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Going Beyond the Veil

Against the regime of ‘aib

Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World by Leila Slimani, translated by Sophie Lewis. Penguin Books, 176 pages.

When I was growing up, my mother taught me about sex and sexual politics in two different ways.

The biological mechanics she imparted via books that were all in English, assuring me that these meticulously labeled cross-sections of the male and female reproductive organs in fact loved each other very much. From these books I learned such words as penis and vagina, as well as sperm, ovum, fallopian tubes, uterus, and fetus.

The life lessons, delivered in Arabic, came when I was a little older, and confounded all those clean line-drawings into scribble and static.

“In our society,” my mother would say, “they think of a woman like a matchstick. You can only light it once and then you throw it away.”

And: “In our society, men will fuck until they’ve had their fill and then turn around and demand to marry a girl who’s never been kissed by anyone other than her own mother.”

And: “In our society, they think manners and morals are all between one’s legs. They will be the worst sorts of pimps in private and spout the most virtuous garbage in public.”

She always said “bi mujtama’na,” “in our society,” the implication being that things were different elsewhere. That they ought to be different. That these were learned attitudes and not, in any way, fundamental truths about human relationships and a woman’s place in the world.

That my mother taught me about sex at all was, I would be told eventually, “very progressive for a woman from your culture!” Later, I would add that caveat myself, so I could phrase it on my own terms: “My mother has always been very progressive for her time and place, and she taught me about sex fairly early.”

She always said “bi mujtama’na,” “in our society,” the implication being that things were different elsewhere.

I would explain that my mother grew up with a keen sense of injustice, sharpened against the whetstone of her own suffering, as a girl raised in Cairo, then Beirut, with all the maddening midcentury double standards of sexism. In raising her own daughter, she wished above all that I should be spared those double standards, at least in the intimacy of home. I was even permitted things and given freedoms my brothers were not, such as being allowed to move back to Beirut, from where we had immigrated when I was eleven, and to live there on my own as a teenager.

In telling my story, I would repeat the things my mother taught me, illustrating how she abhorred hypocrisy in all its forms. But I would exclude that phrase, “in our society.” If I was speaking to someone from outside “our society,” I knew I’d have to qualify the statement with many footnotes—all of which were true: that this had been my mother’s experience, in her own time and place, of “our society”; that I myself moved and lived and, yes, fucked, very freely in “our society”; that those attitudes my mother talked about still existed, certainly, but very peripherally to my own life as a woman who had lived almost her entire adult life alone in “our society.” I made these qualifications because I knew what assumptions would be made, or rather which assumptions would be reinforced, if I spread out a blanket statement so invitingly.

And if I was speaking to someone from here? Well, they knew, they were living it, I didn’t need to say anything. Our society was super fucked up when it came to women, sex, and women and sex.

Rage Issues

A contradiction between private comportment and public discourse is the central theme of French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani’s book Sex and Lies: True Stories of Women’s Intimate Lives in the Arab World. First published in French in 2017, it was reissued with a new preface in English, in an elegant, accentless translation by Sophie Lewis in the year of our plague, 2020.

Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book. I certainly rolled my eyes when I first saw the title. Sex and Lies: right there on the cover was the dose of sleaze and titillation that seemed required for any account of “sex in the Arab world.” Not to mention the tiresome subtitle, featuring “the Arab World.” It’s exhausting even to drag your mind across the thirteen million square kilometers of that sweeping category, from the Atlantic coast of Mauritania to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Though I know that writers are often innocent of the sins of their book titles, and certainly their subtitles, it still seemed likely that this might be one of “those books.” A “behind the veil” book. A “let’s look at the repression of Arab and Muslim societies” book. Not necessarily working in her favor in that regard was the fact that Slimani is Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture: the “ethnic face of soft power,” as I saw one Goodreads user so concisely phrase it.

