The Maghreb needs a sexual revolution

While modernisation has touched many aspects of life in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, almost nothing has changed in terms of sex education.
Saturday 05/10/2019
A Tunisian couple poses for a photograph with their 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter at their house in Tunis. (Reuters)
Breaking taboos. A Tunisian couple poses for a photograph with their 3-year-old son and 4-month-old daughter at their house in Tunis. (Reuters)

How do young men and women in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco live their love and sex lives? What is their attitude towards the perception of gender relations in their countries? How do they adapt to overwhelmingly conservative environments and sometimes strict norms and laws?

To quote Ines, a young Algerian woman, love between the sexes in the Maghreb is more of a battle than a picnic. She is referring to widespread sexual harassment in her country.

“We must pretend, feint and turn in circles to overcome the obstacles erected against love in the streets of Algiers and we have to ignore obscene remarks and touching by total strangers and it doesn’t matter whether we’re veiled or unveiled. Even completely covered females are not safe from these types of behaviour,” Ines said.

A UN study stated that 66% of Algerian women have been sexually harassed. Another young Algerian woman said it is the Algerian family code that is the source of the tragedy of the women. This is why so many are strongly involved in protests and are looking to change it.

While modernisation has touched many aspects of life in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, almost nothing has changed in terms of relations between the sexes and sex education. The topic of sex remains the ultimate taboo.

In Tunisia and Morocco, young men and women caught having sex outside the legal relationship of marriage can be sentenced to prison. In the three countries, virginity is valued at its weight in gold, even though hymen reconstruction surgery, practised clandestinely by many doctors, is a very profitable business before wedding seasons.

Lesbians, homosexuals and anyone convicted of “sexual deviance” can be sentenced to three months in jail. “In 2018, 200 homosexuals were arrested in Tunisia. Many homosexuals have left the country and those who have not done so risk their freedom and sometimes their lives,” said Tunisian sexologist Olfa Dakhlaoui.

She said we must stop pretending that religion is not responsible for sexual repression. “We raise our girls on strict ideas of ​​haram and halal and we create in them an enormous frustration. No wonder they grow up associating sex with fear,” Dakhlaoui said.

That was the experience of Moroccan writer Leila Soleimani, who wrote: “I wondered and brought back memories of my teenage days in Rabat in the 1990s. At that time, sex for me was associated with danger, violence and secrecy. I was terrified at the risk of unwanted pregnancy and the fear of being unable to get rid of the foetus in a country where abortion is forbidden.”

If Algeria prohibits abortion like Morocco, Tunisia does not.

Soleimani spoke of the barbaric ritual practised on young teenage females in which the girl’s grandmother or a close relative would mumble ridiculous gibberish, believed to have the power of protecting the girl’s virginity. Psychologically, that’s the equivalent of a permanent chastity belt.

It is not just teenagers who are affected. Men and women in the Maghreb do not live their love or sexual experiences normally but they must pretend and hide to the point that some relations turn into tragedies because of the lack of sexual human rights.

“Women have to endure many pressures and much coercion and bear many burdens,” Soleimani said. “Virginity is always sacred, cohabitation between the sexes is not allowed or deplorable in all cases and can be counted as prostitution punishable by imprisonment; even a stolen kiss in the street is seen as a very bad act.”

Although in Tunisia, cohabitation between a man and a woman is not explicitly forbidden by law, police often try to prove that it is a case of prostitution which could result in both partners sentenced to six months in prison. In Morocco, Article 490 of the Penal Code provides a 1-year prison sentence for anyone who has a sexual relationship outside the framework of marriage.

There is no freedom for lovers outside the institution of marriage. Very often in countries deriving their laws from sharia, a couple could not get a room in a hotel if they could not prove they are married. Such legal repression and social pressure often result in social and moral catastrophes, such as forced and arranged marriages, marital rape, the farce of hymen reconstruction, unattended births and discarding foetuses in garbage bags

The testimonies of many people are mirrors that reflect the image of a society, a culture and a religion and not just the intimate paths of individuals. Sexual rights are fundamental and political human rights and their repression serve authoritarian regimes.

So, when will we see a sexual revolution break out in the Maghreb countries that will restore to individuals their dignities, freedoms and bodies?