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

By Amira El Ahl and

Sex is a taboo in conservative Islamic countries. Young, unmarried couples are forced to seek out secret erotic oases. Books and play that are devoted to the all too human topic of sex incur the wrath of conservative religious officials and are promptly banned.

Rabat, Morocco. Every evening Amal the octopus vendor looks on as sin returns to his beach. It arrives in the form of handholding couples who hide behind the tall, castle-like quay walls in the city's harbor district to steal a few clandestine kisses. Some perform balancing acts on slippery rocks and seaweed to secure a spot close to the Atlantic Ocean and cuddle in the dim evening light. The air tastes of salt and hashish. On some mornings, when Amal finds used condoms on the beach, he wishes that these depraved, shameless sinners -- who aren't even married, he says -- would roast in hell.

Cairo, Egypt. A hidden little dead-end street in Samalik, a posh residential neighborhood, with a view of the Nile. Those who live here can stand on their balconies at night and see things that no one is meant to see. The cars begin arriving well before sunset, some evenings bringing as many as a hundred amorous couples. Almost all the girls wear headscarves, but that doesn't prevent them from wearing skin-tight, long-sleeved tops. The boys are like boys everywhere, nonchalantly placing their arms around their girlfriends' shoulders and even more nonchalantly sliding their hands into their blouses.

The locals call this place "Shari al-Hubb," or "Street of Love." The gossips say that children have been conceived here and couples have been spotted engaging in oral sex.

Beirut, Lebanon. As techno music blares from the loudspeakers in the dim light, patrons shout their drink orders across the bar. Boys in tight jeans and unbuttoned, white shirts, their hair perfectly styled, jostle their way onto the dance floor. The men shake their hips, clap their hands and embrace -- but without touching all too obviously. After all, those who go too far could end up being thrown out of "Acid," Beirut's most popular gay disco. Officially, "Acid" is nothing more than a nightclub in an out-of-the-way industrial neighborhood.

As liberal as Lebanon is, flaunting one's homosexuality is verboten. Gays are tolerated, but only as long as they remain under the radar and conceal their activities from public scrutiny.

For many in the Arab world, discretion is the only option when it comes to experiencing lust and passion. There are secret spots everywhere, and they are often the only place to go for those forced to live with the contradictions of the modern Islamic world. In countries whose governments are increasingly touting strict morals and chastity, prohibitions have been unsuccessful at suppressing everyday sexuality. Religious censors are desperately trying to put a stop to what they view as declining morals in their countries, but there is little they can do to stop satellite TV, the Internet and text messaging.

A counterforce to Western excesses?

Do the stealthy violations of taboos and moral precepts foreshadow a sexual revolution in the Arab world? Or is the pressure being applied by the moralists creating a new prudishness, a counterforce to the perceived excesses of the West?

For now, everything seems possible, including the idea that a man can end up spending a night in jail for being caught with a condom in his shirt pocket. Ali al-Gundi, an Egyptian journalist, was driving his girlfriend home when he was stopped at a police checkpoint. He didn't have his driver's license with him, but it was 4 a.m. and he was in the company of an attractive woman. For the police, this was reason enough to handcuff Gundi and his girlfriend and take them to the police station. "On the way there, they threatened to beat us," says the 30-year-old. At the station, they took away his mobile phone and wallet and found an unused condom in his shirt pocket.

"They were already convinced that my girlfriend was a whore," says Gundi. The couple ended up behind bars, even after telling the police that they planned to get married in a few months. Only after the woman notified her father the next day were the two released from jail. For Gundi, one thing is certain: "If the officer who stopped us hadn't been so sexually frustrated, he would have let us go."

The sexual frustration of many young Arabs has countless causes, most of them economic. Jobs are scarce and low-paying, and most young men are unable to afford and furnish their own apartments -- a prerequisite to being able to marry in most Arab countries. At the same time, premarital sex is an absolute taboo in Islam. As a result, cities across the Arab world -- Algiers, Alexandria, Sana'a and Damascus -- are filled with "boy-men" between 18 and 35 who are forced to live with their parents for the foreseeable future.

There is one exception, and it's even sanctioned by the Islamic faith: the "temporary marriage" or "pleasure marriage" -- not a bond for life but one designed for intimate sins. Such agreements, presided over by imams, are not regulated by the state. They can be concluded for only a few hours or they can be open-ended. But particularly romantic they are not.

Separating the sexes

Another frustrating development for young Islamic men is the growing separation of the sexes. More and more women are wearing modest clothing. Some choose to wear headscarves or cover their entire bodies, and some even wear black gloves to cover the last remaining bit of exposed skin on their bodies.

A porn site on the Internet: 56 percent of young men in the Mahgreb region admit to watching porn on a regular basis.

