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Sexual taboo in the Middle East

Young women in many cultures in the developing world still face challenges that result to their marginalization. The problem is more prevalent with many cultures of the Middle East especially those that profess Muslim faith. As a result, women are the most widely affected by problems such as war, rape, and poor health, low level of education or literacy and disease. Similarly, the high incidences of polygamy, cultural pressure, and violence have diminished the voice of young girls when it comes to negotiating for a good and safe reproductive health. On the face value, the Middle East is known for its high preference of family values, as well as conservative and paternalistic culture. This is usually a cliché that masks the real situation in the region.[citation needed] The Middle Eastern culture perpetuates many norms that hinder young people especially women from accessing information on sex and reproductive health.

There is a wide gap in sexual and reproductive health development for young women in Middle East. The gap widens as the policymakers and media plays remain ignorant of the dangers of not talking about sex and how sexual health plays into the entire healthcare system. It is noteworthy that professional development for media professional, political and public good will and the alignment of policy, research, and media practice are vital to change the current discourse. Breaking sexual debate taboos and allowing women access to reproductive health education is freedom in its own right.

In addition to the plights of the women who’ve suffered unduly due to both the political and sociological nature of many countries in the Middle East, there also exists the taboo of homosexual relations. In the pre-modern Middle East homosexual activities were both used to dominate one's rivals and express sentuality in the form of pederasty. What were once behaviors that incurred little social backlash are now reasons for ostracization and punishment.


Media and sexual educationEdit

The available information in the media reveals that children and teenagers are often considered to be separate from the larger community. In such patriarchal societies gender bias is common and women are mostly at a disadvantage because they are voiceless even when it concerns matters of their bodies. Consequentially, there is a wide gap that remains unattended when it comes to fund allocation for education, health, social services and the media that offers a voice to the marginalized women. (NO CITATION)

Media literacyEdit

It is paramount to look at sexual and reproductive education challenges using a single service delivery system as opposed to the current disposition of no vision at all. Among the numerous problems dogging media literacy in Middle East are reproductive health and sexual health issues (Saleh, 2010).[1] The twist in the tale is that premarital sex is largely prohibited while media coverage of such issues as sexual and reproductive health is considered taboo. This indicates a society characterized by self-denial and hypocrisy because people know and even think that sexual reproduction health is crucial but nobody wants to confront it (Saleh, 2009).[2]

Factors reinforcing sexual taboosEdit

The current predicament stems from the persistence of sexual taboos owing to concurrent factors such as, little knowledge of life-span mechanics, divergent public and political good will, marginal development of media trainers, disconnect between research, practice, and policy in media development (Roundi-Fahmi, & Ashford, 2008).[3]

Political and public goodwillEdit

There is a wide agreement among activists and intellectuals on the non-existence of professional development on crucial fields such as health care and media. It is therefore commonplace to find these professionals lacking the knowhow in terms of strategies or tactics that could be used to reach out to the young people especially women who need to learn more about their sexual health and reproduction. Another cause of disconnect is that many professionals are afraid of speaking taboo topics not to upset the system. Additionally, there is also the lack of sufficient health professionals as well as lack of interest among the professionals to employee the limits resources to gain or develop modern tactics (NO CITATION)

Policy research and practiceEdit

Disconnect between policy, research, and practice is detrimental to sexual and health reproduction in Middle East. Usually, the official policies in Middle East do less than combat the underlying sexual taboo (Saleh, 2010).[4] Additionally, the policy makers focus on the issue adopting diagnostic approaches instead of providing prescriptive approaches that could help solve the problem once and for all. Sadly, the media in Middle East has also adopted the behaviour from the political class where they are reluctant to break the taboos.

Islam and homosexualityEdit

Although not a definitive indication of societal behavior, as will be made clear in the following sections, under Islamic law homosexual acts are unequivocally prohibited. The Koran refers to homosexuals as Lot’s people (quam Lut), Lot being the prophet who preached against homosexuality in the cities of Sodom and Gomorra. According to Kligerman, “In the Qur’an, Lut questions, ‘How can you lust for males, of all creatures in the world, and leave those whom God has created for you as your mates? You are really going beyond all limits’… The Prophet Muhammad adds, “Doomed by God is who does what Lot’s people did [ie homosexuality].’”[5]

Muhammad adds that, “’No man should look at the private parts of another man, and no woman should look at the private parts of another woman, and no two men sleep [in bed] under one cover, and no two women sleep under one cover.’ In his last speech, known as the ‘Farewell Sermon’, the Prophet added a last condemnation of homosexuality, saying, ‘Whoever has intercourse with a woman and penetrates her rectum, or with a man, or with a boy, will appear on the Last Day stinking worse than a corpse; people will find him unbearable until he enters hell fire, and God will cancel all his good deeds.’”[5]