However, I’d read Slimani’s 2016 Goncourt Prize–winning novel The Perfect Nanny (also published in English as Lullaby), experiencing her as a thrillingly precise writer, her observations so sharp they flensed away every flabby stereotype. And so I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Indeed, Slimani has brought that same quality of attention to bear on this book. Which, as it turns out, is aptly named. For a study of societal hypocrisy around sex—in a place where the motto is “do what you wish, but do it in private”—you can’t get much more concise than Sex and Lies. As for the subtitle? It is a marketing-driven mistranslation. The French original—Sexe et mensonges: La Vie sexuelle au Maroc—is far more modest (and honest). The book is not about “Arab women,” but Moroccan women, many of whom approached Slimani themselves when she toured the country promoting her first novel Adèle (2014). They wanted her to know that they felt an affinity with its sexually promiscuous yet sexually frustrated heroine.

Slimani gives these women their due, largely fulfilling her intention, laid out in the introduction, “to render [their] words directly, as they were spoken to me: their intense and resonant speech, the stories that shook me, upset me, that angered and sometimes disgusted me.” Each chapter features a different interview, a story recounted in the woman’s own words, which Slimani compliments with wider analysis, shading in the specifics of the Moroccan context. She gives an account of the legislation surrounding women’s sexual rights and freedoms, such as the law that forbids sex outside the bounds of marriage, while also addressing the social mores that bind women even more tightly to certain standards of public behavior.

Though the women come from different classes and have completed different levels of education, the rules of the society to which they must conform are the same. So are their ways of flouting the rules (lying) and the emotional toll this takes (shame). There is brash, angry Zhor, for example, whose first encounter with sex is a gang rape. Later she discovers a vast, liberating pleasure in having sex on her own terms—but only within the most confined of spaces. From a poor family, she works her way to her own apartment in the city. Her father takes no issue; it’s the landlords who won’t rent to single women. Like many of the women (and men) interviewed, Zhor voices the idea that a taboo on sex also stifles love and affection—that this is the real deprivation everyone must contend with.

Hypocrisy creates “an institutionalised culture of lying,” Slimani writes, connecting this to the larger shadow of authoritarianism that looms over Morocco. She calls for a complete overhaul of the legislation that reinforces the sexual mores of Moroccan society. “Kept in order by an iron-fisted government,” she explains, “men reproduce the authoritarian regime in their family circles and households. Thus we produce individuals adapted to an oppressive system.”

But as I plunged deeper into Slimani’s book, a part of my attention remained snagged on that subtitle and the way it was changed in English—how much it reveals about the politics surrounding it. For no matter how serious its intention, no matter how nuanced and sophisticated its argument—and Sex and Lies is all those things—any book on this subject will always somehow be marketed to feed the incredible, highly political (Western) curiosity about “the intimate lives” of Arab (read: Muslim) women. It is a curiosity so well-known and ubiquitous at this point that no piece of writing dealing with the topic can be produced without an awareness of that curiosity, without somehow being in dialog with it. And many of us who are local to (or let’s say, implicated in) the cultures and societies being analyzed are also reading to hear how that dialogue plays out, particularly when the writer is, in some way “one of us.”

This reading begins before a single word is even parsed. Everything is important: what language it was originally written in, where it is being published, the writer’s gender, how she presents herself, whether she speaks Arabic, whether she is religious or secular, “local” or “diaspora.” And then: Who praises her? Who calls her “courageous” for “speaking out,” with what glib or smug or patronizing tone? And after all that: What will she say? How will she represent “our” situation, “our society,” knowing “they” are watching and listening?

For her part, Slimani undertakes this performance with the graceful balance of a dancer. She positions herself, her French-Moroccan woman’s body, mostly facing her local audience, the people she is writing about, affirming her belonging through judicious use of the first-person plural. Her back is turned to her foreign audience, and yet there is a slight tension in the way she holds her position, occasionally tilting or shifting toward them. Of course she is aware of their presence. Her book is written in French, published in France. Continuing the metaphor, they are the ones who are funding the show. And yet she does not allow this to divert her attention and care, even if—wholly outside her control or intention—it will always cast her in the role of “cultural interpreter.”

