It’s almost inevitable that the more you get to know a country, especially by making friends there, that you start to come across the darker sides to life, usually hidden from the passing tourist. Our own countries are no exception, as humanity’s baser urges hold little respect for wealth, culture or religion, these factors just influence the style in which these urges express themselves and how they are responded to by society. Almost universally it is women that are on the front line of mankind expressing its baser urges, something that Egyptian woman are only too familiar with as I demonstrated in my earlier post Egyptian Sex and the City.
The Internet has provided Egyptian women the opportunity to express their frustrations, desires and dirty secrets publicly in a way that was impossible in the past and although this means that difficult subjects are starting to be addressed, it has also revealed horrors that previously were confined to hushed gossip, muted by the fear of shame in a social climate clouded in denial. So, although some discussion forums are open to all, others only accept women who have been recommended by another member, giving the option of posting anonymously, to provide a secure environment for women to exchange thoughts and opinions. Many women simply remain too shy to discuss sex in any form or see the subject as inappropriate for public consumption but those not so constrained can give us an insight into matters otherwise not so suitable for public consumption.
Outward appearances of Egyptian life can give a sense of modernity in many respects but underneath lies a stifling conservatism based on centuries old social values that have intertwined with male dominated religious interpretations and control, such that the two are inextricable and that’s just how a lot of Egyptian men want it. Many women actually see Islamic values as a defence against male cultural attitudes towards women but that is not to say that other, more traditionally minded women embrace much of the male dominated system. To a large extent the Coptic Christian community share a similar set of values and experience the same issues.
Any discussion on sex in Egypt is always going to be overshadowed by the subject of FGM. The ancient, cultural practice predates Islam, Christianity and Judaism but Egypt has the highest rate of FGM in the world (a 2014 survey found that 92% of women from the ages of 15 to 49 had been subject to FGM) even though it has been illegal since 2007. Although there has been a gradual decline in recent years, its prevalence means that most women receive a reduced or limited pleasure from sex. Women who have undergone FGM may have less inclination to contribute to online discussions about sex so it’s difficult to be sure about how representative contributors are at times but some at least offer advice on how to get more out of sex despite having been cut. Although the subject does have a higher profile now in Egypt, the resistance to any kind of discussion about sex and a complete lack of will to enforce the law condemn women to many more years of suffering.
Even a brief look at the questions women are asking reveals a desperate level of ignorance about sex, that would seem amusing back home but here is only a prelude to a far more sinister form of control over women’s lives. You might just laugh if an English teenage girl asked if she could get pregnant from a kiss, giving a blow job or having her boyfriend’s hard on rub against her thigh but in Egypt these kind of questions come from women as old as thirty. One such thirty year old who had yet to experience a kiss on the lips, and feared she would never know how it felt, asked a forum’s opinion on whether she should ask her western, male friend to show her what it was like, a request impossible to consider of an Egyptian man.
Even in the West there is a reticence among some religious people and social conservatives to limit sex education but it’s more of a question as to what age rather than if at all. Although both cultures share a belief that sex education would promote sexual activity, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are deeper motives in controlling women’s access to it in Egypt. It stems from both cultural and religious notions of purity, which were originally meant to apply to both men and women, something largely ignored by much of the male population. The woman is presented as an exemplar of purity, never to be tarnished by the supposedly crude notions as sex simply for pleasure.
This, in fact goes against the bulk of Islamic teachings, which, although insisting on marriage before any naughty stuff, generally promotes a healthy sex life for couples in a form that provides pleasure for both the man and the woman. For an Egyptian woman to know anything about carnal desires dissolves the ideal of purity and leaves them only good for making babies, except when they are whores or mistresses, something that many men are only to glad to get their hands on whenever possible.
