Egypt: a society of taboos

By Osama Diab

Rather than encouraging people to make moral choices, religious groups in are imposing their values by law.

June 2009

“Haram, Hara-a-am” (“It's forbidden”) shouted the conservative Coptic dad when his son asked if he could go to the cinema across the street. The young boy was never able to watch a film, despite living next to a theatre, because art destroys family values, wastes one's time and you end up burning in hell, according to the father.

This was part of the controversial Egyptian film Bahib el-Sima (I love cinema), the first movie that had the guts to show how religious zeal can have an ugly side and lead to lies, pedantry, hypocrisy and may be even perversion in society.

I remembered Bahib el-Sima when a court issued a ruling this month to block “venomous and vile” websites in a case filed by Islamist lawyer Nizar Ghorab, who argues that porn destroys Egypt's social values. AFP quoted the court as saying, “Freedoms of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism.”

Ghorab is also confident that the government won't appeal because it will put the state in the awkward position of defending pornography. “Thank God we won. Now the government should stop these electronic dens of vice immediately,” the Islamist lawyer told the BBC.

This came just a week after some of Egypt's emo community were arrested and also accused of destroying the country's social values, an accusation that seems to be used by the authorities to hinder any social change or reform.

People who are against the ruling can't really express it in Egypt because of the taboo that surrounds anything sex-related. It's still hard to imagine protesters in front of the court house chanting “keep the porn”.

Ghorab insulted not only his religion but the entire Egyptian population by taking this issue to court. His action implies that Egyptian people need to be treated like kids and be told what they are allowed to see and what they are not by people like Ghorab, who apparently knows better than everyone else. It also implies that Egyptian people have reached the point where they can't find out for themselves if porn is good or evil. This ban will only bring back the days when a schoolboy with a sex tape can have more authority than the school principal, rather than convince people porn is bad. This case also raises a vital question, are Egyptian social values so vulnerable that they need a law to protect them?

Imposing the moral values of a segment of society on the rest of the people is the real threat, not porn. Self-righteousness and the inflicting of one's values by law is what should be banned, not videos showing the naked body. People should be able to decide for themselves if they want porn or not.

The fear of many is that rather than develop values through education and debate, the government will increasingly use media bans to control thought and quash dissent and debate in the of protecting a susceptible population.

Magi, an Egyptian blogger, is afraid of just such an eventuality. “I am not pro-porn sites but I am worried that one thing would lead to the other; today they block porn sites and tomorrow they will turn to blogs,” she writes on her blog …

Gihan Abou Zeid, a human rights researcher, compares what is happening in Egyptian society to a mother who holds on to her kids more tightly when they are under threat. According to her, Egyptian society is reeling from the threat of opening up even more to other cultures in the age of globalisation, which is why people are sticking more than ever to their traditions.

I don't claim that watching women and men having sex is an essential part of freedom of expression, but the ban is a clear indicator that religious groups are trying to impose their beliefs on others. Creating more taboos and sensitive topics is what I think poses a threat to freedom of expression and thought. Ghorab and his ilk should focus on their own individual lives and morals instead of bothering with what people see on their computer screens or do with their hands behind closed doors.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 31 May 2009. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author's permission.


  • Osama Diab

    Osama Diab is an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger who lives between his two favourite metropolises: Cairo and London. He writes about the religious, social, political and human right issues of Egypt and the Middle East

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