Nowhere is Slimani’s posture clearer than in the preface, introduction, and conclusion of the book, where she reiterates, in various ways, the idea that Moroccans must stop thinking “of our culture and identity as fixed, supra-historical facts.” She calls this a “lazy definition,” stressing that: “We are not the same as our culture . . . rather, our culture is what we make of it.” Otherwise how could the legislative reform, the sexual revolution she is calling for, even be possible?

“We need to stop pitting Islam and universal Enlightenment values against each other,” she goes on. “Stop opposing Islam and equality of the sexes, Islam and sensual pleasure.” She interviews Asma Lamrabet, a doctor and theology researcher at the Rabat Center for Women’s Studies in Islam. Lamrabet—like Fatima Mernissi and other scholars who work on women’s issues and rights in Islamic theology—confirms that the religion is no more misogynistic than any other. Rather, it is “a particular interpretation of the Koran that, in our patriarchal societal structure, leads to women’s oppression.”

Slimani’s concluding chapter opens with a discussion of the 2016 New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Germany, when over a thousand women in multiple cities were set upon and sexually assaulted—and some raped—by groups of Muslim men. And this, of course, is what so many readers have been waiting for, on either side of the left-right, East-West, progressive-conservative divide. It is the ultimate elephant in the room of any “sex in the Arab world” book. For most right-wing and liberal readers, it is why such books exist. Will the author address the way Arab and Muslim sexual repression plays out in Western societies? Will she acknowledge this “deviance” openly and condemn it? Or will she prevaricate and justify and relativize and deconstruct to the point where any essential difference between misogyny as practiced in the West and East is erased?

There isn’t a single Arab woman I know who has not been affected by gendered shame.

Slimani is aware of these questions, which she addresses in a series of elegant moves, so deft you might miss them. She cites the scathing opinion piece written by Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud in the wake of the attacks, in which he argues that the Arab Muslim world is, as Slimani paraphrases, “riddled . . . by sexual deprivation” and that this leads “to explosions of aggression upon contact with women” everywhere. Demarcating this as one extreme of opinion, she presents, in the same paragraph, the response of French intellectuals: “that Daoud [is] guilty of spreading ‘orientalist clichés’ and that he [is] stereotyping the Arab masses.” As to her own opinion? She sums it up with a shrug of a word: “Perhaps.”

What is most interesting—and telling—here is the terms on which Slimani personifies the argument. She could have easily quoted the many right-wing and liberal Europeans who reacted to the attacks with an essentialism similar to Daoud’s. And she might have called upon the many Arab and Arab-origin writers who patiently countered with the logic of context and history. Instead, she flips the script, seeming to reveal her own ambivalent position as someone both implicated in and struggling with these issues. By “these issues” I mean our own personal rage, as Arabs, at what in moments of heightened emotion might feel like an essential rottenness in “our society,” and how one’s furious, immediate reaction is to want to name it, shame it, pull it out by its roots and stomp it out, whatever “it” is. As Slimani point outs, the problem “of sexual deprivation as a social fact” is real, and its “effects clearly impact on the political realm.” Likewise, the stakes are high and personal: they “are no less than the emergence of the individual.”

A Knock At The Door

Morocco is not Lebanon, but very little of what Slimani describes is foreign or unrecognizable to me. For example, the women again and again bring up the concept of hshouma, which Slimani defines, or rather translates, as “shame” or “embarrassment.” In fact, it is a very gendered shame. Within the concept is embedded the idea that a family’s honor is made or broken on the public perception of its women’s behavior. Anything shameful or embarrassing ought strictly be kept private. I know this because we have the same concept in Lebanon, only here we call it ‘aib. It imposes the same unspoken law: if you must do what you like, do it in private. Do not bring shame upon the family. Do not open the door to slander. Know how to carry yourself in public.

