Veils and vaginas – why do patriarchies control sex?
In an incendiary article in Foreign Policy magazine titled Why Do They Hate Us? [link no longer works] Mona Eltahawy lays bare the “pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East” with a catalogue of politically or culturally sanctioned sexual abuses against Arab women. From the Egyptian criminal code to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report to her own recent experiences of sexual assault in a Cairo protest march – both by a member of the public and by the Egyptian riot police – Eltahawy starkly depicts the sexual violence and repression institutionalized throughout the region. Her conclusion, iterated after a scant two paragraphs, is that Arab men hate women.
Having presented her evidence Eltahawy moves on to answer the titular question. She identifies sex as the key, arguing that patriarchies control sex from “the suspicion that without it, a woman is just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability”. Eltahawy bristles at this injustice. It is not women but men who are unable to control their sexuality. She name-checks patriarchal structures and “worship of a misogynistic God” but doesn’t dwell on the principal question.
Derailed by her own understandable indignation, Eltahawy devotes most of the article’s remainder to further examples of repression and abuse. Deeper questions pass unasked. Where does this suspicion of insatiability stem from? Why can’t Arab men control their urges? What’s behind the patriarchal control of female sexuality?
Eltahawy has identified symptoms but not causes.
The article had a polarising effect, even among Arab women. Joumana Haddad, a Lebanese activist and the founder of Jasad, an Arabic magazine with an unprecedented focus on the body, largely agreed. But she balked at Eltahawy’s below-the-belt punch-line: “It’s not about men hating women; it’s about monotheistic religions hating women. They continually reinforce patriarchal standards and patterns that have existed long before”.
Nesrine Malik accused the article of over-simplification: “instead of unravelling and unpicking the usual stereotypes… the author simply reinforced a monolithic view”. Malik then listed her own contributing factors: “entrenched tribal allegiances, pre-Islamic mores and social tradition…”
Al-Monitor blogger Mona Kareem sagely observed that patriarchy preceded monotheistic religion: “we live in patriarchal societies, and the foundations of Middle East-based monotheistic religious texts are established on this patriarchy”.
Eltahawy and her respondents glimpse something in the mists of pre-Islamic history. But further insight is frustratingly absent. Why do patriarchal societies permit this repression – or is there something inherent in their structure that actually requires it?
In The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality (1932), Wilhelm Reich1 makes a case for the economic basis of sexual repression in patriarchal societies, demonstrating how the system is expressly designed to return wealth to the society’s elite and prevent economically disadvantageous marriages. Reich further argues that sexual repression creates a compliant population that sublimates its unspent sexual energy into work, making it more productive.
Sexual repression is initially achieved through the separation of genders in childhood, and the quashing of natural adolescent sexual inquisitiveness, with breaches punished by humiliation and often sex-based violence. The caning on the backside practised in British schools (and its colonies) until relatively recently is a remnant of this. The issues raised by Eltahawy are not exclusive to the Arab world.
Over generations the population becomes conditioned to inherently believe in the ‘wrongness of sex’; in other words sex becomes institutionalised as socially illegitimate. Sex is sanctioned within the narrow confines of heterosexual marriage to maintain the population base but, at the deepest emotional levels, the overriding sense is that sex is shameful. Sex is dangerous. It can get you in trouble.
In such a society men do not seek sexual pleasure (for themselves or their partners); they seek only to vent their pent-up frustrations so they can get on with the socially acceptable parts of their lives.
Sex is shameful
This dynamic is neatly illustrated in Distant View of a Minaret, a short story by Alifa Rifaat referred to by Eltahawy. In this story a man refuses to prolong the sex act beyond his own orgasm to provide the same satisfaction to his wife. Rifaat writes that he does this “as though purposely to deprive her,” which is true – but not the whole truth. “Purposely” implies consciousness; in actuality the man has internalised his society’s sexual negativity to the point of being unaware of it. So, yes, he has a hidden desire to deprive – punish is a better word – his wife for her desires.
But another emotion is also present: having climaxed, his own desire is spent and his brief ecstasy gives way to shame. Previously masked by the urgency of his lust, this manifests as a vague sense of nausea that is amplified by his aroused but unsatisfied wife. The emotional equation is simple: more sex = more nausea. To avoid this he hurries to his prayers, leaving his wife frustrated and feeling belittled for her natural urges.
Rifaat’s story is just a single example but it contains the blueprint for every instance of sexual repression. Such men loathe themselves for having sexual feelings – a loathing of which they are unconscious until it is activated by female sexuality. At this point they erroneously and irresponsibly project their painful feelings onto women2.
The male misperception that women are responsible for their sexual shame authorises the patriarchal elite to implement a range of measures aimed at diminishing the female ability to arouse the male: female genital mutilation, keeping women housebound, requiring chaperones and/or veils in public, stoning for adultery. What the men who apply these measures fail to appreciate is that they too are victims of sexual repression.
Deprived of the ability to mature into sexually healthy men, in deeply patriarchal societies boys all too frequently grow into sexually immature and over-excitable adults.
Deprived of the ability to mature into sexually healthy men, in deeply patriarchal societies boys all too frequently grow into sexually immature and over-excitable adults. They are more at ease with violence than with sex. As Eltahawy graphically documents, they struggle to contain their urges in the presence of women3.
