June 6, 2009
THE SATURDAY PROFILE
Challenging Sex Taboos, With Help From the Koran
By ROBERT F. WORTH
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates
WEDAD LOOTAH does not look like a sexual activist. A Muslim and a native Emirati, she wears a full-length black niqab — with only her brown eyes showing through narrow slits — and sprinkles her conversation with quotes from the Koran.
Yet she is also the author of what for the Middle East is an amazingly frank new book of erotic advice in which she celebrates the female orgasm, confronts taboo topics like homosexuality and urges Arabs to transcend the backward traditions that limit their sexual happiness.
The book, “Top Secret: Sexual Guidance for Married Couples,” is packed with vivid anecdotes from Ms. Lootah’s eight years as a marital counselor in Dubai’s main courthouse. It became an instant scandal after it was published in Arabic in the Emirates in January, drawing praise from some liberals and death threats from conservatives, who say she is guilty of blasphemy or worse.
Ms. Lootah, a strong-willed and talkative 45-year-old, is one of a small but growing number of Arabs pushing for more openness and education about sex. Unlike earlier generations of women who often couched their criticism in a Western language of female emancipation, Ms. Lootah and her peers are hard to dismiss as outsiders because they tend to be religious Muslims who root their message in the Koran.
Ms. Lootah, for instance, studied Islamic jurisprudence in college, not Western psychology, and her book is studded with religious references. She submitted the text to the Mufti of Dubai before publishing it, and he gave his approval (though he warned her that Arab audiences might not be ready for such a book, especially by a woman).
She is not a liberal by Western standards. One of the themes of her book is the danger of anal sex and homosexuality generally, not because of AIDS but because they are banned by the Koran. But her openness about the issue was itself a shock to many here.
In Saudi Arabia and other countries where the genders are rigorously separated, many men have their first sexual experiences with other men, which affects their attitudes toward sex in marriage, Ms. Lootah said.
“Many men who had anal sex with men before marriage want the same thing with their wives, because they don’t know anything else,” Ms. Lootah said. “This is one reason we need sex education in our schools.”
She is also emphatic about the importance of female sexual pleasure, and the inequity of many Arab marriages in that respect. One of the cases that impelled her to write the book, she said, was a 52-year-old client who had grandchildren but had never known sexual pleasure with her husband.
“Finally, she discovered orgasm!” Ms. Lootah said. “Imagine, all that time she did not know.”
She reels off stories from her practice in rapid fire: the Emirati military officer whose wife had an affair because he was away from home too much; the woman who thought fellatio was against Islam (not true at all, Ms. Lootah notes); the wife who discovered her husband dressing up as a woman and going out to gay bars. She seems bent on showing that there is a whole world of sexual confusion that would benefit from open discussion.
Publishing the book, she notes, was a difficult choice. Her father supported her, but other family members sometimes wondered why she had to be so public about it all. After it was published a man called her office phone and threatened to kill her. Other threats appeared on the Internet.
She brushes them off, saying she has declined an offer of protection from the government. Besides, she adds, educating the public is worth the risk.
“A few days ago a woman came in and asked me if it is O.K. to kiss the man all over his body,” she said. “I told her, ‘Read my book!’ ”
I would be interested to know the passages she cites from the Koran.