Sex, Lies and Scholarship
RABAT, Morocco—Morocco is suffering from a “a state of widespread sexual misery,” writes Leïla Slimani in her provocative new book, Sex and Lies: Sexual Life in Morocco. The book, published in France in September, has reignited a recurrent debate here over individual freedom, traditional norms, and sexual frustration and violence.
Slimani is a well-known French-Moroccan journalist and novelist. Her second novel, Chanson Douce (Sweet Song), won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2016. The backbone of her new book, a blend of essay and reporting, is a series of candid interviews with Moroccan women (many of whom the author met in the course of promoting her previous books) and prominent scholars.
In Sex and Lies: Sexual Life in Morocco, Slimani writes that Moroccan women’s sexual needs beyond reproduction are largely ignored, and that women are expected to be virgins at marriage and sexually passive afterwards. This intense monitoring of women’s sexuality, in particular, amounts to a political disenfranchisement. “A woman whose body undergoes such social control cannot fully enjoy her role of citizen,” she writes.
In the French press and in other Western countries, Slimani’s book has been hailed as taboo-breaking and courageous. In fact, as the author herself points out, she is hardly the first to broach the topic. Sex is frankly described, and celebrated, in classic Arabic poetry, and is a major theme of modern Arabic and Moroccan literature. Slimani mentions the works of the Moroccan novelists Mohamed Choukri, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohamed Lefta and Abdellah Taïa, as well as the writing of Joumana Haddad in Lebanon and of the Syrian Salwa Al Neimi, whose erotic novel The Proof of the Honey caused a stir in 2007.
Slimani’s book also refers to the work of many prominent scholars, starting with the 1975 classic Sexuality in Islam by the Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba. In his 2014 book Arab Eroticism, the Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel presents examples of erotic writing through Arab history. In her Love in Muslim Countries, the Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi connected this history to evolving practices of sex and love. Other works cited include Circumcised Love by another Moroccan sociologist, Abdelhak Serhane, which discusses the tribulations of young Moroccans, and the 2013 volume Sex and the Citadel by the Egyptian sociologist Shereen El Feki.
It would seem then that there is not a lack of interest or scholarship in the issue of sexuality. But that scholarship does not often reach classrooms or a wide public.
What emerges most vividly from the words of the Moroccan women whom Slimani interviews is the double standard when it comes to men and women’s sexual freedom, and the suspicion and fear with which women’s sexual pleasure is viewed.
“Before being an individual, a woman is a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter,” writes Slimani. “She is the guarantor of family honor and, what’s worse, of national identity. Her virtue is a public issue. We still need to invent a woman who doesn’t belong to anyone.”
Slimani is particularly critical of a Moroccan law that criminalizes all sexual relations outside marriage but that is selectively and discriminatorily applied (for example, against young couples or poor prostitutes).
The sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy, who is interviewed in Sex and Lies, argues that the problem of young Moroccans is that they are caught between norms that remain officially conservative and practices that in fact no longer are. He maintains that it is unrealistic to ask young people to remain celibate until the average age of marriage, which is 31 for men. A recent ministry of health survey, he says, revealed that 56 percent of Moroccans between the ages of 15 and 24 have had non-penetrative sex and 25 percent have had penetrative sex. Young people snatch moments of intimacy with each other where and when they can, but this puts them at many risks: of social opprobrium, violence, police harassment, pregnancy and other health risks.
“Young people’s sex lives are clandestine and unhappy,” argues Dialmy. “One cannot feel well if one is afraid, if one feels guilty.”
Unrealistic and conflicting expectations often make relations between men and women dishonest, hostile, or mercenary, Slimani observes. The upper classes buy themselves the freedom to do as they please in exclusive settings, unlike most of the young and poor. Sexual independence and pleasure thus become another luxury and a resented form of inequality. Slimani’s interviewees also denounce a high degree of hypocrisy, with individuals simply pretending to conform to conservative social expectations and everyone turning a blind eye to save appearances.
Slimani notes that she knows that, by using her significant platform to write about this sensitive subject, she will be accused by some of being an Islamophobe, a traitor to her culture and a sell-out to the West. But she argues that sexual agency is a “universal and inalienable right.”
Yet the question of Slimani’s audience isn’t entirely irrelevant. It might have been better—to avoid the appearance of simply denouncing yet another Arab pathology to a largely Western audience–to publish the book in Morocco, or to plan for a prompt Arabic translation. The book also could have benefitted from testimonies of men as well as women, to give some insight into how both genders experience the pressure to conform to very narrow gender roles and the difficulties of finding intimacy and love.
Slimani hints at a connection between the sexual misery she describes so vividly and socioeconomic and political conditions. “One could argue that if Muslims have no sexual rights, it’s because most of the regimes under which they live rely on a negation of individual freedoms,” she writes. “The believer-citizen is not authorized to think for himself or to take his or her own decisions freely.”
Yet the author doesn’t develop her argument. She doesn’t specify who doesn’t authorize citizens and believers to think and decide for themselves, and doesn’t describe the social, economic and political reforms that could allow for the sort of individual and sexual freedom she advocates.