Lebanon/MENA: 'Something Phenomenal in Women's Sexual Freedom'

Global Fund for Women

When the topic of “taboos” surfaces in our region, what immediately comes to mind are all issues related to sexu- ality. Then the question becomes, “whose responsibility is it to address such taboos?” My answer: all of us, yours and mine together.

I have been working on sexual rights in the Middle East and North Africa for the past four years. Most people are not aware of it, but there is a large and growing movement for sexual rights happening beneath the surface of all other movements, including the feminist movement. One promi- nent actor in this field is the Coalition of Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies, which was founded in 2001. As member organizations of this coalition, we organize an annual event “One Day, One Struggle” to highlight diverse aspects of sexuality across our countries.

Feminist activists often tell me, “You know, we don’t know any lesbians, we don’t know any people who have been raped, we don’t know women who want abortions; they are not part of our circle.” Truth is, they are very much part of our circle. The big question, especially for the well-established feminists in the Arab region, is will Arab feminism embrace sexual rights or not? Unless it does, it will never find those masses of women who are sexually oppressed. They will never come to talk to a movement that doesn’t want to work with them.

A bigger question is will we, as an Arab feminist move- ment, embrace sexuality as an integral part of women’s rights in an intelligent way or will we continue to embrace it only from a convenient angle? We often hear the same excuses, “now is not the time,” or “we will lose other more basic gains if we push for sexual rights.” Other excuses we also hear are, “these are not really feminist issues” or “nobody will work with us, they will think we are promot- ing promiscuity and lewdness.” These excuses come at the expense of millions of women – yes millions – who are suffering from marginalization, silencing, exclusion, self-degradation, and alienation from our movement. And a movement that does not include all women and all of their issues is no movement at all. It is an elitist club and its achievements will be lacking.

Let us start with examining what sexual rights are. For me, the very simple short definition of sexual rights is SOmeThing phenOmenal in WOmen’S Sexual freedOm that every human being, especially women, has the right to have a wonderful sex life, healthy and great sex, and the freedom that eliminates all taboos related to sexuality from people’s minds. That is the essence of what we mean when we talk about sexual rights: people’s right to have great sex whenever they want to. Of course, that definition makes people very uncomfortable, because it feels like something that doesn’t belong in a “respectable” move- ment like our women’s movement. But let me explain what I mean. When we talk about the right to freedom from sexual violence, rape, harassment and incest-all important issues that the women’s movement addresses- then we are talking about people’s right to have better sex. If you’re harassed, if you’re raped, if you’re scared of sex, if in your mind it’s something dirty and disgusting and terrible and you’re worried about it all the time, you’re not going to have a good sex life. You’re going to have a bad sex life. We also talk about the right of people to choose their sexual partner. This is extremely important. If you can choose who you want to have sex with, you’re going to have better sex. If it’s not limited by someone from your religion, from your country, from the opposite sex, and from someone that your parents agreed to, odds are that you’re going to have better sex. If you can choose to identify with the gender that you want, like if I don’t feel like a woman and I want to change my body or I want to identify like a man, that means I’m going to have better sex that is more expressive of who I am. If I have access to birth control, to contraception, to a healthy sexual education in school, and if I can learn about sex from a qualified teacher instead of from pornography, I will have a better sex life. Girls and boys from our entire region are learning about sex through pornographic websites, which are the most visited websites across countries, according to web statistics.

Sexual rights are about our human right to have great sex lives. When my friends hear this, they always ask me: why is it so important for people to have great sex? In comparison to food, shelter, security, peace, democracy, and all of these more important moralistic issues, they say sexual rights are not that important. You cannot convince me, they say, that the right to a good sex life is more important than these more “basic” human rights.

Lately, I have decided that my friends are actually right: sexual rights are not as important. I can live without great sex but I can’t live without food. I will die without food, I will die when there is war, and I will die without shelter. Maybe I won’t die from not having great sex all the time. I agree to that. But if sexual rights are not so important, then why is it such a huge – the hugest in fact – taboo of an issue? Why won’t those in power give us our sexual rights? Why are we not even allowed to talk about it?

