Leila Slimani on Sex and an Ethics of Women’s Liberation in Morocco
Frustration and Freedom Under Repressive Politics
When, in the summer of 2014, I published my first novel, Adèle, some French journalists expressed surprise that a Moroccan woman could write such a book. What they meant by that was an “unconstrained book,” a “sexy book,” a straight-talking, popular book, the story of a woman suffering from sex addiction. As if, by culture, I should have been more prudish, more reserved. As if I should have made do with writing an erotic novelette with orientalist shades, worthy scion of Scheherazade that I am.
Yet I feel that North Africans are well placed to take on themes relating to sexual suffering, frustration and alienation. The fact of living or having grown up in societies without sexual freedom makes sex a subject of constant obsession. Besides, sex is one issue that’s well represented in contemporary North African writing. It’s there in the autobiographical novels of Mohamed Choukri, in the poetry and novels of Tahar Ben Jelloun, in the novels and criticism of Mohamed Leftah and in the novels and films about gay life of Abdellah Taïa.
Erotic, even steamy, literature continues to be reinvented particularly among women, such as Lebanese writer Joumana Haddad and Syrian writer Salwa Al Neimi, whose novel The Proof of the Honey became a bestseller, following in the footsteps of the mysterious Nedjma, eponymous protagonist of the novel by Kateb Yacine.
So my first novel is in no way exceptional. I can even say it’s no accident that I created a character like Adèle—a frustrated woman who lies and leads a double life. She’s a woman eaten by regrets and by her own hypocrisy, a woman who steps out of line yet never experiences pleasure. Adèle is, in a way, a rather extreme metaphor for the sexual experience of young Moroccan women.
When my novel was published, I insisted on doing a book tour around Morocco, to present my book in several of the country’s cities. I visited bookshops, universities and libraries. I accepted invitations from charities and support groups. The two weeks of my tour were a true revelation. I had never doubted the hunger for debate among those I was going to meet, but at every one of my encounters I was struck by how a discussion on the subject of sex enthused people, especially younger people.
After the sessions, many, many women came up to me wanting to talk, to tell me their stories. Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust. My hours with those women were very special. And it’s their stories I have tried to give back: the impassioned testimonies of a time and of its suffering.
My intention here is not to document a sociological study nor to write an essay about sex in Morocco. Eminent sociologists and brilliant journalists are already doing this enormously delicate work. What I want is to render these women’s words directly, as they were spoken to me: their intense and resonant speech, the stories that shook me, upset me, that angered and sometimes disgusted me. I want to give these often painful angles on life a platform in a society where many men and women prefer to turn away.The price of transgression is very high and anyone guilty of crossing the hudud—the “sacred boundaries”—is punished accordingly and summarily rejected.
By telling me their life stories, by choosing to break taboos, all of these women showed one thing, at least: that their lives matter. They should and do count. By confiding in me, they chose, if only for a few hours, to step out of isolation and to invite other women to realize that they’re not alone. This is what makes their accounts political, committed, liberating.
At the time of these encounters, I often returned to Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi’s remarks about Scheherazade—a superb figure but also, at times, a burdensome precedent for Muslim women: “She would cure the troubled King’s soul simply by talking to him about things that had happened to others . . . She would help him see his prison, his obsessive hatred of women.”
If, for Mernissi, Scheherazade appears a magnificent character, this isn’t because she embodies the sensual and seductive oriental woman. On the contrary: it is because she reclaims her right to tell her own tale that she becomes not merely the object but the subject of the story. Women must rediscover ways of imposing their presence in a culture that remains hostage to religious and patriarchal authority. By speaking up, by telling their stories, women employ one of their most potent weapons against widespread hate and hypocrisy: words.
It’s important to recognize quite how brave the women who speak out have been, quite how difficult it is, in a country like Morocco, to step out of line, to embrace behavior that is considered unconventional. Moroccan society relies entirely on the notion of community dependence. And the community is considered by its members as both inevitable, a fate they cannot dodge, and a piece of good fortune, since they can always count on it for a kind of group solidarity. So our relationship to our community remains profoundly ambivalent.
Another cornerstone of Moroccan society is the concept of hshouma, which translates as “shame” or “embarrassment,” and which is inculcated in every one of us from birth. To be well brought up, an obedient child, a good citizen, also means being alive to shame and regularly to demonstrate modesty and restraint. “Harmony exists when each group respects the prescribed limits of the other; trespassing leads only to sorrow and unhappiness,” Mernissi wrote.
The price of transgression is very high and anyone guilty of crossing the hudud—the “sacred boundaries”—is punished accordingly and summarily rejected. The women who spoke to me have experienced only what befalls most Moroccans: an appalling, devastating inner conflict between the urge to shake off the tyranny of the community and the fear that freedom would bring all the traditional architecture of their world crashing down. All of them, as you will see, reveal ambivalence from time to time; they contradict themselves, claim their freedom then lower their eyes. They are trying to survive.
Listening to these women, I became determined to shine a light on the reality of this land, which is far more complex and more troubled than we are led to believe. For if we adhere to the rules as they stand and to morality as it is taught, we would have to assume that all Morocco’s unmarried men are virgins. That all the young men and women, who represent more than half the population, have never had sexual intercourse.
