Pleasure or shame: Sex for the Arab woman

Why is it bad to want something that feels so good?

Sensuality. Femininity. Boldness. Fierceness. Submissive yet wild. Serpentine movements to the sound of flutes emitting sensual, ominous Arabian sounds—incense enhancing the intoxicating atmosphere.

Eyes, lined with dark black kohl, looking straight into your soul, and secluding you as the chosen man for a make-shift adventure amongst the numerous dunes of the desert. Arabian nights, hotter than hot.

I always found it to be the epitome of irony, that the most sexually frustrated culture is known for one of the most sensual dances: belly-dancing. Growing up in Lebanon, I remember trying to understand why I was praised at the tender age of 12 for the fluid motion of my hips whenever I would dance, but shamed for their suggestive nature when I turned 18.

Belly dancing was an escape for me because, even as a child, it made me feel like the most beautiful person in the room. The attention I would attract when my hips would undulate would boost my confidence, even if just for the duration of a song. Dancing and sensuality worked hand-in-hand to gift me freedom in a society where everything remotely sexual is frowned upon or attributed to a male’s gaze.

To this day, however, I am shamed for being so open about a subject that many think should be personal and secretive, but really those were just fancy words to avoid dubbing it for what it actually was—taboo. Or as Mama would put it in Arabic, aayb. Because women don’t enjoy sex; especially not pre-marital sex. Not the ones worth marrying, anyway.

A few years ago, I read a sentence in Mona Eltahawy’s book Headscarves and Hymen: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution that remains etched in my mind for its infuriating truth.

“The god of virginity is popular in the Arab world,” she writes. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a person of faith or an atheist, Muslim or Christian—everybody worships the god of virginity. Everything possible is done to keep the hymen—that most fragile foundation upon which the god of virginity sits—intact. At the altar of the god of virginity, we sacrifice not only our girls’ bodily integrity and right to pleasure but also their right to justice in the face of sexual violation.”

Arab women, in contrast to the freedom awarded to Arab men, are denied the pleasure of sex. By obsessively drilling the importance of virginity in our minds, Arab women are oppressed into thinking pre-marital sex is a sin, while Arab men are encouraged to get as much experience as possible.

By emphasizing the important correlation between love and sex, Arab women deny themselves the pleasures of casual sex before even deciding whether they would enjoy it or not. By depriving Arabs, in general, of proper sexual education, women find themselves ignorant of many things, and quite often, in dangerous situations.

In the Arab world, there are two things you should never dishonour: religion and family. And, ultimately, sex is the most dishonourable thing one can do. I personally have never had a problem with the former, given that I was never religious in the first place. But the latter is something I, and many others, fear to disappoint in this respect.

“The Arab world benefits from having misogynistic religions that control politics and culture [...] So religion is always to blame.” — Christy Al-Hashem

“Honestly, I think my fear comes from a sense of responsibility over my parents,” said Fatima, an Arab woman in her twenties living in Spain. “I think I can kind of blame them for that. I am the oldest sibling, and they have, as usual, always instilled the ‘it's your responsibility’ thing. But I don't know how it latched on to [sex] as well, and their roles and immense responsibility to never let them down. Sex has been a topic that is so taboo and so not talked about that it’s right up there with the things that would disappoint.”

She goes on to say that she always has this feeling that she is doing something wrong—not due to her, her boyfriend, nor to her surroundings, but her parents.

In the Arab world, both Islamic and Catholic schools have a tendency to instill a deeply rooted fear of sex by suggesting that it is as a one-way ticket to hell.

A former Catholic school graduate, who shall remain anonymous per her own request, confessed her struggles with reconciling her faith with her love for sex.

“The night after I had sex for the first time, I had to go to camp with our school’s missionaries,” she said. “We were in church, and the priest’s sermon was about sex, and how bad it is, and sinful and how one should never do it outside of marriage. And I remember thinking of how much of a hypocrite I was, to now have to repeat this to the people at camp, when I’m still sore from having sex. And also because I liked it.”

“The Arab world benefits from having misogynistic religions that control politics and culture,” said Christy Al-Hashem, a Lebanese woman living in Paris. “So religion is always to blame. But I think the taboos around sex have become cultural. Even non-religious people continue to spread those taboos because it became a part of their cultural identity. They proudly manage to disguise them as values and manners.”

Al-Hashem’s queerness helped relieve some of that guilt.

“As a gay woman, I realized that none of the taboos meant anything to me because the narrative always had a man in it,” she shared. “So I guess being gay and growing up in a heteronormative environment freed me from sex guilt.”

As for me personally, the tinge of guilt marring my sex life can only be described as a fear of myself. The older I get, the more sexual I become, as I discover new parts of myself. It shakes me to my very core to wonder how I can reconcile parts of my culture that I love with something they shun—but that’s also a part of me. 

I often find that my feelings of anxiety, guilt and shame resurface once the extreme high that comes with sexual experiences dissipates—irrational thoughts of dishonouring the family or fear of judgment from a society that has no business in how I choose to pleasure myself. And oftentimes I wonder: will they ever go away?

This article originally appeared in The Gender & Sexuality Issue, published March 10, 2021.