The obsession in Egypt with sex and virginity is part and parcel of the broader socio-economic picture.
Experience is valued in everything, it would seem, except in the world of traditional courtship. I am no anthropologist, but it strikes me that most human societies, either now or historically, place a premium on premarital sexual chastity, or “purity”, particularly when it comes to women: from the Bantu of southern Africa, to the various faiths of South Asia, to the monotheistic religions of the Middle East.
While Egypt and other secularised Arab states were at a similar stage to the West in terms of gradual sexual liberation until the early 1960s, the West has since had its sexual revolution. While the revolution has had its downsides, such as the objectifying of female sexuality, women have a lot more freedom today to choose the sexual identity that suits them.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, a sexual counter-revolution began its gradual march in the late 1970s, as more and more people turned to the security of Islam and tradition. And today premarital chastity – and even the illusion of it – are all the rage. Women have borne the brunt of this, mainly because men tend to enjoy greater leeway, despite the Islamic prohibition on all kinds of premarital sex, and are often applauded for their sexual prowess.
Armed with plenty of questions about female sexuality and how this reflects – or is influenced by – women's general social, economic and political status, I met two prominent Egyptian feminists for a chat while I was in Cairo.
Aida Seif el-Dawla heads the Nadim Centre which provides support for victims of violence, including prisoners and detainees who have suffered police brutality and women who have suffered domestic abuse. Unsurprisingly, her courageous work makes her few friends in the corridors of power or among defenders of the male order. She was also a leading member of the Kifaya (Enough) movement for political change which, among other things, calls for the full democratic election of Egypt's next president.
“There are two reasons for the obsession with sex and virginity,” she tells me in her spartan office in central Cairo. “Anything that is unrealistically suppressed becomes an obsession. And too many people hold that the solution to all Egypt's problems is morality, and the main moral issue for them is how women relate to men.”
She adds: “Whenever people become less in control of their lives, they seek to control those aspects that are left to them. If you can't control your income, the fate of your family or the politics of your country, then you will try to control what you can, i.e. the private sphere. This is part of a greater quest for identity and purpose. And this quest has brought with it moral rigidity.”
Since the mid-19th century, Egypt has experimented with western-inspired modernity, industrialisation, liberalism, socialism and all have failed to transform the country fully into a prosperous modern state. Progress has been made, but not enough to keep up with the rapidly shifting goalposts. The reasons for this are complex and include the reluctance of elites to cede control, resistance to change by traditionalists, corruption, western hegemony, global neo-liberal economics and more.
But with all this wealth of causes to choose from, millions have focused on sex and other “morality” issues as an easy scapegoat for their woes. In moralising popular culture, sexuality, particularly of the female variety, is regularly portrayed as a greater threat to the social fabric than political and economic corruption, and sometimes even war.
Of course, this is not unique to Egyptian or Islamic societies. Consider, for instance, the fact that a US president, Bill Clinton, was impeached for dropping a sex bomb in the Oval Office, while no one has tried to impeach his successor, George Bush, for dropping millions of real bombs across the globe, despite the fact that his lies had more serious consequences.
“You cannot look at virginity in a vacuum,” Rabab el-Mahdi, an assistant professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, explains to me over coffee at a Cairo café popular with the city's liberal young. “It is all part and parcel of the commodification of women. Saying that a woman has to be a size four is, in many ways, just as restrictive and oppressive as valuing virginity.” She also notes that in other parts of the world, such as Latin America where she worked, women also have an inferior sexual status to men.
Both el-Mahdi and Seif el-Dawla reject the hijacking of their cause by certain foreign interest groups, and dislike how Arab women are kicked around like a political football between Islamists and neocons. El-Mahdi also has a message for even well-meaning western activists. “I'm concerned with attempts to focus on sexual liberation … Priorities have to be decided locally,” she argues. “The obsession in the west with Muslim women is Eurocentric, condescending and patrionising.”
So, what does the future hold for Egyptian women? Both Seif el-Dawla and el-Mahdi see promising and worrying signs. Among the positive developments is how ordinary women, and not just the liberal elites, have recently attached their cause to broader grassroots issues and have become active, equal and visible participants in the strikes and other industrial action sweeping the country.
“Compared with the 1950s and 1960s, today there is more of a feminist narrative and women's NGOs are widespread … We still need a specific struggle for women's rights in Egypt, but this cannot occur in isolation,” Seif el-Dawla says. “I cannot say whether things will get better or worse for women. It all depends on the general struggle for democracy, human, social and economic rights, as well as the ability of secularists and progressives to consolidate their gains. But if socio-economic deprivation continues, women will remain a scapegoat,” she concludes.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 7 January 2008.