The Niqab, a common stereotype of Middle Eastern women

How the sexual taboos in the Middle East is rearing its ugly, hypocritical head, by Rhea Tabbara

In a region made famous by stories such as a Thousand and One Nights, Harems, and scantily clad belly dancers and singers, transcending the undeniable sensuality, exoticism and mysteries of the Middle East, sexuality in the Arab World is, somehow, an out of bounds topic.

Ranging from promiscuity out of wedlock, adultery, to homosexuality, sex is deemed as something filthy, immoral and dishonorable. This conservative approach to sex however seems more of a product of the population’s absorption into its cultural traditions rather than from religious roots, affecting both Christian and Muslim Arabs.

Such behavior has not been consequence-free, revealing an inherent hypocrisy within Arab society.

On the “Shababs’” (“men” in Arabic) side, the former assertively boast of their conservative convictions in front of their people however they do not shy away from acting inappropriately with foreigners especially foreign girls .We all know of the stereotype of young Arab men who enthusiastically engage in women street-“patrolling”/ harassing, who brag immaturely among themselves about how much sex they’ve had or the size of their apparatus.

A survey conducted at the American University of Beirut, further highlights this hypocrisy. A classroom of boys and girls were asked whether or not they had ever had intercourse. The girls naturally shunned away from raising their hands while all the boys waved theirs as high as they could in the air. When asked whether or not they’d have sex with their girlfriends, less boys raised their hands and finally when asked whether or not they’d marry the girlfriends they’d had sex with all put their hands down, proving the perpetuation of the long rooted assumption and expectation that women must marry as “virgins”.

Indeed, this primitive stature with regards to women and sexuality arises from years of sexual oppression, which as a result summons for severer forms of authority to restrain such attitude. Access to shopping centres is restricted to men, who thus must sneak groups of women in order to penetrate such locations. Furthermore, attempts at gender segregation of public places have lead to a rise in homosexuality in Arab male society. Then again, uncouth conduct has not been limited to the male sex.

The Western view of Arab women is branded by symbols such as the hair concealing headscarf or full on niqab hence leading on towards the assumption that Arab women are cut-off and shut off to anything related to interactions with men, let alone sexuality and promiscuity. Indeed, Robert, a New Zealander who spent his summer in Jordan, talks of the lack of contact or conversation with local girls. “One doesn’t feel like he can talk to them, however it seems more like a fear of initiating conversation with other men as, they are eager to talk if you ask them a question or such.” Furthermore, when visiting other local men, both Robert and Jon, an American, who visited the West Bank during the summer were shocked at how the locals kept their women locked away and out of sight from the “foreign male visitors”.

Indeed, I myself have noticed this just by my own surrounding. “When I say sex, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” I ask my friends. “Whisky, candles, summer, heat, shutters on the beach, lingerie” say my American friends with a large smile on their face while those from the Middle East seem much more cautious in their choice of words and more closed on the subject.

However, such massive gender segregation and sexual oppression has not left women unscathed. In Saudi Arabia, the hopes to dissuade and forcefully prevent its male and female population in engaging in distractive behavior among each other through, has pushed women into extreme circumstances just to be able to mingle with men.

Dina Franji, a Palestinian who lived most of her life in Saudi Arabia tells of her classmates’ regular stints of promiscuity, escaping into strange men’s cars after being dropped off at school by their parents, returning right in time for classes. She also talks of a strange relationship, which developed among the girls. “Girls would be infatuated with the tomboys at school, exchanging love letters and flowers with one another” she claims. “All our conversations were more or less related to sex, some girls would even take things to a more serious level in the school bathrooms. We all knew about this but of course would never dare bring it up”. However, the speaker does not view the above as acts of lesbianism, as the concept of homosexuality was unknown to these girls.

Nevertheless, as always there are exceptions to these stereotypes.

These special cases are most of the time reserved to men and women in the upper and upper middle spheres of Middle Eastern society, those with access to a good educational system and who have had exposure outside of the Arab World. However on a more general note, the Arab youth of this era, whether upper, middle or lower class has found ways to contour and detour the obstacles preventing the piercing of these taboos.

Ironically, according to Amira El Ahl and Daniel Steinvorth, reporters for Spiegel News, by entering the term “sex” into Google Trends (a new service offered by the search engine, providing a ranked list of cities, countries and languages in which the term was entered most frequently), Egypt is the country that has searched the term second most after Pakistan, followed by Morocco in fifth position and Saudi Arabia in eighth.

On a lighter note, the vision of teenage girls/women is quickly evolving in a generation marked by globalisation, Internet, mobile phones and social networks. Exposure to such devices has given them guidance and instruction, which in many cases has been denied or ignored by their own peers.  Today at the University of Jordan, 80% of the students are women, hence demonstrating an evolution in the traditional conception that women must just marry and serve their families.

Furthermore, the uprisings of the Arab Spring have brought about a previously unseen social upheaval in the Middle East mainly through the emancipation of women. The former are slowly managing to emerge from the dark, becoming proactive figures in the political/social future of their country and hence feel more confident in breaking free from the social restrictions tying them down.

“They’re much brighter than the “Shababs” in any case” jokes Robert as he finishes savouring through his tender, juicy lamb dervish.


Rhea Tabbara

Image Credit- Steve Evans