Most countries contain contradictions. Scotland, for example, was central to the Enlightenment, but it also has plenty of gangs and high rates of drug use and obesity (facts well known but kept out of the tourist pamphlets). But few countries are as contradictory as Morocco: a country with a split personality.
Sex is everywhere in Morocco. Imams give suspicious sex advice in the media, prostitution is big business, pornography consumption is high and earnest discussion of sex abounds on TV and radio and in magazines. Yet Moroccans don’t know much about sex—porn is their only form of sex education—and the nation is suffused with religious and moral conservatism of the most hypocritical kind.
In Morocco, sex is supposed to be between one man and one woman, who are married; virginity is a universal obsession; abortion is illegal in all but the worst of circumstances and dangerous, underground abortions are common; homosexuality is forbidden; and jail cells await if you break the laws through which sexual conformity and repression are enforced. The wealthy elites can, of course, flaunt these rules, but if you are an ordinary citizen, you won’t get off so easily (in more ways than one).
Thus there is an atmosphere of secrecy. Sex occurs in isolated spots outdoors and your enemies can blackmail you if they find out that you have lost your virginity before marriage. Hymen restoration is another big money-maker. Girls have anal sex in order to please boys without losing their hymens. Morocco is riven with sexual repression, hypocrisy and fear, even as its people clamour for more sex and more sex education.
Sexual intimacy that falls outside the moral norms is secretive and furtive, confined to dark corners of woods and car parks. Despite some recent tinkering with legal reforms, shame and lies still mar sexuality for many Moroccans, due to the country’s deeply conservative culture and religious morality, as well as its laws.
I have borrowed the idea of Morocco’s “split personality” from an interview subject in Leïla Slimani’s book Sex and Lies. Slimani, a Franco-Moroccan novelist and journalist, has previously thematised Morocco’s repressive attitude to sex in her fiction. In 2017, she published Sexe et Mensonges, a collection of essays and interviews with Moroccan women on the subject of sex in Morocco. The slim volume has now been translated into English by Sophie Lewis and republished as Sex and Lies.
In her introduction, Slimani explains that she does not wish to provide a full, sociological account of sex in Morocco, but a space for Moroccan women to make their stories heard:
I want to give these often painful angles on life a platform in a society where many men and women prefer to turn away. By telling me their life stories, by choosing to break taboos, all of these women showed one thing, at least: that their lives matter. They should and do count. By confiding in me, they chose, if only for a few hours, to step out of isolation and to invite other women to realise that they’re not alone. This is what makes their accounts political, committed, liberating.
One of Slimani’s inspirations is the late feminist writer Fatima Mernissi. For Mernissi, Scheherazade was a woman asserting her right to live and be heard before a stubborn, misogynistic king. For Mernissi and Slimani, Scheherazade is a great character because she claims the right to tell her own tale and so “becomes not merely the object but the subject of the story.” So too with the women Slimani speaks to: they are Scheherazade’s heirs, proclaiming their rights against a culture which seeks to confine them to chastity and abolish their individuality in the name of honour.
Some of these women have been raped and beaten, others have to hide the fact that they are lesbians. Some are funny, some are sad- and all are conflicted. They are all trying to survive in a repressive society while asserting themselves: this leads to contradiction and fear. One woman, Nour, veers between regretting her decisions and defiantly lamenting the complexity of finding somewhere to have casual sex:
Sometimes, I think I’ll save up and get my hymen restored. I’m anxious around my parents. I’m afraid of disappointing them. It eats at me … I question my decisions, I wonder if I’ve made the right choices. Sometimes I even feel like returning to God. You know, I understand those women who choose the veil. I won’t do it, because I’m optimistic. But you never know. …
it’s so complicated to maintain a sex life: we’re always at someone else’s place or renting a flat; hotels are impossible. It’s miserable: you can never actually carry out this thing which ought to be so simple! I’m not asking for the moon, just to live as I wish, with whoever I wish!
Such mixed emotions can be found in many of the accounts. One woman, known only as F, is a prostitute and her story is sad beyond measure: poverty has forced her into the sex trade to provide for her family, she has had two abortions and she is angry at Moroccan men, who “have the devil between their legs,” for exploiting her and other women. She had dreams and aspirations and still wants to go to Europe, but she is also resigned to her fate: “Who’d want a girl like me?”
Slimani’s book contains accounts by professional women and prostitutes, proud rebels and fearful women who regret their transgressions. These accounts make Sex and Lies both an engrossing read and an uncomfortable one. In this respect, the book is a triumph; but it is somewhat less successful in some of its other aims.
