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Egypt: Talking Openly About Sexuality

Note: This post continues the series of the overview the current state of citizen media in Egypt, as well as the societal context in which the three RV grantees will implement their projects.

In 2006, Google Trends released some interesting statistics concerning internet searches that include the term ‘sex,’ revealing that the city of Cairo topped the list of cities for these types of queries on the Google search engine and overall, Egypt was the 2nd country. Despite this finding that many Egyptian internet users look for anything related to sex, it is noted that they are not always interesting about learning about sexuality.

There is a general sense in Egyptian society that sexuality is an inappropriate subject for many Muslims and Copts, and issues like homosexuality or sex workers go against their religion. In addition, even reading about these things may end up getting the internet user involved with what they perceive as an unacceptable sexual activity.

For others, sex and sexuality are considered to be private matters that should not be discussed in public. However in an ironic sense, there are signs that many Egyptians are involved with inappropriate sexual behaviors, when 83% of Egyptian women have reported being sexually harassed. Many of the Egyptian slang words take on a sexual meaning so that you have have to watch your words carefully in order to not be misunderstood.

Sex on the Cinema Screen

In Egyptian dramatic cinema, sex is a common subject. In the 1990s, a very successful movie called Cultural Movie was released. In this case, the word “cultural” is used in Egyptian slang to refer to sex. The plot of the movie is about three young men who want to watch a pornographic movie, but they neither have the video nor the place to watch it. The movie's director, Muhammad Amin, was one of the first to tackle this subject openly in film.

In 2002, a movie called The Ostrich and the Peacock was finally released, after being censored for more than three decades. The movie portrays sexual compatibility, frigidity, female circumcision, masturbation, and prostitution in Egyptian society. The original script was developed by prominent filmmaker Salah Abou Seif, who died before getting the approval to start shooting the movie. His son, Mohammed Abou Seif, was able to complete the film, which received with praise from critics.

Amin made another film about the War in Iraq called The Night Baghdad Fell, which shows how husbands have problems in their sex life because of the stress and frustration over the invasion of Iraq and the fear that Egypt is next to be invaded. Finally, another famous name in addressing sexuality in cinema is the director Inas ElDeghedy, who tends to get closer to these issues, but has received wide criticism in return. Some see the message she tries to deliver as confrontational in regards to society.

The Topic of Homosexuality

In general, Egyptians are still uncomfortable with watching homosexuals in films. In 2006, the movie The Yacoubian Building was screened to tens of thousands of Egyptian, and it is based on the best seller novel of the same name. However, the character named Hatem Rashid was controversial because he was openly gay and had an affair with a soldier. A number of Egyptian parliament members protested that this character was not censored; they believed the movie defamed Egypt by portraying homosexuality, terrorism, and corruption. An example of how many in the audience received the character was demonstrated when Rashid was robbed by a male prostitute after his breakup with the soldier, which was met with applause for his punishment. Meanwhile, the actor who played Rashid was convincing in his role, which led many to start rumors that he is a homosexual himself.

Calls for movie censorship for having homosexual characters did not prevent Director Khaled Youssef from having a lesbian as a central figure in his famous movie Heena Maysara (When it Gets Better). A scene from the movie showed a love scene between two women, and once again calls for censorship were raised, along with voices from Facebook users to boycott Youssef's movies.

Mainstream Media

While Youssef was regarded as a filmmaker who should be boycotted because of his defamation of Egypt by tackling harsh topics, Hala Sarhan was less fortunate. Sarhan is a famous TV presenter, who used to have a talk show on a prominent satellite channel. On one of the episodes in 2007, she hosted some girls who claimed to be prostitutes. Sarhan was dismissed from her job after rumors that her guests were not really sex workers. For the station's management, it was not acceptable either to host a prostitute or to lie about it to the audience.

Egyptians see television as a media platform that targets all family members, thus sexuality should not appear on it. Since the late 1990s, Islamic shows became popular, in which a sheikh is the host and people call in asking him for Fatwas. What could be noticed is that many of the questions were related to sexuality. The year 2007 could be considered as a turning point as a show exclusively on sexuality was aired with the presenter is Dr. Heba Kotb, who was a female hijabi sex therapist. Her show became popular in a short time, and instead of receiving criticism she was flattered with praise. Nowadays, people are not as sensitive to sexuality issues on TV as before; but it depends on how it is presented.

Cairo streets by thephotostrand and used under a Creative Commons license.

Cairo streets by thephotostrand and used under a Creative Commons license.

Sexuality in Citizen Media

Citizen media in Egypt started as an alternative to the mainstream media is some cases, so naturally it became a platform to discuss taboos like sexuality. Because the internet is generally a free and uncensored open space, where anyone can write anonymously, there have been blogs that write about sex, gender issues, and homosexuality. In addition, the topic of genital mutilation was one of the most discussed topics, as 81% of the thousands of married, divorces, or widowed women interviewed said that they had undergone the procedure.

One of the most prominent achievements in the Egyptian blogosphere regarding sexuality was the cause of sexual harassment. In 2006, a number of bloggers published videos of mass harassment taking place in the street, which led to greater media attention. Later in 2009, Facebook was the platform for a campaign for having a national Egyptian Day Against Sexual Harassment [ar]. The participatory nature of citizen media also opens up these blog posts up to anonymous comments that are often quite hateful and blame on the victim.

In 2006, a blog appeared titled Ywmeyat Emraa Methleyya [ar] (Homosexual Woman Diaries), which was controversial enough to attract visitors who may have never heard about the life of a female homosexual. She writes:

This love is not against religion

She is attractive from first sight, but once she talks you see her vulgarity! It is OK if this is her talking style or if all her words are slang, actually there are some women with whom you should not talk, even if you are in a relationship!

She told me that she does not feel secure, she was in love only once, and her girlfriend was very pushy, she used to say to her ‘our relationship is against religion” and “I should get married”. She is for sure stupid! What is really against religion is that she would get married even if she is a homosexual.

Even health topics relating to sexuality is not very common. One of the only blogging experiences about HIV/AIDS took place in 2008, when some bloggers launched a campaign to remove the stigma from people living with HIV/AIDS after attending a workshop on the issue.

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