Cohabiting partners, homosexuals, prostitutes: all of these therefore could not exist at all. If we listen to our most conservative voices, anxious to defend a Moroccan identity made up more of myth than of reality, Morocco is a decent and virtuous country that must protect itself from the westernized decadence and liberalism of its elites. In Morocco, the ban on “fornication,” or zina, isn’t just a moral injunction.
Article 490 of the penal code prescribes “imprisonment of between one month and one year [for] all persons of opposite sexes who, not being united by the bonds of marriage, pursue sexual relations.” According to article 489, all “preferential or unnatural behavior between two persons of the same sex will be punished by between six months and three years” imprisonment’.
In a country where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, severe embryo deformity or incest, and where “all married persons proven guilty of adultery” risk between one and two years of prison (article 491), small-scale disasters occur every day. We don’t see them, we don’t hear them, and yet personal tragedies lie in wait for Morocco’s citizens, many of whom feel as though this society that judges and rejects them is fundamentally hypocritical.
Of course, as everyone knows, the truth is that the laws governing us are flouted every hour of every day and at every level of society. Everyone knows it—but no one will acknowledge or confront it. The law against extramarital sexual relations is not respected, but the authorities absolutely refuse to admit this publicly. They know that hundreds of backstreet abortions take place every day, but the law against termination has only been minimally reformed.
They must know that homosexual Moroccans live in fear and humiliation but they pretend not to. All those in positions of authority—politicians, parents, teachers—maintain the same line: “Do what you like, but do it in private.”
In a society like ours, honor comes first. It isn’t so much people’s sex lives that we judge but how widely they dare to advertise them. Yet this command to silence is no longer enough to maintain social equilibrium and at the same time allow individuals’ personal development. Our society has been eroded by the poison of its hypocrisy and by an institutionalized culture of lying. This combination engenders violence and confusion, inconsistency and intolerance.
Staunch liberals are promoting the status quo alongside traditionalists. They seem to agree on the groundless conviction that Moroccan society isn’t ready to progress on these questions. But when women in miniskirts are being accused of gross indecency, when homosexuals are being lynched in broad daylight, then we urgently need to consider shaping a new society that can unite us and enable us to avoid these kinds of outrages. Like the other Muslim countries of North Africa, Morocco cannot afford to sidestep such self-examination.
In an era when Islamic terrorism is ever more destructive, when Moroccan society is, like other Muslim societies, profoundly divided over questions of morality, I feel we can no longer disregard them. We can no longer allow ourselves to ignore the truth on the pretext that it does not conform to our religion, to our laws or simply to the image of ourselves that we’d like to project. We must stop giving in to the temptation to wash our hands of the matter, to the lazy definition of our culture and identity as fixed, supra-historical facts.
We are not the same as our culture; rather, our culture is what we make of it. We need to stop pitting Islam and universal Enlightenment values against each other, stop opposing Islam and equality of the sexes, Islam and sensual pleasure. For the Muslim religion can be understood as primarily an ethics of liberation, of openness to the other, as a personal ethics and not only a Manichaean moral code.
More than ever, I am convinced that we need a complete overhaul of personal and sexual rights if we want to encourage young people’s development and the proper involvement of women in society. We must, at least, initiate a collective rethink, without polemics and without hatred. What place do we want for the individual in our society? How can we protect women and minorities? How can we make difference acceptable in a society that prioritizes adherence to religious norms and social monitoring? And what about the right to a private life, a personal space ruled neither by the state nor by religion?
I know that, for some, sexual rights and freedoms appear trivial. You might think that in a country like Morocco we’ve plenty of other battles to fight, that education, health and the struggle against poverty should come before personal freedoms. But sexual rights are a part of human rights; these are not minor rights, small boons that we can do without. To practice one’s sexual citizenship, to do with our bodies as we see fit, to lead a sex life without risk, one that brings pleasure and is free from coercion: these are fundamental needs and rights that ought to be inalienable and guaranteed for all.
It’s not just that sexual rights are part of human rights: we know that it’s by exploiting the lack of them that men have come to dominate in so many civilizations. To defend sexual rights is directly to defend women’s rights. Behind the right to control our own bodies, the right to live independently of our families in order to flourish in our sex lives, it is political rights that are at stake. By legislating in these areas, we will give women the means to defend themselves against male violence and familial pressure. The situation has become untenable.
That is: this condition of generalized sexual privation, especially among women, whose sexual needs other than for reproduction are quite simply ignored, who are committed to compulsory virginity before marriage and to passivity thereafter. A woman whose body is subject to such severe social control cannot fully take her place as a citizen. And being “sexualized’ to such a degree, and constrained to silence or atonement, women are denied all individuality.
Michel Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality that sexuality is “a dense transfer point for relations of power: between men and women, young and old, parents and offspring, teachers and students, priests and laity, an administration and a population.” In Morocco, as in other Muslim countries, we can view this condition of sexual deprivation as an obstacle to the development of individuals and citizens.
Kept in order by an iron-fisted government, men reproduce the authoritarian regime in their family circles and households. Thus we produce individuals adapted to an oppressive system. As the political commentator Omar Saghi remarked in an article in Jeune Afrique, sexual secrecy and political secrecy go hand in hand.
“Those who, at age 16, have had to beg a cop not to haul them in just because they were holding hands and because the family would be equally hard-line on this point, as brutal as our police state, are shaped by and for a life disfigured by dictatorships.”*
* Jeune Afrique, January 30, 2013
From Sex and Lies by Leila Slimani, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Editions des Arenes. Translation copyright © 2020 by Sophie Lewis.