On Not Going the Whole Hog
Slimani provides a lot of analysis. As an activist, she wishes to smash the repression in her birth country and her ideals are broadly inspired by Enlightenment liberalism. She deftly dismantles standpoint theory, for example:
For a long time, I bowed to the notion that to impose my views on others amounted to a kind of condescension. Now I think the only thing that matters is the validity of my argument. My position is grounded in universal values and I utterly reject the idea that identity, religion or any historic heritage should dispossess individuals of rights that are universal and inalienable.
Slimani writes of the intellectuals and artists who, over the last few decades, have called for greater freedom in the Arab, North African and Middle Eastern world. The recent protests across the region are to her—and to me—a sign of the youthful demand for change and they provide reason to hope: it will be a hard fight, but the reformers might just win. She describes Morocco’s social, political,and sexual deprivations; its poverty and lack of sex education; its piecemeal political and legal reforms and barriers to further, fuller reform; and much else. Her analysis is informed by both history and recent developments.
As for those western academics and liberals who criticise her and others like her for orientalism or Islamophobia, Slimani challenges them to leave their comfortable offices in Paris, spend an evening in one of the poorer parts of Morocco and imagine what it would be like to suffer sexual frustration and poverty. It is not orientalist to report reality and it is not bigoted to call for change.
However, while Slimani criticises religious conservatism and admits that religion can be a tool of control, rather than challenging Islam at its roots, she advocates a return to an earlier Islamic or Arabic culture of eroticism and a reinterpretation of the Koran. She interviews reformist Muslim scholar Asma Lamrabet and references various other thinkers who have done much to reconcile sexual freedom with Islamic theology.
This approach may be politic, but it is shallow. Yes, the Koran can be reinterpreted; yes, there is eroticism in early Islam and Arabic culture; yes, Islamism is not Islam; and yes, the spread of Wahhabism has done much to corrupt other variants of the faith. But many theologians could interpret the passages Slimani cites in a puritanical way. After all, Wahhabis and jihadists and Salafists claim to be representatives of the true, pure Islam of Mohammed’s time and can also cite verses in justification of their creed. Recall the late caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s impressive theological qualifications. And, though they can be reinterpreted along modern lines, neither Mohammed nor the Koran can be fully reconciled with liberal ideas about sex, or about anything else, as Azam Kamguian’s essay on the misogyny inherent in Islamic tradition and texts amply demonstrates.
So, why not go the whole hog and condemn the religion altogether? Slimani is an avowed universalist liberal and feminist, but—perhaps out of expediency—she stops short of suggesting that Islam itself is a problem.
Rather than settle for such a half-baked solution, she and we should vociferously criticise the claims of the faith, claims which include not only the idea that the Koran is the final, perfect, unalterable word of god, but that Islamic texts describe the one true way in which human affairs should be conducted. We should fearlessly criticise Islamic texts and history and show that this faith is as nonsensical as Christianity is. This is a difficult and dangerous path, but feminists and activists like Slimani are already on such a path and should go further in the name of freedom.
We must support Morocco’s democrats and secularists in their fight against the country’s authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, while Slimani is highly critical of Moroccan government and society, she stops short of advocating regime change. Slimani’s ties to King Mohammed VI and her involvement with a media outlet close to the palace may explain both her silence on the regime and her lack of support for the mass protests led by the Rif Movement in 2016–2017.
However, Slimani’s book is well worth reading, if only for the tales relayed to us by Scheherazade’s heirs. Slimani has nonetheless done something of enormous value: she has advanced the cause of human rights and women’s emancipation by giving these women a platform to assert themselves.
The Rights of Woman
In her conclusion, Slimani speaks of the tensions in a Morocco torn between modernity and tradition, in which “the stakes are no less than the emergence of the individual.” Women are centrally important to this struggle:
Before she can be an individual, a woman must be a mother, a sister, a wife, a daughter. She is the guarantee of family honour and, worse still, of the nation’s identity. Her virtue is a public matter. Therefore, we still need to invent the woman who belongs to no one; one who will answer for her actions only as citizen A or B, and not according to her sex; the woman who can live independently of … the norms, the customs of patriarchy.
The current global struggle for individual liberty is underreported and its effects have been underestimated. Leïla Slimani has provided another volley in that battle. She forcefully reminds us of the feminist dimension of that worldwide fight and shows that the rights of man are as nothing if the rights of woman are ignored. In a world full of religious misogyny, from Iran to America, it must always be remembered that women’s rights matter—and, so long as the world’s Scheherazades continue to speak up and assert themselves, they will be secured.