Homosexual behaviorEdit

As stated prior, the religious prescriptions of Islam are not a definitive indication of one’s behavior in society. Although one may be hesitant to proclaim themselves openly as homosexual, it is not uncommon for one to participate in homosexual activities so long as they simultaneously uphold other societal norms. One essential institution in the Middle East is the family. So long as a man upholds this institution, by taking a wife and fathering children, what occurs in private will be of no interest to others.[6] “Known homosexuals were tolerated in public office if they continue to publicly live a heterosexual lifestyle. For instance, Sultan Mehmet II, Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, and [Mahmud Ghaznawi], who invaded India from Afghanistan, are both important historical figures and known gays. Both men had several wives and children. While Westerners would view these men—and those like them—as bisexual, Muslims view them as consistent with shari’a; they maintained an outwardly conforming appearance in terms of familial and public life but happened to engage in homosexual activity.”[6] Homosexual acts can also be well received if they allude to an expression of dominance over another, “’In Turkey, Egypt and the Maghreb, men who are ‘active’ in sexual relations with other men are not considered homosexual; the sexual domination of other men even confers a status of hyper-masculinity.’”[7]

A distinction seems to be made between the active partner and the receiving one, the pathic. In the former category one is viewed positively because they either retain their masculinity through the active role or use it as a means toward the degradation of the pathic. A great anecdote to the latter manifestation can be seen in this story,

“Toward the end of the year 1701, a Druze chieftain (Emir) from the Wādī alTaym area in Syria came to Damascus to be officially invested as head military official (Yāyābāshī) of his home region by the governor of the city. According to a contemporary chronicler, the Emir was a notorious womanizer, who ‘in Damascus was determined to conduct himself with his characteristic lewdness.’ Once, while at the house of a local woman, he was surprised by around twenty Turcoman soldiers, who gang-raped him and robbed him of his clothes, leaving him barefoot and clad only in his inner garments. ‘He who encroaches upon the womenfolk (h.arı¯m) of the Muslims deserves more than this,’ they reportedly said before letting him go. ‘News of the incident,’ the chronicler added, ‘reached the women and children [of the city], and songs about him [i.e., the Emir] were composed and performed by singers . . . He then departed to the land of the Druzes, his home, and it was said that the woman remained untainted [i.e., she was not dishonored before the arrival of the soldiers], and thus God forsook the damned Emir at the hands of the Turcomans.’”[8] The people viewed Turcomans treatment of the Emir as an honorable one. There focus was not on whether or not such acts constituted anything that could be identified as “homosexual” in nature, but rather the effects that such actions would have on the Emir. The Emir, by being both the receiver (the pathic) of the sex act and by doing so against his will (as a result of his attempt to defile, so to speak, the local woman) is stripped of his dignity which has subsequently been transferred to his conquerors. “[T]o penetrate phallically is to dominate, subjugate, and ultimately to humiliate”[8]

Pederasty in pre-modern Middle East (1500-1800 CE)Edit

From as best as can be understood, pederasty, or amorous and sexual relations between men and adolescent boys, has, to a greater or lesser extent, been prevalent throughout numerous cultures over various periods of time. This term may be confused with pedophilia, which is characterized by a sexual attraction to children who have not yet begun pubertal development. Some too draw a distinction between what might be called a biological definition of childhood and a socio-legal one.[9] The former characterizing childhood in terms of the biological distinctions present in that stage in relation to other stages of development (infancy, adolescence, adulthood, etc.) and the latter characterizing the child in terms of both the prescribed sociological and legal distinctions.

Pederasty is a phenomenon that can be found historically in places such Ancient Greece, Rome, China, and Japan. There have also been such inclinations and behaviors found in the Middle East as well. During the pre-modern period (1500-1800 CE) there was a widespread conviction that beardless youths were a temptation to adult men as a whole, and not merely to a small minority of deviant.

“Traditions warning against the temptation posed by beardless youths were numerous, some of them attributed to prominent religious figures of the early Islamic period, others to the Prophet Muhammad himself. One tradition related that the Prophet prohibited men from gazing at beardless boys, and another that Muhammad himself had seated a handsome young member of a visiting delegation from the tribe of Qays behind him so as to avoid looking at him.”[10]

Though such an attraction, or at least such behavior, was not equal amongst all regions of the Middle East nor was it so through all pre-modern time periods. Still though its presence is salient.

"Mālikī scholars of the early Ottoman period repeatedly confirmed that a man would negate his state of ritual purity if he touched with lust the skin of a beardless or downy-cheeked youth, since they fell under the category of that 'which is normally the object of lust.'"[11]

Many Westerns have noted the pederistic tendencies of those in the Middle East,

“[T]he Englishman Joseph Pitts, a sailor who was a captured and sold into slavery at Algiers in 1678, to escape fifteen years later, noted:

This horrible sin of Sodomy is so far from being punish’d amongst them, that it is part of their ordinary Discourse to boast of their detestable Actions of that kind. ’Tis common for Men there [Algiers] to fall in Love with Boys, as ’tis here in England to be in Love with Women.

