Sexuality in the Arab World: A Horror Story

from the graphic novel Habibi by Craig Thompson

In the Arab World (particular the Gulf region where I live), an open discussion on Sexuality is perhaps one of the most controversial things that could happen. Sex education is largely unheard of, non-marital sex is shunned upon, public affection is banned, and Homosexuality is illegal.

The same can be said about the discussion of social issues within the Arab World, particularly when the target is Social Conservatism. In which case, “Controversial” would be a massive understatement. Doing so in the Arabic Language would typically lead to a couple of death threats from Muslim Hardliners in the region, a risk not worth taking when some do fulfill their promise when least expected. Doing so in English would mostly go into deaf ears — until it is used by the Far-Right Wing as rhetoric to justify exclusion and dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims.

My message to both the Right and the Left: Problems do exist within Arab World and ignoring them is both useless and potentially harmful. On the other hand, Liberal movements are growing within the Arab World and to ignore this in favor of extremist voices is also useless and potentially harmful. In both cases, it depersonalizes Arabs from their human reality. We have problems, just like you do. We have progressives, just like you do.

The relationship between Arab communities and sexuality, as discreet and quiet as it is, largely dictates the entire life of the average Arab citizen. While Westerners worry about one kind of Sexual obsession; where many women feel that their sexuality is commodified into a score-board game that fills another man’s ego — sometimes, over their personal feelings or consent. While young western men experience intense peer pressure to participate in sexual conduct in order to prove their masculinity to themselves and to other men, while corporate media targets the young with the message that women should be swooning over them just like they do in certain body spray ads, movies, and music videos. In either case; women get the bottom end of the stick. Same case in the Arab World. Though the obsession is a tad bit different. It’s just as Stephen Fry says about the Catholic Church:

“It’s the strangest thing about this church — it is obsessed with sex, absolutely obsessed. Now, they will say we, with our permissive society and rude jokes, are obsessed. No. We have a healthy attitude. We like it, it’s fun, it’s jolly; because it’s a primary impulse it can be dangerous and dark and difficult.

It’s a bit like food in that respect, only even more exciting. The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese, and that in erotic terms is the Catholic Church in a nutshell.

The same applies to the average, traditional Arab Male. In this case, “Anorexia” is the obsession with the female virginity, chastity and purity. These obsessions become the building blocks to the male’s relationship with his sisters, his choice of a wife and his relationship with his daughters. A woman’s identity, worth, and dignity are now a couple of inches deep, which in return reflect his own identity, dignity and worth. Therefore, the outcome is that women in his intimate circle may be subjected to obsessive suspicion and control — over their dress, life-decisions, attitude and freedom, all in order to retain his pride.

The other side of the coin is the “Obesity”. In this case, it is the obsession with, desperation for, and manipulation of a woman’s sexuality. The Arab male may manipulate a female into having sexual conduct with the promise of marriage, only to forsake her on the premise that she evidently lacks self-respect and shame. Thus, she is no longer trust-worthy. No fear is bigger to this man than other men like himself treating the women in his circle as he did to other women. Therefore, the most manipulative often become the strictest and most obsessive of men.

In most cases, the average Arab male would not be manipulative at all. At best; he would be patient for a marriage that is mostly sex-driven. At worst, he may be hypocritical of his own conduct of control right across the border. In Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco, and South East Asia in search for paid sex services. An extremely common practice among Arab men, while it’s an unimaginable sin if it were to be any of his women. Meanwhile at home, the man’s conduct for female chastity and control quietly awaits him.

Many Arab women — mothers, sisters, and grandmothers are the ground troops that directly empower this system. Through relentless behavior control and stigmatization of the females they have power over. Revolt is difficult when it’s what a person was brought up with their entire lives, and it is where change is needed most.

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