal of courage, says Chan. The mere knowledge that one's own story will be performed in front of an audience represents a break with tradition. Sexual abuse, says Chan, is considered a family matter, and if it is disclosed to outsiders, the family feels dishonored and believes the woman has been deprived of her value.

Abir embodies yet another archetype in Arab-Islamic moral society. She is 32 years old, petite, dark-skinned and wears an expensive, long black wig. She lives alone in a small but tidy apartment. Images from the days of the Pharaohs hang on her walls next to large, white pencils -- souvenirs from a trip to Germany's Rügen Island. Abir sits on a white wooden couch with pink upholstery. She wears shorts and a pink T-shirt. A tattoo of the sun adorns her right upper arm and she has a nicotine patch stuck to her left arm.

Abir married for the first time when she was 23. Her mother was dead, her father bedridden and she had been making a meager living as a maid. The marriage was a nightmare. Her husband beat her, and on one occasion her mother-in-law cut off her long black hair and hung it on the wall -- as a warning. Abir obtained a divorce and took a job in a bar, where she met wealthy foreigners.

Abir spreads out a series of photos on her coffee table. They show two happy people, swimming in the ocean, sitting on a park bench, shopping in Germany. But when the man in the photograph, a German named Ingo, still didn't want to marry her after three years, Abir broke off the relationship -- on the phone.

"Why should I waste my life?" she asks.

She also has photos of her and Luis, an American, with whom she had a relationship for a year. Luis wanted to take her home to the United States. "A wonderful man, he spoiled me," she says. But then they had a falling out and Luis left without her. He married another woman and Abir was beside herself. By the time she had come to her senses, she had lost her job as a waitress and decided to do what she had done in the past. She sold her body.

"Egyptians pay 200 pounds (about €28), and Saudis pay 1,000 pounds or sometimes even more," says Abir. "Foreigners pay me $200. Condoms are required." She shows us the results of her most recent AIDS test, which was negative. Without the test she would not have been granted a German visa. Today she is afraid of being alone, says prostitute Abir. Almost all of her siblings are married.

"The police give you a hard time, sometimes for no reason at all. It's enough for them to see an unmarried woman sitting alone in a bar." Prison terms and beatings are the minimum. If a couple is caught in the act, the woman is the one who suffers.

Abir wants to get married as soon as possible. She says that she has just met another American. She wants to take him to the mosque. As a Muslim woman, she can only marry a Muslim man. And she says the American is going to convert soon and learn more about her religion.

When that happens, she says, the first thing she will do is get out of Egypt.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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