The French traveler C. S. Sonnini, who visited Egypt between 1777 and 1780, made a similar observation:

The passion contrary to nature . . . the inconceivable appetite which dishonored the Greeks and Persians of antiquity, constitute the delight, or, to use a juster term, the infamy of the Egyptians. It is not for the women that their amorous ditties are composed: it is not on them that tender caresses are lavished; far different objects inflame them.” [12]

While of perhaps only of an anecdotal interest, the reactions of Muslims visiting Europe lend further credence to the claim of this distinct cultural difference,

“[T]he Moroccan scholar Muh. ammad al-S. affār, who visited Paris in 1845– 46, wrote: Flirtation, romance, and courtship for them take place only with women, for they are not inclined to boys or young men. Rather, that is extremely disgraceful to them. The Egyptian scholar Rif āah al-T. aht.āwī, who was in Paris between 1826 and 1831, noted: Amongst the laudable traits of their character, similar really to those of the Bedouin [arab], is their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in poetry, for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals. One of the positive aspects of their language and poetry is that it does not permit the saying of love poetry of someone of the same sex. Thus, in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth ( ghulām), for that would be an unacceptable and awkward wording. Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying in the translation: I loved a young female ( ghulāmah) or a person (dhātan).”[12]

At the end of his book Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, Khaled El-Rouayheb concludes,

“Falling in love with a teenage youth and expressing this love in verse were not punishable offenses, and a significant number of Islamic scholars, though not all, asserted that such behavior was not objectionable.”[13]

While not indicative of the Middle East as a whole, these anecdotal accounts provide at least some bases for the existence of such preferences in the pre-modern Middle East. Many men did in fact lead normal live wherein they married and fathered children without indulging in young boys. Others, and likely more than one might think, were quite enchanted by the beauty of youths just as much or more than they were the beauty of women.

Western moral influenceEdit

Today, for some, the Middle East is known as one of the most repressive regions with regards to sexual expression. Some historians have noted, however, that with respect to homosexuality, such repression was, imported, so to speak, from the West. [T]he encounter with European Victorian morality was to have profound effects on local attitudes toward what came to be called “sexual inversion” or “sexual perversion” (shudhūdh jinsā).[14] With the Middle East’s contact with the West cam an increasing importance placed on assimilation, so to speak, with the values and systems prescribed from the West. The rise in participation in international markets came the destruction of the kinship-based community and an increasing stigma toward homosexuality ”‘The concept of homosexuality as defining a particular type person and a category of ‘deviance’ came to the Middle East [through the agency] of the West’ as well. Until Western influence, homosexuality did not carry a negative connotation in the Muslim world. The change in community structure and the rising influence of Western perceptions thus largely created the contemporary taboo against homosexuality in Muslim societies.”[15]

Before this influence from the West there was no identity or concept of “homosexuality”, though in practice acts that could be considered homosexual in nature did occur, but it simply was not conceptualized as it is now. With the increased influence of the West, even if one were to abide by the societal norms that once made such behavior inconsequential, such homosexual behavior is now met with increased opposition.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Saleh, I., (2009). Media Literacy in MENA: Moving Beyond the Vicious Cycle of Oxymora, Mapping World Education Policies. Latin American Journal of Media Education. 31(1): 155-176
  2. ^ Saleh, I., (2009). Media Literacy in MENA: Moving Beyond the Vicious Cycle of Oxymora, Mapping World Education Policies. Latin American Journal of Media Education. 31(1): 155-176 .
  3. ^ Roundi-Fahmi, F. & Ashford, L., (2008). Sexual and Reproductive Health in the Middle East and North Africa. A guide for Reporters. Ford Foundation Office. Population Reference Bureau. 37-54
  4. ^ Saleh, l., (2010). Media Education in the Middle East & North Africa: Dancing naked in a Swamp of Coercive Societies. International Association for Media & Communication research (IACMR), Braga, Portugal.
  5. ^ a b Duran, Khalid. "Homosexuality in Islam." Homosexuality and World Religions. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity P International, 1993. 182.
  6. ^ a b Duran, Khalid. "Homosexuality in Islam." Homosexuality and World Religions. Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity P International, 1993. 190.
  7. ^ Dunne, Bruce. “Power and Sexuality in the Middle East.” Middle East Report, no. 206, 1998, pp. 8–37. JSTOR, JSTOR, [4] El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, University of Chicago Press, 2005. 10.
  8. ^ a b El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, University of Chicago Press, 2005. 13.
  9. ^ Ames Ma & Houston DA. Legal, social, and biological definitions of pedophilia. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 1990 Aug;19(4):333-42.
  10. ^ El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, University of Chicago Press, 2005. 113.
  11. ^ Ramlī, Shihab al-Dīn, Fatāwā, 3:172; Ramlī, Shams al-Dīn, Nihāyat al-muh . tāj, 6: 192–93; al-Khat . īb al-Shirbīnī, Mughnī al-muh . tāj, 3:130–31; Qalyūbī, H jayrimī, Tuh . fat al-h . abīb, 3:341–42; Bājūrī, H . āshiyah, 2:99.
  12. ^ a b El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, University of Chicago Press, 2005. 13.
  13. ^ El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, University of Chicago Press, 2005. 153.
  14. ^ El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, University of Chicago Press, 2005. 9.
  15. ^ Dunne, Bruce W. "Homosexuality in the Middle East: an Agenda for Historical Research." Arab Studies Quarterly 12 (1990): 1-18. 15 Dec. 2006. 12.