While women everywhere might be occasionally inclined to put on an Oscar-winning performance of grunting and gasping so as not to give the impression that the man in question isn’t as hopeless in bed as he is, Egyptian women are just as likely to report having to put their hands over their mouth to stifle the appearance of actually enjoying a good shafting, lest the man in question thinks they are a slut. Should they know anything about the intimate details of sex they will probably keep it to themselves for the same reason, unless they are lucky enough to have a less conservative man. Given that the majority of women have been kept in the dark about sex and only learn about it from their husbands, who in turn gained most of their knowledge jacking off to the wholly unrealistic and sometimes violent imagery of Internet porn, it gives men a skewed power and control over the act of sex.
As the accounts of many women tell, sex is only there for the pleasure of the man, oblivious as to how the woman might feel, who considers little more than sticking it in and banging away, often fairly briefly, until his primal urges are done with. Perhaps one woman’s comment expressed it well, though I have to admit only a limited familiarity with the evidence: in western porn the women gasp something along the lines of, “yes yes, more more”! While in Egyptian porn they cry, “no no, stop stop”! Her comment was part of a women’s forum discussion on the preponderance of rape fantasy elements in Egyptian porn and how men think that women shouldn’t be in control or enjoy themselves during sex.
A patriarchal interpretation of Islamic law is deemed to give the husband the right to sex whenever he wants it, conveniently ignoring the example of the Prophet Mohammed, which is regarded as so important on many other issues, who was renowned for the compassionate treatment of his wives and never, once beat them.
Where the hypocrisy concerning women’s purity reveals itself to be nothing more than a male imposition is when you get down to the area of the vagina, which is branded in pseudo religious terms as dirty and impure. So girls, if you are looking for the kind of guy who will go down on you, Egypt is probably not the best place to start looking for a boyfriend. At least one man and I’m sure he’s not alone, had the audacity to describe the penis as pure and the vagina as dirty, hence rendering the holy grail of the blow job, that seemingly most Egyptian men dream of, into an obligation requiring no reciprocal action on their part.
The astounding male ignorance that really baffles me here is that it hasn’t occurred to these men, who are just gagging for a shag, (desperate for sex, for any mystified, non-British readers) that if a woman enjoyed the experience of sex she would be far more inclined to want to repeat it on a more regular basis and go that bit extra to make it more fun for him as well, rather than having to feign yet another head ache or her period miraculously lasting a few days longer.
Some women have been courageous enough to discuss how they were sexually assaulted as children by men in the family and how it has affected them. It would be pure conjecture to make any assumptions as to how prevalent the problem is but the real issue is how the fear of revealing abuse and the refusal to discuss it only legitimizes the crime. The problem with being believed is common for victims almost anywhere but Arab ideas of honour and shame (or abuse of these values some might say) mean that the shame brought upon the family can be seen by some as more important than justice for the victim, so even if known in the family it can be kept quiet. Even with children, men might try to use the pathetic defense of, “she was dressed provocatively” or some such absurdity. Yet again Islamic values clash with cultural ones: justice is a common theme in the Quran and there is no justification in Islamic law for sexual assault of a woman, let alone a minor.
A tale that crops up with depressing regularity is that of women being told by their husbands or boyfriends that they are ugly and insinuating that the men are doing them a favour by maintaining the relationship. The posts are invariably accompanied by a photo of the woman in question, to which any hot-blooded male would typically respond with a, “phwooarr”!!!! Or some such animalistic show of appreciation that, in a face to face encounter in the UK for example, would normally precede the mating ritual offering of, “can I buy you a drink love”?
The reality is that this is a form of control exercised by the men to guard their prized possession, but one which often leaves women riddled with doubt, lacking self-confidence and even depressed or suicidal. One man, who I will politely describe as a total fucking arsehole, even told his bride on their wedding night that she wasn’t anything special. Of course she was gorgeous but even if you didn’t truly believe that, what sort of half-wit, amoeba brained donkey would say such a thing at any point in a relationship, let alone on a wedding night? It transpired that this was part of the advice given to him by his mother to help keep the wife on a short enough leash. The mother had also advised him to withhold sex from his wife as another means of control by beating down her self-confidence so the husband can say, “no other man would want you so be grateful for what you get from me”.
