No sex please, we’re Middle Eastern
Jan 2nd 2016 Economist
It was a disquieting announcement. On November 25th Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi approved a committee tasked with “improving the morals and values” in his country. Efforts to reduce littering or sexual harassment, both plagues in Egypt, might be welcome. But experience in the Middle East suggests that the boot will be put into more harmless activities.
In September, for example, Egypt locked up two belly-dancers for “inciting debauchery” after they showed a little skin in online videos; one of the dancers, known as “Egypt’s Shakira”, is most famous for a video which features much suggestive use of a pestle and mortar, but no more flesh than is revealed by a low-cut blouse and an above-the-knee skirt. A young Egyptian couple tells of police accusing them of being together without being married, something that is not banned in the country. Across the region gay people, atheists and dissidents are punished for their supposed moral transgressions.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, regional and religious rivals, are the bossiest. Both regimes claim to be Islamic. Both have vice squads. In Iran they berate women for showing too much fringe; in Saudi Arabia, for wearing too flirty an abaya, the big, usually black, cloak that is mandatory for females there, or being in the company of unrelated males. They enforce bans on alcohol, parties and other things that normal people, even the most morally upright, enjoy. Saudi media recently reported that female bureaucrats wearing too much make-up would be fined 1000 riyals ($266).
In November Saudi Arabia sentenced Ashraf Fayadh, a poet, to death. He was accused of apostasy and of having illicit relations with women, whose images he stored in his phone. He denies the charges. He had previously posted a video showing the religious police whipping a man; his supporters think the police are taking revenge. Saudi Arabia beheads people for moral transgressions. Iran hangs them.
Police in Algeria, Morocco and Sudan, too, have powers to stamp out immorality. Sudan’s criminal code, which outlaws adultery and women wearing trousers, is particularly harsh. Vague laws across the region such as causing offence and encouraging indecency are broad and open to abuse. Violators can be flogged.
Since the 1970s Arab populations have grown more devout. This makes it easier for rulers to use “morality” to keep them in line. Women, especially, are told how to dress and under what circumstances they may have sex.
In Morocco and Algeria, women who are raped are sometimes made to marry their rapist.
Social censure is pervasive, and can be deadly. Even in moderate countries such as Jordan, men sometimes kill women to uphold family “honour”. The murderers—usually a father or brother—often escape with light sentences. “If I go out with a boyfriend in Beirut it’s fine,” says a Lebanese Christian woman. “But in the villages, people will say, ‘Look, she’s seeing him and they’re not married’.”
Some among the region’s ever more globalised young are pushing back. Grindr and Tinder, two hook-up apps for gays and straights respectively, have a fair number of users in the Middle East. Men and women mix and, more and more, choose their own partners. When parts of films are cut, such as an explicit scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, people go online to watch the full version. In Jeddah, if not Riyadh, colourful abayas swing open as unrelated men and women mingle in cafés.
A few leaders say they want to give people a break. Hassan Rohani, Iran’s relatively moderate president, has talked about stopping the religious police from fining women for failing to conceal their hair, wrists and bottoms. Such small freedoms, so far only very partially implemented, would be popular.
Some of the region’s moral arbiters do not practise what they preach, as bartenders and madams in posh parts of Europe can attest. Imagine if the vice police cracked down on hypocrisy.