Throughout the Middle East, nowhere is the need for change more urgent – and the silences more deafening – than in the areas of gender and sexuality. Patriarchal norms are so deeply rooted across the political spectrum that even the most seemingly liberal segments of societies can be homophobic, transphobic and misogynist underneath the veneer of “modernity”.
Patriarchy loves nothing more than hypocrisy. You can do whatever you want secretly, so long as you never openly challenge the existing order and carry on doing what everyone else is doing in public. Do not rock the boat. Do not cross the hudud – boundary. Especially if you are a woman. Female writers of Middle Eastern origin who try to understand the complexity of the issue and give a voice to the voiceless, therefore, do not have an easy task. This, however, is just what the French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani dares to do in her first work of non-fiction, Sex and Lies.
The book is composed of a series of interviews with Moroccan women from different backgrounds and age groups. They all have a story to tell: a middle-class woman saving up to “have her hymen restored”; a young woman from a poor family who has shown enormous resilience to rebuild her life after she was raped; a therapist who sees all kinds of cases in her professional life and has herself suffered from domestic violence. Some behave in traditional ways when they are next to their relatives or friends; others fight back. They all try to navigate their own way in a strictly male-dominated order.
These women are not victims and Slimani is careful not to portray them as such. In a country where homosexuality is punishable by law and gay couples are beaten in their homes or on the street; adultery is a criminal offence; virginity remains a taboo; women wearing miniskirts are attacked in public and blamed by the police for seducing their attackers; and rape victims are married off to their rapists in the name of saving “family honour”, there are many personal stories that remain untold. Slimani’s book is an honest account of these silences: “Listening to these women, I became determined to shine a light on the reality of this land, which is far more complex and more troubled than we are led to believe.”
Sexual taboos can be more challenging to write about than political ones. As the Moroccan journalist Sanaa El Aji says: “The two new taboos are religion and sex. People get hysterical about them.” This is not only the case in Morocco; as a writer from a Turkish background, I am moved by Slimani’s words. The women she talks to could just as well have been Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Iranian, Turkish.
Slimani talks to Nabil Ayouch, the French director and writer of Moroccan origin whose film Much Loved triggered a hostile reaction in Morocco. “We cover ourselves in false virtue even while, by forbidding sexual relationships outside marriage, our system promotes the commercialisation of the body, and especially violence to and exploitation of the female body,” he says. He points out that sex wasn’t always regarded as a taboo in Muslim-majority societies. “We’re forgetting that it’s we Arabs, we Muslims, who shocked the West with our erotic texts in the 15th century.” Similarly in the Ottoman empire there were many widely circulated books on homosexuality, bisexuality and eroticism, which would shock modern readers. One of the most challenging questions is how and why, as our societies modernised, gender and sexuality became more difficult to talk about.
After the Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud wrote about Germany’s 2015 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults, when many women across the country reported being molested by men described as being of Arab appearance, he was heavily criticised by a number of French academics for spreading “orientalist clichés”. Slimani, however, says: “I do understand that these intellectuals prefer to preach caution from the safe distance of their faculty offices in France. But it none the less seems to me impossible to deny the reality of sexual deprivation as a social fact, a vast problem.” She elaborates on the difficulty of talking about the impact of imperialism. Many of her French friends tell her that colonisation ended long ago, saying “we can’t blame ourselves for everything”, but Slimani believes it is important to understand how patriarchy becomes a symbol of identity under threat in postcolonial cultures. “The realm of sex becomes the only space where men can exercise their dominance.”
Slimani shares the reactions she has received for writing about this issue. European writers of Middle Eastern origin who question the cultural norms they grew up with are often accused of betraying their motherlands or being the pawn of Western powers. Unfortunately, in a world full of xenophobia, racism and sweeping generalisations about the Other, it is becoming harder and harder to have nuanced conversations. But this is exactly why we need to have open debates. Gender inequality and sexual subordination are not side issues. They are at the heart of everything. We must confront this taboo, this injustice and inequality, that affects the lives of people – men and women – in so many untold ways. For that I salute Leïla Slimani for writing this important, honest and brave book.
Elif Shafak’s most recent novel is “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” (Viking)
Sex and Lies
Faber & Faber, 176pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy