North Africa, West Asia

Who’s talking about sex and modern relationships in Arabic?

Sex and relationship conversations in Arabic media are dominated by conservative figures pushing a religious agenda.

Aman Bezreh
18 September 2020
Graffiti in Cairo says "Don't categorize me"
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Mohamed El Dahshan / Flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Popular Egyptian TV host, Radwa El Sherbiny made the news recently when she strongly criticized women who do not wear the veil. This was not her first comment on the subject - knowing that she is not veiled herself - but this time it had the strongest impact on social media platforms and leading to her being referred to investigation for ‘hate speech’ accusations.

El Sherbiny hosts a popular program ‘Hiya w Bas’ [Eng: ‘Only her’] which attracts a large audience of Egyptian women who are looking to improve their lifestyle, looks, health, and relationships. A section of the show called ‘Ask Radwa’, is dedicated to giving women and - occasionally men - advice on relationships. In this section, Sherbiny reads a relationship dilemma with minimum details, context, or a balanced two sides story and provides a strong opinionated consultation or ‘solution’ as some of her viewers would say.

I first stumbled across El Sherbiny’s program when I was looking for a podcast, show, or a platform for young Arabic speaking women and men to discuss modern relationships. Needless to say, the results were scarce, let alone useful.

I developed a passion for such content, mainly podcasts, when I discovered the renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel’s podcast ‘Where Should We Begin’, in which she attempts to dissect and analyse heterosexual relationships. In her podcast, Perel works with anonymous real couples in her clinic on the issues they have until they both arrive at the desired destination, which most of the time would be better communication and sexual connection.

What Perel is providing seems very specialised and, therefore, unlikely to be found in the Arab world. Sherbiny’s case can be dubbed as anecdotic. When I first came across her show, I was at first excited to see an Egyptian woman defying social norms by talking openly about modern relationships or relationships outside marriage. That was my initial understanding of the show, but as I progressed with the episodes, I started seeing the repetitive and violent rhetoric against men and relationships. The rhetoric that should allegedly empower women and put them in the driver’s seat as she would say.

“Block him”, “ghost him”, “ignore him” are nothing but the introductory guidelines for relationships provided by Sherbiny. And while she does not explicitly label herself as feminist, she often says she is aspiring to empower women in Egypt primarily, and the Arab world in general through her show.

For her, empowerment includes encouraging women to let men carry the economic burden of the household, regardless of the hardship faced in an economically challenged country like Egypt. Her advice on economic responsibility in a relationship also includes encouraging women to stay home after marriage and let men pay for the household’s needs and luxury items, otherwise what’s the point of marriage, she sometimes argues.

By her recent comments on non-veiled women, Sherbiny also incites violence against women who she claims to support

Promoting social equality in relationships or society between men and women is entirely absent from Sherbiny’s show. But playing games, manipulating and essentially avoiding direct and honest communication are the pillars for her widely accepted show in Egypt.

Sherbiny promotes herself as the sister, the daughter, the neighbor, and the friend that will help women out of their miserable relationships, however, she constantly incites passive aggressiveness and verbal abuse against men. By her recent comments on non-veiled women, she also incites violence against women who she claims to support. Sherbiny is not a unique case of incompetence in giving advice or discussing sensitive issues in society, but she is one of the prominent female TV hosts on Egyptian national television speaking about what can be called modern relationships.

‘Sex advice’ for married couples only

The majority of available Arabic language content on relationships can be seen as religious content that discusses rules and taboos in the sex life of married people. The majority of these videos or shows discuss almost solely the sexual relationship between a ‘husband and wife’ and does not extend to discuss communication or feelings.

Most videos I found on YouTube portray women as the carriers of sex life in a marriage and the advice directed at them can be summarised in a single phrase ‘please your husband’. Dr. Fawzya Al Dreea from Kuwait is an example, although she seems more liberal in her sexual advice than others as she acknowledges women’s pleasure “within limits”. Dr. Hiba Kotob from Egypt is another example of a female daring to talk about sex and pleasure, but only for married people, as the media would like to stress. The religious framework is constantly present in these shows and other similar ones. This can be manifested through describing homosexuality as a ‘disease’, claiming there is a ‘cure’ for it.

The space is open for people like Sherbiny and other incompetent peers to dominate the conversation

The lack of Arabic content on relationships is not a mystery considering the conservative societies in question. Amid struggles for free expression, women’s rights, and civil rights, talk about modern relationships does not seem as pressing.

Haneen Shaer, a former podcast producer with Sowt, explains to me how some podcast producers may view the matter. Shaer said that discussing modern relationships in a podcast or a show means discussing taboo topics that societies in this region are not ready to discuss openly. “If we cannot discuss a topic openly from all angles, what is the point of discussing it”, Shaer noted.

Shaer acknowledged the lack of Arabic content for women and men aiming to discuss relationships and added that audiences looking for that type of content are likely looking for it in English. This has left the Arabic speaking audiences with content that they do not necessarily relate to, as she explains.

She added that while the discussion around relationships and equality in relationships is important, the talk about rights, women’s empowerment, and LGBTIQ+ rights is still more pressing, and therefore, the efforts are focused on that area. In the end, because of the lack in such content, the space is open for people like Sherbiny and other incompetent peers to dominate the conversation.

Ultimately, the average modern woman or man who are trying to break away from the social norms or working on building a relationship is left with no online space to discuss these matters. Sherbiny, Kotob, and Dreea, while they cater to the needs of a large segment of audience in the Arabic speaking world, will inevitably impose a risk to the daily struggle for equality and liberation. Although Sherbiny apologised after her comments on non-veiled women and admitted that she had overstated, the controversy continued on social media between supporters and critics over whether she deserves to be held accountable for her statement or not.

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