Under the Hijab, Porn Is Alive and Kicking

Despite prudish mores and bans on public displays of affection, salacious clips abound on websites in Muslim countries. And there's a rising demand for porn actors who come from those societies.

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Tour books for Middle Eastern and North African countries recommend that tourists show consideration for cultural codes, respect the locals and dress modestly. Not only when visiting mosques or churches, but in city streets and village alleyways as well. The most popular tourism sites, such as the pyramids in Egypt, are more accepting of visitors wearing short pants and skimpy dresses, according to the books. A group of Russian tourists apparently took that assumption a bit too far.

Earlier this month the newspaper Al-Masri Al-Youm reported on a short pornographic film that was shot in the area of the famed Giza pyramids, near the Sphinx, by Russian-speaking tourists. The clip has been online for over nine months and features salacious scenes, including oral sex. Clerics and others who consider the site an important part of Egypt's local heritage and history were furious. The offensive clip was seen as an effort to undermine the country's dignity.

Protesters have been calling to enforce Egyptian laws against kissing and other public displays of affection at tourism sites, and to reinforce police presence there. But the head of the government antiquities department maintains that tourists have their own culture and cannot be subject to prohibitions imposed on Egyptians.

Foreigner's “own culture” is definitely the issue here. Because it’s not that there’s no porn in the Arab world. On the contrary. Considering the severe restrictions and prohibitions that apply to the behavior of unmarried people – both written and unwritten – it’s no wonder that of the eight countries with the highest rate of surfing of Internet porn sites, six are Muslim. Pakistan is in first place, Egypt in second.

In recent years there have been experts in the Arab world, mostly women, who speak openly and publicly about sex and sexual practices in the Arab world, and call on women to recognize their own sexual needs and demand satisfaction. But this openness is limited to “permitted” relations – i.e., in the framework of legal marriage. Even watching porn is accepted by some Muslim clerics on condition that the couple watches together and that it helps to bring them closer, to increase sexual desire and to strengthen their marital bond.

But as in every traditional society, prohibitions against relations other than and outside marriage in the Muslim world are rigid, and young single men are becoming increasingly frustrated. Young Arabs remain frustrated, forbidden even to hold hands in public with their girlfriends unless they are at least engaged.

“An Educational Film,” an Egyptian movie made in 2000, tells about a group of young men who get hold of a porn film and keep trying to find a way to watch it without interference. Despite their best efforts they encounter one hitch after another.

“It may look like a stupid comedy,” said an Egyptian friend in his thirties. “But you have to understand that when it came out, it 'spoke' to me and my generation more than any other film. I see it as a super-critical film that speaks about the problem that bothered us most at that age and nobody talked to us about it.”

Porn, is an escape, he explained, adding, “Imagine what a distorted idea an entire generation of young people have about sex.” He expressed the paradox that porno, despite its excesses and dangers, still symbolizes freedom for young men.

Since the Internet has become omnipresent, porn has become so accessible that it sometimes serves as a sex guide for beginners, whether Arab or Western. British writer Martin Amis claims that Islamic terror stems from the sexual frustration of Muslim men, who find release, for example, by flying planes into phallic buildings.

Homemade sex clips

Porn is just about as accessible to young Arabs as it is to young people in the United States, and watching it is no longer such a big deal. The authorities in Muslim countries are, however, trying to reduce the phenomenon, either by cancelling satellite porn channels or by restricting Internet access. In Lebanon young men who distributed pirated porno movies have been arrested and tried; in Iran porn distributors risk the death sentence.

But Muslim men don’t seem about to give in. In Saudi Arabia there are those who sell “cards” that are used to break the code of pornographic satellite stations, and Internet restrictions can also be bypassed there.

Men and women all over the Arab world not only watch porn, they film themselves engaging in sexual relations or masturbating, and post the clips on the Internet. These are watched by Arabs from various countries who want to hear sex talk in their own language, and by surfers everywhere who are tired of the rigid and monotonous Western model of beauty. These film clips show voluptuous women and hairy men.

To become real porn stars, however, Arabs still have to move to the West. Three Arab gays have become famous in this genre. One of them, Tony Aziz of Lebanon, said that many gay men from the Arab world write to him, expressing admiration for his courage and thanking him for what he symbolizes for them.

Young Lebanese porn star Mia Khalifa, who is extremely successful, could develop her dubious career only in the West. She was born in 1993 and at the age of 7 moved with her family to the United States. In October she began her porn career. In her films she is almost always seen wrapped in a hijab or wearing a keffiyeh or an Arab kerchief over her shoulders, perhaps fulfilling the exotic Oriental fantasy of Western surfers.

That may be the reason for the anger in the Arab world whenever “Westerners” are involved. The West has always seen the East as a mysterious and mystical place, whose sons and daughters are both terrorists and objects of attraction, “noble savages.” It’s not that there’s a total denial of sex or porn in the Muslim world. What bothers its people is often the prying by outsiders who attempt to analyze the phenomena and reach unequivocal conclusions. For its part, however, it is doubtful whether the West is actually "proud" of the fact that porn has become part of the “white man’s burden.”