Screw taboos: Talking about sex in the Middle East

Lina Khoury, a Lebanese playwright, combats the silence surrounding sexuality, harassment and violence.

Tracy Clark-Flory
April 26, 2006 11:09PM (UTC)

Topics like masturbation and shaving one's pubic hair don't intimidate the women featured in yesterday's Washington Post. Risqué subjects like these have the power to incite uncomfortable giggling in the U.S., even post-"Vagina Monologues," but Lebanese playwright Lina Khoury and the actresses in her plays "Women's Talk" and "The Secret Life of a Woman" are tackling these issues in the Middle East, where they're even more taboo. They're also venturing into even more tenuous territory by openly discussing sexual and domestic violence.

Even in the liberal-leaning city of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, these are considered private issues. Khoury refuses to defer to cultural norms. "We have to question the very customs and traditions in our society that are besieging and oppressing us," she told Reuters. Inspired by "The Vagina Monologues," Khoury interviewed a number of local women. She incorporated the results of her interviews into the 12 scathingly honest monologues in "Women's Talk." Frank sex talk has whole new weight in a country where, according to Reuters, honor killings are still regularly reported. Beirut may be considered a liberal oasis, but it still took Khoury a year to have the play approved by censors.


What's most admirable is that Khoury is not preaching to women who have conservative views of sex; she isn't interested in derisively telling traditionalists that they've got it all wrong. Instead, she's targeting hypocrisy: "I am not addressing a veiled woman who thinks pre-marital sex is forbidden. I am condemning those who believe what I say is right and refuse to act on it, and those who do act on it but refuse to admit it in the open."

In "The Secret Life of the Woman," shown earlier this year, actresses handed the audience pamphlets about the joys of masturbation. One monologue, performed by Zeinab Assaf, tackled sexual harassment by a taxi driver: "He (the driver) asked me: 'so are you a virgin? How does your boyfriend sleep with you?' Sometimes I feel like I've left home without putting my jeans on."

The discussion of women's rights in the Middle East is so often spoiled by West vs. Mideast rhetoric (which, if anything, only amplifies the need for dialogue and raises the stakes), it's encouraging to see the conversation generated by women within Middle Eastern cultures.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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