Leïla Slimani, last year’s winner of the coveted French literary award for her novel Chanson douce, has just published a non-fiction livre choc titled Sex and Lies: sexual life in Morocco. (livre choc means a book that shocks people; but in this case it has scandalized an entire country.)
Born into a liberal, privileged family in Rabat, Morocco in 1981, Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She lives in Paris with her husband and two children. Leaving Rabat at the age of 17 to study political science and media studies in Paris, she began work as a journalist after graduation. In 2016, she won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for her psychological thriller, Chanson douce –
Faber publishing house has signed an “electrifying” literary novel by Leila Slimani, which was awarded the French literary prize in November 2016. The novel is the tale of a “perfect” nanny who murders two children she is looking after. The book – which begins with the words “the baby is dead” – is already a bestseller in France. Slimani is only the seventh woman to have won the Prix Goncourt in its 112-year history. Translation rights have been sold in 15 countries thus far.
So what is her new non-fiction book about? Sexe et mensonges: la vie sexuelle au Maroc (Sex and lies: sexual life in Morocco) is based on the testimonials of dozens of Moroccan women –
- it explores sexual repression in Islamic countries,
- it discusses the taboo subject of female sexual desires,
- it claims that millions of Arabs (men and women) are trapped in sexual misery in a sex-obsessed Arab world.
Free thought and criticism, for which Slimani is guilty, has enraged Moroccan authorities, religious clerics, and a large swathe of the Moroccan population (who believe she is washing their dirty linen in public.)
Moroccan law punishes all forms of sexual relations outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. In this deeply traditional, misogynistic and patriarchal society, women have only one alternative: to be a virgin or a wife.
Here’s an extract (translated) from an interview with the author in Nouvel Obs magazine:
“To pretend to be a virgin is demeaning”
Nouvel Obs – You denounce Articles 489 and 490 of the Penal Code which call for six months to three years imprisonment for same-sex relationships, and one month to one year imprisonment for non-marital relations.
Slimani – Yes. In fact, a Moroccan woman can only be a virgin or married. Sexuality outside the conjugal relationship is forbidden. The Penal Code laws are obviously inapplicable. When they are applied, it’s completely arbitrary. In reality, this law is used to settle accounts. Either directly by the police who use it to arrest and then bribe people, or individually: to take revenge on someone and denounce him to the police.
All sexual relations can be subject to blackmail. When you get raped, you cannot file a complaint because you’re already illegally having sex outside of marriage. When you have to hide on the edge of a road or in a forest, you’re not safe. Because there is no sex education in schools, you can easily catch diseases or become pregnant … And then, in a country where abortion is prohibited, you find yourself in the situation of needing a clandestine abortion.
Nouvel Obs – You speak of “schizophrenia”: men want to both sleep with girls and marry a virgin.
Slimani – Men are also victims of this system, because they simply want to live. But this mentality endures because it is the last thing left to them, the last mark of virility in a society where the Western model is gaining ground. That is what I explain on the historical level. The colonization, then the hegemony of Western culture, creates a feeling of dispossession. So we cling to a traditional model for fear of the unknown.
Juliet in Paris interjects – Oh, please … stop with the blame game. How is it the fault of the West for the enduring primitive, tribal customs of Muslim societies? Patriarchal power in the Muslim world is nothing more than the hijacking of religion by political and religious elites for their own interests, one of those interests being the subjugation of women. Religion here is used as a political tool … a means of controlling society.
Slimani – The man may not have a job, no money, no car, no visa to travel – all these very humiliating things that one cannot imagine seen from the West – but he can still marry a virgin, keep a home (however humble) and have a virtuous wife. It’s a way to restore the honor of our societies. Honor is a heavy thing to bear, and unjust, for the women.
Juliet in Paris – Honor. In this context, that single word is freighted with feudal, tribal and highly dangerous codes that can, in primitive societies, lead to the killing of women. It’s a terrifying word, and utterly archaic.
Nouvel Obs – What kind of story seems particularly symptomatic of the problem you are exposing?
Slimani – What saddened me were middle-class women who chose freedom at 20-25 years. They decided, when it was not in their upbringing to do so, to have a sexuality, lovers, to study, to work. Then around the age of 30-35 they regretted it, saying, “I won’t be able to marry or live in my neighborhood because people know that I have had relationships.” Female emancipation, when not supported by the State or the surrounding culture, has no real foundation. It must be supported by others. You cannot live it alone.