There isn’t a single Arab woman I know who has not been affected by this gendered shame, regardless of what she calls it in her dialect. Even when you think you’re happily defying ‘aib, it finds a way to remind you of its terrifying power. This was brought home to me quite literally some two weeks before my thirtieth birthday, when I received a knock on my door.

Back then I was living in a small, two-bedroom apartment in Ain el Mreisseh, a seaside district in Beirut. I was half-heartedly dating a man, M, who spent enough nights at my place a week that he was uncomfortably close to moving in, but not so many that I could tell him to move out. There was also H, with whom I’d had a casual, sex-only arrangement before M. I thought H and I had the coolest, most enviable sort of understanding—both of us uncomplainingly taking breaks when the other person was seeing someone more seriously—but he had suddenly taken to showing up drunkenly in the middle of the night, ringing the buzzer until I dragged myself out of bed to angrily hiss him away through the intercom. It had only happened twice—both times I’d happened to be alone, both times he’d left immediately—but it made me feel enraged and unsafe.

The knock came during the day. It was the natour, the building caretaker, a Sudanese man who was never anything but all smiles and jokes. This time he had his eyes downcast as he handed me an envelope.

“From Abu Tarek,” he said. The building superintendent.

I took the envelope and thanked him, but he shook his head.

“I have to see you open it,” he said apologetically.

I remember my hands shaking as I read the letter. It was an eviction notice, penned by a lawyer, in the formal “we.” Through hot tears I read the sentence that remains seared word for word into my mind. Translated, it is: “You are sleeping in this apartment in an unlawful way with a person unknown to us.” The letter went on to note that this was a building with families, who could not be expected to raise their children in the vicinity of someone like me. I had three weeks to pack my things and get out.

I felt so cindered with shame I thought I might collapse in a heap of ash. The natour kept mumbling that he was sorry, and all I could think was how this meant that he knew, he knew exactly what I was being accused of, and of the punishment imposed. Maybe he had even been asked to provide evidence. No, certainly, he had; he was best placed to observe my comings and goings. I didn’t imagine he’d enjoyed talking, but he’d done it all the same.

After crying for days on end and even contemplating marrying M just so I could throw the marriage certificate in Abu Tarek’s face, I consulted a lawyer who did some pro bono work for a women’s rights organization. I was terrified the police might get involved, as Abu Tarek had threatened in a follow-up phone call, and I wanted to know my options. The lawyer represented battered women, those whose husbands refused to divorce them, those being prostituted by their husbands, those who had run away from violent spouses and were being forced by their own families to return. She was reassuringly practical about my situation.

In Lebanon, she reminded me, the same law that can be used to prosecute homosexual sex can also be applied to sex outside the bounds of marriage. It is a French law in origin, and therefore quite similar to Morocco’s, a remnant of the same colonialism. The law is worded in a way that leaves much room for interpretation. Going to court would have meant placing my fate in the hands—or whims—of a judge, who might just as well be conservative or liberal.

“You can fight this,” she concluded. “You can countersue for defamation and demand the right to stay in the building. But,” here she pointed to the letter I’d brought her, “you see this? The line about families and raising children? That’s not just moralizing, that’s legal talk. That means his lawyer can knock on every door in that building to survey people’s opinions. And what do you think they’ll say? Even if they could care less what you’re doing, even if they’re totally liberal in private, do you think they’ll admit something like that if they’re forced to go on the record?”

I considered it briefly, only because I wanted very much to be that person. The kind of woman who would go through with such a case, walk into the courtroom head held high, to add a paving stone on the path to increased rights and freedoms for women. But I had no energy left to raise my eyes up off the floor, let alone look a trial-room squarely in the face. I was afraid, too, that my extended family would find out about all this. Their liberalism only held so far as to maintain the “don’t ask, don’t tell” facade. To drag the family name through the mud like this, with a sex trial would . . . I didn’t know what it would do. I decided to slink away and leave it behind. The lawyer didn’t judge me for this either.