To manage these urges, Arab societies traditionally implemented measures designed to ensure male access to sex. These include child brides; polygamy; the use of force by husbands against sexually unyielding wives. Yet the underlying male loathing remains, seething beneath the surface of society, prone to eruption at any moment.
The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring’s disruption to law and order has created new opportunities for politically sanctioned sexual violence. Examples include the sexual abuse of CBS reporter Lara Logan, the Egyptian virginity tests4 and the gang-rape of Iman al-Obeidi by troops loyal to former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. As a growing number of Egyptian women have found, the Tahrir Square protests have provided opportunities for civilians and police alike to vent their sexual rage.
Patriarchal control of female sexuality is intended to minimise the disruption to a sexually unstable male working class by female sexual allure, and additionally punish the women for (in their eyes) causing this instability.
The hatred in the eyes of Arab men identified by Eltahawy stems from a combination of sex being taboo and a sense of shame when that taboo is violated. The man who avoids sex feels rage for being unable to vent his pent-up desires. The man who has sex feels rage for having to do something socially illegitimate to express his impulses. The outcome of this Catch-22 is the sexual abuse endemic in all patriarchies. This suggests another question: why are these societies so deeply patriarchal?
In Saharasia (1998) geographer James DeMeo, PhD, uses a wealth of anthropological data to argue that in the Middle East and Central Asia, relatively egalitarian societies gave way to militant patriarchies around 4000 BC following the desertification of these once-fertile regions. With the collapse of food supplies in the central Sahara, its once-peaceful inhabitants invaded the adjacent fertile lands.
Male violence became the most desirable social characteristic. Softer human aspects such as sexuality compromised the discipline, cohesion and therefore the safety of the tribal unit. The tribes that most inhibited sex became the most violent and this, in Darwinian terms, conferred an evolutionary advantage. For the tribes that survived this cataclysmic era to become the progenitors of the modern Middle East, sexual repression was a necessary cost.
Over the course of centuries patriarchy rippled outwards through what DeMeo terms the ‘Saharasian borderlands’. As societies coalesced and political boundaries arose, the conflict between life and death evolved into a conflict between order and chaos. Men represented the former and women the latter. As Eltahawy mentions, the notion of female insatiability as a threat to ordered society is alive and definitely kicking.
In Arab society’s distorted unconscious, woman is the Great Temptress. As a result of her wantonness the call of the muezzin would be drowned by an endless chorus of orgiastic moaning. The water-wheels would grind to a halt and civilization crumble into the eddying desert sands. The concept is laughable when reduced to such cartoonish proportions but the underlying sentiment is tearfully true. Female sexual liberation frightens sexually disempowered men to the point of violence5.
The sexual genie
Yet what is this order supposedly being maintained by female sexual repression? Ultimately it is nothing but the patriarchy itself, an empty structure prolonging its own existence. The Arab Spring demonstrates that, politically at least, that existence is being challenged. Now courageous women like Mona Eltahawy have opened a second front in the assault upon the patriarchy. The sexual genie is out of the bottle and won’t be going back in.
Eltahawy wrote that “The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man… but they will be finished by Arab women.” To some extent, yes. But patriarchy is not simply a conflict between genders; it is a social model in which both genders lose out in different ways.
Patriarchal societies dispossess both women and men of their sexual sovereignty. The resulting characteristics, female repression and male rage, are how this dispossession plays out. Growing numbers of men are realising this. Ultimately sexual repression can only be ended by both genders together, side by side, hand in hand, and – in place of the hatred that Eltahawy now sees – with joy, love and an acceptance of natural human sexuality in their eyes.
1. Austrian-born psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) remains a controversial figure to this day. A student of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, he wrote several highly respected books including Character Analysis and a study on the rise of Nazism, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (both 1933). Reich believed in the importance of adolescent sexuality. He was an early proponent of sexual empowerment for women, including contraception, abortion and divorce. These views saw him hounded out of Nazi Germany and Scandinavia.
Moving to America in 1939, Reich focused on Orgone, a primordial energy he claimed to have discovered. His ‘Orgone accumulator’ – a device supposedly capable of curing cancer – attracted the ire of the US Food & Drug Administration and in 1956 Reich was sentenced to two years in prison after what some writers claim was a flawed trial process. By the time of his death from a heart attack in 1957, Reich held delusional beliefs about conspiracies to silence his discoveries. His Orgone theory remains disputed. However, his early work (including the period when The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality was written) has stood the test of time.
2. This happens in all societies, though usually in diluted forms compared with the Middle East. This may be explained by the theory posited by James DeMeo in Saharasia.
3. The effect of sexual repression upon males is not only psychological. Reports in the Khaleej Times indicate that 10% of men in the Middle East suffer from erectile dysfunction. Furthermore, over 50% of men above the age of 40 in the United Arab Emirates have some degree of impotence.
4. The two-faced nature of male sexual rage is clearly at work here. Under the pretence that the virginity tests both protect the woman from rape and prevent false rape claims, the men involved grant themselves sexual access (satisfying their desire for sex) while simultaneously violating the woman for having such a desirable orifice (satisfying their desire for sexual punishment).
5. This was demonstrated in Cairo on 9 June 2012. Several hundred men sexually assaulted en masse about 50 women demanding an end to sexual harassment.