Sex in the Muslim world: Touchy subject gets a closer look
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
By Mariam Fam, The Wall Street Journal
SAN'A, Yemen -- On a recent trip to Yemen, Heba Kotb drew an audience of about 300 women at a local university campus. Virtually all of them were swathed in long, traditional black abayas, concealing their bodies. Most women also covered their faces, revealing only their eyes.
There was no way to tell what they looked like or how old they were. But it was clear what was on their minds: sex. One asked whether her husband's intimate requests were normal. Another sought advice on what an unmarried woman should do if she feels sexually excited.
A veiled and observant Muslim medical doctor, Ms. Kotb is a Cairo-based sex therapist -- which makes her a pioneer in this part of the world. She combines Islam and tradition with science and modernity, encouraging her conservative and religious audience to discuss a topic largely shunned in public.
Doing so, she says, will help save many a troubled marriage in the Arab world and rescue the young from inaccurate sexual information. "Sexual relations are like a gas station. . . If the gas is no good, the car will break," she says. "This is what happens to marriages in the Arab world; most of them are in shambles."
Social researchers say studies on sex in the Arab world are scarce, partly because the taboo surrounding the issue makes it very difficult to gather credible information. But anecdotal evidence, they say, suggests many divorces stem from sexual problems.
Ms. Kotb is part of an important current -- Muslims recasting the age-old verses of the Islamic scripture to tackle real-life problems with a contemporary flair. They play increasingly prominent roles as many young Muslims rediscover their faith as an alternative to what some see as a promiscuous West.
The Islamic revival among the young and hip has coincided with an opening of the media. New satellite channels provide moderate preachers, and Ms. Kotb, with a podium.
With little or no sex education in Egypt, young men and women often depend on their peers, the Internet or other informal, and sometimes inaccurate, channels for information. Sexual relations outside wedlock are forbidden by Islam.
A few years ago, only a handful of people visited Ms. Kotb's Cairo practice each week. Now, she is sometimes booked up for more than two months ahead, mostly with middle-class and well-to-do clients. She recently started her own show on an Egyptian satellite channel and is being bombarded by invitations to lecture in the most conservative corners of the Arab society.
"No one should harbor the illusion that as long as you're keeping the issue of sex from your children they won't learn about it," Ms. Kotb said on her program. "They will search and move from being ignorant to learning the wrong information."
Not everyone appreciates her openness. Egyptian sociologist Azza Korayem says that while she supports the idea of sex education, she believes Ms. Kotb "goes into too many details about relations. This could excite those who don't know better."
Ms. Kotb, 39 years old, says she is confident that her presentations don't offend her audiences.
For her lectures, Ms. Kotb calls upon a diverse range of resources. She refers to verses from the Quran and sayings of Prophet Muhammad, while displaying Masters and Johnson charts that relay the various stages of sexual response. She says that the prophet kissed his wife before he left the house and when he returned. "So when someone tells me, 'I have no time to kiss my wife,' ... I tell him, 'Was the prophet too busy?'" Ms. Kotb said to a small group of reporters in Yemen.
Like many, Raqya Abdul Rahman, a 42-year-old woman who attended one of Ms. Kotb's lectures in Yemen, said the mix of religion and science made her more trusting of what Ms. Kotb had to say. If the talk was only about science, she would have had to check it against the Quran, she said.
"Our religion is a lifestyle, so when I heard that God ordered us to know more about this topic, this gave me the courage to discuss it with my husband and children," she said.
It's not surprising that Ms. Kotb waded into uncharted territory. She was a top student at her co-ed French school in Cairo. At 11, she was the only girl playing soccer with the sons of neighbors outside her family's Cairo house.
Ms. Kotb's upbringing wasn't particularly religious, beyond such basics as praying and fasting. Wearing a veil was looked down upon as a hallmark of a lower social class. "You want to wear a scarf just like the maids?" Ms. Kotb remembers her mother telling her once.
During her second year of medical school at Cairo University, Ms. Kotb realized how little she knew about Islam and started learning more. Soon after she was married, she donned the veil. Her interest in sex studies emerged while doing research work in forensic medicine and she was shocked by her own lack of sexual knowledge.
So she enrolled in a long-distance program offered by the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists at Maimonides University in Florida -- a school that offers course work and degrees, but is not accredited. Her adviser at the program suggested she focus on sexuality in Islam.
At home, skeptics tried to warn her off the topic. Her father half-jokingly urged her to find another job title that didn't include the word sex.
And yet couples, many devout, began coming for advice. At the behest of parents, Ms. Kotb gave sex-education classes for teenagers at her office. She also lectured across the region.
On a recent Saturday, Ms. Kotb started the first episode of her new show with an interview with Muslim preacher Sheik Khaled el-Gendy. "People are in dire need for a religiously correct way to strengthen family bonds and protect our youth from destructive and harmful ideas," he said, hailing Ms. Kotb's work as a "great mission."
She put a tough question to her guest: Would he let his daughters watch her show? They were already watching, he told her.
Ms. Kotb told viewers they could use fake names to call. One caller said she got married five years ago without any knowledge about sex. "My mom didn't teach me a thing and I suffered from a lot of problems because of this." Another wanted to know if circumcised women -- those whose genitalia have been partly removed for cultural or religious beliefs -- reacted differently to sex. A 27-year-old man said he couldn't resist the stimulation provided by pornography even though he had recently wed.
She reassured her audience that most of their concerns were normal, and that the problems raised shouldn't impede anyone from enjoying a healthy sex life. (The 27-year-old man, however, she advised to focus more on his wife and improve his relationship with God.)
While pushing the envelope, Ms. Kotb is no Western-style liberal. She believes homosexuality is a disease. Negotiations for a possible show on a well-known Arab channel fell through, partly because she objected to a sponsor who wanted to advertise lingerie, she says.
Still, her critics argue that talk about sex "opens the eyes" of the unmarried to a topic best left alone. Abdel Moety Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Academy, said sex education could be accepted if done "from a religious perspective" to teach people what's right and what's wrong. There was no need for going beyond that, he added. "Look at how many generations have gone through their whole lives without sex education. Did this affect human life?"