L.L. Wynn’s ‘Love, Sex and Desire in Modern Egypt’
An Egyptian actress is facing imprisonment for wearing a see-through dress that only revealed her legs. A few years ago, singer Rihanna attended a ceremony practically naked and was called a trend-setter. “Love, Sex and Desire in Modern Egypt” by L.L. Wynn explores female respectability and male honour in Egypt through interviews.
Wynn is an associate professor and head of the Anthropology Department at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. At the start of the book, she explains she had lived in Egypt for about two-and-a-half years while studying Arabic and researching her dissertation.
Wynn’s Egyptian husband accused her of prostituting herself for the sake of her research because she was talking to men. He claimed what he said was for her own good because he could see things from the Arab perspective and knows how Egyptians viewed her.
However, Wynn argues: “Most of the men I knew in Egypt always treated me like a sister or a respected colleague. Yet somehow, it is the ones who didn’t that I remember. It happened enough that I had gotten used to it and come to expect it. I no longer thought of it as sexual harassment, which seemed like a crude concept to translate across cultures.”
Ayah, a female interviewee, described the most common double standard in the Arab world: “A man can do whatever he pleases without facing social stigma. He can stay out with his friends and come home late at night. He can date, smoke, drink and even have premarital sex without people looking down on him.
“The last two are strictly prohibited in Islam but, culturally, they are tolerated behaviours for men. If a woman drinks, people will talk negatively behind her back and if she loses her virginity before marriage, she is considered practically unmarriageable, which is what drives the whole industry of hymen-replacement surgery.”
Kerim, a male interviewee, was asked if he would marry a waitress. He replied: “No matter what she’s like with me, I’ll never be able to forget that she used to be a waitress… Fifteen years from now, I’ll still always look back and remember how she had started working at a place like this where she was on display for all these men and probably all my friends were flirting with her. I’d never be able to get that out of my mind. I wouldn’t ever be able to respect her and I have to respect the mother of my children.”
Kerim said respectable women do not live alone unless they are studying. Wynn’s husband warned her to always talk about her family so people would think she was respectable because someone without relations could not be trusted.
Kerim also mentioned women who are “sukhna awi” [“too hot”]. “They’re always going to find trouble because they can’t keep their desire under control and men pick up on that so they find themselves in the category of women who men want to play around with but will never marry. Then they get older and older and they get a reputation and then they find that they can’t get married at all,” he said.
Sara, another interviewee, said she had an affair with a married man and was looked down on for it. “They would accuse me of taking him away from his family,” she said. “Of course, it’s not forbidden — he can marry up to four — but the way Egyptians see it, it’s wrong to take him from his wife and especially take him from his children.”
Engaged couple Ayah and Zeid said they did not perfectly live up to Egyptian ideals of femininity and masculinity, nor did they always agree on their roles. Ayah rebelled against Zeid’s attempts to assert his masculine authority and Zeid felt Ayah’s demands for expensive excursions were not in line with his ideal of a supportive, passive fiancee, even though her assertiveness and independence were part of what he said he loved about her.
However, the burden of reputation is not exclusive to the Arab world.
Kathleen Stewart, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, described a small West Virginia coal-mining town in a way that could equally apply to a North African megapolis: “Imagine a vigilant scanning become automatic, relentless, compulsive. Picture people, how they stare as you pass, keeping track. Imagine scanning for signs, how everything depends on things overheard, overseen.”
Although the first half of the book is more engaging than the second, “Love. Sex and Desire in Modern Egypt” is an important study of double standards in the Arab world.