For the longest time I never told this story because it felt ‘aib. It felt ‘aib to reveal that I’d been evicted for being a slut—though when I did begin to tell it, I always opened with that exact line, with a playful bravado entirely at odds with how the whole thing had made me feel.

Depending on who I was speaking to, it also felt ‘aib to tattle on “our society” this way. Because this was not a story I could disguise under the rubric of generalized sexism. It was specific and different. It was a reminder that a thing called culture set a limit to my private freedom, and would discipline it back into submission if I crossed the line. It also showed me that I didn’t have what it takes to be the fearless advocate who shucks her shame for the cause of change.

“Us” is “Them”

In 2012, the Egyptian American writer Mona Eltahawy wrote an article in Foreign Policy, entitled “Why Do They Hate Us?” “They” being Arab men and “Us” being Arab women. It decried the rampant misogyny of the Arab world, which Eltahawy qualifies as such throughout her article. Foreign Policy lamentably chose to illustrate her piece with a “behind the veil” photograph, of a woman wearing a niqab and black body paint, which certainly did it no favors.

The piece was met with a deluge of criticism from Arab women across the world, much of it fair, some of it less so. “Hate,” as many pointed out, is a weak analytical framework, especially as Eltahawy fails to define its source, even when she pretends to do just that. “So why do they hate us?” she asks. “Sex, or more precisely hymens, explains much.” It does not; I still have no idea what that means.

To discuss the Arabic-speaking world in English means that you are speaking outside your own context.

Arab women were furious that Eltahawy spoke of Arab men as a single mass of lecherous harassers (she did indeed seem to be implying this). They were also incensed that she called up the West to “save” them (she did not imply this). Besides sloppy reasoning and careless writing, I couldn’t help but feel that Eltahawy’s major crime was using the private language, and logic, of indiscriminate anger in public. All the things she cites as evidence of “hate”—virginity tests in Egypt, girls forced to marry their rapists in Morocco, the driving ban in Saudi Arabia—are indeed enraging and unacceptable. They feel personal, an awful lot like hate. Just thinking about them can make you so angry you want to publicly indict and shame the entire social structure, the entire culture, the way it seeks to shame you.

The criticism of Eltahawy was such that Foreign Policy then hosted, in its pages, a roundtable, inviting writers and scholars from the Arab world to respond. The most considered response was by Leila Ahmed, another Egyptian American, a scholar of Islam and professor at Harvard Divinity School. “It is certainly Eltahawy’s right and indeed even her obligation, as a feminist and a noted journalist with rare and impressive access to American media, to grapple with understanding and narrating the story of women in the Middle East and what she perceives to be the ‘war’ on women in the ways that make most sense to her,” Ahmed wrote. And yet—because this is nothing if not an arrow of a sentence, notched and cocked from a million miles away at a giant “and yet”:

There are, of course, many ways of pursuing feminist goals. Just the other day, I heard a talk . . . on the devastating costs for women and children—in terms of the sheer numbers of lives lost, and the destruction, mutilation, dismemberment, and displacements suffered—of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Eltahawy, who makes no mention in her essay of those wars (or of the deadly struggles in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, or Yemen), the “real” war on women in the Middle East . . . and the one that she most urgently wishes to bring to our attention, is the war being conducted by Islamic patriarchy and misogyny.

Leila Ahmed is not wrong per se, but I found myself bristling at her response. She was imposing a kind of diaspora thinking, taking Eltahawy to task for not speaking in “the correct” way on a Western public platform. Her approach undervalued local concerns, presuming that all conversations are playing out both “in the West” and more importantly, always vis-a-vis the West. It also felt like a form of moral puritanism mirroring the strictures placed on women’s sexual behavior. If you are speaking in English, Ahmed seems to be saying, why aren’t you thinking more about “them” watching you? (The real “them” you should have drawn your “us” against.) ‘Aib. This is not how we behave in public.