What really struck me is the immense solitude of these women who back off after choosing freedom, to have their hymen re-sewn, to veil themselves, or to lie. I find it very sad, 35-year-old women who pretend to be virgins, who mimic virginity with men in the hope they will marry them. To push people to this attitude is sad and dangerous for our societies. The State has everything to gain by having citizens capable of emancipation.
Juliet in Paris asks – What’s the benefit of having subjugated women in society, any society? In what way is this of any value to children, families in general and society at large? Boys and girls need to see positive role models, not cowed, submissive, illiterate mothers/sisters/aunts/grandmothers. Keeping a populace poor, passive and dumb is a classic ploy for autocratic regimes to control and manipulate.
Niqabs and Wahhabism
Slimani – Moroccan culture integrates Sufi culture, an extremely spiritual culture of our own with a way of practicing Islam for centuries. Many Moroccans today fear precisely that this culture is lost to the influence of Salafism and Wahhabism, people from the Middle East who came during the 1980s-1990s, notably to teach in our schools. They have created another type of Islam, a radical one.
Most Moroccans are shocked to see women in niqabs in our streets. Thankfully, the niqab is now banned in Morocco, it does not correspond to our culture at all.
Nouvel Obs – You quote Foucault to explain that “sexual rights are part of human rights”, that is to say, of women, and you explain that it’s all part of a coercive system allowing autocratic states to exercise their powers. From the moment those powers are exercised on bodies and the way people have sex (or not), it also conditions the mind to make them accept laws on other issues.
Slimani – We see citizens too much like children who are not capable of having an ethic, a private life, an intimacy. This way of touching their dignity is also a way of controlling them. Of course, the citizen has rights, but when his/her body cannot live totally in the public space, there is something constrained from the start. Freeing the bodies of citizens is also a way of freeing their minds.
Juliet in Paris again to introduce award-winning novelist, journalist and independent-minded Kamel Daoud. Daoud writes for Le Monde, The New York Times and other publications. Born in Algeria in 1970, his debut novel, The Meursault Investigation, also won the French literary award, the Prix Goncourt in 2015. For his criticism and outspokenness, he was issued a fatwa by a Salafist imam. A heavyweight intellectual, here’s what Daoud says about Slimani’s book –
Islamist control, controversy over the burkini and nudity at the beach, sexist laws, or the latest August drama of a girl raped on a public Casablanca bus in Morocco, episodically sex is revealed as a “disease” in our country. Leila Slimani, in the long tradition of tenacious literature in the “Arab” world, says it powerfully.
Its novelty, however, is not to repeat that woman is despoiled of her rights, crushed or violated, but to go further in the unbelievable affirmation that sex and enjoyment are not only legitimate, but necessary. Orgasm must be and proclaim primacy over sacred texts. This is the first cry.
Sex as a right. Sex as an attack on puritanism, conservatism and political dictatorships. Sex as a reparation for this craving for life, which gives birth to our exiles, our kamikazes, our fatwas, our monstrous burkas and our national sadness of living badly. No “Arab” country is happy to live, none of us fight for happiness.
Machismo is not a disease of the past
The second revelation of this book is the dismantling of an old positivist belief: patriarchy, machismo, woman as a minor being. These are not the relics of a culture that does not fit into the universal mechanics of modernity, but rather a construction of the present. Not a disease of the past that persists, but a disease of the future that is taking hold. What’s at stake here is not the weight of rigid traditions that one can hardly disentangle, but a neoconservatism doctrine which is gaining strength, space and levers of power.
Stuck between YouPorn and YouPray
Daoud goes on to say – Authoritarian regimes cultivate the lie that sexuality is a threat, an invasion, destabilization, betrayal. Pleasure is a crime and women public property. Behind the cunning of some and the cowardice of others, there is a clear sign that we are unhappy. Leila Slimani investigates a culturalist pretext which clears a permanent inquisition against the body of the woman. We are stuck between YouPorn and YouPray, dreaming of death as an orgasm, of the hereafter as the only compensation. Erecting cultural specificity where we are afraid to go to the other, to touch it, to love it, to desire it.
If you’re not familiar with Daoud’s views, read this startling article published in The New York Times, The Sexual Misery of the Arab World –