Sex and Lies, by Leila Slimani, Faber & Faber, 176 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0571355037
In harrowing detail Leila Slimani in her new book details through her own voice and those of contemporary Moroccan women how sexual repression or a “moral dictatorship” leads to sexual lives and a sexual culture laced with “ignorance, prudery and violence” and to “violent and vicious social interactions”. As I found researching my own new book, Feminism Backwards, this same “ignorance, prudery and violence” was uncannily akin to how it used to be with us here in Ireland.
Morocco, currently under the thumb of that “culturally vacant” and extremely repressive strain of Islam, Wahhabism, which views “any sexual act whatsoever outside of marriage” as “an act of debauchery, a crime”, where “women’s gaze and laughter” are deemed “an incitement to fornication” is horribly reminiscent of the fiercely puritanical regime once imposed on Ireland by the Catholic church, with Magdalen laundries and alcoholism replaced in this North African fiefdom by botched back street abortions, a huge number of prostitutes, an ever-soaring divorce rate, the fifth highest rate of pornography engagement in the world, and misery, misery, misery all round.
Holding hands, showing affection, kissing in public can all bring instant and ferocious social opprobrium, and a jail sentence. Homosexuality can lead to violent public beatings – from your neighbours ‑ and jail. Lesbianism can lead to the mad house. You are clearly “sick”. “Provoking” an abortion can bring a three-year jail sentence and badly handled back street abortions come with the usual carnage of septicaemia, infections, suicides, honour killings, abandoned babies, infanticides.
In Morocco twenty-four newborn babies are abandoned every day, and that’s not counting the little corpses found in dustbins. Six hundred illegal abortions are performed every day. If a mother is brave enough to go ahead with an “illegitimate” pregnancy her baby has to be registered with the prefix for “servant”, “slave” or “subordinate”. Prior to marriage, which is still the only way out of home for most girls, young women have to produce “a certificate of virginity”. The business of making false hymens is a thriving one.
While boys are treated like little gods, girls must hang on to their virginity at all costs, even agreeing to anal sex before marriage to keep those precious hymens – their only capital ‑ intact. Once married their job is to “cook, have children and take good care of their husbands”. Their sex lives – with zero prior education or experience, are usually lousy. As one woman says bitterly, “for lots of men a woman is no more than a vagina in which you masturbate”.
Morocco is a society “eroded by the poison of hypocrisy” – do what you wish – but never talk about it. The repression persists thanks to a culture of silence and universal ferocity. A repression “preached by the faithful, guaranteed by laws, and enforced by social convention”. Daily life is shaped around taboos against “fornication, homosexuality, single motherhood, abortion and prostitution”.
It wasn’t always thus. As Slimani points out “we Arabs invented eroticism”. “From the ninth century to the 13th century when Islamic civilisation reached its apogee, literature and the erotic arts flourished.” Teenagers read The Perfumed Garden, an erotic text written specifically for a prince who wanted to know how to make love “and achieve the greatest degree of pleasure”. As Asma Lamrabet, an Islamic scholar, points out, in the Koran virginity is never once mentioned, and “for Islam first and foremost women are free human beings endowed with good sense, intelligence and logic”.
Logic of course goes out the window once these kind of moral dictatorships come in. Here in Ireland we once had the ludicrous fatwa imposed on tampon use by no less screamingly inappropriate a figure than the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, convinced that us ladies would get sexual pleasure from using them. The arch wrote to the taoiseach of the day, who promptly, and obediently, banned their sale.
So it is today for the extremists in Islam, where a preacher in Holland tried to stop women riding bicycles – straddling bikes “induces sexual excitation” ‑ and to stop touching cucumbers or bananas “because they look like the male organ”. It wasn’t so long ago here that the same Archbishop McQuaid, not satisfied with his tampon ban, tried to stop young girls using the pommel horse in gyms – clearly another source of sexual excitation.
O yes, save us o Lord from men ruling over women.
Morocco, like Ireland, suffered a brutal colonisation and the cultural and political decline of Arab culture that followed, sadly seems to have allowed repression to flourish. As Islamic culture retreated before wave after wave – still continuing – of attacks from the West, sexual repression steadily increased. It would seem that in a damaged society sex becomes one of the few spaces left where damaged men can exercise dominance. Societies once free, once attuned to the erotic, to the human, like our Celtic culture once was, after colonial devastation and wars tend towards religious dictatorships. Religious dictatorships that damage everybody, the greatest damage always falling on women, children, and the poor.
In Morocco, as was also the case here, hypocrisy rules. Those who can pay, can play. Sex and Lies begins with a marvellous quotation from Nietzsche: “Disdain for the sexual life and sullying it with the notion of ‘impurity’ such is the true sin against the Holy Spirit of Life.” Moral dictatorships, dictatorships of any kind, destroy and distort life.
Brought up in middle class Morocco with liberal parents, Leila Slimani believes passionately that sexual freedom is intimately tied up with individual liberation. Over and over again she details the nuclear fallout from regimes that “remain hostage to religious and patriarchal authorities” as in her beloved Morocco. Regimes deliberately constructed around the rejection of individual liberties, with women’s bodies as the battleground, “outlawing many of the things that people most enjoy doing in life – walking around, discovering the world, singing, dancing expressing an opinion”. She believes that liberation is not just about the right to hold hands in public; it’s about the right to regain access to and control of your own mind, as well as your own body.
Sex and Lies came to Leila Slimani when she was on a book tour with her novel Adele. Everywhere she travelled Moroccan woman approached her to confide their “sexual suffering, frustration and alienation”. There were so many stories that she and a film director friend printed a manifesto. 20,000 women responded. This book gives voice to forty of them, with a blistering commentary from Slimani holding the text together.
An author and journalist, she now lives in France, and is Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for French language and culture. In November 2018 she was named second most influential French person in the world, ahead of Macron. That position clearly gives her status and reach. Notwithstanding all that, she faced barrages of abuse once Sex and Lies was published, but it is always the brave documents like this – detailing the human cost of sexual repression, of the repression of women, and of men, that finally forces open cracks in these despotisms, that raises consciousness, opening the window to a new and liberated world.
Rosita Sweetman is a writer and journalist. Her books include: On Our Knees, a look at Ireland in the 1970s, Fathers Come First, a novel, and On Our Backs, a look at sexual attitudes in 1980s Ireland.