I see this kind of admonishment everywhere, particularly in the furious debates that unfold on social media. Whenever some awful new case explodes on the news—Egypt’s Fairmont rape case, an honor killing in Jordan—the conversations held in Arabic and English are fundamentally different. In Arabic, the sadness and fury are usually allowed to flow unchecked. If they encounter opposition, it is from conservatives or fundamentalists who will justify what happened or preach that this is what women get for stepping out of line. They are always shouted down. In English, one too many frustrated declarations of “there is something essentially wrong with us” will inevitably run up against long lectures about historical and social context. Again, as with Leila Ahmed, this reasoning is not wrong. It’s rather that even in moments of great grief or rage, we must remember how to behave, how to speak and what to say, because we are always representing our entire communities. And because there are too many horrors competing for our grief and rage.

To discuss the Arabic-speaking world in English automatically means that you are speaking outside your own context, where you can use the shorthand language of intimacy without fear of being misunderstood. In English, you are asked to consistently reframe whatever feels immediate and urgent within a larger context, including that of the language itself, which deepens a sort of self-alienation.

For we know how “increased rights and freedoms for women” have been cynically used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More horrifyingly, I cannot help but think how that reified idea of Arab sexual repression fed into designing the kind of evil, sadistic torture of male Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, seemingly conceived of as a culturally specific form of humiliation. And of course, the increased racism toward not only Muslim migrants but the lifelong Muslim citizens of Europe, the United States, and Australia, so much of it justified by an insistence on the fact that “they” are incompatible with “our” Enlightenment values, which includes “rights and freedoms for women.” And so to betray our men with ill-considered rage, to talk about them as a faceless, ravening mob in public the way we might in private, feels like we are fueling a fire that will only burn us in the end.

This feeling of bearing individual responsibility for an entire community is not unique to Arab women. Certainly, women everywhere are taught from birth to carry oversize burdens of consideration for the well-being of others. But women from communities that perceive themselves as under attack are consistently placed in the impossible position of having to choose between advocating for their own individual rights as women or subsuming them into the community’s larger fights. The edict to see two separate sides, let alone “choose” one over the other is akin to being asked to perform Solomon’s baby-severing on the self.

One is Not Enough

Aib, hshouma, whatever you call it, works on multiple levels. It is a way of behavior imposed by larger society upon the family. But it is also reinforced from within by the family—by men and women—even those who maintain a private culture opposed to it. It disciplines primarily women. But women who suffer from these rules will still often inculcate their own daughters to follow them. In the end, ‘aib is internalized—one accepts the burden of carrying the family’s honor, the nation’s honor, upon one’s body.

In the end, ‘aib is internalized—one accepts the burden of carrying the family’s honor, the nation’s honor, upon one’s body.

The obligation of ‘aib cannot be rejected by any one person. For there to be lasting progress, the larger community has to change as a whole—has to change for everyone and be changed by everyone. But how does one change an “everyone” that includes oppressors and oppressed, victims and perpetrators, rule makers and rule breakers? How do we perform triage on our social ills? When everything is bleeding out at the same time, it becomes hard to locate the site of the most grievous, urgent wound.

As Arab women, it seems to me that this is what we ultimately write about when we write about “sex in the Arab world.” Whether we do it with the Islamophobic anxiety of liberals, the didacticism of some of the diaspora, the burn-it-all-down rage of Eltahawy or the bicultural poise of Slimani. All of us are trying to negotiate the relationship between ourselves and our communities. What do they owe us? What do we owe them? Who, in fact, is the true “us” and who the real “them”? Where does “community” end and the “individual” begin? Where is the private sphere and which sphere is public? It’s as though if only we could find the right lines to draw, to build the right framework through which to examine and understand, then we might finally know how to arrive at that magical place beyond the veil.