A porn site on the Internet: 56 percent of young men in the Mahgreb region admit to watching porn on a regular basis.

Nowadays a woman walking along a Cairo street without a veil stands a good chance of being stared at as if she were from another planet. Journalist Gundi is convinced that "oppression brings out perversion in people." The men want their women to be covered and veiled because they are afraid of women -- "afraid of the feelings women provoke."

Most Egyptian women now wear a headscarf, but for varying reasons. Ula Shahba, 27, sees the trend toward covering one's head as an expression of a new female self-confidence, not as a symbol of oppression. For the past two years, Shahba has worn the headscarf voluntarily -- out of conviction, as she emphasizes, insisting that no one forces her to do so. But, she adds, the decision wasn't easy. "I love my hair," she says, "but it shouldn't be visible to everyone." Shahba doesn't believe that the headscarf is a sign of religious devoutness. "It's more of a trend," she says.

A Moroccan study published in early 2006 in L'Economiste, a Moroccan business publication, shows how paradoxical young Arabs' attitudes toward religion and sexuality can be. According to the study, young Muslims in the Maghreb region are increasingly ignoring the clearly defined rules of their religion. Premarital sex is not unusual, and 56 percent of young men admit to watching porn on a regular basis. But the respondents also said that it was just as important to them to pray, observe the one-month Ramadan fast and marry a fellow Muslim. When seen in this light, young Muslims' approach to Islam seems as hedonistic as it is variable, almost arbitrary.

Betraying the message of Muhammad

Muslim novelist "Nedjma" ("Star"), the author of "The Almond," a successful erotic novel, describes Moroccan society as divided and bigoted. Despite progressive family and marriage laws, she says, the country is still controlled by patriarchal traditions in which men continue to sleep around and treat women as subordinates. It is a society in which prudishness and sexual obsession, ignorance and desire, "sperm and prayer" coexist. "The more repressive a society is, the more desperately it seeks an outlet," says Nedjma, who conceals her real name because she has already been vilified on the Internet as a "whore" and an "insult to Islam."

Men like Samir, 36, a bald waiter who wears a formal, black and white uniform to work, could be straight out of Nedjma's novel. Samir grins at the prospect of catching a glimpse of unveiled girls in his café in Rabat. But in the same breath, he admits that he would never spend a significant amount of time in the same room with a woman he doesn't know. "No man and no woman can be together without being accompanied by the devil," he believes, adding that he is quoting the Prophet Muhammad.

But most sources paint a completely different picture of the religious leader, describing him as a hedonist and womanizer who loved and worshipped women. Indeed, he married 12 women, including a businesswoman 15 years his senior, to whom he remained faithful until her death. Author Nedjma says that Muslim men today are "betraying the message of Muhammad," whom she describes as a delicate, gallant man. She doubts that the prophet was afraid of female sexuality, as many of the men in her social circle are today.

Even conservative theologians emphasize the compatibility of pleasure and faith -- but only after marriage. They can even evoke the Prophet Mohammed, who said: "In this world, I loved women, pleasant scents and prayer."

This presents an odd contradiction to the puritanical present, which represents a fundamental departure from Islam's more open-minded past and has instead made way for a humorless and rigorous Islamism.

Journalist Ali al-Gundi believes that Muslim men have a troubled relationship with their own sexuality. "Most men only want to marry a virgin," he says. "What for? Isn't it much nicer to be with a partner who has experience?" Gundi talks about his girlfriends who have done everything but actually have sex, so as not to damage their hymens. That would mean social death.

Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Khalid devoted his first short film, "The Fifth Pound," to the topic of taboo. The film tells the story of a young couple who use a bus ride to be together and exchange more than just a few innocent, tender words. Every Friday morning, when everyone else is at the mosque for prayers, they meet on the third-to-the-last bench on the bus, a spot where none of the other passengers can see what they are doing. As they sit there, shoulder-to-shoulder, staring straight ahead, they stroke each other's bodies. Their only fear is that the bus driver will see what they are doing through the rear view mirror. He watches the couple, fully aware of what they are doing, all the while indulging in his own fantasies.

In his imagination, the driver sits down next to the girl, carefully removes her headscarf and unbuttons her blouse. She closes her eyes and presses her fingers into the armrest. The headscarf slowly slides off the seat. Both reach climax, the girl in the bus driver's fantasy and the boy through his girlfriend's hand. In the end, the couple pays the driver four pounds for the tickets and a fifth for his silence.

Of course, Khalid was unable to find a distributor for his scandalous, 14-minute short film, and even Cairo's liberal cultural centers refused to run "The Fifth Pound" without it being censored first. Even though, or perhaps precisely because the film does not depict any actual sexual activity, it excites the viewer's fantasy -- an especially odious offense in the eyes of religious censors.

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