Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author.
Author’s note: This letter is a brief introduction to my analysis of how sexuality is represented in Arab culture. It is meant to serve as a conversation starter. I want to emphasize my letter regards the sexual repression of Arab women in Arab culture. This is not a reflection of our status in any religion i.e. Christianity, Islam. Those who choose to conflate religion and culture are doing so by their own will and are deciding to be ignorant. Also, I understand that the problems and experiences I described are not pertinent to woman and girls, but also men and boys. However, because this issue is pressed upon females, I choose to recognize it as I did. If I misspoke or have written in a manner that offends you, please message me and allow me to mend and learn from my mistakes.
Dear Arab Sisters,
I am scared of intimacy, of sex, of relationships, of exposing myself to an environment I know nothing about. Sex was obsolete, invisible until sixth grade, and even then, I only knew of sex through the immature behavior of my peers.
I am 19-years-old, and my knowledge of sex is minimal. My hesitation lies in the fact sex has always been a silent conversation, or lack thereof. As a result, I am afraid to be intimate or in a relationship with someone else. Please note my “or” in the previous sentence was not to present two separate options, intimacy and relationships, but to present one option all together. I have created a connection between relationships and intimacy that is blurred, and what’s more, I regard relationships, intimacy, and sex as the same. And it is this conflation that has prevented me from pursuing men because I have internalized that relationships are sexually-orientated, and intimacy exists primarily as sex, absent of variation.
This is what happens when sex is a closed topic. Thus, when I write about “relationships,” I am also insinuating sex and intimacy, as my definition is a reflection of my experience with sexual expression. I was never able to use my parent’s relationship as a tool to differentiate these terms because my parents divorced when I was 12. I would like to excuse my nonexistent sexual education as a casualty of the divorce, but even after the divorce, talk of sex remained silent. Therefore, I contribute a large portion of my reluctance to my lack of sexual education.
Arab sisters, it’s important you see that we did not determine the importance of our virginity. We internalized a pre-made concept built in a patriarchal regime that governs the way we present ourselves physically and socially.
The remaining portion is credited to a cultural umbrella or theme I have internalized. Simply put, the umbrella is a cultivation of the following: sex and relationships are only for marriage, and if you engage in either or before marriage, you are unacceptable and troubled. If you are in a relationship and it ends, point blank, you are dirty. It is this umbrella with cultural ideals i.e. virginity embedded under it that prevent the formation of a safe space to talk about sex and sexuality. The purpose of this letter is to highlight a cultural standard that has limited our mobility of sexual expression. I would like to bring attention to the significance of virginity in Arab culture. I believe this is a major influence that perpetuates a blank sexual identity in Arab women.
An explanation of a blank sexual identity is necessary for you to fully comprehend the potential of this letter. From my understanding, the term “blank sexual identity” has no foundation in any academic papers. It is a term I use to describe my own sexual identity, but through discourse and academic papers on sexuality in Arab culture, I learned my experience is not just my own. Essentially, a blank sexual identity is a sexual identity that has not been developed on any platform. It is contingent on the experiences of other people and their relationships with sexuality or the behavior they emit because of it. More so, it can be an extension of any media outlet an individual is exposed to. Nonetheless, the individual’s relationship with sexuality is not their own design.
According to Abdessamad Dialmy, author of “Sexuality in Contemporary Arab Society,” virginity is a double standard that reinforces a binary and hierarchical sexual dichotomy between Arab men and women.
Virginity is a social construct, and as stated by numerous academics, it is “an artificial line,” used to indicate an individual’s purity that has or has not participated in sexual intercourse. However, it is incorrect to define virginity in a general context because virginity is not generalized. According to Abdessamad Dialmy, author of “Sexuality in Contemporary Arab Society,” virginity is a double standard that reinforces a binary and hierarchical sexual dichotomy between Arab men and women. Dialmy recognizes it as an asymmetrical polarity that identifies two roles: the sexually active and the sexually passive.
The passive is demoted as the inferior and is comprised of anyone that is not a heterosexual male. Dialmy explains the passive can be wives, children, slaves, homosexuals, and prostitutes. This sexual dichotomy is an extension of the gender dichotomy between men and women, and nonetheless a power dichotomy. Arab sisters, it’s important you see that we did not determine the importance of our virginity. We internalized a pre-made concept built in a patriarchal regime that governs the way we present ourselves physically and socially. Thus, we have internalized a concept that forces us to mold ourselves to fit the desires of our Arab men, because sex, according to an anonymous interviewee, “[is] connected to a man’s desire.” We are internalizing a concept and digesting it as part of our identity. We are scared to engage in sex because that is the difference between a wife and a girlfriend. We only know the fear associated with sex, not the pleasure.
Our perception of virginity was constructed with the hymen, the opening flesh of a vagina. And the presence of the hymen became an indicating factor of honor. But virginity should not be a scale of honor or worthiness. According to a source (cited below), “no one adds honor, or no one speaks of men’s virginity. […] Virginity is always spoken of women because it is known that there is evidence. For men, there isn’t.”
Our perception of virginity was constructed with the hymen, the opening flesh of a vagina. And the presence of the hymen became an indicating factor of honor. But virginity should not be a scale of honor or worthiness.
This is a blatant display of sexism that has instrumental effects on how Arab women express their sexuality. In an anonymous interview I conducted, a 35-year-old Lebanese American woman stated, “We were told sex was aiyb and we should wait until marriage. But this was usually one sided and told only to girls.” These standards imposed on girls prevents them from understanding relationships, sex, and intimacy in their entirety but also separately. To justify the previous statement, Sara, a 28-year-old, half-Lebanese woman stated, “My cousins who had lived in Kuwait their whole lives were coming to me for advice on sex, and one of them didn’t know what sex was until she was 16. Another didn’t know what STIs were until she was in her mid-20s.”
The conversation of sex needs to be initiated. We need to recognize that girls don’t engage in relationships out of fear of being labeled as a slut or whore. Or if they do, they enter into relationships with minimal information that can put them in vulnerable situations. This is the essence of a blank sexual identity that can only be resolved with education and a non-judgmental atmosphere.
To read the works cited by the author, check this list out:
Dialmy, Abdessamad. “Sexuality in contemporary Arab society.
Feki, Shereen El. “Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World.