The bride eventually found the strength of independence to tell him where he could stick his marriage and divorced him on the grounds of him being a complete twat, but this is never an easy option when life is governed by family and social pressure. When even the notion of having a boyfriend that you can appear in public with is largely unacceptable or at least heavily constrained, it’s not like you can go out to a nightclub (equally unacceptable) and pick up another guy (equally unacceptable) after a few drinks (equally unacceptable) to have another go at finding Mr Right. Even going to a cafe for a cup of coffee is seen by many as totally inappropriate for a woman, so the social avenues for finding a man, outside of an arranged marriage are narrow.
The status of the mother in Arabic and Islamic culture is, like purity, often idolised, although in practice this rarely translates into real power and influence. As in the example above, the mother is not always working in the benign interests of younger women, particularly when it concerns her own sons. The worst example I encountered was a woman, who only a month into her otherwise happy marriage, complained that her husband wasn’t interested in sex and her opinion that three times a week was reasonable for a newly married couple branded her a slut in the eyes of her husband. As above, the man declaring a lack of interest in sex is by no means a guarantee of how he actually feels. When she continued to complain, she was drugged by her husband and his mother who performed FGM on her, to control her “unnatural desires” for her own good because, “he loves her”. In isolation this would just be a horrific story, variations on which could occur anywhere in the world but the damning indictment came from the comments: many people, not only men, regarded the actions of the man and his mother as right and proper. I’m all for a measure of cultural relativity in understanding social values in different countries but this is wrong on so many levels that I surely don’t need to explain.
While FGM is often enforced by women, it is men that retain the real controlling power over women in most matters, even though other women may back them up in the name of supposedly decent, traditional values. One example of the extremes that this level of control can go to was given by a woman whose husband worked away during the week, so locked her in the flat for the whole time, because he, “has a right to know that his wife is safe”. The provision of food, decent computer/WiFi and the phone number of his family nearby was deemed a sufficient recompense for imprisonment – which is what he would have got if he tried the same trick anywhere in Europe. As before, the judgement of this example comes not from the act itself but the comments that it produced: again many thought it an entirely legitimate practice but it was the inadvertently depressing responses from some women that were equally troubling, in saying things like, “she’s lucky, at least he doesn’t beat her” and “my husband won’t let me have a computer”.
After such a gloomy litany of malpractice we can at least draw some comfort from women’s accounts and opinions online. Among sections of the urban young attitudes are beginning to change and having a forum to air thoughts and share experiences is gradually giving some the courage to speak out, if not in public at least in social circles. Some women are clearly proud and confident about their sexuality, whether straight, bisexual or lesbian and an informal source of sex education is a whole lot better than what is otherwise on offer. With so many women having had the self-confidence beaten out of them, literally and metaphorically, it means a lot to have a mass of friendly voices tell you that you are beautiful and sexy.
Will things improve? Undoubtedly, but we are a long way from having a critical mass of opinion that will get a wide public airing, so the change will almost certainly be generational and many will fight tooth and nail in the name of tradition.
Loving Egypt as I do, having made good friends there, particularly women, I did consider whether or not to write this piece and I don’t believe that a simplistic imposition of western values is either effective or desirable – it can often just entrench resistance. Social systems like honour and shame exist everywhere, westerners focus on guilt and innocence for instance and all systems have positive and negative aspects that are often impossible to unbind from the whole. Any change must be led by Egyptian women, aided by those men prepared to be allies. I hope that in other posts, such as Making Friends in Fayoum, I have expressed at least part of what is wonderful about Egypt and what we can learn from its people. Hence I have asked a couple of my Egyptian, women friends to comment on this piece and have edited it accordingly and hope that it comes with their blessing.