ORAN, Algeria — AFTER Tahrir came Cologne. After the square came sex. The Arab revolutions of 2011 aroused enthusiasm at first, but passions have since waned. Those movements have come to look imperfect, even ugly: For one thing, they have failed to touch ideas, culture, religion or social norms, especially the norms relating to sex. Revolution doesn’t mean modernity.
The attacks on Western women by Arab migrants in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve evoked the harassment of women in Tahrir Square itself during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution. The reminder has led people in the West to realize that one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women. In some places, women are veiled, stoned and killed; at a minimum, they are blamed for sowing disorder in the ideal society. In response, some European countries have taken to producing guides of good conduct to refugees and migrants.
Sex is a complex taboo, arising, in places like Algeria, Tunisia, Syria or Yemen, out of the ambient conservatism’s patriarchal culture, the Islamists’ new, rigorist codes and the discreet puritanism of the region’s various socialisms. That makes a good combination for obstructing desire or guilt-tripping and marginalizing those who feel any. And it’s a far cry from the delicious licentiousness of the writings of the Muslim golden age, like Sheikh Nafzawi’s “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight,” which tackled eroticism and the Kama Sutra without any hang-ups.
Today sex is a great paradox in many countries of the Arab world: One acts as though it doesn’t exist, and yet it determines everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment. Although women are veiled, they are at the center of our connections, exchanges and concerns.
Women are a recurrent theme in daily discourse, because the stakes they personify — for manliness, honor, family values — are great. In some countries, they are allowed access to the public sphere only if they renounce their bodies: To let them go uncovered would be to uncover the desire that the Islamist, the conservative and the idle youth feel and want to deny. Women are seen as a source of destabilization — short skirts trigger earthquakes, some say — and are respected only when defined by a property relationship, as the wife of X or the daughter of Y.
These contradictions create unbearable tensions. Desire has no outlet, no outcome; the couple is no longer a space of intimacy, but a concern of the whole group. The sexual misery that results can descend into absurdity and hysteria. Here, too, one hopes to experience love, but the mechanisms of love — encounters, seduction, flirting — are prevented: Women are watched, we obsess over their virginity, the morality police patrols. Some even pay surgeons to repair broken hymens.
In some of Allah’s lands, the war on women and on couples has the air of an inquisition. During the summer in Algeria, brigades of Salafists and local youths worked up by the speeches of radical imams and Islamist TV preachers go out to monitor female bodies, especially those of women bathers at the beach. The police hound couples, even married ones, in public spaces. Gardens are off-limits to strolling lovers. Benches are sawed in half to prevent people from sitting close together.
One result is that people fantasize about the trappings of another world: either the West, with its display of immodesty and lust, or the Muslim paradise and its virgins.
It’s a choice perfectly illustrated by the offerings of the Arab media. Theologians are all the rage on television and so are the Lebanese singers and dancers of “Silicone Valley,” who peddle the promise of their unattainable bodies and impossible sex. Clothing is also given to extremes: At one end is the burqa, the orthodox full-body covering; at the other is the hijab moutabaraj (“the veil that reveals”), which combines a head scarf with slim-fit jeans or tight pants. On the beach, the burqini confronts the bikini.
Sex therapists are few in the Muslim world, and their advice is rarely heeded. So Islamists have a de facto monopoly on talk about the body, sex and love. With the Internet and religious TV shows, some of their speeches have taken monstrous forms, devolving into a kind of porno-Islamism. Religious authorities have issued grotesque fatwas: Making love naked is prohibited; women may not touch bananas; a man can be alone with a female colleague only if she is his milk-mother, and she has nursed him.
Sex is everywhere.
Especially after death.
Orgasms are acceptable only after marriage — and subject to religious diktats that extinguish desire — or after death. Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love.
The West has long found comfort in exoticism, which exonerates differences. Orientalism has a way of normalizing cultural variations and of excusing any abuses: Scheherazade, the harem and belly dancing exempted some Westerners from considering the plight of Muslim women. But today, with the latest influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the pathological relationship that some Arab countries have with women is bursting onto the scene in Europe.
What long seemed like the foreign spectacles of faraway places now feels like a clash of cultures playing out on the West’s very soil. Differences once defused by distance and a sense of superiority have become an imminent threat. People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.
Kamel Daoud, a columnist for Quotidien d’Oran, is the author of the novel “The Meursault Investigation” and a contributing opinion writer. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.