What do Gulf Arabs think of Moroccans

Atlas of the Arab Spring

"Go! I want to get married!"

Now that young Arabs have led their societies into revolt, the sexual revolution is about to begin. She is held back by forbidden sexuality and taboos.

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square in Cairo has witnessed a wide variety of political slogans, but few were probably as personal as those of a young man who, on his banner, demanded the overthrow of the dictatorship with the following appeal: "Go! I want to get married! "

At first glance, the requirement may seem strange. But for 100 million Arabs between 15 and 29 years of age, marriage is synonymous with entering adult life: marriage offers the only socially acceptable framework for an active sex life, in accordance with the rules of all major religions in the Arab world. Any sexual act that takes place outside of a family-supported, religiously sanctioned and government-registered marriage is frowned upon as haram, illit adab, ’Ayb, hchouma - the judgmental vocabulary seems endless.

For a growing number of young people in the Arab world, sex has therefore become a long way off. Early marriages - the norm two generations ago - are rare today, even in countries like Yemen, where tradition and conservatives have long stood in the way of a legal minimum age of 18 years. It is mainly poor, poorly educated girls from rural areas who are at risk of being married off early. Young women in hopeless situations, such as refugees, are also affected; some are even sold by their impoverished families or forced into prostitution.

The age of marriage is tending to rise in large parts of the Arab world, in some regions even drastically: In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia women are now in their late twenties and men in their early thirties. This shift is also due to the economic situation, as marriage in the consumer-oriented societies of the Arab world has become an expensive undertaking. Tradition and religion dictate that the groom and his family have to bear the cost of the marriage, which includes much more than just a big party in an expensive dress. For many young men, a double-digit youth unemployment rate means that they have to be patient.

At the same time, the age of marriage for women is increasing - due to their increasing level of education and their participation in the labor market. In many countries there is a growing fear of the phenomenon of ’Anusa, the proverbial "old maid" - educated women who cannot find a husband and therefore remain at home depending on the support of their families. Divorce also causes social unease, especially the richer Gulf states fear the breakup of the family. In both cases, however, the official statistics are still less alarming than the headlines: The vast majority of people in the Arab world are getting married and staying married.

Nevertheless, more singles live in the region than ever before. An entire generation is caught between biology and sociology. She reaches sexual maturity in a climate that allows no alternative to conjugal sex. Current surveys in selected Arab countries show that even among young people themselves, the majority reject premarital sexual intercourse and premarital cohabitation. Given the increasing religiosity among Arab youth, a significant number are turning to alternative forms of Islamic marriage, such as mut’a and ’Urfiin order to be able to justify their sexual relationship religiously, no matter how controversial these forms of marriage are. For most young people, however, this is more of a last resort than a life decision.

Official refusal to address this cultural and demographic ordeal often complicates research on sexuality among adolescents. It was only the increasing number of people infected with HIV in the Middle East and North Africa in the past five years that prompted some governments to question unmarried young people in detail about their sexual knowledge, behavior, attitudes and practices. Wherever extensive quantitative studies have been carried out, a similar pattern of behavior emerges: at least half of young men state that they are sexually active before marriage; most have their first time in their teenage years and change partners several times before marriage Marriage. Condoms are rarely used, mainly because they are bulky with zina be associated with sex outside of marriage, which is forbidden by religion.

The proportion of young women who admit sexual activity outside of marriage is much lower. The reason for this is the primacy of female virginity. Because illegitimate sex is forbidden by law for both genders, at least on paper in most Arab countries. But above all, patriarchal structures in the guise of religious conservatism maintain a double standard: women are expected to appear on their wedding night with intact hymen, while men are tolerated if they have entered into premarital sex.

In Arab societies, virginity is not a private matter, but rather a cause of collective concern and, at the same time, a source of family honor. Increasing reports of honor killings such as those in Jordan and Palestine are part of a broad spectrum of gender-based violence. Indeed, the preservation of this tiny bit of female anatomy deserves a great deal of attention and effort from the whole family, whether through female circumcision or restrictions on the physical and social activities of girls. There are also virginity tests, from ancient customs like that dukhla, with the blood-stained sheet from the wedding night serving as evidence of the honorable defloration, to modern medical examinations. Studies show that young people maintain this convention - and at the same time undermine it by resorting to non-vaginal intercourse and hymen reconstruction.

Preparing for Change

Sexuality is taboo to such an extent that even sex education in schools seems impossible, although ignorance among children and parents is evident. The widespread consumption of internet pornography does one more thing to create confusion. Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region that has developed a uniform national curriculum for "practical life skills", including comprehensive instruction in sexual and reproductive health - not an easy task considering the discomfort of teachers. It is also highly controversial whether sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception and abortions, should be made available to unmarried adolescents.

Despite these obstacles, men and women in the Arab world are trying to go as far as is compatible with tradition and culture: in Morocco, civil society is pushing for the gradual liberalization of the abortion law. Abortion is banned in most Arab countries and is only practiced illegally. In several countries, NGOs help unmarried mothers find their place in society. Programs like Muntada Jensaneya ("Arab Forum on Sexuality, Education and Health") are looking in the Palestinian communities in Israel for innovative ways to convey important issues of sexual education both inside and outside the classroom.

In Tunisia and Egypt, some youth-friendly clinics offer reproductive information and health services, but with mixed results due to widespread prejudice among healthcare providers. A more successful concept seems to be the transfer of knowledge among peers, as organized by the Y-Peer network in regional branches: Young people inform each other about reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases. Some civil society groups are putting pressure on governments to enact laws against gender-based violence, such as new laws against sexual harassment in Egypt, domestic violence in Lebanon and rape in Morocco. Still other NGOs give women positive encouragement, hold the police accountable for sexual abuse or work with young men to eradicate violence from its roots.

An unprecedented challenge to the sexual status quo in the Arab world is the explosion in the use of social media. The most dramatic and at the same time most unsuccessful contribution in this regard was arguably the Femen-inspired nude pictures of young Egyptian and Tunisian women. Although they acted in the name of freedom and physical self-determination, they aroused rejection not only from the conservative but also from the liberal side. More subtle approaches are needed in order not to divide society - like the playful "Strip for Jackie" campaign in Lebanon, which protests against the exclusion of a member of the Olympic team for "indecency" or the lively online activism of LGBTQ youth. In addition, more and more sources of accurate information and balanced debates around the topic of sexuality in Arabic have emerged in recent years - notably here Hubb Thaqafa ("Love of Culture"), a groundbreaking social media platform.

However, the transfer of online activity to reality is a different story. Groundbreaking projects remain small, private declarations of war on sexual taboos and hardly move a broader public. Politics has hardly changed since the days of the revolution in 2011; profound changes in attitudes towards sexuality will take much longer. Presumably the Arab world will take a very different path of sexual change than the West. A prerequisite for positive change must be an awareness of the intersection of the political with the personal, while at the same time sexuality must flow into a broad debate about individual rights and personal freedoms. This requires work for at least a whole generation - until then spring will not return to the Arab beds.

This article was published in: Gerlach, Daniel et al .: Atlas of the Arab Spring. A world region in transition, Zeitbild, Federal Agency for Civic Education, Bonn 2016, pp. 114-115.