In my travels to the Middle East and North Africa, when I ask young women which subject they are most interested in discussing, their answers almost always revolve around freedom. The word sometimes rolls off their tongues before I even finish speaking, and sometimes I don’t even have to ask before I am grabbed by a group of women who interrogate me about the subject. This used to catch me off guard: I always anticipated political questions from the Middle East. But what is even more surprising is that many of these women want to talk about relationships, life and sex. Yes indeed, sex.
I have heard the most shocking details and been asked the most startling questions in the process. Many of these stories are about chaste electronic love, romances in which the couples never actually meet. And the unfulfilled longing that results seems to heighten the sexuality packed into every word, gesture and glimpse of flesh. Erotic poetry and torrid love letters can be prompted by the sight of a woman’s ankle. When a woman is covered from head to toe, sometimes an ankle is far more than just an ankle.
I have also heard about the spread of same-sex relationships among teenagers and young women and men for whom such encounters are the only outlet for sexual expression. The contact can occur in their own homes, with unaware parents in the next room. It is sanctioned for a girl, for example, to spend the whole night with her girlfriend in her own bedroom with the door closed while her entire family is in the house. Culturally, parents don’t think of such girl-girl time as potentially sexual, nor would they be alarmed if two boys were alone together. But if a girl is caught with a boy, the consequences for both young people could range from forced arranged marriage to being monitored down to every step and movement to being essentially grounded for life in the family home, virtually imprisoned. And then, of course, there are always the stories of women who had sex out of marriage then underwent surgery to restore their hymens as a way to fake the virginity that is a prerequisite for marriage. Yes, this is a big one in the Arab world—so big that it’s not generally talked about even in the streets. “Oh, yeah that happens all the time,” a friend from Lebanon just told me this past week.
There is little public discussion of these subjects—no sex education in schools or discourse in the media. Parents do not usually talk about the subject either. This often leaves the youth without adult guidance, learning most of what they know from each other, informally. Sex is viewed as shameful and embarrassing. For these reasons, it would be easy to get the impression that sex is considered a sin, prohibited by the religion. In fact, however, Islam has a healthy attitude towards sex. Islam treats sex as something that is joyful and part of the celebration of life. It does not deny the importance of sexuality in people’s lives. Rather, Islam insists that sex be regulated through marriage. And even that institution provides plenty of loop-holes through contemporary marital practices in both Sunni and Shia Islam.
ISIS, in the meantime, is calling young people to its “Caliphate,” promoting an ideology of power, money and sex. Power is promised through their claim that they are building a new Muslim empire and will dominate the region. Money through immediate monthly stipends that range from $500 to $1,000 per fighter. And ISIS has reportedly called for “sex Jihad,” through which women can contribute by providing sex for the fighters—young men who see an opportunity to be unbridled at last and have all the sex they want. The youth are faced with an establishment that hides all discussion of sexual desire and denies access to sex, while ISIS is giving sex away freely and justifying it through their own convenient interpretation of the religion. Indeed, the whole ISIS phenomenon can be seen as a deformed expression of the essential quest for personal freedom.
The desire for individual freedom is inextricably tied to sexuality for young people the world over. But in parts of the Middle East where sex is hidden and strictly forbidden, young men and women are driven to behavior anchored in lies and shame; or pushed toward teenage marriage, particularly in rural communities, as this is the only way some families know how to deal with teenage pregnancy and poverty. Or, worst of all, young people are driven to deformed behavior: sexual slavery and rape, as in the case of ISIS. What is common to all three scenarios is the failure to discuss and deal with what is an essential part of human behavior in a mature way.
Most Arabs refer to ISIS as “them.” The group is seen as an alien force that stands outside of society—not as Arabs, not as Muslims. But that classification is problematic, in my opinion, for it absolves society of any responsibility for the root causes that have ultimately led to a monstrous deformity of religion and culture. To defy the phenomenon of ISIS will require more than military actions and political tactics. It will take the creation of spaces within mainstream Middle Eastern societies for constructive discussion. We must allow a new generation to grow as healthy individuals and productive citizens.
Freedom is not always about grand political debates. It often starts with the baby steps of addressing the immediate issues of daily life. And desires and curiosity about sex are very immediate matters common to humans everywhere. I am not advocating a sexual revolution of the Middle East. I am arguing that until such subjects can be aired in schools, among parents, and in Arabic books and public discourse, and as long as the youth are subjected to constant suppression and denial of what is most basic in the name of conservative values, Middle Eastern societies will be fostering deeply disturbing, deformed behavior.