Tuesday, March 29, 2011

sex and the Arab world

Those of you who know a bit about me might be cognizant of the fact that over the past couple years I've become quite interested in the issues of sex and gender as they relate to women's health and empowerment-- so much so that it has begun to shape my academic pursuits and career pathway.  Sex has become so intrinsically tied with power throughout the world, yet so few people dare to scrutinize this pivotal linkage.  It really should come as no surprise that places with a greater taboo on sex have much greater injustices against women-- not just in more public realms like political and economic freedoms and opportunities, but in more private spheres as well, where such oppression can be debilitating and deadly (think significantly higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, HIV, intimate partner violence- the list goes on and on).  I applaud those brave enough to tackle the issue of sex, which is such a fundamental part of everyday life, yet has been relegated to the "shameful" and "taboo," only to be touched upon in the bedroom and, far too often, only to be decided upon by the male.

Last weekend, The New York Times Magazine blog published a story about Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese woman who is daring to pose vital questions about sexual taboo to the Arab world.  I applaud Haddad for asking the questions that others are not bold enough to ask and challenging the power game of sex that is pervasive in the Arab world (though certainly not limited to it).

As I have a standardized test coming up that I should at least pretend to be prepping for, I will let someone else speak for me today-- and in more revealing and poignant words than I could ever speak on the subject.  A Lebanese-American friend of mine, Diana, recently wrote a piece for her blog in which she shares her thoughts on Joumana Haddad's work as it relates to her own experience as the child of a broken American-Arab partnership.  Diana has graciously allowed me to share her words here:

Beating The Arab Patriarchy Over The Head With Sex Toys

                   I Killed
I’m a mutt of sorts. My native Californian mother, a nurse, met my immigrant Arab father, a surgeon, in one of those stereotypical cross-cultural hospital love affairs of the early 1980’s. You know the ones: foreign-intellectual-seeks-loophole-to-prevent-deportation-to-war-torn-homeland. There was more to the story, but I’m now cognizant of the fact that this was the driving force of the narrative of my parents’ ill-fated romance.
My father wined and dined my mother according to the contemporary American dating rituals; she believed him to be someone he wasn’t. In direct opposition to my father’s sociocultural values, they cohabited before marriage. My mother became pregnant and gave birth to my father’s saving grace — an anchor baby. With the help of a hot shot D.C. immigration attorney and his natural born American son, my father received his coveted free pass to the United States of America.
The West-Meets-East fairy tale quickly unraveled.
Women are objects under the patriarchal Arab gaze. They are pawns, vessels, and prizes. They should be pleasant, passionate and amiable, but never assertive, outspoken, or defiant. Sexual only at the behest of the male proprietor, whether father, husband, or brother.
My father used my mother in precisely this fashion. He used her to escape the gruesome squalor of Beirut in the 1980’s. He duped a liberated, idealistic American to gain the freedom to practice his misogyny in peace.
Sex is the weapon of choice for the Arab patriarchal assault on womankind. In The New York Times blog post Sex and the Souk, Joumana Haddad bluntly states:
“People tell me, ‘There are so many things wrong with the Arab world, why do you just talk about sex?’ And I say, ‘This is the main link.’ Who decides what’s haram — what’s allowed and not allowed? The religious figures. They are linked with the political powers, and together they work to control the society through this medium, the sex drive. If you break the power over sex, you can start undermining and questioning the religious and political powers. You cannot do it the other way around.”
I love this. So obvious, yet so taboo, and so intricately defines the Arab world. The chains that bound a woman’s sexuality in the Arab world also place a gag order on sexual discussions from the female perspective.  Viewing sexuality through the male gaze perpetuates female oppression. By dismantling the power structure of sexuality, we create spiderweb fractures in the glass ceiling.
                     Joumana Haddad
Ms. Haddad, dubbed the “Carrie Bradshaw of Beirut,” is the publisher of Jasad — body in Arabic — an erotic literary magazine that explores the spectrum of sexuality. According to The New York Times post, it boasts “articles by intellectuals and poets about masturbation, homosexuality, fetishism and polygamy alongside antique photos of nude Arab boys luxuriating in voluptuous Ottoman settings and close-ups of female genitalia.” Racing to get my hands on a copy — William & Mary’s own literary erotica group, Lips, would do well to sneak a peek.
While her reactionary opponents outnumber the bullet holes freckling Beirut’s downtown, Haddad’s feminist critics question her authenticity and efficacy. While I understand their hesitancy to embrace a celebrity as a bona fide political activist, I find their cautionary attitude premature. The Arab woman’s world is in crisis. Who are we to deny any effort on her behalf? Ms. Haddad’s fresh and unyielding take on sexual politics is uncharted territory that young activists like myself would do well to embody.
The lone daughter of an ill-fated American-Arab partnership, I am acutely aware of the sexual conflict inherent in the Arab world. Forced to patronize my father’s fellow Arab doctors, I had no privacy in my personal medical affairs. In college, my brother was lauded as his fraternity’s Vice President, pretty American girlfriend at his side, chaste as they come in my father’s eyes. This veneer left my father free to revel in blissful ignorance of my fortunate brother’s extracurricular activities. In contrast, my father responded to my responsible use of birth control with shame and outrage, and told me that I should “try to keep my legs shut” when I contracted a UTI.
And so, Joumana, mabrouk. Mabrouk, and please continue to write for us.
Her latest work, I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman is for sale on Amazon. It will be published in the United States in late 2011.

Thank you, Diana, for your insightful words on a personally painful topic that has such far-reaching significance.  (Diana's blog can be found here)


  1. Lindsey, thank YOU. I am so touched that you wanted to reblog my post.


  2. This is so important to share... <3 Thank you!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...