It doesn’t make any sense! If I want to buy a table and I say “I want this table and I want this chair with it” and some- one says to me “this chair is not important, we’ll talk about it later. This table is more important right now.” Then I say “so give me the chair if it’s so unimportant!” If the right to great sex is not that big of a deal, then why do you think they are so hooked on us not even talking about it? Ask yourselves that question.

The only possible answer is that there must be something huge, something phenomenal in women’s sexual freedom that those in power hold on to it so strongly. There must be something extremely liberating in it that they fight to keep it oppressed with blood, lives, invasions and wars. There must be something huge in our bodies that they feel they need to control. That is why they need to wrap it in morality claims, like honor, virtue, goodness and righteousness. No, my friends, we do not measure the significance of human rights by how much we need them to survive. We measure them by how strongly those in power oppose them. Judging by how strongly our societies, religions and states oppress sexual rights, there must be something incredibly powerful about them. We must then be even more stubborn in demanding them.

If we rid sexual rights from the taboos that engulf them, we will find that there really isn’t anything horrific in demanding sexual rights for our women. What is the big deal? What is the big deal about me being a lesbian? This, I have never understood. What is the big deal about women having sex outside of marriage? Really, what’s going to collapse? That’s the question you need to ask yourselves rather than asking whether it’s “the right time to talk about these issues.”

I have come to understand sexuality gradually as I talked to more women concerned with it. We each try to understand it in our own way. Today’s generation, I promise you, is formulating different ways of understanding sexuality all over the Arab world. They might not be talking to you or to your organizations, but they’re out there and they’re talking amongst each other. There’s one big word that I have come to understand as key and that is the word I want to leave you with today. It is a word that we need to insert into our feminist discourse in the region: heteronormativity, the idea that the heterosexual is normal. That’s the problem and the complexity that we need to insert into our discourse when we talk about occupation, capitalism, sexism, fundamentalism, and all these issues. What’s missing in our region is dialogue about heteronormativity, how if you look a certain way, you are a woman, if you look another way, you are not. If you’re not a heternormative couple comprised of an older man with a younger woman, of the same religion with two children, and so forth, then you are not normal. Heteronormativity, as an underlying under- standing of gender stereotypes that we are raised with, is extremely powerful because it feeds all the other evils. And that is why those in power hold on to it so strongly, thus suppressing sexual rights. They need heteronormativity to fuel their patriarchy.

Think of advertising without heteronormativity. Who are they going to market Ariel, Persil and Fairy (detergents and soap companies) to? Who will they market to if there isn’t a strong man who needs ties and sports gear, or little children who need blue or pink outfits? How are we going to manage our family household economies without heter- onormativity? How will religion propagate so fundamen- tally without the heteronormative family and the institution of marriage? How will they scare human beings from each other? How will they keep women in their pre-scripted role as wife, mother, housewife, and daughter? How will they hold on to wars, nations, states and all of these structures that they have built?

The truth is that big huge structures are going to fall. People are always afraid that society will dissolve if people have their sexual freedom. If gays and lesbians start walking the streets, society will collapse. It is true; let us not apologize for it. Concepts and systems are going to collapse. Morals, values and systems that we hold on to so dearly, and systems that we have lived in for hundreds of years are going to fly out of the window. And I say: Good Riddance. Let them crumble. Let virginity fly out of the window. Let things like purity and chastity and heteronor- mativity and gender stereotyping and obedience and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, and what it means to be in love, let that all crumble and disap- pear. Good riddance. Not everything is going to change. It’s not like we are going to suddenly start killing each other. But we will, and it is a fact, start looking at honor differently, at faith differently, at God differently, at love, at family, at companionship, at friendship, at our countries, at all of these issues, we will start looking at them differently. And I think it’s time we stopped being afraid to embrace the great fall of all of this oppression.

Nadine Moawad is a feminist activist based in Beirut, Lebanon with a background in Philosophy. She is one of the founders of Nasawiya, a feminist collective and Meem, a queer / trans community. She also recently started Take Back the Tech Arabia with the objective of bringing feminist perspectives into the usage, understanding, and programming of technology. She blogs about feminist and political developments in Lebanon on nadinemoawad.com.