Sex and the Sharia

Mona, an 18-year-old from Egypt, wanted to know if when she sleeps in her bed and hugs her pillow, "but I am not at all occupied with my reproductive organs," it could be considered masturbation. She referred the question to experts in sharia, the Islamic legal code, who are involved with the important Islamic Web site, "Islam Online." A young Syrian who identified himself as Abed wanted to know how he could break free of his "secret habit" - the code word for masturbation - during the holy month of Ramadan.

"My problem is," wrote Abed, "that I cannot take my eyes off the beautiful girls, and they tempt me. Is this a weakness of my faith, or of the girls?" The anonymous clergyman who responded to Abed feels this is a case of weakness of Abed's faith, and not of the girls, and that "we mustn't judge others." He then suggests Abed stop exposing himself to temptations, that he curtail his television viewing and reduce his use of the Internet - the same Internet that provides him with this answer.

Young Arabs can finally speak publicly about masturbation and get advice on Web sites, but the same cannot be said for subjects that pertain to intimate relations between men and women. Limited sex education is offered at a few schools, and there is even one Web site that is concerned with sex education in Arabic. On the site, questions from Muslims living in the Arab states as well as in the West, who prefer to ask and receive answers in Arabic, are referred to Dr. Khaled Muntasser. However, the site deals mainly with the medical and physiological side, and not the emotional side, or what might be described as the joys of sex.

A Bahrain woman called Amal Obeid now seeks to close this gap. Obeid is a physicist by training, who spent many years in education before taking early retirement, and now wishes to devote her time to emotional sex education. She calls the project "Friendly Marriage." It aims to provide instruction to young women before their marriage, as well as those who have already married, on how to enjoy sex and also enjoy their spouses.

Deep ignorance

The project is not merely the offbeat whim of a Bahraini educator; it is an outgrowth of the systematic collation of the complaints of young women, including some who aired their grievances publicly in the Bahraini courts that address women's status issues prior to arriving at court decisions on divorce cases. "Our problem is that we relate to sex as something forbidden, which is against the sharia," said Obeid in an interview with the Al-Arabiya network. "But the Koran itself talks about sexual relations. It is a subject we should be teaching our children from junior-high-school age until the time they complete their studies in university."

Obeid decided to do something, and not make do with acting through the Bahrain Women's Society, one of the strongest NGOs in Bahrain. She directly approached the National Institute for Strategic Development and proposed it adopt the subject as a national project, as it pertains to the education of generations to come. Adoption of the project by the institute would, she said, grant it official sanction, "because in matters such as this, the only way we can act is through official channels." What Obeid meant was that sex education of the sort she was proposing is liable to come up against the sharp opposition of clergymen who would view the proposal, as has happened elsewhere, as "a proposal for prostitution education."

In the interview, Obeid was asked why she decided to begin with instruction to women and whether men were not equally ignorant on the subject. She replied that ignorance was the province of men no less than it is of women, "but women are more open to conversation and talking and it is also they who suffer more from the absence of education." Essentially, women have more opportunities to discuss these subjects, not only with their girlfriends but also with their physicians and in women's clubs, and this led to the decision to begin the project with them.

In order to promote the educational project, Obeid enlisted a cadre of male and female physicians who come into daily contact with female patients. Side by side with these medical practitioners, she is also seeking the help of women who are experts in Islamic law and who would bestow the appropriate religious endorsement on the sex education project, in order to avoid a situation in which religious figures might lash out at the project and kill it before it could realize its objectives.

The involvement of the Islamic legal code in the intimate relations between man and woman is a subject of great interest, but one that also suffers from profound lack of knowledge. Bahraini journalist Rim Halifa, who writes for the Al-Wasat newspaper and participates in many Internet forums, states that many men feel, for instance, that it is enough for them to marry in "marriages of pleasure" - arrangements in which a couple is allowed to marry momentarily and then get divorced - in order to be immune to sexual diseases simply by having neutralized the prohibition on extramarital sex through the fictitious marriage. Halifa relates that many doctors have a hard time explaining to their patients that sexual relations that confer with the sharia do not offer guaranteed immunity from disease.

Embarrassed preachers

Halifa's words, as well as the project proposed by Obeid, generated numerous responses among readers and visitors to Internet sites. Many men and women welcomed Obeid's initiative and expressed willingness to take part in the project. An especially interesting response came from a young Saudi who related to the language side of sex education. "We avoid the word `sex' in our language, and in its stead we prefer `clean' words like coupling. In so doing, we are saying that sex is a word that does not belong to the proper Arab discourse."

The avoidance of the word sex goes against the spirit of the religion and the Koran, feels the Saudi youth, because if we are commanded to be fruitful and to multiply, this is a commandment that should make the person happy and not take away from his pleasure and happiness. Moreover, he adds, "according to the religion the woman can receive a decree of divorce from her husband through a court if she proves that he does not function sexually."

These sorts of issues are almost completely absent from the public religious discourse, since "electronic preachers" - those who frequently appear on televised religious programs - steer clear of the subject of sex.

Sheikh Wael al-Zered, one of the most popular preachers in Gaza and a member of an association of sharia scholars, admits that sex and the handling thereof suffers from neglect, since "if the young people do not learn from us about sex, they will learn it from others," in other words from pornography and from Western newspapers. However, he explains that the problem is that the preachers themselves suffer from a lack of knowledge as to how to explain the subject, and are embarrassed to talk about sex in public.

On the other hand, the sharia scholars cite an entire series of books written about sexual relations in accordance with the sharia, books that young people can find at bookshops in the large cities of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. But Arab youths say these books are difficult to understand because they use terminology from the Koran or from the oral tradition that is so hazy as to make it difficult to know what exactly they intend.

Al-Ma'arfa (The Knowledge), a publication of the Saudi Education Ministry, admits its own editorial staff struggled with the question of whether to address the subject of sex education for young people, and if so, how to go about it. "Some of us feel these are matters that can be avoided and that there is no reason to rush to talk about the subject; others feel it is an urgent issue and stress the fact that this is not something that clashes with the religious law." In the end, the journal opted to translate articles from the foreign press and to present them to readers without further comment.

One interesting article that appeared in the journal notes that there are Arabic Web sites that can give good advice to young people, and it directs them especially to "Islam Online," which is hosted by the important sharia scholar Yusef al-Kardawi. The authors of the article complained that Arabic-speakers still lack a sophisticated Internet search engine that enables users to search for the word pair "sex education" without having to divide the words, such that the word "sex" appears separately, thereby exposing the searchers to "unsuitable" sites. This comment is inexact, because a search using Google in Arabic netted some 545 possible results for the expression "sex education" (as compared with 54,000 results for the word coupling). Perplexed, the Saudi journal asked its readers for advice on what to do, but the answers were not published.

In the absence of agreement on the most suitable type of instruction, the respected Islamic Web sites continued to be the oracle of young Muslim men and women on matters of "proper behavior," as it is they that enjoy a degree of legitimacy in addressing questions on sex without being accused of deviation from the religion.