A space to share stuff I like mostly about the Middle East, human rights and religion.


Notes from a Lecture about Perceptions of Sexuality among Palestinian Women

This year, the Hebrew University organized several events to mark International Women’s Day, including lectures, concerts, self-defense classes and workout groups. A number of women’s rights NGO have set up booths on campus and the university is handing out stickers (link) (that not many of my fellow students are wearing, unfortunately). The sticker says “I too support gender equality”.

In this post I’d like to talk about a great lecture Manal Shalabi gave at the university this morning about “Perceptions of Sexuality among Palestinians women”. You can read more about her research here in an interview she did for Haaretz (link) and below I’ll just describe a few points in her talk that were especially interesting to me.

Shalabi discussed her Master’s thesis for which she interviewed over 100 Palestinian (Arab Israeli) women about their views on sexuality. Despite the fact that Haaretz describes her as a radical feminist, she clearly has some problems with feminism and mentioned in her talk that feminists disapproved of her research topic since it is somewhat disconnected from politics. She also mentioned her disagreement with white, middle-class radical feminists as well as post-modern feminists which justify, in her eyes, oppression of Arab/Muslim women in their society.

Shalabi stated that Arab women have a great problem discussing their sexuality using Arabic, and they usually resort to using Hebrew or English terms when talking about such delicate matters (words she mentioned were “orgasm”, “masturbation”, “ass”, “[sexual] positions”, “sex”, “clitoris”, among others). She also said that most women she interviewed felt uncomfortable with their bodies, especially during their adolescence. Shalabi thinks that this feeling of uncomfortableness is related to the encouragement from society, and especially their mothers, at that time to cover up. Shalabi is critical of the hijab and sees it as a form of oppression, although she does mention that some women in her research feel empowered by donning the veil and chose to do so on their own. Here I’d just like to point out that many Western women feel uncomfortable with their bodies, especially during adolescence so maybe the connection to the enforcement of the hijab isn’t the cause for the discomfort.

What was interesting in her interviews with these women is that all of them described having a great relationship with their fathers, but a bad relationship with their mothers who were the ones enforcing the societal and patriarchal norms. The fact that women can be agents of the patriarchy is of course not new, but it was striking how men stayed un-involved in preserving their daughters’ “chastity”, while women did the “dirty work”. One story Shalabi described is of a lesbian woman who is now 32 who was interviewed for the research. When she was eight, her mother caught her masturbating in the shower and beat her daughter while yelling that if she does so again her father will kill her because she violated her honor. The father who was outside the door did not get involved as his wife beat and threatened his daughter.

Another interesting aspect that Shalabi described is the division the Arab society in Israel makes between sensuality and fertility. According to Shalabi, women are encouraged to quickly supplement their sensuality as single women to the fertility of married women. Mothers are seen as respectable, dignified and not sensual, while single women are seen as the opposite. Shalabi also mentioned that fertility is seen by some women as a way to demographically combat the Jews in Israel (something that is often heard in religious right-wing circles in Israel).

The most interesting part in Shalabi’s research, in my opinion, is the dominance of the term “honor” (sharaf) when discussing women’s sexuality. All the women she interviewed referred to honor at one point or another (without being prompted to do so). A woman’s honor and her family’s honor are tied to the sexuality of the women, more specifically, their “promiscuity” and hymen (before marriage). Shalabi views the concept of honor as a way to control women and enforce patriarchal norms. Based on her interviews, it was clear that women were afraid of doing certain things (pre-marital sex, for example) out of fear of “disgracing” their family and maybe even being killed. One woman she interviewed who was single (at 27), successful and lived alone in Haifa said that she grew up reading headlines about women being killed for “disgracing” their families and that she is not willing to take the risk of doing anything that might get her killed.

Shalabi’s talk did contain some optimistic points. She said that things in the Palestinian society in Israel are changing and women are gaining more independence and are able to do more today than they did before. Shalabi pointed out that this change is not widely known (among Israeli Jews at least) because the leaders of the Israeli Palestinian community don’t want to acknowledge that they’re losing power and that certain behaviors are now more acceptable (for example, women getting married in their 30s).